DOES REINCARNATION CONSOLE?
Pastoral Responses to the Idea of Reincarnation
1 Ecclesiastical responses to reincarnation
The situation is clear: even though the idea of reincarnation does not essentially belong to the Christian faith, there are nevertheless many Christians who find this notion appealing. They can no longer imagine their lives and faith without the notion of more than one lifeit enriches their lives and consoles them. These Christians also include theologians, of both Roman Catholic and Protestant background. Orally and in writing they attempt to combine and reconcile the notion of reincarnation with the Christian faith theologically. Their publications constitute a passionate plea for the notion that human beings return to earth regularly, and they believe that through this Christian faith is made deeper and richer. Christian faith without reincarnation is incomplete.
If this is the situation, it is obvious that the churches must respond officially. When such an important doctrine that is essentially alien to the Christian faith is nevertheless embraced and in fact subsequently interferes with this Christian faith' the churches must respond. What is remarkable. however. is that up until now. to my knowledge not a single church has issued an official statement on reincarnation. If there is a response at all, it is found within the broader framework of New Age Thinking'. Every so often churches respond to this kind of thinking and sometimes include the idea of reincarnation in their response. This is in fact a very unsatisfactory situation. since the doctrine of reincarnation is very important and has, as we said, a strong influence among Christians.
This, however, is not the whole picture. We also encounter a large number of theologians within the church who are or have been concerned about reincarnation and who, using various arguments, state clearly that reincarnation and the Christian faith cannot co-exist. In general, they do understand that people feel attracted to it, but they nonetheless declare it to be a path that Christians cannot take.
The question now is. given the lack of official statements from the church, which theologians are right, or, which are representative of the official stance of the church. Why should the theologian who promotes the idea of reincarnation have less authority that the theologian who opposes it? Both appeal to the Bible and to tradition but arrive at different conclusions. Which of the two. however. represents the official Christian position? I would like to appeal to tradition here. From the very beginning the church has been aware of and expressed the fact that reincarnation and the Christian faith cannot exist side by side. Even though the modern doctrine of reincarnation is different from that of the first centuries its core still remains the same, and the rejection of and the impossibility of the combination of the two must also remain the same. I would therefore like to state that the theologians who have rejected the compatibility of these ideas have in tact represented the official ecclesiastical or Christian position. In my opinion. therefore, these theologians can be said to be representative.
This perhaps rather absolute statement raises some questions. For example, can the Christian faith, given that it is not a static faith, not change? Much of what theologians do is to reformulate the faith, to re-think it, to find other perspectives and to question the extent to which it can be enriched by other beliefs. Surely we can also learn something or other from the notion of reincarnation. as we will see, but there are also matters of faith that cannot be altered or removed. There are limits to flexibility and interpretive possibilities. It is not responsible to interpret the Christian faith in such a way that it becomes a completely different faith, and it is just as irresponsible to do away with or dismiss certain essential aspects of this faith. In the attempt to combine reincarnation and the Christian faith, it is this latter change that usually occurs. There is a limit.
2. Reincarnation and Pastoral Care
One of the church's tasks is pastoral care. It looks after its members and wishes to guide and help them when they become mired in problems, whether in their lives or in their faith. Pastoral care is conducted with Jesus Christ in mindthat is, in one way or another there is an attempt to relate the questions and problems of the members to Jesus Christ in the hope that this perspective will help them. Pastors are encountering an increasing number of members who not only believe in reincarnation but are also helped by it. For many believers the notion of reincarnation is consoling and it helps them to face life and understand it. The pastor discovers that reincarnation can help people. At the same time, the pastor is faced with another problem: in principle, he himself does not believe in reincarnation since the church does not believe in it. Given his background, he will never be able to console people with the idea of more than one life, and yet he sees that this idea does bring consolation. How is the pastor to deal with this? Obviously, the pastor cannot bombard the Christians who find consolation in reincarnation with dogmatic teachings and arguments against it. There is no consolation to be found in such a response, and it will only alienate the believer involved. A report from a committee of both of the large Protestant churches in Netherlands once illustrated this by stating that the pastor must allow the believer this consoling faith in reincarnation without going into detail with regard to its content. People are consoled, so why should one then contradict them and try to refute it? If someone arrives at an explanation and clarification of her life in this way, the pastor has no right to declare it invalid.
