In the New (Christian) Testament parable of the wheat and the weeds, which we explored a few years ago, we noted that the doctrine of reincarnation and its cognate, karma (the law of cause and effect), appear to have been perniciously eradicated from Christian belief and dogma, leaving Christianity and thus the West, from at least the sixth century on, with an unsatisfactory theology of heaven, hell and the afterlife. We are thus also left with very unsatisfactory ways of dealing with death, the afterlife, ethical behavior, justice and evil.
- Without reincarnation and karma, we in the West are able to believe that we will not have to pay for our misdeeds. In traditional Christian thinking, this means that we will rather be completely redeemed at death and united with God – if we repent and believe the right things and have enough faith in Jesus Christ as our Lord and Savior.
- The denial of reincarnation and the immortality of the soul helps instill in some modern Westerners the fear (perhaps subconscious) of total annihilation at death, a fear that has wide-ranging ethical and societal consequences.
If we think that what we do to others is irrelevant and that at death we either no longer exist or we automatically and completely go to the heavenly realms, we open the door to unethical behavior and even violence. This is the social context in which religious leaders of our time find themselves. Is it any wonder that many modern people shun organized religion? What does religion have to offer in the way of ethical guidance, hope, comfort and fairness in light of wrongdoing, tragedy, injustice, seemingly random death, and many of the other challenges we face in our daily lives? Platitudes, a blind “faith” that a tragedy was “God’s will,” or ancient creeds just do not cut it for many of us – understandably.
What would society look like if the concepts of reincarnation/past lives and karma/the law of cause and effect could be brought back into the lives of our religious communities, and thus back into daily Western thought? Are there religious leaders out there – priests, scholars, spiritual directors, bishops, teachers, monks, nuns, rabbis – with the courage to learn more about these concepts and bring them to bear in their parishioners’, students’ and colleagues’ lives?
Reincarnation and karma are standard concepts among major religions in the East. These concepts are less well-known in the West – and often disparaged. Removing their stigma in the West, and situating them in a discourse to which Westerners can relate, could produce positive social results, which we will explore below.
Reincarnation and karma have as their base the assumptions that 1) human beings have souls; 2) souls do not die when the physical body does; 3) the soul resides in a non-physical realm, that is, some sort of “heaven;” and 4) most souls experience many incarnations on earth as part of their spiritual formation and growth. Therefore, the concepts of reincarnation and karma are among many forms of paranormal phenomena, such as near-death experiences, out-of-body experiences, automatic writing, extrasensory perception, past-life regressions, the ability for the living to communicate with the deceased, etc.
Among the most explicit discussions of reincarnation from the West comes from the postmortem testimonies of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, the inventor of Sherlock Holmes, as outlined in Cooke’s The Book of the Beyond. Doyle’s spirit channeled his insights for approximately two years through a medium who recorded his words via automatic writing. Through this mechanism, Doyle revealed that when someone dies and
“is freed from the prison of flesh he will automatically migrate to that particular plane in the different worlds for which he has fitted himself. . . ¶ When people express loathing of the thought of reincarnation, it is indicative of a closed mentality. . . When one reviews life and examines closely the long experience inevitable before man draws near to spiritual completion, one recognizes not only the necessity for reincarnation, but the tremendous importance of the smallest detail of life. ¶ In the world of spirit all is law, order, and harmony. . . . [M]an’s thoughts, his creations, become like his angels of good or evil. When he views his life from a higher plane of existence, he well realizes the disaster of those mental creatures of gloom and depression and selfishness which were and are his children.” (Cooke, Book of the Beyond, 202)
Reincarnation is also attested in the Western context by psychic mediums, including those who can help us with past life regressions. Renowned psychic James Van Praagh is one of the more prominent proponents of the reality of past lives. The ancient philosopher Plato believed in the transmigration of the soul, and we often refer – perhaps somewhat jokingly – to karma when we see someone “reap what they have sown.” The internet, of course, offers a myriad of sources about these concepts.
