catapult magazine

catapult magazine

Vol 5, Num 18 :: 2006.10.06 — 2006.10.20



Now when Jesus came into the district of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, "Who do people say that the Son of Man is?"  And they said, "Some say John the Baptist, but others Elijah, and still others Jeremiah or one of the prophets."  He said to them, "But who do you say that I am?"  Simon Peter answered, "You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God."  And Jesus answered him, "Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah!  For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father in heaven."
Matthew 16:13-17

Reincarnation just might be nature’s way of saying, “Okay, let’s make it best two out of three.” I do like the idea of coming back again—the toys these days are so much more fun than when I was a kid.

But the truth is I simply don’t know if reincarnation is true or not. In fact I just plain don’t know what happens to us after we die. There are a lot of theories, of course, but precious little empirical evidence to support any one conclusion. Growing up in the Christian church I was taught of course that there was no such thing as reincarnation. Period. End of discussion.

So I was surprised to learn that reincarnation is not a completely foreign concept in the history of Christianity, nor of the Jewish people. In fact, the idea is found in the oldest traditions of Western and Eastern civilizations, from Greece to the Orient. There is even evidence that during its first centuries, at least some forms of Christianity (like the Ebionites) taught of the pre-existence of souls and their re-embodiment.

This passage from Matthew is interesting. It sounds like some people thought John the Baptist, Elijah, Jeremiah or one of the other prophets had returned as Jesus. Earlier in the testament, Jesus declared that John the Baptist was the Elijah who was to come. Did people believe in the physical reincarnation of these individual souls—or were they speaking in metaphors and symbols?

Some 2000 years later there are arguments on both sides.

But the argument is far from new. After the original generations of Christians, we find early Church Fathers, such as Justin Martyr, St. Clement of Alexandria, and Origen continuing to teach of the pre-existence of souls and reincarnation or another aspect of re-embodiment. Origen for example says, "Is it not rational that souls should be introduced into bodies, in accordance with their merits and previous deeds?"

The debate raged from about 250AD to 553AD mostly around the name of Origen. Finally in 553, his teachings were declared heretical. There were five major points raised against reincarnation:

  1. It seemed to minimize Christian salvation
  2. It was in conflict with the resurrection of the body
  3. It created an unnatural separation between body and soul
  4. It was built on a much too speculative use of Christian scriptures
  5. And there was no recollection of previous lives.

The idea of reincarnation all but disappeared from religious teaching and from European thought on the grounds that it conflicted with a proper understanding of the concept of redemption.

But like many other suppressed teachings, a strand of Origen’s thought continued, reaching St. Francis of Assisi and other later leaders. Today a number of modern clerics, both Catholic and Protestant, have come to support the concept of reincarnation.

Which doesn’t mean there aren’t still plenty of questions. For me the biggest one on the table if reincarnation is true is, “How is your next life decided?” Is it simply karma—that you truly get what you sow? This certainly would point to cosmic justice. Or are you allowed to choose so that you might learn specific lessons? And what of the poor and the abused? Are they getting what they deserve or what they chose to experience? Or is it all a cosmic crapshoot? And what role does grace play in any of this?

Likewise, orthodox Christian teachings are also full of unknowable questions. Do we sleep or are we immediately in the presence of God? What kind of body will we have? Are we judged according to our deeds? If we are punished for our sins and rewarded for our good, this certainly points to cosmic justice. But what role does grace play in any of this? 

The movie Kingdom of Heaven is the telling of a period of time during the crusades when the Christians and the Muslims were killing each other because both contended that it was what God willed. At the beginning of the movie we see two men digging a hole into which they will place the body of a dead woman. A priest watches their work and then says before strolling away, “She was a suicide. Cut off her head before you bury her.” Later he assures the woman’s stricken husband that she is wandering in hell—though how she wanders without a head he does not know. 

