Book review: “To Heaven & Back” by Mary C. Neal, MD (Great read but it raises many concerns)

To Heaven & Back

I am like many of you reading this fascinated by unusual happenings and accounts including NDEs (near death experiences), UFOs, Bigfoot, and so forth. Actually so long as a claim does not violate the established laws of physics or chemistry and has not already been convincingly refuted by contrary evidence, one must allow that the phenomenon or what-have-you in question might one day garner sufficient proof to compel acknowledging its reality. However, until the jury is in (solid evidence) it is usually prudent to remain agnostic on the matter (With the exception of things believed on the basis of faith and not testable using the tools of science — such as the existence of God).

There is nothing, for example, to disallow the existence of Bigfoot (Sasquatch) or a Yeti. The existence of such primates do not require a violation or suspension of the laws that govern the natural world nor even quality as extraordinary in the same sense, say, as an alien or fairy or ghost would. The problem with Bigfoot and the Yeti lies in a lack of evidence. There has been lots of frauds and biological samples that turned out to be from cows and bears and such, but no hair or tissue DNA (much less corpses) that reveal a previously unknown bipedal primate.

Near Death Experiences (NDEs) are a phenomenon that involves biological events surrounding dying and death, especially brain states that tend to give rise to things like leaving one’s body, visiting the afterlife (Heaven, hell or what-have-you), and so forth. Scientists have spent decades teasing out the mechanisms underlying or contributing to this process such as anoxia (lack of oxygen) albeit some of their pet hypotheses have been recently questioned and challenged (Click this link to read one especially cogent article concerning this).

I doubt many people of faith would have any problem with NDEs as a biological phenomenon or at least rooted in it, however, things get somewhat contentious when it comes to whether anything is revealed in NDEs that could not be explained by prosaic natural events or happenings in the brain (Believers say “yes”, skeptics, “no”). Consider this:  Believers in God who have NDEs typically see people and places consistent with their beliefs and expectations, though more than a few have reported being in a place they did not expect to be — hell. Being in hell would not be the sort of thing most folks would expect, however, it could be argued that in such instances their subconscious anticipated their going to hell and they “fulfilled this” during dying or at clinical death — heart stoppage but not total cessation of brain activity — as an NDE “vision”. This is consistent with NDEs being a manifestation of processes in a dying brain though arguments abound on the Web by men and women of faith who’ve had NDEs and claim experiencing things that could not have been produced by the brain whether dying, on hallucinogenic drugs or in the throes of other influences.      

There are, I know, those who claim they were brain dead and returned to life minutes or even hours or days after death (A search of videos on You Tube will turn up many such accounts and there are many books written by people claiming this, especially in the Charismatic or neopentecostal Christian world). However, I have yet to come across a single case in which indisputable medical proof has been produced that confirms body & brain death occurred and then life was restored later on.

So as best I can tell we have this tug-of-war between the two camps — those who find in NDEs only natural processes at work and no evidence of anything beyond brain death — and those who admit to the natural aspects of dying & NDEs but claim they have peered into or visited an afterlife world and returned. As Carl Sagan rightly pointed out, “extraordinary claims require extraordinary proof” and no such extraordinary proof has yet emerged that takes a given NDE experience beyond what can accounted for by natural processes and happenings. But, and this is a big but, when such claims of having visited an afterlife world do not represent a scientific claim but one predicated solely on faith (and is also not amenable to scientific testing), then the tale or account or story lies outside the purview of science.

As I am a believer you know pretty much where I land on the question of NDEs and especially a postmortem afterlife. And in line with this I like to peruse books and articles penned by those who have had an NDE and have vivid recollections of either heaven or hell or both.        

One of my recent reads is orthopedic surgeon Mary C. Neal’sTo Heaven and Back“. It is this book I will briefly review and critique now.

In-a-word Dr. Neal went kayaking in  the Los Rios region of southern Chile in 1999 and wound up pulled under water and drowned.     

In her book Dr. Neal shared various “lessons” derived from her NDE experience and what followed and then drew conclusions (some applicable to others) that I found perplexing, even disturbing. One reviewer of her book very ably captured some of my own reservations:

http://www.patheos.com/blogs/exploringourmatrix/2012/09/review-of-to-heaven-and-back-by-mary-c-neal.html

“…and yet in which it seems as though everything that happens, whether seemingly  good or ill, is for the best, and part of a divine plan, which is at times depicted as alterable but at other times seems not to be. “

“A worldview of this sort presents many puzzles and seemingly unanswerable questions. Neal believes that she was brought back from death to be there for her family to cope with the later death of  their son. But surely that makes no sense whatsoever – it would have been just as straightforward to spare her her accident, and have the son survive his own accident after a near-death experience.

