Wednesday, August 06, 2014

Patricia Pearson's Opening Heaven's Door

Patricia Pearson recently wrote a book about paranormal phenomena, especially as they relate to the afterlife. The book is titled Opening Heaven's Door (New York, New York: Atria Books, 2014), and it's received significant media attention (like here and here). Pearson has been interviewed by Alex Tsakiris, though I don't know when the interview will be made public.

The book provides a helpful introduction to deathbed visions, sensed presences, near-death experiences (NDEs), and other paranormal phenomena. She includes a lot of recent research. And she provides some good answers to common objections to the paranormal nature of these occurrences.

There's a lot that's good about the book, but I'm going to focus on some of the problems I have with it. It's representative of a large percentage of modern literature on the paranormal, having many of the same weaknesses.

- The title of the book is an accurate reflection of its contents. A lot is said about heaven, but not much about hell. There are occasional brief references to the research Nancy Evans Bush has done on hellish NDEs, for example, but the reader who doesn't know much about the subject probably would come away with the impression that negative NDEs are much less common than they actually are. See here.

- The problem isn't just with Pearson's coverage of NDEs. There isn't much about negative paranormal phenomena in general. For some resources on demon possession, poltergeists, and other paranormal phenomena of a negative nature, see here and here, including the comments sections of both threads.

- Pearson sometimes acknowledges the existence of such negative experiences. And she sometimes acknowledges the difficulties involved in drawing conclusions about the afterlife from NDEs and such. Yet, she ends her book in the same sort of misleadingly positive way that so many books and articles on this subject conclude. "Love is the coin of the realm, said Eben Alexander, and he's right." (approximate Kindle location 2672; see, also, her comments around 2667, such as her approving quotation of Kathleen Dowling Singh, which suggest that she's applying Alexander's comment to the afterlife, not just this life) Surely many Americans and other near-death experiencers (NDErs) in some modern cultures would describe NDEs the way Alexander did. But would the average Hindu or Muslim NDEr, for example, agree? What about NDErs of past generations? Maybe, but Pearson doesn't make the case. I suspect that many cultures and individuals would be more focused on honor, loyalty, or something else other than love. What about NDErs who went to a hellish place rather than a heavenly one? Would they agree that love is the coin of the realm? Pearson occasionally acknowledges the existence of hellish NDEs and other negative paranormal phenomena, yet she doesn't seem to have much interest in explaining such occurrences or justifying the conclusion of her book in light of them. Just after her citation of Alexander's comment, she says that we "can't know" whether our afterlife experience will involve "beauty or terror or hero's journey". Does she think that any "terror" or other negative experience will only be purgatorial, so that everybody's experience is ultimately positive? I don't know. There's a lot that's unclear in what she says about her view of the afterlife. But I suspect that most people reading her book will come away with the message that everybody or almost everybody is going to heaven.

- There's an element of truth to what Pearson says about love as the coin of the realm. Jesus said that love of God and love of others are the two greatest commandments (Matthew 22:34-40). But love of God is placed above love of others, whereas Pearson and many NDEs show little concern for love of God. Even if one NDE involves no God or gods, another involves gods instead of God, and two involving God define God in significantly inconsistent ways, people like Pearson will lump all of these NDEs together as a reflection of a heaven where love is the coin of the realm. But if it doesn't matter much what we believe about God or whether he even exists, how much does such a realm reflect love for God or love for other people? As John Donne wrote:

Oh, if Thou carest not whom I love,
Alas! Thou lovest not me.
("A Hymn To Christ")

The diversity of NDEs is inconsistent with their allegedly loving nature. As a husband should be concerned about the details of his wife's character and what makes her unique as an individual, so we should be concerned about the depth of our knowledge of God. "Those who honor me I will honor." (1 Samuel 2:30) God rebuked Job's friends because "you have not spoken of me what is right" (Job 42:7). Much of what we hear from proponents of NDEs is reminiscent of a husband telling his wife that it wouldn't have made much of a difference if he'd married some other woman. Supposedly, there isn't much difference between Allah and Yahweh or between the God of Christianity and the gods of Hinduism. If we love God, we should want to honor him for who he is. And if we love other people, we should want them to have an accurate view of God.

