Thursday, March 28, 2013

Intimations of Mortality

The ancient Hebrews believed in Sheol, and the ancient Greeks believed in Hades, both were gray places of departed spirits.  Both post-mortem locations are characterized as places of shades, shadows, and the absence of vibrant life.  Much later the Israelites anticipated the resuscitation of the physical body but the Greeks had also looked forward to the Elysian Fields (or the Isles of the Blessed) as a place of reward for the heroes, sons of the Gods, and those who lived noble lives.  In Christianity, Hell is the eternal fate of the damned, while the righteous will enter the blessed state of Heaven.
             Beliefs are not "intimations of immortality" (Wordsworth).  Intimations are indirect hints or suggestions of a future lying beyond the realm of the physical senses, which cannot be directly experienced.  In our day a hint of a post-mortem future comes generally from surgery patients who claim to have seen a bright light at the end of a long dark tunnel, and simultaneously having experienced feelings of peacefulness and reassurance from deceased friends and family who have "passed on."  Many such intimations that life continues beyond the grave can be found on the internet and in print media. 
 In Hebrew and Hellenistic antiquity there were also intimations of post-mortem survival.  For example, Odysseus sailed to Hades, the place of departed spirits, in the Odyssey (Book 11), where the dead were described as "mere shadows flitting to and fro"—not a pleasant prospect, but a "survival" of sorts.  On a brighter note there were a number of heavenly journeys, similar to the light at the end of the tunnel (See James Tabor, "Heaven, Ascent to" in Anchor Bible Dictionary, 3.91-94).  Paul's trip to Paradise in 2 Corinthians 12:1-4 is the only first-hand reported ascent  in the New Testament, but alas Paul told us nothing (2 Cor 12:4).   
What strikes me about all of these suggested hints that something lies beyond the grave is that the unknown future is generally described from the perspective of the contemporary cultural and religious experience of the individual bringing the report. 
While I am neither a seer nor the son of a seer, I have on two occasions had what I will describe as "intimations of mortality" (my apologies to Wordsworth).  The first occurred in the 1970s during a long transatlantic flight.  While I was in a semi-conscious state (neither awake nor asleep), a poem called itself forth in my head.  That is, it "came to me"; I did not consciously create and craft it.
The land is long and empty;
And we dance through it;
Aging moths
Before flickering candles
Casting no shadows.
I am not sure I understand the poem, and I do not particularly like my interpretation of it.  The long narrow land, empty and shrouded in darkness, struck me as an utterly alien place devoid of life.  The moths, the only living things in the poem, are insects, which in this instance portray human life as fragile and ephemeral (i.e., "we" in the poem).  The fascination of the moths for the open flame and their macabre "dance" bringing them increasingly closer to self-immolation suggests their inevitable demise; the absence of shadow in a land dominated by candles suggests abject nothingness—not even shadows of the moths survive the dance.  The poem is dismal evoking a sense of complete hopelessness—I am not normally given to such pessimism, and have always been surprised the poem came out of my head. 
The second intimation came on the Greek island of Corfu in 2002: 
I awoke from a sound sleep in a clammy sweat, anxious and profoundly disturbed, the sounds of the Ionian Sea faint but distinct beyond the closed shutters of the room.  My vaguely remembered dream replaying itself in my mind only increased my agitation.  I had dreamed that the fabric of reality suddenly split down the side directly in front of me, and for a few seconds I stared into an empty void beyond.  In the second I realized that absolutely nothing lay beyond, I knew my own personal mortality—not intellectually but viscerally (Hedrick, House of Faith or Enchanted Forest. American Popular Belief in an Age of Reason, 60). 
I did not at the time consider this dream a supernatural premonition, or a warning from God.  Rather I explained it as a wake-up call from my inner biological clock; it was a reasonable inference considering my advancing years. 
               Both experiences are rather pessimistic hints of a post-mortem future.  Considering my religious background, I do not think that I can easily dismiss these experiences as the result of my cultural and religious experience, as I suggested above was the case with the "lights at the end of the tunnel." My cultural and religious experiences, as most of you know, are heavily invested in traditional religious faith, so I should have expected something a bit more optimistic.  At the very least, however, these two experiences likely are subconscious indications of my repressed fears of a post-mortem future.  I was in control of neither the poem nor the dream, so I must assume each was evoked in some way from within my subconscious. 
               What should be said about intimations of immortality ("the lights at the end of the tunnel") and intimations of mortality ("the empty void beyond")?  Which experience provides a reliable hint of our common but hidden future—if either one?  Another question suggests itself:  why should my "intimations of mortality" be merely an expression of a repressed subconscious fear, but the more popular "intimations of immortality" be regarded as objective proof of life after death?  Why are not both subconscious responses that only tell us about ourselves?

