We have examined in the past two posts (here and here) the most common ways to understand reincarnation and their fundamental incompatibility with the existence and work of Christ. Let us now conclude by examining the utter failure of such new age “Christianity-cum-reincarnation” perspectives from a more practical point of view.
In order to do so, one must decide whether Indians are a people intrinsically or even genetically prone to violence and cruelty, or not. If one decides that they are, one subscribes to a racist vision of the world which is the contrary of what modern followers of reincarnation tend to (at least consciously) believe. If one doesn’t, he has a problem.
It is in fact clear from the most superficial exam of the Indian society that a high level of cruelty and ruthlessness, unknown to Christian societies, has dominated its social structures for a long time. The suttee, the habit of burning the widow at or around the death of her husband, is in my eyes a clear evidence of the consequences of reincarnation. I am not interested here in the details of the practice (how consistent it was with Hindu spirituality; whether it was more often voluntary or forced; whether it was common or rare, etc.); rather with the fact that such practices never existed in the Christian culture. And really, whilst one does not necessarily need to believe in reincarnation to commit suicide or being killed (a lot of atheists commit suicide or kill even by us), it is difficult to imagine that such practices would have been even imagined without a belief in reincarnation spread through the veins of the Indian society. The problem here is not whether Suttee is compatible with Hindu spirituality, but whether it is compatible with the belief in reincarnation…..
Similar considerations can be made for other aspects of the Indian society, less evident now but still not eradicated: the existence and toleration of castes by otherwise decent people can only be explained with the belief in reincarnation.
Never in Christian countries have people died of starvation in the middle of the road among the general indifference; not even in times of pestilence. Never in Christian countries have people been considered unworthy of being touched, or even their shadow being considered defiling. Never in Christian countries has the gap between starving poor and shamelessly rich reached the scale of the Indian subcontinent found by the British colonisation. I could give further examples of cruelty and utter disregard for the dignity of the human being.
Still, no sensible person could deny that in that same country one could find a multitude of excellent people; compassionate in their own way, lovers of family and friends, sometimes extremely spiritual as clearly showed by an impressive spiritual tradition. It is therefore fair to say that it is the belief in reincarnation which made the cruelty, the suttee, the starving of people under one’s eyes & Co. acceptable in the eyes of decent people. I do not want to say that an individual who believes in reincarnation must perforce accepts these things; rather that a nation that believes in reincarnation will end up accepting them.
The problem of today’s society is that too many people are ready to see as “cool” and “spiritually advanced” everything that comes from the East, but do not think to the end about the consequences of the beliefs they are trying to import. They consider a “cruelty” that a priest (a man who has made an adult and free choice) is not allowed to marry, but never consider that a child brought to a Buddhist monastery to be raised as a monk never had a chance to choose, or to protest. They never ask themselves how would they feel if Catholic priests or friars were selected in the same way. They are so vocal in the defence of animals and will love to tell you how nice Indian people are to cows, but will readily forget how less nice they are to the starving and to the widows. (Yes, many widows die in India today of strange domestic accidents. Doesn’t happen by us, strangely enough).
This doesn’t want to be a generalised condemnation of Indian society. I am sure many excellent people (Hindu, Muslim etc.) live and have always lived there. But you can’t take Sodom out of Lot, and you can’t avoid the belief in reincarnation causing an amount of indifference and acceptance of starvation and violence just inconceivable by us.
And so it happens that whilst Western countries nowadays provide up to one fifth of the GDP of countries thousands of miles away, out of sheer compassion for people they’ll never see, Sri Lanka drowns in a sea of corruption even after a disastrous tsunami, with entire categories of citizens enriching themselves out of the money meant to save their own people from tragic death and utter destitution.
Christian societies work. They are far more compassionate than any other. They have never allowed mass starvation, not even in the darkest hours of hunger and misery and plague. They have never burned widows like the Indians, or exposed sickly children like the Greek. Not even in the hardest circumstances.
Reincarnation is not only wrong but when applied to entire populations for generations, sooner or later it will create the conditions for the toleration of every aberration.
This is rather easy, as the belief in reincarnation can only be (erroneously) held if no attentive and systematic reading of Scriptures has taken place. What generally happens is that a “hearsay Christian” (vast majority nowadays, I’m afraid) reads or receives from some friend some information about verses of the Gospel in which Jesus would seem to endorse the theory of reincarnation. Also rather spread are legends about the bible having been “manipulated” (an old dish of heresy, this one), but I am going to discard those for their evident absurdity.
