Cardinal Paul Poupard - President of the Pontifical Council for Culture
"Death is swallowed up in Victory" (I Cor. 15.54)
The Message of the Resurrection and Contemporary Culture
Keynote address at the International Symposium -Reincarnation and the Christian Message
organized under the auspices of The Pontifical Council for Culture and
The Pontifical Council for Inter-Religious Dialogue.
PONTIFICAL GREGORIAN UNIVERSITY, ROME
17 MARCH 1997
1. Modern culture is very receptive to theories of reincarnation
a. Great Britain's National Poetry Day two years ago led to the publication of a collection of The Nation's Favourite Poems. The foreword to this book ends by quoting a poem which was not part of the competition, but had touched many hearts. It touched those hearts because of the circumstances in which it was found: a British soldier who was killed in Ireland had left it for his parents. It also touched hearts because it is in tune with how many people in Western societies feel about death. It begins
Do not stand at my grave and weep;
I am not there. I do not sleep....
I am the sunlight on ripened grain.
I am the gentle autumn rain.
And, a few lines later, it ends
Do not stand at my grave and cry;
I am not there. I did not die.
After hearing it on national radio, thirty thousand people wrote to the BBC to ask for copies of this poem, which tries to soothe aching hearts by denying the reality of death. Perhaps Western culture is hiding from the answer to the question: What happens after we die? For the fathers of the second Vatican Council, "It is in the face of death that the riddle of human existence becomes most acute". (Pastoral Constitution Gaudium et Spes,18.) But there is a cultural repression of the most decisive issue we can ever face - as the philosopher Martin Heidegger wrote seventy years ago, the quality of our life depends on how seriously we take the inevitability that one day we shall certainly no longer be here. Authentic human existence begins when we face up to the ultimate limit on our earthly life. Time, relationships and responsibilities are all given a clear perspective when we recognize our mortality.
It is much more common, in Western culture at least, to agree with another twentieth-century philosopher, Ludwig Wittgenstein. He said death could not concern him, since he would not experience his own absence. In reality he was repeating, almost verbatim, an ancient sophism, which betrays an inability to face death. So it is not a new approach. But it has become more widespread. Rebellion against mortality is natural, but in many cultures people no longer speak of death: loved ones simply "pass on" or "fall asleep". An aborted foetus has not died: no, a doctor has simply "terminated" a pregnancy. Fewer and fewer children are taught how to cope with the death of members of their family, with the excuse that it might frighten them. One could ask who is really afraid: the children or their parents? And if they are Christians, why should they be afraid? Bishops in Northern Europe have been concerned for some years about the increase in numbers of "anonymous burials", when people are cremated without any funeral rite, and buried in a communal space with no indication of who is there. This may indicate that, in a culture where there is diminished solidarity among the living, ties between the living and the dead can easily be weakened. ( Cf. the German Bishops' Conference's document Unsere Sorge wn die Toten und die Hinter-bliebenen. Bestattungskultur und Begleitung von Trauernden aus christlicher Sicht (22 November 1994), reviewed in Cultures et Foi - Cultures and Faith - Culturas y Fe 111-2 (1995), pp. 150-152.2.) Basically, while death was once a part of normal experience in families and societies, more and more people seem anaesthetized to something which is now either denied or passed over in silence. (Cf. Jean Vernette, La Reincarnation, Paris (PUF - "Que sais-je?") 1995, D.4). One curiosity adds a hint of morbid humour. Several years ago, an institute was founded in the United States to freeze the bodies of those rich enough to afford it, in the hope that technology will one day be able to bring them back to life. Of all places, it was located in the city of Phoenix!
