Reincarnation Again: Haven’t We Been Here Before?

Shifting gears from dualism and cocktails, let’s get back to reincarnation.  We’ve looked at some of the Neoplatonic background involved here, and at the teachings of Origen, who is often claimed to have taught reincarnation but probably didn’t.  Having lain some groundwork, I want to look at reincarnation in a Christian context.  I’m not interested in proving that Christianity does or even has taught it (though some groups have); or that Christians believe it (many  have and do).  I’m not promoting it–I’m not particularly crazy about the notion, for reasons I’ve explained before–but neither do I have a philosophical bias against it, nor do I deny that it’s possible.

What I’m interested in doing is a thought experiment, if you will.  I’m heading toward an examination of some of the issues involved with the Fall of Mankind that I neglected in the series “Legends of the Fall”, and reincarnation–as a possibility, at least–comes into the picture.  Before I get there, I want to look at whether or not reincarnation can be made to be more or less compatible with more or less orthodox Christianity.  I’m not claiming that orthodox theologians will accept this; rather, I’m interested in looking at the assumptions of orthodox Christianity, its official proclamations, and the underlying logic involved in reincarnation, and seeing if there is a conflict on these levels, or not.  First, it’s worth noting that after I looked around the net for awhile on Christian teaching, I discovered that no council, conciliar documents, or Pope or Papal teaching has ever officially condemned reincarnation as such.  Even the Catholic Answers apologetic site, while quoting Church Fathers against reincarnation (remember, even the Fathers don’t necessarily define dogma) admits that none of the early councils spoke of the subject.

Second as I discussed here and here, pre-existence of the soul (a necessary belief if one is to accept reincarnation) is not logically incompatible with even orthodox teaching on the creation of the soul at conception (or whatever discrete point one chooses).

Third, I think it’s useful to consider the context.  Church councils, Papal teachings, and other exercises of the Magisterium do not  happen in a vacuum. They almost always address social, political, or theological issues at large in the greater society.  In contrast to the views of many of the Church’s foes–and friends–it does not sit around popping out doctrines most of the time.  Usually, doctrines are proposed when it is felt vitally necessary to counter perceived error–the Trinitarian and Christological disputes in the early Church are good examples of this.

Finally, it’s important to look at the context in which reincarnation was viewed at this time.  As I’ve mentioned before, the Dharmic religions view reincarnation as part of a vast, unending cycle without beginning or end.  The cosmos is held to come into existence, unfold, fall into decay, and come to destruction over the period of four yugas, only to begin again.  Souls continue to be born, to die, and to be reborn throughout this cycle; and souls “left over” at the end eventually take reincarnation in the next cycle.

Neoplatonism, as I understand it, is very similar.  In fact, most of the philosophical systems of the Ancient Greco-Roman world posited some kind of cyclical existence for the universe and some kind of analogue of samsara.  This may be because of Dharmic influences–Alexander the Great encountered Hindu and possibly also Buddhist monks on his Indian campaign, and Buddhists were known to the Clement of Alexandria (in Egypt) by the second or third Century A.D.  Whether this is the case or not, Western philosophical systems held similar views.

Pythagoras (known to us for his famous theorem, but more like what we’d call a religious leader) is known to have embraced reincarnation, though his cosmology is uncertain.  Plato by implication, and later forms of Platonism more explicitly, assume a cyclic view of the world in which souls continue to be reborn until becoming philosophical enough to rise above the material world, contemplating the Good, the True, and the Beautiful, and return to the One (God) whence they came.  I don’t know as much of Neoplatonism as I do of the Dharmic religions, so I’m uncertain as to whether they assumed a cyclical cosmos or not.  Aristotle, at any rate, assumed the world was eternal (no beginning, no end) and that civilization rose and fell with various catastrophes.    Whether the cosmos was seen as being cyclical, the soul’s repeated rebirths certainly were.

Stoicism, the most popular philosophy of the early Roman Empire, doesn’t seem to have believed in rebirth, but it did see the cosmos as cyclical, being born from the Logos (“reason”, that is, God), progressing through time, then being consumed in fire only to be re-created in a future cycle.