One verse often cited is the one in which Jesus asks the Apostles who they think He is and they answer ” Some say John the Baptist, others Elijah, still others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.” (Mt. 16, 13-14). To an attentive reader it is evident here that Jesus could not possibly have been the reincarnation of John the Baptist, who lived in the same time as Jesus. Therefore, in order not to make the entire construct absurd the phrase must be read as “some believe you have in you the spiritual strength and power of John The Baptist (who had been executed already), some of Elijah, etc.).” This reading makes much more sense than reincarnation, which is in light of the pure historical event of St. John’s life utterly absurd. Also note that Jesus here does not say that what people believe is right. He says instead, emphatically so, that what Peter says is right. Peter doesn’t say anything at all about reincarnation. What he says is: “Thou art the Christ, the Son of the living God!”. There can be no more powerful evidence that Jesus, by so emphatically endorsing Peter’s claim, utterly disregards all the claims formerly made.
Another rather difficult part is John 9: 2 where Jesus is asked: “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” If the man was born blind, goes the reasoning, then he can only have sinned in another life, which would prove at least that belief in reincarnation was spread in Jesus’ time. By answering “neither this man nor his parents sinned”, Jesus would thus implicitly accept the theory as he doesn’t explicitly correct it. Against such interpretation can be said: 1) that some Jews believed that a baby could sin in the womb, a theory known to Jesus and all present. 2) that there is no evidence in jewish sources that a belief in reincarnation was spread; 3) that Jesus does not endorse everything which he does not explicitly refuse, as we have seen in the former passage in which he doesn’t waste time in explicitly saying that he is not ” a new Elijah”, etc. When Jesus wants to teach, he always takes care to make the point.
Which last point takes us neatly to, well, the point. It is utterly illogical to give an adventurous interpretation to one or two Gospel passages, by at he same time disregarding the entire New Testament. Jesus alone talks of Hell, eternal punishment, Gehenna, fire everlasting & Co. more than any other in the Bible. The examples are too numerous and too well-known to limit ourselves to individual examples. If there is one leitmotiv in the Gospel, it is atonement, redemption, hell and heaven. It is immediately obvious on serious reflection that Christ’s death on the Cross doesn’t make any sense if reincarnation operates anyway; nor does His continuous, insisted mentioning of hell and eternal punishment. Here we see another sign of the times: that Jesus spoke so often of hell is nowadays completely disregarded; it has just disappeared from the radar screen to make place for platitudes entirely devoid of context a’ la “do not judge”, the rhetoric of peaaace and the like.
The concept of atonement is so elementary to a practising Catholic that it would barely be worth the mentioning. But in non-practising Catholics, and in non-Catholic Christians, the concept of atonement and redemption opening the way to everlasting life in God can be extremely diluted or even forgotten, with Jesus reduced to the task of spreading some rather good news and telling everyone to behave and be “inclusive” and “tolerant”. Just ask every non churchgoer to tell you in few words why Jesus came to Earth and stun in disbelief at the answers you hear.
Further difficulties for such interpretative “adventures” arise if we read further in the New Testament. “It is appointed that human beings die once, and after this the judgment”, says in Hebrew 9, 27. The author of this (be he St. Paul or not) is one of the first Christians. He lived in close contact with many of the (other) Apostles. This is real, first hand evidence of what the First Christians were ready to die for. Would Jesus ever accept reincarnation “by implication” but allow His disciples to be, in such an important matter, so tragically and completely wrong? Thought not…
In short, the belief in reincarnation is totally unscriptural not only because Jesus never endorsed it; not only because Jesus himself was extremely clear in his warning about eternal punishment; not only because the belief in eternal damnation was obviously commonly accepted among his disciples, but because if one accepts the theory, the entire mission and sacrifice of Jesus loses its meaning.
I am rather sure that it has happened to you too at some point: some friend or colleague or acquaintance of yours not only believes in reincarnation (perfectly possible, if he’s not a Christian), but sometimes even considers this compatible with Christianity; perhaps he even calls himself a Christian with utter conviction and in perfect good faith and will still say that he believes in reincarnation.
In such errors we must see another result of the disgraceful catechesis of these last decades; when such things happen I would invite you to be gracefully firm with the person in question and simply point out to the incompatibility of reincarnation with Christianity, and explain why. Sadly, though, we live in such times that new age infiltrations (or Buddhistic ones, or such like) are allowed to dilute the message of Christianity because no effort whatsoever is made by the Clergy to maintain the integrity of the Teaching. When the Archbishop of Westminster bows in front of an Hindu altar himself, how can you blame the generic (often lapsed; not always!) Christian for being confused themselves and for trying to reconcile apparent contradictions in a way that seems rational to them? When gatherings in Assisi-style take place and Buddhas are placed on Catholic altars, how can you blame laypeople for thinking they can “improve” on the received religious wisdom? This is when we, the orthodox and informed, come to the rescue.
