In this episode, Christopher Cotter discusses Near Death Experiences with Jens Schlieter. How does one study reports of such experiences from a critical study of religion perspective? How are such reports related to modern societal developments such as ‘secularization’, individualization, or advances in medical science?
Accounts of Near Death Experiences will no doubt be very familiar to listeners of the RSP and the broader public. From fictional accounts such as the Wizard of Oz or Flatliners, to self-reports which grew in popularity in the mid-twentieth century, many of us will be know narrative tropes such as the tunnel, the life review, and the out of body experience. Existing research has tended to, on the one hand, focus on the pathological elements of Near Death Narratives – attempting to ‘explain away’ the phenomenon in reductionistic terms – or, on the other hand, view such accounts as substantive proof of a ‘world beyond’. In today’s podcast, we showcase an approach which accepts reports of Near Death Experiences as discourse, and attempts to understand them in their social, cultural, and historical context. Further, we ask what is the relationship between these narratives and contemporary discourse on ‘religion’? Joining Chris Cotter in this podcast is Professor Jens Schlieter, who has admirably addressed these questions and more in his recent book What Is It Like To Be Dead? Near-Death Experiences, Christianity, and the Occult (OUP 2018).
In this episode, we discuss definitions of Near Death Experiences, how one might study reports of such experiences from a critical study of religion perspective, how such reports are related to modern societal developments such as ‘secularization’, individualization, and advances in medical science, as well as the impact of ‘religious’ meta-cultures upon these reports and the potential ‘religious’ functions they appear to serve.
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Writing about universalism in NDEs, Natasha Tassell-Matuma explains that "Languages reflect the cosmologies, ontologies, and epistemologies underlying cultures and are mutually constitutive in a culture’s practices, beliefs, ideologies, and norms. As such, when people speak, they are essentially drawing on a collective legacy that speaks to the socially-sanctioned worldview of the culture they affiliate with."
In this response, Gregory Shushan writes, "The notion expressed by both Prof. Cotter and Dr. Schlieter in their recent interview that near-death experiences (NDEs) have been discussed in academic contexts primarily from medical/materialist and “paranormal” approaches is somewhat overstated – particularly in the study of religions and related fields such as anthropology. Those who have undertaken and published research adopting a “critical religious studies approach, looking at these narratives in their social and historical contexts” will be surprised at the claim that such works are “largely absent”
Christopher Cotter (CC): Listeners to the Religious Studies Project, and indeed in society beyond, will be very familiar, I imagine, with the notion of near-death experiences. They’ve become quite a predominant theme in fictional narratives and across the internet. But within academic study there have been two approaches, possibly, to these. One would be to be hyper-medicalised, physiological, psychological – seeing them as phenomena to be explained away. Another approach would be to be seeing them as proof of life beyond, and using them in that sort-of context. But what’s been largely absent, up until now, has been a Critical Religious Studies approach; looking at these narratives in their social and historical context, and what they can tell us about our society and about our lives. Joining me today, to talk about near-death experiences, is Professor Jens Schlieter of the University of Bern. Professor Schlieter studied Philosophy, and Buddhist Studies, and Comparative Religion, in Bonn and Vienna and got his PhD in Philosophy from the University of Bonn. And he has held research positions at the University of Munich and the University of Bonn. He is currently at the University of Bern, where he is Professor for the Systematic Study of Religion and also Co-director for the Institute of Science of Religion. And his publications comprise contributions on methodological and theoretical questions in the study of religion, and Buddhist bioethics, and comparative philosophy. But of particular relevance today is his 2018 book with Oxford University press called, What Is It Like to be Dead? Near-Death Experiences, Christianity and the Occult. So first off, Professor Schlieter, welcome to the Religious Studies Project!
Jens Schlieter (JS): Thank you, Chris, for inviting me here.
CC: It’s wonderful to have you here in Edinburgh on this crisp winter’s day! I could just start off by asking you: what is it like to be dead, Professor Schlieter?! But, although it may be fairly obvious what got you interested – because it is such an inherently tantalising topic – what was it that got you interested in studying and writing about near-death experiences?
