Reincarnation in Christianity - Chapter 12


Chapter 12


Grace does not destroy nature m
but perfects it.

Thomas Aquinas

In light of the ambiguities we have seen in the Christian doctrine of the afterlife, we must raise anew the old question: from what precisely is the Christian supposed to be saved? When Dr. Johnson once expressed the fear that he might be damned, he was asked by his host, Dr. Adams: “What do you mean by ‘damned’?” To this Dr. Johnson replied (“passionately and loudly,” according to his biographer): “Sent to hell, Sir, and punished everlastingly.”1 While I would be less dramatic than the celebrated lexicographer, I am inclined to the view that we are saved from a fate that some of us would account even more terrifying: extinction.

Paul certainly taught that “the wage paid by sin is death.”2 The unredeemed, therefore, die. That is the end of them. The good news is that, since Jesus Christ has risen, we also are raised from death to eternal life. “When this perishable nature has put on imperishability, and when this mortal nature has put on immortality, then the words of scripture will come true: “Death is swallowed up in victory. Death, where is your victory? Death, where is your sting?”3 Clearly, according to Paul, annihilation by death is the only expectation the unredeemed may entertain. In fact, moreover, to judge from the conversation and attitudes of those who do not account themselves redeemed by Jesus Christ, death is the only expectation they do entertain. The arrangement that Paul envisions seems admirable: both the redeemed and the unredeemed get what they expect. We might well add the suggestion that each receives what he or she is capable of receiving. To such an arrangement not even the most stiffnecked of moralizers could well object.

Two questions immediately arise: (a) what are the merits of such a proposal? and (b) what precisely does it entail for a Christian scheme of salvation?

Paul’s teaching on this subject appears to many a mere mollification of what they take to be the more generally accepted Christian doctrine of heaven and hell as the only two possible final destinations of humankind. It is by no means merely that. The notion that the unredeemed should be simply annihilated expresses in the most horrific way the plight of humanity apart from redemption through Jesus Christ. Those who, bound and blinded by their sinful state, have no hope of a personal afterlife do indeed rightly assess their own worth. They are rightly like “pig’s meat priced,” for they can neither want nor claim to be more than tragically specialized and highly organized mammals. The question of an afterlife simply does not arise. By contrast, the capacity for everlasting life and its attainment through association with the resurrection of Christ gives rise to a joy beyond all anyone could ask or think. The difference between the two conditions, annihilation by death and resurrection to life everlasting, is infinite.

Were the situation so simple, the contrast would be indeed fearsome to contemplate. But dare one take all those who are not radiant sheep to be all cloddish goats? What of the millions who do cherish hope of personal survival yet could not possibly be accounted saved by Christ? “This Good News of the kingdom,” we are told, “will be proclaimed to the whole world as a witness to all the nations. And then the end will come.”4 True, the Evangelist no doubt has in mind the fall of Jerusalem, which occurred in A.D. 70, and when he writes of “the world” he can be thinking only, of course, of the world as known to the people of the Near East and Mediterranean lands; nevertheless, a problem is raised that our knowledge of the contemporary world only makes more acute. Millions of Hindus, Jews, Muslims, and others cannot be written off as bereft of all sense of personal immortality; yet they certainly cannot be classed among those who have been partakers of everlasting life through association with the resurrection of Jesus Christ. Are we to suppose them to have been annihilated for ever, despite their longing for and belief in an afterlife? Surely not. To believe at all in an afterlife is surely to testify to the beginning, at least, of the saving action of God and of their affirmative response to it. That they should be doomed to extinction is as intolerable in its way as is the notion of unbaptized infants crawling on the floor of hell. Plausible indeed, then, would be the notion that they are already at a stage of their pilgrimage but, unable to complete it within the compass of this present life, will be accorded further lives, affording them further opportunities to grasp and respond to the Good News that is addressed to all who long for everlasting life.

