I held that when a person dies
His soul returns again to earth:
Arrayed in some new flesh-disguise,
Another mother gives him birth.
With sturdier limbs and brighter brain
The old soul takes the roads again.
Of all ideas in the history of religion, none is more universal in its appeal than is that of reincarnation. It appears both in very primitive forms of religion and in highly developed ones. True, it seems to prosper better in some religious climates than in others. Everyone knows that in India it is inseparable from the cultural outlook. It is part of the mental furniture of the whole sub-continent. Yet India is by no means its only home. Even in those civilizations in which (for one reason or another) it has been frowned on, it has emerged in unlikely corners and in unexpected ways, as the deep roots of an old tree send forth shoots far from the main trunk. Christianity and Judaism are no exceptions. We shall see how persistently it has cropped up in various crannies along the Christian Way, from the earliest times down to the present. No less unexpectedly has it flourished in Judaism. Poets have favored it: the theme recurs in Goethe, in Wordsworth, in Browning, in Blake, in Yeats, in Masefield, and in many others. Wherever occidental thinkers have learned to love the Christian Way well enough to strip off dead dogma without destroying living vision, it has found a place in the Church’s life.
The modern philosophical and scientific objections to the classic presentations of reincarnationism are indeed formidable.1 We shall consider them in a special chapter. First let us ask: wherein lies the peculiar appeal of the notion that one’s present life is but one of a series? It is a notion that is entertained even by many who do not take much interest in religious ideas and to whom other doctrines, whether of immortality or of resurrection, mean little or nothing. Why should it so captivate even those who seem to be conceptually least prepared for it?
I ask the reader to be particularly clear on one point. In presenting the following eight considerations as among the most telling, I am not suggesting that they should compel either denial or assent. At this stage we are less concerned with the truth of the notion than with its meaning. We should first see what the notion means, then whether it is as plausible as it is intelligible. We may then go on to assess any plausibility that we may find in it.
First, then, the notion is more satisfying to many people, both morally and intellectually, than is any proposal that appears to entail an arbitrary “divine judgment.” Karma is automatic. There is no arbitrariness or subjectivity in it. That does not necessarily exclude (though historically it has often done so) the notion of mercy and forgiveness. God might be seen as finding ways of overcoming the moral law of karma, as he is seen by some to find ways of overcoming nature, not by destroying or injuring it but by going beyond our apprehension of it. Karma, which is intelligible to the human mind by analogy with scientific “laws,” could be seen as providing the basis, as does the Torah, of the ways of God to man. The natural sciences, such as physics and chemistry, help us to understand the way things are. So the cosmic moral law of karma might be seen to help us to understand how things are in the moral order. The learned may call this way of looking at things “neo-Gnostic”; but while it certainly can be developed along Gnostic lines, and very often indeed has been so developed in the history of human thought, so as to preclude the exercise of God’s will and the operation of his love, it need not be so developed. It can stand while allowing room for the surprising acts of God. So while it may not be indigenous to those religions that stress the will of God acting freely in history (e.g. Judaism, Christianity and Islam), it need not be wholly incompatible with them. An analogy might be drawn from our attitude to the sciences. What physicists and chemists and biologists say may be interpreted nihilistically; but it need not be. As it need not exclude the possibility of atheistic interpretation, neither need a karmic view of the moral realm exclude an orthodox Christian or Jewish or Muslim view of the sovereignty of God’s will.
Second, reincarnation accords well with much that we now know about evolution in the world of biology and physics. The notion that the struggle for biological development has a counterpart in the struggle for moral development is at least plausible. As some of the early evolutionists saw their discovery as a “tooth and claw” principle, the “survival of the fittest,” so the karmic principle may be interpreted as a struggle for the development of a might-is-right sort of moral power; but it need not be. It need no more be so interpreted than must religion, which ideologically begins as primitive fear (primus in orbe deos fecit timor), be precluded from eventually transcending that fear.
