This is a letter I wrote to my local Church of England rector who had made some slighting reference to reincarnation in his Parish magazine.
May I say how much I enjoy reading your regular contributions to the Parish News? I am not a practicing Christian and am afraid I have little sympathy with current Christian beliefs concerning death and any afterlife we may enjoy; but I find your view of this world and the way it works refreshingly candid and unstuffy.
Having said that, I hope you don’t mind if I take issue with you over your recent comments concerning reincarnation? I know you approached the subject tongue in cheek but I felt your statement that the concept of living many lives had "no place whatsoever in orthodox Christian belief", while strictly true, may have been misleading.
What I would like to draw your attention to is the apparent fact that reincarnation was very much an early Christian belief; and that it became a heresy – and therefore unorthodox – as a matter of policy rather than conviction. I came across confirmation of this recently in a book called "Many Lives, Many Masters", by Dr Brian Weiss, a pychotherapist who had found himself questioning his traditional beliefs when a client of his began recounting strange tales of previous lives under hypnosis:
"During the week I reviewed my textbook from a comparative religious course taken during my freshman year in Columbia. There were indeed references to reincarnation in the Old and New Testaments. In A.D.325 the Roman emperor Constantine the Great, along with his mother, Helena, had deleted references to reincarnation contained in the New Testament. The Second Council of Constantinople, meeting in A.D.553, confirmed this action and declared the concept of reincarnation a heresy. Apparently, they thought this concept would weaken the growing power of the Church by giving humans too much time to seek their salvation. Yet the original references had been there; the early Church fathers had accepted the concept of reincarnation. The early Gnostics – Clement of Alexandria, Origen, Saint Jerome, and many others – believed that they had lived before and would again."
Of course, Dr Weiss may be mistaken in his references; and, obviously, I can’t vouch for his historical accuracy; but I have heard much the same story from other sources.
Although I hold no particular brief for reincarnation, I am aware its ramifications are what separate the great religions of the world, with Muslims and Christians promising a single earthly life followed by resurrection to an eternal spiritual one, while Hindus, Buddhists and others subscribe to the idea of manifold existences in both this and other realms.
As I’m sure you are aware, there is a lot of sympathy nowadays for the existence of an all-encompassing spiritual world running in tandem with this one, in which those who have died are alive, well and willing and able to communicate with us. This idea is cross-denominational; but, as I understand it, it contradicts current Christian teaching that the dead are in a state of permanent quiescence, awaiting the Day of Judgement; and that there can be no useful contact between them and the living.
If it is a fact that we survive death, oughtn’t we to be striving to discover exactly how, in what form, and for how long, rather than relying on edicts of questionable accuracy from the past? The first step in that direction, surely, is accepting that conflicting beliefs mask a single, universal truth and that that truth may not be the currently understood Christian one.
If this involves acknowledging without prejudice whatever help we can get in the matter from those who have gone before us, so be it. The question of what actually happens to humans (and quite possibly animals, too) when they die, and therefore what has happened to all our forbears, whatever their allegiance, is of infinitely greater importance than maintaining the status quo.
I hope this doesn’t sound too much like a rant. I am enthusiastic because I suspect the truth would readily reveal itself, if society only searched for it with the same commitment and passion it does the mysteries of science. Church leaders are in an ideal position to spearhead such an investigation.