Friday, September 07, 2007

The Mindful Hack reviews: Complete Idiot's Guide to Life After Death

-Naturally, I was intrigued when a copy of the just-published Complete Idiot's Guide to Life After Death by Diane Ahlquist, an author, speaker, and "third-generation intuitive," thumped into my mailbox. How kind of the publisher to send me the book to review, and I hope that the publisher will not be deterred by what I am about to say:

The conviction that our minds/souls somehow survive bodily death is probably as old as humanity. Both extinct Neanderthal man and our own family, homo sapiens commonly buried the dead in ways that implied that they would live again.

But, of course, from the point of view of survivors, the dead sail off into a dark ocean beset by fog. Many happy traditions, including mine (Catholic Christian), hold that heaven eventually awaits those who truly want it.

Now, I am versed in only a few traditions concerning life beyond death, so in evaluating this book, I adopted a simple principle: To evaluate it on the basis of what it says about the tradition I actually know.

I am afraid that things went downhill from there. Let me explain:

In the section "Christianity and the Departed", we learn the following, among other things, about the souls of the dead:
The soul goes to one of two places, depending on the outcome of the judgment [heaven or hell] (there's also a third destination reserved exclusively for Catholics) p. 7

Now clearly, Ahlquist is referring to the Catholic doctrine of Purgatory, but she completely misunderstands and misstates the doctrine. She thinks that Purgatory is some special waiting room for Catholics. Quite the opposite.

Unlike some Christian sects, Catholics do NOT think that all non-Christians go to Hell. We believe that all those who truly love God will find themselves in a place of purification (Purgatory) - because they have not achieved in this life the perfection that enables them to enjoy the full presence of God.

The Catechism says,
1030 All who die in God's grace and friendship, but still imperfectly purified, are indeed assured of their eternal salvation; but after death they undergo purification, so as to achieve the holiness necessary to enter the joy of heaven.

Ahlquist, by contrast, refers to Purgatory as "a waiting room where you're cleansed of the sins you committed."

No, indeed, that's no waiting room! It is the place where you face up to all the problems that you fled from in life, whether from ignorance, inability, or refusal. The difference is that in Purgatory you are aware of constant help from heaven, and you are assured of your eventual success, however long it takes.

One thing I find interesting is that, as we noted in The Spiritual Brain, many recorded near-death experiences have featured a state that sounds much like a stage of Purgatory: The clinically dead person experiences the pain he inflicted on others as if it were his own.

Now, I am not making these points here primarily to defend the doctrine of Purgatory, but rather to explain why I cannot recommend a book that so completely misunderstands and misstates it.

On the whole, it gets worse when we get to Hell. (Well, why should that be a surprise?)

On page 8, we learn, "... it should be noted that some Christians feel that a place of flame and torture was an extreme example of punishment that came to be in the Dark Ages in order to keep people in line."

Well, some Christians may feel that way, but their feelings are not a substitute for correct information. Most of the key doctrines about Hell are from the recorded teachings of Jesus, and they entered the tradition of Christianity from the very beginning. The Dark Ages (of Europe, not elsewhere) started about five hundred years later.

Now, Jesus did not say that anyone is definitely in Hell, but he always presented the final denial of eternal happiness (Hell) as a possibility. He was entirely serious about the fact that we have free will, and can deny our own happiness if we really want to.

Later, we learn from Ahlquist that, "Some people feel that hell is nothing more than a concept created by religious groups in order to convert people to their religion or to force people to adhere to some type of civilized behavior." And, we are told, that the idea may be useful if it forces people to behave. (P. 32)

It's hard to imagine anything further from the traditional Christian perspective, because Jesus had nothing good to say about people who merely engaged in "civilized behavior." Anyone can learn, enact, and enforce a code of rules, and grow in self-importance as a result. For Jesus, Hell was the destination of those who simply did not want to love others as themselves, for the love of God.

Now, I cannot say how well or badly this Complete Idiot's Guide represents other traditions, but it is certainly not an accurate reflection of the Catholic Christian tradition. I hope it is not as bad with the others.

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