Sunday, February 21, 2021

Inconsistencies In Some Anti-Christian Views Of The Paranormal

Bruce Greyson, one of the leading researchers of near-death experiences, recently wrote a book on the subject, which is coming out soon. You can read a story from the New York Post about it here. The book and the media coverage of it provide further reasons for Christians to be prepared to discuss paranormal issues.

Here are some relevant comments from a recent discussion I participated in:

Having said all of that, I want to conclude by reinforcing how well I think a highly subjective view of NDEs [near-death experiences] explains the evidence. The dreaming we experience in our everyday lives gives us a significant precedent. The best explanation for most NDEs seems to be that the soul enters a highly subjective dream-like state when it's prematurely separated from the body. When the soul is released from the restrictions of the body in that context, there are improvements in sight, hearing, what information the soul has access to, etc. Thus, NDEs have their vividness, access to information we don't normally have access to (e.g., knowledge that somebody has recently died whose death we wouldn't know about by normal means when the soul is embodied), and so on. As Stephen Braude has argued in a chapter in his new book, a soul separated from the body would have to utilize things like telepathy and clairvoyance in order to have experiences analogous to sight, hearing, etc. (Dangerous Pursuits [San Antonio, Texas: Anomalist Books, 2020], 199-215) So, it's unsurprising that the disembodied soul would sometimes gain access to information the soul doesn't have when embodied. But none of this changes the fact that NDEs are highly subjective. They're subjective within the framework of the soul's knowledge that it's left the body, thus explaining the focus on the afterlife in NDEs, but what occurs within that framework is very subjective. There's some degree of objectivity, vividness, and paranormal knowledge, but the experiences are nevertheless largely dream-like. I suspect some other paranormal experiences, like deathbed visions, also involve some degree of separation between the soul and the body (what may have occurred in Genesis 35:18 with Rachel), with a large subjective element like we see with NDEs. God has given us a mind and evidence to discern the subjectivity of these phenomena, much as we discern it with the dreams we have every night and other such experiences (e.g., hallucinations), but, instead, many people are overly focused on interpreting the experiences as more objective or explaining them with something like a demonic hypothesis. Those explanatory options should be on the table, but they probably only apply to a minority of cases….

I don't think the cases in locations like the United States are as lacking in theology as you seem to think they are. Who is and isn't present in the realm the NDE participant goes to - whether you call it heaven, hell, some sort of transitional region, or whatever - has theological implications. Similarly, the standards applied in life review contexts have theological implications. For example, Christianity places love for God above love for other people (e.g., Matthew 22:37-39). My sense is that NDEs are far more focused on the second commandment [loving other people] than the first [loving God]. That's reflected in the nature of the life reviews, the impressions the experiencers come away with, the larger amount of information people get about other humans than they get about God during their NDEs, etc. I'm not saying that love for God is absent from NDEs. And you can argue that it's implied to some extent even where it's not stated explicitly. I would agree with that, but would add that the same is true of other theological conclusions, including anti-Christian ones, being implied in some NDEs without being stated explicitly. And though love for God is a theme of some NDEs to some extent, the much larger role that the second commandment has in NDEs differentiates many NDEs from Christianity in a significant way. The primacy of love for God not only is a major Christian theme, but also makes more sense philosophically. The second commandment is built on the foundation of the first. Loving the God who created people in his image is essential to loving those people as we ought to love them. God is often the only person we can turn to (e.g., 2 Timothy 4:16-17, those who outlive all of their close relatives and friends), which illustrates how important our relationship with him is. I doubt it's a coincidence that the modern world's underestimating of the first commandment and overestimating of the second one is reflected so much in NDEs.

- Regarding that last sentence, I wouldn't say that the more subjective NDEs are shaped only by culture, only by our own preferences, only by our own experiences, or anything like that. Rather, I'd expect the more subjective NDEs to be shaped by multiple factors, much as dreams can't always be explained by one influence. We often have difficulty understanding our dreams. They're often different than we'd expect, contrary to our desires, etc. But they seem to be shaped by our expectations, desires, and such to some extent.

- Given how unreligious so many people are, including such a large percentage of people who claim to be religious, the lack of more developed and more explicit theology in NDEs is unsurprising for the most part under a view of NDEs like mine. As I mentioned elsewhere in this thread, the Department of Labor's annual research on how Americans spend their time has shown that they spend more than five hours a day on leisure and sports and less than ten minutes a day on religious and spiritual activities. Americans are religious to some extent, but not much. The shallow religiosity of so many NDEs is largely consistent with the shallow religiosity of most Americans (and many other NDE participants).

- One complicating factor is our ignorance of what realm, so to speak, the soul goes to when detached from the body (to whatever extent it's detached) in a view of NDEs like mine. The nature of that realm could determine some aspects of what NDE participants perceive (e.g., something in that realm could lead some, most, or all people to thoughts about light, tunnels, or whatever else). If people are having highly subjective experiences shaped somewhat by an objective realm (as is the case to some extent with dreams), then our ignorance of that objective realm is a problem.

In closing, I want to say something about how Christians should respond to non-Christian views of NDEs. Regardless of whether a Christian holds a view of NDEs more like Steve's [in which NDEs are highly veridical] or mine, I think something ought to be said about the popular non-Christian view that NDEs are evidence for religious pluralism, the unimportance of theological disputes about God, and so on. As I said above, our culture tends to underestimate the first commandment while speaking so highly of the second commandment. And one of the aspects of NDEs that people find most appealing is meeting deceased relatives and friends. They wouldn't find so much appeal in meeting strangers during their NDE. They want to be reunited with particular deceased loved ones with particular attributes. Similarly, I doubt that it would go over well if a husband told his wife, "To me, you're just a generic representative of womanhood. I don't care much about your character, your interests, or your experiences. I'd be just as happy married to any other woman." It's even more absurd to take that sort of approach toward God. The people who care so much about the details of the mother or friend who meets them in an NDE shouldn't care so little about the details that make God who he is. Even if you don't agree with me that a neglect of the first commandment is a major problem with NDEs themselves, I think all Christians ought to agree that it's a major problem with a lot of popular interpretations of NDEs. One of the ways we can address that problem is by pointing out to people the inconsistency between their lack of concern about God's character and their concern for the character of other people.

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

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