I was interested enough in Larry Koler’s post here about Dr. Eben Alexander’s Near Death Experience (NDE) to buy “Proof of Heaven. It seems millions have had these experiences over the centuries, but evidently he is the first neurosurgeon to undergo the experience, or at least to write a book about it. As you advance in years, as I have now to a degree the younger me would have found little short of astonishing, interest in the subject sharpens.
The reductive materialists, a glum and irascible lot, say nothing comes next. Why can’t we get it through our stupid heads? We are obliterated, extinguished, the shop closes and the blinds are drawn. Goodbye! Atheistic scorn was an arrow Christopher Hitchens frequently put to bow. Poor Mother Teresa. The beating she took, particularly after launched on the path to sainthood, would have won the sympathy of a rented mule. Hitchens found her “a fanatic, a fundamentalist, and a fraud.” Only Henry Kissinger, the “war criminal,” drew steadier fire from Hitchens, whose nimble eloquence, as Peter Robinson hinted the other day, did not always rest comfortably on a foundation of fact. But the head of steam he got up with lashings of Black Label would put to shame a locomotive with Casey Jones in the cab.
The atheist community waxes strong these days with the success of the ACLU in banishing religion from the public square, commencement exercises and the high school football field. Yet 80 percent of Americans continue to adhere – cling, if you prefer — to a belief in Heaven. So there is still a good deal of stern work left for the godless, and Dr. Alexander’s talk about his experience does not make the lifting any easier.
Four years ago he awoke with an extremely intense headache. Within hours he was in a deep coma in which his entire cortex—the part of the brain that controls thought and emotion and makes us human—stopped working. He had contracted a rare case of E. coli bacterial meningitis – the odds against are 10 million to one for a healthy adult — that had penetrated his cerebrospinal fluid and was eating his brain. The chances of surviving were low and worsened over the next seven days. And if somehow he did he survive it would be in a permanent vegetative state. His doctor and family pondered pulling the plug.
Alexander writes that he was aware, dimly, of the surroundings. He was in a dark, moist place full of noisome odor, and it sounded like a giant blacksmith was pounding on an anvil to give a work-beat for underground troll-like beings “performing some endless, brutally monotonous task.” It was as if he had regressed “to some state of being from the beginnings of life, as far back, perhaps, as the primitive bacteria that, unbeknownst to me, had taken over my brain and shut it down.” He had no sense of time and was indifferent whether he lived or died.
Then he became aware of a light and a sound “like the most complex, most beautiful piece of music you ever heard.” He rose from the darkness into the light and to a world as wonderful as the sound. “I could heap on adjective after adjective to describe what this looked and felt like, but they’d all fall short.” Alexander returns again and again to the incommunicability of his experience. A girl riding the wings of a beautiful butterfly appeared – there were millions of others fluttering around them — and they spoke without words. Her message had three parts: “You are loved and cherished, dearly, forever. You have nothing to fear. There is nothing you can do wrong.”
It is one thing for a housewife or farmer to return from near death with a report about the portal to the afterlife, one expects no better from the uncredentialed. But for a Harvard-trained brain surgeon to let down the reductive-materialist team in this manner was a signal for the big guns to roll out, particularly in light of Alexander’s appearances on Oprah, Couric, Oz and Larry King. No less a figure than famed neurologist and author Oliver Sachs stepped up to the plate.
“The one most plausible hypothesis in Dr. Alexander’s case is that his NDE occurred not during his coma, but as he was surfacing from the coma and his cortex was returning to full function. It is curious that he does not allow this obvious and natural explanation, but instead insists on a supernatural one.” He meant the most plausiblescientifichypothesis. Alexander calls this being “still stuck in the trap of scientific skepticism.” He wrote, “My journey deep into coma, outside of this lowly physical realm and into the loftiest dwelling place of the Almighty Creator, revealed the indescribably immense chasm between our human knowledge and the awe-inspiring realm of God.”
In fairness to Sachs, he leaves the door open a crack. He wrote, “Not infrequently, an OBE (Out of Body Experience) turns into an NDE — as happened with Tony Cicoria, a surgeon who told me how he had been struck by lightning. He gave me a vivid account of what then followed, as I wrote inMusicophilia: ‘I was flying forwards. Bewildered. I looked around. I saw my own body on the ground. I said to myself, ‘Oh shit, I’m dead.’ I saw people converging on the body. I saw a woman — she had been standing waiting to use the phone right behind me — position herself over my body, give it CPR. . . . I floated up the stairs — my consciousness came with me. I saw my kids, had the realization that they would be okay. Then I was surrounded by a bluish-white light . . . an enormous feeling of well-being and peace. The highest and lowest points of my life raced by me . . . pure thought, pure ecstasy. I had the perception of accelerating, being drawn up . . . there was speed and direction. Then, as I was saying to myself, ‘This is the most glorious feeling I have ever had’ — SLAM! I was back.’
“Dr. Cicoria had some memory problems for a month or so after this, but he was able to resume his practice as an orthopedic surgeon. Yet he was, as he put it, ‘a changed man.’ Previously he had no particular interest in music, but now he was seized by an overwhelming desire to listen to classical music, especially Chopin. He bought a piano and started to play obsessively and to compose. He was convinced that the entire episode — being struck by lightning, having a transcendent vision, then being resuscitated and gifted so that he could bring music to the world, was part of a divine plan. Cicoria has a Ph.D. in neuroscience, and he also felt that his sudden accession of spirituality and musicality must have gone with changes in his brain — changes which we might be able to clarify, perhaps, with neuroimaging. He saw no contradiction between religion and neurology — if God works on a man, or in a man, Cicoria felt, He would do so via the nervous system, via parts of the brain specialized, or potentially specializable, for spiritual feeling and belief.”
Alexander, who said he was only a nominal Christian before the experience and now strikes a rather New Agey note, has also gotten some heat of the hellfire kind. Erin Benziger of the Christian Research Network wrote, “Christians must be mindful not to be swept away in the glimmer and glitz of yet another story of one man’s purported excursion to ‘heaven.’ Rather, believers must remain in the Word and on their knees in prayer, that God would protect them from such deception, and expose such tales for what they are—lies spewed from the depths of Hell.”
With the atheists on one side and the fundamentalist Christians on the other, you might say Alexander is parked in the sweet spot. He believes he has an obligation to spread his message about the hereafter that awaits us and the audience for that is large. Koler said a thousand people showed up in Seattle and paid $35 to hear him talk. He’s in it for the money, the atheists say. The fundamentalists might not agree with them on many things, but that is probably one that they do.