I do not wish to suggest that nobody is trying to face the question of death. On the contrary, there is a great deal of thought in all quarters of most societies about what will happen when we die. Some just cannot face the question and deny its importance, as I have tried to illustrate. But many are searching for an answer and various answers are offered. In the face of the traumatizing arrival of death, for me or for one I love, one of the most appealing ideas is the possibility of reincarnation, which is accepted now by over half the people in the world who believe in some sort of life after death. This is not restricted to those places where the great religions and cultures have taught reincarnation, but includes many people in the West, among them many Christians. I mention in passing the fact that there are many people - let us call them "happy atheists" - for whom this is not an issue.
b. During our symposium, specialists address particular aspects of the doctrine of reincarnation: my task is to highlight some of the reasons why belief in reincarnation is so widespread today. I have three questions. Why is it so appealing to so many of our contemporaries? What challenges does this pose to those of us who are charged with preaching the Good News of Jesus Christ? Finally, how can we best respond?
It is impossible to know just how old the doctrine of reincarnation is, but it was familiar to Plato at one end of Europe and, centuries later, to Taliesin at the other. It has always surfaced whenever gnostic ideas have taken hold. Far more important for us is its more recent past. In the largely Christian West it never made as much impact as it did in the East, but since the middle of the last century it has spread through the influence of various movements, about which others will tell us more. Allan Kardec spread the doctrine of Spiritism. Theosophy - chiefly under the guidance of Helena Petrovna Blavatsky and Annie Besant - is a fusion of oriental and classic esoteric and occult themes, which portrays reincarnation as progressive liberation of the spirit. Rudolf Steiner's Anthroposophy is less explicitly anti-Christian, and insists that what is reincarnated is not an individual but eternal Spirit. These movements have not disappeared, but have been absorbed into the phenomenon known as New Age: in this welcoming syncretism the beliefs of every master, from Jesus to Buddha, can be adapted to people's particular desires (Cf. Jean VERNETTE, op. cit., p. 48.4). The first people to use the name were adherents of the Ancient Accepted Scottish Masonic Rite, in the southern United States. Later, the activities of Alice Ann Bailey showed that it aims ultimately to found a new world order, a world government and a world religion. It is linked to the astrological theme of the coming Age of Aquarius, due to begin just over sixty years from now.
Why is reincarnation making such an impact? As I have said elsewhere, today's culture offers an "attractive but false happiness", and while "sophisticated culture has often been dominated by... pessimism, popular culture seems to be a supermarket of superficial optimism". (Cardinal Paul POUPARD with Michael Paul GALLAGHER, What will give us happiness? Dublin (Veritas) 1992, p. 50f, also published in Spanish as Felicidad y Fe Cristiana, Barcelona (Herder) 1992 and in Italian as Felicita e fede cristiana, Casale Monferrato (Piemme) 1992. Cf. also Giovanni MARTINETTI sj, Ragioni per Credere Oggi, Torino (Elle Di Ci) 1991, p. 302f.)
New Age is definitely a product, or a set of products, in a market place, part of a religious micro-culture. In economic terms it is expanding very rapidly in esoteric forms of religion and spirituality, in science, magic, health and art. Its success lies in its flexibility - one can choose elements to suit one's tastes - and also in its appeal to personal experience and intuition rather than to rationality. This is very much in tune with Western individualism. It is hard to pin down, because it is certainly not a uniform ideology, rather a very broad and indiscriminately inclusive current. New Age presents reincarnation in a way which is tailor-made for Western consciousness: it has little, if anything, to do with the law of karma, which makes reincarnation a cycle of purification to which the individual is condemned. Instead, New Age reincarnation offers liberation from the terrible prospect of death and extinction: openness to reincarnation releases the imagination and puts individuals in touch with cosmic consciousness. Shirley MacLaine's television shows are a far cry from the Hindu and Buddhist conceptions of future lives as purification and reward or punishment for best ones.
