Dr. Alexander's Heaven can wait

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If there's a general interest -- i.e., secular -- magazine that has more cover stories about God, the devil and the afterlife throughout the year than Newsweek, I'm having a hard time imagining it. While most newsweeklies devote covers to Christian themes as Christmas approaches, Newsweek is the only magazine that genuinely proselytizes while "enlightening" us.

Newsweek's cover story this week is an excerpt from a book to be published in a few weeks called "Proof of Heaven: A Neurosurgeon's Journey into the Afterlife" by Dr. Eben Alexander.

In accordance with Newsweek's usual formula for hype, the cover features a right hand gesturing toward a bright light and parting clouds. The headline "Heaven Is Real: a Doctor's Experience of the Afterlife" gives readers a fairly big hint about the theological orientation of the great Mysterium we'll soon encounter in its pages.

On Nov. 10, 2008, Dr. Alexander fell into a coma after contracting bacterial meningitis-encephalitis. According to the author, his cortex shut down, cutting his odds of survival the longer his higher-order brain functions were offline.

"While the neurons of my cortex were stunned to complete inactivity by the bacteria that had attacked them," Dr. Alexander wrote, "my brain-free consciousness journeyed to another, larger dimension of the universe: a dimension I'd never dreamed existed in which the old, pre-coma me would have been more than happy to explain was a simple impossibility."

Dr. Alexander awoke from his inner journey on the seventh day just as discussions about removing him from the ventilator had begun, and, boy, did he have a tale to tell.

"It took me months to come to terms with what happened to me," he wrote. "Not just the medical impossibility that I had been conscious during my coma, but -- more importantly -- the things that happened during that time. Toward the beginning of my adventure, I was in a place of clouds. Big, puffy, pink-white ones that showed up sharply against the deep blue-black sky.

"Higher than the clouds -- immeasurably higher -- flocks of transparent, shimmering beings arced across the sky, leaving long, streamer like lines behind them. Birds? Angels? ... But neither of these words do justice to the beings themselves, which were quite simply different from anything I have known on this planet. They were more advanced. Higher forms," he wrote.

Dr. Alexander describes a sound "booming like a glorious chant" from the non-humans crisscrossing the sky. He could "hear" their physical beauty as well as see them as his senses adjusted to that world. He also felt a cosmic unity with every creature he encountered, a unity rooted in love and gratitude.

He was guided through this realm on the wings of a immense butterfly and in the company of a young girl "with high cheekbones and deep-blue eyes." Predictably, golden tresses "framed her lovely face." There are no ugly folks (or much diversity) in the Great Beyond.

Without speaking, the girl communicated that realm's sacred truths: "You are loved and cherished, dearly, forever," "You have nothing to fear" and "There is nothing you can do wrong."

Dr. Alexander had already "forgotten" his former life when he was told that his visit was temporary that he would soon return to Earth. Eventually, his questions about the meaning of existence were answered in bursts of love and understanding beamed directly into his spirit. The book he wrote after waking from his coma is an attempt to translate what he learned "in Heaven" about the meaning of it all.

The author described his pre-coma spiritual life as "faithful Christian" but "more in name than in actual belief" whatever that means. The heaven Dr. Alexander visited sounds more like a cross between the 18th-century gnosticism of Emanuel Swedenborg and the ecstatic visionary science fiction of Philip K. Dick.

Still, Mr. Alexander's vision of heaven sounds like the kind of sentimental and alienating place most folks would opt out of, given the chance. As a Christian, my vision of heaven is far more proletarian: I imagine an environmentally redeemed Earth cleansed of rapacious capitalists, wars and human folly where everyone works to fulfill their God-given potential within a loving community even if it takes the rest of eternity. God is at the center of this redemptive enterprise, not ego or spiritual middle men.

In my heaven, the arts and sciences will still be needed for attaining truth. Religion, but not worship, is dead. The search for answers will continue with nothing beamed into our souls except love.


Tony Norman: tnorman@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1631. Twitter: @TonyNormanPG.


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