JS: The title, of course, is a little bit provocative. But it is, indeed, to be found in the Scriptures on near-death experiences. But I thought of the famous article by the philosopher Thomas Nagel writing an article on “What it is like to be bat?” And he argues that we don’t know, because we usually imagine ourselves hanging in a cave from the top. But we do not know what it is like for a bat to be a bat. And so there is, of course, a very important topic and the whole . . . . People claimed that they were actually dead, but the definition of death . . . usually we would define death as a status of irreversibility. So one cannot come back to life. So there is a paradox there. But on the other hand, these experiences of people very close to death, they must be taken seriously. Because people change their lives. They write large autobiographic narratives in which they define this experience as absolutely life-changing in regard to new spiritual views on themselves, on the soul, on the beyond, etc. So that was my initial interest in the whole. How can people describe something that we usually consider as impossible? Because this standpoint of describing the status after death cannot be taken. But obviously we have these narratives. So what do we do?
CC: Absolutely, and it really comes to the core methodological issue in the study of religion, I suppose, where all we have to go on is discourse, and what people say, and putting indescribable experiences into natural language – in the sense of, whether we’re talking about any experience of the supernatural, it inherently has to be described in language and be articulated in that way. So, yes. It quite nicely captures one of the core issues in the study of religion (5:00). But before we get any further, and you’ve already hinted at it there, but, what is a near-death experience? Just so that we’re all talking from the same page.
JS: Yes. I started by defining the methodological point of view on near-death experiences in the book as, let’s say, historical discourse study. So I looked at who defined near-death experience for the first time. Usually people claim that it was Raymond Moody, an American medical professional, a doctor. And he published a book in 1975, Life after Life, and there he speaks of near-death experiences – near-death experiences in the plural – claiming that he used the category to describe those narratives which he encountered in hospitals by survivors of, for example, heart attack, or nearly-drowned, or something like that. But in my book I can show that the term near-death experience is somewhat earlier used already by John C Lilley, in 1972. And he wrote an autobiography, Centre of the Cyclone. And there he describes, interestingly, a near-death experience on the basis that he himself was close to death, using LSD. And so he had visionary experiences triggered by LSD, but on the other hand he was ill, and administered himself an antibiotics, but obviously something went wrong. And so he was actually really close to death and in an almost comatose-like state And Raymond Moody read the book. But of course, for him, it was rather unsettling that it was an LSD experience. But in the book I can show that the LSD and near-death experiences co-evolved in the 1970s as a discourse. And it is not a new phenomenon. Already in the early nineteenth century people spoke of experiences close to death and what happens there, namely: life-review, out of body experiences – Oh! Here I get back to the question of definition! Sorry . . .
CC: That’s alright!
JS: Near-death experiences usually, in what Raymond Moody first systematised, encompass roundabout 15 different topoi – one may say, from a discourse perspective – namely: to get out of one’s body and to encounter one’s dead body from an elevated perspective, looking down at oneself lying in the bed; then there is the idea expressed that you get into something like a summer land, or paradise; that you encounter heavenly beings, or sometimes they are of help and guide you through the netherworld, sometimes they are frightening; also experiences of encountering other family members and friends who have died already – so after-death experience in the meaning that you enter a space where these are already there; but also a kind-of a barrier; and a heavenly voice – an experience of the presence of God or Jesus. And finally, to get back into the body. So these are elements. And Raymond Moody’s idea was these are usually in a kind-of continuous narrative. So they follow each other because they are a universal experience, mirrored, of course, into the individual backgrounds and so on (10:00). But, in general, he believed they really tell something about the after-death realm, and therefore these are real experiences. For me, of course, this is a metaphysical assumption that I can neither deny nor affirm with my research. And therefore I looked at them only as reports – reports of experiences. So, ok, the word “experience” usually means that you truly encounter something that transforms your point of view, that transforms you, probably totally, if it is a life-changing experience. But one can also say experiences are construed in the aftermath. After surviving the whole thing, people usually will ask themselves, “How did it happen that I personally survived? Why didn’t I die?” And I think these are really questions of meaning, of meaningfulness. And very often, at least in our culture, people tend to think of religion as providing an answer, and therefore looking for an answer why they survived. They had maybe visions – we don’t know because there is no way to figure out if these visions happen the way they say they were. But for them, of course, they are real. And we will never know. But what I can say, at least, in the book . . . . I show with various examples that certain narratives, for example, the one of the life-review – that you remember scenes and things in your early life, in your life unfolding, etc. – and that this life-review actually emerged in the narratives. It is not yet there in medieval reports of near-death experiences – if one can say they are near-death experiences, because usually they are deathbed visions by monks and nuns.
