This is an experience reported by a Particular Baptist in the American colonies during the eighteenth century. I deliver this third-hand, as it was recorded by a Baptist historian at the time, Morgan Edwards, and is reproduced by Thomas S. Kidd and Barry Hankins in the recent book Baptists in America: A History (Oxford University Press, 2015), pp. 27-28.
Philip James was a Pennsylvania native who became the first pastor of Welsh Neck Church in South Carolina in 1743. Ten years later, one of his children sickened and passed away. Overwhelmed by despair, James fell into some sort of coma. Upon his recovery, he related the following vision:
[M]y soul quitted my body [and] the resemblance of a man in black made towards me, and (frowning and chiding for wishing to die) took me up towards the sun, which filled me with fear. As I was ascending, a bright figure interposed and my black conductor was pushed off. The bright man took me by the hand and said, “We go this way,” pointing to the north. And as we ascended, I saw a company of angels and my child among them, (clothed in white and in the full stature of a man) sing with them as the company passed by us, whereupon my bright conductor said, “I am one of that company and must join them.” And as he quitted me I found myself sinking fast till I came to my body.
Kidd and Hankins make the following comment:
Edwards’s admiring account of James’s experience hints that this kind of spirit journey was acceptable among many early American Baptists, just as it was among American evangelicals more broadly.
In a previous post, I noted the phenomenon of “shared death experiences” and described a case involving early Quaker leaders in the 17th century. Now I have come across a much older narrative provided by Pope Gregory the Great. It is found in his four-volume work Dialogues, which is a collection of miracles, healings, and other extraordinary experiences reported in sixth-century Italy. Gregory writes:
While Probus, Bishop of Reate, was lying sick, a boy who was with him suddenly saw certain men clad in white robes coming to the man of God. The splendor of the vision alarmed the boy. He began to cry out, and disturbed the bishop. The latter saw and recognized the visitors, and began to comfort the boy. “Do not fear, my son, for the holy martyrs Juvenal and Eleutherius have come to me.” However, the boy ran away, and the bishop was found dead.
President Obama, being a realist politician, did not apologize for dropping the atom bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki during his recent visit to Japan. I, for one, wait for the day when Americans are strong enough and brave enough to acknowledge our own atrocities. Alas, we still mistake concession and repentance with weakness.
I have repeated this point time and again: the argument that dropping the bombs was necessary is nothing but emotionally-driven propaganda. The Japanese leadership had already begun considering options for capitulation and hoped to work through the Soviets to negotiate the end to hostilities. It was the Soviet declaration of war, followed by their swift victory over the last major Japanese army in Manchuria, that finally precipitated surrender.
Besides, I’ve never understood why an invasion of Japan would have even been necessary, apart from the Allied insistence (for what reason?) on unconditional surrender. The Japanese home islands have almost no natural resources for agricultural and industrial purposes. By August 1945, they didn’t have enough oil to run what was left of their navy and air force. A blockade would have been sufficient to contain the runt of the Japanese military and prevent resupply until the leadership chose to acquiesce, and all this without sacrificing the lives of American servicemen or Japanese civilians.
The United States has signed international agreements declaring the intentional targeting of civilians as a war crime. And a war crime is a war crime, no matter who commits it and no matter what rationale. Even if the Japanese “started it” by attacking Pearl Harbor. Or are we going to argue like 2-year-olds?
A surprise attack on a civilian population aimed at causing maximum hurt, shock, disruption, and terror: there comes to seem very little difference in principle between the RAF’s Operation Gomorrah [the fire-bombing of Hamburg], or the USAAF’s atom bomb attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and the destruction of the World Trade Center in New York by terrorists on 11 September 2001…All these terrorist attacks are atrocities, consisting in deliberate mass murder of civilians to hurt and coerce the society they belong to. To say that the principle underlying 9/11, Hamburg and Hiroshima is the same is to say that the same moral judgement applies to all three.
A.C. Grayling, Among the Dead Cities, p. 278f.
Raymond Moody is a philosopher, psychiatrist, and physician, but he is best known for creating the term “near-death experience” (NDE) and for first bringing NDEs into widespread public awareness with his bestseller book Life after Life in 1975. Moody has continued to write and lecture on the subject of NDEs and other “paranormal” subjects ever since. In 2010, with Paul Perry he wrote and published Glimpses of Eternity, which considers a seemingly related set of phenomena that he names “shared death experiences.” In these reports, loved ones or caregivers attending to a dying person describe anomalous perceptions and sensations. Some of the phenomena are distinctive: the feeling that the geometry of the room or space has “shifted” or witnessing strange mists or ethereal forms. Sometimes they correspond to classical features of NDE accounts, such as floating through a tunnel, sharing in the dying person’s life review, witnessing a brilliant light that doesn’t hurt the eyes, or even traveling into a “heavenly” realm.
