Tuesday 30 January 2018

Why does a theology of reincarnation so often go-along-with a belief in the superiority of life as a spirit?

It seems that reincarnation goes-with a belief in the superiority of spirit - the superiority of existence as a spirit over incarnated existence...

I say 'goes-with' because I don't think reincarnation logically-implies the superiority of spirit, but goes with it in a natural kind of fashion - apparently; if such Eastern versions of reincarnation are considered as Hinduism, Buddhism - or more recent doctrines such as Anthroposophy and some New Age ideas.

By the 'superiority' of spirit, I mean that with reincarnation it is usual to see life as a pure spirit as superior to life 'in' a body: the body is seen as a restriction.

For reincarnation, repeated incarnations serve the life as a spirit - and usually the ultimate goal is to stop reincarnating, discard bodies, and live permanently (finally, eternally) as a spirit.

The incarnations can serve spirit in various ways - each reincarnation might provide an experience to allow spiritual progress, or be a kind of opposite of this - the incarnation being a punishment or adverse consequence of earlier lives... but in the end the idea is that these incarnations, these repeated embodied lives, are merely a means-to-an-end; they have the purpose of ultimately allowing the body to be discarded.

In Christianity the picture is different - but there is here a difference between 'Mainstream' Christianity and Mormon Christianity.

In most kinds of Catholic and Protestant Mainstream Christianity, the Trinity of Father, Son and Holy Ghost include two spirits (Father and Ghost) and one resurrected incarnate (Son). The overall sense seems to be that whether God is a spirit or incarnated makes no difference - since there is (by the mystery of the Trinity) a unity of all three.

But there is a implicit sense in Mainstream Christianity that being incarnated is a problem. Man is regarded as primarily incarnated, as beginning as an incarnate - and the problem of incarnation is solved by means of Jesus descending into the incarnated state, dying and being resurrected... The feeling is that incarnation is a problem that needed solving, and was solved by such means.

For Mormon Christianity, incarnation is superior to spirit life. The Father is incarnate - God is not 'a spirit' but has a body.

Men have their (pre-mortal) origins as spirits, and incarnation is seen as a necessary step in progression to full divinity, to become like the Father.

(Not all pre-mortal spirit Men have incarnated, and presumably not all will necessarily incarnate - if they chose not to. They would remain as spirits - as angels; or as demons, none of whom are - according to doctrine - permitted to incarnate. Therefore, for Mormonism, incarnation is a privilege.) 

And Christ too (although highly-divine as a pre-mortal spirit) necessarily went-through this stepwise process in order to become fully divine, like his Father. But instead of dying and becoming a spirit (as happened to all men before Christ) - by dying and resurrecting; Christ began the new era in which all mortal incarnated Men died and were resurrected.

For Mormonism, incarnation is superior to being a spirit (all else being equal); in the sense of incarnation being a more divine form of being (and, as I said above, necessary for Man, including Christ, to become fully divine).

Therefore; for Christians in general, and Mormons in particular, there is no point in reincarnation - unless something has, in some way, 'gone wrong' with the primary incarnation (maybe that it was ineffective at achieving its purpose for some reason - perhaps extremely premature death?).

My conclusion is that - for Christians - reincarnation isn't a thing that is necessarily ruled-out nor false... As I have previously noted, the discussion in the New Testament of whether John the Baptist was a reincarnated prophet - and if so which one - suggests that the possibility of reincarnation was acknowledged by Jesus and his followers.

It is more a matter that reincarnation is superfluous for Christians, but esepcially for Mormons - at least under 'normal circumstances. Only if something has gone wrong with the primary incarnation would there seem to be any compelling reason to have further incarnations.

This leaves-open the question of how often things go wrong in human mortal lives, such that further incarnations are required (or desirable). Is it common or rare? To that I have no answer.


August said...

The entire point of the Trinity is Incarnation. If there were no Incarnation, there would be no reason for all those persons. But when you are God, and then you decide to become man, you don't just lose yourself in the process, you become man, but continue to be you. So, at least from a human perspective, weird stuff happens. Because there is God that cannot be contained by this mortal life, there is God that was contained by this mortal life, and then there is the Holy Spirit that was the connection between the two during Jesus' time on the Earth, and forms our connection with God as we accept Him.

But people are mostly confused. And I even worry that this comment will just muddle things up more, rather than helping.

Unknown said...

The Chan / Zen Mahayana Buddhist monks I have contact with definitely consider human incarnation as being superior to either incarnation as an animal or an angel / demigod from the perspective of achieving enlightenment. Spiritual progress as a disembodied "hungry ghost" is considered to be very slow. Reincarnation is considered to be a sign of inefficiency.

