Thoughts on Immortality and the Mind

ImageI have my homepage set to the Arts & Letters Daily website with the hope of stayingcurrent with current ideas bouncing around the world.  This website features links to all sorts of online articles about all manner of things.  People.  Ideas.  Historic events.  Scientific discoveries.    

Recently I came across a linked article from the LA Times.  This article revealed that a UC Riverside philosophy professor named John Martin Fischer just received a 5 million dollar Templeton grant to study immortality.  The article went on to talk about the latest popular books about experiences of the afterlife.  Books like the one by Dr. Eben Alexander, which describes a transcendent experience of existence at the threshhold of death.  Then, with journalistic balance, the article also gave rejoinders to such thoughts by the likes of neurologist Oliver Sacks who believes that these experiences are merely manifestations of the brain.

Sacks ‘thought’ makes sense.  The brain is able to do amazing things.  When I studied psychology in college I was intrigued by the experiments where scientists stimulated parts of the brain directly.  The patients were fully awake while their brains were being poked.  A scientist applied stimulation to the visual cortex and the patient saw new shapes or colors.  Stimulation was applied to the area of the brain known for smell.  Suddenly the patient would smell pizza.  These scientists played puppeteer with these people’s brains.  However, the extra-intriguing part of the experiment was that the patients also developed rationale for why they were experiencing these things.  “Someone must be eating pizza outside the operating room,” they’d explain to the scientists.

The experiment indicated that our brains seek to make sense of the world.  Thus, Sacks explanation for people’s experience of the afterlife.  More sense-making.  

Yet, Sacks comment also begs a circular question.  Isn’t his notion about the brain’s interpretation just that—a brain interpretation.  Is Sacks able to live outside of his own brain in a way that the rest of us can’t?  Is Sacks’ brain less prone to error than the average brain.

Hmm.  What are we to make of our interpretations of the world?  A mass meaningless solipsistic adventure.  Or, perhaps we have good reason to trust our minds.  Could it be that ‘good reason’ comes from minds that echo a much greater Mind making sense of it all?

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Advent Time

Two weeks ago one of my favorite woodworking writers offered up his Stanley number 4 type11 smoothing plane to the reader who submitted the best woodworking haiku.  Longing for this well-tuned machine and feeling inspired one evening I came up with this:

Bring down the pillar                                                                                                            The wedge bears the years to tell                                                                                    Giving shape to time

I was trying to capture the way woodworking deals with something that has lived through sometimes a century of seasons.  We woodworkers go crazy over the tight grains in boards that show lots of slow growth.  Some of the best wood comes from trees that have had to struggle for years under the canopy of other trees.  Each growth ring comes nice and close to last year’s ring–making for strong and beautiful boards for things like boats and furniture.

Sadly, I didn’t win the no. 4.  I was beat out by a guy who compared the handplane to a woman.  Figures.

Yet, thinking about trees and time has given me some perspective on Advent.  In 2 Peter 3 the Scripture reminds us about God’s patience in delaying his coming.  His patience is meant to allow room for repentance.  It’s meant to bring more people into his salvation through Christ Jesus.

It makes me think about growth rings and grain.  God’s after that old-growth heartwood.  It looks good now.  It’s going to look stunning in the age to come.

Thoughts on Conversion

I originally wrote this piece in June of 2009 to be published on my personal blog but never got around to doing it.  It wasn’t merely because of my sloth.  Pastorally, I didn’t want to unnecessarily offend members of my congregation who already struggle with the traditional “Reformed” understanding of baptism and all that baptism entails.

Yet, I’ve been thinking a lot over the last 5+ years of ministry about conversion and the significance of baptism and the Christian Church.  As a pastor, you have a front row seat in this great drama. But I think that I’ve been drawn to this area in particular because I moved into a ministry context largely evangelized by your fairly typical American evangelicalism.  There is a big stress on one’s personal relationship with God.  This is, of course, a good stress.  However, it can also come at the expense of the Christian community or “Body of Christ” as the Scriptures describe.

This reflection was born out of this ethos.

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Today a very aware ministry colleague made me aware of a new book from church historian Mark Noll.  I read a very interesting excerpt from some section of the manuscript.  Many things surprised me about the state of my faith.  At the end of several sentences I had chills running down my spine.  Noll’s description of the vibrancy and advance of the global church makes me want to join a chorus of sisters and brothers in a house in Shanghai or under a tree in Rwanda.

He was making the point that conversions are being experienced in a variety of ways.  The new global church is not simply praying the sinners prayer and getting a new Bible.  Sometimes, he writes, whole villages and tribes are converting to Christianity.  Then he relayed a piece of history from a millennium past.  In that day Prince Vladmir spent time studying Judaism, Islam, Roman Catholicism, and Eastern Orthodoxy.  He ended up choosing Eastern Orthodoxy and, subsequently, marched the whole city of Kiev down to the river to be baptized.

Wow!  No altar call.  You’re Christians now.  We’re getting baptized.  Follow the leader.

Stories like this immediately make Western evangelicals wonder about individual peoples true feelings.  It seems as though, for the Kievites, it was their leader’s feelings that mattered most.  Their figurehead led them through the waters and into a new existence, with Christ as Lord.  I assume that they had to own this new reality, however.

I wouldn’t suggest this as a means of North American conversion.  However, I’m very aware of my own conversion.  It isn’t that different, really.  Sure, I remember asking Jesus into my heart when I was 5 or 6 in the basement of my best friend’s house.  But there was more to the story before that.  I was born into a Christian home.  Hearing the Gospel, singing hymns, praying, have always been there with me.  I am able to start into centuries old hymns after hearing a slice of organ notes.  In my youth I said I was tired of the crusty hymns of our services.  But now its those old hymns that bring tears.  I’m not even 30 years old!  I shouldn’t like “By the Sea of Crystal” but that last line belted out by a long suffering, pilgrim congregation absolutely rocks.

My point: I was born into the community of faith and shortly thereafter signed and sealed into it through baptism.  My parents were born and baptized into the faith.  My Grandparents.  My Great-Grandparents.  Their parents.  Then it gets a bit more foggy but the likelihood is that many more generations back my kin in Frisland, working the farms or fishing the waters of the Noord Zee, were baptized into and confessed Jesus Christ as Lord.  Sometime,  maybe after (Boniface?) preached through the area, my tree-worshipping ancestor left his pagan ways and was baptized into Christ.  And from generation to generation the Gospel of Christ was impressed upon the next.  So, in some sense, I don’t think it’s too sacrilegious to say that part of me was converted back with my yet unknown ancestor.  Life became saturated with Christ and I was born into that life.  I was then signed and sealed into it.  I grew.  I professed.  I’m still growing.  Still professing.  And now impressing too.

But isn’t this also how Scripture describes faith?  We have these family stories and then we have The Family Story.

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I love how ‘In Christ’ ‘through faith’ ‘through baptism’ we are joined with God’s people into his great redemption drama.