Reincarnation and the Christian World View

By Sarah B. Van Mater

When confronted with the tangle of events which we observe daily, on both individual and collective levels, it is often difficult to discern any rationale or pattern behind the many details. Such a confused spectacle has led one modern historian to characterize the whole course of human history as "just one damned thing after another," unconnected by any fundamental principles of law or justice. In order to find meaning in the myriad of seemingly chaotic events surrounding them, men need a conceptual framework which integrates the separate pieces of their experience and knowledge into a coherent whole.

In the West today, the prevailing scientific world view attempts to provide one such framework of perception in areas dealing with the material universe. But even while accepting this viewpoint as valid in its own sphere, many people feel the inadequacy of an outlook which limits their attention solely to the physical plane of existence, and so they hold simultaneously to some type of religious belief. In areas concerning values, justice, ethical behavior, and man's spiritual roots, religious thought provides them with insight into the inner causes which transcend the physical realm.

Since most Occidental religious thought stems from the Judeo-Christian tradition, the burden of interpreting this larger field of experience still most often falls to the various expressions of Christianity. While the practical ethics of this religion remain true and are universal to all faiths, the orthodox dogmas explaining man's origin, nature, and individual fate contain interesting divergences from the corresponding views of other theological systems and of scientific thought. Although the traditional formulation of these doctrines satisfies many Christians, others find it thought-provoking to examine various alternatives in order to discover how these integrate with, and differ from, the Christian faith. Such a search raises many difficult, fundamental questions that each person must answer for himself: What constitutes a Christian life? What is essential to his faith and what is mere trapping? What is the purpose of a religious system and how can it best be forwarded by the individual? What are the grounds for accepting, or rejecting, religious ideas?

Recently a book has been published which addresses itself directly to one such issue. Reincarnation for the Christian (Quincy Howe, Jr., The Westminster Press, Philadelphia, 1974, $4.95.) presents, in non-technical language, the concept of reimbodiment as a workable option for believing Christians. Here, Quincy Howe, Jr. describes in basic outline the theory of reincarnation, attempts to elucidate the reasons behind its exclusion from Christian dogma in the sixth century, and discusses its effects on many tenets, such as the resurrection, the intermediary role of Christ, and the doctrines of salvation and damnation. He emphasizes the ability of the reincarnation theory, blended with Christianity, to provide a consistent framework through which to understand the world. Moreover, his approach stresses the basic compatibility of the idea of reimbodiment with the living of a Christian life, and the new shading of interpretation of church doctrines that an acceptance of this concept entails. Importantly, although a believer in reincarnation himself, the author shows no condemnatory attitude or condescension toward traditional Christianity. He advocates its acceptance only by those to whom it appeals intuitively.

The provocative findings of a comparison like that of Dr. Howe can be seen by examining just one doctrinal difference between standard Christian theology and those philosophies accepting reincarnation: the origin and consequent nature of man. By exploring this subject, several implications involved in melding reincarnation with Christianity become apparent. Traditionally, the Christian conceives each man as composed of matter and a newly-created soul, both initially created out of nothing by God and set into a fixed natural order. Because of the unbridgeable gulf separating man and God, man can aspire to adoption into the Kingdom of Heaven only through God's grace, not through his individual efforts alone. However, in systems of thought incorporating reincarnation, such as the Platonist and the Hindu, divinity emanates the manifested world out of itself, making man's inner essence a spark from the divine. Each entity is likened to a ray from the sun -- not the sun itself, but one with it in intrinsic nature. Similarly, these philosophies see humanity as an integral part of a universe in a constant state of becoming. Having evolved through the lower kingdoms of nature, man has now unrolled from within himself sufficient of his divine qualities to manifest as a human being. According to this principle, after many life-experiences have given him time to learn how to fully perform his human duties and obligations, he will embody in a higher form which offers even greater opportunities for development of his latent qualities. Thus, creational and emanational world views provide profoundly differing options. These include an internal or an external God, an evolutionary or a fixed universe, and an active or a passive role for man in his own salvation.

The view of man as an emanation from God, rather than as a creation separate from Him, affects other fundamental Christian doctrines as well. For example, if man has an innate dignity and self-sufficiency founded on the divine possibilities within him, he can raise himself to a higher level of consciousness through application and self-discipline. In other words, he contains the path to salvation within himself, for God cannot exclude from the Kingdom of Heaven something that is a part of Himself. However, Dr. Howe maintains that such a program of self-devised, evolutionary salvation, which eliminates the possibility of eternal damnation, does not diminish the intermediary role of Christ as the only son of God. To him, Christ is a beacon, a sign of God's love for mankind sent to give men further incentive to raise themselves to the divine level. Such a stand raises questions about the relative weight the Christian should give to his own judgment and to orthodox authority. Although holding that each person must decide this for himself, Dr. Howe seems to believe that the essence of Christianity lies in individual self-improvement -- this to be achieved through the practice of a life based on the moral precepts found in the New Testament, rather than in the adherence to a traditional dogmatic theology. Since a belief in reimbodiment provides a motive for such individual strivings, this idea is naturally compatible with what he considers the essence of the Christian faith.

The theories of emanation and creation also diverge on their views of man's relationship to nature and to other men. The emanational framework holds that, since all manifestation contains at its heart a ray from the same divine sun, all life is essentially one rather than separate. Therefore, the difference between beings becomes one of degree rather than of nature, the more developed entities having evolved forth their inner potentials to a greater extent. The contrast with the traditional Christian belief, which separates God from His creation and all created things from each other, is marked. Indeed, many of the difficulties present in society today appear to be rooted in the widespread view of man and nature as essentially unrelated, and of nature as being created for man's benefit and exploitation rather than as a field for the expression by the divine of its innate qualities. Our treatment of other men also illustrates the failure to realize that all beings contain within themselves the identic potential of divinity. While every great religious philosophy contains ethical injunctions which promote human brotherhood, the systems accepting reincarnation offer a rationale for such precepts grounded in the very structure of reality. This stand universalizes the idea of brotherhood to include all of nature, and elevates brotherhood to the status of a fact, rather than only a sentimental ideal.

In closing his book, Dr. Howe reminds us that particular theological tenets do not form the most important or rewarding part of man's spiritual life. The main advantage gained by the person accepting reimbodiment is that "he has a reasonable and consistent theory to account for the prenatal and postmortem life of the soul as well as an explanation for the apparent absurdities in the dispensation of divine justice."

As the implications of the problem of man's origin reveal, the principle of reincarnation, while not basically inconsistent with the Christian framework for organizing reality, substantially alters Christian doctrine from its traditional form. Whether the individual Christian can integrate such a belief into his religious outlook depends largely on the importance he gives to his own intuition in determining his beliefs. However, unless his thinking is circumscribed by traditional teachings and church authority alone, the concept of reincarnation may be a welcome and sensible addition to his religious world view.

 (From Sunrise magazine, August-September 1974; copyright © 1974 Theosophical University Press)

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