There have been many tales of people who have experienced the life beyond death and returned to describe it, but none has impressed me as much as this one. The reason it impresses me is that the subject of the experience, unlike most other cases, was a hard-headed, fairly agnostic and highly intelligent scientist … a neurosurgeon, no less! If anyone should be able to tell a purely physiological phenomenon from a genuine supernatural experience, you would think it would be someone like Dr Eben Alexander.
A near death experience is one where a patient is clinically dead for a period of time and is then resuscitated. Such patients often recall strange experiences during the time they were unconscious; some of them pleasant, some of them deeply distressing. A variety of natural explanations have been put forward for this very real phenomenon, such as the effects of a lack of oxygen in the brain. Others have pointed to the possibility of producing strange experiences using the general anaesthetic ketamine as suggesting a similar natural process underlying near death experiences.
Which is why the story Dr Alexander tells is particularly pertinent. He contracted E. coli meningitis, a bacterial infection of the lining around the brain that seriously imperilled his life and flung him into a coma for seven days. During that time, numerous scans of his brain and its function were conducted, and showed that his brain was not just impaired, but genuinely non-functional. What this means is that his vivid experiences are unlikely to have been produced by a lack of oxygen or damage to neuronal circuits causing the brain cells to misfire and produce hallucination, or any other natural process. To put it bluntly: a brain can’t hallucinate when it has stopped working altogether.
I have been interested in near death experiences for decades now, ever since reading Beyond Death’s Door by Dr Maurice Rawlings back in the eighties. His description of a patient who could recall the details of a neck tie worn by a staff member who came into his hospital room after he had clinically died and left before he had recovered consciousness struck me as being pretty good evidence for the reality of such experiences. Another striking tale I came across on the net was that of a Russian priest (from memory) who had a near death experience in a hospital during which he wafted out of his body and came across an infant in another bed who wordlessly told him that his hip hurt. Upon waking and describing the infant and his location to doctors, it turned out that the infant had been in hospital for weeks crying constantly with pain but without a diagnosis. When they examined his hip, they found that was where the problem was. This kind of knowledge, inaccessible to the patient, discounts the possibility of any natural explanation.
So I was fascinated when I heard of an experiment to be conducted by Professor Bruce Greyson at the University of Virginia that planned to test out the reality of near death experiences. His plan was as elegant as it was simple. Continue reading “Near Death Experiences”
“There have been men before now who got so interested in proving the existence of God that they came to care nothing for God Himself … as if the good Lord had nothing to do but exist! There have been some who were so occupied in spreading Christianity that they never gave a thought to Christ. Man! Ye see it in small matters. Did ye never know a lover of books that with all his first editions and signed copies has lost the power to read them? Or an organiser of charities that had lost all love for the poor? It is the subtlest of all the snares.”
CS Lewis. The Great Divorce.
We live in an age of knowledge and of great power, and the individual citizen today can do things that the most powerful of heads of state could only dream of fifty years ago. This power brings with it opportunities unimagined, but also a raft of new temptations, or rather old temptations adapted to new situations (is there ever anything new under the sun?)
Today, I can sit in my living room and order a rare book from London or read a paper written by a scholar in Zurich at the click of a button. I have access to a marketplace of ideas that is so huge its very size smothers me if I stop to think about it. For the curious mind, this is intoxicating! How easy to lose oneself in an ocean of stimulating knowledge and new ideas! How wonderful to acquire new understanding, to see old things in new ways, to penetrate the depths of ignorance and shine the light of comprehension upon their previously dark treasures!
Apologetics is a marvellous revelation for those whose mind is so inclined. We drink the heady mead of rationality and find that the logic of this world points to its Creator! How wonderful! How sweet! And yet, apologetics is only medicine for the doubting soul; and no one can live on medicine alone. One needs heavenly bread and living water. Apologetics points the way, it heals the wounds of confusion, but then it is time for the daily bread of communion with the existent to carry out the process of nourishment.
Service in the house of the Lord is honourable and fulfilling. It provides the servant with a deep sense of belonging and achievement, whatever the nature of that service may be. I am doing something good for the Lord! Yet it is so easy for that “for the Lord” to turn quietly into “for me”. The very satisfaction and fulfillment one derives from service can become in itself an end, usurping its proper role as a means for the crucifixion of the ego and the losing of the self in the ocean of love that is God. And soon, God Himself is forgotten.
