JOPLIN, Mo. —
We often think of near-death experiences simply as incidents. Wartime stories are full of such harrowing experiences. An automobile accident or an unexpected heart attack can leave us on the edge of immortality. Lives are sometimes altered by such moments.
Death is a powerful force. I respond to these stories instinctively, without forethought.
On the other hand, we also hear of near-death experiences that focus on the spiritual. We hear of a brilliant light that doesn't bother the eye.
Occasionally, deceased family members are said to be present. A hovering sensation may be described, as one is air-lifted just enough to look down upon an operating table or a death bed.
My response to these stories is guarded and calculated, with much deliberation.
When asked for my thoughts regarding near-death experiences, I simply respond that I don't know. As I ponder the subject again, that pretty much sums it up for me.
I don't know.
I'm not able to relate to near-death experiences, because there are no facts -- only someone's else testimony.
What I do know is that I am committed to maintaining an open mind.
I learned of the consequences of close-mindedness from the friends of Job in the Old Testament. I hope never to make their mistake.
I also know that I do not seek proof about God and the things of God. Much of what is said by those who have had near-death experiences is offered as proof of heaven and life after death. I am not looking for, nor do I desire, proof. My personal belief is that we know God through faith and faith only.
My struggle with near-death experiences stems from my limited understanding of the brain, based upon what we humans know and what we don't yet know. I understand that our brain can generate illusionary images, as is portrayed in the book and movie, "A Beautiful Mind."
But there is much about the brain we do not yet understand. Although I am optimistic that research will open new avenues of knowledge, as of now, there is so much we do not understand.
Until we develop those avenues, my thinking about these near-death experiences is that most of what is being described are matters of the brain and not the spirit. In order to keep an open mind, I will consider these stories, seek understanding and then store them in a mental file designated as, "awaiting further information."
Perhaps the experience of Dr. Been Alexander will lead to some new understanding. He is a neurosurgeon who claims to have recently had a near-death experience.
Prior to this, he was an avowed agnostic. In his talks and writing, he explains that his near-death experience should not have happened because the entire neocortex of his brain (the outer surface of the brain -- the part that makes us human) was entirely inoperative. His opinion is that his experience occurred outside the realm of the brain.
As might be expected, neurosurgeons are divided over this issue. Some says it's impossible to have this kind of experience if the neocortex is shut down, while others accept this possibility. And so it goes.
So, what are we to make of all this? I will remember the words of Ralph Waldo Emerson: "All I have seen teaches me to trust the creator for all I have not seen."
Craig Tally is the senior minister of First Community Church in Joplin. His column appears bi-weekly. He can be reached at email@example.com.