The earliest recorded incidents of shared death experiences that Moody notes in Glimpses of Eternity were documented by founding members of Britain’s Society for Psychical Research in the late 19th century. But I found it quite fascinating the other day to stumble across a brief account from two centuries earlier. This one comes to us from Mary Penington, wife of the early Quaker leader Isaac Penington. Several months after Isaac had died, Mary wrote a “testimony” concerning her husband’s virtue and her love for him. It ends with this description of what she experienced upon his passing:
Ah me! He is gone! He that none exceeded in kindness, in tenderness, in love inexpressible to the relation as a wife. Next to the love of God in Christ Jesus to my soul, was his love precious and delightful to me. My bosom-one! that was as my guide and counsellor! my pleasant companion! my tender sympathizing friend! as near to the sense of my pain, sorrow, grief and trouble as it was possible. Yet this great help and benefit is gone; and I, a poor worm, a very little one to him, compassed about with many infirmities, through mercy let him go without an unadvised word of discontent, or inordinate grief. Nay, further; such was the great kindness the Lord showed to me in that hour, that my spirit ascended with him in that very moment that his spirit left his body; and I saw him safe in his own mansion, and rejoiced with him, and was at that instant gladder of it, than ever I was of enjoying him in the body. And from this sight my spirit returned again to perform my duty to his outward tabernacle, to the answer of a good conscience.
Mary Penington’s account exemplifies the motif of the visit to an otherworldly realm, and possibly an out-of-body experience as well, although her recounting is too short and vague to tell if an OBE is intended by the reference to her spirit “ascending.” Nevertheless, this is a significant confirmation concerning shared death experiences. Not, perhaps, to their metaphysical import, which is a much more difficult debate, but to their phenomenological reality. Mary Penington lived well before the emergence of spiritualism and psychical research; well before terms like “seance” and “paranormal” and “NDE” entered the lexicon. Whatever we make of them, the principle of uniformity suggests people have gone through experiences such as these well before even Mary Penington lived, and surely across the globe.
This post gives an example of potential prompting questions for a Scripture Circle conversation. For my first sacred text I have chosen not a biblical passage from my own Christian tradition, but rather a key Buddhist text: the Dhammapada. As part of the Sutta Pitaka, the Dhammapada is one of the oldest Buddhist scriptures. It is a collection of sayings that condenses the essentials of the Buddha’s teaching in easily digestible and memorable form. Not surprisingly, the Dhammapada is a widely-read classic. You can learn more about it at Access to Insight.
I have reproduced the text of Dhammapada 1:1-12 according to the translation of Max Mueller as revised by Jack Maguire for Dhammapada: Annotated & Explained (Skylight Paths Publishing: 2002). Following the categorization of Michael Novelli in Shaped by the Story (Fortress Press: 2013), I have listed the prompts as either Wondering, Interpreting, or Connecting questions. Wondering questions are queries of general imagination provoked by the text. Interpreting questions reflect directly on the meaning of the passage itself. Connecting questions invite participants to reflect on the shape of their lives through their encounter with the text.
The Dhammapada 1:1-12
1 All that we are is the result of what we have thought. It is founded on our thoughts. It is made up of our thoughts. If one speaks or acts with an evil thought, pain follows one, as the wheel follows the foot of the ox that draws the wagon.
2 All that we are is the result of what we have thought. It is founded on our thoughts. It is made up of our thoughts. If one speaks or acts with a pure thought, happiness follows one, like a shadow that never leaves.
3 “She abused me, he beat me, she defeated me, he robbed me”: In those who harbor such thoughts, hatred will never cease.
4 “She abused me, he beat me, she defeated me, he robbed me”: In those who do not harbor such thoughts, hatred will cease.
5 For never does hatred cease by hatred at any time. Hatred ceases by love. This is an eternal law [dharma].
6 Everyone in the world does not know that we must all come to end here; but those who do know, their quarrels cease at once.
7 One who lives looking for pleasures only – uncontrolled sensually, immoderate in diet, idle, and weak – this one Mara* will surely overthrow, as the wind blows down a feeble tree.
8 One who does not live looking for pleasures only – well-controlled sensually, moderate in diet, diligent, and strong – this one Mara will surely not overthrow, any more than the wind blows down a mountain of stone.
9 One who wishes to don the saffron robe** while still impure, intemperate, and untruthful is unworthy to do so.
10 One who has cleansed the mind and is endowed with temperance and truthfulness is indeed worthy to wear the saffron robe.
11 One who imagines the real as false and sees falsehood as reality never arrives at truth but follows vain desires.
12 One who knows reality as real and falsehood as false arrives at truth and follows worthy aspirations.
*Mara is a supernatural being in traditional Hindu and Buddhist cosmology who serves as a tempter. Buddhists often interpret Mara as a personification representing bondage to craving and the world of change.