In effect, what New Age offers is a selection of guides for psycho-tourism: self-hypnosis, deep meditation, astral travel and even reincarnation are all ways of re-creating who I want to be. Reality and responsibility have evaporated. "The whole doctrine of reincarnation stands on the primacy of personal experience" of past lives allied to utter faith in progress (Cf. Julien RIES, "New Age e reincarnazione", in Religioni e sette nel mondo 5, Bologna (GRIS) 1996, p.54.)
c. At a first glance, New Age seems to exalt the body: things like circle-dances and New Age music, alternative medicine and martial arts, all give the impression that the body is of great importance. But here lies one of the paradoxical contradictions within the New Age phenomenon. In reality there is great disdain for the body, which is a temporary prison for the spirit. As in gnosticism, the human being is essentially a spirit "wearing" a body. The children of Aquarius see time and history as an illusion, so ultimately New Age pulverizes matter: the body, in fact, counts for very little.
2. Reincarnation as a challenge to the Christian message.
a. The Holy Father insists in Tertio Millennio Adveniente that "Christian revelation excludes reincarnation, and speaks of a fulfilment which man is called to achieve in the course of a single earthly existence". (Pope John Paul II, Apostolic Letter Tertio Millennio Adveniente, 9. Cf. also the catechesis at the General Audience on 27 May, 1991, paragraph 4, and the address to Brazilian bishops on their Ad Limina visit on 5 September 1995, paragraph 5.) He goes on to say that our true fulfillment is in God,who comes to meet us in Christ. Thus the doctrine of reincarnation really is a challenge for Christians, particularly in its Western form. New Age reincarnation is a means - the supreme means - of self-fulfillment, which is precisely why it appeals to the typical modern individual.
"Individualist ideas developed in the thought and sensibility, particularly of educated Europeans, during the seventeenth century", and the force of this tendency inevitably led to "social atomism". (Charles TAYLOR, The Ethics of Authenticity, Cambridge MA Harvard University Press 1992, p. 58.id) So horizons became narrower, and fulfillment was no longer to benefit the community but simply oneself. This was the basis of a definite narcissism in modern Western culture, which also la the theoretical and practical foundations for privatisation. And this movement had no mercy on religion, so that even faith and salvation became very private affairs.
More recently, the ideals of modernity have taken a few hard knocks, and "religion has taken us unawares. ( Perspectives began to change at the end of the nineteen sixties. It seemed harder to have Jonathan Sacks, The Persistence of Faith, London, Weidenfeld and Nicholson 1991, p. 1.) faith in some of the great pillars of modernity, like the arrogant claims of reason and science, and a naive confidence in progress. Things changed because it became clear that modernity had fragmented a sense of truth, a sense of God, and a sense of self. What some people call "post-modernity" refers to a current of dissatisfaction with the exaggerated claims of modernity, but it also includes attempts to rescue the sense of self. We need to recognize what is positive in these developments. Along with the slide further into narcissism, there is a definite broadening of horizons in some poets and artists, and in some analysts of society and the human condition. In fact, "the oft-maligned sense of self can be the source of our hope, because permanent hungers of the heart come to expression with new honesty and the quest for liberation and authenticity takes on a new humility''. ( Michael Paul GALLAGHER sj, "Post-modernity: Friend or Foe?", in Faith and Culture in the Irish Context, Dublin, Veritas, 1996, p. 73. Cf. also Cardinal Paul POUPARD with Michael Paul GALLAGHER, op. cit., p. 97f.)
New Age reincarnation is not a source of hope, because it is not honest or authentic, since it does not face the issues of death and bodiliness squarely. The liberation it offers cannot be acceptable to Christians, because it is not humble acceptance of the grace of God but self-generated improvement or the work of a spirit immanent to the cosmos. The return of spirituality is not always a blessing, and in the case of New Age it is clear that its outer shell may be religious, but its core is atheistic. There is no room for God.
b. Reincarnation is also a challenge to Christian hope. In its Eastern forms it is, in any case, a cycle from which the self ultimately hopes to be liberated. It can also be a justification for the present inequalities of life. Even though it is presented in the West as a liberation from the terrifying prospect of extinction, there is no forgiveness or redemption: it is a case of reaping what you have sown, (Cf. Jean VERNETTE, op. cit., p.40) in a destiny we all create for ourselves. (Cf. Giovanni MARTINETTI, op. cit., p. 152.)