What may be surprising to many of us is that scientific studies of various paranormal phenomena are underway at several institutions of higher education. The University of Virginia, through its Division of Perceptual Studies, has been studying and publishing in the areas of paranormal phenomena and reincarnation for decades. The Laboratory for Advances in Consciousness and Health (LACH) at the University of Arizona has as its mission “to creatively and responsibly apply mainstream scientific methods to frontier questions in consciousness and health.” First at the University of Southampton, England, then at SUNY Stony Brook, Dr. Sam Parnia has led the AWAreness during REsuscitation (AWARE) study, a long-term, world-wide collaborative effort involving two dozen hospitals and medical centers “to study the relationship between mind and brain during clinical death.”
If evidence for the afterlife, including reincarnation and its cognate, karma, is available to us today in these ways, why do religion professionals generally come down on the side of skeptics who stick firmly to traditional dogmas?
There are several reasons. One is the conviction that faithful people should focus on life in the physical world – the social justice goal – and leave the soul’s fate to God. The Christian faith stance specifically underlies this position: the Christian’s stated belief that Jesus’ death and resurrection have “conquered” death seems to forestall much further discussion or contemplation of the matter. (The social justice emphasis is a common and legitimate stance of left-leaning mainstream Christian priests and ministers as well as many Jewish thinkers.) If we think of death at all, especially in the Christian context, we cling to the traditional notions of heaven, the resurrection of Jesus or the future resurrection of souls at the End Times, the Second Coming of Jesus, and other ideas that do not often resonate with today’s Westerners.
In addition, priests, monks and nuns take vows that do not include belief in reincarnation and karma. Those religious leaders who do explore paranormal phenomena must do so “under the radar” and very carefully, even in fairly progressive contexts. These practitioners risk being branded as heretics or defrocked if their superiors and/or peers discover that they do not hold to traditional views or might be exploring “unsavory” alternatives.
Finally, our Post-Enlightenment pro-science stance pervades our Western culture and appears at first glance to contradict the concepts of reincarnation and karma. We are told repeatedly that “there is no such thing as ghosts,” that we must be “rational” thinkers and base conclusions on hard scientific proof, and that this is the only life we live. Religion professionals, especially those in the mainstream, walk a tightrope between their vows and academic reputations on the one hand and their existence in this real, science-based world on the other. Pastorally affirming to a bereaved person, especially one whose loved one has died young and/or tragically, that the deceased “lives in the light of God,” is one thing, but suggesting that the person can connect with the deceased by means of a séance, spirit circle, psychic, dreams, electronic voice phenomena (EVP), or some other method – many of which, ironically, can actually be validated by scientific methods (see Resources) – could border on professional suicide.
Joining Reincarnation with Modern Religious Thought
How then can religion professionals and the rest of us combat this dilemma? Are there religion professionals, especially those who counsel persons who grieve or who teach students, who would dare to explore the concepts of reincarnation and karma for the sake of their students and parishioners? Those religion professionals could conceivably take a leadership role in their own communities and in society in general in offering new and better ways of thinking about these issues.
If such leaders would step up to the plate, what then are some ways that they can proceed to integrate these important concepts into their pastoral, scholarly and social justice work, beliefs and words, and thus offer their insights to the average “person on the street”?
Here we propose that we can find constructive ways to integrate the new with the traditional. This need not be odd, offensive or startling. That is, not every sermon, every remembrance given at a funeral or every college lecture must deal with reincarnation, karma or other issues around the afterlife; pastors and teachers need not always describe the heavenly spheres or what the deceased might be experiencing “on the other side” – we simply do not know in any individual case what is transpiring, and one must always deal sympathetically and pastorally with those who are grieving. What it might mean, however, is that paranormal phenomena and the scientific evidence related to them, which are very much available in the twenty-first century, can be included as part of the pastoral arsenal, part of the training offered in divinity and theological schools, and part of religion courses.