Is such a notion compatible with the Pauline doctrine of conditional immortality, that is, immortality that is dependent on one’s being “raised up” to victory over death through the resurrection of Christ? In view of the infinite gulf between the sheep and the goats that is entailed in Paul’s teaching, not only does the notion seem compatible; its absence would make Paul’s teaching positively disgusting. Here is a precocious little Quaker girl who has developed a strong sense of personal identity and deep longing for personal survival yet has not happened to hear of the resurrection of Christ. No one at meeting mentioned it, or, if someone did, she did not grasp its meaning for human salvation. In this state of ignorance she is killed in a street accident and, birthright Quaker that she is, dies unbaptized. Is she to be written off in the same category as a smug materialistic oaf who has never seriously entertained a thought about God, freedom, or immortality, in the course of his long life? Or take this little boy, a budding Bhakti saint, who is carried off in an epidemic in Calcutta: is he, too, destined for no better a fate than was deserved by a Nero or a Hitler? Roman Catholic theologians, in an attempt to mitigate the horror of the traditional doctrine of hell, frequently resort to the use of the term “invincible ignorance” to provide such innocent people with an excuse for their failure to accept the teachings of the Church. Surely, however, they need more than an excuse. They need and deserve further opportunity. Otherwise the scheme of salvation must appear not merely arbitrary but ludicrously mechanical. That Hitler and the little Quaker girl should be treated exactly alike is what we have come to expect from computers. The tendency so to treat people is built into democratic societies, in which everybody is a quantitative unit like so many pills in a box. Societies that are run like that may perform certain political and social functions efficiently; but mercifully they are not charged with the arrangements for our final destiny. The Kingdom of God is no such society. If it were, it would be a cosmic monster—alien to everything that Christians take God to be.

The lame-duck doctrine of invincible ignorance does, however, perform service of a kind. It calls to our attention the unsatisfactoriness of the whole structure of our eschatology. One cannot have Hitler and the little Quaker girl walking down the steps of hell together. So the little girl gets a free pass-out check to take her to some pleasanter abode. But that will not do, because she is not yet ready to use it. She does not know the way and cannot read the directions. What she needs is a chance to develop and mature. If God is what Christians take him to be, he denies no one such opportunity.

The notion that extinction or annihilation is the fate from which we can be saved through the power of Jesus Christ sits well with all that we know of the evolutionary nature of all created beings. Entropy does occur. There is a waste product in the evolutionary process. That is what the whole conception of Gehenna really means. As the dinosaur died out after something like twenty million years, so individuals at our highly organized level of being and consciousness may simply extinguish themselves. Presumably, however, one does not reach this high level of awareness that is associated with all that is traditionally called “human” without hope of eventual victory. As in the parable of the sower, many seeds come to naught; yet by the time we reach the human level of consciousness we should expect many chances for growth and development before we either become fit for nothing but the trash bin or achieve the victory that assures everlasting life. A reincarnational view provides just such opportunities, without necessarily excluding extreme cases in which the individual has either rendered himself incapable of survival beyond this present life or has achieved such extraordinary capabilities that he or she is ready for more than any life within the human condition can offer.

All this is especially compatible with the Christian emphasis on resurrection, as developed in Paul’s teaching. Here there is no question of immortality of the soul, as in traditional Hindu doctrines and as in Plato’s view of the soul as an essentially immortal “substance.” As we saw in an earlier chapter, the doctrine of hell, with its attendant horrors, is intended as a logical development of the notion that, since man is intrinsically immortal and some men turn out badly, they cannot enjoy the presence of God. Having permanently deprived themselves of the capacity to enjoy that presence, they must for ever endure the sense of its loss, the poena damni, as the medieval theologians called it. The premise with which such reasoning begins is false: the notion that we are intrinsically immortal has no foundation in the biblical teaching that is at the root of Christian faith. The notion of hell also functions, however, as a symbol for the loss of being, while that of heaven symbolizes, of course, the opposite, the fullness of being. Professor Macquarrie expresses doubt that “anyone ever comes to the point of utterly losing his personal being, or of falling away altogether from the potentialities of such being.”5 He will not commit himself to a doctrine of conditional immortality. Yet he sees that the “utter limit of hell would be annihilation of the possibility of personal being. Since salvation itself is personal, and must therefore be freely accepted, God cannot impose it upon anyone, so we must at least leave open the possibility that this kind of annihilation might be the final destiny for some.”6 In the end, however, he balks at the idea, on the ground that there can be no “sharp line between the ‘righteous’ and the ‘wicked’.”7 The very considerations that have for long led me to conclude to a doctrine of conditional immortality seem to lead him away from it.8 How should this be?

