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.]
” Religion is the natural outcome of human wonder and curiosity about the universe and our place in it.”
God, if only people saw their own religion in that light, maybe they would have more respect for the faith of other folks and the spiritual struggles of us all…
Nan Bush says
Be helpful, wouldn’t it?
Dave Woods says
I have a good friend. I’ve put up with his crazyness, for a good 40 years, because in spite of his being so difficult, in his unguarded moments, some abslolute gems of artiistic truth and wisdome about life come through. As a musician and craftsman he’s a true artist, and honest as the day is long.
Having a conversation with him on any subject is like being carpet bombed. This is where a low flying jet keeps releasing small bombs sequentially, blowing up an area the size of a foot ball field.
Trying to add your own point of view to a subject is usually rejected, or grudgingly relegated to a position of non importance, and it was like a wrestling match to get it that far. I will never abandon this man even though his crazy over baring style has cost him most of his friends, and his family.
They just can’t take it, or if they can, it’s in very very small doses. He views their avoidence of him as failure on their part, says he’s cut them out of his life, and yet rants on and on and on about about how their inability to accept him is their fault.
As one of his last true friends, I’m going to try to reach him, even though I expect to be incinerated in the attempt. Some how I thought this story too might be relevant.
Nan Bush says
Thanks, Dave. I think it’s relevant.
WOAH! Are you kidding me!? Does his name by any chance happen to be _____? Hehehe. He sounds incredibly like a friend of mine. To the “T”! Not only does he swear that the people that have “abandoned” him is because of their lack of spirituality, but he also thinks that it is because of some “cross he must bare”. He thinks it’s because he’s Christian. You aren’t a true “Christian” until you are martyred, right? hehehe. wow.
I’m not sure he HAS any true-true friends left. I’m in the category of “very very small dose”.
I sense some exasperation, i think, when you say that this is not a “religious” blog. I feel for you.
It isn’t about religion at all. However, there is this question that hangs over our heads like a guillotine. It’s not “is there a God?” It’s not “is there a heaven or a hell?”
But the question that we face now in the 21st century “is ‘hell’ an eternal punishment?”
Everything else is a secondary concern. Nothing else really matters. I may have said it here once before, but if God can forgive anyone and everyone, even going so far as to rescue them from “Hell”, then we can do the same for our enemies and friends. And this is the type of world we all want. Even the Exclusivist Christians will admit it. Even the Extremist Muslims will admit it! There is nothing greater than seeing the light of a God who is truly all forgiving.
One day, when I was struggling over my own “salvation”, I thought to my self “if God doesn’t love me, then what’s the point of giving love to anybody at all for any reason?”. So for a time I wanted to stop loving even my wife and daughter.
Then I became sick. and I became overwhelmingly distressed in my heart at the thought of my wife and daughter never receiving love from me again. They would be completely devastated! And they might even become psychologically damaged for the rest of their life. i don’t know.
But then I had to think about God and his love. Does it end? Will there be a time when God will allow EVEN ONE SINGLE photon of light to live in exile and depravity from him for eternity? It sickened me. it distressed me. And it lifted me out of that time in my life of not wanting to love my family. How could he let that happen? I don’t think he will.
Nan Bush says
Stay tuned, Joshua! And you’re probably right about the exasperation. I do sometimes wonder how people can’t see what is so obvious (to me), which is that there’s a relationship between religious questions and all other questions about really important stuff. As I said, stay tuned, especially for the “is there a hell?” question.
Hey Dave….haha…I totally empathise, I have a real -life friend like that, but I don’t try ‘reach her’ now days. You accept her, madness and genius and all, or you don’t. I don’t even try figure her out anymore…the territory is way too fraught with falling rocks and cavernous depths projecting all kinds of vivid mirages and visions from places I simply don’t understand
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