Australian philosopher Damon Young recently published an opinion piece on the ABC website headed “Prayer is delusional but its power can be real”. In it, he attacks people of all religions who use prayer to take vengeance on their enemies and points to the failure of medical studies to prove that intercessory prayer changes health outcomes, other than calming the person doing the praying and producing effects like reduced blood pressure in that person.
While some of those who commented on the piece charge him with being anti-religion, I find myself agreeing with most of what he says, but probably for very different reasons.
Of course there are numerous Bible verses about asking for things from God, but these need to be read and interpreted in the context of the overall Gospel message. In Old Testament times, people had not yet experienced the fullness of the love of God as expressed in the Incarnation of the Logos in Jesus, so they had some reason to be anxious about their lives. Not so for us Christians! The Incarnation, the Crucifixion and the Resurrection should mean that we can never doubt the extent to which the love of God will stretch to take care of us (if one ever could really doubt that any way).
So the Christian message about the relationship between God the Provider and our personal needs is this: “Do not worry” (Matthew 6:31). Christ came to teach us divine, aghape love, to make that love the overriding principle of our lives, to make us “beings of love”. And divine love cares not for its own first, but for others. Love draws us out of our selves and transforms us into little images of the God of Love Himself. I cannot emphasise enough how central this transformation is to the Gospel message.
As the Coptic Church has spread into the Diaspora of Western nations it has experienced an ever growing interaction with non-Copts. The sheer breadth of this interaction is rarely appreciated by Copts I think. To list just a few situations:
Employees and clients in Coptic organisations like Child Care Centres, Vacation Care Centres, Coptic Schools, Aged Care Facilities and the Theological Colleges.
Interested visitors to Coptic monasteries.
Marriages of Copts to non-Copts, or rather to converts to Coptic Orthodoxy.
Dialogues with other Churches and religions through organisations like the World Council of Churches and its branches and Interfaith events.
Participation in Government sponsored initiatives as well as those organised by civil society to deal with various pressing social issues.
Coptic sporting teams participating in local competitions.
Copts who run for political office.
Missionary and outreach services.
Services for the homeless and those in prison.
Apologetics dialogues with non-believers.
Kimi radio program and the Coptic satellite TV channels.
Visitors to Coptic websites of all kinds.
FOCUS – university campus societies.
Copts who volunteer to teach religion in public schools.
Interest from the media following the many massacres of Copts in Egypt and regarding the future of Christians in the Egypt of the Arab Spring.
All of these of course are in addition to the many thousands of commonplace interactions that take place daily in schools, tertiary institutions, workplaces and over the back fence with the neighbours.
In majority Muslim Egypt, there has often been strife, but relatively little actual theological debate or dialogue between the two Abrahamic faiths. One of the rare records of such debates Continue reading “Facing the World…”
There’s been a lot of discussion lately around a video by evangelist Jefferson Bethke that has gone viral called “Why I Hate Religion But Love Jesus”. You can see the video and read an excellent critique of it by an Eastern Orthodox priest here. There is not much left to be said on the topic, but of course, I must have my two cents’ worth!
As is the case with so many debates, problems arise because the words are not defined clearly. What does ‘religion‘ actually mean? What is it that this bloke hates, exactly? Anyone who loves Jesus is bound to also love ‘true religion’, a phrase used by St James in his epistle (1:26,27). He points out the difference between religion properly practiced and religion abused. I think what the bloke in the video is rebelling against is religion abused, but he just calls it ‘religion’, hence the controversy, since people think he is using ‘religion’ in the more general sense of the word, thus hating both true and abused religion together. Of course, that controversy is probably exactly what he was aiming at. What better way for an evangelist to get his message heard by millions?
The abuse of religiion is nothing new. It happened in the Jewish faith at the time of Christ, it happened in the early Christian Church in the time of the Apostles, and, surprise, surprise, it happens today. I fully join with Bethke in rejecting the abuse of religion.
Actually, there are more, but overall, they can be grouped under two general categories: true ways and false ways. Here are just a few false ways:
If I fast for three days, I will force God to give me that job … if I run into five red traffic lights in a row, God is telling me not to buy that used car … the examples are endless.
