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Reincarnation: The Answer of Faith | Christoph Schönborn | An excerpt from From Death to Life: The Christian Journey

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At the Fourth World Congress for Natural Medicine, held at Geneva in 1980, Dr. Nowrocki, psychotherapist at the University of Frankfurt, presented his experiences with patients whom he had "led back" to the moment of their birth; indeed, he lets them reexperience their time in the womb, the moment of their conception, and even the death that separated them from their earlier life, many deaths, many births, many earlier lives. [73] One can read in Denise Desjardins how such experiments are carried out and how psychic traumas appear to find their explanation and even their resolution along the path of such "leadings back". [74] More and more therapists employ this method. Are we heading toward a "scientific" proof of reincarnation? Some people [75] assert this, relying on experiences that "allow us to suppose the presence of repeated lives on earth". [76] The adjective scientific, which this literature is quick to employ, lends the accounts credit a priori, but there is insufficient examination of whether one can truly speak of "scientific proofs" in such cases.

Let us take as an example the celebrated "case of Bridey Murphy". An American, Ruth Simmons, reveals in a state of hypnosis many factors from an earlier life that she spent in the nineteenth century in Ireland under the name of Bridey Murphy. Investigations carried out at the relevant places show that numerous individual details, which Mrs. Simmons could not know in her present life, are correct. [77] Even if we presuppose that the investigations were not manipulated, one must however make a methodological observation: even if the facts of the matter prove to be correct, their interpretation remains subjective. One must distinguish between the circumstances of the experience and their interpretation. This distinction is often forgotten in the discussion of the "earlier lives". Naturally, it is not a question of denying genuine experiences. If a person asserts that she sees herself in a scenery of the nineteenth century, if she is able to give a detailed description of a particular place and a particular landscape, and it is shown that these descriptions are correct, then one can only note these events with scrupulous care. But one moves onto another level when one attempts to interpret them.

As we have noted above, it is not sufficient simply to register accounts of experiences, if one wishes to formulate an explanatory theory. The experiences must be given a place in a broader framework. But an explanatory theory is never simply the outcome of the. Greatest possible number of experiential data. Rather, one must confront the data with general principles that themselves do not derive from experience but precede and illuminate it. The doctrine of reincarnation is such an explanatory theory, presupposing general principles in the light of which one interprets certain experiences. In this sense, there can never at any time exist a strictly scientific proof of reincarnation--or of the nonexistence of reincarnation. The theory of reincarnation is derived in reality from a philosophical or religious prior understanding of the nature of man, of his origin, and of the destiny determined for him. If one shares this view of man, one will interpret particular experiences as "proofs" of one's convictions. If one does not share it, one will derive other explanations from these experiences. The "case of Bridey Murphy", for example, could be interpreted as a parapsychical phenomenon. People at earlier periods would perhaps have thought of a "private revelation" or of the working of demons.

Every Fourth European Believes in Reincarnation

If then there exist no scientific proofs for or against reincarnation, must we content ourselves with purely subjective or even arbitrary judgments? Certainly not.

There do exist arguments pro and contra, but these lie on the philosophical or theological level. The argumentation that I propose is primarily theological. But before we speak of the theological reasons for the rejection of reincarnation by the Christian Faith, we must point out some historical connections.

According to a survey of the Gallup's American Institute of Public Opinion, [78] roughly one European in four believes in reincarnation. How are we to explain this success of a theory that is so alien to the Christian tradition? One cannot provide any "monocausal" explanation of this, but let us indicate one significant point. It is in the period of the Enlightenment that reincarnationist views arise in modern Europe. Gotthold Ephraim Lessing published in 1780 his famous work Die Erziehung des Menschengeschlechts. Full of optimism, he sees the history of mankind as an irresistible ascent to the light of the spirit. In the last sections, he expresses the hypothesis that this ascent could take place in a succession of ever more spiritualized lives on earth. This idea conquers others: Goethe and the Romantics take it up anew. [79] Darwin's theory of evolution strengthens in many people the conviction of universal progress. Allan Kardec (1804-69), one of the great propagandists of spiritualism and the idea of reincarnation, had the following significant words inscribed on his tombstone in Paris: "To be born, to die, to be reborn, and to make continual progress: that is the law." [80]

