My students were discussing reincarnation. This topic came up in yoga study as well.
Much has been written on reincarnation. I put together some considerations below. You may find them useful. Caveat: What I write is from a theological stance (as I am a theologian) so the starting point is different for me (as a believer) than for non-believers.
Also, as an educator I believe that religious traditions have much to teach us. We can appropriate many things, even though we may not choose to use everything. However, the things we choose to appropriate or believe must further justice in the world, not diminish it. Otherwise that belief is, by definition, immoral.
So with these parameters in mind, here we go.
On Reincarnation: From time to time I am asked about my belief in reincarnation or whether or not we experience more than one life. Some religious and philosophical traditions believe in reincarnation – Hindu, Yoga and some Buddhist traditions for example. We can’t completely eliminate reincarnation as a possibility since we can’t really know for sure.
In the Judeo-Christian scriptures God is relational with the world and with God’s people. As theologian John Haught might say, it is a story that is unfinished. It isn’t perfect but with promise in order to draw us into a future. God is the lure. God promises creation a banquet of relationality moving from chaos to complexity & coherence. In this story time is linear – meaning it doesn’t repeat. Our experience of time is the basis for God’s story, this drama. Time has a beginning and a goal, purpose or end.
Logic & Reason. In the Catholic tradition science and religion are not opposed to one another. They ask different questions. Science asks, “How did the world and what we observe in it come to be?” Theology asks, “Why is anything here at all?” Because they ask different questions science and theology can actually support each other. This is why so many Catholics are also scientists, researchers, doctors, astronomers etc. This is why Catholics build universities and hospitals. We believe that because God created the world and called it “good” we are free to respectfully investigate and explore the world. So what does this mean for belief in reincarnation?
Science tells us that space and time are actually one continuum. We experience them separately – but they are one, nevertheless. Knowing this, it would be difficult to accommodate for a belief in reincarnation. Reincarnation says that I, as a person, could exist in multiple lifetimes. Stated another way, I could exist simultaneously in more than one place/time on the space/time continuum. In order for that to happen I would have to be not one consciousness, but many. I’m not sure that could logically happen and still claim that I am a unique person, a unique entity or consciousness with free will.
If we choose to believe that we are not unique persons with our own consciousness and free will, then religious traditions that believe in reincarnation would have to radically overhaul their understanding of personhood, self-understanding and choice in order to be consistent and not contradict their own teachings on the development of the personhood of each individual. If my consciousness isn’t unique to this time/space continuum and simultaneously exists elsewhere, then I’m not solely responsible for my decisions and choices in this local/time.
With this understanding of consciousness or personhood it would be impossible to uphold the rule of law, for example, as it exists around the world today.
Certainly, life experience has something to bring to this issue. The actual experience of reincarnation says that a child suffering horribly from disease or hunger today is simply experiencing the consequences from bad choices in another lifetime. Really? That a young child suffers without having any knowledge of these other decisions, means that the suffering happens without understanding, without hope for growth, without purpose. This won’t move us toward universal compassion but rather to abandonning it. To believe this is to believe that ultimate reality or God is cruel and capricious. This would be a horrible God or reality not worthy of union. This is untenable as an understanding of God or reality.
Conversely, I believe that reality (God) is good and loving at its core. My experience is that reality is intelligent, relational, generative and therefore it must be fundamentally loving – to us and to the entire universe. To believe otherwise one must ask, why continue living?
Further, my own life experience tells me that even I, as a human parent, would not punish my child for something they did long ago and had no memory of. But reincarnation says that God would do exactly this. Am I, a mere human, more compassionate or loving than God?
To attribute suffering to actions from previous lifetimes prevents us from going deeper to learn the true causes of suffering. This is the immoral or unethical result of believing in reincarnation. Suffering from disease, poverty and hunger are not the result of karma. We find new cures for diseases all the time – think of the March of Dimes and their progress curing birth defects.
Poverty and hunger are the result of our inability to distribute food properly to the human family. There is enough for all. Unfortunately we have created an economic system that favors some over others. But if we go deeper, educate ourselves and make changes we can make sure that basic needs (water, clean air, food, education, basic health care) are available to all. This is our task. This is what it means to become truly human. Belief in reincarnation too easily takes us away from this task.
So, to conclude, I can’t totally eliminate reincarnation as a possibility since we can’t really know for sure. But using heart (compassion) and head (reason), I draw different conclusions about the degree of its possibility and probability. Belief in reincarnation requires overcoming the objections described above in order to be an ethical or moral possibility that I could truly embrace.
As always, questions and comments welcome.