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.
If someone has lived well, made good choices, and reached some sort of heavenly realm, why would the Divine want to chuck them back into physical earthly existence? Why would the Divine want to create the relatively difficult world of time-space in the first place? There's an adventure. The spiritual traditions uniformly say the divine did not create out of necessity or a sense of deficit. The divine created out of a sense of fullness, sportiveness, adventure, and compassion.
The Divine invites us to participate in the challenging circumstances of time-space existence in order to become more than we were, so that when we return to the world of spirit, we return as more than we were and capable of knowing greater joys. We have greater participation than we could earlier in our evolutionary journey. In the process of evolving ourselves we also participate in the self-evolution of God, of the Divine itself.
When I wrote Lifecycles, I included a chapter on the compatibility of Christianity and reincarnation. I first thought Christians would have to change a lot of their theology to incorporate reincarnation. But I gradually realized there is actually very little a Christian has to change. I defined a minimum option and a maximum option. At a minimum, all you have to change is the definition of the soul that says the soul only lives one time. You can keep a very conservative understanding of Christ and Christology, of ecclesiology, even of revelation, especially since the New Testament never rebukes reincarnation.
What about the verse from Hebrews that's often quoted when discussing reincarnation: "It is appointed for men to die once and after this comes judgment"? You have to place that verse in its context. The author of Hebrews is not addressing the question of reincarnation. He's addressing the relationship between the individual and the temple's priestly cult. There are passages in the Bible which suggest Jesus may have believed in reincarnation. Like Jesus' words in Matthew 11:14? Some say it means that John the Baptist could have been a reincarnation of Elijah. That's one. Or when he's about to heal a man who's been blind from birth. Jesus says, "Whose sin is this, the man's or his parents'?" How can it be the man's sin if he was blind from birth? Personally, however, I think the evidence has not been established that Jesus taught reincarnation. There have been arguments that it was edited out of the texts by the early church fathers, and that may be, but we don't have compelling historical evidence for that.We do have provocative evidence for the existence of the belief reincarnation in a number of early Christian communities dating back as far as the 2nd century, and in a number of various gospels that did not make it into the canon. Many Christians found the belief in reincarnation compatible with the teachings of Jesus. Many Christians say Jesus saves your soul and you go to heaven. What's Jesus' role if it doesn't work like that? You can still attribute to Jesus a significant role in the history of the salvation of the human race, but that history is an evolutionary spiritual process. I think there is an invitation in reincarnation to a deeper enrichment of Christianity. The minimum option is to keep everything the same but see the salvation process enacting itself over multiple lives instead of one. The richer, "maximum" option is to broaden the categories and see Jesus as a prototype rather than a singular creation. Instead of seeing his divine Sonship as unique in human history, never to be repeated either before or since, we would see him as a prototype, someone who had brought his own divinity into manifest awareness ahead of his time, sooner than anyone else. Therefore the difference between Christ and us is one of degree, not a difference in kind.
Why do some people resist the idea of reincarnation? Is it just what they've been taught?
In great part, yes. But there are other reasons why people get hung up on reincarnation. People are afraid reincarnation will deny them the opportunity to be reunited with their loved ones. They're afraid that if reincarnation is true, they won't get to meet their long-lost child who died when he was really young, or their husband who died before them.
Much has been written about how brothers and sisters, or parents and children, reencounter each other in subsequent lives.It's very common in past life therapy. If you're going to travel in and out of time, what would be more natural than to develop traveling partners?
What's the most compelling Christian case against reincarnation?
There's just this general cultural habit of thinking salvation has to be worked out in a single lifetime. And yet many of the early Church fathers, such as Origen, believed in reincarnation. It's a habit we can overcome. For most of Christian history, we thought the world in front of us was the same as it was when it emerged from the hand of God. Now we've made the transition to seeing the universe as an evolving universe, and with that a transition from classical theology to process theology. We've had to develop new habits of thinking that are informed by the facts. The Christian has always had a deep commitment to following the facts wherever they go, because their God is not simply a God of history, but of nature too. Whatever is factually true of nature must be compatible with revelation. Christians have always been able to make that transition, even though they may kick and fuss a bit in the beginning.
So you think in 100 years many Christian churches will accept reincarnation?
Absolutely, because the empirical evidence is getting stronger and stronger. They'll come to accept that it's simply a fact of life. Once they make that transition, they'll find there are any number of ways that a Christian can affirm all the fundamental tenets that Christianity holds dear and make it compatible with reincarnation. Just as at first we thought evolution would be incompatible with the Christian faith, but now there are many theologians who have comfortably reconciled the two.