This "Westernized" view of reincarnation is obviously very different from that of the Eastern religions, with their cyclic view of time, which is unacquainted with the idea of a universal progress. Reincarnation as the path of mankind's onward progress? This idea could develop only in the soil of the Christian culture of the West, with its concept of a "salvation history" that makes its way to- ward the kingdom of God. This means that the idea of reincarnation has itself undergone a profound change. For the religions of the East, reincarnation was and is a situation of wretchedness, which one must try to escape if possible: but in the West, under the influence of the idea of progress, it becomes indeed a kind of path of salvation. While the East sees the wheel of rebirth as a situation of painful bondage, reincarnation becomes in the West the path of progressive self-realization.

Why has Christianity always rejected the idea of reincarnation? As far as I know, the Church has never formally condemned the doctrine of reincarnation: not because she might regard it as a doctrine that could be compatible with the Christian faith, but on the contrary because reincarnation so obviously contradicts the very principles of this faith that a condemnation has never seemed necessary. [81] But which principles are these? Let us now conclude by setting them out briefly.

"But Christ Is the End" (Hölderlin)

For Christianity, man is a creature. This means first that he is willed by God in his entire reality, in his soul but also in his body. The body is not the prison of the soul but is likewise created. Indeed, it is destined for an eternal life through the "resurrection of the flesh"-an idea that is totally alien to the hellenistic world. Saint Paul provoked shouts of laughter when he began to speak of this on the Areopagus (Acts 17:32). If man-with body and soul-is a creature, then this means that he is willed by God as this particular man, as a person, with a unique origin and a unique life that is destined to be fulfilled in eternal life. Judaism too believes all this (at least in its dominant tradition).

Christianity has an additional element that is decisive. In my view, it is above all this specific element that forbids it to make any compromise with the reincarnationistic teachings: Jesus Christ himself. The Christian Faith looks on him as the incarnate God, as the Word of God become flesh. But he has arisen in this flesh and has ascended to heaven, where he sits "at the right hand of the Father" in this flesh, and he will "come again in glory" in this eternally living, glorified flesh. Thus one understands that the whole hope of Christianity is directed to a goal that is like that of its Founder. One cannot picture this ultimate destiny as a return into other bodies and other lives on earth. This life here is already fellowship with Christ, a fellowship that unites in one "single body" the adherents of this path and makes them "members of Christ"; and when this life ends, there is no other destiny for the one who has lived in fellowship with the body of Christ than the full unfolding of this fellowship in the "resurrection of the flesh".

This, sketched in a few words, is the fundamental experience of Christianity. Reincarnation is not rejected for the sake of some abstract doctrines or because of a die-hard holding fast to traditional dogmas. The fact that the Christian Faith has no place for the doctrine of reincarnation is a direct consequence of this fundamental experience, which Paul recapitulates in the famous sentence, "For me, life is Christ and death a gain" (Phil 1:21). Life is Christ. To die means to live in the truest sense, to live with Christ, to live as he lives: in this glorified flesh that he received from the Virgin Mary through the working of the Holy Spirit, in which he "sits at the right hand of the Father", in which he will come again in glory.

Reincarnation has no place in Christianity because life in Christ is already its ultimate goal. "But Christ is the end", says Hölderlin in the late hymn Der Einzige. What more could one seek, when one has found him? Have we not found everything in him? In him there is no place for the endless search, from life to life, for a distant, unattainable goal, for a perfection that is not to be reached in aeons. The end has come to us; it is already present (cf. 1 Cor 10:11). Man's long search is at an end. What we could not find through endless re- births has been given to us. "For we did not seek: we were sought." [82] God has found man: "For it was not the sheep that sought the shepherd, or the drachma the housewife (Lk 15:4-9). He himself bent down to earth and found his image; he himself went into the place where the sheep had wandered astray. He lifted it up and put an end to the wandering." [83]

