10 May 2019


Schlieter. What Is It Like To Be Dead? Near-Death Experiences, Christianity and The Occult. Oxford University Press. 2018.

Schlieter is a professor of 'the systematic study of religion' at the University of Bern in Switzerland. He has a penchant for comparative religions and connections between philosophies. This book is dense and unillustrated so not a particularly easy read – although not impenetrable. Paragraphs appear that are up to two pages long so you might want to read it in small doses rather than on the beach and an oxygen supply may come in handy too.
But is it worth the effort? I would have to say yes, because it does look into a familiar subject, near death visions and experiences, in a surprisingly different way. Less attempting to explain or prove them real but to understand them in a cultural context and see why they might have come to the fore in the 60s and 70s as they did. That perception of what he establishes to be an ancient topic often only seen in light of modern non religious 'paranormal experience' is a useful focus that his book provides.

The text is full of intriguing quotes from obscure papers such as an Augustinian monk in 1710 saying 'Who dies before he dies does not die when he dies.' If you can get your head around interpretations of comments such as these as to what they might mean then you will probably find this book illuminating.

Divided into five parts it first assesses what today we call the 'near death experience' (or NDE) as a religious experience in past ages from the context of a philosophical search for evidence of the nature of the soul. Schlieter then moves on to how different religions interpreted such enlightenment experiences in past centuries in context of their own different perceptions of that soul.

In part 3 he assesses why the 1960s and 70s were ripe for a total rethink on looking at the experience of the soul leaving the body as traditional religion was losing ground to mysticism and rational agnosticism. Whereas at the same point humans were widely experimenting with mind expanding techniques and substances.

Parallel with these things and, he argues, just as importantly, medicine was hospitalising death rather than allowing people to die at home, and finding new ways to prolong beyond what previously had been pronounced as dead because older medicine had no way of reviving at that stage.

Part 4 assesses the data from NDE reports in his own approach – case histories not being the purpose here. He asks “Is there a way to find out if certain traits of experiences near death rest exclusively on expectations of what to experience near death, or, on retroactive interpretations?”

In the final section the professor seeks to assess how the data can 'restore the meaning of religious experience in an age of uncertainty.'

This is less of a book about personal accounts that are providing evidence of survival beyond apparent death – though that is a part of it - and more a philosophical assessment of comparative meaning between how these things were looked at before and after the decline of day to day acceptance of religious belief in terms of of it being seen as a literal reality.

You will likely find your own personal high-point of interest from the many threads he weaves together. I was especially intrigued by his discussion of how the butterfly has been a religious image of rebirth for centuries. Because, of course, it is a creature that seems to emerge reborn from out of another one that dies. Its association with NDEs symbolically is one thing, but I saw deeper imagery that the author understandably could not.

That is how it also relates to modern day cultural transgender ideology, something I find myself often debating these days although I have no allegiance to its pseudo-mystical imagery of being reborn out of an old body into one of the opposite sex. Indeed a 2018 ITV drama series about a child transitioning into a girl was titled Butterfly for this reason.

That deeply entrenched imagery might also have relevance to why there are fascinating parallels that again the author understandably does not see between alien abduction cases and NDEs. These cases arose within the same time frame as he assesses (coming to the fore in the 60s, 70s and 80s). That may well be significant to his argument.

All in all this is not an easy book to read but is one that offers much of interest to the deep thinker on this topic. Though some familiarity with the modern NDE evidence in the first place is probably a good starting point. – Jenny Randles.

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