Professor Macquarrie is disinclined to envision extremes in the range of finite being. He neither sees heaven as necessarily the final plenitude and total realization of being nor hell as its total loss. For him hell is the crippling of being and heaven an eminent degree of its joy. In all this I much sympathize with Macquarrie’s outlook. I think, however, that he reacts too strongly against the Scottish Calvinism in which he was nurtured. He is chary of the high stance taken by the Augustinianism that lies behind Calvin’s thought. Here also I am not without sympathy; yet I am more impressed than he seems to be by the fundamental indisposition of so many people toward the notion of personal survival. I find that a very large number of people simply do not entertain it at all and many do not find the notion even congenial. They do not even want to be “raised up” to new life. They readily accept Santayana’s notion that life is somewhat like a dance to which the dancers go in the evening, full of energy and wishing it could go on for ever but from which they quite happily depart in the early hours of the morning, being weary and feeling the time has come for the ball to finish. At best they say of life: “Let someone else take up where I left off. I have begotten some children. I have some accomplishments to my credit. Now I want to take my ease for a few years and then ‘pass away’, preferably, of course, without discomfort.” I find, moreover, that this is by no means an attitude confined to people who have rejected or turned away from Christian faith. On not a few occasions I have discovered it quite clearly and openly expressed by church people who are apparently quite active in parish work. An elderly Episcopalian couple, both of outstandingly sterling character and admirable reliability who played active roles in their prominent parish for many years, recently told me, in answer to my inquiry, that they felt quite sure that death would bring them final extinction. They seemed very well pleased by the prospect. What they had been thinking of all these years as they proclaimed the words of the Creed and received, at the altar, assurances of everlasting life, is beside the point. The point is that they are quite typical of vast numbers of people, including a great many churchmen and churchwomen. Sad though it be that such is the case, I cannot make sense of the notion that they might have everlasting life thrust upon them, contrary to their wishes. They have lived good lives according to their own standards, using the Church as an arena for doing some charitable works but paying no particular attention to what the Bible and the Church actually say, presumably taking it to be part of the furnishings that give churches their antique charm. Surely the inevitable conclusion must be that they are among those of whom Jesus says “they have had their reward.”9 They ask for no more. How could they receive more?

Others who have barely heard of the Church’s teachings yearn for some sort of return to earth, another chance to do and learn more. That seems to me to augur far better for their eventually taking hold of everlasting life. They are among those who “want to be saved,” that is, saved from what Macquarrie calls “the utter limit of hell,” annihilation. In another life the disclosure may come to them; the divine penny may drop into the chink they have left open. Reincarnationism provides limitless opportunities for all who are able to take them. I think, however, that, if we are to believe in the possibility of an afterlife at all, we must face the possibility of spiritual entropy: at least in some cases annihilation is inevitable. As I take reincarnation to be the vehicle of purgatory, I take annihilation to be what hell really means, and truly terrible is that fate. We had best defer for the present what is to be understood by heaven. That vision belongs to our last chapter.

Evidence was produced earlier in this study sufficient to explode the widespread notion that there is some historical reason why reincarnation cannot be christened. One might well ask, however, whether there may not be an even more radical, theological objection. The late Dr. A. C. Ewing, in a sympathetic but critical treatment, raises it aptly.10 This Cambridge philosopher asks whether there is not a “mercantile flavour about the conception” of “an exact proportion between such incommensurables as goodness and happiness,” such as is envisioned in the karmic law that what you sow you will reap. He points out that a universe in which there was an exact proportion between goodness and happiness and between badness and unhappiness would be one in which there could be no genuine self-sacrifice.