Third, the notion that we reap what we sow, be it now or a trillion lives later, is eminently congenial to those who attach importance to the notion of human freedom of choice. For while the karmic principle is as inexorable as are the “laws” of physics and genetics, we are by no means to be seen as helplessly imprisoned in its clutches. On the contrary, we create our own karma by our own acts. Karma is the given (it is jeté là, comme ça, as Sartre calls the state of affairs we encounter in human life), and our task is to extricate ourselves from it (as in the great “prison” motif of modern existentialism) by surmounting it and so creating new and hopefully better karma. I have created the prison from which I must now extricate myself.
Fourth, the universality of the notion in the history of religion is not a negligible element in its appeal to thoughtful and educated people. Again, that does not mean that it need be the last word in the history of religious ideas. Nevertheless, no serious and historically-minded student of religion will lightly write it off. At least it must have expressed something important in the religious consciousness of humankind. If it is to be accounted outmoded, what precisely takes its place? Whatever that is alleged to be, does it effectively encompass and supersede the allegedly outmoded notion of reincarnation? If not, how can one call reincarnation an entirely outmoded notion?
Fifth, all the ancient myths both of immortality and of resurrection seem to be expressible in the myth of reincarnation. As we shall consider in a later chapter, purgatory is strikingly conformable to reincarnationist teaching: the whole process of spiritual evolution can be seen as purgative. I am purged of whatever it was that has bound me to my old karma. The purgation is painful; the release blissful. Yet the bliss cannot be greater than the capacity for bliss that I have attained. Thomas Aquinas, the most influential of the medieval schoolmen, saw that clearly in his own way and dealt with it skillfully. He was confronted by a medieval type of question that we might express as follows: “Heaven is supposed to be a state of perfect happiness; but some people in heaven are the greatest saints who ever lived, while others have only scraped into heaven by the skin of their teeth. If, then, I, being of the latter class, see myself alongside a Francis of Assisi or a Martin of Tours, knowing them to be much holier and therefore happier than I can ever be, how can I be fully happy?” Thomas answered that the beatified in heaven are like cups of various sizes, each cup brimfull, so that even if mine be the smallest cup in heaven it is nevertheless as full as it can be. I am therefore as happy as I can be, and not even Peter or Paul could do better than that. It is like having as much food as you can eat: if, having a small stomach, you have enough to fill it, you are as fully fed as anyone.
Sixth, reincarnationism exalts the individual. In the classic, priestly traditions of the great institutional religions, Brahmanical, Jewish and Christian, the emphasis has been on community, covenant, and other such notions that exalt the institution and its functionaries. Buddhism, which became, as did Christianity, a great international religion transcending “blood and soil” ideas and which has always much stressed karmic and other reincarnationist ideas, began as a protest of the individual against institutionalism. My karma is peculiar to me. It is my problem and the triumph over it is my triumph. I may need the help of teachers; I may even profit from my belongingness; but in the last resort I am responsible for what I am, as I am becoming responsible for what I shall be. As I struggle through my predicament you may laugh at my antics as you will; but he who laughs last laughs best. In the long run my joy shall be commensurate with the anguish of my present strife. You are seeing an individual in the making, and there is no grander spectacle in all the universe of finite being.
Seventh, and by no means least, reincarnationism takes care of the problem of moral injustice. To the age-old question of Job (why do the wicked prosper and the righteous suffer?) the reincarnationist has a ready answer: we are seeing, in this life, only a fragment of a long story. If you come in at the chapter in which the villain beats the hero to pulp, of course you will ask the old question. You may even put down the book at that point and join forces with those who call life absurd, seeing no justice in the universe. That is because you are too impatient to go on to hear the rest of the story, which will unfold a much richer pattern in which the punishment of the wicked and the vindication of the righteous will be brought to light. Death is but the end of a chapter; it is not, as the nihilists suppose, the end of the story. Yet even now we can already see here and there a glimmer of the process. Deposuit potentes de sede, et exaltavit humiles: he has put down the mighty from their seat and has exalted the humble. These joyful words attributed in the Magnificat to the Virgin Mary are words we easily understand because, despite our lamentations with Job at the injustice of the world, we have seen in our own brush with human history something of the truth of her joyful proclamation.
