Niedner: Do humans get a second act after life?
March 22, 2013 12:54PM
Updated: April 25, 2013 6:45AM
We’ll hear plenty of talk about miracles, devotion, death and resurrection in the next stretch of days, especially in houses of worship where Christians of the western tradition observe “holy week” and Easter. The press will continue its close watch on Francis, the new pope, as for the first time he leads the world’s Roman Catholics through their most sacred season.
The peculiarly American religious activity one reads about on the sports pages will also generate a share of pious talk. The annual rites of spring include the return of baseball, with its early-season metaphors of new life, hope and redemption. This time of year nearly everyone becomes a college basketball devotee, and for the next weeks theology and bracketology will merge into a fervor that generates countless bleacher prayers, a handful of miracle stories, and several reincarnations of David and Goliath.
Lately, the conversation about eternal life has spilled out of narrowly religious circles and gone main-stream. In an airport bookstore recently, I counted six titles that feature stories of people who “died” and were brought back, and somewhere in between visited another realm or reality.
Titles of these volumes summarize their ultimate assertions. “Heaven Is for Real,” declares the cover of a best-seller that rehearses a 3-year-old boy’s reports of meeting his great-grandfather, Jesus, John the Baptist, and even an unborn sister who perished when his mother suffered a miscarriage, all while surgeons worked to save the boy’s life after his appendix burst.
Dr. Eben Alexander, a neurosurgeon and medical school professor who lapsed into a week-long, infection-induced coma and then astonished the attending physicians who considered him brain-dead by returning to consciousness, describes the other-worldly encounters he experienced during those seven days in a best-seller titled “Proof of Heaven.” Before his own journey into the unknown, Alexander, like most of his medical colleagues, considered such experiences predictable hallucinations of oxygen-deprived brains. Now he shares his personal story as a kind of gospel. A wondrous, new world awaits us all, Alexander promises. Have no fear.
Predictably, millions have devoured these books and found new faith, or at least reinforcement for what they already believe and hope. Others, including plenty in the medical world but also philosophers and theologians, remain skeptical. If nothing else, a thorough evaluation of stories like Alexander’s requires serious clarification concerning the definition of death. Is an organism that retains the capacity to “come back” really dead? Or is death by definition a state from which one cannot return to tell a story?
And why do narratives such as these tell only of sojourns in peaceful, well-lit “places”? Is Paradise the default destination? Has no one left this world briefly and spent time in Hell, Hades, Sheol, Purgatory, Gehenna, or some other un-heavenly realm the deceased inhabit in humankind’s many myths and legends?
Someday soon we may have new answers and additional clarity about such questions. The Templeton Foundation, which supports research into matters of science and religion, recently awarded a grant of $5 million to John Martin Fischer, a California philosophy professor, who will use the funds to further research among scientists, theologians and philosophers on the subject of immortality. Can we ever have hard, scientific evidence for immortality? And if, as the ancient Greeks believed, the human soul is by nature immortal, is that a blessing or a curse?
Hope springs eternal, or so we believe. I know what kind I’ll ponder mostly deeply in the days ahead. However, like everyone else, I’ll keep at least one eye on the news and sports pages looking for rumors of angels and signals of transcendence.