After this return home, there is no more wandering. Will the father send the prodigal son away, now that he has returned home? And how could there be a "tomorrow" after the words "Today you will be with me in paradise", spoken to the robber on his right side by the Lord when he is raised up on the Cross-a "tomorrow" that would lead him back into a foreign place? The same Jesus said: "When I am lifted up from the earth, I shall draw all men to myself" (Jn 12:32), and: "I shall certainly not turn away the one who comes to me" (Jn 6:37). After this great reunion there is nothing more to be sought, for what we find here infinitely surpasses all that we had sought and waited for (cf. 1 Cor 2:9). [84]


[73] "Journal de Genève", June 2, 1980, p. 13.

[74] La mémoire des vies antérieures (Paris, 1980).

[75] Thus the famous and very cautious book by Dr. Ian Stevenson, Twenty Cases Suggestive of Reincarnation. Characteristically, the title of the German translation changes the "suggestive" into "proofs": Reinkarnation. Der Mensch im Wandel von Tod und Wiedergeburt. 20 uberzeugende und wissenschafihich bewiesene Fälle (Freiburg, 1976).

[76] I mention two further examples from this large body of literature: Joan Grant and D. Kelsey, Nos vies anterierures (Paris, 1978); M. Bernstien, Protokoll einer Wiedergeburt. Der Bericht über die wissenbschaftlich untersuchtde Rückführung in ein früheres Leben(Berne, 1973) (translated from English).

[77] Cf. Bernstein, Protokoll.

[78] Cf. J. Stoetzel, Les a1eurs du temps présent: une enquéte (Paris: PUF,1983).

[79] Cf. E. Bock, Wiederholte Erdenleben. Die Wiederverkörperungsidee in der deutschen Geistesgeschichte (Stuttgart, 1967) (very well documented and written from an anthroposophist standpoint).

[80] Quoted from B. Kloppenburg, La reencarnación (Bogota, 5979), 11. This book gives a good overview of the great success of the reincarnationist views in Latin America.

[81] The Second Vatican Council speaks in Lumen gentium, no. 48, in order to reject the idea of reincarnation, of "the single course of our earthly life".

[82] Nicolas Cabasilas, Das Buds yam Leben in Christus, trans. G. Hoch, 2nd ed. (Einsiedeln, 1981), 23 (= Christliche Meister, vol. 14).

[83] Ibid.

[84] G. Adler, Wiedergeboren nach dem Tode? Die Idee der Reinkarnarion (Frankfurt, 1977), offers an introductory presentation from the Christian standpoint. H. U. von Balthasar, "Seelenwanderung", in idem, Homo creatus est (Einsiedeln, 1986), 103-20 (= Skizzen zur Theologie, vol. v), offers a very rich and amply documented theological evaluation.

Christoph Cardinal Schönborn, O.P., (born 1945) the Archbishop of Vienna, Austria, is a highly regarded author, teacher, and theologian. He was a student of Joseph Ratzinger (Pope Benedict XVI) and with him was co-editor of the monumental Catechism of the Catholic Church. He studied theology and philosophy in Bornheim-Walberberg, Vienna, and Paris. He was ordained a Dominican priest by Cardinal Franz König in December 1970 in Vienna, and later studied in Regensburg. From 1975 he was professor at Freiburg im Uechtland. In 1980, he became a member of the international theological commission of the Holy See, and in 1987 he became editorial secretary for the Catechism. He speaks six languages and has written numerous books.

Books by Cardinal Schönborn published in English by Ignatius Press:

Introduction to the Catechism of the Catholic Church (co-author with Cardinal Ratzinger)
God's Human Face: The Christ Icon
Living the Catechism of the Catholic Church, vol 1
Living the Catechism of the Catholic Church, vol 2
Living the Catechism of the Catholic Church, vol 3
Living the Catechism of the Catholic Church, vol 4
Loving the Church: Retreat to John Paul II and the Papal Household
My Jesus: Encountering Christ In The Gospel

Other excerpts from books by Cardinal Schönborn:

• The Church Is the Goal of All Things | From Loving the Church
• Encountering Christ in the Gospel | From My Jesus

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