Eighth, almost everybody experiences from time to time the sudden and sometimes eerie sense of déjà vu, of “having been here before.” In a poem entitled Pre-Existence , Frances Cornford sees herself lying on the seashore dreaming.
How all of this had been before;
How ages far away
I lay on some forgotten shore
As here I lie today.
The waves came shining up the sands,
As here today then shine;
And in my pre-Pelasgian hands
The sand was warm and fine.2
You travel to a distant country whose history and civilization are strikingly alien to your background and education. Suppose you are a Norwegian visiting Turkey or a Finn in Morocco. Suddenly you feel as though long ago you had seen it all before. Some people, having no particular linguistic facility have found that a particular language comes to them as if it were their forgotten maternal tongue, though that is historically impossible in terms of all they know. Suppose you have never been able to make headway in any foreign language, yet when, having gone to Italy, you find Italian comes to you easily, or even, having travelled to India, you suddenly find yourself curiously able to pick up and acquire fluency in Hindi or Tamil. No genetic or historical or sociological explanation satisfactorily accounts for any of these experiences. Attempts at psychological explanation of this déjà vu phenomenon seem to be inadequate. Where they resort to a theory such as Jung’s “collective unconscious”, the presuppositions on which they rely are no more empirically verifiable or falsifiable than are the reincarnational hypotheses they are brought in to replace. While no assent-compelling proof can be offered that these experiences refer to some background from a previous “incarnation”, the experiences are peculiarly significant to those who, for other reasons, are disposed to take reincarnationist theory seriously.
The appeal of the myth of reincarnation cuts across race, color and creed, except to the extent that a body of accepted dogma is believed to exclude it. To some extent it also even bridges the gulf between belief and unbelief. Even the least “religious” people find it makes sense, whether they are inclined to believe it or not, while the most thoughtful and sensitive among the “religious” are the least disposed to reject it out of hand.
Such a notion surely merits close inspection, not least since it is conformable to either of two rival, historically important theories about an afterlife. According to one of these main streams in the history of religious ideas, the “essential” part of man, his “ego” or “self” or “soul” is immortal. Unlike the body, which dies like any other animal body, the human soul, being somehow or other of divine origin, perhaps even a spark of the divine fire, is as immortal as is the source of the universe itself. That doctrine, familiar to students of Plato and Plotinus, has influenced Christianity; hence the notion that at death man must go somewhere, be it heaven or hell, for he cannot die. Against this view is another, according to which man has no such entitlement to immortality but may be resurrected to new life. In Christianity this seems clearly to be the Pauline view: man is in a state of sin, and sin normally entails death; nevertheless, through participation in the resurrection of Christ, man can be raised with him to “eternal life.”3 Such a resurrection doctrine, though less commonly associated with reincarnationism than is the other, “immortality” doctrine, might be even more compatible with it. Resurrection is to a new soma, a “glorified” body. Why should not this be another incarnation, on this planet or some other far off in outer space? Reincarnation, whatever else it may be, means resurrection of some kind. The attainment of a “glorified” body might be through a gradual process.
The fact that the reincarnationist myth can sit with either of these two historic understandings of the nature of human destiny does not mean that either or both must entail it. It does mean that those who reject it should have a good reason for doing so. Closer inspection will reveal that the theological reasons usually adduced are too feeble to carry much weight. Too often, indeed, they reflect misunderstanding of the meaning of reincarnational doctrine, the role of karma and the nature of the samsara or chain of rebirths in which the karmic principle issues.
Where reincarnational views are most at home, the presupposition that the soul is independent and akin to the gods is deeply rooted. Convictions of this kind arise understandably at that comparatively primitive level at which human beings become for the first time deeply aware of the miracle of human consciousness. Vedic literature is full of wonderment at what human consciousness can do. In contrast to the rest of animal existence, which is so completely conditioned by and at the mercy of its environment, man can transcend his circumstances. By a miracle I can not only remember a house I saw twenty years ago; I can imagine a house I have never seen. There is an echo of this awareness in the punning Spanish couplet:
Si la fe es creer lo que no se ve,“If faith is believing what you do not see, poetry is creating what you will never see.” Poetry, tool of the imagination, can invent mental realities. It can bring into being what never was and never will be in the empirical world.
