Differentiations of terms


Previous research has outlined different concepts to define the phenomenon ‚near-death experiences‘ in terms of terminology (cf. FN 1). Given the complex and partially contrasting approaches of those definitions, it is advisable to differentiate five sub-categories, namely ‘experiences of transcendence’, ‘near-death experiences in the broader sense’, ‘near-death experiences in the narrower sense’, ‘experiences of transformation’ and ‘experiences of divine love’.
A first criterion for differentiation could be to determine how close the human being was to death or to a biological exitus. By this we mean the difference between an objective or medically documented proximity to death, a subjectively perceived closeness to death and a nearness to death which is not existent. The three terms ‘experiences of transcendence’, ‘near-death experiences in the broader sense’ and ‘near-death experiences in the narrower sense’ relate to each other as concentric circles. To begin with, the concept of ‘experience of transcendence’ is taken in a very broad sense. It contains all phenomena in which human beings claim for them to have perceived an altered consciousness, a form of “transcendence” which would not conform to a normal spectrum of individual perceptions of reality or even outreach it (cf. FN 2). Examples for this could be the experiences of mystics of different religious provenances, experiences connected to specific practices of meditation, shamanistic ideas, experiences after the consumption of drugs etc. The term ‘near-death experiences in a narrower sense’ means experiences which have taken place in ‘a narrower sense’ in medical emergency situations. Those emergency situations have been documented or are otherwise verifiable. In contrast, ‘near-death experiences in the broader sense’ incorporate those experiences in which the person concerned has discerned subjectively to be near to death.

Against this background, I want to introduce two more terms to the discussion. The term ‘experience of transformation’ pursues a thought of William James, who is one of the founding fathers of the psychology of religion (cf. FN 3). William James argued that it is not only important to consider the subjective experiences people claim for them. Rather, the consequences the experiences had on their lives afterwards would be crucial. It is about the question, how and if the existence changes after an experience. Such transformations can have very different positive as well as negative consequences. Given this, the fifth term relates to a very specific claim, namely to the phenomenon that people change their lives because they demand having had an ‘experience of divine love’. The term ‘divine love’ expresses the fact that the people concerned state having experienced a dimension of love, security and felicity which outreaches the experiences of their former lives categorically. Numerous of those people develop increased altruistic oriented attitudes towards life. For example, showing solidarity and caring for people in need or sensing nature and environment is more appreciated, whereas the pursuit of material values such as wealth and a higher standard of life becomes less important. Apart from these ethical or practical shifts of emphasis, after having had ‘near-death experiences’ a lot of people develop ideas which can be labelled as religious or spiritual. This is true for e.g. individual opinions that the bodily death can only be understood as the end of the given bodily state of human existence. Even if the process of dying because of e.g. serious illnesses is seen as a burdensome stage of life, a lot of people having had ‘near-death experiences’ do not fear death itself anymore.

The psychological processing of such near-death experiences can be problematic, especially if fellow human beings are not ready or capable to accept and tolerate the newly gained attitudes towards life of those affected. Such constellations can lead to a new life of those having had the experience, concerning e.g. partnerships, jobs, alienation of familiar religious or social communities etc.
In addition, it is important to keep one aspect in mind which makes the relation of the terms even more difficult. Experiences of transformation after experiencing divine love can happen in all contexts indicated by the first three terms, i.e. in the contexts of ‘experiences of transcendence’, ‘near-death experiences in the broader sense’ and ‘near-death experiences in the narrower sense’. Because of the fact that such experiences can happen in situations without any risk of death, I think the term ‘near-death experience’ is imprecise. Nonetheless, it is hardly possible to modify a term used in the respective discourses for decades. That is the reason why I will use the term ‘near-death experiences’ in my studies, although the differentiation of the five terms as discussed above has to be kept in mind.

[1]  For an outline of different attempts to define ‚near-death experiences‘, cf. amongst others B. Greyson, Near-Death Experiences, in: E. Cardeña/S. J. Lynn/S. Krippner (Hg.), Varieties of Anomalous Experience: examining the scientific evidence, Washington 20074, 315f.; H. Knoblauch, Berichte aus dem Jenseits: Mythos und Realität der Nahtoderfahrung (Lizenzausgabe der Erstauflage Freiburg 1999), Erftstadt 2007, 18; P. van Lommel, Endloses Bewusstsein: neue medizinische Fakten zur Nahtodforschung, Düsseldorf 20126, 33; J. Long, Evidence of the afterlife. The Science of Near-Death Experience (with Paul Perry), New York 2010, 5; G. Ewald, Auf den Spuren der Nahtoderfahrungen: Gibt es eine unsterbliche Seele?, Kevelar 20123, 7ff.

[2] For the implications regarding the conceptual history and scientific theory of the differentiation between the terms ‚transcendence‘ and ‚immannence‘, cf. the instructive articles of the collected volume I. U. Dalferth/P. Bühler/A. Hunzinger (Eds.), Hermeneutik der Transzendenz, Tübingen 2015, passim. It would be imprecise to substitute the term ‚near-death experiences‘ with the term ‚experiences of transcendence‘, because it would only shift the terminological problems but not solve them. Against S. Högl, Transzendenzerfahrungen. Nahtod-Erlebnisse im Spiegel von Wissenschaft und Religion, Marburg 2006, passim.

[3]  Cf. W. James, The Varieties of religious experiences, London/New York 1902, passim. For the reception history of this conception cf. F. Krämer, Erfahrungsvielfalt und Wirklichkeit. Zu William James’ Realitätsverständnis, Göttingen 2006, passim.