Writing this blog is the mental equivalent of training for a triathlon. You have no idea! Because the subject matter is both so personal and so experimental, everything has to be examined: “Do I really mean this?” “What does it mean to say [that]?” “How true is it that…?” “Who knows about …[subject requiring a decade of study].”

And so it occurs to me that I must have lost my mind to undertake a topic like religion and near-death experience, especially distressing NDEs with their connotations of hell. The readers of this blog range from “I-know-I’ve-been-there” experiencers to convinced evangelical Christians to puzzled mainliners (having nothing to do with drugs), to a whole range of non-Christians to religiously-dismissive atheists to believing-but-confused atheists and Nones, the spiritual-but-not-religious, and all points in between.  How to speak to all those perspectives…especially as mine may be altogether different? 

What I am trying to do, you see, is to get down underneath all the preconceptions and assumptions, all the theories and doctrines, and ask, “What is bedrock?” Is it possible to get beyond overlays of supposition to something so simple I am able to trust it? Can we begin to see near-death experiences through lenses other than doctrinal or disbelieving? As you surely recognize by now, I don’t have answers. All that’s possible is to share with you my questioning and tentative conclusions, recognizing that we can barely see to the end of our own skin. The meaning of the universe may well be elsewhere; I offer merely a weathervane.

Life is eternal, and love is immortal, and death is only an horizon; and an horizon is nothing save the limit of our sight.

Although I have loved this quote from Saint-Exupéry since I was in my early teens, of those four clauses, there’s only one of them I trust absolutely. (At least it’s a start.)

You can see that my engagement, shall we say, with the weekly Bible group at church is different than most (yes, every Wednesday morning, in the parish hall at St. Philip’s). Last week, this doctrinally heterogeneous Episcopal group was intently debating the utility of the creeds for today, dating as they do from around the year 323. And one man, a charming and orderly-minded retiree, said he relied on the creeds to give him a sense of structure in the world.

“There’s so much confusion,” he said, “how could I know what sense to make of it without the creeds?”

And that’s when it struck me that in a universe where so very many of our questions and fears are unanswerable, doctrine and creeds are like grab bars in the shower—something to hold onto so we don’t fall. It doesn’t matter whether or not they’re provable or genuinely part of the underlying structure; they’re at least architectural features offering stability when we’re a bit off balance. Some of us need more of them than others do.

All our descriptive systems—theologies, ideologies, disciplines, paradigms—are grab bars of one sort or another, ways of ordering information to help us find our way around this vastly mysterious universe without falling into a chaos of disordered observations. Models. Maps. Architectures. And we all like to believe that ours is The Right One, the true description of The Way Things Are. At least, we say, our own makes sense, unlike those others!

Over at the Paranormalia blog this week, host Robert McLuhan points to an article in which the writer says of her avowedly atheistic system of confirmed skeptics, “I’m part of a growing community (some would even call it a movement) consisting of hundreds of thousands of people worldwide who value science and critical thinking. …I felt we were doing important work: making a better, more rational world and protecting people from being taken advantage of.”

In that writer’s “better, more rational world,” people are protected from anything religious because it constitutes an intellectual scam. Meanwhile, at the extreme other end of the scale, as this blog’s commenter Philemon points out, reviews of Eben Alexander’s Proof of Heaven have included “attacks on the book [for] not according with Christian doctrine and one goes so far as to call it a trick by Satan to lead Christians astray.”

We do persist in clutching our own treasured beliefs as Truth.

And here’s where the trouble begins. By simply stating this observation, suggesting that perhaps we can’t quite discern which is the only Truth, or that there may be no only, I kick at the foundations of somebody’s grab bars, the supports which make that person’s life feel secure. If our systems, our grab bars, are all models, if they are maps rather than actuality, if there can be more than one set of supports, how can we know which one is True?  And if none is uniquely True—especially if mine is not the Truth, how can I believe anything? Do all supports fall?

How we answer this, it seems to me, will determine everything else about the way we think and live. Stay tuned.