CC: Yes. And indeed you make the point in the book that, until recent decades I suppose, these experiences tended to be narrated by others: people telling of someone else’s experience. Whereas, there was a point at which there was the turn to the individual and the self-narrative. Which I think we’re probably going to get onto fairly shortly. So just before we get there, you’ve already given some hints at your methodology there, and it’s a fairly standard Religious Studies approach in the sense of: regardless of whether there is a reality or not, what we have to go on are people’s accounts of their experiences. And these accounts have impact and social impact. So let’s look at them and treat them at face value and just deal with the content, and the meaning, and etc., etc. Is there anything else that you’d like to sort-of caveat what you’re saying? Like, what was the body of material that you consulted?
JS: Well I thought it would be good to start with personal narratives, not those – as you mentioned – by others, so third-hand evidence. And narratives from a first-person point of view are, of course, very much connected to the emergence of autobiographies, of subjectivity, and usually one of the major figure in this emerging tradition was the French philosopher Montaigne. And he, in his essays, unravels a near-death experience interestingly. And major elements, that were of importance for reporters of near-death experiences that inform Moody, are not yet there. They are simply not there. But then there is Francis Beaufort. He was an admiral with the British navy. And he is the first who really had a classical near-death experience, at the end of the eighteenth century (15:00). He fell into Portsmouth harbour and nearly drowned as a young man. And decades later he reported his experience. And for the first time, we have this life-review phenomenon. So he said, “I could see scenes from my early childhood. Memories that I were not aware of that . . . I had these experiences”. So this is an interesting element in itself. So from the sixteenth century up to 1975, this is what the book covers. I decided not to look at sources from non-European cultures. There is, of course, an extensive discussion about if near-death experiences are purely a Western phenomenon, or if near-death experiences can be seen in Indian, Japanese, Chinese traditions. A very important element that is usually pointed out is the Tibetan Book of the Dead. It has been published by Oxford University Press in 1927, translated by Walter Yeeling Evans-Wentz in collaboration with native Tibetan Lama Kazi Dawa Samdup. And they were tremendously successful in popularising these Tibetan thoughts and rituals: what should be done if someone dies? And the idea is to guide them through the netherworld, of course, in the Tibetan context to encounter karmic delusions, and to be very frightened – because the consciousness principle has to navigate through its own complications, and so on. But to give you one example that it is quite important, to look very closely at the reported experiences. People usually say, “Well this is evidence that they are of a universal quality.” If you have Tibetans reporting such experiences in the fourteenth century or so, and modern Western evidence, so it seems to be . . . . But, for example, the idea that there is out-of-body experiences and one looks back at oneself. In the Western tradition it is very much the idea that you face yourself being dead. So the soul, or consciousness, hovering over the body, is interested to look at and to examine the body. Because the body is something foreign. Something that is no longer animated, but still a point of reference in this world etc. Whereas, in the Tibetan Buddhist tradition, of course, due to the idea of reincarnation etc., the body is of no importance. And we can see that it is much more a social reality in the Tibetan Buddhist account of this moment where the soul, or consciousness – to be more precise, in the Tibetan Buddhist context. So the consciousness principle looks not at its former body, but at the weeping family members, and tries to convince them, “Oh I’m fine. Please, you do not help me if you weep. I can see you, but you obviously can no longer see me. But please, that’s not good for me. Because now I have the task I shall move forward to my next existence.” And best would be, of course, no longer to be reincarnated at all. So at the first sight that seems to be, “Ok, that’s an out of body experience.” But the narrated content is totally different in terms of epistemology, in terms of soteriology, and so on and so forth.