Ewing’s point is well-taken. It touches, moreover, all that is nearest the heart of the Christian. With a moral calculus such as is written into the law of karma, how could there be any place for the love and compassion, the self-humbling and the self-abnegation, that are so fundamental to the Christian life? If God is of such a nature that he would give himself in Christ to be crucified “for us men and for our salvation,” and if he is indeed “the lamb slain from the foundation of the world,”11 how can a doctrine such as reincarnation, which depends on the law of the karma, be christened? Is it not like baptizing a company’s balance sheet or profit and loss account? Everything we are told of Christ, everything that leads the Christian to accept Christ as his or her Savior, tells of a generosity so immense, of a love so selfless, that it has no conceivable place for any such mathematical reckoning. Typical of the Christian’s conversion experience is the awareness that if God were looking for merit he would certainly look elsewhere. He saved “even me” is the cry of every Christian who knows how unworthy he is to be (in C. S. Lewis’s felicitous phrase “surprised by joy”) the recipient of the “amazing grace” that has no relation at all to any moral calculus. I am saved, not through a trillion rebirths but, as Augustine says, inter pontem et fontem or, in William Camden’s well-known lines:

Betwixt the stirrup and the ground
Mercy I asked, mercy l found.

Christian love knows nothing of calculations: it is prodigal. Like the widow in the Gospel who threw in all she had, God so loves the world that he gives his all. He does not employ a cost accountant to advise him whether the operation is fiscally sound. He humbles himself to the point of encamping with needy humanity, even to the point of being crucified for it. Apart from that, Christianity has no message. It is to Good Friday that the Christian looks to see the kind of love that makes the cosmos tick:

O dearly, dearly has He loved,
        And we must love Him too,
And trust in His redeeming blood,
        And try His works to do.

To talk to a Christian about karma would seem to be somewhat like talking of the cost of living to a girl in love: what could be more irrelevant? There is a strain of madness in all love, and it is precisely that “foolishness” (as Paul called it) that makes the Christian want to give to the uttermost in response to the stupendous magnanimity of the love of God. We may recall how Origen’s mother, in her prudence, had to hide Origen’s clothes, to restrain him from rushing forth to invite martyrdom. Whatever a Christian may or may not be, he cannot be one who counts the cost. How, then, could he entertain any system of moral accountancy such as the karmic law entails?

Considerations of that kind weigh heavily so long as the typical Hindu and Buddhist presentation of karma as a scheme of salvation is taken to be an alternative to the Christian one. When, however, we think of karma as standing in the same relation to the Christian Way that the Mosaic Law stands to the Gospel, the objection seems to lose most—if not all—of its force. The self-emptyingness of God to which the Christian is called to respond becomes, then, the way of salvation that frees us from the imprisoning aspect of the karmic law and enables us to use it, rather, as a springboard for release. Instead of the sense of weariness one might well feel at the prospect of submission to the karmic principle for countless rebirths to come, the Christian could see in it (as, in traditional Catholic doctrine, does the soul entering purgatory) a cause for rejoicing, knowing as he does that he is on the way to eternal bliss and everlasting life. As a matter of fact, certain forms of Mahayana Buddhism do say something suggestive of that, in their own religious idiom: the return of the bodhisattvas to aid humankind. We need not concern ourselves here with how Mahayana came to develop that notion, or under what influence it did so. The point is that karma can be both a fetter and an instrument of escape. There seems no good reason, then, why the Christian scheme of salvation should not encompass karma and rebirth as the Gospel encompasses and completes the Law.

If, then, reincarnationism may be acclimated to the Christian soteriological scheme, what role might be played by the Christian doctrines of providence and grace? Would not they be in some way attenuated? Let us look first at the doctrine of providence.

That God provides and cares for his creatures is, of course, a fundamental tenet of Christian faith, rooted in the Bible. The question is: how does he do it? “Who makes provision for the raven when his squabs cry out to God and crane their necks in hunger?” (Job 38:41) asked Job, inspired by God, to answer his chiding friends in the midst of his suffering. Trust that God will provide what is needed by the creature is never doubted in the Bible; but the Bible is no less unequivocal in teaching that what he provides may be a very bitter pill. We tend to think of providence as coming to the rescue with a cushion when the going gets rough; but, on the contrary, God seems often to provide a goad rather than a cushion, and no less often a mist that obscures his presence and sorely tries the pilgrim’s hope and trust. Providence does not always smile; more often it frowns, though hid behind the frown God be smiling in love, as William Cowper suggests:

Behind a frowning providence
He hides a smiling face.

