by Bruce G. Epperly
William Blake once asserted that “if the doors of perception were cleansed, everything would appear to us as it is – infinite.” Blake believed that most people live in a cavern, not unlike Plato’s myth of the cave, unaware of the heights and depths of life. They are caught up in the minutia of the ordinary and fail to see the divinity at the depths of each moment of experience. Mystics discover that experiences of immortality, or eternity in the midst of time, awaken us to the infinity of every moment and the holiness of every life.
Today, people are in search of transcendence. According to a recent Pew Research Center Report (2009), 49% ofAmericans claim to have had mystical experiences compared to 22% in 1962. For many, the door to self-transcendence comes through near death experiences. While these experiences remain to some degree ineffable, they are life-transforming in their immediacy and a challenge to one-dimensional understandings of reality. They awaken many people to the reality of a loving God, communication with spiritual beings, and a sense of connection with deceased relatives. They discover that death is real, but it is not final. While they may still fear the pain and helplessness of the dying process, they now “know” that they are in God’s hands, and to quote the Apostle Paul, they now believe that “nothing can separate them from the love of God.” (Romans 8:38-39)
While near death experiences do not definitively prove the reality or landscape of eternal life, they hold in creative tension Martin Luther’s twin affirmations, “In the midst of life, we are surrounded by death. In the midst of death, we are surrounded by life.” To those who have experienced God “on the other side,” there is now more to life than we can imagine. Death no longer has a sting or victory over us. For those who have had them, near death experiences give birth to a lay theology and spirituality that is often more convincing than the ultra-rationalistic ruminations of professional theologians and religious leaders. In the spirit of Jung, such persons no longer “believe” in God, they now claim to “know” God.
While all experiences—including near-death and mystical experiences—are fallible, perspectival, and limited, they need to be recognized as creative responses to the reality of death. They provide assurance that we are in God’s care regardless of what happens in our personal journeys. They join the living and the dead in a dynamic and interdependent reality.
Although I have never had a near death experience, I take them seriously as pastor and professor. They point us back to the “strange world of the Bible” and the faith we affirm, most of which is grounded in encounters with the divine. In the wake of Easter, we must take seriously the reality of the afterlife and the ability of persons to encounter deceased persons. Christ is risen, known by his wounds, able to communicate with his followers, and transcend certain limits of space. We can’t hold on to any one particular vision of Jesus, as our Risen Savior says to Mary of Magdala, but we can awaken to infinity in the midst of life.
Near death experiences are not escapes from reality but invitations to discover infinity in the processes of creativity, birth, amazement at the universe, as well as the hope for immortality. In fact, mystics of all kinds may be more invested in this world and its well-being than those who deny the multi-dimensional nature of reality. Those who have experienced “heaven” are inspired to make God’s “kingdom come on earth as it is in heaven.”
I am blessed as a pastor to lead a congregation in which few limits are placed on the spiritual and intellectual journey. My recent Energion book, From Here to Eternity: Preparing for the Next Adventure, emerged from a theological reflection group at our church. With no holds barred and all positions honored, people freely shared their experiences of the divine, including near death experiences and encounters with deceased relatives. I have come to believe that congregations that are open to mystical experiences are vital and growing, regardless of size. Recognizing that God is more than meets the eye and that we are more than we imagine, infinite in our mortality, such congregations are able to give people a taste of the infinite and respond creatively to the yearnings of seekers within the congregation and the larger culture.