And when, pray tell, did God agree to be our personal wizard? Can you see the similarity between this kind of thinking and casting magic spells? Is that really what Christ was all about? Oh, you will answer, but didn’t He promise that if we ask we shall receive? Yes, but is this the kind of asking He was talking about? What if two pious supporters of opposing football teams both ask God to give their team a win? How can God answer them both? (A draw is answering neither).
No, this promise cannot be understood as casting God as some kind of supernatural vending machine in our lives: put your prayer in the slot at the top, press the button, and out comes the fizzy answer at the bottom. We feel wronged when a vending machine swallows our money but doesn’t give us our product – is that how we should think of God? That would be degrading God to the level of our menial servant and it is not how a loving relationship works. A loving relationship is about uniting in spirit and thought and desire. It is about trust. It is about freely choosing to conform our limited will to His infinitely wise and loving will. And most of all, it is about loving the Beloved for His own sake, and not for what He can give me, or what I can benefit selfishly from Him. When we ask for things from God within this framework, it works beautifully.
There is a powerful pressure on us to create God in our own image. Rather than letting the Real God be who He is, we create a kind of false God in our minds, and expect Him to always act the way we think He should. This is the kind of thinking that leads judgmental Christians to see the punishing hand of an angry God in tsunamis that kill thousands, or read God’s approval of me into the fact that I am more materially successful than my neighbour. It makes Christians adamant that God is a Republican or a Democrat. Or even that God is Catholic or Protestant, or Coptic Orthodox. Continue reading “Worship in Spirit and Truth”
As Xmas approaches, I present a really interesting guest blog from a member of Aletheia Coptic Apologetics Group. So few people today realise the incredible debt we owe to Christianity. Going on the words below, society today would be unimaginable had not that very special Baby been born two thousand years ago. Enjoy…
As often happens when one walks the streets of the Sydney CBD, I was once approached by a homeless woman who asked me for some money. In the conversation that followed, she commented on how irritated she was at the way city-goers would routinely snub her off and ignore her completely; “I mean,” she said, “I’m as human as everyone else.” I agreed with her of course. Who would deny as obvious a fact as that? Even those people who snubbed her and provoked the comment no doubt understood that although this woman was homeless, and lay considerably lower on whatever scale of social respectability we use to categorise ourselves nowadays, she was still as human as the richest person in Sydney. Her status as a member of the human race meant that she had a sort of inalienable value; she deserved exactly the same sort of basic respect and dignity as the richest and most successful members of our society, purely because she was a human being.
This might sound like a fact so obvious that it doesn’t really need to be said. All of us know perfectly well that a person’s social station does not reflect their value; we all understand that wealth and poverty, health and sickness don’t necessarily reflect any particular virtue or flaw in a person’s character, and that even if they did, we would be no less obliged to help any of our fellow human beings in need. How could we think otherwise? Isn’t that what it means to be human? In “Atheist Delusions: The Christian Revolution and Its Fashionable Enemies”, the Orthodox theologian and philosopher David Bentley Hart argues that if it weren’t for Christianity and its revolutionary re-imagining of what it means to be a human being, none of us might think that way at all. In the book’s introduction he says
“At a particular moment in history, I believe, something happened to Western humanity that changed it at the deepest levels of consciousness and at the highest levels of culture.”
Living as we do, at the end of 2000 years of Christian history, in a culture that has been irrevocably shaped by the Christian view of the world, it is hard for us to appreciate just how revolutionary Christianity was when it first stepped onto the stage of history. Continue reading “Christianity Changed the World”
Diogenes was disturbed. It wasn’t really because he had lost his wares. It was frustrating to know that his carefully crafted ornaments were floating down the river for anyone to pick up, but that was not what disturbed him mostly now. It was not even the fact that he was wet and cold from having capsized as he crossed the river, nor even really because he had nearly drowned. No it was not the nearly drowning that disturbed him so much as the questions that nearly drowning had forced into his mind.
“If I had drowned, what difference would it have made?”
“Hello Diogenes,” a cheerful friendly voice hailed.
“Oh, it’s you Socrates.”
“Why so glum, then my friend? And why so damp? Have you been swimming in your clothes like an absent minded philosopher?”
“This is no time for jokes Socrates. I almost drowned. But that’s not the worst of it. My life has no meaning!”
“Oh, surely you are being too dramatic? Will you add the skills of the player to those of the philosopher?”
“What does my life amount to? What have I achieved? What mark shall I leave upon this world?”
“But surely, you are a master craftsman? Have you not created many a work of beauty and significance?”