Charles W. Hedrick
Professor Emeritus
Missouri State University


  1. This is a huge subject and one that has affected me from many angles. I became a pastor at the remarkably absurd age of 22. The day that I moved into the parsonage of my first church, a church member came over to inform me that I was to preach at a funeral that afternoon. No one could have been less prepared. I had attended a funeral when I was about 12 for a neighbor and that was 100% of my experience with mortality. For the next 20 years I regularly found myself in a position of assuring a grief stricken audience of important promises of eternal life about which no one had any evidence and no rational basis to believe any of it. But it was a part of the pastor/parish game….. I had to pretend to be confident and my confidence was suppose to help them to cope with their loss.

    Gradually, as the disconnect between parish mythology and academic theology became increasingly unbearable and as mortality came closer and closer to me through the death of close friends and family members as well as the aging visage I see every morning in the mirror, honesty became much more important than the rules of the parish game.

    No one can say that there is or there is not a life after death. That's true enough. But then, no one can say whether or not that the world is inhabited by three feet tall, invisible beings who have no weight or mass and who can only be seen by certain gifted individuals. It is just that there is no reason to believe that these short invisible beings exist. There is also no reason to believe that there is a life after death. it could be and there could be a planet somewhere made of chocolate ice cream but it seems unlikely and without profound reason to believe that there is such a plant we would be pretty foolish to devote our resources to building a rocket ship to go in search of it.

    There is a fundamental arrogance behind the belief in heaven and hell, predicated on the belief that humans have a soul that dogs, cats, trees, ants, coral and gold fish do not have. We believe that we are just too important to live and die as the pig did whose parts I had with my breakfast this morning or the tuna I will have at dinner time.

    Some suggest that all of religion was created when humans became aware of mortality and we needed something to help us cope with the anxiety that produced. Maybe so, but at this point in history I can only hope that the other aspects of religion….. community, justice, ethics, forgiveness, love…. can take the place of pie in the sky imaginary rewards.

    I remain a man of faith. I attempt to lead a congregation in what we loosely call a "spiritual" life in pursuit of social justice and meaningful living but I fully accept my mortality with no expectation of anything more than what I have seen in the life and death of my friends and family members and in the circle of life that includes living and dying of fish, trees and grass. Wishing for heaven doesn't make heaven exist. I just wish that my peers in religious life could sober up and embrace a more rational view of their real life and not devote so much time and energy to their imaginary future life.=

  2. Charlie, as an anthroposophist I see in your two intimations of mortality a deep, and ultimately highly positive, meaning, but only in the perspective of the human journey through countless ages to come. I loved the “[dancing as] aging moths before flickering candles casting no shadows” in the first of your intimations. Both shadows and time can exist only within the world of matter. I suggest that the second of your intimations, where the “fabric of reality suddenly split,” assuming that the “reality” you speak of is understood to be all that can be perceived by our senses, expresses essentially the same thing as the rending of the temple veil (Mark 15:38), the body of matter that obscures our perception of the spiritual realm. We all face immense sacrifice and suffering before we reach the age where we are able to live without bodies of matter and without casting shadows. But the ultimate message of Christ’s crucifixion and resurrection as the “first fruits” is the necessity that each of us must ultimately make that journey whether we cherish the idea or not. Jeremiah might not have been happy with this, but there are aspects in the latter part of his thirty-first chapter that point in that direction.

    So, my own impression is that you have been honored, in the combination of your two intimations, with a slight peek into the distance.

    Half a century ago this August, a month before my thirty-first birthday, and a month after my first ascent of Uncompahgre Peak (14,305'), I knocked twice on death’s door eleven days apart, during the first of which I had a near death experience (NDE), as distinguished from clinical death with resuscitation. I was enveloped by light and bathed in pure love, and returning to consciousness and my desperate condition was a massive shock at the time. Much water has passed under the bridge since then, and I’ve pondered the phenomena. But it is when I came, at fifty-six years of age, upon the massive works of Rudolf Steiner that flowed from his intuition, that new hope and life arose from the deadening effect of my years of study of scripture in the conventional way.

    My own take on your intimations derives from that time when a new world of understanding was opened for me.

    Personally, I think you are a worthy recipient of what you have received, and I would hope that you come to have some idea that such may be the case.

    My efficient Jo Anne reminds me that you are indeed moving up the ladder of time with another step before the middle of this month. I wish for you a very happy birthday. But I need to remind you that so long as I remain in this realm, you may be nipping at my heals but you will never catch up with me.
    (Edward R. Smith, Lubbock, TX)

  3. I wonder if readers noticed that the two responses to this blog make perfect book ends to it. One chided those who spend so much time with life-after-death concerns and wished they would “embrace a more rational view of their real life.” The other claimed his own near death experience in which he was “enveloped by light and bathed in pure love.” While I with my “attested” negative experience am still left wondering whether such experiences are actual and substantial (meaning they can be measured) or whether they are merely projections of an overactive subconscious, and as such are like “short invisible beings without weight or mass, who can [only] be seen by [certain] gifted individuals.”
    Charles W. Hedrick

  4. Dennis Dean CarpenterApril 3, 2013 at 3:27 PM

    One of the Gilgamesh tablets says it all for me:
    “From the beginning there is no permanence.
    The sleeping and dead, how like brothers they are!
    Do they not both make a picture of death?
    The man-as-he-was-in-the-beginning and the hero: [are they not the same] when they arrive at their fate?”