Epicureanism, also popular among the Romans, did not posit immortality of the soul, nor reincarnation, nor a cyclical universe (as far as I know); thus, its contribution to the matter at hand is minimal.

The important point to emphasize is that all of the non-Abrahamic religions that posited a belief in reincarnation tied that belief to two things:

1.  A cyclical view of the universe, which exists eternally while passing through various cycles of creation and destruction.

2.  An idea of karma (or something similar) in which continued rebirth is a sign of failure on the part of the individual soul–it comes back because it is still too attached to this world, as manifested in bad and even good deeds.  Only when it is able to transcend all this (moksha in Hinduism, nirvana in Buddhism, henosis, or return to the One in Neoplatonism, etc.) does the cycle of birth and rebirth finally end.

By contrast, with the Abrahamic religions, even those that posit reincarnation do not hold a cyclical view of the universe.

In the concept of gilgul ha neshamot, originally posited in Kabbalistic Judaism, but widely accepted by Hasidim and many other Orthodox Jews, there is no karmic debt to be paid; rather, not all souls are necessarily reborn, and those that are generally are considered as doing so in order to fulfill all the 613 mitzvoth (or in the case of righteous Gentiles, to fulfill all the Noahide Laws).  This is actually most similar to the idea the general public has of reincarnation–not a wheel of rebirth, but coming back to fulfill what one was unable to in previous lives.  In any case, the cosmos is strictly linear:  God creates the universe, it persists until the end, with all necessary gilgul taking place before the end; then, the Messiah arrives, and the World to Come is inaugurated.

Gnostic Christians covered a large range in their various belief systems (and the appropriateness of the very term “Gnostic” has been questioned, but for our purposes here, we’ll continue to use it).  Nevertheless, they do not seem to have embraced a cyclical cosmos, either.  Souls, at least in the Sethian system (I’m not sure about the Valentinians), are reborn if they are unable to attain the saving gnosis (knowledge of their true selves).  This process is not eternal, however, nor is the  universe cyclical.  The material universe is only temporary, the result of Sophia’s fall and the birth of the Demiurge.  Eventually all humanity will be redeemed (or all who can be will–the Gnostic scriptures aren’t totally clear on this), perhaps even the Archons and the Demiurge (this, too, is unclear), the material universe will be dissolved (or possibly redeemed into a spiritual form), and everything will return to the Pleroma.

Thus we see that there is a very clear divide between the Dharmic religions and Greco-Roman philosophical systems, which by and large view the universe as cyclical and reincarnation as ongoing, on the one hand; and the Abrahamic faiths, which, regardless of whether or not they accept reincarnation, definitely reject the notion of a cyclical cosmos, and which, if they do accept rebirth, view it as a limited process that will cease at the end of the world.

All right–that is the groundwork on which I wish to build as I ask:  can reincarnation be interpreted in a way compatible with orthodox Christianity?  My answer is a careful, qualified “yes”.

When I discussed pre-existence (see the links above), I said that since the Pleroma is beyond time as we know it, it is not a contradiction to say that a soul existed for “ages” in the Pleroma but was created at the moment the body it enters was ensouled.  Since Plermoic time is but an instant–or non-existent–or without reference to–cosmic time, any scheme for relating what happens in the Pleroma to what happens here is as good as any other.

From this perspective, one might also consider that all the incarnations of a soul take place simultaneously from the perspective of the Pleroma.  In other words, if Soul A incarnates successively as Bob and Carol and Ted and finally Alice, the sequence is only from our perspective.  From the God’s-eye view of the Pleroma, they all take place at the same time.

For those of you into modern physics, you could think of it a different way.  We see ourselves as three-dimensional beings, but of course, we have a fourth dimension–time.  Imagine placing the point of a ball-point pen on a piece of paper.  The dot is what we perceive ourselves to be.  Now draw the pen along the paper.  The ball rolls, producing dot after dot after dot, adjacent to each other, making a line.  To use the human analogy, each dot thinks that it is just a dot.  It can’t see the previous dots before or ahead of it–it can’t see the line (think Lineland in the novel Flatland).  We, seeing the line from our perspective–analogous to God’s perspective–see just a line in its entirety.  From the perspective of the dot, though, it is just a dot.  Its past selves are to the left, its future to the right; it never can see the whole line, which is what it is in reality.

