Does Reincarnation Matter?

Does Reincarnation Matter?

Rev. Anthony David

Feb. 12, 2012

Reading before the sermon

The comes from a book entitled Adventures in Self-Discovery, by psychiatrist Stanislav Grof.

At an early stage of his therapy, [Karl] started experiencing fragments of dramatic scenes that seemed to be happening in another century and in a foreign country. They involved powerful emotions and physical feelings and seemed to have some deep and intimate connection to his life; yet none of them made any sense in terms of his present biography.

He had visions of tunnels, underground storage spaces, military barracks, thick walls, and ramparts that all seemed to be parts of a fortress situated on a rock overlooking an ocean shore. This was interspersed with images of soldiers in a variety of situations. He felt puzzled, since the soldiers seemed to be Spanish, but the scenery looked more like Scotland or Ireland.

As the process continued, the scenes were becoming more dramatic and involved, many of them representing fierce combat and bloody slaughter. Although surrounded by soldiers, Karl experienced himself as a priest and at one point had a very moving vision that involved a bible and a cross. At this point, he saw a seal ring on his hand and could clearly recognize the initials that it bore.

Being a talented artist, he decided to document this strange process, although he did not understand it at the time. He produced a series of drawings and very powerful and impulsive finger paintings. Some of these depicted different parts of the fortress, others scenes of slaughter, and a few his own experiences, including being gored by a sword, thrown over the ramparts of the fortress, and dying on the shore. Among these pictures was a drawing of the seal ring with the initials.

As he was recovering bits and pieces of this story, Karl was finding more and more meaningful connections with his present life. He was discovering that many emotional and psychosomatic feelings, as well as problems in interpersonal relationships that he had at that time in his everyday life, were clearly related to his inner process, involving the mysterious event in the past.

A turning point came when Karl suddenly decided on an impulse to spend his holiday in Western Ireland. After his return, he was showing in the family for the first time the slides that he had shot on the Western coast of Ireland. He realized that he had taken eleven consecutive pictures of the same scenery that did not seem particularly interesting. He took the map and reconstructed where he stood at the time and in which direction he was shooting. He realized that the place which attracted his attention was the ruin of an old fortress called Dunanoir, or Forte de Oro (Golden Fortress).

Suspecting a connection with his experiences from his inner exploration, Karl decided to study the history of Dunanoir. He discovered, to his enormous surprise, that at the time of Walter Raleigh, the fortress was taken by the Spaniards and then besieged by the British. Walter Raleigh negotiated with the Spaniards and promised them free egress from the fortress, if they would open the gate and surrender to the British. The Spaniards agreed on these conditions, but the British did not hold their promise. Once inside the fortress, they slaughtered mercilessly all the Spaniards and threw them over the ramparts to die on the ocean beach.

In spite of this absolutely astonishing confirmation of the story that he laboriously reconstructed in his sessions, Karl was not satisfied. He continued his library research until he discovered a special document about the battle of Dunanoir. There he found that a priest accompanied the Spanish soldiers and was killed together with them. The initials of the name of the priest were identical with those that Karl saw in his vision of the seal ring and depicted in one of his drawings.

Here ends the reading.


Listen to this epitaph from the grave of a little girl in Wrexham, Wales:

I wonder what I was begun for

Seeing I am so soon done for

How much time we have to live—it is a fundamental question. Philosopher Christopher Bache in his excellent book entitled Lifecycles: Reincarnation and the Web of Life, puts it like this: “How much time do I get to be alive, to take in experience, to learn? How much time do I get to make mistakes and to correct my mistakes, to discover what it is I most want from life and to pursue it? […] We cannot become more than we have time to become, nor can we expect more from life than it has time to give us. Everything hinges on how many years we have to work with.”

I wonder what I was begun for

Seeing I am so soon done for

… and of course there are never enough years, to fulfill our aspirations. We search for truth and meaning, but these are distillations of raw experience, and the distillation takes time, is a journey that takes as long as it takes. To claim the potential learnings from what’s happening right now, there must be enough of a future down the road.

