Monday, 8 February 2016

The relationship between evolution of human consciousness and reincarnation - a consideration of Steiner and Barfield

The idea of an evolution of human consciousness throughout history has been a part of spiritual thinking for more than a century - I know it mainly through considering the work of Rudolf Steiner, Owen Barfield and William Arkle over the past couple of years.

(I encountered the idea over thirty years ago summarized in the work of Colin Wilson, but did not then pay much attention.)

The idea of an historical evolution of consciousness seems to go-with a belief in reincarnation, because reincarnation allows each person to participate in the different stages of evolution that are aiming-at a fully divine form of consciousness.

Steiner and Barfield describe this aimed-at state in some detail - in essence it combines on the one hand a direct involvement with, and participation in, reality such as was characteristic of early man and remains characteristic of early childhood; with, on the other hand, a fully alert, self-aware, purposive and analytic consciousness which is characteristic of the adult consciousness and the modern phase of Western history. 

So, the idea is that I am personally experiencing the distinctive modern, alienated consciousness now - including the knowledge and aspiration towards a future state; however, in earlier lives I have also personally experienced, and benefited from, earlier phases of human consciousness. At some point later this life, and perhaps further lives, I may incrementally, a step at a time, learn how to combine the positive qualities of all phases. This aimed-at fully divine conscious state is what Barfield calls Final Participation.

According to Steiner and Barfield, these earlier life phases include non-incarnated lives - lives when we were conscious but had no body. So the theory is really one of multiple lives, rather than re incarnation.

Therefore the human spirit or soul (i.e. that entity which is reincarnated) is here conceptualized as undergoing an educational process toward which each life is contributing.

Repeated lives, many lives, seem to be necessary in order to allow for the very large amount of experience and learning required to bridge the gap between being a man and becoming a god. Certainly, one mortal life seems grossly inadequate for this, especially given that most human lives in history were terminated either in the womb or in early infancy - a small minority of humans have reached adulthood, and even fewer of these have had a full experience of marriage, family, maturity and growing old etc.

So, evolution of consciousness and reincarnation seem to make a neat package. However, this package is, if not incompatible with Christianity, at least somewhat alien to the structure of Christianity; which places a great deal of emphasis on the individual life which we are experiencing now, and sees 'this life' as having potentially decisive consequences for eternity.

And certainly, while reincarnation seems to described in the Bible - most notably in the case of John the Baptist apparently being a reincarnated Prophet Elijah - there isn't any scriptural description of a scheme of reincarnation as the norm. And especially not of multiple lives.

My interpretation is that ancient Christianity saw reincarnation as true, but as an exceptional possibility, done in exceptional cases and for specific purposes - rather than as the standard procedure for the majority of people.

Does an exclusion of reincarnation then rule-out the evolution of consciousness throughout human history? No, but denial of reincarnation with multiple lives does limit the role of evolution of consciousness in the lives of individual spirits or souls - it breaks the link between the evolution of consciousness in history and the evolution of my consciousness and the specific consciousnesses of every other individual.

Put differently, the arguments which (in particular) Owen Barfield makes for different types of consciousness in human history, such as his insights into the changing scope and meaning of words, may well be true; but they lose their relevance to the evolution of my consciousness and your consciousness if we were not present (in earlier lives) actually to experience the several stages of this historical evolution.

In sum, the historical evolution of consciousness is a matter of historical but not personal interest, if we ourselves were not present during that history.

My own belief is therefore that I accept Barfield's description of human consciousness having changed throughout history and in broadly the way he describes; and I also accept that we are meant (or destined) to achieve that mode of consciousness Barfield terms 'Final Participation'. But I do not accept that the two are causally linked - for instance I do not believe that I have, myself, personally participated in the historical phases of the evolution of consciousness during previous lives.   

Rather, I see the evolution of consciousness as a sequence which is recapitulated in different scales in different situations: e.g. through human history, in each person's individual development from childhood to maturity, and also in the largest cosmic scale of our salvation and divination across eternity.

(To clarify this last point: the Barfieldian sequence of Original Participation, the Consciousness Soul and Final Participation can be mapped onto the Mormon theological sequence of pre-mortal spirit life, mortal incarnate life, and post-mortal eternal incarnate life.)

I therefore would modify the Steiner/ Barfield model, since I regard this evolutionary sequence of consciousness as a basic and necessary process in terms of Man as a whole and also individual men working towards fuller divinity. And I think it is because the process is basic and necessary that we see it appearing and re-appearing here and there throughout reality; operating at many scales and across many time-frames.

Note: Previous posts on reincarnation


Wurmbrand said...

John denied being Elijah (St John 1:21).

Bruce Charlton said...

@W - scholars disagree on this question; but some interpreters regard this as reincarnation; and the context makes clear that - whether or not John was a specific instance of reincarnation - reincarnation of Elijah was regarded as a possibility, and a reincarnation had been prophesied. Then there was Lazarus.

Anonymous said...

It depends on the sources one admits as true as to whether or not reincarnation is part of Christian belief. The books mentioned below were certainly not accepted by the early church, but their rediscovery in the mid-twentieth century was a major historical and theological find.

I have cobbled together excerpts from a couple of websites to make the reincarnation/Christianity point. They are not my points, nor are they my argument.

1. From:

"The Nag Hammadi Library, a collection of thirteen ancient books containing over fifty texts, was discovered in upper Egypt in 1945. These texts included a large number of primary "Gnostic Gospels" – texts once thought to have been entirely destroyed during the early Christian struggle to define "orthodoxy" – scriptures such as the Gospel of Thomas, the Gospel of Philip, and the Gospel of Truth."