“Bah, Socrates. In a few hundred years all my works will be dust or buried in the ground or forgotten in some dark corner. What difference does that make?”
“Ah, let us play this game then my friend. But surely you have made a good living from your craft, have you not? That is something to be proud of.”
Many atheists feel uncomfortable because the Christians they talk to seem to be very subjective about their faith. It doesn’t feel like someone searching for the truth, but someone out to make a case. The difference is important. It’s like the difference between a doctor searching for the cure to a disease and a lawyer defending his client. The doctor has to pay attention to reality: this is not something you can fudge, for people’s lives are at stake. But the lawyer’s job is to advocate for his client; whether the client is really guilty or innocent is irrelevant and the lawyer just has to make the most convincing case he possibly can.
So which of these two models best fits how a person should approach their faith? I think that there is room for both.
I believe one should start with, and always maintain as the default approach, the medical research strategy. Truth, for Truth’s sake, above all else. This is never easy.
For one thing, it is dangerous. What if the truth turns out different to what you have believed and cherished all your life? Given the growing sense of cynicism and scepticism in our world today, what if you woke up one day to find that God, Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny all belong to the same club? What would happen to your life if it were so? What of all those structures in your life, the friendships, the habits of thought and behaviour, the principles and ideals that lend your life meaning and purpose? There is a lot at stake!
For another thing, we are not built for objectivity first and foremost. We are hardwired for all kinds of bias; there is a whole literature out there on this endearing little trait of ours. Bias encourages us to love our families and our friends, to prefer safe foods to poisons, and make more effective use of our time, among many things. It allows us to deal with the bewildering inflow of information that batters our senses every day by filtering out what is unimportant to us and focussing on what is important.
But when it comes to discussing your faith with someone who thinks differently, bias kicks in to make you ignore the valid things they say, and inflate the invalid things you yourself say into irrefutable truths (even if they’re silly).
I’ve been listening to some terrific podcasts by Fr Thomas Hopko, an Eastern Orthodox scholar and parish priest. It is a series on the clergy of the Christian Church through the ages and begins in the Apostolic Age, working its way slowly through the centuries. For anyone who loves ancient Christianity, and who desires to live the Orthodox Christian faith today as closely as possible to its original form in ancient times, this set of talks is a veritable treasure chest! Keep in mind when you listen that Fr Thomas is from the Eastern Orthodox family and thus views the Council of Chalcedon from that perspective. (While the Oriental Orthodox Churches like the Coptic Church reject that Council, most other Christian Churches accept it).
But his account of the first two centuries is engrossing and makes sense of so many things in our history that we generally hear in isolation and out of context. For example, one can gain a valuable insight into the true spirit of ancient Christian leadership when one learns that the titles for the leaders of the ancient Church were actually taken from the titles of slaves! The Episkopos (over-seer) was the household slave in charge of overseeing the affairs of the household on behalf of his master, and for the welfare and benefit of the master and his family. Episkopos is the title the early Christians adopted for their bishops. The Economos was in charge making sure the ‘economy’ of the house ran smoothly, and thus would look to the day to day details of household provisions and accounts and so on. His role was to preovide the resources that everyone else needed to live their lives happily and safely. Again, the early Christians adopted this name for those among the Elders (‘presbyteros’ ) who were entrusted with caring for the day to day affairs of the household of God, and ‘economos’ has evolved into the modern title, ‘hegomen’.
But note that both these positions were those of slaves. Applied to the Christian roles, what this meant is that the bishop and the hegomen were both ‘slaves’ of the Master of the household, God, and their role was to care for His children. As slaves, they were not to boss the children around or exert authority over them so much as to serve them and provide faithfully for all their needs. And this is of course in keeping with the command of Christ:
But Jesus called them to Himself and said to them, “You know that those who are considered rulers over the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones exercise authority over them. Yet it shall not be so among you; but whoever desires to become great among you shall be your servant. And whoever of you desires to be first shall be slave of all. For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give His life a ransom for many.” Mark 10:42-45
It also intriguing to hear about the developments in the years after Chalcedon, a period of history in which we Copts were not involved for the most part – being more occupied with things like survival in a hostile environment of Melkites and later Muslims. Here, this account explains so much of why both the Catholic and the Eastern Orthodox Churches are what they are today. Continue reading “Things to Read and Hear”