More people in the West are becoming interested in the concept of reincarnation. They are attracted to the idea that the human spirit lives on beyond death. I suspect they have lost patience with two specific doctrines of traditional Christian religion.
Instead of reincarnation, final destiny according to actions in one life
The first of these is that one’s soul is judged to eternity on the basis of how one behaved in one’s short life on earth. Given the unequal range of hereditary and environmental influence, on the face of it, there seems to be too short a time in one life to provide sufficient opportunity for one’s destiny to be decided.
Instead of reincarnation, final destiny according to beliefs in one life
The second doctrine is that one can be judged as deserving eternal damnation because of lack of belief about Jesus Christ. It smacks of a God of condemnation rather than one of love. The first doctrine seems unjust and the second abhorrent.
Reincarnation as not a final judgment
In contrast, the Eastern religious idea of reincarnation is that the soul or spirit of a person returns to live in one or more new bodies, giving us more than one life-time to be purified of our weaknesses and failings. It does seem more reasonable to suppose that a gradual improvement of the individual spirit takes place rather than a sudden change.
Swedenborg’s account of the spiritual world as an alternative to reincarnation
However, there is an alternative way of thinking to that of reincarnation that takes account of these problems. This is to do with Emanuel Swedenborg’s account of the spiritual world.
If you believe everything that is alive in the body belongs strictly to the soul (or spirit), then it follows that the spirit is the actual person. In line with this is the experience of Swedenborg that when a person’s body is separated from his spirit at death, he or she is still a person — still alive having a spirit body and retaining a complete personal memory.
This would mean the continuation of your personal identity in a spiritual world and thus no loss of your present personality in any new incarnations in the physical world. You wouldn’t have to keep repeating the whole process of childhood, teenage and adult mental and emotional growth. Nor could you be blamed for any impairments or deformities as signs of past wrongdoing in a previous life which is a problem with the doctrine of reincarnation.
Swedenborg says he has psychically observed how individuals in the next life continue to spiritually develop; a growth that depends on the character they have formed on earth. This observation is in line with the idea of karma that what one does in this present life will have its effect in the next life: what we sow we will reap.
Retention of individuality
He indicates that after death spirit people retain their individuality and pass through stages something similar to what we might say are different kinds of psychotherapy. He claims this will involve you firstly in self-exploration: secondly in a stage where any attitudes, desires or habits of thought, that are out of line with your basic character, are removed: and thirdly in a situation where you will be able to learn more about spiritual life if you so wish. In other words, as long as you are genuinely sorry about your wrongdoings, these can be forgiven and set aside.
Phenomena apparently supporting reincarnation
One phenomenon, apparently supporting the conclusion that one has had a previous existence, is that of déjà vu – sometimes finding a place or person familiar although not actually previously seen and thus knowing what to expect. Another phenomenon that seems to support reincarnation is the memory of past life as revealed in regressive hypnosis.
My own view is we should try to distinguish between this evidence and its interpretation. I do believe these actually are evidence of past lives — but not the individual’s own past lives.
Swedenborg testifies from his psychic journeys that all spirits in the spirit world are men and women who once lived on our physical plane when they were in the body. I am persuaded by his experience that there is a psychic presence of these spirits of dead people with all of us on earth. It’s just that we cannot ordinarily see them. I cannot see or hear them but I believe that their desires and thoughts come into my heart and mind; feelings and ideas that I mistakenly assume to be my own. Swedenborg says I am free to choose which one’s to ignore and which one’s to listen to and act on.
He writes that these spirits are normally not permitted to communicate from their own memories. However, for some reason, that admittedly is not clear to me, he says it does sometimes occur and, when it does the person recollects something he or she has never seen or heard.
So the explanation of the experience of past lives that I offer, is of an occasional overstepping of the boundaries by spirits associated with people leading them to believe they must have lived before.
Instead of thinking of reincarnation in terms of human souls reincarnating in new physical bodies, we could think of the Source of all life repeatedly reincarnating through each new created soul. We could also think of this Creative Source being reborn again and again within each person who is willing to receive the Divine inspiration during an eternal process of personal regeneration in this life continuing in a next world of spirit.
Copyright 2011 Stephen Russell-Lacy
Author of Heart, Head & Hands Swedenborg’s perspective on emotional problems