To a large degree I can concur with this conclusion and course of action. Yet I believe that. in the long run. in the context of a prolonged association. if the opportunity arises, crucial questions cannot be avoided and the connection between reincarnation and Christian faith must be discussed. I think that the question can then be raised as to whether reincarnation is in fact consoling or whether one has in fact found a false consolation. It is this questionwhether reincarnation does in fact console or notthat I in fact wish to address.
3. The Consolation of Reincarnation
In pastoral care. dealing with people who find consolation in the idea of reincarnation confronts one with a large number of issues. I would like to present the reader with a few of these issues and look at them more closely.
a. The Question of Why
What people find consoling m reincarnation is the answer that it gives as to why things happen. The notion that the things that happen to people occur by chance is unacceptable; there must be a meaning to life. The notion that there is a God who allots people good and evil as he pleases is unacceptable as well; after all, people are not helpless victims. In contrast, it is consoling to think that people themselves have chosen their situation in life and the things that occur in that situation. Everything that happens is related to a previous lifebut then not in such a way that the results of a previous existence almost systematically determine the present but in the sense of choice. The person himself has chosen and determined, in the deepest core of his being, what his next life on earth will be like. In a kind of intermediate state, the core of one's being (or soul, the self, atman) has established what will happen in the next existence on the basis of previous existences. This could also be called karma. In short, I have chosen this life; everything that happens is my choice; I am responsible. At some point I decided that I would have to undergo a specific experience in this life in order to be able to follow a certain path. That is what is consoling: I have chosen this myself. One must view this from a broad perspective. For example, if a sixteen-year old dies, in principle his 'I' chose for that itself. But his parents also chose to go through the experience of losing a child in this life.
The idea that people themselves are responsible is consoling since it banishes meaninglessness and arbitrariness. Nevertheless, one must question whether in the long run this notion, given its consequences, continues to be consoling and whether its consolation is too easy and superficial. The consequences of reincarnation are far-reaching. One could possibly still say of situations in the present life that one had willed them, but if such a claim becomes more general problems arise. This notion entails that everything is chosen by everyoneimplying, for instance, that people who die of cancer or AIDS choose to do so. It entails that those many millions of people who currently exist in circumstances of poor material wealth have themselves chosen this. The Jews also chose to be annihilated and gassed. The fact that everything that happens to someone does so by his/her own choice is something that I cannot find at all consoling, and I believe that anyone who truly reflects on this will agree.
Still a further implication is that a person ultimately chooses those things that she did not at all want. In the everyday life of this one present existence. people as a rule consciously choose that which is good and pleasant and only seldom that which is evil. painful and deadly. Why would that mysterious 'I' choose the latter in the intermediate state? Why does that hypothetical self choose the most severe misery and the most appalling situations? Why is that self so sadistic in its choices? The issue could be formulated differently: that essential 'I' has in fact become an authority outside of one's self which, like an absolute power, determines what happens in this life. This is of no help at all.
As long as people exist, the question of why?' will continue to be asked. And in trying to answer this question Christians will also be at a loss for words because there is no simple answer. It is not for nothing that the church has the book of Job, which demonstrates that this question cannot really be answered. One can only say theologically that we do not know why things happen to us, but we can say that our lives in their totality are not outside of God's existing order nor are they beyond God's power.
b. Question of Purpose.
The notion of reincarnation is consoling because it explains not only why things happen to us but also their purpose. Things do not happen to people arbitrarily but have a purpose. They are not meaningless but have a function. Suffering leads to something; events can be used to achieve a goal that lies beyond the present. In short, everything that happens to a person can teach one to grow or mature in one of his following lives. Everything that can be used to arrive at ultimate perfection via many lives is material for this process. This is also karma: it is something through which one can grow. Thus a person need not yield passively to that which happens, but he can actively make something of it. In an intermediate state the essential 'I' has chosen what will happen, in the present life the 'I' chooses how it will deal with what was chosen and after this present life the essential 'I' can again determine how the 'stuff of this life can be used in a following existence. People can apparently apply what happens to them to purposes that are evil or do not learn from them, but wise people learn to deal with what happens; they learn a lesson from it and then convert it into 'stuff' through which they can mature. Thus it is not all for nothing.
