Monday 9 June 2014

Why do so many (seemingly) genuinely-inspired and spiritually-insightful people believe in reincarnation?


This question was brought to the fore for me by my recent engagement with William Arkle and by a much more superficial recent overview of the life and works of Rudolf Steiner - both of whom (despite their very obvious heterodoxies and heresies) saw themselves as Christian, and both of whom (to all appearances) seem genuinely inspired and enlightened (albeit imperfect) men, and also good men.

And both believed in reincarnation - partly from what they perceived to be logical necessity, but also from what they believed to be divine revelations.


There are also many other - and much more famous and influential - religious figures who put great emphasis on reincarnation. The founders of Hinduism and Buddhism to name only the two largest; but probably most humans who have ever lived believed in some version of reincarnation, as well as many or most of the greatest religious founders and leaders. .

Given that reincarnation is not a part of core Christian revelation - and seems hardly likely to have been forgotten or left-out by mistake - then how to account for this belief?

Perhaps the most frequent explanation throughout Christian history would be that these are demonic deceptions, designed to manipulate mankind into a state of unrepented sin. But looking at the big picture of these religious figures and of the vast mass of their adherents, makes this seem implausible.


One possibility is that the religious leaders, who believe that they have been given a revelation of reincarnation, are correct: but only with respect to themselves.

In other words, reincarnation is a possibility - with some examples being given in the Bible - but it sees to be a rare exception rather than the norm or the rule.


In other words, perhaps these inspired spiritual men - such as Steiner and Arkle - are actually themselves among the rare instances of reincarnation; or else are destined to be?

Perhaps they recognise this fact, but mistakenly (but not maliciously) extrapolate it to the mass of other people for whom mortal life is a one-off - and teach it to these people (for whom reincarnation is not, in fact, true) - and these people often accept it due to the genuine spiritual authority of the teachers. 


For instance, if someone is himself a reincarnate, then it may be one reason for his advanced spiritual state - he has had more than one life-time to progress, a greater experience; and has consented to return and teach from this enlarged experience.

So these spiritual teachers are indeed (perhaps) reincarnated souls; and they have a particular reason for being reincarnated; but once re-born they are subject to the usual constraints of mortal earthly life; so, although spiritually-advanced, they remain imperfect and prone to both error and sin - including the error (but not necessarily sin) of over-generalising from their own case.

(Indeed, the over-generalising error may plausibly result from humility - the reincarnate perhaps cannot believe his almost unique status and elevated destiny.)

Anyway, for what it is worth, this struck me as a possible - and in some ways satisfying - explanation for the recurrence of the reincarnation idea in a Christian context.


Note added: Not all the people who believe in and/or teach reincarnation, not even those who give evidence of genuine inspiration, will necessarily themselves actually be a reincarnate. It is quite possible that the majority are not reincarnated nor will become reincarnated. All I am saying is that it is (I think) a possibility that some teachers of reincarnation may be telling the truth (within the usual constraints of human imperfection of understanding and expression) - so far as they personally are concerned.


Rich said...

This might be what is going on in scripture when Jesus seems very covert. I was just reading Mark last night and in chapter 5 Jesus has just resurrected a young girl. At 5:43 "And he charged them straightly that no man should know it;"

Maybe this is a protective measure for those that hear the story rather than the resurrected girl? Maybe we are to take part in some aspects of God's work and not to be hindered by other aspects.

Bruce Charlton said...

@ads - Yes, it often seems that Christianity is a middle way. On the one hand I don't think Christianity absolutely forbids reincarnation; but on the other hand I think we are not supposed to focus upon it (in general, we *are* supposed to regard this life as a one-off unique thing with permanent consequences).

Anonymous said...

I was under the impression the idea of re-incarnation WAS suppressed in Christianity as a heresy. Most people believe it in the world. I do too as it seems a logical and scientific use of how consciousness evolves in a non wasteful system. And follows the law of conservation of energy. Everlasting life is just that.

Bruce Charlton said...

@tlf - But do you consider yourself a Christian?

Heresy does not mean something is not Christian - it means it is Christian but heretical.

There is an apparent plain contradiction between the idea of, multiple 'compulsory' and developmental reincarnations in, say, Hinduism; and the way that Scripture describes human mortal life and salvation.

I am trying to draw a distinction between the focus on reincarnation, as the primary mechanism of spiritual development across many lives (perhaps even almost countless lives) - and the specific and focused idea of a person returning to earth to be reborn.

In the New Testament it seems to be said at times that John the Baptist IS Elias reborn - although John also denies this; but even if this literal interpretation is incorrect, this kind of reincarnation is clearly regarded as *possible* - and the possibility is not contradicted by the recorded words of Jesus.

pyrrhus said...

