The Life of the World to Come: Near-Death Experience and Christian Hope - The Albert Cardinal Meyer Lectures

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Critics of religion have argued that Christianity's success stems from its promise of eternal life, that people become Christian at bottom merely to cope with their fear of death. Contemporary theologians and philosophers, highly sensitive to this charge, tend to skirt the issue of life after death. To speak of the afterlife is at best to engage in wishful thinking, at worst to descend to the level of pop religion, encounters with angels, and UFO abductions. In The Life of the World to Come, however, Carol ...
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Overview


Critics of religion have argued that Christianity's success stems from its promise of eternal life, that people become Christian at bottom merely to cope with their fear of death. Contemporary theologians and philosophers, highly sensitive to this charge, tend to skirt the issue of life after death. To speak of the afterlife is at best to engage in wishful thinking, at worst to descend to the level of pop religion, encounters with angels, and UFO abductions. In The Life of the World to Come, however, Carol Zaleski asks the question, "Are we rationally and morally entitled to believe in life after death?" and answers with a spirited and emphatic "yes."
Drawing on a rich and varied array of sources ranging from Plato to St. Augustine to Heidegger, from the samurai warrior code to New Yorker cartoons to conversations with her young son, Zaleski not only brilliantly defends the right of Christians to believe in a life after death, but she illuminates the real value of imagining what that life might be like. It is important to spiritual maturity, she says, for the believer to be able to imagine a state of complete fulfillment, of oneness with God. And a vision of the ideal society, the heavenly communion of saints, is essential to the ordering of both our own lives and the society in which we live. Zaleski organizes her defense into three parts corresponding to the three great hours of the Divine Office, the cycle of prayers that is the heart of monastic life: Lauds at dawn's first light, Vespers at twilight, and, with the coming of night, Compline. In this liturgy of darkness and light, sleeping and waking, Zaleski discovers a poignant awareness of the ever-presentness of death in life and life in death, an awareness that we sadly miss amidst the medical and technological wonders of modern life. The timeless prayers and rituals of classical Christianity, she finds, are not a distraction from life, but a way of orienting oneself to life. Zaleski stresses the importance of the testimony of near-death experiences for Christian thinking about the afterlife. While these experiences do not by themselves provide objective evidence of life after death, she says, neither should they be dismissed as wishful thinking merely because research shows them to be influenced by cultural expectations. Zaleski asks "If God, the unknowable, wishes to be known, what other recourse does God have but to avail himself of our images and symbols, just as he has availed himself of our flesh?"
This book will inspire, challenge and console readers seeking to confront their own hopes and fears of death and the afterlife with dignity, rather than despair or denial. Candid, surprising, and profoundly wise, it will fascinate anyone intrigued by the strange and wonderful phenomena of near-death experience and the beauty and mystery of the unknown.
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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
In these graceful meditations, Zaleski, a professor of religion at Smith College, searches for the affinities between narratives of near-death experiences (NDEs) and the traditional Christian doctrines of hope and the afterlife. Delivered originally as lectures during the Octave of Easter, Zaleski's reflections are ordered according to the three great hours (Lauds, Vespers, Compline) of the Divine Office. The meditation on Lauds, or morning prayer, thus explores the ways that NDEs may be understood as awakenings to the reality of death, while the meditation on Vespers, or evening prayer, reflects upon the NDE as an experience on the threshold of death. Weaving a rich tapestry of images of the afterlife from the writings of the early Church fathers and from New Age accounts of NDEs, Zaleski concludes that traditional Christian images of the afterlife may be greatly enriched by an encounter with the images of afterlife offered in NDE accounts. Because Zaleski's meditations possess that rare combination of intellectual gravity and lyrical playfulness, they are certain to appeal to a wide range of readers. (May)
Steve Schroeder
Zaleski is a well-known scholar of near-death experiences, and there is much interest in such experiences in both popular and scholarly circles, so this meditative little book is likely to have a substantial audience. It is an expanded version of three lectures presented in 1993 at the University of St. Mary of the LakeMundelein Seminary. Zaleski delivered the lectures during the Easter season and noted a division between Western and Eastern Christianity that marked the time as a simultaneous reminder of death and resurrection. She conceived the lectures as a set of meditations on" the hours of Lauds, Vespers, and Compline in the Divine Office, "which traces the mystery of death and resurrection through the course of a single day." Many readers will find the liturgical structure an aid to meditation; many more will find comfort in Zaleski's emphatic yes to the question of whether Christians are morally entitled to believe in life after death. The real theme of the book is hope, and that is a theme in great demand.
Kirkus Reviews
Three sharp, provocative lectures on the origins and restorative values of a belief in "individual survival after death," by the author of Otherworld Journeys: Accounts of Near- Death Experiences in Medieval and Modern Times (not reviewed). Zaleski (World Religions and Philosophy/Smith Coll.) draws on her extensive research into the near-death experience to illuminate how our modern refusal to contemplate mortality (and thus to consider its aftermath) has left us ill equipped to deal with this ultimate reality. "If we do not permit ourselves to form images of personal and collective existence after death," Zaleski argues, "then we have no way of testing who we are or of sounding our deepest ideals." Zaleski draws on the theories of ancient and medieval philosophers about the afterlife; offers clear, shrewd interpretations of Christian dogma (demonstrating just how subtle and surprising such dogma is), and uses both ancient and modern accounts of near-death experiences to identify the specific ways in which a belief in survival is nurturing and necessary. The result is a persuasive case for the solace and stimulation to be found in a frank contemplation of death and whatever may follow it.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780195103359
  • Publisher: Oxford University Press, USA
  • Publication date: 4/25/1996
  • Edition number: 1
  • Pages: 112
  • Lexile: 1400L (what's this?)
  • Product dimensions: 5.75 (w) x 8.81 (h) x 0.61 (d)

Meet the Author

About the Author:
Carol Zaleski is the author of Otherworld Journeys: Accounts of Near-Death Experience in Medieval and Modern Times. She teaches world religions and philosophy of religion at Smith College.

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Table of Contents

Preface
1 Lauds: Awakening to the Reality of Death 3
2 Vespers: Experiences at the Threshold of Death - Intimations of Immortality? 23
3 Compline: Sheltered Sleep and Eternal Wakefulness - The Antiphony of Christian Hope 51
Notes 83
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