Poesia es crear lo que nunca se verá.
When this imaginative power is wild it is called, in Italian, immaginazione; when it is disciplined and restrained it is called fantasia. In English the terms have been reversed: imagination is the restrained lady, fancy her wild sister; but, tamed or wild, creativity of mind is the most godlike power we humans possess. When the ancients first perceived how stupendous is this power and how far it raised them above the animals, they saw in the mind that exercises it an immortal character: that which has such power is imperishable. It is brahma.
Paradoxically, we who have learned to use that power so extensively have forgotten what it means to be acutely aware of it. Colin Wilson provocatively suggests: “A man might spend years in prison dreaming of freedom. Yet within twenty-four hours of leaving the jail, he has lost his freedom. The intention he had directed toward freedom has vanished because he is outside the jail. . . . In a paradoxical sense, he was freer in jail.”5 So we have largely lost awareness of the wonder of the power that was so costly to attain. Reincarnationist doctrine, which emerged in humanity when that awareness was at its zenith, calls us back to what it means to have transcended our animal nature and attained awareness of the reality of being a self. That self, whether a spark from beyond the Empyrean imprisoned in mortal flesh or a soul created in the image of him who breathed it into life, is a self that in one way or another participates in the immortality of God that is celebrated in the ancient liturgical acclamation of the Eastern Christian Church: Hagios ho Theos, Hagios Ischyros, Hagios Athanatos: Holy God, Holy Strong One, Holy Immortal One.
I shall deal later with what I take to be the most significant scientific objections to reincarnationism. They are not negligible. Even at this preliminary stage of inquiry, however, we may usefully note that reincarnationism is so ill understood that many of the standard objections to it are simply beside the point. Even such a distinguished Cambridge scientist as William Homan Thorpe, for example, in an otherwise admirable book based on his Freemantle Lectures at Balliol dismisses the whole notion in a single sentence: “And in so far as modern genetical ideas have anything to say upon the subject, they are for mathematical reasons inalterably averse to the concept of reincarnation—the individual’s gene complex is unique, never to be precisely repeated in the future of the world.”4 To this the reincarnationist would reply that such uniqueness in the gene complex, far from being incompatible with reincarnationism, is eminently supportive of it. For not only is there no reason why the gene complex should be repeatable; its uniqueness is precisely what, on a karmic view, one would expect. On such a view, what is unique in the story of my spiritual evolution is my karmic need at each rebirth, so of course I must wait (perhaps even for centuries) for just the right combination of genes. The misunderstanding, based on the common notion that reincarnationism is fundamentally a deterministic doctrine when in fact it is the opposite, is widespread. What is remarkable is to find it in such an enlightened animal geneticist so deeply sympathetic to a religious interpretation of evolutionary theory and so perceptive of the need for a marriage of religion and science in our time.
In the contemporary Western scene, reincarnationism, though currently a fashionable topic among both religion-seekers and religion-watchers, is still highly suspect by those who are trained to serious intellectual reflection on religion. Not without reason is it so. Apart from the serious scientific and philosophical objections to it, and irrespective of its ill repute in traditionalist Christian circles, it is often accepted very uncritically, not to say disingenuously, by many people who happen to hit on it and find it an attractive notion. We must also admit that charlatans have taught it. Such facts should not deflect us from our quest. In the Christian Church bishops abound whose every utterance betrays ignorance or turpitude or both; but for all the sadness they lay on the hearts of the more intelligent and perceptive of the faithful, these do not on their account repudiate the apostolic tradition. The fact that some humans lack brains is no argument against thought.