Religion professionals are already in the business, at some level, of dealing with the spiritual side of life. This is essential, of course: in dealing with issues of the afterlife and the paranormal, we must add the spiritual dimension to our normal ways of thinking as based in our physical existence. The spiritual dimension does not negate our physical lives or our concern for the world; rather, the spiritual actually includes the larger, more universal perspective on fairness and justice – and the concepts of reincarnation and karma fit right in. When we are able to educate ourselves more about paranormal phenomena, we will witness the logical, beautiful “marriage” of the physical and the spiritual. (See Resources for more detailed information.)
If we enlarge our perspective, then, begin thinking in these terms, and acknowledge new “basics” – that this life is only one of many, that we reap what we sow, and that we must resolve our problems either here or in another incarnation on earth – we can begin to imagine very different scenarios in our collective and personal lives.
- If we acknowledged reincarnation, we would know why a place immediately seemed very familiar to us and why we felt that we knew a new acquaintance our whole lives. We have known that person – that soul – and been in relation with him or her before.
- If we lived our lives under the law of karma, we would be much less apt to cheat, defraud or harm a neighbor or colleague, knowing that our unsavory actions will have to be repaid.
- If we acknowledged the reality of past lives, we would know that we must live by our finer instincts rather than stoop to greed, self-aggrandizement and rampant materialism; we would know that these flaws will almost certainly need to be confronted in another incarnation on earth. We would realize that pursuit of spiritual growth is not just for rabbis, imams, monks, nuns, clergy and other religious “professionals” but for each of us.
- A life under the law of cause and effect would help us move more quickly through the grief of separation and loss. We would know that physical death is only one stage in our endless spiritual pilgrimage and that we will meet our loved ones again – and again – throughout eternity.
- If we acknowledged reincarnation, we would understand the “why” of tragedy: the death of a supposed innocent in this world is most likely the playing-out of a karmic debt, and the death of a group of people in the same cataclysmic event is almost certainly an example of group karma – those souls have made a pre-birth decision, for whatever reason, to cross over together. Reincarnation also teaches that, while disease is not always a result of actions in a previous lifetime, many occurrences of disease and serious, chronic illness may be.
- If we lived by the certitude of karma, we would take comfort in the fact that our good, positive words and deeds, no matter how seemingly insignificant, worthless or repaid with evil, are never lost or useless. No good is wasted under the law of cause and effect.
- If we realized the truth of reincarnation, we would understand that it is not luck or fate that matches or pairs us with someone as a life partner: it is planned, and for a reason.
- If we acknowledged the truth of reincarnation, we might be better able to deal with the pain of not attaining a certain dream in this life, such as being married or having children. We would know that we most likely had had these experiences in previous lives, that we might be able to access them through therapy or regression, and that there are reasons for our current state of affairs.
There is enormous opportunity in our religious communities and, by extension, in our Western society at large to include the concepts of reincarnation and karma in our thinking and everyday lives. Bucking the “system” and stepping out of our normal ways of being takes courage, introspection and self-education. The end result could well be revolutionary: we might well see an enhancement of our society’s ability to meet more people’s deep emotional, psychological and spiritual needs. But we will never know if we do not try.
Abrahamsen, Valerie A. Paranormal: A New Testament Scholar Looks at the Afterlife. Self-published 2015; printed by Shires Press, Manchester Center, VT
Assante, Julia. The Last Frontier: Exploring the Afterlife and Transforming Our Fear of Death. Novato, CA: New World Library, 2012.
Cooke, Ivan. Arthur Conan Doyle’s Book of the Beyond. New Lands, England: The White Eagle Publishing Trust, 2006.
Fisher, Joe. The Case for Reincarnation. New York: Bantam Books, 1985.
Head, Joseph and S.L. Cranston, eds. Reincarnation in World Thought. New York: Julian Press, 1967.
Langley, Noel. Edgar Cayce on Reincarnation. New York: Warner Books, Inc., 1967.
Van Praagh, James. Reaching to Heaven: A Spiritual Journey Through Life and Death. New York: Penguin Books, 1999.
Van Praagh, James. Talking to Heaven: A Medium’s Message of Life After Death. New York: Penguin Putnam Inc., 1999.
Van Praagh, James. Unfinished Business: What the Dead Can Teach Us About Life. New York: HarperCollins Publishers, Inc., 2009.