- There are many elements of NDEs and other paranormal phenomena that suggest they're highly subjective, much like a dream or virtual reality. See here and here, for example. Pearson sometimes refers to such characteristics in these experiences, like one person's encounter with the Grim Reaper (1425). But she doesn't say much about how common such features are. If people knew how many NDEs, deathbed visions, etc. involve cartoon characters, video game characters, individuals in heaven who are still alive on earth, and other such characteristics, I suspect they'd be much more cautious in drawing conclusions about the afterlife based on these experiences. If you want some idea of just how subjective NDEs often are, take the time to read a lot of NDE accounts at Jeffrey Long's site. See here, for example, for an NDE involving a person in heaven in a wheel chair and Jesus with a female God. Then there's this one from an atheist whose NDE involves no God or any other authority figure, in which she gets to meet a musician who's her "idol". Here's one involving "a very bright multi-colored figure, almost like a cartoon character and similar to the Joker on a deck of playing cards".

- To give you some idea of how diverse NDEs and related phenomena are, here are some of Pearson's comments about the possibilities we have to consider:

"Is she [Pearson's dead sister] in the Bardo realms? Totally foreign! I have no cultural understanding of that. Is she in a new body? Is she a baby in Nicaragua? Has she become a formless drop of light, and if so how will I find her? When the philosopher Ken Wilber lost his new wife to cancer, she kept telling him repeatedly as she was dying, 'Promise me that you'll find me.' How do we find one another again? All these questions, so painful, lead us to refusing to answer, which is so much easier….We can't know what comes next, what beauty or terror or hero's journey, but we can draw our intuitive wisdom about how to live from what we hear and see." (2646, 2677)

Pearson makes some effort to provide answers to these questions, as I've discussed above, but we should note the diversity of experiences prompting the questions and how ambiguous and uncertain Pearson's answers are.

- Pearson doesn't say much about the moral diversity of NDEs. People considered good by common standards often have negative NDEs and other such experiences. And people commonly considered bad, like felons, often have positive deathbed visions, NDEs, and such. For more on this subject, see here. The popular notion that good people have positive paranormal experiences, while bad people have negative experiences, is often false.

- Pearson's comment that we may experience "what we can emotionally and conceptually relate to" (2066), though it has some merit, is insufficient by itself. The woman who encountered the Grim Reaper, for example, is described as somebody who didn't believe in the Grim Reaper and apparently didn't think about him much or expect to see him. People frequently have paranormal experiences that are different than they expected or involve problematic details that aren't even understood by the experiencer. NDEs and other such phenomena are largely subjective, but many of their inconsistencies and other problematic elements don't seem to be explained well by an appeal to "what we can emotionally and conceptually relate to".

- Like so much other modern paranormal literature, Pearson's book doesn't make much of an effort to interact with the evidence for organized religion. She and the sources she cites often make dismissive comments about organized religion, but you won't find any refutation of traditional arguments for Judaism, Christianity, or Islam, for example. You won't find any explanation of how the evidence for those religions can be reconciled with what Pearson et al. are concluding about NDEs and other paranormal phenomena.

Any view of the afterlife has to address what Jesus said about the subject. He made far more significant claims about his identity and the afterlife than any NDEr has. We have good evidence that he came back from death in a unique and permanent way. He's also at the center of a large network of fulfilled prophecy and other miracles, which gives him more credibility than any other religious figure in history. Christianity in general and Jesus in particular pose a major obstacle to what Pearson and others are suggesting about the afterlife, yet that obstacle is seldom addressed much, if at all. People like Pearson seem to begin with an assumption that organized religion is false. But that assumption is itself very false, and it's very dangerous.

- Pearson laments how little our society discusses NDEs and other paranormal phenomena (229, 2656). She encourages more discernment and more of a willingness to take risks in addressing these issues (278). I agree. We should spend more time thinking and talking about the afterlife and related subjects. But what we're thinking and talking about needs to include organized religion, such as the evidence we have for Christianity.

If you're interested in reading more about my view of NDEs and related phenomena, see here.

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