Beyond the Threshold

Afterlife Beliefs and Experiences in World Religions, 2nd Ed.

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Christopher M. Moreman
  • New York, NY: 
    Rowman & Littlefield
    , September
     2017.
     350 pages.
     $37.00.
     Paperback.
    ISBN
    9781442274952.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

There are only a few academic books in the new millennium dealing with afterlife beliefs. Christopher Moreman’s second edition of his book, Beyond the Threshold: Afterlife Beliefs and Experiences in World Religions, is most welcome in this context. Moreman states that his purpose in writing the book is to attempt a synthesis by comparing beliefs and experiences surrounding the after-death state. Moreman is to be commended for expanding the usually narrow focus on the afterlife in the religious studies field. He is traditional enough to include the so-called major world religions, but in this edition, which comes almost a decade after the first, he improves greatly upon the former by including additional religious traditions such as African and New World spirituality. He resists placing Christianity in first place, preferring a more chronological approach beginning with ancient afterlife beliefs. He mentions the afterlife beliefs of Chinese religions and apologizes for excluding traditions such as Jainism and Sikhism given the limitations of space. What is absent is a crucial examination of Zoroastrianism and the Ayran religions that subsequently divided into the Iranian and Indian branches. He neglects ancient Persian afterlife beliefs, which are the very foundation of subsequent belief systems, including the Greek religions and Abrahamic faiths as well as Mahayana Buddhism.

Moreman is also to be commended for bravely bringing subjects such as spiritualism, mediumship, ghosts, near death experience (NDE), out of body experience (OBE), and past life memories into the academic arena, even if he only focuses on the Western aspects of these phenomena. He fails to mention the influence of Emanuel Swedenborg (1688-1772) on the modern Western concept of heaven. While appearing sympathetic and open-minded to modern personal experiences that might indicate survival after bodily death, Moreman tries to be as balanced and neutral as possible. He relies heavily on the works of William James (1842-1910), a key voice in the historical scholarship of religious experience. 

In this concise book, Moreman provides an adequate overview of the field for newcomers and undergraduates. His book is not intended to be a detailed analysis at a higher graduate level. He opens the floor to debate and new studies focusing on New Age and new religious trends emerging in the West as concerns the afterlife. For while the afterlife doctrines of the world religions are set and codified, the beliefs of more individualistic modern spiritualities of Europe and North America are flexible, changing, and more varied. The modern scientific worldview dismisses religious afterlife beliefs as myth and takes a rather brutal approach to modern supernaturalistic experiences by denying their authenticity outright. Thus the more modern debates, such as on NDEs, boil down to evidence, with opposing sides in the debate entrenched against each other.

This is a typically “Western” approach in that it does not challenge the assumption of “heaven” being the eternal and end goal of an afterlife. Philosophically of course there may be a multiverse of heavenly realms, some temporary and others in dimensions beyond our comprehension. There may be pre-existence, as is held by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, or reincarnation into cyclical samsara as held by the Hindu traditions. The Western approach also assumes the survival of the personality or soul. However, there could be a less personal afterlife: as in the case of Vajrayana Buddhism, our “soul” might blend into a greater soul. Philosophically, many combinations of dualistic, monistic, personal, or impersonal afterlife states are possible. Since these areas lie outside the material world of sense perception and science, none can be proven. The choice for individual faith boils down to preference and reasonableness from the matrix of afterlife possibilities.

Having presented the afterlife concepts of world religions, and in part 2, more individualistic experiences of the supernatural, Moreman does concede that no firm conclusions can be made, but that the subject deserves further investigation and should not be dismissed by the scientific materialist camp. It should also be noted that when it comes to mystical and alternative states of consciousness, these personal experiences of “life beyond the veil” are at a pre-verbal level, and not an intellectual or logical level. Religion and spirituality, by definition, are concerned with this unseen world. Moreman, along with other scholars such as Gregory Shushan, seem to be moving past the postcolonial academic criticism of 20th century perennialism. There may be core personal human experiences surrounding death that are universal, even if their subsequent interpretation and expression are culturally and linguistically bound. Moreman manages to balance these similarities and differences between varying beliefs systems. 

Beyond the Threshold offers various afterlife scenarios, and it should be mentioned that although the systems discussed in parts 1 and 2 both challenge the naturalistic beliefs of science, the supernaturalistic approaches of part 2 are not necessarily in agreement with the approaches of part 1. The spiritualist and NDE conceptions of the afterlife often contradict the doctrines of organized religions. In fact, the only common denominator between all camps is that we all die. Death is cross cultural, as is the fact that most humans are concerned with the question of survival after death. All afterlife beliefs stem from a basic human religious experience, and despite many differences of interpretation, most human cultures agree that some sort of mysterious survival exists beyond death. Moreman’s book is a good starting point for any scholar interested in this subject.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Angela Scott is a doctoral student in Comparative Theologies and Philosophies at Claremont School of Theology.

Date of Review: 
June 26, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Christopher M. Moreman is professor and chair of the department of philosophy and religious studies at California State University, East Bay. He has edited several volumes, including Oxford’s Teaching Death and Dying and The Routledge Companion to Death and Dying, among other publications.

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