I’ve always been fascinated with what happens when we die. It’s been clear to me for a long time, since working as a clinician with adults and children nearing the end of life, that our existence doesn’t end when our physical bodies do. Once a taboo topic, near-death and spiritually-transformative experiences (NDEs and STEs) have become increasingly popular as stories frequently emerge about these visits to the Great Beyond. Some experiencers report being surrounded by unconditional love, a warm, white light, and feelings of ineffable happiness. Others are met by a relative who has passed on and serves as a spiritual guide. Recent mainstream publications such as Proof of Heaven by the neurosurgeon Dr. Eben Alexander are once again piquing our interest and inspiring many of us to further explore these surprisingly common experiences.
I’m interested in near-death and spiritually-transformative experiences from the cultural and psychological perspective of the New Church. Does membership in this religion influence the content of an NDE or STE? Are New Church NDE/STEs filled with references to the Writings? What are the implications of these experiences on an individual’s sense of self, religiosity, and spirituality? Furthermore, how do New Church NDE/STEs compare and contrast to those reported by members of other religious and spiritual affiliations?
In my course, Psychology and Spirituality, we delve a little deeper into the exploration of such “mystical” experiences and the psychological effects they have on people. Near-death and spiritually-transformative experiences can provide a sense of hope, comfort, and elimination of death anxiety. Individuals often emerge with a newfound sense of purpose and meaning in their lives. Sometimes, experiencers get a glimpse of how the consequences of their actions on earth have affected others’ lives, and the implications on their own eternal afterlives. Such an experience can be a major motivation for turning one’s life in a new direction.
I’ve interviewed approximately 30 members of the New Church community and beyond about their experiences. With the help of undergraduate student interns in the psychology major I am transcribing, coding, and exploring for common themes. While the book is likely a few years down the road, I’m hoping to publish some of my findings in an academic journal in the near future. If you’d like to hear more about my personal journey, feel free to watch this brief convocation I gave to our students in November 2011: www.youtube.com/watch?v=UWHFXQYw24Y. One of my research interns also published a brief report in New Church Life about the study, which is available at www.newchurch.org/materials/publications/nc-life/pdf/NCL201207.pdf