    And, in the next column, when Utnapishtim is to build his ark one reads:
    “Abandon riches. Seek life.
    Scorn possessions, hold onto life.”

    And, Utnapishtim receives the prize of immortality because of his shrewdness, to be “like gods,” blessed by Enlil, the rest of humanity turned to clay. He re-populates the planet after the flood.

    Gilgamesh learns that there is no immortality. Enkidu will not return. Gilgamesh will die. Life is to be enjoyed, not understood. The more sons one has, the better for one in the “underworld.”

  5. I have put much creditability in near death experiences since so many of them share similar images and feelings. Using Dr. Phil's observation that "there is no reality, only perception" suggests that everything we observe in this world is only contained in our brain as some form of neural signal. Near death experiences, if they progress far enough, suggest that people experience things in their memory such as passed relatives or friends. This leads me to suggest that these near death experiences are the manifestation of a brain starting to die probably due to the lack of adequate blood circulation. If this process proceeds far enough, then the person becomes past "the point of no return." But I believe this process still continues, possibly for 24 hours (reports suggest that neurons can live this long without nourishment). During this process it is possible that that the perceived rate of time passage continually slows and may seem that time is infinite such as like a convergent infinite algebraic series. This suggests to me an afterlife in which all living creatures with some kind of brain or memory participate in.
    The level or neural activity at this early death phase is probably well below what or present-day instruments can detect; but some day I think it may become detectable due to better instrumentation and the much improved ability to"penetrate" the brain with ultrahigh resolution.

    Regards, Jack Kaiser

    1. Hello Jack,
      Thank you for stopping by and sharing this idea. If I understand you (and I am not always sure I do understand discussions about the after life), I find your suggestions quite plausible. It is at least something that may at some future point be verifiable with improved technology. I gather that we are not talking about an afterlife, however. You are suggesting a way physiologically to explain near death experiences without projecting a supernatural cause. The similar experiences of those who "see the light at the end of the tunnel" (etc.) are the early stages of brain death, a process that may last 24 hours or so, if not reversed. It is the shared experience of all animals with memory. You are suggesting that the "similar images and feelings" of people who claim to have near death experiences are the result of a similar neural signal shared in animals (which we are) having memory; their shared capability of memory is the cause of the similar experiences. I gather that folks who have such experiences do not actually get to the gates of heaven, but they really are in the early stages of the death of the brain--a near death experience.

  6. Speaking as a person who accepted evolutionary panpsychism as a reasonable explanation for "how things are" after reading de Quincey's Radical Nature and similar books, particularly Chalmers on the problem of consciousness, I believe the soul is embodied and the body ensouled. However, there are a couple of problems. First, no one seems to have a definition, much less explanation, of consciousness that fits our experience and there is plenty of evidence (or so I believe) for extended consciousness. Sheldrake's experiments, such as described in Dogs That Know When Their Owners Are Coming Home, suggest that consciousness is shared between species as any pet owner can attest. The larger, unproven and unprovable implication is that consciousness forms part of the universal "fabric" (whatever that could mean) and that bonding between species is a result of sharing in a universal "pool" of consciousness, hence the "evolutionary" part. So the first problem is our failure to grasp the nature of consciousness even though it is the most basic component and ground of our experience.

    The second problem is the nature of matter, the next most fundamental part of our experience which we also fail to understand. The desk on which I'm writing is nearly all empty space, although if I fall and hit my head against it and die as a result it will seem pretty solid. As we now know, at the quantum level where matter really lives, matter displays some very unmatterly qualities. So I guess the short answer to the life after death conundrum is that we literally don't know what we're talking about. This is very frustrating since we have an overwhelming urge to talk about it.

    I attempt to maintain an attitude that is both skeptical and open-minded. Call me a "possibilitarian." Not just anything is possible, but given the limitations imposed by a nervous system evolved to fill a biological niche, not to ponder the mysteries, and that we interact with the material universe on a scale that is simultaneously deceptively small and deceptively large, we should not fall into fundamentalism, religious or materialist, but remain open to possibilities. I have known people, to all appearances sane and completely functional, who have seen ghosts. They do not walk around all day seeing dead people, but they have had one or possibly two experiences of "contact" with the deceased, usually the recently deceased. I believe that they have had real experiences but I cannot comment on the source or ultimate nature of those experiences. The cross-cultural and trans-historical nature of ghost stories would imply that humans as a species are either permanently and everywhere subject to delusion or that something is really going on, or some combination of both. My hunch is that if consciousness extends beyond physical death, it fades into something else in much the same way that physical bodies disintegrate back into the fund of matter from which other bodies ultimately form, or the way rivers run back to the sea, etc, etc. Many pagan and some early Christian groups intuitively arrived at the notion of cycles of death and rebirth. Perhaps they were right. If any of you die before I do, please stop by and share what you've learned!

    Best regards,

    Robert Conner