** The traditional uniform of a Buddhist monk.
- Do you think it’s true that pain or suffering inevitably follows harmful words and deeds? Or that happiness comes from doing the right thing? (vv. 1-2)
- If hatred ceases by love, how do we become loving in the first place? (v. 5)
- This passage says one must become worthy before taking vows as a monk. Can or should it be the other way around? Do we become worthy of a certain spiritual community or practice, or do these things make us “worthy”? (vv. 9-10)
- What does it mean to say we are what we have thought? (vv. 1-2)
- What is it like to have a “cleansed mind”? (v. 10)
- What does this passage understand to be real and what does it understand to be false? (vv. 11-12)
- Have you adopted specific practices to focus your thoughts? How have they benefited your life? (vv. 1-2)
- When you remember your mortality, how does that affect the way you live? (v. 6)
- Have you experienced a time in your life that was dominated by the pursuit of pleasure? What was that experience like, and what have you learned from it? (v. 7)
Reality is not often, if ever, what it appears to be. As creatures that evolved to survive in this particular environment, we have passed along and received the skills that make this possible. One of those skills is filtering. We filter out most of the stimuli that surround us daily (and nightly), and that with only five senses. We don’t experience reality as it is. It is with this in mind that I read The Super Natural by Whitley Strieber and Jeffrey Kripal. Perhaps unlike many who will read this book, my attraction was based on Jeffrey Kripal’s involvement. In anticipation, late last year I read Whitley Strieber’s Communion, but I have great respect for Jeffrey Kripal’s work, and consider anything he writes well worth the reading. This book, then, is a strange hybrid between the experiencer and the open-minded analyst who brings the toolbox of religious studies to…
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[Americans and Europeans] had long been part of a culture in which religion was only a matter of words, exhortations and philosophy, rather than a matter of practical guidance for experiencing directly the truth of the teachings. – Jacob Needleman, Lost Christianity
Jacob Needleman is a well-known Jewish philosopher who, after writing about the infiltration of Eastern religions into American culture, sought to uncover a spiritual “core” of Christianity as effective practice. His concern was to ascertain how one could possibly move from reading and acknowledging the ethical instructions of Jesus to actually and effectively living them out.
My reflections arise in response to an interlocutor’s combative renunciations of the Golden Rule. Typical debates concerning Christianity focus upon whether it is, or can be, vindicated as a factual model of reality through some sort of semi-rigorous protocol, variously identified as proof, logic, or empirical testing. But the emotional hostility that may be, and has been, directed at the Christian faith stems from a more visceral response than mere disappointment that, if you will, a false sum has been added up. This particular interlocutor has expressed her desire to “destroy” a system that supposedly curtails the creativity and happiness of untold billions. Christianity, in a much-recited narrative, is not just off the mark but, in fact, dangerously and destructively so.
Assuming that this person practices what she commends, which is understanding the differences between us through sustained attention, then she surely recognizes that I do not recognize my Christian faith in these condemnations at all. From the inside, I see and have experienced how particular ways of practicing the faith can be destructive and harmful. But, from my own encounters with living saints and my own halting efforts, I also see and have experienced the remarkable capacity for transformation towards the good that has come from within this tradition. In short, I cannot fathom the apparent identification of Christianity as an intrinsically disordered human system. For my part, when my practice is more earnest I am simply a better person.
So whence comes the disconnect? A lazy apologetic holds that a certain harmful Christianity over here, or particular harmful Christians over there, are not or cannot be the genuine article. Then the secular opponent throws out the charge of the “no true Scotsman” fallacy and everyone is taken around the block once more. I’m not interested in that kind of discussion. What I’m aiming for is, I think, more subtle than that.
My interlocutor’s objection to the Golden Rule (GR) can be summed up in the second word of its very name: rule. She sees its potential abuse in the flat reading given to it as a bare command to follow. Given the spare verbiage in which the Golden Rule is presented, it screams out for context and interpretation, for a filling out of its meaning in particular situations. She suggests that a literal, simple reading of the GR ultimately reinforces self-serving aims.
One response can be to say that it’s obvious that any moral aphorism can be distorted when taken to extremes. Or one can note that interpretation is guided by the intent with which one applies the GR. To which she may respond: How do you know when you’ve hit the so-called “extreme”? How do you know the right interpretation?
And I think this hits upon the broader concern with Christianity as an allegedly dangerous force. What I see generating such reaction among secular opponents is the Christian faith as a set of rules or commands, taken “literally” (which often means, in a self-justifying way) and applied in a rather blind and ultimately destructive manner. Christianity is about “doing this” or “avoiding that” because “God said so.”