First of all, let us agree some terms (which are used in various ways, and engender confusion) about what is meant with reincarnation. I have, up to now, met two families of thought that I will call: 1) metempsychosis and 2) reincarnation proper.
Metempsicosis is the idea that there is no individual soul, only a life energy. This life energy continuously reforms itself into new forms of actual life; but there is no continuity, no A dying and becoming B, then C and then D. You must imagine life force as a huge water reservoir, from which some water is taken when a human (or a dog, or an insect, or a tree) is born. When this form of life dies, the relevant life force comes back into the reservoir, mixing itself with the rest of the water; from this reservoir, some water will be taken away to create new trees, new insects, new humans etc. As there is no continuity of water (it is not the same molecules being used to create a new man after the death of the first, as the water mixes in the reservoir) there is no re-incarnation in the proper sense. No one is re-born, but rather a huge living force continuously takes new forms. This would explain why no one remembers former lives (there aren’t any, individually speaking) and why the same life energy of a man, once he is dead, comes into the great circle of life as, say, an insect. It is not that the man was re-born as an insect. Rather, the “water” of his life has been put into the big reservoir again, out of which further plants and insects and human beings are going to be born.
There can be no place for a biblical God in all this. There is a huge life force, whose occupation is to live through all living things and continuously mixing this living energies into new forms. This has been explained to me in extremely clear terms from a buddhist acquaintance who also was, as you can imagine, as atheist as Stalin. “Ice-cold!”, I said to him. “Wonderful!”, he answered. No merciful God, no hope of salvation in whatever form, no expectation of living as an individual. Instead, the participation in a huge machine continuously re-making itself, life as the vision of a huge living energy that lives in me, and will take other forms when I die; forms that are still expression of the same life, but not I in any recognisable form anymore.
Reincarnation proper is the idea that one starts life as a lowly life, say, an insect or an arachnids or even lower. Slowly, he evolves into higher forms of intelligence (say: cat, dog, horse) until he will finally be reincarnated as a human. The individual is always the same, taking new bodies. The higher he goes in the scala of intelligence, the more is he able to sin. When he becomes a human, he’ll start at the lower end of the scala (as a pariah, say) and then, in principle, gradually evolve. Unless he is a great sinner, in which case he’ll be punished with re-birth in a lower forms of human being: of a lower rank than his later reincarnation, or plagued by various troubles (say: sick; ugly; stupid; poor). The desire of God to see him evolve and come to Him fights with the creature’s inherent sinful tendencies a fight which goes on for possibly an immense number of incarnations, marked by “promotions” and “demotions”, until liberation is achieved and the soul is allowed to enter Heaven. In this conception, once one is born as a human he’ll always be born as a human (because when he is able to sin seriously, he must be able to pay serious consequences of his sin), but every life will bear the mark of the sins (or virtues) of preceding lives. Some will be born oh high caste, beautiful, witty and rich; other of low caste, ugly, dumb and poor, etc.
This conception is much more similar to the Christian one than metempsychosis and one understands why poor formed Christians (led to believe that Jesus just didn’t want to go into the matter, but this will be the subject of another entry) may find it credible. In this conception, a compassionate God works on our salvation but punishes us for our sins; his infinite justice lets us pay everything, but his infinite love leads, in the end, everyone to his heavenly destination. In this conception, not only purgatory but also hell take place here on Earth and even the most atrocious life conditions and individual destinies are but the reflection of God’s justice, working in him at the same time as God’s mercy assures to him, as to everyone else, eventual salvation. At the same time, the apparent inequalities are resolved in a cosmic justice, where everyone has at any one time what (good or bad) he has himself worked for.
This hindu and new age belief is much nearer to Western thinking than metempsychosis and it has, one must admit, the appeal of trying to explain some aspects of the human condition allegedly not explained by Christianity: eg, why some people are born with apparently cruel disadvantages compared to others; why life is a bunch of inequalities; how one can reconcile infinite mercy and infinite justice, etc. If you hear someone saying “if there is a God, why the earthquake in Haiti?” (rather fashionable among Christians, nowadays), it is rather probable that at some point he’ll subscribe to some new age tenet.
Of this two theories (I do not doubt that there are a lot of variations, I’d say these two represent the situation rather well, though) the first bears no resemblance whatever to Christianity and can be discarded as not dangerous. The second, though, is the most dangerous to Christian orthodoxy, as the superficial Christian may easily be led into finding here “answers” to apparent contradictions of life and thinking this, in the new Assisi-world, perfectly OK.