Moreover, one’s vision of the afterlife can never be any better or worse than one’s vision of God. As Baron von Hügel has perspicaciously observed: “The specifically religious desire of Immortality begins, not with Immortality but with God; it rests upon God; and it ends with God. The religious soul does not seek, find, or assume its own Immortality; and thereupon seek, find, or assume God. But it seeks, finds, experiences, and loves God; and because of God, and of this, its very real, though still very imperfect, intercourse with God . . . it finds, rather than seeks, Immortality of a certain kind.”6 Those whose thought of God is superficial and whose experience of him in their lives casual will always have a correspondingly trivial understanding of the nature of the afterlife in which they profess to believe, be it reincarnational or otherwise. Literalistic Christians, whether calling themselves Protestant or Catholic, have conceived of heaven as a place in the sky, inhabited by harp players and paved with golden streets, with God in the downtown section, replacing City Hall. Such conceptions spring likewise from an impoverished or immature concept of God, to which they are the natural corollary. By the same token, thoughtful Christians need not on their account deny the possibility of an afterlife. As we shall have occasion to notice later in another connection, Lloyd-George, one of the many eminent persons who have expressed belief in reincarnation, once remarked that as a little boy he found heaven an even more terrifying prospect than hell.
In considering the appeal of reincarnationism, we cannot overlook the fact that the standard Christian alternative has entailed the horrific doctrine of hell. That doctrine, that those who are not saved are doomed to eternal punishment, does not seem compatible with the fundamental Christian assertion that God is love. Most of us know enough about the costliness of love to accept the view that all moral progress, like all evolutionary processes, is likely to be painful. We may not boggle, even, at what seems to be the Pauline view that those who fail to win victory with Christ will simply pass out of existence. What is intolerable is the notion that even one sinner should be punished by everlasting torture.
Yet that was in fact both the popular and the official teaching of the medieval Latin Church, inherited by the heirs of the Reformation and for long emphatically preached in both Catholic and Protestant pulpits. True, the learned saw hell as primarily the sense of the eternal loss of the presence of God, the poena damni; but in popular understanding it was an unspeakably cruel, fearsome fate. It was represented in medieval and post-medieval art with curiously sadistic persistence. In a thirteenth-century carving in Worcester Cathedral is depicted a damned person who is being roasted over a fire by two devils. The exquisite Très Riches Heures of the Duc de Berry portrays Satan spewing up damned souls, which give birth to fiery serpents, which in turn torment them. Lesser devils are engaged in working bellows under a grid. The artist included a large number of priestly victims among the damned, including a bishop who is being dragged by a rope while a devil is screwing a gimlet into his neck with much relish. In the Chapel of St. Brizio in Orvieto Cathedral, a damned woman is depicted as being carried off by a horned and leering devil. Michelangelo’s Last Judgment in the Sistine Chapel, in which Christ is cursing the lost, is too well-known to need description.
The English Methodist Catechism for 1823, designed for “children of tender years,” gives us a fair understanding of the typical Protestant way of instructing the young only last century:
Question: What sort of place is hell?
Answer: A dark and bottomless pit, full of fire and brimstone.
Question: How will the wicked be punished there?
Answer: Their bodies will be tormented with fire, and their souls by a sense of the wrath of God.
Question: How long will their torments last?
Answer: The torments of hell will last for ever and ever.
The late G. G. Coulton, a distinguished Cambridge historian, reproduces an Irish Catholic tract by a Redemptorist, which he says was circulating within the lifetime of people still alive when he was writing in 1930.7 It tells of a child who received sixpence from his father, to buy bread. Instead, the child bought “sugar-sticks and other foolish things.” The child had also often neglected the opportunities for grace afforded by the Church: the Mass, the sacraments, prayer, good books. The child dies. The description that follows is not for those with weak stomachs. When the child sees what is happening, it falls down “on its knees before Jesus.” It begs for mercy: “Jesus, do not send me to hell. I was a poor ignorant child, I knew no better.” Jesus then methodically sets forth the advantages the child has had, and the child is speechless, in fear of the “dreadful sentence” it knows is about to come. “Its heart is bursting with sorrow and anguish.” Then comes the awful scene when “Jesus Christ now orders the cross to be taken away. Oh, how the child roars and screams when it sees the cross going away. It is a sign that mercy is no more.” The angels and devils are silent. After pronouncing sentence, Jesus Christ lets the devils know that the child now belongs to them. The child now sees the whole sky black with millions of devils. “It cannot get away from them.” At last the child is inside hell. It is in a “red-hot oven”, burning in agony. “The wicked child has been burning in Hell for years and years. Day and night it has been frightened out of its senses by the terrible cries and groans and howlings of the damned.” Then suddenly all hell is silent. A shout like a trumpet goes forth: “Arise, ye dead, and come to judgment.” The denizens of hell, including the wicked child, move out to receive the final sentence. They go down again into hell. “The gates of Hell are shut once more and for ever; they will never be opened again! The wicked child is in Hell for ever and ever.”8 The tract is entitled “Books for Children, and Young Persons.” It was issued permissu superiorum and published by James Duffy and Company, Ltd., 14 and 15 Wellington Quay, Dublin. No date is given; but it probably appeared about 1850.