Such is Christian faith in the goodness of God, the love that is at the core of all things. The superficially religious tend to expect that, while Nature is indifferent if not hostile to us, God is to be expected to leap through Nature, so to speak, and come to the aid of the wounded pilgrim. After all, is not that precisely what he is believed to have done in the Incarnation that is the focus of all Christian faith? Does not God in his providence somehow suspend Nature?

Of course not. God no more suspends Nature than he suspends history. Christian teaching is that he suspends neither but transforms both. He transforms Nature by investing his children with the self-abnegating power to overcome it; he transforms history by introducing into it the new dimension that can be experienced by those who see him as delivering them from history’s inexorable power. In short, through Christ, God sacramentalizes Nature and history. When we speak, then, of his providence, we are speaking of the goodness of God in working all things out for our good, whatever be the means that are necessary for that end.

Nevertheless, the Christian can also rightfully believe that God can and does point out to us doors that we did not notice were open. He can and does tell us what the tools in our kit are for. That is, indeed, the proper end of prayer: not to take away opportunity from us and substitute for it a cozy and relaxing pillow, but to help us to see how we must and can help ourselves, if we are to grow, as grow we must, to our full stature. The mystery of evil remains in Christian as in all other forms of religious belief; but when we inspect the nature of its challenge to Christian faith we find that the absence of a doctrine of rebirth injects a peculiar and unnecessary puzzle into the notoriously thorny problem. No one need boggle at the notion of an agony that results in development, growth, and a new dimension of life, as happens in childbirth when the pain of child-bearing ends in the radiant joy of motherhood and new life. But what if it ends in the birth of a moron or of a paralytic? No one, looking back on his own life, is likely to doubt God’s love and care when he has seen years of poverty or disease overcome. Doubts arise when, as so often happens, one’s labors seem to progress well and one’s prayers seem to be favorably received, till suddenly all comes toppling down in utter chaos as if to mock one for the sliver of meaning one had succeeded in extracting for a while from one’s life.

Death is the supreme instance of such tragedy, because it intrudes with such incoherence and irrelevance into whatever rationality one has been able to find in life. The little child does well at school, grows apparently strong and vigorous in body and mind, shows signs of developing into a sweet and compassionate human being, then suddenly is pronounced a victim of leukemia and under sentence of imminent death. That a cure may be round the corner in medical research only aggravates the anguish of the parents and others who note that it is too late to help their beloved child. Or a man is taken just as he is on the verge of accomplishing the task for which he is uniquely fitted, a task that perhaps no other can do as he would have done it. Such tragedies are tragic because we think we have but one little life to live, and they stand out against what we see in the lives of others who escape such extreme anguish. The Christian assurance that death is not the end does not in itself diminish the problem, for though we sigh that the wicked seem to prosper while the righteous suffer, not all the righteous suffer so cruelly as do some, nor, indeed, do the wicked all prosper according to their wickedness. The end of human life is peculiarly inconclusive in so many ways, and when Christians are told that after death the future is bright and their cross will be exchanged for a crown, the assurance does nothing to explain why Bob’s cross should be so much more terrible than Bill’s.

By introducing the notion of reincarnation into the providential scheme, the absurdity in the problem of evil is immeasurably mitigated. Moreover, as soon as it is introduced, one may well wonder why it was not introduced before. The answer may be that the doctrine, not uncommonly held in the primitive Christian Church, was artificially and more or less accidentally inhibited through a great misunderstanding. If so, it would not be for the first time that Christians would have had to acknowledge that in the history of Christian thought one old way of looking at things had come to be exchanged for another newer, fuller and more satisfying understanding of the eternal truths revealed by God in his Word. The new dimension that evolutionary thinking brought to Christian faith a hundred years ago is an example that springs readily to mind. Few people in the ancient Church and throughout the centuries could have guessed at such a way of interpreting the Creation. A literalistic understanding of Genesis was for long very widespread. Certainly the belief in the separate creation of the various zoological species, and acceptance of them as not related to one another in any evolutionary way, was a virtually universal assumption for many centuries. Only toward the end of the nineteenth century did religious people (and even then only, at first, very deeply religious people) come to see that an evolutionary understanding of biology could shed new light on and immeasurably enchance a Christian’s faith in God as Creator. It enabled one to make more sense of a traditional doctrine. Might not reincarnationism be in the same case?