This ascription of purpose is important. People can endure suffering when it is viewed as having a purpose. Misery can be more easily borne. But there is suffering that cannot be explained, to which no purpose can be ascribed. It is irresponsible to see a positive purpose to all suffering, because this denies the frightening, absurd and the, per definition, undesirable aspects of evil. Even though every person will have to find a way to live with suffering. to explain suffering as something positive is cruel. To interpret the gassing of the Jews or the sex murders of young children as material for growth is cruel. It is just as cruel to say that people chose it because they w ere convinced that they could take a large leap forward on the way to ultimate perfection. It is also cruel to say that all of this is simply someone's karma.
Ultimately, the notion that all things serve some purpose or, more concretely, that all things promote mental or spiritual growth is not consoling. This turns the idea of reincarnation into a harsh taskmaster, into almost a rigid law which everyone must obey against their will.
The question of purpose will occupy human beings as long as the species exists. But it is more responsible theologically to say that God will turn all things to good than to say that they must serve a purpose.
There is yet another point in this context. Within the framework of reincarnation the result of the lessons learned do not become visible or else become visible to only a very small extent in this life. The final result will become more clear in a following existence. But then the question always arises as to the reality of that following existence. One can imagine the reality of such an existence, but it is not a certainty. In any case, in one way or another. someone other than who I am now will profit from what I am going through or suffering now. And although in one respect suffering for someone else is a proper Christian ideal, suffering for the benefit of a hypothetical other who is not me is asking a lot of a person. It does not give real meaning to the present suffering.
For the rest, the issue of spiritual growth, which is presented so emphatically in this context in connection with reincarnation, should be fully recognized. Many believers have problems with the fact that they observe no change or progression in their spiritual life, whereas communion with God cannot by definition be static. It is therefore one of the church's tasks today to make clear how a person can grow and change in his/her relationship with God. Spiritual growth is possible, and it does not only open to those who believe in reincarnation.
c. Karma and Liberation
The concept of karma is complex. It is interpreted and used in various ways in the modern Western belief in reincarnation as well. For some, karma is a more or less rigid law that determines how things will go, while others. in contrast, see karma as a grace given to a person so that he may try once again in a new life, continuing to build on what has already been done. But in all cases. karma includes the possibility for people to liberate themselves from evil!. sin, suffering and guilt. Ultimately, people believe that they can redeem themselves. And for many this conviction is consoling because it is more pleasant to control one's own fate than to realize that one has reached the end of the road. Whatever happens, one controls one's own fate and, however it happens, at some point one will overcome all barriers and obstacles. People determine their own fate and they get there on their own. The idea of self redemption does not imply that people must do it all alone on their own strength; people can still receive help, not only from fellow humans but also from higher spiritual beings who can share the suffering, help carry the burden and at times even assume some part of their karma. Nevertheless. the final outcome is the result of one's own efforts.
Once again, it is the question of whether, upon closer examination, this notion is rightly viewed as consoling. And the question remains as to whether there is indeed more than one existence for people, for if one does not accept this idea. one is chasing an illusion. But apart from that, there is also the question as to what grounds one can hope to redeem oneself in a subsequent existence or series of existences. After all, if one does not succeed in redeeming oneself in this present human life, why should one assume that one will succeed in a subsequent life? If there is no proof whatsoever that in the past someone has succeeded in liberating himself or at least in liberating himself to some extent during his life, why should one assume that that can be done in a series of lives? In other words, why should a future life contain the conditions by which one can redeem oneself? There is no reason for the hope that one can liberate oneself during any lifetime.
