Moving On Up

Eben Alexander Has a GPS for Heaven

You surely think that Eben Alexander is either a fraud or sent from Heaven, but there’s little middle ground. Ironically, it's Alexander who says it’s middle ground we badly need.

10.08.14 9:45 AM ET

Hmm. This is tricky. How to review The Map of Heaven: How Science, Religion and Ordinary People are Proving the Afterlife, best-selling author and neurosurgeon Eben Alexander’s new book, which presents a cartography of heaven?

It makes a lady’s head spin as she contemplates the bitter divide in the audience.

One side of the readership has their ears perked up; they know what Alexander—who had a Near-Death Experience in 2008—is exploring. They have had a spiritual or numinous or paranormal experience at some point in their own lives. And, actually, they cross every demographic line you can name. They aren’t the Christian right. They aren’t the “wishful” grieving. They aren’t some special group of American Stupid. They include scientists and doctors, as Alexander himself is. They feature philosophers, and journalists, and engineers, and musicians.

They just happen to have encountered something singular and startling, not materially explicable—which we might once have called an intimation of the Divine.

Statistically, this group touches roughly 50 percent of Americans, at least in terms of the research I’ve surveyed on extraordinary perceptions around death or dying. The number who have had Near-Death Experiences (NDE), as defined according to the Greyson Scale (developed by psychiatrist Bruce Greyson at the University of Virginia to demarcate agreed-upon characteristics of NDE), sits at around 17 percent, no small figure.

So, there’s that curious and eclectic audience, on the one hand. And on the other are the folk, numbers unknown, who would pretty much say to Alexander, WTF are you talking about? There is no God, there is no Flying Spaghetti Monster, belief is not an evidentiary bedrock you can stand on, look at all the crazy shit happening in the world today as a result of religion. Sod Off with your silly map of heaven.

I don’t know how many members of this side of the debate post items on Facebook from popular social media groups like “I Fucking Love Science,” as if science itself were a faith, rather than an array of measuring cups and microscopes with which to test hypotheses. But I certainly see them in my news feed.

If there is a middle ground between experiential or “gnostic” belief, and post-Enlightenment commitment to the unassailability of a clockwork universe, it is represented by men like the prominent paranormal critic Michael Shermer, longtime editor of Skeptic magazine, who just wrote about a possible after-death communication from his grandfather-in-law.

In the main, however, we are looking at a radically fractured discourse. For materialists, it goes without saying that Eben Alexander will lose you at hello.

This review is earmarked, then, for the small G gnostics, as I’m somewhat flailingly calling them, and their friends and relations who are open to hearing what he’s got to say, because otherwise I’m just the person on the conference call who doesn’t realize they’re on mute as they present their quarterly report.

Alexander, as many know, was going about his business as a surgeon with all the modern trappings that implies—affluence, authority, prestige—when he suddenly got blown away like a gnat in a gale by some cosmic revelations during a near-fatal bout of meningitis.

While he was in a coma for seven days, his consciousness entered a series of transcendent realms. Near-Death Experiences tend to vary in narrative complexity. Some people only perceive themselves out of body in their immediate circumstances, hovering above the hospital bed or near the car crash; others proceed toward a light that envelopes them and becomes, all at once, love and intelligence as well—a sentient ocean of light. (This is not a fun little experiential novelty, by the way. The overpowering nature of this light shatters them.)

A much smaller number of people view landscapes and cities. Carl Jung, in the ’40s, managed to go to outer space during a massive heart attack and gained an International Space Station’s Eye View of North Africa and the Middle East decades before Google Earth. (Not that it interested him as geography.) Instead, the intensity of the spiritual world enthralled him, and he felt appalled by the puny, stick-figure reality he returned to.

For whatever reason, Alexander embarked upon a particularly elaborate tour of what he perceived to be spiritual realms while he lay prone in his Virginia hospital bed in 2008, thus affording him the opportunity to map more than most modern NDE’ers would, or could. The result might have been disastrously implausible. I remember once hearing the spirit medium Sylvia Browne describe Heaven to an arena-sized audience as a place where people could golf, and tend horses. It wasn’t far off from the exciting, virgin-filled brothel that Muslim extremists are so looking forward to as they cavalierly behead random foes; only more like a Floridian retirement community.