Bruce, I can only say that the weight of the evidence supports "past lives", as we call it. Not only powerful personal experiences, which can't be ignored, but scholarly work based on hundreds of thousands of regressed patients. Dr. Michael Newton, Dr. Brian Weiss, and Dr. Ian Stevenson, among others, provide a huge body of consistent data. And these folks have taken a lot of abuse from fellow "professionals" in psychology and psychiatry.
Like you, I was not very spiritual until the last few years, and my background is in law, with an economics degree from Harvard. I look at the evidence, and logic. The logic is simple--our souls are created by God, but to reach an appropriate level of love, kindness, etc. so that we can become one, many experiences and lives must be undertaken. I recommend that you try Destiny of Souls, by Dr.Michael Newton, or Many Lives, Many Masters by Brian Weiss.

Bruce Charlton said...

@p - Thanks for this.

"The logic is simple--our souls are created by God, but to reach an appropriate level of love, kindness, etc. so that we can become one, many experiences and lives must be undertaken. "

I don't know if you read this blog regularly, but I describe myself as a Theoretical Mormon - and therefore for me this earthly mortal life is part of a process of eternal spiritual development which extends backwards and forwards in both directions - nonetheless, mortal life has an essential and irreplaceable purpose (benefit) which includes incarnation (the getting of a body).

In sum - simply to be incarnated and to die is essential to spiritual progress - but beyond that there are degrees of theosis which depend, mostly, on choices.

However, it is worth bearing in mind that through human history the *vast and overwhelming majority* of incarnate humans have died in childhood - especially in the womb, around birth and in young childhood.

So any theological scheme of theosis related to a Good God needs (unless it is to be sabotaged by contingency) either to extend beyond the brief duration of mortal life, or else include reincarnation.

So, I agree that Mainstream Christian theology seems not to allow enough time for theosis - which is or ought to be (I agree) the major purpose within mortal life.

But I think that the Restored Gospel of the CJCLDS removes the apparent need for reincarnation.

It is my impression that very few people know about, and even fewer understand the implications of, this aspect of Mormon theology - in particular people who self identify as spiritual buy not religious have sub-zero interest in Mormonism (presumably because they perceive only the surface, which seems too 'square' for their inclinations).

But in fact Mormon theology beautifully solves many of the major problems of Mainstream Christian theology - including the problem of lack of time for theosis and the apparent need for reincarnation.

pyrrhus said...

Thank you for the information about Mormon theology, which does have some real similarities. It has always seemed implausible to me that the Source of all love and goodness in the Universe would not give us as many lives as necessary to mature and perfect ourselves. Rather late in life, I have had a couple of quite shocking (and very wonderful) experiences that alerted me to the reality of this spiritual view. Interestingly, there are indications that although lives are lived sequentially in our time, they may be seen as simultaneous in the spirit world, which sounds like your Mormon theology. Love your blog, very interested in the IQ, reaction time stuff.

Anonymous said...

@bruce C

re "Heresy does not mean something is not Christian - it means it is Christian but heretical."

It was a christian idea but made an heretical christian idea is what I understood.

I am not a christian though. So what do I know!

About the non-lives of babies and foetuses. I see incarnations as experiential. If an incarnated soul happens to have a life in the correct circumstances, it is able to learn/evolve. The right circumstances are not always available so a life, then, would be cut short. In the affair of the soul, there is no hurry, and no failure, and no death. But only a waiting until all the transactions of those involved have been organised for the best circumstances.

TE said...

This is pretty interesting to me as a believer in reincarnation who considers himself to be a Christian.

For me, reincarnation just always seemed extremely intuitively plausible-- "why wouldn't God sometimes give people multiple incarnations if that was the best way for them to find salvation?" (and it always seemed intuitive to me that for many people, that indeed is the best way) In addition, there's pretty strong Biblical support for it; plus the fact that reincarnation has been a licit and sometimes quite common belief in Judaism since at least some time before the 1st century. Also, later I discovered some of the same scientific support that Pyrrhus mentioned (but that was more a confirmation of something I'd long believed).

It seems that for most Christians there is a dichotomy of reincarnation OR Christ, but it has always seemed an unnecessary and false dichotomy to me. On the contrary, reincarnation seems to make Christianity all the more plausible, reasonable, sensible and believable to me.

Bruce Charlton said...

@TE - It is an interesting question. CS Lewis seemed to believe that reincarnation was incompatible with Christianity, Owen Barfield self identified as a Christian - and Anthroposophist naturally believed in reincarnation - Tolkien did not believe in reincarnation as a reality, but did not think it was incompatible with Christianity in principle.