Gregory Shushan has previously studied near-death experiences [NDE] in early Christianity, the Vedas, and as a methodological issue in the comparative study of religions. In this book, Near-Death Experience in Indigenous Religions, Shushan provides exhaustive research on textual accounts of Indigenous traditions in North America, Africa, and Oceania. Shushan characterizes Indigenous societies using terms of difference appropriate to the dynamism and variety of traditions covered by this global category–they did not produce written religious texts, they have diverse beliefs particular to their locations, with internal variations consistent with oral cultures and dynamic developments over time. Given that he is providing a compilation of written sources, Shushan acknowledges this as a study of crisis situations. These accounts are found in the records of missionaries and anthropologists from the 17th to the 20th century. “In general, the societies were first studied during periods of religious, cultural, social, and/or physical crises due to multipronged colonialist assaults on their land, resources, bodies and souls—which partly entailed the destruction or transformation of traditional beliefs and practices” (12). His methodological emphasis, therefore, is to provide accounts that are culturally contextualized to accurately represent the Indigenous hermeneutics of religious experience particular to the respective regions. Shushan identifies NDE as “exceptional experience” that he is not reductively explaining away in terms of cognitive science, for example, but rather through interdisciplinary research questions that build a more accurate description of the power of these experiences in the organization of communities, toward the fundamental question “what happens to us when we die?”
The book proceeds with Shushan’s methodological argument, followed by the source materials organized by societies within each of the three regions. He offers a synthesis that characterizes the region’s cultural response to NDE, within which the accounts rest with greater or lesser sympathy. This leads Shushan to note the distinct contrast in the ambivalence found in African cultural responses to NDE, compared to those in North America and Oceania. The contrast itself, however, also demonstrates the universal concern found in societies when faced with the exceptional experiences of their people.
Shushan notes that NDE accounts provide some of the earliest forms of critique against Christian teachings. In a 1646 account, a converted Wyandot (Huron) woman rose from her burial in a Christian cemetery and recounted her experience in the fiery hell of the French Catholics, from which she was rescued by a compassionate soul and shown a valley for the Indigenous people not converted to Christianity that was delightful, and “without evil” (24). Rather than stay in the Indigenous realm, she felt she had to return to life and warn her people. This critique of the Christian afterlife survived as a powerful narrative of resistance—dissuading conversion in the region and recounted in text—serving as a source of frustration to the French Catholic missionaries for decades.
While reading this book, I considered the colonial conquest as an NDE, unrolling like a long emergency over centuries—Shushan did not. I had the haunting feeling that I was looking at the record of so many exceptional experiences that were pinned into place by their colonial authors, like a butterfly collection. There is a weighty poignancy to this collection, bearing witness to the value of studying historical records regarding the fundamental question “What happens to us when we die?”. For researchers and graduate students, Shushan does an admirable job explaining the challenges of comparing exceptional experience, and demonstrates subtlety and nuance as he compares and contrasts Indigenous NDE in North America, Africa, and Oceania. Readers will be challenged by the breadth of methodological concerns Shushan examines, and by his careful thesis regarding how we can study the power of NDE within the organization of cultural knowledge surrounding the fundamental human concern with the significance of death.
Mary L. Keller is Associate Academic Lecturer in Religious Studies at the University of Wyoming.
Mary Louise Keller
Date Of Review:
January 15, 2019
Gregory Shushan is Honorary Research Fellow at the Religious Experience Research Centre, University of Wales Trinity Saint David. He is the author of Conceptions of the Afterlife in Early Civilizations and has been Research Fellow at Oxford University's Ian Ramsey Centre for Science and Religion and at the Centro Incontri Umani at Ascona, Switzerland.
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