Are they Incompatible? (1)
This thesis will not attempt to state any final conclusion. It merely faces the question above stated and attempts to set down on paper some of the reasons why the Christian Church has — almost consistently — rejected the teaching of Reincarnation, though according to some traditions many conspicuous members of the Early Church accepted the doctrine of Reimbodiment — or at least acquiesced in it.
No "regular" theosophist reading this brief monograph will be offended if the writer states at the outset that he has sought in vain for any authentic evidence that the Christian Church ever definitely taught this doctrine. What the Theosophical writers present as "evidence" on this subject is simply an accumulation of passages or excerpts from early documents indicating that this or that Christian disciple or teacher himself believed or accepted this doctrine.
What most theosophical writers seem to have overlooked is that the doctrine of Reincarnation could never have formed part of the orthodox teaching of the Christian Church, for the simple reason that it is inconsistent with the main body of teachings regarded within the Christian Church as constituting orthodox Theology.
This does not prove that Reincarnation as a "teaching" is wrong. The present writer concedes hypothetically that Christian Theology as presented by the historic Church may lack something, or may need radical revision or restatement. All he affirms here is that the doctrine of Reincarnation is inconsistent with Christian Theology as believed and held by accepted teachers of the Church. The clearest statement of why "orthodox" Christians do not accept the doctrine of Reincarnation may be found — not in any book of doctrine, but in a volume of essays by a mystical writer, Walter Leslie Wilmshurst, in his Contemplations (John M. Watkins, London, 1928) where he says:
Whatever be the truth about Reincarnation, the Christian mystic, if an actual and not a soi-disant mystic, may well say of it. . . . Save as a matter of intellectual curiosity, I am not concerned with this problem at all. It pertains not to the world of reality and permanence, but to that of time, flux and transiency. It does not interest me or influence my thought or conduct. Be the truth of the matter what it may, what alone interests me is to identify myself, my will, my purpose, my life, with the Divine Will, purpose and life; to become what they will, to go or come where they send or draw me, to live where, and in such form or body, as they bid or need me.
Not only is the Christ-teaching passive upon the subject of Reincarnation; it points with great insistency in another direction so inconsistent with it as to forbid our building upon it.
It does not deny Reincarnation as a fact of nature; on the contrary, it may be taken as pre-supposing that fact. But its whole trend is towards ensuring such a change in, and development of, the individual incarnated soul that reincarnation in physical conditions shall no longer be its portion. Life in physical conditions necessarily emphasizes that very sense of individualism, egotism and separateness which of all things it is desirable to slay and die to. "Whoso loseth his life (the sense and the fact of separate existence) shall save it." "Whoso hates not his own life (by obliterating the idea of existence apart from Me) cannot be My disciple." One cannot therefore concentrate attention upon and attach value to the future destiny of his personality, and at the same time abandon that personality to an ideal which promises to transfigure and elevate it to a totally new and loftier order of Being. In a word the position would seem to be this:
the integration of the soul in Christ ensures its immunity from reincarnation; whilst, conversely, reincarnation is the menace and the penalty of failure to attain that goal. (Wilmshurst)
Authorities for Reincarnation Teaching
The Scriptures and Traditions of Oriental races with a great spiritual and philosophic past are emphatic in their inculcation of this doctrine. So too are the Pythagorean and Platonist systems. In fact (says Max Muller), "It is well known that this dogma has been accepted by the greatest philosophers of all ages." (Lectures on the Vedanta Philosophy) Outside the Greek philosophical and mystical schools the European mind has been unacquainted with it. The history of civilized Europe synchronizes virtually with that of the Christian Church, which has held (or withheld) the keys of information upon arcane matters, and since that Church was silent upon reincarnation, no means existed by which the idea could be propagated in the West until it became introduced by the "Theosophical" movement of our own day. Its acceptance was then facilitated by two causes; first, by the translation and popularization among westerners of the sacred and philosophic literature of the East, where the doctrine is consistently taught and believed; and secondly, by the recognition, by Western science of an evolutionary process at work in Nature, a process suggesting that all life advances by gradations and through a succession of ascending morphological changes. Even as (fairly) orthodox a writer as Dean Inge, for many years Dean of St. Paul's, London, says in his book The Philosophy of Plotinus that "The doctrine of successive rebirths is attractive"! The mind can hardly be otherwise than gratified at observing a gradual perfecting process involving a sequence of births and deaths, and at contemplating life "sleeping in the mineral, dreaming in the plant, waking in the animal, attaining self-consciousness and freedom of action in man," with the added prospect of further spiritualization and advancement as time goes on. What the mystical mind of the East has intuitively discerned and ever held as true, the practical intellect of the West has at last hit upon by scientific inductive research, the results of which suggest that all life advances to more and more perfect consciousness, by slow patient gradation and through countless modes and forms. This is the real Truth that lies back of the theory or doctrine of Reincarnation.
