Faith and Reason: The logic of God in each one of us: Roger Cook, a former Open University tutor, argues that 'near-death experiences', for all their ineffability, have something definite to tell us about the nature of deity.

Click to follow
The Independent Online
IF ANTONY FREEMAN is right in the beliefs for which the Bishop of Chichester sacked him this summer, God is not 'out there' but in us. Thanks to modern medical techniques there is a body of evidence which confirms this view.

It is widely known that many people have 'died' on the operating table or as a result of cardiac arrest and reported seeing themselves from above. Some find themselves travelling down a long tunnel towards a bright light which envelops them with feelings of warmth, love and joy, and an encounter with loved ones. Finally, understanding that this was not their time to die, they have been returned to the world of normal everyday life. Some or all of these events have happened to an estimated 13 million people in America, too many to dismiss as fakes or hysterics.

Many report an encounter with a Being of Light, often a Christ-like figure. He is vividly real to those who have had NDEs (near-death experiences), and many develop a belief in God as a result of the experience.

While 'realer than here, really' as one experiencer put it, the encounter does not imply that the God-figure has an objective reality, or dwells in a place that can be located. He has reality solely in the mind of the experiencer under the unique conditions that prevail at the point of death. Most people will only encounter him once, but a very large section of the population, snatched from the jaws of death by modern medicine, has already met him.

Curiously enough, one of the most convincing accounts of such an experience comes from that celebrated atheist, AJ Ayer. During a relapse following a bout of pneumonia, Ayer's heart stopped for about four minutes. On recovering, he gave an account of his experience: 'I was confronted by a red light, exceedingly bright, and also very painful, even when I turned away from it.' This light appeared to him to be responsible for the government of the universe. Ayer goes on:

'Among its ministers were two creatures who had been put in charge of space. These ministers periodically inspected space and had recently carried out such an inspection. They had, however, failed to do their work properly, with the result that space, like a badly fitted jigsaw puzzle, was slightly out of joint.

'A further consequence was that the laws of nature had ceased to function as they should. I felt that it was up to me to put things right. I also had the motive of finding a way to extinguish the painful light. I assumed that it was signalling that space was awry and that it would switch itself off when order was restored.

'Unfortunately I had no idea where the guardians of space had gone and feared that even if I found them I should not be able to communicate with them. It then occurred to me that whereas, until the present century, physicists accepted the Newtonian severance of space and time, it had become customary, since the vindication of Einstein's general theory of relativity, to treat space-time as a single whole. Accordingly I thought I could cure space by operating upon time.'

Ayer took pains to make clear that the experience originated in his own mind in 'Postscript to a Postmortem', a paper which he wrote after 'That Undiscovered Country'. He wrote it specifically to reassure his followers that his NDE had not altered his firm belief that there was no life after death, stating, 'I thought it so obvious that the persistence of my brain was the most probable explanation (of the experience) that I did not bother to stress it. I stress it now. No other hypothesis comes anywhere near to superseding it.'

The process by which the ideas and images of Ayer's NDE took shape in his brain is also made explicit in the words he uttered when he awoke from a sleep a little while after his return to life, to find a French friend beside his bed. He spoke to her, in French, and his words translate as follows: 'Did you know that I was dead? The first time that I tried to cross the river I was frustrated, but my second attempt succeeded. It was most extraordinary, my thoughts became persons.'

'My thoughts became persons' expresses precisely what does happen in an NDE. For the NDE is the fruit of the experiencer's own mind, drawing on the socio-cultural data-bank assembled from the sensory input received by his or her brain during life. The content of this data-bank may change but the structure of the NDE remains essentially the same across religions and cultures.

The evidence from near-death experiencers confirms that there is no great 'beyond' to which all NDE-ers travel to encounter a God. Each individual generates a personal transcendental environment and spirit world within his or her own mind.

As Iris Murdoch has suggested, there is no 'responsive superthou' out there governing life on Earth. What manifestly does exist is an impulse for good in all human beings, sometimes perverted into its opposite in places like Auschwitz, but essentially beneficent and benevolent. At the point of death this impulse gets crystallised into an incredibly potent vision of light, and feeling of warmth and love. Almost all who have had a NDE speak of its ineffability, and many are convinced that in the all-embracing light at the end of the tunnel they encountered the deity.

It is important not to equate the intense experience of this unique moment with the conventional operation of the imagination, ie the facility for conjuring up mental constructs and consciously applying the power of reason during normal waking life. At the point of death certain physical conditions - the lack of a heartbeat and the diminution of the oxygen supplied to the brain by the bloodstream, for example - are exerting an effect. The journey down a dark tunnel towards an all-enveloping light is one element that has been explained as the result of such changes in the brain.

The Murdochian idea that good is the reality of which God is the dream thus begins to make sense. The idea of God in each one of us, manifested uniquely at the point of death, is more logical than a deity somewhere 'out there'.