The Near-Death Cult
BY NICHOLAS LEMANN
OTHERWORLD JOURNEYS: Accounts of Near-Death Experience in Medieval and Modern Times by Oxford University Press, $17.95..
WHILE STANDING IN line at the supermarket, have you ever found your eye drawn to a headline in the National Enquirer along the lines of “LIFE AFTER DEATH: TOP WORLD EXPERT REVEALS STARTLING NEW EVIDENCE”? Somehow, it’s impossible to regard such a teaser with the same detachment as you would, say, “GIANT 675POUND, 16-FOOT CATFISH EATS PEOPLE ALIVE.” Nobody, no matter how rarefied, is totally devoid of interest in what might happen after the lights go out. The stories beneath those headlines usually refer to the work of a group of researchers in “near-death studies,” a held that dates from the publication, in 1975, of Life After Life, by Raymond A. Moody, Jr. Moody, a psychiatrist with a Ph.D. in philosophy—that is, a serious, trained researcher, not a crank—interviewed 150 people who had had a close brush with death or had briefly been clinically dead, and constructed a paradigm of their experiences. After listening to his doctor pronounce him dead, the paradigmatic Moody interviewee heard loud noises and felt as though he were moving through a tunnel. Suddenly he found himself looking at his inert body from a short distance away. Moving farther away, he encountered old friends, relatives, and a shimmery spirit who showed him “a panoramic, instantaneous playback of the major events of his life.”
Other books in the same vein followed Moody’s, notably Michael B. Sabom’s Recollections of Death, for which all the subjects were picked blind from a hospital’s medical records, and Kenneth Ring’s Life at Death. In 1978 Ring, Sabom, Moody, and other researchers in the field founded the International Association for Near-Death Studies, which publishes a scholarly journal called Anabiosis. Their work amounts to a challenge, from within the modern secular intellectual tradition, to the idea that nothing happens after death—that it’s simply the cessation of existence.
Carol Zaleski, who holds a Harvard Ph.D. in the study of religion, was struck by the parallels between the contemporary outpouring of near-death literature and a body of work that came out of monasteries in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, a period when accounts of life after death were also unusually popular. Her mission in Otherworld Journeys is to compare the two, with the idea of figuring out the deep cultural yearnings that they express.
Probably in eight hundred years the modern accounts will seem as quaint and stylized as the medieval ones do now. In European Christian afterlife narratives a common person would be plucked from obscurity and treated to a trip to the other world. After a wrenching separation from his body he would meet a light-emanating authoritarian guide, who would show him that there is a clear parting of the ways after death, between heaven and hell. The guide would review the events of the temporarily dead person’s life, weighing up the sins to determine where he would be permanently assigned. When he returned to earth, the person would renounce worldly things and retreat to a monastery. Much later he would tell his story to a trained theologian, who, after careful editing, would make it public.
Some elements of the story haven’t changed. The dying person is still ordinary, not an expert—not having a career interest in selling a particular version of the afterlife weighs in favor of the idea that he’s telling the truth. There is still a separation of body and soul, followed by an encounter with a being of light and a life review. But the tone of the experience is completely different now. The medieval afterlife was stern and forbidding, even for those destined for heaven. Thurkill, a poor Essex farmer whose account of the glimpse of the beyond he received in 1206 is fairly typical, encountered a corridor of fire, an icy salt lake, and piercing stakes and thorns. And this was just in the early going.
The flavor of the modern accounts comes through in a passage that Zaleski quotes from Prophetic Voices, a television program in which Kenneth Ring interviews survivors of near-death. A woman named Vita Ventra tells Ring.
“Death is a beginning, Ken, it’s beautiful. There’s a light, it’s love, it’s the most beautiful ... if you really love somebody, you’ve got to be happy for where they’re going. It’s an adventure and they’re not alone. You see, we’re afraid of somebody being alone. But they’re not alone. . . . It’s just as though you’re being held in a cradle of love, and just being carried to the most beautiful, magical story God could ever create.”
The message to the living contained in the medieval version of death was to be good—to hew closely to the order established by the Church. There had to be a heaven, because the world didn’t seem reliably to provide a pleasant existence to the virtuous, and there had to be a hell to keep people bound to Christianity. The message to the living contained in today’s near-death studies is to be happy. Good isn’t so important, because in today’s afterlife there is no Judgment and no hell. Any mistakes turned up in the life review cause a wistful shrug, not eternal damnation. The being of light has become a pal, not a boss. The return to life is accompanied by a resolve not to repent but to enjoy oneself, albeit in a New Age, non-hedonistic way.
Most near-death researchers say that their work is flowering now because of medical advances that have greatly expanded the population of back-fromthe-dead people. But Zaleski says it’s because we’re in one of those recurring periods “when the way society pictures itself and its surrounding universe is so changed as to threaten to dislocate the human being”; we need “to survey and reappraise the imagined cosmos.” She doesn’t blame geopolitical events (such as the development of nuclear weapons) for the uncertainty of the age. It’s more the fault of modern liberal religion, which has retreated from providing the kind of spiritual guidance that people need. Present-day theology doesn’t want to dirty its hands with literal, practical belief and instruction, and the neardeath movement is one of several secular ways that people have found to restore a sense of life’s meaning, something they ought to be getting in church.
The pleasantness of death in the neardeath literature is a sign of the strength of the modern conviction that most people are good and should be spared pain, and of the Church’s retreat from promoting a terrifying view of the afterlife as a way of keeping people in line.
Another possibility, of course, is the one that draws your attention to the National Enquirer, that today’s near-death accounts are literally true. There is a spirited debate on this subject between the leaders of the near-death-studies movement and those of a spinoff movement devoted to near-death debunking, which explains away the new visions of the afterlife by saying that a mystical sense of peace at moments of extreme danger is an adaptive mechanism that helps people to survive. Early in Otherworld Journeys, Zaleski promises, tantalizingly, that she will “attempt to mediate between the near-death researchers and the critics who are determined to debunk their work”—in other words, as I hopefully read it, that she’ll reveal who’s right about life after death. She does parry the objections of the debunkers in an evenhanded, respectful, meticulously rational way. But in the payoff chapter at the end, called “Evaluating Near-Death Testimony,” she retreats to the comfortable higher ground of seeing near-death studies as important not for their truth or falsity but for their “imaginative and symbolic character.”
Thanks a lot.