On Learning How to See, Part II
a sermon by Jerry Jacoby
at the Unitarian Universalist Community of the Mountains
March 6, 2016
As many of you know, I am a retired engineer, and during my thirty-year career I learned much about the history of science, although it was mostly catch as catch can. I was particularly impressed with the book Connections1, by James Burke, which was made into a television series by the same name. Burke selected a component of modern society, for example plastic, and researched the steps—backwards—about how that component of society came to be discovered and then developed into a usable product. But in the book and the TV series he told the story forward, beginning in ancient times. I recall being fascinated with each episode of the TV series, wondering, half way through, how the story was all going to come together. I thought history should always be taught that way, by topic, so that it would come alive; never mind the recitation of endless, boring lists of what king reigned when and for how long, and who came next.
I mentioned the process as “catch as catch can,” because the science and engineering courses focused on the technical aspects of the subject, and history was only occasionally touched upon. Nevertheless, it was clear that there is a whole universe out there, so to speak, just waiting to be discovered. Consequently, I am what Alan Sokal in a recent book described as a “modest realist.” He summarized my philosophical outlook in a few lines:
…there exists an external world, whose properties are independent of any individual human being and indeed of humanity as a whole; that these properties are encoded in “eternal” physical laws; and that human beings can obtain reliable, albeit imperfect and tentative, knowledge of these laws by hewing to the “objective” procedures and epistemological strictures prescribed by the … scientific method.2
The term “epistemological strictures” refers to the disciplined method of gaining knowledge. Later in his book, Sokal wrote a thirty-page chapter entitled “Defense of a modest scientific realism.” In the mathematically oriented sciences, these laws are usually encoded in mathematical equations, some of them very complicated. In social sciences, scientists first gather large amounts of information and then construct a narrative that incorporates as much of that information as possible. Then new information provides a test of the narrative. For example in developmental psychology, the narrative of human development (over simplified) predicts that humans proceed through stages from egocentric, to ethnocentric, to world-centric, and so on, with each stage providing the individual a broader, more encompassing perspective. When psychologists study groups of humans, they observe that this qualitative development takes place in the predicted order. And thus the narrative is verified.3
I want to tell you today about part of the universe that I personally discovered in 1982, and have spent the last thirty-four years exploring. I’ll spend the last five minutes or so explaining what I think it means for all of us. The tale begins in the fall of 1973, shortly after the personal tragedy I told you about in my sermon three years ago next month. A man met me in the hallway outside my office one afternoon. I had never seen him before. He expressed condolences for my recent loss and then handed me this book: Life after Life4, by Dr. Raymond Moody, Jr. He added that he thought I would find it “comforting.” Then he turned and walked away, and that was the last I ever saw of him.
As you can see, it’s a small book, with fairly large type and wide margins, and someone who focuses might get through it in a couple of hours. As I recall, I did so shortly thereafter. Life After Life is about near-death experiences. But for some reason the book did not speak to me. So I closed it and put it on the shelf, where it stayed for years, except for four moves that briefly interrupted its dust gathering.
Time went by, and I lived my life. Then, and it must have been in 1982 (call it eight years later), I happened to be in the Los Alamos County Public Library looking through the new books, and found a second book, Recollections of Death5, by Dr. Michael Sabom. “Hello,” I thought to myself, “what’s this?”
So I checked it out. Sabom relates, beginning on page 3, how he was introduced to near-death experiences in 1976, by Sarah Kreutziger, at his adult Sunday school class, at a Methodist church in Gainesville, Florida. She reviewed for the class Moody’s book, Life after Life. Sabom wrote that at the end of the class, “The kindest thing I could find to say at the moment was, ‘I don’t believe it.’ ”
But he and Kreutziger decided to ask around, so to speak, among their patients. He was completing his first year of cardiology at the University of Florida in Gainesville, and she had daily contact with patients in the kidney dialysis unit at a hospital in Gainesville. On page 4, I came to this paragraph: (Sabom is speaking.)
