December-January 2019: Apologetics

Apologetics: The Theory of Reincarnation

A priest friend in a Christmas morning homily a few years ago referred to incarnation. He then interjected and, after a short pause, added, ‘I’ll make no apologies for using that word, because everyone here knows what’s meant by reincarnation.’ A survey in France mentioned a figure of 28% believing in reincarnation, while in the USA up to 25% of Catholics expressed acceptance of the belief in one form or another. These figures are truly staggering.

What is reincarnation? It is the belief that this life is but the first stage in what will be a sequence of stages by which the soul will occupy various other bodies until it achieves perfection. It is an ancient belief and was already old when the Apostles preached the incarnation and the resurrection of Christ from the dead. The Apostles Creed in fact professes belief in ‘the resurrection of the body and life everlasting.’

The belief in reincarnation is connected to two abiding human desires. Pope St John Paul in his great Letter for the New Millennium stresses the fact that the belief responds to two central dimensions of human existence. The first is the inexpressible longing to live forever. This is the more metaphysical dimension of the view. The second is more moral in emphasis, for it is the view that one lifetime is not long enough to correct the faults of the previous life and so attain perfection. What is common to both is the fact that man rebels against the idea and fact of death.

A number of comments can be made as to the truthfulness or otherwise of reincarnation theory and practice. The first is that it contradicts directly and radically the elementary Christian conviction that each person enjoys a unique identity grounded in an abiding longing. The first chapters of Genesis stress the fact that man and woman are made in the image and likeness of God. A renowned exegete has helpfully explained this teaching in terms of each person being a ‘You’ for the Creator. Accordingly, there is an I-Thou relationship at the heart of the human person. The dignity of each and every person stands out at once, as well as the seriousness of the person’s ‘yes to God.’ Or ‘no to God.’

Reincarnation is a horizontal view of person, society and history. This horizontal perspective diminishes the transcendent reference of each person. As such it is mute as to the final meaning of this human being: is s/he a You, a definitive ‘You’ before a creating God?

The early Church had to engage with and resist reincarnation theory and practice. Her great teachers, those Fathers as we now call them, saw in the idea of ‘reincarnation’ a Gnosticism, an attitude of ‘know all’ or a claim to special illumination. It was a kind of ‘New Ageism’ alive during the first centuries of Christianity when the Church was young. Already in the second century, an early Father, Ireneus of Lyons, wrote the first Summa Theologica to engage with and refute reincarnation theory. A rather vague and floating world outlook, it briefly revived in the twelfth century. It has now gained the exceptional support to which we referred at the outset of this piece.

The phenomenon requires Christians to pose the question, Have I bothered to consider seriously our own faith? St Paul stresses Christ’s incomparable majesty and beauty, borrowing a Pre-Pauline hymn in his Letter to the Philippians, ‘Although he was in the form of God, he did not cling to his equality with God, but emptied himself out, to assume the condition of a slave, and being found in human form he was humbler yet, becoming obedient unto death, yes, death on a cross.’ Paul continues by stressing how the Father exalts his crucified Son by raising him from the dead and glorifying him as the Lord who has now lifted up each and every human being. In the incarnation he had made himself one with every person in some way but in the resurrection he has taken each person with himself at least intentionally. The way Christ manifests his divinity and glory is a shock, utterly unexpected, a deep mystery. A great fact.

But we think so little of it! And so that Fact is lost sight of by those many Catholics who do not ponder beside Mary but appeal to an inexpressible longing to live forever.

Rev Dr Tom Norris is a priest of the Diocese of Ossory and a member of the International Theological Commission