CC: Absolutely. So you started to get into the socio-cultural historic contexts within which near-death narratives are occurring. And much of your book, I guess, is looking at Western contexts as you say. And you do an excellent job of charting some of the contextual factors that might have shaped and led, perhaps, to what you might call an explosion of near-death narratives. So if you can, maybe, tell us about some of these modern societal developments that have gone hand-in-hand with near-death narratives? (20:00)
JS: Yes. I think this is a very important aspect. And I think, so far, there was little interest to look at the correlations. What is astonishing is the fact that, in the 1970s, major developments in the Western medical system were going on. For example, to declare people no longer dead with the criterion of heart failure, and other classical criteria that were used for ages to declare people dead if there is no longer brain activity. And there are, of course, measurements from the EEG etc. But that’s led to the situation that people without a functioning brain were declared dead. But their body was still, let’s say, alive, in a way. And of course it was seen as a major advantage also for transplantation of organs. And many of them can only be used in the body is fully intact. And, of course, with artificial respiration and so on. And the phenomena like coma, and locked -in syndrome, they were described at a new level – more scientifically defined, and so on. But in the general society these developments were considered as extremely unsettling. Because there was now an ambivalence: is someone dead or not dead? Only dead if declared to be dead. And shall we trust the physicians, the doctors in the intensive care unit if they say he or she is dead? Then we accept that? And so that was really unsettling. And on the other hand if, of course, due to circumstances that people were able to survive a certain period of very low brain activity and some of them had visionary accounts or visionary experiences, or let’s say, near-death experiences returning from such a state they said, “Well, in your medical perspective maybe we were that close to death that it was only a second that you may have decided to close the artificial attempts of sustaining my life. But I survived – and not only that, I had certain experiences that are absolutely central for my life that I would like to live from now onwards with different values.”
CC: So yes, I’m just pushing through because of time. But yes, we have those medical developments and, you know, people being sustained longer. And you describe how they move from mostly dying out of the hospital context, and moving into hospital contexts. You’ve got, also, all the different forms of medication which might have hallucinogenic properties, legal or illegal. But then there’s also individualisation within religion, beyond religion: the importance of individual narratives of the self. And then also, I guess, that all ties into a secularisation narrative as well. So you’ve got all of this going on, and then “Easter”, in quotation marks, influences coming in. You’ve already described the Tibetan Book of the Dead. So there’s lot going on, in the sixties and seventies, in terms of just rapid social development in these areas – which understandably facilitates the development and, I guess, dissemination of these near-death narratives. But I’m keen to get to the “religion” word, because we need to on the Religious Studies Project! And towards the end of the book you tackle that head on, and talk about how religious meta-cultures might have influenced and shaped the form and content of these near-death narratives (25:00). And then, also, you talk about the potential, I guess you would say, “religious functions” of the narratives. So maybe you should take us through some of that.
JS: Yes. I think usually, books of reporting individuals themselves, they do not very openly quote sources that inspired them. But if you look more closely at the whole near-death reporting genre, one can see that there are many spiritualists, many who are close to Western esotericism, for example: parapsychological accounts are very often combined with near-death accounts. For example, Eben Alexander who published a very, very successful book. So there are people who are usually in a way religious, and at the same time they are distant in regard to dogmas of established churches. So usually there’s something like this: they were brought up in very religious families, and they had a background of, let’s say, intensive socialisation within a religious tradition. And then they moved on, studied, for example, something on the signs of nature and medicine, or whatever – became more critical towards religion and towards establishment in particular. And then this happens. An event that in which they almost died. And I think it is very plausible to look at the phenomenon with this perspective. At this moment they revive their former emotion and that was inspired and formed by a very religious family life. But of course they are already stuffed with critical rationality. They are distant in regard to unfounded claims of traditional religious tradition. So the individual experience is, from my point of view, a very vital element of this late modern religiosity. And therefore one can say near-death experiences are probably prototypical for the development. People no longer believe that there is, let’s say, a life after death in terms of words traditional – especially of course the Catholic Church had to offer, but they have their individual experiences. And they think this is authentic par excellence. Because it is individual. So, in a way, one can say the whole phenomenon mirrors recent developments in Western societies and, on the other hand, I think they offer a certain kind-of a solution for the whole, because people can still continue to believe. And very often, also, one can see that they have a kind-of missionary attitude. That they really speak very freely on their near-death experiences, even though, very often, they note, “OK, I know that you are sceptical, and this is a materialistic society, and no-one will believe me.” But this is part, again, of the whole authenticity that they feel that they are in.
