CommonPlaces Breaking60 TravelingNotes UU Exploration Belief and Practice


These pieces come from a second service on "life after death," presented at TPUUF on 10/25/98. I have had no great interest in the general subject or in reincarnation in particular but in spring 1998 I offered in a service auction to preach a sermon on a subject of the winning bidder's choice, with the provision that it did not conflict with my beliefs or moral sense. After some negotiation, we agreed on this topic. Here is a meditation, with a discussion question which followed it, for congregational response, and the address:



Have you ever stopped to think about what makes you, you?


What is it about yourself which is defining, is essential?


I ask you each, now, to approach this question by reflecting:


* Whom of my family and friends could I give up and still be me?

* What of my skills and my profession could I give up and still be me?

* Which portion of my possessions could I give up and still be me?

* What parts or functions of my body could I give up and still be me?

* Which memories, emotions and perceptions could I give up and still be me?


Come, let us by silent awhile together and think on these questions.




So, what is there that you could not give up without losing yourself?

Clearly reincarnation plays a major role in our culture:


Remember: Benjamin Franklin, The Latter Day Saints, Bridey Murphy, Shirley McLaine, the Dalai Lama (16th reincarnation).


There are many Napoleon Bonapartes and Albert Schweitzers in institutions, some of whom have honestly held beliefs.


But then there was Mark Prophet, the founder of The Summit Lighthouse, a primitive Christian sect based in Denver, CO.


His daughter, Elizabeth Claire Prophet, related:


"Mark used to joke about a Ącome as you were? party he attended in Chicago. People were supposed to dress up as one of their past-life personalities. "There were no bricklayers or street cleaners or anything like that," he recalled. "There were more kings and queens there...than all the stream of history ever had.""


There are four traditional "problems" which are taken as "proofs" of the reality of reincarnation:*


Problem 1: The lack of justice in the world: "The combined existence of apparently undeserved suffering -- especially of little children -- and of divine justice."


Reincarnationist response: "The goal of human life is to come "unto the measure of the stature of Christ." Thus, we endure to achieve spiritual perfection by overcoming our afflictions.


Problem 2: The difficulty of perceiving our individual destiny: "The apparent hopelessness and helplessness of human life...(A) large proportion of the human race (lives) under the perpetual shadow of fear, resulting from the danger of financial insecurity, disease, depression and war."


Reincarnationist response: "...(N)o single life...can possibly provide a sufficient number of experiences, challenges and opportunities necessary for the attainment of the perfect man." (= becoming perfect physically and intellectually, as well as spiritually.)


Problem 3: The existence of child prodigies: "Virtuosity unexplained by heredity or preceding experience."


Reincarnationist response: Child prodigies are reincarnations of geniuses of past lives, who bring over their acquired faculties as "gifts."


Problem 4: The presence (and vividness) of past life memories (explanation): "(A) considerable number of people who claim to remember their past lives, their recollections in some cases being supported by their relation of historical facts of which they could not otherwise have been aware."


Reincarnationist response: Bald assertions that past life experiences are real and concrete personal evidence of reincarnation.


Let me recount a brief history of reincarnation.


Egyptians practiced embalming, in part, to delay or prevent, resurrection and thus make it possible, between reincarnations, for the departed royals to dwell with the gods.


Pythagoras, Empedocles and other Greeks from 400 BC forward believed in reincarnation and of the possibility of being reincarnated in animal or other non-human, even non-living, form.


The Essenes and other sects contemporary with Christ believed in reincarnation.


In the story of the life of Christ, there is no account of his "lost years" (age 12 to 34) - were they perhaps spent in the East? He appeared, by his sayings, to be influenced by Eastern ideas (from Hinduism and Bhuddism) of reincarnation, of the possibility of a continuing existence after death in higher or lower forms until one?s work is done and, through accumulation of karma, we are released from the wheel of life to nirvana.


Some even interpret Christ as Elijah come again.


Origen, an Alexandrine Greek (185-254 AD), regarded the biblical "Fall" as separating souls from God. He taught that redemption required the active application of free will to earn reunion with God and, in the interim, souls could go around again and again, occupying human bodies as one might put on and put off clothes until salvation was achieved. If we are not free to chose to be good, then how can one explain the different outcomes experienced by twins? Origen rejected the idea of a single life, leading to union with God, which would require physical resurrection (rather than simply elevation of the soul).


Emperor Constantine guided the Council of Nicaea (325 AD) when it adopted the Trinity, the Nicene Creed (The Apostles Creed) and held for resurrection, while rejecting reincarnation, probably for political reasons.


The subsequent pursuit of heretics who believed in reincarnation continued for more than 1000 years - The Cathari, and their Perfects, subject to the only Crusade within Europe, were burnt alive in the hundreds. Giordano Bruno was burnt at the stake in 1600 AD: one of the accusations was that he supported free will and reincarnation while rejected the dogma of physical resurrection.


By the way, one of the reasons that heretics usually were burned was to deny them the possibility of resurrection!


However, if we are to reason about reincarnation in contemporary times, we must first understand what incarnation is.


The French philosopher Renoe Decartes was a passionate searcher after truth:


"I have always had an extreme desire to learn how to distinguish the true from the false, in order to see clearly how I should act and to be able to travel with assurance through life."


