And I saw no temple in it, for the Lord God almighty and the Lamb are its temple. - Revelation 21:22
Raymond Moody¡¯s Life after Life brought the subject of death out of the closet, and perhaps it was only to be expected that the reactions to it would be various. Some saw it as vindicating their own belief in life after death. Some conservative Christians were apparently skeptical because there was no mention of the kind of judgment they expected--or wanted. Some people, especially in the medical community, proposed neurological or psychological explanations. Relatively few paid careful attention to what was obviously most important to the experiencers themselves--the effect of the experiences on their lives. One particular book, though, by an Australian woman, does take this as its focus, and one of the effects in particular gives cause for serious thought about the church.
Let me set that particular effect in context. Near death experiences tend to change people for the better. In reading the accounts, time after time we find people telling us how different the world looks to them, how different they feel about themselves and about the meaning of their lives. One of the most obvious changes is that they have no fear whatever of death, and despite the fact that they know death to be surpassingly beautiful, they have no inclination toward suicide, no desire to hasten the day. Toward people who have committed suicide, they express only compassion.
Again and again, they emphasize that life is about loving and learning. A few go back to formal education, but all would agree that learning is not primarily about classrooms or degrees. They watch less television, read fewer newspapers, ask more questions, read more books. Most become more aware of social needs and more involved in their communities. They tend not to become political activists because they see the political process as superficial and corrupt. They see our social problems as having spiritual roots, and they want to work at the level of causes rather than at the level of symptoms.
All of this seems wonderfully congenial in the light of the values our own theology stands for. These good folk know from experience what we are taught by doctrine, namely that here and now we are spiritual beings, that what makes us human is love and wisdom, that the spiritual world is the world of causes, and that religion is first and foremost a matter of life.
One word, though, is conspicuously lacking in their accounts of their new values--the word, ¡°worship.¡± They seem to have no questions about the existence or the goodness of God. Many report a marvelous encounter with a ¡°being of light¡± whom some identify as Jesus, but time after time they describe themselves as having become more ¡°spiritual¡± and less ¡°religious.¡± I suspect that if someone were to pursue the subject with them, it would emerge that they have such a sense of living constantly in the presence of the Divine that coming to church feels rather like a distraction.
They do need help integrating the experience into their lives. It is hard for them to accept the experience if they are told that it was nothing but a hallucination, that it raises doubts about their stability. It is hard for them to work out its implications for their lives if there is no one to talk with. The author of the book, herself an experiencer, describes cases in which the experience lay dormant for years until the opportunity came to share it with someone who believed and supported. These ¡°someones¡± are rarely the clergy, and the groups in which support is found do not seem to be churches.
What I am suggesting is that by their absence, and with full benevolence, near death experiencers are passing judgment on the church. They have experienced the marriage of love and wisdom. They are wholly engaged in the effort to love and learn. They know that they need support in this effort. They look at the church and say, ¡°The support I need is not there.¡±
In a way, I can hear them uttering the words of Isaiah, not so much in anger as in sorrow:
¡°What is the point of all your sacrifices to me?¡± says the Lord. ¡°I am full of the burnt offerings of rams and the fat of fed beasts. I have no pleasure in the blood of bullocks or of lambs or of he goats. When you come to appear before me, who has required this of you, that you tread my courts? Please--no more pointless sacrifices . . . Wash yourselves. Make yourselves clean. Put away the evil of your deeds from my sight. Stop doing evil. Learn to do well.¡±
How would we respond? I hope we would think very hard before we said anything at all. The fact is that we have not had this kind of transformative experience. We do not have the spontaneous sense of spirituality that seems to flow from it. When we open our worship by saying that the Lord is in his holy temple, that may be a reminder of something we are inclined to forget--or to put it more baldly, it may be a substitute for the real thing.
I hope also that each of us could say that we are trying to bring our weekday lives to church and bring our church to our weekday lives. I doubt that there is a minister in Convention who does not hope that this is happening, who does not try to use the service for this end. In a sense, this is at the heart of Isaiah¡¯s outburst--we are to come not to satisfy God¡¯s need to be worshiped but to strengthen the affection and understanding we need--to ¡°learn to do well.¡± Perhaps near death experiencers have been promoted to the graduate curriculum.
There is nothing wrong with being wherever we happen to be on life¡¯s journey, on the path of regeneration. There is everything wrong with pretending we are somewhere else. The image comes to mind of being on an up slope, thinking we are on a down slope, and trying to safeguard our progress by putting on the brakes. When we meet an obstacle, has the Lord allowed it because we need to overcome it or because we need to change course? The only way to know is to be as candid with ourselves as we possible can, to find that frame of mind in which we do not care how distressing or distasteful the truth is as long as we can have confidence that it is true.
It is the intent of the church to help us where we are, that is, and perhaps near death experiencers are somewhere else. If this is the case, where they are seems, in some important respects, to be where we are headed. We may have more to receive than we have to offer.
And yet, we may have something very special to offer in return. We might say that Swedenborg had twenty-eight years of near death experiences. The reason the effects of contemporary folk sound so healthy, so attractive to us lies in our sense that they are talking about the same thing not in the eighteenth century but in the twentieth, not in Stockholm or London but in Bridgewater. They describe this in everyday language, not in Latin and not in ¡°translatorese.¡± They exemplify what Swedenborg insists on--that there is nothing abstract or academic about divine love and wisdom. One does not need a Ph.D. in order to die, or in order to learn what death has to teach.
This brings us, finally, to our New Testament reading--part of the description of the New Jerusalem from the closing chapters of Revelation. This description, we believe, summarizes what death has to teach us about the new church. That is, if we could read it with our spiritual minds open, we would see what the church of the dawning era is to be, what in some respects it must already be, for the new era is very much with us.
We sometimes refer to these chapters as ¡°the charter of the New Church,¡± and refer to ourselves as ¡°the Church of the New Jerusalem.¡± Have we looked hard enough at our text, ¡°And I saw no temple in it, for the Lord God almighty and the Lamb are its temple¡±? What does this have to tell us about our own focus on Sunday worship, about the effort that has just been expended to restore this particular temple? Have we missed the point?
Not necessarily, but the risk is real. In a way, this building stands as a witness to our need, as a statement of where we are. The image of our text is telling us that we must not allow it to become a statement of where we are going. It is a way station, if you will. It is temporary.
It is temporary because it is temporal, and we happen to be eternal. It is temporal not so much because it cannot last forever as because we will all leave it. For all our allegiance to spirituality, the materialistic perspective still has a strong hold on us: in Wordsworth¡¯s phrase, ¡°The world is too much with us.¡± The world is what we have to work with for the time being, but it is a means to an end beyond itself.
When near death experiencers see our social problems as having spiritual roots, they are talking, I believe, about a need for this kind of change of perspective. One way of explaining it is to say that now that they have no fear of death, they have no need for any of the substitutes for immortality such as wealth or power or fame. In Buddhist terms, they are free of the ¡°attachments¡± that distract us from the real business of living.
It is just this change of perspective, I would suggest, that is imaged in the spiritual sense of Scripture and portrayed in our theology. The task of the church is to foster that change, first of all in ourselves because that is prerequisite to fostering it in anyone else. If we are to keep Sunday worship as the focus of our efforts, then, we must focus our worship on that change.