To put it another way, we are actually four-dimensional “lines“–or if you remember those snakes of Play Dough that the squeezing clamp squeezed out, we’re one of those–who can see only three-dimensional cross-sections at any given instant.  From this perspective, we aren’t a soul taking on different lives over time–we are all those lives at once, only being incapable of perceiving this.

Put it another way:  the typical objection to reincarnation is that if bodies are changed and changed again like clothing, none of the lives is actually “really” the person in question.  “I” am not really Jack or Jill or Hieronymus–or to put it another way, though each incarnation thinks he or she is a real person, he/she is incorrect, being just me in my current go-round.  In short, the uniqueness of each incarnation is devalued, since “I” might have been hundreds or thousands or millions of others before.  Such an argument has seemed in the past to me to be a compelling argument against the concept.

However, if one looks at it four-dimensionally–or Pleromically, which in this case is the same thing–this is not accurate.  Think of it–it would be odd to say that I’m not really John Doe since I’m now 49 but I used to be 48 and before that 47 and so on, back to birth, and will eventually be 50 and so on (as long as possible!).  The fact that my “incarnation” as a child ended, to be succeeded by my “incarnation” as an adolescent, and so on, does not invalidate the reality, the real me-ness, of me at 49, or any other age.  Me as Dick now and Jane in a future life is not really different from me as a 15-year-old and me now; the only difference is that in the former case, death intervenes and there’s a non-surgical sex change.  Metaphysically, though, it can’t be said that the two cases are different.

So, depending on how you look at it, one could say that there’s not a unitary, continuous “self” even within a single incarnation; or from another perspective, the unity of the self isn’t interrupted by death and rebirth, even assuming some kind of bardo-like intermediate state (which to my knowledge, neither gilgul nor Gnostic systems assume, but I could well be wrong).

Thus, I no longer think that there are metaphysical reasons that reincarnation cannot be harmonized with Christian doctrine.  The usual fear is that it destroys the uniqueness of the individual; but as we’ve seen, I think that objection can be met.

One subtle objection might still be raised.  The Fathers were not stupid or unsubtle men.  St. Augustine, for example, was quite well aware that time did not exist before the creation of the cosmos, since it is a property of the material world, whereas God is atemporal.  Certainly there were plenty of theologians and philosophers in orthodoxy who were capable of grasping the argument I’ve made here.  Why, then, one might ask, did no one make it?  Why was reincarnation, if not rejected outright by Conciliar fiat, not accepted, at least as a theologoumenon?  After giving this matter considerable thought, I think the answer is the cultural context.

Recall that the one place in which the Abrahamic and the Dharmic and Hellenistic faiths differ most profoundly and irreconcilably is in their views of cosmic cycles.  The Abrahamic faiths roundly reject them; the Dharmic and Hellenistic faiths accept them.  I think that this is the context in which the debates had to take place.  The Fathers realized that they couldn’t ultimately take out reincarnation on purely metaphysical grounds (though some still objected to it).  What they did have a problem with was the cyclical worldview inherent in the pagan systems that accepted reincarnation.  This was obviously irreconcilable with Jewish and Christian cosmology.  I suspect that this was behind the condemnation of Origen–he was, rightly or wrongly, accused of promoting a cyclical cosmos, and by the time he was condemned, he’d been dead so long, and his followers had gone off on so many tangents, that it was no longer clear what he taught.

This is also probably behind the condemnation of pre-existence.  It was probably seen as tightly intertwined with the supposed cyclical cosmos of Origen, and thus had to be anathematized, too.  Perhaps Origen’s supposed errors left a bad taste in the mouths of Council participants, to the extent that they didn’t look at the subtler issues of pre-existence.  In any case, it’s significant to me that while reincarnation could have been explicitly condemned at any council–and at the time of the early ones, at least, the notion was still very much in the air–it never actually was so condemned.

