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.”
And of course it seems there are never enough years. 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
As Unitarian Universalists, we search for truth and meaning, but think carefully with me about what we are saying when we say that. We are saying that we are going to take our raw experiences and think about them, feel them, share them with others, process them. We’re going to understand which means “getting under,” connecting the dots, seeing the patterns. I wish I could say that this search is a linear sort of thing and could be straight-line efficient. But it is not efficient, usually; usually it’s a meandering sort of thing; some have described it as a spiral path; it takes as long as it takes; it just takes time.
To claim the learnings from what’s happening right now–which is what the search for truth and meaning is all about–there must be enough of a future down the road for you and for me. There must be years enough.
Especially when it comes to love, which all religions say is at the core of the purpose of life. “Love,” says poet D. H. Lawrence, “is a thing to be learned through centuries of patient effort.” Loving others, loving ourselves, loving the world and feeling loved by it in return, “doing unto others as you would have others do unto you,” or maybe even better yet, “treating others as they would want to be treated.” How to do this is a thing to be learned….
Maybe even more to the point is the work of healing a heart that’s been broken again and again and is afraid to love. Or the heart that has hurt others and is burdened by guilt and self-hate. Or the heart that has loved and lost and grieves deeply. As the Persian poet Rumi says so well, “Our task is not to seek for love, but merely to seek and find all the barriers within yourself that you have built against it.” Dissolve the barriers of fear and guilt and grief, and the love flows freely. Simple–but not easy.
When we consider this, we must ask: Is, truly, 40 years, 80 years, even 100 years enough to realize the perfection of love?
We might very well wonder, with that gravestone epitaph of the little girl from Wrexham, Wales:
I wonder what I was begun for
Seeing I am so soon done for
And now we are knocking on the door of this sermon. Are we so soon done for? That’s the question I would ask you to consider with me this morning. The question of reincarnation.
Reincarnation is the theory that seeks to explain certain experiences people have which seem to indicate we are NOT so soon done for. Reincarnation says we have all the time we need to become all we are capable of being and to perfect love. Just as we see evolution at work in physical nature, so we see it in consciousness. A persistent force driving us to transcend our psychological and spiritual limitations exists. A deep reality of interconnectedness with the world and with other people exists.
Despite the fragility of any given life, we can trust that there is more to the process of living than meets the eye.
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.
What I will call a “one-timer” perspective is the majority viewpoint. Many will say that you only live once, and then you go on to some heavenly place for all eternity (or to hell). Some, on the other hand, will say you only live once, and then you die, and your death spells the final end of you, and the only sort of eternity or immortality that is possible is what is called “the immortality of influence”: the impact of your words and deeds on others. But you are gone; there’s nothing left of you.
That’s the “one-timer” perspective. In one way or another, most people believe it. I will say that in our colleges and graduate schools and definitely in our Unitarian Universalist seminaries, the preferred version of the “one-timer” perspective is the immortality of influence. The prevailing worldview in academia 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. Therefore: Your body dies and you are done for.
That settles that.
In certain circles this perspective is so taken for granted, that to resist it, to believe differently, can inspire astonishment–and derision. Derision often takes the form of 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. By critical I mean, first of all, getting beyond your initial prejudices and actually reading the best literature out there about cases of apparent reincarnation (unless, of course, what inspires you has been personal experience). The other day, I was listening to one religious scholar talk about reincarnation. He instantly dismissed it because, as he said, “People who believe in past lives always tell a story about how they were Cleopatra in a past life, or a Jesus, or some other famous person.” He went on and on in this vein and I felt so sorry for this academic who was so smart about so many other things. He didn’t know what he was talking about. Maybe the only thing he’d read was the National Enquirer. But if he read legitimate sources of information, he would know that a vast majority of cases people report are of nobody lives; obscure lives; decidedly not lives of the rich and acclaimed. How discouraging that such an intelligent person could be so unaware of their ignorance.
“Critical” means “be open to the possibility that first impressions are misleading.” Be critical towards your own prejudices! In a similar vein, “critical” means not dismissing cases suggestive of reincarnation right off the bat because they make you uncomfortable or seem to go against your preferred theories. Did you know that there was a time when people disbelieved in meteorites, because rocks falling from the sky did not at all jive with their deep-seated belief in the orderliness of the solar system? It’s the truth.
And then there is the sense of “critical” that’s more traditional: “being nitpicky.” By this I mean, applying the best principles of scientific investigation to separate reincarnation cases that withstand alternative explanations versus the ones that are best explained in non-reincarnation terms.
