We might ask, then, just how bad, or good, is the doctrine of reincarnation?
If you take an 8 fl. Oz glass measuring cup, and place water in it such that the bottom of the meniscus is at the 4 fl. Oz. line, then someone looking at the water in that cup might say, quite accurately, that the cup is half empty, while another might say with equal accuracy that it is half full.
(Let's put aside the concern that neither would be true, because there is space in the glass above the 8 fl. Oz. line. It is open to us to make a precision and say that the glass qua measuring cup holds precisely 8 fl. Oz.)
However, if the level of the water were changing, things would be different. If the glass were filling with water continuously, or emptying, and we caught it with an action photo at exactly the point of 4 fl. Oz, we couldn't say, of the water in the picture, both that "the glass is halfway filling" and that "the glass is halfway emptying." Only one of these would be true.
I use this parable to illustrate an important point about false doctrines in matters of religion. It is not that there is truth in them, which is important (of course there will be), but whether the truth in them draws us to God, more than the falsehood in them confirms us in moving from God.
Let's take as an example the doctrine of reincarnation. I choose this example because many of our cultural elites are drawn to religious figures like the Dalai Lama, because he promotes compassion and mindfulness. However, the Dalai Lama also promotes belief in reincarnation. We might ask, then, just how bad, or good, is the doctrine of reincarnation?
Reincarnation is the view that the soul of any sentient being after death becomes the soul of a new sentient being. If a sentient being does well in this life, it returns as a more highly ranked being; if not, it returns as a lower ranked being.
We see immediately that reincarnation has two highly objectionable implications for a Christian. The first is that human beings have no special dignity as rational creatures made in the image of God. Your son or daughter, for instance, is not incomparably more precious in the eyes of God than a spider in your bathroom. The second is that there are higher and lower tiers of human beings. We are not in Christ all equal in dignity.
But what about the teaching itself? Consider what two recent popes have said about it.
Pope John Paul II wrote this: "In man there is an irrepressible longing to live forever. How are we to imagine a life beyond death? Some have considered various forms of reincarnation: depending on one's previous life, one would receive a new life in either a higher or lower form, until full purification is attained. This belief, deeply rooted in some Eastern religions, itself indicates that man rebels against the finality of death. He is convinced that his nature is essentially spiritual and immortal" ("Tertio Millennio," n. 9).
At first, it looks like St. Pope John Paul II is saying that this doctrine is "half full" of truth. And yet, in the very next sentence he rejects it: "Christian revelation excludes reincarnation, and speaks of a fulfillment which man is called to achieve in the course of a single earthly existence. Man achieves this fulfillment of his destiny through the sincere gift of self, a gift which is made possible only through his encounter with God."
It is as though the pope insisted that we look at the water level as moving: once he had used belief in reincarnation as evidence that "my nature is essentially spiritual and immortal," it had done its work and could be put aside. And John Paul II nowhere else engages reincarnation in all of his voluminous magisterium (judging from the Vatican website), except for one back reference to this passage.
Pope Francis is even more peremptory. In a General Audience last year discussing Nicodemus's question, "How can a man be born again when he is old?," the Holy Father remarks: "This does not mean starting over from birth, repeating our coming into the world, hoping that a new reincarnation will re-open our chance at a better life. This repetition makes no sense. Indeed, it would empty all meaning from the life we have lived, erasing it as if it were a failed experiment, an expired and lost value. No, this is not the rebirth that Jesus speaks of. It is something else. This life is precious in God's eyes -- it identifies us as creatures loved tenderly by Him. This 'born anew' that allows us to 'enter' the kingdom of God is a generation in the Spirit."
Here, Pope Francis clearly sees the water as emptying. The doctrine lacks sense ("e priva di senso")! It turns the flowing of life into an emptying of meaning ("essa svuoterebbe di ogni significato la vita vissuta")! It erases, makes us a failure, makes us expired, debases our value. Not only so but the teaching also hides us from God's gaze and the potential of new life in the Spirit.
We get things wrong if we look at a false teaching statically. These pontiffs teach us to look at false beliefs dynamically, in relation to souls being drawn to God or away from God.
- Michael Pakaluk, an Aristotle scholar and Ordinarius of the Pontifical Academy of St. Thomas Aquinas, is a professor in the Busch School of Business at the Catholic University of America. He lives in Hyattsville, MD, with his wife Catherine, also a professor at the Busch School, and their eight children. His latest book is "Mary's Voice in the Gospel of John" available from Amazon.