It’s possible that the Fathers believed that if pre-existence were condemned, then reincarnation would go down with it.  This, of course, does not hold water, since one could posit an initial ensoulment of the body by a non-pre-existent soul, that after the initial bodily death proceeds into various rebirths.  My thinking on this is that the condemnation of Origenism and its offshoots was a proxy for condemning the cyclical cosmologies of the various non-Abrahamic faiths, rather than pre-existence (understood as I’ve described it) or reincarnation per se.  This is actually the general way the Church has proceeded throughout history.  Rarely does it preemptively condemn anything, and rarely does it condemn abstractions.  Generally, condemnations and anathemas come only after an idea has been proposed; and such condemnations are usually relatively narrow and focused on the individual or group promoting it.  Thus, for example, at different times Origen and Nestorius and his followers were condemned, rather than abstract entities such as “Origenism” and “Nestorianism”.

We may regret anathemas and such, but there is actually great flexibility, in the long run, in this way of proceeding.  In recent decades, the Catholic Church has come to theological rapprochement with the Oriental Orthodox Churches (formerly referred to as Monophysite) and the Assyrian Church of the East (formerly the Nestorian Church), despite having condemned them centuries ago.  The way this has worked is that, since the original condemnations were aimed at individuals and at specific doctrines those individuals had proposed, it was easy to argue that there was no corporate condemnation of the Churches as a whole.  Thus, when theologians on both sides were able to say that the Catholics, the “Monophysites”, and the “Nestorians” held the same Christological beliefs, merely expressing them in different terms, it was possible to say, “Well, the terms were not properly understood at the time of the original condemnations; and the doctrines the churches can be shown to hold now are not heretical; and as to the individuals–Eutyches, Nestorius, and so on–we can leave them up to God; thus, we can all accept each other as teaching true doctrine in different terms.”

One might argue that there should never have been condemnations in the first place, and that there ought to have been greater latitude allowed for divergent theologies; and I’d agree.  However, given the complicated social and political situation at the time, with emperors jockeying for position and trying to enforce theological conformity in order to achieve unity and stability in the Empire, and the rather combative attitudes of many churchmen, a more irenic approach was, unfortunately, probably impossible.  I do think it is the subtle inspiration of the Divine that was able to “blow where it wills” by causing enough leeway to be put into the decisions of Councils that situations could be salvaged centuries later.  Not ideal, but better than the alternative–and the Divine does have us intransigent humans to deal with!

Therefore, I assert that the most one can say of the various conciliar actions of antiquity is that they condemned, by proxy, the Greco-Roman, Dharmic view of a cyclical cosmos suffused by samsara.  Whether they consciously intended to or not, they left the question of reincarnation open, given a proper understanding of the issues involved.  Therefore I assert–without necessarily either supporting or denying it–that reincarnation is, in fact, compatible with orthodox Christian dogma.

The exact way in which this may be so is not something I want to discuss at this point.  I may return to the issue in the future to flesh it out more, or I may not.  My main point is to establish the possibility as compatible with orthodoxy, since I think that when we look at hard polygenesis–something I dismissed in the “Legends of the Fall” series, but should have spoken to–it may be necessary to bring reincarnation into the picture, though I’m not completely sure yet.

In any case, I think I’ve established what I set out to establish in this, my all-time longest post so far, at over 3100 words!  Whew!  I’m going to post a few lighter things and rest a bit, then move on in my Bible series and then head for hard polygenesis.  Stay tuned!

Part of the series Legends of the Fall.

Also part of the series Reincarnation

Posted on 04/08/2012, in Christianity, metaphysics, philosophy, religion, theology and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 8 Comments.

  1. Where is a cyclic universe explicitly condemned in a Church council?

    • To my knowledge, it isn’t. My point was that the cosmos has been typically understood as being linear in the Abrahamic tradition, probably to the point that it was taken for granted as obvious. Given that, the cyclical nature implied by reincarnation would probably have not sat well with the Fathers. It’s interesting, though, that even given this and the pervasiveness of reincarnation in classical thought, the Church still never condemned reincarnation as such.

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