Some of the strongest of these cases, to reincarnation scholars, are those of spontaneous recall of past lives in children, as we saw in today’s video clip. The basic pattern is as follows: a child, perhaps at the age when he first begins to speak, will begin to share memories that make no sense given the context of the child’s present life. They 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 their “former home.” They may show interests, habits, mannerisms or skills characteristic of the “former personality.” They may show knowledge of personal matters that few but the previous personality would have known. They 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 personality had lived, they may be able to lead the way to that person’s house. And there they may show signs of recognizing the former personality’s friends and relatives. They may show strong emotions towards them, emotions fitting for the previous personality. They may act towards them in ways suitable for the relationships that the former personality had—like a son towards that former personality’s parents, like a parent towards that former personality’s child.
This is the basic pattern.
In such key books as Twenty Cases Suggestive of Reincarnation, Unlearned Languages, and Children Who Remember Previous Lives, Ian Stevenson M.D. presents and analyzes hundreds of cases like this—and these hundreds are themselves sifted out from thousands. Dr. Stevenson uses only the cases meeting the highest standards, characterized by consistency of testimony, trustworthiness of character, the absence of any fraud, and so on.
There’s lots of additional evidence out there, but based on studies of spontaneous past-life recall in children alone, a person might come to reject metaphysical naturalism outright–which, again, is the idea that life is a function of our physical bodies, and when the body dies, nothing is left. 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 minority–the twenty-five percent bracket of the American populace. But to that I say, “So what?” When based on solid evidence, belief in reincarnation becomes the rational thing to do.
What’s also for certain is that just because a view is popular, that does not mean it’s right. Popularity is no indicator of truth, never has been.
But what about the charge that belief in reincarnation is just “wish-fulfillment”?
Writer and reincarnationist Gina Cerminara speaks rather pungently to this. She says, “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.” In other words, when you start charging others with wish fulfillment, that charge is going to rebound back on you.
She goes on: “It seems never to have occurred to [metaphysical naturalists] that [the idea that life is a function of the physical body], 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.”
Do you hear what she is saying? Why is it that we so automatically equate pessimism with rigorous objectivity, whereas affirmativeness and hope smack of irrationality? Maybe pessimism towards the possibility of life after death does reflect its own sort of wish fulfillment too.
Philosophically speaking, the main thing I want you to see here is that criticism by leveling the charge of wish fulfillment is lame. It can always rebound on the critic. It advances the conversation not at all. Best to withdraw that charge.
I am saying that belief in reincarnation requires no apologizing. There’s plenty of solid evidence once a person goes looking. It can be a reason-based belief.
But, say you’ve done a lot of the looking already. You’ve already read a bunch of cases that fell through your sky like a meteor, and shook your world, and now you believe something very different from all the metaphysical naturalists out there: 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
The rest of my sermon today is about this.
Ironically, one thing that belief in 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 now track.)
Here’s what the strengthening effect looks like: a feeling like we aren’t strangers to the universe—a 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.”
Let me ask: have you ever bumped into the same challenge again and again, because in all previous other times, your responses were somehow inadequate? You keep encountering bullying people; you keep encountering opportunities to shine but you shrink back? Reincarnationists say that this is but raw evidence of the principle of Karma at work: how, in your very stuckness, and the repeating opportunities to get unstuck, you can read the principle of Karma at work. You can feel that the world is not random and you are not some accident. You can know that the universe is wanting you to evolve morally and spiritually and is not giving up on you, it needs you to evolve, just like everything material in nature evolves.
It is important to acknowledge how views of karma have changed over the millennia. For too long, karma was usually described as a sort of “eye-for-an-eye, tooth-for-a-tooth sort of thing,” so that however you might have hurt someone in a past life, the identical sort of hurt would happen to you in your present life. Karma was also swept up into oppressive social dynamics and was used to legitimate the caste system in East Indian life. Unfortunately, this is how it often is with religious insights; the subtlety of their truth is exchanged for some dumbed-down version; and the power of their truth is co-opted to serve evil ends. This is why reform movements are necessary to all religious traditions–to liberate life-saving insights from misunderstanding and abuse.
Reincarnation scholars these days say that a better way of understanding karma is to see it work 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” (Christopher Bache.)
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.
Reincarnation connects us to nature like this, and it also connects us to other people. Have you ever had that uncanny feeling of meeting someone for the first time, 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.”
All this suggests a 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 physical body, any family, any nation, any historical period we wanted. [We could have come into any church community we wanted.] But we are in this time and in this 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
We know what we were begun for: Love.
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
which we can trust
We don’t have to necessarily understand why
but to respond as deeply as we can
our one doorway into the future