These monks also stress the primacy of Thinking that is not determined by environmental causality, that is, originating in "the true Mind" outside of the world rather than in reaction to sensory stimuli or conditioning.

-- Robert Brockman

Nigel Worthington said...

I've heard several models explain that at least part of the reason for being incarnated is that dense vulnerable bodies provide feedback that allows opportunities for learning that are not available to less dense/non physical entities.

Imagine a disorganized nascent consciousness with free will. How could such a thing be trained/developed into a cooperative entity willing the good of others? Well one answer would be to evolve a world full of nascent consciousness making impactful choices that affect themselves for good or ill providing feedback and learning. This makes sense in a way but I don't know. What do you think Bruce?

Wm Jas Tychonievich said...

Regarding John the Baptist, I guess it wouldn't really be correct to say that Jesus implied he was the reincarnation of Elijah. Elijah ascended bodily to heaven and presumably never became a discarnate spirit, so his reappearance on earth would not be an instance of reincarnation.

Luke's gospel has an account of John's birth, though, which would seem to rule out his being the return of the original Elijah. Also, Luke never says that John is Elijah, only that he will go "in the spirit and power of Elias." Matthew, whose Jesus flatly says that John is Elijah, never says that John was born.

In the fourth gospel, on the other hand, John denies being Elijah. Ordinarily, of course, one could be a reincarnation of someone without being aware of that fact, but if John was in fact the original Elijah, returned to earth without ever having died, he would certainly have known who he was.

Wm Jas Tychonievich said...

@Robert Brockman,

Yes, human incarnation is a tool for achieving enlightenment -- but enlightenment is supposed to lead to parinirvana, which means a permanent end to the five skandhas. Thus, as Bruce says, incarnation is regarded as expedient as a means to an end, but the end is the cessation of embodied existence. (Of course, mind and consciousness are also skandhas, so "spiritual" existence in most senses would also cease.)

Bruce Charlton said...

@NW - I think there is agreement across traditions about the potential 'learning benefits' of incarnation - but my focus here is on what is the aimed-at end point.

Bruce Charlton said...

@WmJas - My point is not that anyone asserted tha John was reincarnated and as any particular person, but that the range of discussion indicates it was a possibility. John would not have made a specific denial of being Elijah if the whole idea was in principle impossible.

Surely, given this discussion of the most important prophet; if reincarnation was impossible, somebody would have said somewhere along the lines of 'there is no point in debating this stuff; because that kind of thing just does not happen, ever'.

Chiu ChunLing said...

The belief in a need for release from the endless suffering of the cycle of reincarnation is a natural result of the insistence that everything is being reincarnated confronted with the evidence that, on the whole, it isn't doing everything a lot of good.

The natural outlook of all living things is to seek improvement in satisfaction of desires. Another way of saying it is that the process of life consists of suffering from dissatisfaction. I see that as indicating a spiritual truth, but regardless of whether it is or not, it does mean that a belief in an "afterlife" which was simply a return to this life, starting without any improved characteristics, or from zero, with nothing to look forward to but an endless succession of similarly pointless 'resets' to zero, would of course not be seen as desirable. To avoid claiming that every reincarnation resets all your progress in life, you have to either see that every generation of people (together with all living things, since reincarnation usually involves transmigration among different species) was perceptibly improving spiritually even if individually not remembering the past lives in which those improvements occurred, or you have to believe that there is some egress from the cycle of rebirth for those who are sufficiently spiritually advanced (this also implies a source of replacements where the overall population of living things among which transmigrations occur is stable or growing rather than shrinking, but with uncertainty about the sizes of many populations which may be part of the transmigrating soul population, as well as the positing of interruptions of the cycle such as occasional persistence as a ghost bound by unfulfilled desires), this is not an issue that has yet become a serious intellectual difficulty for reincarnation.

Many New Age interpretations of reincarnation seem to adopt the idea that, rather than resolving into bodiless insensibility of suffering, the sufficiently advanced soul will qualify for transmigration to a better world, perhaps on another planet or plane of existence. It is a curiosity why this is not commonplace in the historical development of ideas about reincarnation, except that the general idea was always that the 'higher plane' of existence was purely spiritual.

This assumption finds expression in Christian theological (and popular) thought as well, with "spirituality" being of itself a virtue. And I do have sympathy for the perception of the mortal body as an "incarnaceration" rather than a fulfillment of the purpose of spirit. I just think that most people don't think through the essential aspects of what it would mean to exist without a teleology at all, which is the only sort of existence which is best served without a body.