Now, even allowing for the different climate that prevailed when the tract was published, and for the severe, Jansenist kind of Catholicism the Irish have favored, it is a horrendous testimony to what was acceptable “spiritual reading” for children not so very long ago. The Salvation Army was also strong on hell-fire sermons. Its founder, William Booth, wrote to his future wife in 1854 that people “must have hell-fire flashed before their faces, or they will not move.”9
It is no wonder that purgatory seemed by comparison, despite its anguish, a demonstration of God’s mercy. Purgatory is indeed a far more intelligible concept, in the light of what the Bible says of the nature of God. Even the crassest form of the doctrine of purgatory suggests moral and spiritual evolution. Surely, too, even countless rebirths as a beggar lying in misery and filth on the streets of Calcutta would be infinitely more reconcilable to the Christian concept of God than is the traditional doctrine of everlasting torture in hell. The appeal of reincarnationism to anyone nurtured on hell-fire sermons and tracts is by no means difficult to understand. Indeed, even apart from the notion of everlasting punishment, traditional Christian doctrine about “last things” (the destiny of humankind) is so notoriously confused that vast numbers of people, even habitual churchgoers, have given up believing anything about the subject at all. Christian eschatology (as that branch of theology is called) is by any reckoning the most unsatisfactory area of the Church’s concern. A sitting duck for the Church’s adversaries, it is also an embarrassment to thoughtful Christians. No wonder, indeed, that the wisest of Christian theologians have discouraged “idle speculation” on the nature of the afterlife. Luther, in his own way, saw the difficulties, and Calvin calls into question his own doctrine of the immortality of the soul, on the ground that Paul intentionally gives no details on the subject, since details “could not help our piety.”10
REFERENCES AND NOTES
1 For critique of the objections see H. D. Lewis, The Self and Immortality (New York: Seabury Press, 1973), and John Hick, Death and Eternal Life (London: Collins, 1976). Both of these well-known British philosophers express sympathetic interest in reincarnationism.
2 Poems of Today (London: Sidgwick and Jackson, Ltd., 1918), p. 2.
3 The difference has been very clearly shown by Oscar Cullmann in a well-known essay. (See Bibliography.) Not only do I agree with Cullmann’s conclusions on this subject; I am suggesting a way in which they might be carried much further.
4 W. H. Thorpe, Science, Man and Morals (Ithaca, New York: Cornell University Press, 1966), p. 141.
5 James F. T. Bugental (ed.), Challenges of Humanistic Psychology (New York: McGraw Hill, 1967), p. 6.
6 F. von Hügel, Essays and Addresses on the Philosophy of Religion, Vol. I (New York: Dutton, 1924 and 1926), p. 197.
7 J. Furniss, C.SS.R., “The Terrible Judgment and the Bad Child”. In G. G. Coulton, Romanism and Truth, Vol. I (London: Faith Press, 1930), Appendix VI, p.145.
8 Coulton, Romanism and Truth, p. 147.
9 H. Begbie, Life of William Booth Vol. 1 (London: Macmillan, 1920), p. 228.
10 J. Calvin, on 1 Cor.13:12. In Corpus Reformatorum, 77, 515. Cf. Institutes, Ill, 25, 6.