Christian hope recognizes our limits and accepts that our labours need to be aided by divine grace. One of modernity's most strident prophets, Nietzsche, would see this as a cowardly attitude to life, relying not on our own energies but on an illusory heavenly power. His voice sounds less convincing to those who see this time as the end of modernity, when former boldness seems unfounded. It is easier now to admit humanity's limits and weakness, and to recognize that we cannot save ourselves, that God has the primary role. The problem with reincarnation, especially as it is presented in Western cultures, is that it has no place for a personal God, who is good and loving, the Father whose Son offered his life so that we might have life in its fullness. (Cf. John 10.10.) Paradoxically, New Age seems to affirm the individual, but its respect for privacy can leave us on a very lonely path to an illusory salvation. In following Christ, we do not only give intellectual assent to the doctrines: we are trying to give an honest answer to the question Christ asks all his disciples: "What do you want?" (John 1.38.)
c. We Christians accept our life as a gift from God. We accept our responsibilities and seek to repay the love with which we were created. But we are not angels, created spirits. We are urged to think of our bodies as the temple of the Holy Spirit, an integral part of who we are. This is contradicted by the total devaluation of the body viewed as a temporary shell used for one of many incarnations. It is strange that reincarnation should be so much in vogue when science and holistic medicine are actually emphasizing their discovery of the marvelous links between the physical body and all the other aspects of a person. If I am a Christian I must value this body God has given me, and the life I am living now, as a gift of God's love. If I imply in any way that this body and this present life are not really so important, I am rejecting God's love and my responsibilities as one of his children. In the Abrahamic religions, rewards and punishments refer to my performance in this life, a single judgment, so the demands on me in this life are quite clear, and so is the idea of God's justice. While the law of karma and the cycle of samsara present purification from quite a different perspective, there is still a respect for some kind of superhuman justice after death. New Age reincarnation has a totally immanentist perspective: the temporarily embodied "I" or cosmic consciousness does all the work: again, there is no room for God, and the body is a relatively insignificant appendage to the whole process.
3. How can we best respond ?
a. The people in the Church who are most exposed to the effects of the various swings of culture regarding death and the after-life are those who perform funeral rites. Priests, deacons and lay ministers are often faced with bizarre requests for music, readings and the use of rites and symbols which have little to do with the Christian approach to death. In some cases, what is requested is completely anti-Christian. Clerical and lay ministers at funerals need high quality preparation for their task, particularly in very secularized cultures. First of all, they will benefit if they are trained to spot requests which go against the faith, but also if they know how to dialogue on the basis of people's questions and deeper aspirations. In this way, they will know how to preach the Gospel message of resurrection more effectively. (Cf, Cardinal Paul POUPARD,"Editoriale"in Religioni e Sette nel mondo 5, Bologna (GRIS) 1996, p.8) would be useful to give those in formation for this pastoral task some idea of inculcating in themselves and in others an awareness of an ars moriendi.) In many parts of the world, this will mean standing out against some very forceful cultural trends. In most Western countries, and even further afield, the influence of New Age and the extent of belief in reincarnation mean that funerals will become more and more delicate occasions. The positive side of that is that they are potentially occasions for dialogue and also for humble but confident evangelization. "Cultivating and proclaiming our faith in Jesus Christ risen from the dead is a joyful responsibility for each of us and for the whole Church". (Doctrine and Faith Commission of the Spanish Bishops' Conference, Esperamos la Reurreccion y la Vi.da Eterna 26 November 1995, 19). But the Church's ministers are often sent out like sheep among wolves, so they need to "be cunning as serpents and yet as harmless as doves". (Matt 10.16.) This is certainly true when they have to deal with the influence of something as powerful as the New Age movement.
