Nov 11, 2017 | By

Speculations on Consciousness: A Quantum, Cosmic, Spiritual Phenomenon

PJ Buehler and George Gantz:

The Opening Conversation: Swedenborg and Near Death Experiences

Several months ago, Peter Buehler and George Gantz began an exchange of emails, focused on the “Hard Problem of Consciousness.” While the thoughts expressed will hardly solve that problem, they may provide some insights that readers will find interesting.

PJ – On Near Death Experience (NDE)

I’ve been a Swedenborgian for three or four years now. I arrived at my present level of belief strictly by my own efforts, being neither recruited nor indoctrinated by anyone else.  My journey began several years after I retired from my stint as a book-cataloguer at M.I.T.  Somewhere along the way I picked up a book entitled “Proof of Heaven”, by Dr. Eben Alexander, in which he recounts a near-death experience.  I thought it was total BS, another in the cottage industry production of books on the subject that sprang up after the publication of Raymond Moody’s book “Life After Life” in 1976.

But then I began to scratch around, looking for similar stories that pre-dated Moody’s work and I found several that seemed credible.  There is even a detail in a painting by Heironymus Bosch that seems to depict angels carrying souls toward the tunnel of light, an NDE account that seems nearly unanimous.  You can see this detail on the cover of the book, “Tunnel to Eternity”, by Leon Rhodes, late of Bryn Athyn.

And of course, there are Swedenborg’s extensive accounts of his spiritual experiences, the “memorable relations” with which he peppers his theological writings

I came to believe in the near-death experience.  One important reason for me is that, in a strictly Darwinian sense, there is no justification for the experience. There is no way the being having this experience can pass it on to our progeny, and there is no reason that a body that has perhaps suffered immeasurably throughout life should experience any measure of comfort at the very end.  The near-death experience makes sense only if the consciousness is embarking upon a continued existence apart from the physical body.

In short, our consciousness continues to exist apart from our body. And let’s face it — ‘consciousness’ is an awkward word. So let’s call it what it is — Spirit.  When you’ve reached this point you are a Swedenborgian, whether you know it or not.

Coincidentally, when cleaning the basement of the Swedenborg chapel, I came across the recounting of a near-death experience in the New Jerusalem Magazine dated September 1833 (vol. VII, 1833-34 (p.3). The title is “Remarkable case of apparent death and subsequent return of the spirit to the body, with other interesting facts; as contained in a memoir of Rev. William Tennent.” (Full text online)

So there you are; two planes of existence – the physical, or Natural, and the Spiritual.  Imagine these two planes in two dimensions, with one plane on your left and the other on the right. Now imagine them intersecting in front of you; that intersection is a straight line.  That straight line is where we exist – we are formed, have our existence at the intersection of the Natural and the Spiritual planes.  Keeping it simple; our bodies exist in the Natural, our consciousness in the Spiritual.  And how are they integrated?  That’s where science comes in.

George – What Amazing Synchronicity

This is exciting – we are both latecomers to Swedenborg and have much in common.  I am also a committed Swedenborgian, having been introduced to his writings at the age of 40 by a wonderful friend, now my wife of 25 years. I had never studied NDE and in my early years I would have discounted the reports, as many do, as hallucinations. Yet that explanation, and the broader empiricist enterprise of explaining everything in physical terms, increasingly struck me as hollow. When I read Swedenborg’s crystal clear accounts of his visits to the spiritual world, and the remarkable coherency and completeness of his theological and cosmological conclusions, I was profoundly delighted.

When Dr. Alexander’s book came out in 2012, I found it to be a compelling account of a conversion — a physician thoroughly indoctrinated in western medical empiricism is confronted by an experience he cannot explain. His worldview was forced to change. This was also, in a sense, a confirmation of my own efforts to open conversations about the integration of science and spirituality on the Swedenborg Center Concord website.

I met Dr. Alexander when he spoke to the Swedenborgian church in Bryn Athyn, PA. As I reported in a previous post “Life Beyond Death”:

“His visits to the heavenly realm in a period when his brain was shut down has given him a direct knowledge and conviction, beyond doubt, that there is a Divine Creator imbued with infinite love. Human consciousness does not arise from the brain but is itself part of the Creator’s eternal realm. We inhabit our brains and bodies for a time on our journey to be fully integrated with the Creator’s infinite love.

So there you are: evidence (which you may or may not believe) that there is a profound spiritual world, that we are conscious beings that exist beyond time and space, and that we live our lives in both the physical world and the spiritual realm. How do these realms interact? I don’t think science has the answer, but it may have interesting things to say!


Peter Buehler is the President of the Swedenborg Chapel in Cambridge.

George Gantz is the curator of this Forum on the Integration of Science and Spirituality, and the former President of the Executive Committee of the Concord New Church. George also publishes Spiral Inquiry.

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