Sunday 29 January 2023

The desire for open-ended reincarnation and the sufficiency of mortal life

I recently had a very interesting online conversation with someone who - from multiple personal spiritual experiences - believes in the reality of multiple human reincarnations. 

That is not an unusual thing; but this person is someone who I have know over a long period of years to be unusually thoughtful, sincere, and insightful. 

So I pressed him to consider an eternal timescale; and whether - from that perspective - repeating and repeating the experiences of a series and variety of mortal Men living this earthly life - was really sufficient. 

Whether, in particular he could imagine wanting anything better: something better than mortal Men, and living in a world better than this earth?

His answer was no, he did not want anything more - this world, this "plane of existence" was the best he could wish for; even ideally he could want nothing more or better. 

Regular readers will know that I have an extremely different set of beliefs and hopes; and that for me this mortal life and earth do not suffice, and cannot suffice. For me, to contemplate an unending series of mortal reincarnations in a world of always sinful Men and with the inevitability of decay and death; sounds like something more of a curse than a blessing. 

I have characterized this in terms of the fundamentally entropic nature of this mortal life and world; and my desire for a life of eternal creation; that this mortal life is a vital phase between pre-mortal spirit and eternal resurrection - vital, but a phase nonetheless: therefore not something it would be good to remain 'in' forever.   

This kind of consideration and thinking is something that I regard as very fundamental to the human condition; in particular with respect to the gift of Jesus Christ. 

Salvation is aimed at people such as myself; but there are people such as my old friend - I think these people are actually rather rare, yet they exist - who want something positive (i.e. they are not self-damned hell-seekers; they are accurate discerners and foes of evil) that is nonetheless very different from what Jesus offers. 

Another type of person who rejects both salvation and damnation is one who sincerely desires some kind of Nirvana state of blissful loss of awareness of the self, cessation of thinking, removal of the feeling of separation from the divine; and where the divine is understood in an abstract and depersonalized way. 

I have often stated my belief that a large majority of those who profess this kind of oneness aspiration are insincere (ultimately, dishonest with themselves) as evidenced by their attempts to persuade others and argue their position. And as evidence by their behaviour of convergence with the evil totalitarians. In other words these 'mainstream' oneness advocates claim to be other-worldly and indifferent to this mortal life; but evidence the opposite in what they do and teach. 

Yet I think it likely that there are genuine Nirvana-wishers (perhaps especially in Eastern societies) who reject the theosis - the desire for spiritual development towards full creative divinity - that is an essential part of Christianity; and the personal understanding of the world. 

If what we assume about the ancient and ancestral hunter-gatherers, and their cultural equivalents in more recent years - is correct; they had a belief in serial reincarnation without end in 'this world' - and were fully-satisfied by this. 

So it is perhaps not surprising if there are some people alive today who share this basic world view. 

On the other hand; the destiny of Western Man as-a-whole is, by my understanding, towards Christian salvation and Christian theosis; and I am confident that (especially since the millennium) an increasing proportion of those who reject salvation are actually embracing damnation. 

In other words; it seems clear to me that a large majority of those in The West who reject Christianity have actually taken the side of evil; and are either being dishonest with others when they claim they have not, and/or else dishonest with themselves - and have never thought sufficiently rigorously and truthfully to recognize the fact. 

Yet even if I am correct and there is - as a strong generalization - only the two choices of Christ or Satan; nonetheless, each person is in fact unique, and came into this mortal life and earthly world as unique. 

It would therefore be a mistake to suppose that all sincere and thoughtful people who reject evil will also want what Jesus Christ offers. It would be a mistake to assume that all individuals Must fit into one of only two categories.  

On the one hand; I know enough about my old friend to regard him as one of the exceptions. On the other hand - I do not believe there are many others like him! 

But then, I do not believe that many of the hundreds of millions of self-identified Christians in the world, are sincere in their professed belief. 

It seems to me that extremely few "Christians" have asked themselves the right questions concerning what they most desire through an eternal future; and have genuinely considered whether what they want is the same-thing as what Jesus Christ actually offers to those who follow Him. 


Jack said...

The Buddhists themselves reject that view of Nirvana. Depending on how it's phrased, they would call it either the heresy of eternalism or the heresy of nihilism (these are what they consider the two principle errors one can make). That view of Nirvana you're talking about is constantly railed against in the sutras as a trap, an error, a pit Buddhists sometimes fall into, and a heterodox view. There are many harsh words against it in the Buddhist scriptures, about getting absorbed into nothingness or eternal oneness — this is considered a fundamental error.

Buddhas do have their own "Pure Lands" in which they live in celestial bliss forever in communion with other beings of a more or less enlightened state. Nirvana means that they abide in this eternal bliss without attachment.