There is another aspect here as well. Almost all who are seriously occupied with the questions of evil, sin and guilt have come to understand that these matters are too large and too encompassing simply to eliminate them. Again and again evil and sin prove to be present, hit home and often become worse in spite of everything that one does. For some evils there is no possibility for doing the penance required. How could genocideboth its evil and guiltever be eliminated? Unfortunately, evil is too great and too powerful. It must not be underestimated. Whoever reflects on it cannot help but hope that there is a power somewhere that can overcome and bear this evilbecause humans cannot. People cannot liberate themselves from that which has become a part of them. One could even go a step further and ask whether the philosophy of reincarnation is not needlessly optimistic. One could just as easily say, as a variant of a statement from a Calvinist catechism, that in all possible lives humans will only increase their guilt. They will only add to their guilt over the course of many lives. In short, the idea of being able to liberate or redeem oneself certainly is attractive in some ways, but it is also irresponsibly optimistic. It underestimates the fatal power of darkness and overestimates human potential. It is then more liberating and consoling, in my view, to believe that evil is overcome and that guilt is forgiven.
d. The Hereafter
For many the notion of reincarnation is consoling because it is contrasted with the idea of heaven and hell. Many find the traditional Christian idea that a person has only two possibilities after his/her deathnamely, either being allowed to enter heaven or being sent to hellwith purgatory as a possible intermediate step, depressing. For many, it is unacceptable to believe that an eternal and irrevocable decision is made in or after one life. The notion that someone is sent to hell forever is particularly revoltingas well as unfair: why should someone not have a second chance? Why should someone not try to make amends for what he has done so fundamentally wrong? Why is hell immediate and irrevocable? The notion of reincarnation is then more consoling because it leaves a great deal of room for one to make mistakes. After this life there is another one. etc. until perfection is finally reached. In a succeeding life one can make amends for the mistakes of the previous life, do penance for them or continue to suffer. But that passes, because a successive life offers new possibilities again. This is experienced as particularly consoling and liberating.
Here a too nuanced and static view of life after death (a rigid. equal and irrevocable division of human beings after death)present in Christianity for a long timehas its revenge. It seems to me that the church has failed itself and its members and that people have been unjustly afraid and fearful of what might occur after their death. I would like to argue for a dynamic view of eternitya view in which there is a certain amount of room and in which something like growth is not impossible. Our Father's house has many rooms, and there is not one heaven but many heavens that sing of God's glory. Paul also spoke of climbing to the highest heaven. Thus there most certainly is room. A Christian can believe that there is no once and for all decision directly after his/her death, that there are various rooms and possibilities in which an earthly life can turn out well and in which a person can also see how she can still make amends for things one way or another. The purpose here would not be self-redemption, since redemption occurs only through Jesus Christ, but to take some responsibility upon him- or herself. Perhaps the idea of purgatory is related in a certain sense to this. But that concept coveys too much a sense of passivity and having to do penance literally. I believe that a renewed view of the hereafter, the building blocks of which are to be found in Scripture and tradition, is needed. If this renewed view does not come about, reincarnation will remain more consoling in this respect For many it is consoling to be able to believe that they are more than what they are now. One is not only the I' that is aware of itself now but is actually a superior 'I'. In the transience and contingency of this life, I am in essence present in a broader and greater way; I am permanent. There is an eternal core that is me, and that constitutes my being. I am actually immortal. have always existed, and must strive to make this immortal being more conscious, because that is where my identity lies. It is therefore also important to point other people toward their essential identity as well. This consciousness gives peace and can give a person the power to rise above all earthly affairs and not allow himself to be overwhelmed by them.
Yet here also one must ask whether this is ultimately pastoral and consoling or whether one is handing out stones rather than bread. However contingent our existence is, it is the only one we have and also the only one we may live. And that life can be also be lived in full consciousness, in all its major and minor aspects. Yet assuming that there is an eternal core to our being implies a flight from this life, an undervaluation of this existence and a refusal to take human life seriously. In effect, one does not accept who one is, what one is and where one is, but excludes one's present existence. Do people see their lives this way? Of course, one can solve the problems of existence by fleeing one's present existence, but then the good of life is lost and one's existence is not actually lived.