If all we are given is a set of rules (or, in the manner of the Pirate Code, guidelines) and nothing else, then perhaps they have a point. Being human, what we will do with rules is twist, bend, shape and mold them into that which fits our predilections and imaginations. This is the problem that Needleman points to: Christianity as a “matter of words.”
Why I ultimately don’t follow her critique of the GR is because I take Christianity exactly not to be a matter of words. Prescinding from the “empirical” discussion to which we so often turn, I would say that the heart of Christianity is discipline and practice. If I may word it in a way that will surely be controversial (and sound ironic, perhaps?) to its cultured despisers, I believe that practiced Christianity is a path of seeking and living out wisdom. Specifically, this is a wisdom that calls the practitioner away from self-deception and, consequently, from the harm that such self-deception inevitably imposes upon others.
This is what Needleman writes about when he describes what is “lost” as “intermediate” Christianity. What he means by the intermediate is the experience of religion between two poles. On the one hand, there is the ordinary experience of the religious vision as “high ideals” seemingly unattainable and ineffective for ordinary life. On the other hand, there is the exceptional, much-sought and much-misunderstood rapture of the mystics and visionaries who seem to achieve some sort of special insight or union with God. The real work of practiced Christianity, he writes, is in between. It is the work of coming to truly know oneself and then, from that work, living the ethical vision contained in the teaching. Needleman quotes an Egyptian monk:
Modern people do not understand that the Christian ideals to which half the world attempts to conform comprise a description of the results of a specific inner act and inner inquiry…To experience love for God or my neighbor, even for an instant, is no less a result than mystical experience. To be virtuous is a result. To have faith is a result. Similarly, wisdom and compassion are results. – Father Sylvan
|Christianity as we know it does not produce Christian results, either in the individual or in the world…[Father Sylvan] is in effect saying that the teachings of Christianity as we know them were not intended to be put into practice without what he calls elsewhere “the accumulation of the force of inner attention.”|
In other words, if Christianity is a wisdom tradition and not merely a set of instructions, then one achieves the quality of the teaching that is contained within not through a mental acknowledgment but through a sustained and honest practice (sustained, I believe, by the effulgence of divine mercy). Along the way, there will be the kinds of harmful interpretations that my interlocutor talks about, for it is the nature of wisdom to be frequently misunderstood.
Here’s one way I can sum this up: even were I to follow my secularist friends to their conclusions on empirical grounds, I do not think I could ever share their highly negative interpretations of Christianity. Were I to somehow become an atheist, I would not go around condemning the faith as delusion, as something that “ruins everything” and whatnot. And I think that has a lot to do with the understanding of Christianity that I have prized and sought to live out day by day.
I recently enjoyed listening to the audiobook version of Heirs to Forgotten Kingdoms: Journeys Into the Disappearing Religions of the Middle East (2014). This travelogue about minority traditions in a troubled region was written by Gerard Russell, an experienced diplomat in the British Foreign Service who has been posted to various embassies throughout the region. Both erudite and fluent in multiple languages, Russell visited the communities named in his book over the course of four years. He has subsequently married historical information with personal experience to produce a colorful and sympathetic anthology of marginal religious traditions. Any reader (or listener) should appreciate his insights and his respectful approach to these religions.
I found it fascinating that Russell narrates a paranormal experience in a matter-of-fact manner, without expending effort to defend or debunk what has happened to him. This encounter occurs as he is journeying into the Hindu Kush mountains along the Afghan-Pakistan border. He is on his way to meet the last surviving polytheists of the Middle East, known as the Kalasha. But before he does, he finds another representation of archaic spirituality among the nominal Muslims of the area:
I was staying at the home of a man named Hussein, and he invited me to visit the local shaman, as he called her. We walked to her house along the little footpaths of the village. “She lives right by the mountainside,” he said. “All shamans do.” In her house – traditional, built of stone, the hearth fire smoldering under a pan of almost-cooked bread – she stooped over a tray on which she had scattered a collection of pins. Hussein, a powerful local figure from a wealthy family, got a rather pointed set of predictions. “Some people in the village will dislike you; they feel that you are away too much, that you pay your community too little attention.” For me, she prayed in Arabic and declared good fortune: “You will finish your book.” I had not told anyone that I was writing one. Leaving, I asked Hussein how a person living in a house huddled under the great mountains became a shaman. He said it was a matter of spending some months up in the high peaks, where the ibex lives, eating only bread and drinking only tea. When the ibex delivered her young, the would-be shaman had to drink its milk, and then descend to the valley to test his or her new-found powers of prophecy.
“I often wondered why, by the great foreseeing wisdom of God, the onset of sin was not prevented: for then, I thought, all should have been well. was much to be avoided, but nevertheless I mourned and sorrowed because of it, without reason and discretion.
“But Jesus, who in this vision informed me of all that is needed by me, answered with these words and said: ‘It was necessary that there should be sin; but all shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well.'”
Julian of Norwich