The relevant Buddhist ideal here though is called the Bodhisattva ideal. A Bodhisattva is a person who has sufficient enlightenment to enter Nirvana / bliss, but chooses instead to stay behind reincarnating in this world for the sake of compassion, returning here again and again to assist other beings and liberate them from their spiritual bondage and debts. This choice is considered in many ways to be superior to pure Buddhahood, in that it manifests what they call Great Compassion.

I think the destiny of this world is to become what the Buddhists call a Pure Land, and what Christ called the Kingdom of Heaven. The Christian apocalypticist view that God is just going to set this world on fire for its sins, and discard it as a failed project, is in my opinion a deeply nihilistic view. In fact, I think the whole point of Jesus' first advent was to announce himself as the Lord and "Buddha" of this very world — each Buddha rules over a Pure Land, Jesus will be the Buddha of this world in its purified state. Gautama Buddha is presented as a Buddha in the Buddhist scriptures, but not the one of this world specifically; rather they prophesy a Maitreya Buddha, a World Buddha who will specifically belong to this world...

I agree with Rudolf Steiner that we reincarnate on this plane both as part of our own personal evolution, and as part of the world's evolution as a whole. Both we and the world are evolving towards a state of enlightenment and bliss (I think there will be a time when physical death ceases on this earth, when it will no longer be useful to us, for example, as a check against our pride and ambition). I suppose there is the option to remain indefinitely in a higher state of existence, but that would cut you off from full active participation in the evolution of this world. I think most people, like your friend, will choose to come back again and again as part of personal and collective evolution. People who get trapped in nihilistic views and sins go to a hellish state for a while until they repent, and get to try again on earth to grow and evolve.

Bruce Charlton said...

@J - Leaving aside your account of 'What Buddhists really believe' which is not the point; I regard Steiner as profoundly inconsistent in his views on this issue; as I have argued elsewhere.

Steiner is an example of something very common among self-identified Christians that all-but ignores Jesus's clear IV Gospel teaching on resurrection - i.e. eternal life for Men in incarnate and embodied form, coming after this mortal life.

I am happy to acknowledge that reincarnation after reincarnation is possible, and probably an option; but that is not what Jesus offered, nor what he wanted as the ideal (for what is called the Sons of God).

I would need to have some kind of personal evidence that a person had thought through to the implications of their beliefs before I could take them fully seriously.

This cannot be done by discussing generalities about what large numbers of people supposedly believe, or what they really believe despite what they say and do. That is what the post is about.

Anthony said...

For a while I believed in reincarnation, or more accurately desired reincarnation, like your friend. The crux for my confusion (which is how I regard it now) was a misunderstanding of the Atonement as a mere quantitative cancelling out of debt. I then thought this was no different from karma, except that you yourself do the suffering for your mistakes rather than Jesus. Karma was a satisfying (though cruel) explanation for human suffering: basically, you deserve it. And it's true that if you are suffering and tell yourself "I deserve this" it will often improve things--at least it did for me, so my belief in karma was to a significant extent therapeutic.

I eventually came to the conclusion that I was both misunderstanding karma--that my understanding of karma in this way, as just a mechanism for assigning awards and punishment, was really a bastardization of the traditional doctrine (as I learned from René Guenon)--and forgetting, or not grasping the importance, of the most essential part of Christ's mission, the Resurrection, His laying down his life and taking it up again for his friends. And this lead me back to Christianity.

A few of your blog posts were very helpful in this last part.

John Goes said...

I have said this before, but what depressed me about the always-reincarnation view is how it de-emphasizes the importance of family. The notion that I would not be with my loved ones in the next life, that we would not continue to grow and develop those friendships/relationships deeper and deeper but would continually be resetting it, is deeply dissatisfying. Even in pictures of reincarnation in which loved ones are reincarnated in “clusters”, so that you can continue to be with your loved ones in some new form, seems to limit greatly the kinds of relationships I can imagine having into eternity.

Reincarnation seems to emphasize the view that the purpose of creation is “play,” versus a view that the purpose of creation is “love.”

Bruce Charlton said...

@JG - Yes indeed. But of course not everybody values family - even ideally - in the way that we do.

" the view that the purpose of creation is “play,” versus a view that the purpose of creation is “love.”"

That's a good point. Some people seem to like the idea of eternal play, but I don't. It sounds like an eternal holiday (or eternal fighting - Valhalla, or an eternal paradise of good food and varied sex, or eternal rest); which, again, is something that some people seem to aspire to, but not me.

I would modify your remark about creation and love to say that I think the two are not separable, but facets of the same basic divine impulse. I regard creation as deriving from the love of our Heavenly Parents (i.e. God) - and love as being a creative (including procreative) phenomenon.

Anonymous said...

I think most modern people who want reincarnation think that they will get a better situation the next time around. I don't even think most see it as a learning experience. People may have thought about reincarnation differently in ancient times, but for most today, I think it is pretty shallow.