What about reincarnation?
I get asked a lot about reincarnation. First of all, what is it? Reincarnation is a process by which a person's soul or spirit, whatever that is, transfers from one life to another, over and over, throughout history. Basically, after my soul leaves this body, when I die, it would enter into a newborn baby, and I would therefore live on.
The notion is that one's soul, one's life force, doesn't cease to exist upon death, it simply leaves the body, and, fully intact, moves into another one. Its sort of a conservation of mass kind of thing - the soul has to go somewhere, right? So it must just go in to someone else.
That's the belief, called reincarnation.
Some traditions even believe we can also come from, or go in to, various animals, maybe even trees and plants (although I would want to double check that) - I'd sure hate to come back as an amoeba or a slug or barnacle or something.
Sometimes, in THIS culture, when WE talk about believing in reincarnation, we think we came from some famous or romantic historical figure - I was Cleopatra, I was Napoleon, I was Maurice Richard - or we imagine that if we don't achieve our dreams in this life, maybe they'll come true in a future life - I'll come back as a hockey player, a movie star, a president, a wiener dog.
This is at times reinforced by some people (usually kooks) who claim to have memories of previous lives. I don't buy this myself - I think these "memories" are probably just dreams or visions that reveal their psychological longings.
Sometime we imagine our poor lot in life as being the result of sins in a previous life - my life sucks today because I was a mafia godfather in a previous life, and so on. As such, we imagine that if we're good in this life, we'll come back in a better form in the next one.
What we don't realize of course, is that this is a complete MISUNDERSTANDING of the religious belief in reincarnation, most notably that belief held by the Buddhists and Hindus. They aren't just trying to live their lives to get a better one in the next life - they're trying to break out of this cycle COMPLETELY - they don't want to come back as anything. Their ultimate goal is to transcend the death/re-birth cycle, with all of its pains and frustrations, and enter into a higher reality, a "Samadhi" or "Nirvana," depending on which religion you belong to.
So - do we believe in this reincarnation process?
The answer, from a Catholic perspective, is no. It simply isn't compatible with our belief in eternal life with God in heaven.
There are a number of reasons for this, which I'll elaborate:
1) First of all, if reincarnation was true, how come the human population keeps increasing? Where did all the new souls come from? I've heard a number of rather convoluted explanations for this, but remain unsatisfied.
2) The fact that, in our culture, so many people imagine themselves as famous people in a previous life, undermines the credibility of the whole belief in my opinion. And the fact that people imagine themselves coming back having their dreams come true, to me, says its just a way of fantasizing.
Our cultural adaptation of reincarnation is kind of a reflection of how great we feel life is, in THIS world, so we want to live forever. Must be nice. In other parts of the world, where true reincarnation is widely believed, its just the opposite - life sucks, no matter what we come out as, so let's get out of this life - that's the attitude.
As such, I'd have to say that rather than believing in TRUE reincarnation, those new-age Shirley MacLean types that believe in it - all they're really doing is using reincarnation to affirm western complacancy and wish fulfillment.
3) I really have to wonder, if I don't remember previous lives, are they REALLY me? After all, to a large extent our sense of our selves is determined by our past experiences - what we remember, what we've learned. If I don't take ANY of that knowledge with me when I go into another life, then really, who cares?
4) We have to accept the very real possibility that reincarnation, within the context of eastern cultures, is a way of living with an unchangable the status quo. It gives hope to poor and lowly people, who's purpose in life seems to be to clean out the bed-pans of others, that perhaps in the future, their lives won't suck so much. So no need to try to change our lot in life; just accept things the way they are.
Of course, some could say the same of Christian belief in heaven: that it just makes us accept things as they are rather than change them, but I think that would be an incorrect interpretation of Christ's teachings.
5) Ultimately, this whole reincarnation system is a "justification by WORKS" system. What do I mean by that? Well, how do we reach a higher state? We work at it, that's how. In Christianity, how do we reach our higher state, or eternal life in heaven? The answer for us is - God's grace - which is a combination of God giving it to us, and our accepting it. We don't believe that we pull ourselves up to heaven by our own bootstraps - we know that this is impossible - Jesus does it for us, by dying and rising.
6) Simply put, Christianity believes that we go to heaven instead - that was pretty much the whole point of Jesus. If we keep coming back over and over and over again, then that would mean that what Jesus was sent to do, save us from our slavery, didn't really work. And if I can work my own way in to heaven by being a good person, what did Jesus have to suffer and die for?
So that's reincarnation. If you still believe it, because of your of a different religion, well that's fine - but it doesn't really fit with Christianity.
Of course if I did come back in another life, I think the weiner dog would be the way to go. Nemo has it made.