A recent Harris Poll revealed about 25% of Americans believe in reincarnation. (http://www.tricycle.com/p/2236) If just Native Americans were polled, most believe it is so. Maybe some of you may or may not when I’m finished!
I have reflected on the idea since I traveled to India in 1986. Near the end of my trip, high in the Himalayas Mountains at an ashram named “Sattal,” I met an English couple. They had been in India a few weeks visiting and studying in various ashrams. Taking a walk one day, they asked me, “What do you think about reincarnation?” It took me by surprise and I stumbled out a few words about our church didn’t believe in it. Their reaction was surprise that I, a religious minister, had never studied the idea.
I discovered reincarnation is referred to often in the Bible. I studied the Bible in four different Christian schools, half of them Presbyterian, and never heard anything about reincarnation, at least nothing positive. But let me refer you to a few Bible verses, which seem quite supportive of the idea of reincarnation. Whether you read or even believe much of the Bible, the idea that reincarnation is supported from it might be surprising.
In Matthew’s gospel we read the popular belief of Jesus being a reincarnated earlier prophets. As he and his disciples walked along a road to Caesarea, Jesus asked his disciples, “Who do people say that I am?” They answered, “Some say John the Baptist; and others Elijah; and still others say, one of the prophets.” Obviously word had spread Jesus was an incarnation of one of these early teachers. So Jesus asked, “Who do you say I am?” and Peter answered, “You are the Messiah.” (17:10-13) So, was the Messiah a reincarnation of an earlier figure? The word means “anointing one.”
Three times Jesus assured his disciples John the Baptist was actually the reincarnation of the former prophet Elijah. In speaking of John he said, “I tell you, Elijah has already come, and they did not recognize him.” Then it says, “The disciples understood he was talking to them about John the Baptist.” (Matthew 17:12)
In John’s gospel there is the story of a man named Nicodemus who sneaked by one evening to see Jesus alone. Nicodemus was a leader in the Pharisees, it says, and he acknowledged Jesus as a great leader, a rabbinical teacher, perhaps wondering if he was a reincarnation from earlier times. “Who are you?” Nicodemus asked. “By what authority do you do these things?” Jesus answered, “Unless one be born again he cannot see the kingdom of God.” Nicodemus replied; “How can one be born again unless he enters again into his mother’s womb and be reborn?” Nicodemus assumed Jesus was talking about reincarnation but Jesus wasn’t. He was talking about a “spiritual awakening” giving one a new view of life comparable to being born again into another life!
Another time the Bible says the disciples asked Jesus about sins committed in past lives, which would need to be dealt with in future ones. In John 9, verse 2, it says they saw a man near them apparently born blind. They asked Jesus, “Rabbi, who sinned? This man or his parents, that he should be born blind?” Jesus answered, “Neither this man sinned nor his parents, but so that the works of God can to be made manifested in him.” In other words, Jesus seems to say one can break out of the cycle of rebirths by new decisions by special healings, which Jesus then demonstrated.
Besides many references to reincarnation in the Bible, there were many well known teachers in the early Christian Church who supported it. Justin Martyr, surnamed because of his death by the Emperor Marcus Aurelius in 167 A. D. believed and taught reincarnation stating Plato’s belief in the transmigration of souls into more than one human body.
Origen, another one of the great early teachers of the early church who died in 254 A.D., was considered by St. Jerome in the 4th Century as the “greatest teacher of the Church after the apostles.” Origen defended the idea the soul exists before the body, writing, “The soul has neither beginning nor end. They come into this world strengthened by their victories and weakened by their defeats of their previous lives.” (De Principiis)
Origen also wrote, “Is it not more in accordance with common sense that every soul for reasons unknown enters the body influenced by its past deeds? The soul has a body at its disposal for a certain period of time which, due to its changeable condition, eventually is no longer suitable for the soul, whereupon it changes that body for another.” (Contra Celsum)
Another famous Church Father, St. Gregory, Bishop of Nyssa from 372 to 376, also a student of Origen, wrote: “It is absolutely necessary that the soul should be healed and purified, and if this does not take place during its life on earth, it must be accomplished in future lives. The soul is immaterial and invisible in nature, it at one time puts off one body and exchanges it for a second.”
The great St. Augustine who died in 430 A.D, a century after the official formation of the Roman Catholic Church, seemed to believe the philosopher Plotinus was the reincarnation of Plato. He wrote, “The message of Plato now shines forth mainly in Plotinus, a Platonist so like his master that one would think Plato was born again in Plotinus.”
So how and when did the Catholic Church ban the teachings of reincarnation? It was a fairly confusing process but here’s a summary. In 330 A.D. the Emperor Constantine, who had ordered the creation of the Roman Catholic Church and the making of the Apostles’ Creed, moved the center of the Catholicism to Constantinople, or known today as Istanbul. The Western part of the church remained in Rome, where reincarnation remained an acceptable doctrine. However, in 553 A.D. the Emperor Justinian, who then ruled from Constantinople, called a sudden convocation of all Catholic Bishops. Only 6 bishops came from Rome in the West while 159 attended from the Eastern Church. Justinian, at the urging of his wife some say, asked the Bishops to condemn the teaching of reincarnation. It easily passed. The Emperor, even as Pope Vigillus was absent, then declared reincarnation a heresy to be punished by excommunication.