We fret over the mystery of pain and suffering, the whole problem of evil as philosophers have come to call it; but it is not really the pain or the suffering that troubles the Christian, for to these he has become accustomed in living the Christian life, and above all in knowing the cost of redemption: the Cross. What is so puzzling to even the men and women whose faith is deepest and most firmly established is the astounding absurdity they see on every hand. Reincarnationist belief does not remove the pain or the suffering from our vision of human destiny; but it does much to take away the absurdity, the tragic disproportionateness that sits so ill with all the rest of our Christian experience. The absurdity recedes when this life is seen, not as a brief flash of time in which decisions for all eternity are made, but as a chapter in, or slice of, an immensely longer evolutionary process, the process of making us what we are meant to be, the process of realizing our full moral and spiritual potential by every means available within the infinitely merciful providence of God. If we were to accept reincarnationism into Christian belief, God’s ways would still be mysterious; but they might better reveal the will of God to us who walk in faith. If the now traditional absence of reincarnationism from the Christian vision of human destiny should have been a merely artificial obstacle, as may be suspected, its restoration would enable us to take possession of our faith in greater plenitude.

What we have been saying emerges from seeing our question in relation to the vital importance of the freedom and responsibility that are too often neglected in our understanding of divine providence. There is, however, a correlative Christian doctrine, apart from which Christian faith would be meaningless: the doctrine of grace. Man, endowed with free will, the exercise of which is essential to his moral growth, cannot ever begin to grow without God’s aid. Grace, which bestows that aid, is to human freedom somewhat as is capital to labor in economics. Perhaps that is why its relation to free will has produced the bitterest and longest theological controversy in the history of the Christian Church. Christians have never been in any doubt of the need for divine grace. The controversies have been about the mode of its operation. Tertullian was probably the first of the Christian Fathers to attempt to formulate it. He accounted grace the divine energy at work in the human soul. Augustine, two centuries later, developed a much more elaborate exposition of the theology of grace, in the course of his controversy with Pelagius, and as a result of that controversy. Thomas Aquinas, nine centuries later still, adhered in principle to Augustine’s teaching on this subject, though he further developed it; but the debate was renewed with zeal in the Reformation and Counter-Reformation controversies and was the central issue in the disputes between the Jansenists and their opponents in seventeenth century France.

Now, we have seen that the karmic principle implies moral freedom and responsibility. According to reincarnationist belief, I alone am responsible for my karma. I have no one else to blame or to praise for it. I alone have woven it and I am even now weaving for myself the karma that is to be mine in my next life. We may well say, therefore, that in reincarnationism there are no cosmic free lunches. The reincarnationist, believing that nothing is to be expected from chance, has no room in his scheme either for cosmic gambling or for divine bequests. So he can say with Matthew Arnold:

Yet they, believe me, who await
No gifts from Chance, have conquered Fate.

In this attitude to chance and fate he is at one, of course, with Catholic and Evangelical Christians; but how could he ever say, in John Bradford’s famous phrase, “There but for the grace of God go I,” which is an expression of the sentiment of gratitude that is so much at the heart of Christian experience? The very notion of grace seems at first sight as foreign to karma as is kindness to chemistry.

Yet that may provide the very clue that we need to solve the central problem of the reconcilability of reincarnationism to the Christian faith. For, after all, surely nothing seemed more alien to the thought of the Jews, the people Christ chose as his own, than did the notion of the Incarnation of God in human flesh.12 That notion seemed to strike at the very root of the whole biblical revelation of God’s ways with man. It seemed to destroy the very concept of God as revealed in the Torah. Let us look more closely at grace with this suggestion in mind.