But Alexander is far more intellectually sophisticated, and frankly more reverent. He frames his observations with quotations from the great and nuanced spiritual teachers down the ages, from mystics to theologians, and pairs them with the recent work of scientists, with an aim to tearing down the doctrinal walls between religions, and—more pressingly, here in the U.S.—religion and science.

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We need, he argues, to take “a view of the world that isn’t ‘religious’ in the old, ponderous, dogmatic sense of the word, nor ‘scientific’ in the reductive, materialistic, objectifying sense of the word.”

His plea for reconciliation actually echoes that of the Bahai’ faith, which originated in 19th century Persia and has its main temple in Haifa, Israel. Alexander makes no reference to them, so perhaps he is unaware that the Bahai’s believe that all prophets are manifestations of the same divinity, and that humanity’s future depends upon the collaboration between religions and science. But that’s what his take reminds me of.

Although the New Atheists would rather die and refuse-to-go-to-Heaven than allow such irrational nonsense to prevail as a global aim, the gulf between science and spirituality is not unfathomable. On the contrary, the scientific study of consciousness has been central to bridging this gulf, leading to a fascinating manifesto of sorts in the current issue of the journal Explore.

Another approach has been phenomenological study, essentially a social science, which is what neuropsychiatrist Peter Fenwick, emeritus of King’s College, London, and the psychiatrists and psychologists at the University of Virginia’s Division of Perceptual Studies have been doing for some years. What do mystics and those who have Near-Death experiences mean when they describe a reality that felt shatteringly greater than this reality? What is the quality of the sentient light they encounter, that “shines not burns”? How can we taxonomize their experience, and differentiate it from hallucination, or psychotic break?

Between this kind of data collection—no different than studying varieties of depression, or political demographics—and the fMRI imaging being done, for example, on Buddhist meditators at the University of Wisconsin, we are indeed beginning to map without prejudice subjective experiences of the mystic.

Alexander spends a good part of this book cross-referencing spiritual experiences, from readers who have sent him accounts to mystics from different religious traditions, building his case for universality in describing what a (non-denominational) Heaven looks like. Here he quotes the Persian mystic Najmoddin Kobra. Heaven is not just the “visible outer sky,” as might have been concretely assumed pre-Enlightenment, but instead features “other skies, more profound, more subtle, bluer, purer, brighter, innumerable and limitless.”

For Alexander, the higher realms are like ever-more intensifying mirrors of where we are now, although I’m not putting that quite right, and neither does he. You run into the quandary of the ineffable, or what philosophers refer to as the Unsayable when you talk about the numinous experience. An encounter without shared language is impossible to describe. Try explaining what a cucumber tastes like to a 19th century Inuit. Actually, just trying explaining it to your spouse.

Are we speaking of a multiverse? “My Father’s House has many mansions,” Christ said. Multiple domains. Each possessed of skies, waters, trees. Concrete replications, but different. “When we ascend, in short, everything’s still there,” Alexander writes. “Only it’s more real. Less dense, yet at the same time, more intense, more there … To see this world for but one moment is to have your heart broken with the sudden inrushing memory of its reality.”

Here is the delusion. Here is where we forget. This echoes what a subject I interviewed, who had had a powerful numinous experience during a plane accident told me: “It’s like I’d been lost for centuries and I’d found my way home.”

Notes Alexander: “You’ve glimpsed the world outside the cave, and all has changed, forever.”

At the beginning of this short book, which I’m somewhat at a loss to describe in terms of genre—a secular homily?—Alexander outlines the differences between Aristotle and Plato. They both drew metaphysical maps that formed the foundation of Western thinking, he says, but one was interior and spiritual, the other naturalistic. Like the foreground-background reversals in Gestalt psychology, it eventually became impossible to perceive both maps simultaneously.

We are naturalists, now, materialists! We do not traffic in Platonic Forms. Naturalism tells us that mystics had temporal lobe epilepsy. Sufi poets perhaps, who knows, had ADD. Tolstoy was delusional. C.S. Lewis was indulging in fancy. The bereaved have grief hallucinations. The dying are deceived by the chemical whirl of “a dying brain.”

“What we need today,” Alexander argues, “is a combination of the best of the Platonic and Aristotelian spirit. That’s the new vision that people are starving for, and that they are beginning to adopt because of what they are learning from experiences of their own.”

There is little doubt that personal experience is going to become a driver, now, in grassroots spirituality, particularly as the old religions begin to collapse and rigidify. Eben Alexander has become a foundational leader in this movement, and is, for that reason alone, a very interesting character to watch.