Nice guy. Well, with that kind of theology you almost hope there’s a special place in hell prepared just for him. Or at the very least that reincarnation is true and he’ll come back as a slug.  Unfortunately, he wasn’t alone. The church has been enormously successful through the centuries at literally scaring the hell out of its followers. Once upon a time Jesus came with a message of peace and good will. Love each other, follow my path, live in the moment, know God. But when the church stopped being an underground movement and became a part of the very social structure it was meant to overcome, it also took over control of its followers’ bodies and of their souls. Official doctrine was established which could not be questioned without threat of excommunication if you were lucky, death and eternal damnation if you weren’t.  When the church declared reincarnation heresy, it not only took away the ability of an individual to grow spiritually without the intervention of the church but it also effectively stopped all further discussion or speculation about the possibility of the physical rebirth of a soul in another body.

Today the church no longer maintains such tight control on its adherents. We have been exposed to other faiths and other teachings. We have seen life proceed in ways that don’t have easy theological explanations. In our search for our own faith and our own answers, we return to the teachings of Jesus.  And we find that many of his references to resurrection may actually refer to a spiritual renewal while we are still physically alive instead of the reanimation of our bodies on the last day. If that is the case, then resurrection is the “spiritual awakening” of a person’s spirit by the power of the Holy Spirit. Meanwhile, reincarnation is the rebirth of a person’s spirit into a new body to be born again as an infant. And the two are really not in opposition to each other.

The question of reincarnation is tied at one end to our questions about death and at the other end by our questions about life. Why is it that we exist at all? Do we flare to life then die? Are we all part of a giant chess game of the gods? Do we continue to grow in awareness until we realize what and who we have always been?

Christopher Bache, Professor of Philosophy and Religion at Youngstown, finds comfort in the answer of reincarnation, saying

If we live many lifecycles on Earth our roles in the cosmic drama expand in proportion to the time we are on stage. Reincarnation weds our individual evolution to the larger evolution of the universe, and we become more significant participants in everything that is taking place around us. This inevitably will cause us to raise our philosophical estimate of the purpose of human existence. 

Does it all come down to a question of our own importance in the mystery of life? 

Well, as little as I know about what happens to us after we die, I do have confidence in this one thing: I know grace to be true. This is the gift, the promise and the hope. And if God is truly a God of grace then whatever happens to us after death must include this gift, this promise and this hope.

The higher schools of Buddhism no longer teach the view of karma that everything happens to you as a result of your past actions. Things also just happen to us. Henri Nouwen refers to that as our passion. The truth is, he says, that a large part of our life is dependent on other people’s decisions. The Buddhists would add that another part is dependent on accidents.

Death is certain. Life is fragile. If we can claim those certain truths then we can also learn as Jesus did to leave things to God and let go of our unnecessary and counterproductive fight and fear. We can finally relax and live in the moment. In our living and in our dying perhaps the only thing that will truly bring us freedom is to accept that we have no choice. 

Enlightenment is not an achievement—not something to work toward in each successive life. It is just the seeing of reality as it is. We continue to stare at it and yet we don’t get it. Acceptance is the key to deep spirituality. There are many things in life that we simply can’t control. In embracing this we find freedom.

Jesus said that the way to overcome death and attain eternal life is simply through the practice of love. When it comes to living a life of love, having faith in reincarnation does not give anyone an advantage before God. Reincarnation is a theory that, at most, explains the apparent inequities and apparent injustices between people and the dispensing of divine justice. But the spiritual life of love does not depend upon the particular creed we profess. Whether we believe in reincarnation or not, the life we are living is the one in which we are called to love.

It seems to me that the most appealing thing about whatever our after life theory is, is that in the very act of deciding we assume a measure of control. We decide—either by our behavior or by our choice—what our fate will be. To be too certain about these things it seems to me is to be too attached to our own desire for control.

When will we simply be able to accept the truth of our lives and to live without needing to know why? When will we give up trying to make rational sense of a universe beyond our ability to comprehend? When will we be able to let go of our need to be God and simply enter into God, the ground of all being?

Well, if not in this life, then maybe in the next.

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