Elusive Proof of an Afterlife
In her book Kitchen Table Wisdom, Rachel Naomi Remen offers this story:
For the last ten years of his life, Tim’s father had Alzheimer’s disease. Despite the devoted care of Tim’s mother, he had slowly deteriorated until he had become a sort of walking vegetable. He was unable to speak and was fed, clothed, and cared for as if he were a very young child. As Tim and his brother grew [into adolescence], they would stay with their father for brief periods of time while their mother took care of the needs of the household. One Sunday, while she was out shopping, the boys, then fifteen and seventeen, watched football as their father sat nearby in a chair. Suddenly, he slumped forward and fell to the floor. Both sons realized immediately that something was terribly wrong. His color was grey and his breath uneven and rasping. Frightened, Tim’s older brother told him to call 911. Before he could respond, a voice he had not heard in ten years, a voice he could barely remember, interrupted. “Don’t call 911, son. Tell your mother that I love her. Tell her that I am all right.” And Tim’s father died.
Tim, a cardiologist, looked around the room at the group of doctors mesmerized by this story. “Because he died unexpectedly at home, the law required that we have an autopsy,” he told us quietly. “My father’s brain was almost entirely destroyed by this disease. For many years, I have asked myself ‘Who spoke?’ I have never found even the slightest help from any medical textbook. I am no closer to knowing this now than I was then, but carrying this question with me reminds me of something important, something I do not want to forget. Much of life can never be explained but only witnessed.”
(“The Question” ,p300)
Last year during the Question Box sermon at the end of May, you asked me about this sort of thing a few times. “If we think with our minds, feel with our hearts, what do we do with our souls or spirits?” “What is meant by ‘the soul’?” “What do you believe happens to the soul after death?” And then, one more that held a slightly different focus, “Is there a UU version of Heaven and the afterlife?”
I would have to go back to the video tape from that Question Box Sunday to tell you exactly how I responded, but I recall talking about how there is not a unanimous or even majority opinion about the afterlife among Unitarian Universalists today. Perhaps I spoke about pastoral answers rather than theological answers. I am sure I shared my own conviction that we return to that from which we arose; that in the universe as a whole, I believe, recycling is the rule: our biological/physical components return to the good Earth and the energy of our being returns to be used again in another form. I was cautiously doubtful about anything of a persons ‘personality’ surviving death, and still am – yet there is much I am cautiously doubtful about. There are far too many experiences I have been through and have been told about by people I trust to completely discount the possibility that there is something more going on that what fits in my nicely neat philosophy and science. I have been told many compelling stories of connections, healings, and encounters.
A friend tells the story of feeling her grandfather tucking her into bed one night and saying goodnight, when in fact he had died earlier that evening several states away. What is really going on? I don’t doubt my friend’s experience, only her interpretation of it. Did her grandfather’s spirit visit her on its way out, if you will? Was it instead a dream with dramatic, maybe over-dramatic, timing? Was it actually her father tucking her into bed while she was already half asleep which she later in her memory transformed into the face and voice of her grandfather? If it was just a dream, was it therefore not real? Most people don’t have much wiggle room in their convictions to consider different possibilities. Most of us pick one explanation and stick to it, and since each explanation is just as un-provable as the next, we can just smile to each other and go on our separate ways, which we’re allowed to do here.
The person sitting next to you may believe very strongly that when we die we go to heaven and meet up with loved ones who have gone before us. Or that at death we can know and understand life, the universe and everything. Or that after we die nothing further happens. Of course, some here believe in reincarnation and others believe in spirits or ghosts that continue to move among the living and can be perceived and even communicated with by some of us. Then there are perhaps a goodly number among us who don’t give it much thought at all.
A book came out a year or two ago from Skinner House Books, which is the small in-house publishing company we have alongside the bigger Beacon Press. The book, by John Buescher, is titled The Other Side of Salvation: Spiritualism and the Nineteenth-Century Religious Experience. It is a documentary history of a movement focused around the idea that we could correspond with the dead. The implications and consequences of Spiritualism were almost unimaginable – especially for religion.
The Spiritualist movement is said to have blossomed in 1848 when the Fox sisters gained notoriety in the Rochester NY area for the rappings of a “haunt” that went beyond just noises and unexplained sounds: the “haunt” would answer questions with the rapping. A few years earlier the Electric telegraph had demonstrated to the general public that common sense rules about time and distance could be transcended in certain situations, such as sending a series of dot and dash sounds along a line. Couldn’t it be possible the rapping at the Fox sister’s farm house was something of a spiritual telegraph connection from the afterlife?
Suddenly we could approach what is perhaps the most critical question for religion, a question that before was altogether unapproachable but through conjecture: What happens after death. The first implication, of course, is that something happens, rather than nothing! Liberal religions were most open to the possibility and of them Universalism was most effected by the ideas.
Universalism has always carried the optimism and openness of liberal religion and a central doctrine clearly in the sphere of the afterlife: that all souls would be united in heaven. Demographically, people struggling in the lower and middle classes were drawn to Universalism. But Universalism was a modern religion as well; personal experience was tempered by reason. The efforts of science to understand the world were welcomed. Spiritualism was seen as an opening to explore, even in a scientific manner, the verity of the central tenet of the Universalist faith.