The third patient I approached was a middle-aged housewife from Tampa who, by her medical records, had suffered several near-death crisis events of various sorts. She was in the hospital for routine diagnostic tests. I met her in her room one evening about eight o’clock, and we had a lengthy discussion about the medical details of her previous illnesses. Finally, I asked her if she had had any experiences during the times she was unconscious and critically ill. As soon as she was convinced that I was not an underground psychiatrist posing as a cardiologist, she began describing the first near-death experience I had heard in my medical career. To my utter amazement, the details matched the descriptions in Life After Life. I was even more impressed by her sincerity and the deep personal significance her experience had had for her. At the conclusion of the interview, I had the distinct feeling that what this woman had shared with me that night was a deeply personal glimpse into an aspect of medicine of which I knew nothing.6
I confess, after this paragraph I was hooked. I read Recollections from cover to cover and eventually bought my own copy. (Note that its dust jacket got lost some time in the last thirty-four years.) After Recollections, it would not be an exaggeration to say I read everything I could find on the subject. This pile of books [gesture to the card table beside the pulpit] are the ones I’ve read. The subject of near-death experiences was not taught in the community college in Los Alamos, and it’s not taught at Sierra College either, so I am self-taught on this subject. I have no credentials in this subject, nor any related subject.
So what is a near-death experience? An example will illustrate, and I have to advise this congregation that both Moody and Sabom are Christian doctors. Consequently, they frequently use terms that I’m confident some members of UUCM would find personally offensive. So, here is an example from The Light Beyond, published in 19887. A woman experienced an allergic reaction to the anesthetic while undergoing an operation, and suffered a cardiac arrest. She related afterwards,
I found myself floating up toward the ceiling. I could see everyone around the bed very plainly, even my own body. I thought how odd it was that they were upset about my body. I was fine and I wanted them to know that, but there seemed to be no way to let them know. It was as though there were a veil or a screen between me and the others in the room.
I became aware of an opening, if I can call it that. It appeared to be elongated and dark, and I began to zoom through it. I was puzzled yet exhilarated. I came out of this tunnel into a realm of soft, brilliant love and light. The love was everywhere. It surrounded me and seemed to soak through into my very being. At some point I was shown, or saw, the events of my life. They were in a kind of vast panorama. All of this is really just indescribable. People I knew who had died were there with me in the light—a friend who had died in college, my grandfather, and a great-aunt, among others. They were happy, beaming.
I didn’t want to go back, but I was told that I had to by a man in light. I was being told that I had not completed what I had to do in life.
I came back into my body with a sudden lurch.7
The most common reaction at this point by skeptics everywhere is “hallucination,” in a word, and I agree that, in and of itself, this particular experience can’t be distinguished from a hallucination. However! That brings up the topic of veridical studies. Kenneth Ring writes:
Perhaps the best known case of this kind is that of a woman named Maria, originally recounted by her critical care social worker, Kimberly Clark. Maria was a migrant worker, who, while visiting friends for the first time in Seattle, had a severe heart attack. She was rushed to Harborview Hospital and placed in the coronary care unit. A few days later, she had a cardiac arrest but was quickly resuscitated.
The next day, Clark was asked to look in on her, and during their conversation, Maria began to tell Clark of her [out of body experience] during her arrest. Maria told the usual tale of being able to look down from the ceiling and watch the medical team at work on her body. Clark, who had heard about [near-death experiences] but was skeptical of them—and of Maria’s story—listened with feigned but seemingly empathic respect to the patient’s account of what was, for Clark, her bizarre-sounding narrative. Inwardly, as she now confesses, Clark found plausible explanations to dismiss it—until Maria mentioned something highly unusual.
At this point, she told Clark that she did not merely remain looking down from the ceiling; instead, she found herself outside the hospital. Specifically, she said, having been distracted by an object on the ledge of the third floor of the north wing of the building, she ‘thought herself up there.’ And when she ‘arrived,’ she found herself, as Clark put it, ‘eyeball to shoelace’ with—of all things—a tennis shoe on the ledge of the building! Maria then proceeded to describe this shoe in minute detail, mentioning, among other things, that the little toe had a worn place in the shoe, and that one of its laces was tucked underneath the heel. Finally, and with some emotional urgency, Maria asked Clark to please try to locate that shoe: She desperately needed to know whether she had ‘really’ seen it.
