Reality and Religion

I have just finished the fascinating Proof of Heaven by Dr Eben Alexander. This is the story of the NDE (Near Death Experience) of a brain surgeon. When he came back from the other side he explains (as do most who have an NDE)  how much more real the other world is than this one. He doesn’t talk much about religion, but he explains how, after his experience, when he went back to church–with it’s music, stained glass and sense of the sacred, he suddenly ‘got it’. He sees what religion is really for. It is meant to give you a glimpse of heaven. Of course more traditionally minded Catholics have been saying this all along–that sacred architecture and liturgy and sacred music is meant to connect us with the other side–give us a glimpse of heaven and take us out of this world.

One of the more intriguing things about this book is Dr Alexander’s musings on the working of the brain and it’s relationship to consciousness. The materialistic mindset says that consciousness is a product of brain activity. Dr Alexander explains his view that consciousness is bigger than the brain, and the brain functions as a kind of filter or organizing machine for consciousness. As it were, funneling the vast consciousness into this materialistic world and allowing it to function within the parameters of the material world we believe to be so “real”. This is a full time job. For the brain to manage all the data from a fast paced, modern, materialistic lifestyle is demanding and as the mind focusses on the material world and the demands of everyday life it can “forget” the higher functions of consciousness, lose the capabilities and be too occupied dealing with the functions of the material world that it does not have the time or capability to be open to the spiritual realities.

Suddenly I understood the reason for the strictures of the monastic life. The monk takes vows of stability, obedience and conversion of life. He lives a life of routine, obedience, poverty and structure. He lives this strict life so that the cares and concerns and pre occupations of dealing with the material world are taken care of. This is so his mind is care free and therefore able to ascend to the spiritual realities and grow into the higher levels of consciousness through prayer, worship and physical self denial. The monk denies himself the physical pleasures and material concerns not because they are bad, but because there is something  better.

Alexander also reveals the reason for religion. Religion is not there just to make the world a better place, help the poor, feed the hungry and help people lose weight. It’s there to open the human heart to the reality of the divine. That is why the liturgy is the primary work and necessity of those who are religious. Celebrating Mass, therefore, and saying our prayers in a routine manner is at the very heart of religion. It is what religion is about. The good deeds etc…that’s just the result of the religion, not the point of the religion.

The rules of religion (and the word “religion” comes from the word “rule”) are the means to an end. The moral regulations, the doctrinal statements, the instructions for prayer, the rules for devotions–all those things are the rules of the game. They are the map for the journey. They are the guidebook. They help us get into shape so that we can eventually, through a lifetime of prayer, discipline, penance and belief come to the point of transcending this world and living in a state of higher consciousness–what we call “living by faith.”

Finally, Dr. Alexander comes back from his NDE saying that he is totally convinced that there is a higher connectedness and purpose in the universe. Nothing is wasted. All things work together and the love and light far, far exceeds the darkness and evil. He believes there is a higher purpose and connectedness and our job is to perceive that, learn how to discern it and live within that higher purpose and connectedness. In other words to say, “Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.”

About Fr. Dwight Longenecker
  • http://platytera.blogspot.com/ Christian

    Interesting. I’d say the brain ‘mediates’ the non-physical aspects of consciousness into the physical world, pretty much what you say. I’m fond of the word ‘mediate’ because it can be a unifying concept to Catholics, who understand that there’s a whole lotta mediatin’ goin’ on all the time between the visible and invisible reality.

