Saturday, October 13, 2007

Christopher M. Moreman on 'Self-less-ness'

A Non-Self Walked Here
Buddha's Footprint
1st century CE, Gandhāra
(Image from Wikipedia)

Sogang University's Death, Dying, and Spirituality Conference is not yet over, but I'll be staying home today to recover from an intense and intensive three days. I also have get back to my regular duties, such as grading papers...

Yesterday, I responded to a paper titled "Experiencing the Numinous in the Face of Death," which I've commented on before in this blog without identifying the speaker because he hadn't yet spoken at that time. I suppose that I can identify him now. He's a young scholar at Saint Francis Xavier University, in Antigonish, Nova Scotia, Canada, his name is Christopher M. Moreman, and he jokes that he's one of only three 'Moremans' in Canada -- which sounds like a claim that there are only three Mormans in Canada (an obvious untruth, of course, for there are at least 10 of them).

Anyway, Moreman gave a new twist to Rudolf Otto's Idea of the Holy, as readers of this blog may have noticed this new use of the mysterium tremendum a few days ago when I reported on this point in the entry "Death as the mysterium tremendum et fascinans?".

Today, though, I'm just going to cite a minor criticism that I made of a different point in Moreman's paper, one where he reaches for parallels about 'selflessness' across religions and religious experiences:
Moreman goes on to suggest a similarity between Buddhist and Taoist views of self-less-ness and the sort of selflessness that one finds in the thought of St. Paul and in the lives of people who have had Near Death Experiences, or NDEs. Moreman argues that when Paul speaks of dying to sin, one dies to self and is reborn sinless and therefore selfless. Similarly, those who have undergone NDEs live far more selfless lives, says Moreman, pointing to the results of a study by Cherie Sutherland (Sutherland, Reborn in the Light), as well as in other studies of NDE (e.g., Grot-Marnat and Summers, "Altered Beliefs"; and Greyson and Stevenson, "The Phenomenology of Near-Death Experiences"). This is an interesting perspective, but I wonder about it. While I can concede parallels in the de-emphasis upon self in Buddhism, Taoism, St. Paul, and NDE people, I nevertheless think that some equivocation in the meaning of the term "self" is slipping in. For the Buddhist and Taoist, the self is unstable, in flux, but for St. Paul and NDE people, the self is stable, even assured of existence after death. For the former, denial of self is an ontological issue, but for the latter, it is an ethical issue. The related term "selflessness" is thus also different, as is the implication of the term "selfish." Denial of self simply does not mean the same thing across the smorgasboard of religions.
That's enough for today, I hope, for I've got that grading to get to. Thanks to all who visit and read my musings...


Greyson, Bruce and Ian Stevenson. "The Phenomenology of Near-Death Experiences." American Journal of Psychiatry 137. 1980. pages 1193-1196.

Grot-Marnat, G. and R. Summers. "Altered Beliefs, Attitudes, and Behaviors Following Near-Death Experiences." Journal of Humanistic Psychology 38. 1998. page 110-125.

Sutherland, Cherie. Reborn in the Light: Life After Near-Death Experiences. New York: Bantam, 1995.

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