But there is more. Ultimately the idea of a superior 'I' present in various existences is an illusion because it does not take the identity of the person into account. It is impossible for a person to say that he is that superior 'I' because that part of a person which says 'I' is connected to the whole of this existence in the closest of ways. The identity of a person lies in the typical and unique collection that is every person with all of his/her physical and spiritual aspects. That whole is that which lives and can say of itself that it is 'I'. And if a person dies, then all of him/her dies, and his/her identity also disappears. This unique person, who was and who said 'I' of him- or herself, has disappeared and will never come back to earth. Even if one believes in reincarnation one will have to admit this because the one who says 'I' in the next life is completely different from the one who said 'I' in the previous life. It is a completely different identity. It is not plausible to assume that the identity would lie in that superior 'I' because the 'I' of this life does not know that 'I' and does not experience it. For those who believe in reincarnation, it is also a hypothesis, a construction that can never be proved and is in no case logical or obvious. To assume a 'higher I' that constitutes one's actual identity is an illusion because that hypothetical 'I' does not know itself and is not known. This does not get us anywhere.
It is better, in line with the Christian tradition, to say that a person is a 'I' unique individual, a unique identity that cannot be repeated, but receives immortality from God. God has created her and does not allow her to be lost through death. He recreates her, resurrects her and. from that point, allows her to go her own way toward eternity on her own.
For many the so-called memory of previous lives can be useful and consoling. They experience a previous life, and in that previous life they discover a certain event that helps them to understand certain situations in this present life. It is therefore consoling to know who one was, since through this knowledge one can understand who one is and is better equipped to tackle certain matters in the present life and continue to grow. This is why many who believe in reincarnation specifically look for memories from one or more previous lives. It is important pastorally.
In this case it is important how one interprets these experiences or memories. When one interprets them strictly therapeutically and views them as expressions of an internal creative process in order to arrive at clarification, they can be very useful. One can also view them as strictly metaphorical and, as such, helpful to understand oneself and to be liberated from certain internal conflicts. In this sense regressive therapy can be used like every other therapywith the goal of illuminating one's life. But when one regards these memories as experiences that the individual actually went through and assumes on the basis of this that the individual is essentially identical to the individual of that time, this therapeutic goal is lost. There is also a good chance that one ends up in a situation that is not liberating and can also be oppressive.
There are a number of important considerations in this respect. First and foremost, there is the problem of identity, of which I spoke above. It is not possible for one to be simultaneously oneself as well as that other from the past. One is who one is and the one from before is who he was. Moreover? one could also expect then that the individual from the past experiences that he is someone from the futurean occurrence that to date has not yet been documented.
Secondly, the idea of reincarnation degenerates into a kind of voyeurism. Suppose it were all true. One would then be prying into someone else's life in a very intimate way. This has never been the intention and it cannot be justified with the statement that one is the self, because one is not the self.
Thirdly, in contrast to what the theory states there never seems to be actual progress. When one compares the lives that one thinks one remembers and compares them with one's present life, a spiritual progress cannot be seen. At most, certain causal connections can be verified, but the spiritual progress claimed here is never confirmed.
Fourth, we are confronted with the obvious fact that there is much regression yet very little progression. When an individual has more than one life, it must be possible not only to return to the past but also to look at future lives. In this respect it is inconceivable that we should be bound by time now and that the future is still completely open. If the past is determined, then the future must be as well. Although stories of progression do exist, there is remarkably enough even less affinity to be found with the present life. Even a causal connection is hard to find and, again. there is little trace of progression.
Fifth, there is the risk that someone who is orientated to the past will forget the present. In this respect it is interesting that within the broad spectrum of belief in reincarnation there are also schools that emphatically advise that one concern oneself with this life only and not delve into one's past lives.
Sixth, this has also to do with the fact that one takes from the past not only that which liberates but also that which confines. To know that one was a brutal murderer in a previous life is not solely redeeming; to the contrary, it can burden the one living now with the question of why one was a murderer at that time and fill one with a guilt that one does not actually want. Not all experiences are beneficial.
I would like to say that the belief in memories, in the fact that one has lived before and can experience that fact, is enslaving and binding rather than liberating. In a pastoral context one should not recommend this route to one's parishioners (unless done so with a strictly therapeutic intent).
The question was whether reincarnation offered consolation. The answer was that at first glance it does seem to do so. But upon closer examination we discovered that this is not the case. Whoever finds consolation in reincarnation should go further. If he/she contemplates the consequences of his/her belief. He/she will in my opinion immediately discover that the answers that reincarnation gives are ultimately dead ends. Perhaps that is something that the church will have to make clear carefully and cautiouslynot because it has the answer but because is answer is ultimately more liberating than that of faith in reincarnation.