Do you think a belief in reincarnation is becoming more mainstream among Americans?
I think very much so. The Gallup polls taken in the mid-1970s and mid-80s show that approximately 24% of the American adult population believes in reincarnation. This is a remarkable statistic, given that medical, academic, and scientific institutions generally have not supported that belief.A fairly recent Gallup poll--I believe in 1999--indicated that over 20% of the people who self-identify as Christians believe in reincarnation. What do you think is going on?Several things. One thing is that people are slowly becoming aware of the high caliber of evidence that supports reincarnation. Not only Ian Stevenson's extraordinary studies with children, but also therapeutic evidence and the large number of clinical psychologists who are doing past life therapy. That discipline has matured a great deal over the past twenty-five years.Another thing is that reincarnation opens up a new avenue within which to view the problem of suffering.You're saying a belief in reincarnation helps us understand the existence of suffering and evil?
What it does is expand exponentially our understanding of how much time we have to refine and perfect the life process. As a teacher, how much knowledge I can expect a student to demonstrate on a test or paper is directly related to how much time I give them to perform it. If it's a one-hour test, I can expect a certain caliber of response. With a two-hour exam, I have higher expectations. If by reincarnation you expand the idea that we have not a hundred years, but millions of years--To become good people?
I think that's too narrow. By expanding our temporal horizon, it expands the horizon of what the creative project is all about. Clearly there's the problem of suffering and the sense that life somehow can get twisted along the way. If we approach that phenomenon within a reincarnation perspective, we can see that some challenges, wounds or hardships leave such a mark on the soul that they contract or twist the soul in a way that might not be fully resolved within one lifetime. It might take several lifetimes to resolve and work that out.
What's an example of such a soul wound?Traumas of the heart, of romance. Traumas of war. Traumas of an Auschwitz. They can leave a devastating mark or wound on the soul, one which the person might have to spend an entire next life working out.
Why doesn't the Christian idea work--the idea of living a good life and God being able to heal that soul wound right after death, when the soul reaches heaven?Because it leaves unanswered the more fundamental question of why God gave you that wound in the first place. The unresolved problem of suffering, even if it can be resolved in a compensatory afterlife, even if justice is persevered, leaves unresolved the question of why God designed the system to open you up to some much suffering in the first place.
The invitation that reincarnation offers is to begin to focus less on the individual personality of one lifetime and to look more deeply into the refining and self-evolution of the soul across many lifetimes.
After refining the soul, after millions of lifetimes, what would be the goal?
I don't think it's worthwhile even to speculate on end goals. The only things we might be able to see are the next few twists around the bend. From one perspective, everything that Christ, or the Buddha, or Lao-Tzu has shown us is not the ultimate end goal, but might be the next interim goal of human spiritual evolution. Surely once we move forward a few thousand years towards becoming a planet of Christs or Buddhas, that will unlock new evolutionary potential that may take us another million years to actualize.
Some people say they're tired and just want to finish up after 80 years.
Sure, you're supposed to feel that way. A college senior is supposed to feel tired of college. You're supposed to feel tired at the end of a day well spent. So there has to be built into the cycle periods of deep replenishment. A return to the source. Rejuvenation.All spiritual traditions say there is such a period. A return to the realm of soul, a time to digest all the accomplishments of one's previous life and return to a more intimate relationship with the divine. A time of healing and reunion. All spiritual traditions agree that people's experiences in the after-death state are not uniform. There is a differentiation according to one's capacity and level of spiritual development. People who have lived badly and made harmful choices encounter all the unpleasant circumstances that mirror back to them the bad quality of the choices they've made, not out of cruelty but out of an intention to teach them. Those who have made reasonably good choices have mirrored back to them those positive choices. There are many orders of heavenly bliss to participate in between lifetimes.