“The book highlights the fact that, if we look for the good in the pattern of life that is woven by the intersection of human lives, we will find it. And I do not disagree in the slightest. But I do think that, in making a personal God the weaver who tugs and at times forces the threads into a foreordained pattern, it actually undermines the attributes of God that Neal herself wants to emphasize, including most importantly love. A God who micromanages an adult’s kayaking accident to ensure her survival, but not the careless running down of her son by a texting driver, or perhaps who micromanages both to at times reduce and at times intensify human agony, does not seem to provide anything other than personal comfort for one who, like Neal, wants to find comfort in the idea that such events are supernaturally meaningful.”

I’m sure many of the people who went through the Shoah (Holocaust) would agree with this reviewer whose opinion above, again, mirrors my own.

Also, in a chapter titled “Conversing with an Angel”: (pp 97-103) Dr. Neal discussed how an angel addressed a question of hers concerning why “bad things happen to good people?”

According to Neal ” In preparation for our journey to earth, we are able to make a basic outline for our life. This is not to imply that we, as humans, are entirely in charge of our life’s design. It is more like God creates it, then we review it and discuss it with our ‘personal planning’ angel. Within the algorithm are written branch points in our lives at which times we may exit, returning to God, or we may be redirected to a different task and goal”.

Let’s think about this for a moment:

Consider a, mother of six children, a believer, who has five children who along with her and her husband are placed in a concentration camp and then later tortured and then cruelly executed. Is it likely this is a plan she in some way approved as a preincarnate spirit including a grisly death of herself and her family, rewards in Paradise notwithstanding, as a favored “branch point” to exit this veil of tears?.

Would a preincarnate human spirit be likely approve an early life course spent being abused, sexually or otherwise, which is ended in her teens when her abuser bashes her head in with a sledge hammer? Is the fact the person she becomes is a faithful believer and accrues great eternal rewards for exercising her faith in the face of wanton brutality and perversion necessarily make this a life plan she would endorse?  

I suspect most folks reading this will have reservations and difficulties with this aspect of Dr. Neal’s book.

On a personal note, I am of the opinion that Dr. Neal’s  particular experiences are very circumspect in the sense that they constitute a divinely conducted experiment aimed at exploring & developing her faith (But which would not apply to many others, as the Almighty IMO fashions experiments unique to the individual).

This perspective — God as experimentalist — is actually one I have held for a very long time and developed and published in an essay titled “Rats in the Cosmic Laboratory: Is God a Scientist?” which readers will find at http://anthonypayne.hubpages.com/hub/Feeling-Alienated-You-have-a-lot-of-company (I originally published it ages ago on the “Think Deeply’ website — a now defunct cyber-forum. It racked up over 100K hits during it life and was #1 in the theory category).*

Having said all this, I did enjoy Dr. Neal’s book and was enriched by many aspects of it and thus would recommend anyone interested in NDE accounts to get a copy and read it, then pass it on to others who would welcome this sort of thing.

© 2012 by Dr. Anthony G. Payne. All rights reserved.

*Readers interested in my religious musings are invited to visit http://summerclouds.weebly.com/.

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About Dr. Anthony G. Payne

Most of the time you will find me spinning ideas and web content for client firms and especially physicians (MDs and DOs). Among my many passions are helping others help others, word weaving (Published writer & author, ghostwriter, copywriter, proofreader, editor), and art (Mainly sketching. I revel in Jackson Pollock's art and thus enjoy experimenting with his approach combined with those of other artists). Nature is a focus too, reflected in the fact I have been involved in the deep ecology movement since the 1980s and (more recently) the Forest Church movement. I am also a Celtic Christian monk (Novice monk in 2015, full monk in 2017). This is the realization of a calling I have "flirted with" for many moons now. You are encouraged to check out my "Summer Cloud's Spiritual Watering Hole"​ website to learn more: http://summerclouds.weebly.com.

Posted on September 25, 2014, in BOOK REVIEWS, DYING & DEATH, EGO write proinde EGO sum, Psychology, RELIGION, PHILOSOPHY & SPIRITUALITY and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Comments Off on Book review: “To Heaven & Back” by Mary C. Neal, MD (Great read but it raises many concerns).

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