[Ring continued] I have been to Harborview Hospital myself, and can tell you that the north face of the building is quite slender, with only five windows showing from the third floor. When Clark arrived there, she did not find any shoe—until she came to the middlemost window on the floor, and there, on the ledge, precisely as Maria had described it, was the tennis shoe.
Now, on hearing a case like this, [Ring went on] one has to ask: What is the probability that a migrant worker visiting a large city for the first time, who suffers a heart attack and is rushed to a hospital at night would, while having a cardiac arrest, simply “hallucinate” seeing a tennis shoe—with very specific and unusual features—on the ledge of a floor higher than her physical location in the hospital?8
Concluding the story, Clark retrieved the shoe and took it to Maria, and the shoe became veridical evidence that near-death experiences are not—emphatically not—hallucinations. I have read similar accounts by other authors. For example, a patient, while having an out-of-body experience, “saw” a single tennis shoe on the roof of the hospital. Subsequently a medical worker went up to the roof (aided by a janitor) and found the shoe exactly where the patient said it would be. Trying to keep it a little light, Ring points out that one of the mysteries of this field is how these single shoes, that is, not a pair of shoes, came to be where they were.
At this point, it seems to me, we need to avoid two extremes. At one extreme is gullibility, which means to be easily deceived. The Desiderata says it exactly: “Exercise caution in your business affairs, for the world is full of trickery.” Oh yes indeed it is. In Alcoholics Anonymous, it is sometimes said that it’s important to keep an open mind, but not so open that your brains fall out.
The other extreme is described by Dr. Elisa Medhus, a physician in Texas:
Being raised by two atheists was, in many ways, like housing the mind in an iron box with no windows or doors. It did have its advantages. I didn’t have to think or question; my mind was closed to the two-way flow of all ideas related to life after death. On the other hand, it left me with no tools with which to explore that subject.
Throughout my life, I have encountered many examples of the existence of life after death, but my doubts have tested the sturdiness of my iron box. For example, I stumbled upon a television show covering the many uncanny visions and predictions of Edgar Cayce, American spirit translator and founder of the Association for Research and Enlightenment. I read a fascinating New York Times article about toddler twins found inexplicably speaking the ancient language of Aramaic. I encountered a news report about a Seattle woman who had a near-death experience following a heart attack. While allegedly in an out-of-body state, the woman noticed a tennis shoe, with the laces folded underneath the heel, stuck on a ledge of the hospital’s third floor. The exact shoe was later retrieved by hospital staff, from the exact location the woman specified.
Although I couldn’t explain the uncanny accuracy of some spiritual communicators’ predictions, the seemingly indisputable accounts of near-death experiencers, and the extraordinary past-life stories told by children, I remained stubbornly close-minded.9
In the same vein, Roger J. Woolger, Ph.D., wrote: “When I graduated from Oxford University in the mid-sixties with a joint degree in behavioral psychology and analytic philosophy, my mind had been put into a carefully tailored straitjacket, though I hardly knew it at the time.”10
So how can we maintain a balance between gullibility and extreme skepticism? Let’s admit that it’s not easy. There are a couple of guidelines I’ve found helpful. First, consider all the evidence—which is impossible, of course. This pile of books about the near-death experience is only a fraction of what’s available. But I believe it is a major mistake to consider only one account, analyze it in meticulous detail, itemizing everything wrong, and then tar every other account with the same brush. In my opinion, that approach is dishonest. So how many accounts are enough? There is no objective answer to that question, but I found that after a couple of dozen or so, the accounts became repetitious, and I felt it was time to move on.
Let’s also admit that these stories are anecdotal evidence, with all the problems that implies. So proof in the sense used by the physical sciences is not possible. However, it is possible to take the approach of jurisprudence in these United States. Every working day, around the country, juries are instructed to weigh the evidence they have heard and reach a verdict: Is the defendant guilty as charged beyond a reasonable doubt? So we can ask such questions as, are the accounts consistent with one another? Can some aspect of a particular account be verified by witnesses? For example, if a patient has a near-death experience and describes what one of the doctors does, we can ask the doctor if he did what was described.
