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The Afterlife: The Evidence of Near Death Experiences by John Spooner

Sydney, Halstead Press, 2016, pp.125.

Book review by Michael Horsburgh

Father John Spooner has written a book that considers the effects of near death experiences (NDEs) on our concept of the after-life. An NDE is 'a distinct subjective experience that people sometimes report after a near death episode. In a near death episode, a person is either clinically dead, near death, or in a situation where death is likely or expected'. (p.25)

Book cover

Fr John, who reports an NDE of his own, is a member of the International Association of Near Death Studies (IANDS), which maintains its own journal on the subject (http://iands.org/home.html). The Journal of Near-Death Studies is in its 34th volume. The website of IANDS contains an up to date log of reported experiences. As I wrote this review, the latest posting was on 8 February 2017. I give this information to show that NDEs are the subject of research and the publication of scholarly articles.

They were the subject of an interview with neuropsychiatrist Dr Peter Fenwick on the ABC Lateline on 30 October 2000 (http://www.abc.net.au/lateline/stories/s206217.htm). I give this information to show that NDEs are a recognised phenomenon and the subject of scholarly attention. I already knew this because, about 30 years ago, one of my university colleagues was also interested in this subject.

I must now digress into a brief discussion of epistemology, the theory of knowledge or how we know things. Much of our contemporary approach to knowledge rests on the possibility of proof. That is to say, we know something when it can be demonstrated by observable proof. It may be, in scientific circles, that the appreciation of proof is not easily accessible to lay persons, but that does not in itself detract from the principle. Even in everyday matters, however, we rely on simple observation and the accumulation of experience. Some important accepted facts are counterintuitive. For example, it seems to us that the sun rises and sets, whereas the truth is that the earth turns relative to the sun.

In that case, what do we do with a concept such as the afterlife?

The same question might be asked about the existence of God. Contemporary atheists draw a sharp contrast between the kind of knowledge that rests on proof and what they might call unjustifiable beliefs, even imaginary beliefs. We do not need to go to such extremes to understand that some of our experiences may not be open to scientific proof. How, for example, are we to account for beauty?

Fr John's book straddles these questions. A large part of it is taken up with case studies of people reporting their experiences.

Whilst there appear to be many variations, there are common themes. People on the operating table describe out of body experiences in which they look down from above and see what is going on. Subjects report experiences of going into a tunnel, of blinding light, of welcoming others, who might be departed loved ones. They report universal love and acceptance.

Famously, Australian Frank Packer had a heart attack that left him clinically dead. When asked whether he had a classic NDE, he is reported to have said that there was nothing out there.

But the reports that are available can be studied in a scientific fashion as much as any other event that depends on people reporting what they have seen or done. Fr John draws out these similarities and differences.

The next question is what the experiences mean. Are they the result of some bodily activity that produces the remembrances when the person revives? That would be to say that the person saw and experienced nothing while clinically dead but that the physical processes produced the report. There are several problems with this response because all our perceptions and activities are accompanied by bodily events, including brain activity. Thus, when we are happy, in love, or sad and despairing, something is happening in our bodies. But we do not then say that we were not happy, in love, sad or despairing.

Fr John deals with these alternatives in a chapter called 'The Sceptics'. I think that he might have done more with the alternatives. The problem here is reductionism, the process by which complex matters are reduced to simpler causes. The key phrase here is that it is 'all a matter of...'. I am always wary of reductionism and Fr John's subject is a likely place to find it.

When Fr John links these studies to the afterlife, he moves to another level of knowledge and reality; one that is not open to the same kind of verification that was used to collate the reports of NDEs. This kind of knowledge is based on belief.

We might imagine that a person's prior belief about the afterlife will influence their perceptions of the meaning of NDEs. We might also expect that much will depend on whether a person has experienced the phenomenon, as Fr John reports of himself, or whether the person is, like me, an observer.

The reports collated by Fr John show that NDEs often, but not always, change people's views of the afterlife, usually in favour.

There is a theological component to this discussion. People report bliss, light and something approaching universal love. If these are features of the afterlife, we are heading in a universalist direction. That is to say, after death, we are all accepted. Some versions of Christian theology would suggest that this is not the case, that there may be quite different results for different people. This hints at a larger discussion that Fr John does not entertain and nor will I.

Fr John has written an interesting book that brings together materials most of us would find hard to locate. The afterlife is an enduring subject of interest.

In our popular culture, we refer frequently to deceased persons looking down on us or to our chance to be reunited with them after death. Alternative views suggest a continuous process of birth and rebirth leading finally to ultimate rest. Some think that we can communicate directly with the dead. I make no comment on any of these views but they show how intrigued we are by death and its aftermath.

If you wish to purchase copy of Fr John's book, you can enquire of your local book store which, if not holding stock, can get it in for you from the publisher. It is also available for sale at St. James' Church, King Street, and Christ Church St Laurence, Railway Square.