"The following quote from Jesus from the Christian Gnostic gospel, the Book of Thomas the Contender, describes Jesus teaching reincarnation:
"Watch and pray that you may not be born in the flesh, but that you may leave the bitter bondage of this life." (Book of Thomas the Contender 9:5)
In another part of the Book of Thomas the Contender, Jesus tells the disciple Thomas that after death, those people who were once believers but have remained attached to things of "transitory beauty," will be consumed "in their concern about life" and will be "brought back to the visible realm."
The following quote from Jesus in the Gospel of Thomas affirms Jesus teaching reincarnation to his disciples:

"When you see your likeness, you are happy. But when you see your images that came into being before and that neither die nor become visible, how much you will bear!" (Gospel of Thomas, saying 84)

In the Secret Book of John, written by 185 A.D. at the latest, reincarnation is placed at the center of the discussion concerning the salvation of souls. The following is a summary of the Secret Book of John's perspective on reincarnation.
Everyone has drunk from the water of forgetfulness and lives in a state of ignorance. Some people are able to overcome ignorance by having the life-giving Spirit descend upon them. These souls "will be saved and will become perfect," that is, escape the cycle of birth and rebirth. John asks Jesus what will happen to those who do not attain salvation. They are hurled down "into forgetfulness" and thrown into "prison," the Christian Gnostic symbol for a new body.

Jesus says the only way for these souls to escape is to acquire knowledge after coming from forgetfulness. A soul can accomplish this by finding a teacher who can lead the soul in the right direction:

"This soul needs to follow another soul in whom the Spirit of life dwells, because she is saved through the Spirit. Then she will never be thrust into flesh again." (Secret Book of John 14:20)

Another Christian Gnostic book, the Pistis Sophia (Greek for "Faith Wisdom"), outlines a system of punishment and rewards that includes reincarnation. The book explains the differences in one's fate as a result of past-life actions. A "man who curses" will be given a body that is continually "troubled in heart." A "man who slanders" will be given an "oppressed" body. A thief will be given a "lame, crooked and blind body." A "proud" and "scornful" man will be given "a lame and ugly body" that "everyone continually despises." From this, we can see how this Earth, as well as hell, is a place of education through suffering.

Continued in next post


Anonymous said...

Continued from previous post

"According to the Pistis Sophia, some souls experience hell as a place of shadows and torture. However, after these souls pass through hell, they return to Earth for further experiences. Only a relatively few extremely evil souls are not permitted to reincarnate. These souls are cast into "outer darkness" until a time when they are "destroyed and dissolved."

The Pistis Sophia combines the ideas of reincarnation and divine union in a verse beginning with the question:

"[What happens to] a man who has committed no sin, but done good persistently, but has not found the mysteries?" (Pistis Sophia)

The Pistis Sophia reveals such a soul will receive "a cup filled with thoughts and wisdom," allowing the soul to remember its divine origin and pursue the "mysteries of the light" until it finds them and is able to "inherit the light forever." To "inherit the light forever" is a Gnostic term for union with God.
In the Gospel of Phillip, Jesus makes a clear distinction between the resurrection of the spirit (i.e., spiritual rebirth) and the resurrection of the body (i.e., physical rebirth, reincarnation):

"People who say they will first die and then arise are mistaken. If they do not first receive resurrection while they are alive, once they have died they will receive nothing." (Gospel of Philip 73:1-4)

In the Apocryphal book, Wisdom of Solomon, recognized as canonical by the Catholic Church, is the following verse:

"I was given a sound body to live in because I was already good." (Wisdom of Solomon 8:19-20)

This verse raises the following question: How is it possible to get a body after you have already been good, unless reincarnation is true?

Among the works of the Christian Gnostics are some of the early gospels, including secret gospels which were not preserved in the New Testament. The Gospel of Thomas was the first gospel ever written and is considered by scholars to be the most reliable gospel. Much of this gospel contains sayings of Jesus that are contained in the four New Testament gospels.

The Christian Gnostic gospels reveal a clear and strong vision of the resurrection as a past and present event. Below is a verse from the Gospel of Thomas that shows the "resurrection" to be a past event:

"His followers said to him, 'When will the rest for the dead take place, and when will the new world come?' He said to them, 'What you look for has come, but you do not know it.'" (Gospel of Thomas, saying 51)

In the verse above, Jesus says the resurrection and the kingdom are already here. In Gnostic terms, this quote from Jesus refers to a person's past "resurrection" (i.e., physical rebirth, reincarnation) and the fact that we are already living in the kingdom of God which exists within us. Only through the Christ gnosis can this kingdom be realized and the cycle of resurrection end."


Nathaniel said...

@Seeker - It sounds like John may have been aware of this Gospel and addressing it when doubting Thomas touches Jesus's wounds and is surprised by His bodily resurrection.

The Gospel of Thomas also contains stranger teachings like "Simon Peter said to them, ‘Make Mary leave us, for females don’t deserve life.’ Jesus said, ‘Look, I will guide her to make her male, so that she too may become a living spirit resembling you males. For every female who makes herself male will enter the kingdom of heaven’"

So while it is very interesting, I'm not sure it is something modern Christians can rely on for truth. I fear it might possibly risk pride (in knowing the secret knowledge the other Christians don't, or being particularly privy to salvation) similar to the risk in eastern individual-enlightenment based theologies. There would be no actual priestly tradition directed by Christ for men's assistance to guide one correctly in the unique path it presents - and any who make claim to such are certainly frauds!