But is reincarnation a justifiable teaching? Is there any scientific evidence it exists? The first book I read on the topic was “Many Lives, Many Masters” written by Brian Weiss, medical doctor and chief of psychiatry for Mount Sinai Hospital in Miami Beach, Florida. In 1982, he hypnotized a young woman he had been treating twice a week for 18 months. She suffered from acute phobias once or twice a week. Nothing seemed to help her. In the first session he gently asked her for any significant memories from her past. Under hypnosis, she remembered a disturbing sexual encounter with her drunken father at age 3. There was some improvement in her condition but nothing significant to alleviate her phobias. So Weiss hypnotized her again and in a deep commanding voice said, “Go back to the time from which are symptoms arise.” She began to speak in a quiet and horse whisper. There were long pauses but she began to speak, describing white steps leading up a big white building with pillars. She said, “I am wearing a long dress, sackcloth made of rough material. My name is Aronda. I am 18. I see a marketplace. There are baskets. You carry the baskets on your shoulder. We live in a valley. There is no water. The year was 1863 BC.” Before the end of the session, Aronda died, terrified gasping and choking in a flood. This session became a turning point for the woman, Weiss said. He went on and treated her for several months. She would become Johan who slit his throat in the Netherlands on 1473; Abby, a servant in 19 century Virginia; Christian, a Welsh sailor; Eric a German aviator; a boy in the Ukraine in1758 whose father was executed in prison. And, according to Weiss, she became well. (Many Lives, Many Masters by Brian Weiss, 1988.)
Last autumn I read a book called Old Souls written by an investigative reporter from the Miami Herald named Tom Shroder. Shroder always doubted the veracity of Weiss’ book, feeling he had not used enough scientific checks and collaboration to verify his client’s stories. After reading his critiques, Dr. Ian Stevenson, head of the department of psychiatry at the University of Virginia Medical School, invited Shroder to accompany him on trip to meet children who spoke of previous lives. Stevenson had traveled and worked over 30 years documenting more than 2000 cases of children who gave evidence of knowing previous lives. Reporter Schroder accepted and accompanied him on trips to Lebanon and India to interview and investigate children who gave viable evidence of having lived previous lives. It’s a fascinating story. They met children who often spoke languages from other tribes or countries in which they once lived, or identified and spoke to neighbors whom they pointed out were previous parents from other lives.
When the trips were completed Schroder was puzzled and intrigued but still not certain. So Dr. Stevenson suggested he investigate a local case outside of Charlottesville, Virginia. Schroder accepted and met a child in a rural area who often said his parents were not his “real” parents. One day the boy was riding with his parents and suddenly recognized what he claimed to be his former life on another farm. The young boy described the farm with specific details and when they drove up the road there sat the farm exactly on the curve as the boy described along with another building the boy described being there. Schroder, always a skeptical reporter, still wasn’t totally convinced but wrote how we must expand our idea of research and what possible. He learned to appreciate Dr. Ian Stevenson’s words: “I don’t think there is any proof in science outside of mathematics. However, of all cases we know now, at least for some, reincarnation is the best explanation we have been able to come up with. There is an impressive body of evidence, and I think it is getting stronger all the time. I think a rational person, if he wants, can believe in reincarnation on the basis of evidence.” (Old Souls, The Scientific Evidence of Past Lives by Tom Schroder, Simon and Schuster, 1999)
So what might we conclude? How might the possibility of our being a migration of souls from previous incarnations into future ones affect us? There have been many papers and writings on this topic. In Hinduism the word “karma” is used. It simply means “cause and effect,” that what we sow is what we reap. In some reincarnation beliefs, to be a mean, violent, or dishonest person gives you a higher chance of returning in another life as a rat! Or a pig, or whatever. It teaches we pay consequences for our attitudes and actions. We saw it earlier in the Bible with the beliefs about blindness. In Luke 12 it says “You shall stay in prison until you have paid the last mite!” Would the “prison” perhaps be another incarnation as a “lesson teacher?” In classic Catholicism one also faces consequences in purgatory. In Hinduism, you return again in a lower form of life. The worse case scenario occurs in Protestant orthodoxy, “You will burn in hell forever!” The atheist are more full of mercy; you just go back to dust, finished! So the idea of consequences of one life leading into another, can, in the minds of some motivate better life decision-making.
Eastern religions teach the process of reincarnation continues until we become “realized souls,” or awakened to our Higher Divine Self which is Oneness with the Great Spirit. In one ashram I visited in southern India, the late Guru had warned about dwelling too much on reincarnations or “karma.” He once said, “There is a class of people who want to know all about their future and past births. They ignore the present. The load from the past is the present misery. Why recall the past? It is a waste of time. They relate to the body and not to the Self.” (Sri Ramana Maharshi in Conscious Immortality recorded by Paul Brunton, 1935-1939)
The contemporary book, A Course in Miracles, has a small section called “Is Reincarnation So?” It says “there is no past or future, and the idea of birth into a body has no meaning either once or many times. Reincarnation cannot then be true in any real sense and the only question should be ‘is the concept helpful?’ And that depends on what it is used for. If it is used to strengthen the recognition of the eternal nature of life, it is helpful indeed. … Like many other beliefs it can be bitterly misused. At least, such misuse offers preoccupation and perhaps pride in the past. At worst, it induces inertia in the present. In between, many kinds of folly are possible.” (A Course in Miracles, chapter 24, Manual for Teachers. 3rd Edition, published 2007 by Foundation for Inner Peace.)
So, what is my advice? Use the idea if it helps you become freer from negativity, judgment, sadness and fear. Most importantly, live in the now, realizing time is merely a passing entity, created by mortal body minds amid rotating planets called the universe. May the words of the Bible become our goal: “Whatever is kind, loving and good, think on these things. And whatsoever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.” (Philippians 4:8 RSV).