In the introduction of the book Buescher writes:
People from every denomination and from no denomination (and even those who were explicitly antireligious) became spiritualist. Universalist, however, were quite disproportionately drawn to this belief, and no denomination lost more of its leaders to it. Universalists and non-Universalists alike noticed this at the time, as have a few modern historians of spiritualism. But historians of Universalism have generally ignored it. (p viii)
Why? Perhaps embarrassment, I don’t know. As a scientific effort, Spiritualism proved to be inconsistent and open to manipulation. As a movement it tended toward disorganization. The Spiritualist movement was very individualistic, with no significant or lasting efforts toward institutions and communities of Spiritualists. Thus, individual clergy and lay people could have Spiritualist connections and practices and still have the Universalist church as their primary group for religious association. There were a few attempts at the institutional level to avoid any close tie or connection with Spiritualism on the part of Universalism. Spiritualism continues today as individuals continue to have experiences.
But for all that, many Universalists were prominent figures in the movement. The minister from the First Universalist Society of Rochester, NY was on of the few clergy supporters of the Fox sisters. Rev. Charles Hammond went on to write a book, under the influence of a spirit. The spirit turned out to be the great atheist Thomas Paine and was a narrative pilgrimage of Paine’s soul as he learned more and evolved higher beliefs after death, such as that of the eternal soul which could communicate with the living.
Another Universalist preacher, reformer, and founder of the utopian society in Hopedale, MA, Adin Ballou, also channeled spirits. Ballou, however did not channel to write a book, he lead Sabbath services that were directed by the spirits such as Benjamin Franklin and Ballou’s own son who had died young while training to become a minister.
I have on occasion, after completing a sermon, looked back at what I’d written and said, “Wow, who wrote that! That’s really quite good.” And I don’t intend it to sound arrogant, but neither do I intend to imply that I think I am channeling someone else’s words. At least, such was my assumption prior to really considering this book. What is the source of inspiration? I tend to think of my sermon writing as opening myself up to the text, to life, to the ideas and reflecting these things back in a somewhat organized fashion. But, then, what does that prove?
I searched through the book to find references of the Binghamton Universalist Congregation but found little to nothing. I am not sure if I am relieved or disappointed on that count.
The other book I’ve been reading, Spook: Science Tackles the Afterlife by Mary Roach, is a very entertaining book. The Other Side of Salvation is informative and very interesting but a bit dry. The author of Spook, on the other hand, has a very witty and engaging style. She travels to India to talk with scientists researching reports of reincarnation, to Duke University to discuss the theory and practice of weighing or otherwise measuring the soul, to Ontario to sit inside an electromagnetic haunt-box. Apparently there is a connection between electromagnetic fields and the frequency of reported ghost sightings. Of course, scientifically that begs the question of cause and effect. Does sitting in a specially designed electromagnetic haunt-box create hallucinations in the brain, thus causing people to experience “ghosts;” or does it simply heighten your ability to perceive what really is there? What does it prove, really?
Most people are comforted be proof. Even for a radical belief about every soul reuniting together in happiness and holiness with God in the heaven, a little proof is a comforting thing. The upshot of Mary Roach’s book is that the evidence suggests something but not any one thing strongly. People do find an otherwise unaccountable fluctuation of weight at the exact moment of death: a loss of 21 grams; but not every time, not even most times. (Alright, it only happened one time. The other five times from that specific study other measurements were found, even weight gain! But Hollywood liked the sound of “21 grams” and featured that number specifically.) People do report remarkably accurate accounts of what transpires from outside their bodies while doctors and nurses try to revive them, down to the shoes the medical staff wore and the tools they used and how; but not every time, not even most times. It is inconsistent. Science can’t replicate situations for study. But that does not mean it isn’t real.
I don’t know how many of you are familiar with the little book flatland written in 1884. Mathematicians and computer scientists still love this little book by Edwin Abbott. In it, the characters are all two-dimensional shapes: Square, Circle, Triangle and so on. Suddenly one of them meets a stranger, a three-dimensional shape: Sphere! Square and Circle’s experience of sphere is limited the two dimensions they live in. All they know is height and width. But depending on where Sphere is, Sphere looks like Circle but bigger, or smaller, or as even just a pinpoint until nothing! How do they explain it to each other? They try to use all the words and concepts they have yet nothing they say is quite right.
Well, this is the sort of thing we are dealing with when talking about an afterlife. The only way to really prove it is to experience it. And our experience of it is necessarily limited by our language, our concepts, and our experiences. How can we experience the afterlife until we are dead? Even the near-death experiences may not be anything like really dying. A near-death experience is like having a layover in the Paris airport and thinking you’ve seen France. You’ve had a near-France experience, but you haven’t really experienced France! You don’t know France!
I don’t know, all I am left with is more questions. It is a mystery. In the end there is not much more I can add. People have experiences that don’t fit the common philosophy and science as currently accepted. The history of charlatans and sham artists does not negate the possibility that what you think you have been through yourself may really be what you think it is! I don’t know. I’m left with more questions. It is a mystery. My assumptions certainly have popped out now and then over the past few minutes this morning, but I try to stay open so far as truth and experience are concerned.
By ghosts, gods, or we know not yet what, odd things continue to happen the do not fit within our scheme of how things work. Believe as you will, assume what you assume, try to stay open to possibilities. Remember there is so much more than can be explained or understood and we miss something important when we over-focus on trying to explain things we don’t understand. We miss that sometimes we are simply called to witness
In a world without end,
May it be so