CC: And, I guess, even someone who was notionally “non-religious” – in scare quotes there – they’re part of a context. And the experience, whatever it is, is felt. And their interpretation will be informed by their context within which . . . . And the context will, I suppose, also influence the experience itself in the first place. Because people bring things to an experience. And then, afterwards, interpret it with the resources that are available to them. And especially once there is such an economy of a near-death experiences, then it’s going to take . . . . (30:00).
JS: Absolutely. Although I think it is rather a rare case in which one will have a near-death experience without ever being introduced to religious thought, rituals, and traditions before. Because I think, indeed, one has to have a certain disposition, and a certain expectancy for things to happen, in such experiences. But nevertheless, as I said at the beginning, if you would imagine yourself in the situation, or someone else in the situation – maybe he was not very religious, but survives a very tragic accident. Maybe other companions in the car died. And then you have the question of contingency – what sociologists always say in regard to religion. So the question of the reduction of contingency, namely: “I could have died here. It didn’t happen. So who saved me?” We usually attribute such survival to a force. We are continuously looking for explanations. We cannot live with no explanation, and simply to say that it was by chance, there was no other force involved at all. And so I would say this way of looking at a situation . . . . And, of course, many suffer from, let’s say, the injuries they have. So they are in hospital, they are alone, they are under medication. I don’t want to simply say that’s an outcome of that. I hope that’s clear that I think the whole is meaningful. It’s not simply to be reduced to such factors. But these factors are, or should be, taken into consideration too. So people alone, thinking at, and on, their lives – probably the question of meaning pops up in their lives for the first time ever. And then they, maybe, “Oh yes, there was a certain kind of light. Was there a being behind the light? Did I see a being? Although I do not believe . . . . But probably it was a being. And haven’t I heard some kind of message?” Because the whole thing, for them, is of course complicated too. They have to remember ecstatic experiences. And they cannot say what they experience the moment they experience that. So they have an epistemological problem, too.
CC: Yes. And again we’re right back to that. But putting sort-of non-falsifiable experience into words, after the event. And going back earlier in the interview, you mentioned earlier Montaigne. I have a tattoo of some words by Montaigne: “Fortis imaginatio generat casum”: a strong imagination creates its own reality.
JS: Yes, yes, absolutely
CC: But yes, there’s a sense, after an experience, one is only going to be able to interpret and articulate . . . . And human memory is an awful thing. Memory . . . like these eyewitness reports in criminal cases will say . . . .
CC: And these experiences – because they’re so intense, and profound, and are current at traumatic circumstances – they are going to be revisited, and rearticulated, and pondered time and time again. So we can’t say too much about the actual experience itself. But what you’re doing is looking at how people are articulating it, and what are the themes, and how that has impacts. We’re pretty much out of time. But I just wanted to sort-of finish with what might be – again, it’s been implicit throughout the interview – but what would be some of your take-home messages for the study of religion? And from your work with near-death experience? And what do you think others can take and apply, perhaps more broadly, in their own studies in this religion thing that we’re all so obsessed with?!
JS: Well, I think one of the general insights that I would consider central is that extraordinary experiences were, for some years, less studied because people thought, “Well it is a discourse, by religious practitioners, to speak about their extraordinary experiences.” (35:00) But I think there is really something in there that may help also to look at recent developments. For example, these books about near-death experiences – they are incredibly successful. Very often you have them in Amazon ranking lists on places five to three – and for weeks. So there is not only the experience, but also a large audience interested in this experience. So to study this as the phenomenon – as a part of the phenomenon of no-longer-institutionalised religion, but never-the-less as a part of a religious discourse where experience matters. And experience that very often has been only psychologised. And there are a lot of neuroscientific theories that simply say, “Well, it’s a dysfunctional brain that produces such delusions and you cannot take it seriously” And I think this simply a very short-sighted view of the whole. Because people change their whole life after the experience. Although, it would be very important to have a closer look at this phenomenon. This has not yet been researched, from my knowledge: an empirical study, that not only considers that the autobiography may be also an oral narrative of what has happened after the experience is considered, but also to look more closely at families, friends and really to corroborate evidence that it was a life-changing matter.
CC: Absolutely. So there’s on that final note, a potential research project for a Listener, or perhaps that’s your next research project, I don’t know? Well thank you so much, Professor Schlieter, for joining us on the Religious Studies Project. I’m looking forward to hearing how it goes down.
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