His method: to determine all that could be disbelieved and thus, by examining the remainder, what was deserving of belief. He worked in much the same manner as a sculptor who, having the finished statue in mind, chips away all that does not belong.


Decartes concluded finally that one and only one belief remained true:


"At any moment that I am conscious of thinking, or of any other mental act such as being conscious of doubting or willing, I exist as a thinking thing."


"Cogito, ergo sum" or "Je pense, donc je suis"


This defines what is called subjectivism: the idea that all we can know with certainty is ourself as a conscious subject and our own thoughts.


Are we no more than the sum of our thoughts?


William James wrote:


"Whatever I may be thinking of, I am always more or less aware of myself, of my personal existence. At the same time, it is I who am aware; so the total self of me, being as it were duplex, partly known and partly knower, partly object and partly subject, must have two aspects..."


The known is our sum of memories, our relationships, our possessions (including our body) as an extension of ourself.


The knower, the thinker, is that "engine" which works upon the rest, producing and examining thoughts, and which can exercise what we perceive as free will - seen simply, initially, as choosing what to think about or what to will be done.


The known, our impressions, our memories, our thoughts, do not spontaneous combine themselves, otherwise we would long ago have solved the problem of devising true thinking machines.


However, James argues that from a scientific viewpoint, the thoughts, in combination, themselves constitute the thinker and that the issue of the knower as separate from the known is a metaphysical, not a psychological one.


James defines the components of Self thus:


First: the empirical self or Me:


The material me: body, clothes, relatives, possessions

The social me: recognition by others, fame, reputation, honor, etc.

The spiritual me: "The entire collection of our states of consciousness"

(Our feelings and motivations for actions stem from these three components)


And also, the self as Knower or I:


The pure Ego: "That which at any given moment is conscious, whereas the Me is only one of the things of which we are conscious."


I am a witness of a continuous stream of consciousness, even when asleep, which is my evidence of being. I know, that is, I think, therefore I am.


What can we expect to "survive", to pass this way again? The Me or the I? Or both?


If we give away all that we can, and still be us, what is left? Parts of the Me or the I? Or both?


The important questions facing us are:


* Whither and whence? ---> thoughts of incarnation or resurrection.


* How to lead a good enough life? ---> thoughts of moral principles and of truth


If we each are to return, it is I, the knower, rather than the known, which will persist and recur, for it is this essential sense of self which really defines us each, not our bodies, our family, our possessions, our accomplishments, even our memories.

But if that be the case, then Emerson instructs us:


"Within us is the soul of the whole; the wise silence, the universal beauty, the eternal One, which, when it breaks through into our intellect, is genius; when it breathes through our will, is virtue; when it flows through our affections, is love."


Thus, even our sense of self is not individual, but part and particle of the whole. If we were to embrace Emerson and accept the reality of the Over Soul, then the Fall, the great separation, as Origen and others proclaim, never occurred and we need no succession of reincarnated lives in which to become perfected, since we have never been separate from the eternal, and therefore perfect, One.


Thus, if we accept that we live in the present, not the past or the future, reincarnation, its possibility or impossibility, becomes irrelevant - we shall always, all ways, be part of the whole and be in the present moment.


But if we place our trust and hope in reincarnation, of being able knowingly to pass this way again, then we may, by default, neglect our duty; neglect, in Thomas Merton?s words, our call to perfection; and by devaluing our allotted moments, lose our lives to idle speculation.


I began with Alfred Lord Tennyson, pondering on the possibility that we have been here before, that there have been other lives before this life.


Let me draw to a close with Alice Ellis Thomas, pondering on what it means to be here, in this life.


"Even as I sit by the stream under the shade of the hawthorn, hand on the sun-warmed rock, watching the bees and the beetles and the birds doing concentratedly what they were conceived to do, feeling the grasses under my feet, and painstakingly identifying the wild flowers, I still cannot accept the moment for what it is. I know it will pass. Self-consciousness is the price we pay for the hope of immortality, and it is a high price. You put your hand in the stream and it runs through your fingers. You pick the flowers and they die. You hear the birds of this year but they are not the birds of last year, and next year they will be different birds. You know that -- pesticides and herbicides permitting -- the genus will continue, but you also know that your own awareness will be changed, and that you will not be there. And the grief is not for your self, but that all the loveliness may go unseen and unrecorded, and no one will ever know how, for you, the blossom smelled, and the grasses bent, and the light changed -- and how you got up to go home as the shadows fell and the air grew cold and you came back to another mode of existence: the habitations of men and the demands of life and the world."

A Welsh Childhood (1990)


Mother Ann Lee, prophetess of the Shakers, declared a Millennial Creed:


"Do your work as if this were your last day on earth and it was to last one thousand years."


Is there injustice in the world?

Of course; but we can struggle against injustice, in this life.


Does human existence seem hopeless and pointless at times?

Of course, but we can strive to give it meaning and value, in this life.


Are there extraordinary children amongst us?

Of course, but we can love and appreciate them for who they are and what they themselves achieve, in this life.


Do we have memories of lives past?

Of course, for in the theater of the mind, all things are possible, in this life.


Blessed be.