b. A differentiated approach to reincarnation is necessary. Those who request a funeral in a Catholic Church, or one performed by a Catholic minister, have made an option for
Christianity, although it is often a confused one. In those delicate cases it is possible to deal with individuals, and both dialogue and evangelization are easier and benefit from direct personal contact. But the Church has a mission to bring the Good News of Jesus Christ to the whole world, so it is also necessary to frame a coherent pastoral approach to culture. I fact, I hope that the fruits of the Pontifical Council for Culture's plenary assembly on that very topic may one day be shared with a wider public. If the Church as a whole is to dialogue with the spiritual values prominent in various cultures, it will need to sponsor research into phenomena like the New Age. I should also like to stress the value of Catholic cultural centres, which exist throughout the world and are beginning to work more closely together. This will provide a network of outreach to people who may fight shy of the Church, but for whom culture is a possible link with Gospel values'. (Cf. Cardinal Paul POUPARD, "Editoriale" in Religioni e Sette nel mondo 5, Bologna, GRIS, 1996, pp. 8, 13f. See also Catholic Cultural Centres, published by the Pontifical Council for Culture, Vatican City, 1995, and Paul POUPARD, I Centri Culturali Cattolici. Idea, Esperienza, Missione, Roma (Citta Nuova) 1996.) At the present moment, it would be a dereliction of duty if the Church failed to take advantage of opportunities in the mass media, even Internet, to spread correct and reliable information about the Christian faith as widely as possible. I can only applaud what has already been done in this area, and encourage further use of the media as effective tools of evangelization. As the Holy Father has asked, "Is there still a place for Christ in the traditional mass media? May we claim a place for Him in the new media?" (John Paul II, Message for the 31st World Communications Day, 11 May 1997.) Others pay vast sums of money to find a place in the media: Christians must not be silent or invisible in this new Areopagus.
c. Redemption is meaningless unless there is a cause for it in the actual life we live, and for the last few centuries there has been operating in our culture the secular belief that there is no such cause.
(quoted in Cardinal Paul POUPARD with Michael Paul GALLAGHER, op. cit., p. 96.)
These words by the American Catholic novelist Flannery O'Connor emphasize the need for convincing witness to our faith. This is quite apposite as a response to reincarnation, for the New Age which fosters this belief functions mainly on the level of personal experience and testimony rather than intellectual rigour. So it will not be sufficient to set out even very cogent arguments against reincarnation, or in favour of Christian hope in the resurrection. This must be done, and people often bemoan the fact that Sunday homilies rarely speak of the fundamental dogmas of Christianity: the resurrection of the body and the Assumption of Our Lady would be good starting-points in any parish liturgy.
Beyond teaching Christianity explicitly, we are challenged to live in a way which proves that what we believe is a precious gift available to everyone. I spoke of reincarnation as a challenge to Christian faith, hope and love, because I am convinced that it is by our lived witness to the theological virtues that we most effectively evangelize the world around us. Sharing Christ's life through faith and the sacraments is the foundation on which Christian hope is built. Part of the ars moriendi which seems absent from so many lives is the ability to face our destiny with "realism and hope". An authentically human life will be realistic enough to take death seriously: an authentically Christian life will do the same, but will be strengthened by hope in the resurrection. None of this will make any difference to our world unless it is clear how much we love it: we are called to love the world intensely, (Cf. Doctrine and Faith Commission of the Spanish Bishops' Conference, op. cit., 22,3D. Cf. also Cardinal Paul POUPARD, El dialogo fe cultura y la esperanza cristiana, an address given at the Centre for Theological Studies in Seville (Spain), 26 January 1996, section 3) like the Father revealed by Christ to Nicodemus. (Cf. John 3.16.) And we are called to love the life beyond death, not a return to earth in a different disguise, but a life with God: if we look to Mary, assumed into heaven, she will always be the causa nostrae laetitiae.
To conclude. I share these words of encouragement from my patron, Saint Paul:
Never give in then, my dear brothers, never admit defeat; keep on working at the Lord's work always, knowing that, in the Lord, you cannot be labouring in vain. (I Cor 15.58.)