Is there life after death? Don’t expect a chat show to tell you the answer

Nicky Campbell presents The Big Questions programme on the afterlife

I’m glad that Crisis Magazine has reproduced an article Stratford Caldecott first wrote on his blog, Beauty in Education. It is entitled “Search for the Secret of Life and Death” and ties in, from a Catholic perspective, with a programme broadcast on BBC One on Sunday in The Big Questions series. This time the subject was “Is there life after death?” Nicky Campbell, the presenter, had got together a large group of special interest groups, mainly atheists but also including the main faiths: Christian, Jewish, Muslim and Buddhist.

Inevitably, in a programme of this type, however open-mindedly and tolerantly approached, you end up with a muddle of different voices and views. The only conclusion, in answer to this big question, would be: “Some people are persuaded there is, while others are equally persuaded that the question is inherently absurd.” Professor Chris French of Goldsmiths College was one of the naysayers. He couldn’t answer the question of how self-consciousness in humans, as opposed to animals, had arisen but it was on a spectrum and had obviously “evolved”. (I knew that word would pop up at some stage.)

Fr Andrew Pinsent, the Christian representative, got very little air-time. This wasn’t deliberate – there were just too many people to accommodate in the debate. He did manage to suggest that humans are different in kind from animals, not just in degree, and quoted CS Lewis: “In this life we write the title page of what we will be in eternity” – but I am not sure anyone was listening to him.

A senior Buddhist nun of the 14th Dalai Lama, who spoke with a very English accent, talked about the Buddhist idea of reincarnation. She was backed up by a Past Life Regression Therapist who said she herself had been a shaman in a previous life. She in turn was gently deflated by the editor of The Skeptic magazine, Deborah Hyde, who had once trained as a hypnotherapist and who averred that people could come up with amazing stories of their past incarnations – generally the Hollywood version rather than a historical one.

A man called Ken Spearpoint, who works in resuscitation services, spoke interestingly of people he had known in his work who were clinically dead – their hearts had stopped, in one case for 15 minutes – and who had then been resuscitated. They were able to describe in great detail the struggles to revive them, an experience they could not have known in the ordinary way. As he came at the end of the discussion there was no time for anyone to develop or explore what he said.

It’s not a criticism of television to say that a philosophical and theological question like this can’t be “dealt with” in an hour, despite a genial host, clearly a sceptic himself, when there are 11 speakers, as well as some audience participation. Thus it was good to read Stratford’s piece, which comes to this debate from a very different angle: belief in a loving God who has entered so deeply into the world he created “that we call it a merging, a uniting of his own nature with the world itself”.

Stratford, who I’m sure has thought more about these matters than I have, is suffering from incurable prostate cancer, so his words have an added insight and acuity. His point is that because of the Incarnation, the search for the secret of life and death starts here; it is on earth that heaven is born: “We can participate by joining in the rhythm of life and death” he writes, adding that “God hides himself deeply within the world, not as an extension of life…but as the totality of being. At first it all seems inaccessible and impossible. The Cross seems impossible, incredible…foolish, crazy. But we must join fully, deeply, truly. And we must start as soon as possible.”

There is a tone of urgency in what he writes, not just on his own behalf, but for us all. How long have any of us got on this earth, after all? Chat shows such as The Big Questions are just that; a pleasant hour of random ideas, diverting entertainment that distracts us from finding the truth that will set us free.

Stratford hopes that his article will “touch and open the hearts of many who read it”. I hope so too. Is there life after death? Yes – but only if you first embark on the supernatural life here on earth.