Especially when it comes to love. “Love,” says poet D. H. Lawrence, “is a thing to be learned through centuries of patient effort.” Loving the world and feeling loved by it in return; loving others, loving ourselves. Is, truly, 40 years, 80 years, even 100 years enough to realize the perfection of love?

I wonder what I was begun for

Seeing I am so soon done for

But are we so soon done for? Reincarnation is the theory that seeks to explain certain experiences we have which seem to indicate we are NOT so soon done for. Reincarnation says we have all the time we need to be alive, to become all we are capable of being, to perfect love. Just as we see evolution at work in physical nature, so we see it in consciousness. A constant force driving us to transcend our psychological and spiritual limitations. A reality of interconnectedness with the world and with other people. A sense that we can truly trust our lives. Reincarnation is all of this and more.

But it also needs to be said that reincarnation is not accepted by seventy-five percent of Americans. Let me say a few words about this, before we go any further.

Definitely, the “one timer” perspective is the norm. In our colleges and graduate schools and definitely our Unitarian Universalist seminaries, the prevailing worldview is “metaphysical naturalism” which means: matter is the ultimate reality and everything that exists must have a foothold in it. Consciousness is an emergent product of billions of neurons coming together—no neurons, no consciousness. Your body dies and you are done for.

The perspective is so taken for granted, in fact, that to resist it, to believe differently, can lead to charges of wish-fulfillment. You believe in reincarnation??? Denial ain’t just a river in Egypt….

But I wonder how many people are acquainted with the critical investigation of reincarnation. For example, consider cases of spontaneous recall in children, of memories that make no sense in terms of present life. The basic pattern is as follows: a child, perhaps at the age when he first begins to speak, will talk about a “past life.” He may give details about that life, sometimes enough to enable one to identify a particular deceased person as the “former personality” whose life the child seems to remember. The child may yearn to go back to his “former home.” He may show interests, habits, mannerisms or skills characteristic of the “former personality.” He may show knowledge of personal matters that few but the previous person would have known. He may show fears that match the cause of the previous person’s death—for example, a child who speaks of having been killed in a motorcycle accident may have a particular fear of motorcycles. If the child is brought to the town or village where the previous person lived, he may be able to lead the way to that person’s house. And there he may show signs of recognizing the former person’s friends and relatives. He may show strong emotions towards them, emotions fitting for the previous person. He may act towards them in ways suitable for the relationships that the former person had—like a son towards that person’s parents, like a parent towards that person’s child. This is the basic pattern. In such books as Twenty Cases Suggestive of Reincarnation, Unlearned Languages, and Children Who Remember Previous Lives, Ian Stevenson M.D. presents and analyses hundreds of cases like this—and these hundreds are themselves sifted out from thousands. Dr. Stevenson uses only the cases meeting the highest standards. Only the ones he’s absolutely that the family isn’t benefiting financially from, or from social prestige or public attention; only the cases characterized by consistency of testimony, trustworthiness of character, the absence of any fraud, and on and on.

There’s additional evidence out there (as reflected by our reading from today), but based on studies of spontaneous past-life recall in children alone, a person might come to reject metaphysical naturalism outright. A person might come not only to believe in reincarnation, but also to feel like one need not apologize intellectually for it, even though it puts you in the twenty-five percent bracket of the American populace. So what? It is a high-probability thesis. It is a rationally held point of view. Popularity is no indicator of truth, never has been.

As for the charge of wish-fulfillment. Writer Gina Cerminara speaks rather pungently to this: “There may well be some truth in the idea that the reincarnation theory does satisfy certain powerful unconscious wishes; but it has never been clear to me by what right [metaphysical naturalists] can assume that their own philosophical position arises from a wishless unconscious—an unconscious of pristine neutrality and purity.” That’s what she says, and now the gloves come off: “It seems never to have occurred to them that [metaphysical naturalism], and the conviction that death ends everything, could well arise from (1) a deep-seated masochistic pessimism; (2) an unconscious hatred and fear of life; and, hence, (3) the deep wish for its permanent cessation. […] That psychological uncertainty or negativity should be any more indicative of the nature of reality than psychological affirmativeness or hope is a highly questionable assumption; yet it is widely prevalent among those who pride themselves on their own rigorous objectivity.” That’s the word from Gina Cerminara. She’s coming out swinging, right? FIGHT CLUB!