Grace is not a substitute for human goodness. It is, rather, the condition of its realization. Without God’s grace I cannot even get off the ground; nor can I be sustained for one moment, at any stage of my development. My work, not least at its most arduous, depends on grace as its indispensable condition. If, as I have suggested, grace is to free will as capital is to labor, we can see how dependent we are upon it. It is that which makes possible the enterprise. Were I to sit back and spend the capital without investing it in the business, my business would be most certainly doomed at the outset. My creativity and my industry would go for naught. Yet capital without labor is fruitless. Jesus, according to the Gospel, was very hard on the man who failed to use the capital he had been given. (Matthew 25:14-30 ) To think of grace as interfering with human freedom is as foolish as would be the notion that capital interferes with labor; yet many have so misunderstood the nature of grace. The deep concern of Christians with “sin” is, of course, a concern about our helplessness apart from grace. To those who misunderstand the nature of grace, however, Christians seem to be moaning and groaning and beating their breasts about sin when they would be much better occupied getting up on their legs and doing something morally constructive. Indeed, from the point of view of this misunderstanding, “pardon, absolution and remission” of our sins is but a three-headed immorality. As Sir Oliver Lodge observed at the beginning of the present century: “the higher man of today is not worrying about his sins at all.”13 Many industrious men and women have likewise had their noses so deep in their work that they have never given much thought to what would happen if the capital behind it were to dry up.

If, then, we see grace as the fundamental condition of all the good we can do and all the moral and spiritual growth we can hope to attain, is there any basic reason why a system that is so essentially a work-ethic should not be illumined by the Christian doctrine of grace? Work-ethics have played a traditional role in the life and thought of the Christian Church. The New England Puritans provide only one example. More than a thousand years before the Mayflower sailed, the Benedictines had begun a monastic life that would have been meaningless apart from its emphasis on the dignity of labor: orare est laborare—to work is to pray, to pray is to work. Indeed, the very riches that were the inevitable fruit of that monastic tradition became eventually a snare to them. Why, then, should the karmic principle be accounted incompatible with the Christian doctrine of grace?

I cannot personally see any sound reason why reincarnationism should be accounted, either on historical or on theological grounds, irreconcilable with an orthodox Christian view of what God provides for the working out of the salvation that Christ, according to fundamental Christian belief, has made possible for those who can appropriate it. By that I do not mean to suggest that it should be promptly inserted into the articles of Christian faith. The Church has never been eager to formulate doctrines that must be believed, and it never should. It has generally insisted on such formulations only when forced into doing so. I do not pretend for a moment that reincarnationism is plainly taught in Scripture, even though we have seen some suggestions of it there. The fact that some, possibly a good many, Christians in the primitive Church believed in some form of reincarnation is interesting; but it is not a compelling reason for introducing it into the Christian creeds. Yet when all that is said, we can still say something that should startle many Christians. For if we have established, as I believe I have, that a form of reincarnationism is quite compatible with the central Christian tradition and not opposed to Scripture, then we have done much. For that means that Christians who find the notion helps them to make sense of their own faith, and who are not daunted by the philosophical and scientific objections we have considered, need have no qualms about accepting it as a viable option for an honest Christian. Far from diminishing the force of anything in Christian experience, it may vivify Christian faith, enrich Christian hope, deepen Christian love, and abundantly clarify the human mind. In our next chapter we shall consider how it might affect human relationships. The perspicacious reader will have seen already how it might affect the relation of Christianity to other religions.


1 James Boswell, The Life of Samuel Johnson, LL.D., Vol. II (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, n.d.), p. 647.

2 Romans 6:23 (J.B.)

3 I Corinthians 15:54-55 Cf. Hosea 13:14.

4 Matthew 24:14.

5 John Macquarrie, Principles of Christian Theology (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1966), p. 327.

6 Ibid.

7 Ibid.

8 See my Introduction to Religious Philosophy (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1959), p. 208.

9 Matthew 6:2, 5, 16. (J.B.)

10 A. C. Ewing, “The Philosophy of McTaggart, with Special Reference to the Doctrine of Reincarnation”. In Aryan Path, February, 1957.

11 Revelation 13:8.

12 In view of a recently popularized theological controversy, we should note that the flat denial that Jesus is in any special way divine or the “full and final revelation” of God is one that has appeared periodically within Christian history. I take such a denial to be specifically and radically incompatible with Christian orthodoxy. Of course what precisely it means to say is that Jesus is fully divine and fully human (the Chalcedonian formula) is plainly an intricate theological question.

13 O. Lodge, Hibbert Journal, 1904, p. 466.

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