Arthur E. Farnsley II on the Risks of Rationalism in a Believing World

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Arthur E. Farnsley II is associate director of the Center for the Study of Religion and American Culture at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis. The views expressed in this commentary do not necessarily represent those of BCNN1.

My friend Peter Panagore came back from the dead.  He wrote a book, “Heaven Is Beautiful,” about the experience and now speaks on the Near Death Experience circuit.

But Peter will tell you he was not near-death, he was dead. And it happened to him not once, but twice.

Peter and I attended Yale Divinity School together in the early ’80s. At that time, he had already died once, on an ice wall in Alberta, Canada, but he never mentioned it to me while at seminary. For years he did not speak to anyone about his experience, for just the reasons you might imagine.

Later, he felt led to share this story as part of his ongoing ministry. He told of experiencing light, love and a host of other sensations that were very real to him but difficult to describe.

Peter’s experience resonates with many people. He appeared on Fox & Friends’ national broadcast to talk about his book.  He’s had his own local television and radio programs in Maine and now he has a YouTube channel.

Like me, you might be skeptical. Maybe Peter is a huckster. Maybe he imagined or misunderstood his experience because it was so traumatic. Maybe something did happen in his brain — something scientifically explicable — and he now interprets that as coming back from the dead.

The Rev. Peter Panagore. Courtesy photo

This last explanation is in many ways easiest for rationalists like me to swallow. I can imagine how his brain stopped functioning — maybe his oxygen was cut off, his memories kicked in, and then he reframed the whole experience when he regained consciousness. Given the grim circumstances (you’ll have to read the book), maybe his brain played tricks on him.

And yet he believes he died, twice, and came back with a purpose: to tell others that heaven is real and God’s love surrounds us. I have no doubt he is telling the truth as he understands it.

This raises questions for me that go way beyond the relatively mundane “What really happened to Peter?” Because the fact is, many people report that they experience God, or something supernatural, all the time, even though their experiences are usually a little less dramatic than dying on an ice wall.

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Source: Religion News Service