What do you think?

Belief in reincarnation requires no apologizing. It’s intellectually respectable, and there’s plenty of solid evidence once a person goes looking.

But, say you’ve done a lot of the looking already. You’ve read a bunch of cases that make your eyes pop out, that lead you to believe that our bodies don’t so much produce consciousness as transmit it, in much the same way that our television sets transmit ultra high frequency electromagnetic waves and transform them into the programs we see and hear on our TV screens. Damage the TV, and the programs come through in distorted and disturbed fashion. Turn the TV off, unplug the TV, smash the TV to smithereens, and nothing comes through at all. It looks exactly like death—but this does not mean that the ultra high frequency electromagnetic waves are gone too. They are just no longer capable of being received and translated. In some way, they are still there. Same goes for the mind, upon death of the body. This is what you come to believe, after you’ve read Ian Stevenson’s Children Who Remember Previous Lives and twenty other books like it.

But now what? Reincarnation might be true, yes, but how do I bring the theory down to earth? How might it change the way I think about the world, my relationships, my life? It’s the epitaph of that little girl from Wrexham, Wales, again, but somewhat modified:

I wonder what I was begun for

Seeing I am NOT so soon done for

Ironically, one thing that reincarnation does is strengthen our sense of connection to the natural world. (I say “ironically” only because for many people reincarnation smacks of the supernatural. Yet reincarnation, if true, simply demands that we expand our conception of nature—that there is far more to it than meets the eye, that it opens up into realms that our current scientific observation instruments cannot track.)

Here’s what the strengthening effect looks like: feeling like we aren’t strangers to the universe—feeling that how nature works is how we work, even in our most intimate sphere of psychological, moral, and spiritual life. I am referring to evolution. “To anyone who finds the theory of evolution reasonable,” says Gina Cerminara, “there should be no great difficulty in finding reincarnation reasonable also. By this theory the basic evolutionary idea is enlarged in two important respects. First, it states that evolution is of consciousness as well as of form. Second, it affirms that each life unit’s existence does not contribute merely to the ongoing evolution of a species; it contributes also to its own evolvement.” The point here is that we can so very often find the flow of our lives perplexing and chaotic. Experiencing pain is not a problem, if we know the purpose for it, or if at the very least we can trust that it is in our life for some kind of reason. But so often we don’t know the purpose, we have a hard time trusting, we don’t feel like things are moving forward. Nature is moving forward, nature is acting in lawful fashion; but are we? At times we can really feel embroiled in chaos, we can feel like aliens estranged from the orderliness of the world—or maybe that’s just me 😉 But reincarnation sings a different tune.

The tune is called karma. Karma is the law that drives us across lifetimes to keep learning and growing. Moral reciprocity is a part of it—as in the Golden Rule, “do unto others as you would have others do unto you,” “as you sow, so shall you reap”—but this is tuned to the larger aim of becoming wiser, more beautiful, more loving. “Love is a thing to be learned through centuries of patient effort.” This is the track karma keeps us on.

How? Philosopher Christopher Bache tells us that views of karma have changed over the years. “Early on,” he says, “karma was usually described in terms of retributive justice, an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth. If you killed someone, in another life he would kill you; if you stole, cheated, belittled, or demeaned someone, in time you would find yourself receiving the same treatment from the same person.” But this, he says, is far too narrow and inflexible an understanding of how karma really works. Often karma works on the basis of the principle of compensation, as in, you might not later be killed by those you killed, but you must eventually compensate them in some way for their loss. Compensation can even be applied more broadly. “If you don’t end up compensating your original victim, you may compensate other victims of similar crimes. If you kill someone, you may in subsequent life work on behalf of other families of murder victims, thus confronting indirectly the consequences of your act.” This is karma, how it happens; and what we do before we are born, say reincarnationists, is develop a karmic script which ensures that the specific circumstances in our life-to-be will create lots of opportunities in which to learn from our mistakes, learn our lessons, and move on to new challenges. Evolution in nature works through natural selection, and evolution in spirit works through karma and karmic scripts. Evolution is the common denominator; the common denominator between matter and spirit is law.