  • http://hartponder.com Hponder

    I agree… I have started serving at the Extraordinary Form of the Mass, which goes hand in hand with your article… Sadly Music has been removed from most Seminaries… Father Craig sings, so we are blessed to have him at Sacred Heart, Palm Desert, CA

  • Sandra Lipari

    Love this! “Suddenly I understood the reason for the strictures of the monastic life. The monk takes vows of stability, obedience and conversion of life. He lives a life of routine, obedience, poverty and structure. He lives this strict life so that the cares and concerns and pre occupations of dealing with the material world are taken care of. This is so his mind is care free and therefore able to ascend to the spiritual realities and grow into the higher levels of consciousness through prayer, worship and physical self denial. ”
    Nice! “rules of religion (and the word “religion” comes from the word “rule”) are the means to an end. The moral regulations, the doctrinal statements, the instructions for prayer, the rules for devotions–all those things are the rules of the game. They are the map for the journey. They are the guidebook. They help us get into shape so that we can eventually, through a lifetime of prayer, discipline, penance and belief come to the point of transcending this world and living in a state of higher consciousness–what we call “living by faith.” Excellent!

  • Cassandra

    I”m not sure I buy the NDE experiences as a geniune experience of the afterlife. They just don’t seem to align well with Catholic theology of personal judgment and purgatory/hell for those not in a state of grace which he would not have seemed to be in if he had not a previous faith.

    I agree with the idea that the brain is an interface between the soul and the body, but philosophy can deduce that without NDE. In the brain experiments that atheists tout for a solely materialistic view of consciousness, they fail to understand that part of the intellect is material and part is spiritual. The imagination still uses material images and when these experiments see neurons firing during thought, I don’t think they are taking into account the retrieval of stored images in the thought process.

    • Fr. Dwight Longenecker

      We don’t know what happens after they really die and do not come back at all. That’s when the judgement takes place I think. The NDEs are like visits to the other side.

      • Cassandra

        I have to disagree with you Father. NDE’s can’t be a visit to “the other side” because that would require the soul to depart the body (death). At best NDE’s would have to be an apparition made directly accessible to the soul, which in reading St Teresa, would be only possible by God.
        That again is problematic since those experiencing NDE’s do not seem to have any theologically correct experiences. Why would God go to all the trouble to allow an apparition to the soul, only to lead them into serious error as the Katie Couric Q&A suggests that Eben has fallen into?
        It doesn’t add up.

        • Fr. Dwight Longenecker

          I think the NDEs are a glimpse into the other side, but like dream language or the experience of visions, there is much in the experience that is mysterious and impossible to interpret. When the person draws theologically unorthodox conclusions from their experiences they have misunderstood the experience or the experience was only partial because, as you say, they have not really died completely.

        • http://platytera.blogspot.com/ Christian

          The soul’s separation from the body may not necessarily be like flipping an on/off switch, but may have transitional and limited reversible aspects to it, allowing for NDEs.

  • John

    In the last few months, I have started saying the Liturgy of the Hours as a routine. I have found that I have less time for things I used to deem important (like surfing the internet) but that I have a stronger sense of purpose, more joy, and a greater love for God. It’s been like a second conversion since becoming Catholic.

    The reason I am sharing that is I think it is in-line with what is at the heart of this post, i.e. that the human brain doesn’t have time for God or the things of God in the modern/post-modern age. When we quiet down and spend time in His presence, we find not emptiness but astonishing fullness and delight.

    Thanks for sharing this Father, I am going to check it out. I am normally skeptical about NDE books. They seem to come in two flavors:
    1. Family Circus: heaven is an eternal family reunion, a sentimental paradise.
    2. Inferno: hell is real and you don’t want to go there.
    However, this one sounds interesting for the insights that you mention as well as his profession.

  • David

    In answer to a question on the Katie Couric website, Eben says that in his understanding reincarnation is an absolute must. This is a danger I see in all the near death experiences I’ve read over the past decade, most recently, Mary C Neal’s, that they absolutise their partial experiences and draw all kinds of conclusions from it about the next world. For instance, Neal believes that we all plan our lives before we’re born. This she infers from the feeling she had of having eternally known all those she met on the other side. Interestingly, at Medjugorje the alleged apparition of Mary stated firmly and at great length that there is no reincarnation. Of course, it might be that the supposed seers decided to tick an Orthodox box so as to shore up the authenticity of the apparitions. Even with my concerns, I do believe that Eben and Mary passed over for a time, but that the experience has so overwhelmed them that absent a prior deep rooted and sacramentally ordered faith, they’re not best equipped to understand the experience.