Third, recall what I said about the scientific method in the social sciences. With enough of these accounts it becomes possible to construct a narrative, or a descriptive model of the near-death experience. That has been done by others, but I think we each need to do it ourselves, and that is what I propose doing in the two Chalice Circles that meet tomorrow afternoon and evening. Specifically, I suggest we look closely at these accounts and be a jury ourselves.
More important than the near-death experience itself, I believe, are the long-term effects of the experience on the people who have had them. The first person to systematically investigate this question with enough people to attain statistical significance was Dr. Pim van Lommel, a cardiologist in The Netherlands. He and his team interviewed survivors of cardiac arrest and divided them into two groups: those that had a near-death experience and those that didn’t. Subsequently, the team followed both groups of people for eight years. They reported the results in the British medical journal Lancet in 2001. Subsequently, in 2004, van Lommel summarized the results as follows:
This study was designed to assess whether the transformation in attitude toward life and death following an NDE is the result of having an NDE or the result of the cardiac arrest itself. In this follow-up research into transformational processes after NDE, we found a significant difference between patients with and without an NDE. The process of transformation took several years to consolidate. Patients with an NDE did not show any fear of death, they strongly believed in an afterlife, and their insight in what is important in life had changed: love and compassion for oneself, for others, and for nature. They now understood the cosmic law that everything one does to others will ultimately be returned to oneself: hatred and violence as well as love and compassion. Remarkably, there was often evidence of increased intuitive feelings. Furthermore, the long lasting transformational effects of an experience that lasts only a few minutes was a surprising and unexpected finding.11
Finally, before I close, I would like to get up front and personal, and explain what all this means to me.
First, I have been studying this genre of books for thirty-four years, ever since I found Recollections of Death on the new-book shelves at the Los Alamos County Public Library. In addition to this pile of books on the near-death experience, there are four other piles of books on related subjects. And I am persuaded by all this evidence, beyond the slightest doubt, that the Spirit World is real, and that the near-death experience is a window into that Spirit World.
At a very minimum, the evidence is that our true essence is spiritual, and that each of us is currently living in a human body. As Pierre Teilhard de Chardin said, “We are not human beings having a spiritual experience. We are spiritual beings have a human experience.” When our bodies die, our consciousness will move effortlessly into the Spirit World, where it will continue its existence. The evidence indicates that the Spirit World is a place of great beauty permeated with love. When the apostle John wrote the letter we call First John, he wrote that “God is Love.” Later in the same letter, he wrote “God is light, and in him there is no darkness.” He must have had a near-death experience and tried, very inadequately, to tell us what the Spirit World is like. Modern people return from a near-death experience and tell us the same thing.
Another implication of all this evidence, as I see it, is that every major doctrine of modern Christianity13 is wrong. Jesus was not born of a virgin. Jesus is not and was not God. In fact, historians of mythology discovered many years ago another mythical figure called Mithra, who (according to the story) lived in ancient Persia in the third and fourth century before the Common Era. The story of Jesus of Nazareth is identical to the story of Mithra of Persia, except that the former has been adapted to the Palestinian culture. You can look it up. When you get home after church, Google “Mithraism.” Mithra is spelled with an i: M-i-t-h-r-a. Please have the wit to realize that Catholic writers have conflict of interest, but there are scholars who tell the story straight.
I agree that there was probably a real man upon whom the myth was built. A small body of evidence suggests his name was Yeshua, and his intimate friends called him Yeshi. The evidence suggests he was a social reformer, that he did in fact run afoul of the religious authorities (called the temple cult), and that he was in fact crucified. Archaeologists found his burial box, and you can read that story in a book called The Jesus Family Tomb.12 The authors estimated the odds that the story is exactly as it seems—those odds are about two-and-a-half million to one.
Further, Jesus did not die for our sins. The whole idea of sin needs to be thrown into the garbage for the rubbish it is. The life review shows that we are all accountable for how we live our lives, but any judgment about it is ours to make.
And lastly, Jesus is not coming again. Neither is the Jewish Messiah. Both of those doctrines imply that we don’t have to solve our problems, because Jesus will make all things right when he comes back. Or the Messiah will restore Israel to the glory of Solomon. So they proclaim that we can leave it to someone else to solve all our problems. So we don’t have to do the hard work of figuring out what’s wrong with our educational system or our health care system or our political system. So those doctrines are bad psychology and bad religion as well.