Walt Whitman expresses this Truth in his own impulsive and enthusiastic style:
Births have brought us richness and variety,
And other births will bring us richness and variety
I am an acme of things accomplished, and I am encloser of things to be.
My feet strike an apex of the apices of the stairs;
On every step bunches of ages, and larger bunches between the steps.
All below duly travell'd, and still I mount and mount. . . .
Nature Has Parallels for Reincarnation
A strong argument for Reincarnation is to be found in the periodic pulsations characterizing Nature in all her modes and activities. Outbreaking and indrawing, systole and diastole, ebb and flow, light and darkness: is human life alone an exception to the universal rhythm? Daily we wake to activity, and nightly are withdrawn into sleep; alternating throughout our lives between objective and subjective conditions. Are birth and death other than wakings and sleepings, and all our births and deaths but the overtones of a fundamental rhythm of manvantara and pralaya originating in the mighty heart-beats of the Lord of life? Such is the reasonable hypothesis on which a theosophist bases his belief in the doctrine of Reincarnation.
Reincarnation in the Christian Scriptures
The light here thrown upon the subject is at first sight small and perhaps of doubtful value. Modern advocates of the doctrine seem hard put to it to establish their claim by appealing to Biblical lore. They are usually content with pointing to Solomon's words (Wisdom of Solomon, viii, 20) that "being good, I came into a body undefiled;" to the case of the man born blind (St. John, ch. ix), of whom the Lord was asked whether the infirmity was due to his own past fault or to that of his parents; to the passages as to John the Baptist being a reincarnation of Elijah (Matt, xiv, 2 and Luke, ix, 19); and to the text in the Book of Revelation (Rev., iii, 12) as to the perfected soul becoming a pillar in the heavenly house and "going out no more," i. e., into earthly form. In the book above referred to Mr. W. L. Wilmshurst suggests that a much better case for Reincarnation can be constructed from the Bible by studying some less familiar texts, as for example Psalm 90 where at almost every Burial Service (at least in the Anglican communion) the Minister reads the significant words: "Lord, Thou hast been our Refuge from one generation to another . . . Thou turnest men to destruction; again, Thou sayest, Come again, ye children of men." The phrase "from one generation to another" means literally "from generation to generation." The Hebrew word dor signifies not generations of descendants, but successive rounds or periods of existence; "comings in and goings out" of the soul in respect of physical existence; incarnations.
Granting all this, and assuming ourselves to be satisfied that reincarnation is a fact of life, what has Christian doctrine to say about that fact; and why has it not hitherto been recognised and proclaimed?
To deal with the latter point first, there are very good reasons and sound grounds why the Christian Church has been dumb upon the subject. During European history the Clergy could not of course teach that of which they were ignorant. But the Early Church was not in ignorance about it. It is incredible to suppose that the fact of reincarnation was unknown to those among whom the Christian religion originated, for Christian origins are traceable to the very sources where the doctrine was axiomatic, while some of the earliest patristic writings also testify to acquaintance with it.
The scanty direct reference to it in Scripture proves nothing, for we know that side by side with the written oracles was given an interpretive, supplemental, oral teaching, and that neither the written word nor the expository instruction was put to indiscriminate public use, but was reserved for inner circles of disciples dedicated to the religious life and to special study of spiritual science, among whom the doctrine may be taken for granted as familiar.
Why Did The Church Avoid Mention of this Doctrine?
Briefly, for this reason. The Christian Evangel was one designed to offer means of liberation from the wheel of birth; it was one providing the means of escape from the prospect of otherwise interminable incarnations in the flesh; it was the charter guaranteeing the soul's final and permanent exodus from this land of its bondage. Once grasp this fact and it will be clear why Christian doctrine strove to divert attention from reincarnation. It viewed incarnation in the mortal body as the sign of the soul's defection and alienation from its Source. It sought to teach that the soul's aim should be as rapidly as possible to escape from the world of generation by attaining re-generation in Christ, so transcending and passing for ever away from a condition of existence into which, strictly, it ought never to have entered at all!
The central doctrine of the Christian Faith is now (and always has been) the Incarnation of Jesus Christ the Son of God. He was "incarnated" in order that Man might not be compelled to undergo endless reincarnations. Faith in Him, which implies obedience to His sublime "Way of Life" as well as acceptance of what He has accomplished for and in Man, enables His followers or disciples to neutralize that accumulated Karman which would (otherwise) have required many incarnations to expiate.
Protagonists of the Christian point of view on this theme would gladly concede the existence of Christian "Adepts" who, though their regeneration is complete, return to incarnate existence moved by love and compassion for their fellows on the earth plane. Obviously, such beings stand in a class by themselves and are outside the compulsion to which their spiritual juniors are subject. They are miniature "Christs," emulating in their own degree the cosmic self-oblation of their Divine Master.
1. Written as a thesis at the conclusion of the first year course in Theosophy at Theosophical University. Dr. Banks is Rector of St. Luke's Episcopal Church, San Diego, California. (return to text)