That’s how reincarnation connects us to nature, and it also connects us to other people. Have you ever had that uncanny feeling of meeting someone, and you feel like you’ve known them forever, you discover in yourself an attitude towards them that is absolutely not justified by the length of your actual acquaintance? Sometimes the feeling is positive—it’s love, it’s tenderness, it’s a sense of sweet safety, all coming to the fore fully developed, fully there. Other times, what comes to the fore is not so positive—as in times when you feel an immediate threat coming from a person you have only just met! Reincarnation helps us understand. It tells us that we do not come into the world alone and leave it alone. The key people who come into our current lives are probably traveling companions who’ve known us across many lives. Lovers, friends, and enemies: every time we meet again, we pick up where we left off. Our karmic scripts link up where the issues we’re focusing on are shared. Life is a cosmic classroom. We are all teaching and learning from each other.

A powerful instance of this, reincarnationists tell us, has to do with our families, our parents. “The choice of one’s parents is critical to establishing the [learning] themes of one’s life.” “Their assets and liabilities […] are exquisitely used to force a particular issue to the front of our awareness. In the deepest sense, what is in our lives can only come from within ourselves. Our early caretakers only create the conditions that bring certain patterns latent within us to the surface, where we can face them” (Bache).

It goes the other way, too. “At times our children’s personalities seem exquisitely crafted to rub ours the wrong way. Beyond their uncanny ability to find and inflame every flaw in our psychological makeup, these children seem to possess a nature in diametric conflict with our own. They want from us things we do not know how to provide, or they hit all our sensitive spots simply by being themselves” (Bache). From a “one-timer” perspective, this is just terrible luck. Tragedy. Absurdity. But from a reincarnationist perspective, karma is pushing us forward towards the perfection of love. Karma is keeping us busy. “The rule of thumb for reincarnation,” says Christopher Bache, is “I do not have the problems I have in life because I have these parents [or these children], but rather I have these particular parents [or children] because I have chosen to work on these particular issues. Our larger history has positioned us to work on certain specific issues in this lifecycle.”

This suggests the third and last sense of connection that reincarnation creates in our lives, when we bring it down to earth. The sense that we can trust our lives. We’ve already seen how karma ensures ultimate justice. Another part of it has to do with the value of the here and now. Reincarnation tells us that “we could have inserted ourselves back into life anywhere on the planet. We could have come into any family, any body, any culture, any nation, perhaps even any historical period we wanted. But we are in this time and place, with these particular people, and living this particular script to advance our evolution and that of others” (Bache). It just says something profound: the fact that you have come into my life at this time, and I have come into yours. The fact that we are here and not somewhere else, with these people and not others! The present is precious. Yes, we do have many lives. But the manyness does not diminish the value of the one right now, for everything that has passed before leads up to life right now, and how we live life right now helps create the future that we will eventually, in yet another life, inherit.

We can trust our lives. “Sometimes,” says Christopher Bache, “the blocks in life … reflect conditions over which we appear to have no control. The national economy is driving our business into bankruptcy. A drought has destroyed our crop for two years running. A car accident has shattered our family. A disease is stealing my life from me bit by bit. Yet if karma, reincarnation, and karmic scripts are trustworthy concepts, these events too are part of our curriculum. We have placed ourselves into these experiences for reasons only we can discover. However inscrutable they are at present, in some way we need these experiences. They hold something that we can use, otherwise they would not be in our lives. What is required is not necessarily to understand their meaning for us at a cognitive level but to respond to them as deeply as we can. Our challenge is to use these experiences, to draw from them whatever they hold for us, and to follow them wherever they lead us.”

So: if reincarnation is true, and I personally believe it is, then:

I am not so soon done for

We are all not so soon done for

And: We know what we were begun for


the centuries of patient effort it requires


the karma that won’t let us off the hook


fellow souls we travel with through the ages


the perfection of love

over who knows how many lives

which in no way diminishes the love of this moment, this life

which we can trust

our one doorway into the future