Closer to home, the near-death experience, as a class of human experiences, suggests that humanists need to re-examine their meaning of the supernatural.
One of the invisible piles of evidence is about reincarnation. About six years ago I had a life-between-lives session with Jeri Roraback in Sacramento. Following that session I spent a huge amount of time reading and reflecting on what I learned. The knowledge I gained during that session, along with the study, allowed me to understand the grand sweep of my life and why I’m here—my life’s purpose. Consequently, when Jan e-mailed me one day two-and-a-half years ago and asked if we could get together for a conversation, I readily agreed.
And that purpose informs my behavior today. A seemingly trivial, but I claim profound experience happened about a year ago. Jan is in charge of the laundry at our home, and we change the bed linens once a week. We have been in complete agreement about what the re-made bed should look like since day one of our re-marriage. But how to get the bed from a bare mattress to a made-up bed has been the source of great frustration. And so, we found ourselves on opposite sides of the bed one Wednesday morning, glaring at one another with total frustration. And I found myself saying, “It would be easy for me to throw up my hands in disgust, and walk out with the words, ‘Make the bed however you want.’ But that response is a simple, easy-to-understand, wrong answer.’ Similarly, (I continued speaking to her) it would be easy for you to throw up your hands in disgust and walk out with the words, ‘Make the bed however you want.’ That response is also a simple, easy-to-understand, wrong answer. The only right answer is to keep at it.” So we did. Jan wanted the top sheet farther toward the head of the bed, and she explained why. I decided that was actually a pretty good idea. I wanted Jan to start the blanket at the head of the bed, make it even there, and then spread it toward the foot of the bed, without pulling on it. She agreed to do that. And so on and so forth. Now, on Wednesday mornings, after having kept at it and not walked away, we’re able to make the bed—together—harmoniously. And sometimes even laugh together about it afterwards.
If you take nothing else from this sermon, remember the concept of easy-to-understand, simple, wrong answers, because our society is full of them.
Amen. Shalom. Namaste. Blessed be.
————— 4,112 words, 29 minutes —————
- James Burke, Connections, Little, Brown and Company, 1978.
- Alan Sokal, Beyond the Hoax: Science, Philosophy, and Culture, Oxford University Press, 2008, p. 7.
- Ken Wilber, Integral Spirituality: A Startling New Role for Religion in the Modern and Postmodern World, Integral Books, 2006, chapters 1 and 2.
- Raymond A. Moody, Jr., M.D., Life after Life, Bantam Books, Bantam edition, November 1976. How this book, printed in late 1976, came to be put in my hands in the fall of 1973 is a major mystery to me.
- Michael B. Sabom, M.D., Recollections of Death, Harper & Row, 1982.
- Ibid, page 4.
- Raymond Moody and Paul Perry, The Light Beyond, Bantam Books, 1988, p. 62, as reported by Jeffrey Long, M.D. and Paul Perry in Evidence of the Afterlife, Harper Collins, 2010, p. 25.
- Kenneth Ring and Evelyn Elsaesser Valarino, Lessons from the Light: What We Can Learn from the Near-Death Experience, Insight Books, page 65 and 66.
- Elisa Medhus, My Son and the Afterlife: Conversations from the Other Side, Atria Paperback, 2013, page xxiii.
- Roger J. Woolger, Other Lives, Other Selves: A Jungian Psychotherapist Discovers Past Lives, Doubleday, 1987, page 3.
- Pim van Lommel, M.D., “About the Continuity of Our Consciousness,” in Brain Death and Disorders of Consciousness, edited by Calixto Machado and D. Alan Shewmon, Springer, 2004, page 118.
- Simcha Jacobovici and Chales Pellegrino, The Jesus Family Tomb, Harper Collins, 2007.
- I use the term modern Christianity to distinguish the modern version from the original, as described by Rita Brock and Rebecca Parker in Saving Paradise: How Christianity Traded Love of This World for Crucifixion and Empire. The two theologians show how original Christianity, up until about the eighth century, was based on paradise in this world. “In Christianity’s second millennium the Crucifixion expelled paradise from earth.” Page 224. There are 420 pages of text, followed by 95 pages of notes; it’s a major read.