    Question 6
    http://www.katiecouric.com/features/dr-eben-alexander-answers-your-questions/

    • Fr. Dwight Longenecker

      Yes, the NDEs, like personal apparitions and other paranormal phenomena cannot be used to derive doctrine. Nor must one generalize or make absolute one’s own experiences. Paranormal phenomena are signs and evidence that “there is more in heaven and earth that our philosophy has dreamt of.”

  • Ron

    I’ve had an Out of Body experience and went to a realm like Dr. Alexander. It was beautiful and I felt the warmest warmth you could ever know. It’d be amazing if everyone could experience it at least once so you could know what it’s like. Everyone who has an NDE comes away knowing there is more.

  • FW Ken

    Objectively speaking, it’s possible that NDEs are nothing more than the gasps of a dying brain. It’s also possibly that God uses this biological process to speak to us. I don’t know.

    I do know that Father’s ruminations on asceticism and monastic life are on the money. At one time, it appeared I might end up as a Trappist, and I spent enough time among them to experience something I don’t have in everyday life. A retreat in a contemplative community should be a routine part of a Catholic’s life. Or a protestant for that matter. I met one Episcopal minister who made two one week trips a year to spend with the brothers. The time off and the travel costs were part of his contract with his parish.

  • Theresa

    I have read the book based on your recommendation.

    About Purgatory, Dr. Eban did touch on purgatory albeit unwittingly. He made the comment that he understood how deeply painful it must have been for Christ, who was always in the presence of God, to live as a man outside the immediate presence of God. That in my humble opinion is purgatory. Like father mentioned if he had actually died he may have gone further and experienced purgatory. If we get a glimpse of God when we die during our first judgment, then we will truly suffer his loss when we are left in purgatory-separated from God.

    I too had problems with some of Dr. Eban’s conclusions, but even great mystics have made mistakes, such as St. Augustine contemplating when the should enters the unborn child. All of this is filtered through the fallible human brain, mistakes are inevitable.

    Dr. Eban is dead on (no pun intended) that we can experience God’s presence but it requires work. When I experienced a trauma in my life that literally brought me to my knees, I grew closer and closer to the God until nothing bothered me. I knew I was safe all of the time. I felt free especially from myself. ! Just as slowly as I acquired this closeness, I also slowly lost it. By slowly re-entering worldly things. God is still priority but its not the same. We really do have to to remain cognizant of our prayer life and catch when it is slipping.

    Finally, I tend to believe that Dr. Eban had an authentic experience but his learning curve did not end when he regained consciousness. He too has a lifetime journey ahead of him to learn and discern. Perhaps his idea of reincarnation will change as he gains more knowledge. I was thinking this morning, after completing the book, that he is at huge risk to be tempted astray from the message God was trying to convey . We should pray for him that his message stays on track and he is able to discern properly.

  • Heybob

    http://www.amazon.com/Passage-Connie-Willis/dp/0553580515 I’m not sure I can recommend this book enough for providinga speculative approach to NDE analysis that both believers and non-believers can accept.

  • yan

    The interface between neuroscience and theological anthropology is indeed a fascinating area of study that will eventually help us to understand and formulate a theological understanding, faithful to the deposit of faith, of the interaction between soul and body in new and unforeseen ways. We truly need people that are simultaneously experts in both fields.

  • http://www.architecture-as-space.info/ kej0

    A statement and a question.
    I find it strange that in Dr. Alexander’s book I found not a single reference to Jesus Christ.
    Does the Catholic Church has any teachings regarding these – apparently millions of – near death experiences?

    • Fr. Dwight Longenecker

      I have written a good number of posts about the Catholic reaction to such things. We neither dismiss them nor claim them as proof of anything.