Be joyful
though you have considered all the facts.
Wendell Berry, Manifesto

This is not a religious blog.

Or maybe it is.

That’s because it’s about numinous experiences. A numinous experience is any event that feels like a contact with a transcendent reality. A near-death experience is one kind of numinous experience. So is a spiritually transformative experience (STE). Or an “exceptional human experience” (EHE). Or a mystical experience (mystical experience). Sometimes an out-of-body experience (OBE) will have a transcendent quality. It’s like a religious conversion. All these are numinous events.

You will notice that all of these descriptive phrases take up far more time and space than simply the acronym. So, because of my specialty with distressing near-death experiences, I call them NDEs. Yes, I do recognize that this blurs lines many people consider important, and which I, too, sometimes consider vital. Unfortunately, more people understand “NDE” than know the meaning of “numinous.” “NDEs” is simply more efficient. NDE purists think I am indiscriminate. True. I have a difficult time with doctrine.

In any event, it is clear that questions concerning religion lie behind many difficulties with understanding near-death experiences and their close relatives. What is it about religion that causes so much confusion? Here are a few contenders:

  • Religion has to do with an unseen and often inexpressible aspect of life, something beyond the physical. So do NDEs.
  • Religion has to do with values, relationships, self-discovery. So do NDEs.
  • Religion has to do with encountering a powerful force greater and more meaningful than anyone can describe. So do some NDEs.
  • Religion, or its observance, can transform a person’s life. So do most NDEs.
  • Religion, at its best, has more to do with life on earth than it does with an afterlife. So, I believe, do NDEs. My view.

As I see it, there are two major differences: 

  • Over the past thirty years NDEs have received good press and been wildly popular with the public. Religion has not.
  • Religion has to do with offering (Merriam-Webster) “reverence to a divine being or supernational power, or extravagant respect for or devotion to an object of esteem.” NDEs—at least the pleasant ones—very often result in reverence or devotion to the NDE.  Distressing NDEs are viewed as bad, negative, or as punishment for insufficient reverence or respect to the object of esteem.

Today’s climate of religious distaste and widespread unfamiliarity makes discussing the religious implications of NDEs—or the NDE-related implications of religion—extraordinarily difficult. Someone is always jumping up and stomping out of the room in disgust.

Some of the stompers are individuals who have been either grievously wounded by the excesses of some religious establishments or who are plain bone-ignorant of what religion actually is. They claim, usually stridently, that religion must be abolished. This is about as sensible as saying that mathematics should be illegal because some people have difficulty understanding it. Religion is the natural outcome of human wonder and curiosity about the universe and our place in it.

Humans are social creatures. We talk to each other, and share ideas, and gather with like-minded others around those ideas. Get rid of human questions and sharing ideas, and religion will disappear. “I’m spiritual but not religious” has been gathering adherents long enough that  it is already showing signs of doctrine, an early stage of becoming a religion.

Most other room-stompers are individuals whose identity is so fully engaged with a particular religious expression that any other religious expression is considered impossible, wrong, and probably evil. This is typically what happens when a tradition has been around long enough to gather a great deal of intellectual ornamentation to which people attach rather than to the underlying simplicity of the religion’s original premises.

Here is a story:

In the midst of a great desert of rock and sand and not much else, there was a single spring of pure water. An oasis grew around the spring, with great trees offering shade, and plants flowering with scent and color, and fruits, and birds and small animals bringing movement and humor.

Caravaners discovered the oasis and looked forward to reaching such a place to rest. They drank the life-giving water, and refreshed themselves in the shade, and were strengthened to continue their journeys. So great was their appreciation of the spring that one traveler placed a small rock next to it as a tribute.

Soon the spring was surrounded by a ring of carefully placed stones, the gifts of grateful travelers. After a while the ring became a low wall, on which visitors could sit. As more and more stones were added, it became difficult for infirm travelers to reach the water, though they could still see it and appreciate its beauty. And then the spring was entirely hidden beneath so many tributes that it could no longer be seen; but visitors still came, and listened to the sound of water on the stones below. Eventually, the stones became such a great mound that even the sound of the spring was hidden. Yet travelers continued to come and lay their tribute stones because they had heard the story of a wonderful, life-giving spring that had once been in that place. Others no longer bothered, because they considered the spring a made-up tale of people who couldn’t see reality.

For those of us who have been struggling with the mountain of notions about human nature, guilt, judgment, punishment, hell, and eternal torment—conceptions which have come largely from that kind of ornamentation—let me suggest that the challenge involves recognizing the difference between rocks and the treasure they obscure.

In Western culture, which has built around a Jewish and Christian heritage, the natural spring consists of two simple statements:

  • Love [the sacred] with all your heart and strength and mind
  • Love others as you loveyourself.

Everything else is tribute stones.

Next week: Where do we go from here?

[Ed: The story of the oasis I owe to theologian/musician/statistician/dreamworker/author Louis M. Savary, PhD, S.T.D., who, with his wife, psychologist Patricia H. Berne, PhD,  teachers extraordinaire, taught me probably half of everything I know.]