By Victor E. Smith
“The story oftentimes uses reincarnation, dreams, visions, paranormal events, psychic abilities, and other metaphysical plot devices.” This is the second characteristic of Visionary Fiction listed on the VFA Home Page. Rather than merely adding a sensational or fantastical ingredient to VF works, I perceive these elements, when presented sensibly, to be an essential part of the visionary realm about which we write, contributing integrally to both “growth in consciousness” (the 1st characteristic) and making the plot “universal in its worldview and scope” (the 3rd characteristic).
In this 3-part series, based on a presentation I made to the Tucson chapter of the Institute of Noetic Science (April 3, 2015) entitled “Exploring Reincarnation through History and Fiction,” I would like to focus on the role of reincarnation, one of the more complex of the paranormal phenomena encountered in the visionary environment. With it as an example, I hope to illustrate that the various psychic elements (telepathy, clairvoyance, precognition, and psychokinesis, to name a few) are actual features in the visionary realm we inhabit, just as stars, planets, mountains and oceans are part of our physical environment.
Part 1: Overview and History of Reincarnation
In various cultures over the eons, reincarnation has been depicted in many ways from the sublime to the absurd. In this discussion I suggest we adopt the succinct definition given by Dr. Charles Tart in The End of Materialism, How Evidence of the Paranormal is Bringing Science and Spirit Together:
Reincarnation or rebirth is the belief, held by a large proportion of the world’s population, that some essential aspect of one’s living self, the soul, survives physical death and, and after some period of varying length in an afterlife state, is reborn as the soul of a new being. Beliefs in reincarnation usually include a belief in some form of karma, a psychic law of cause and effect, so that actions in one lifetime will eventually, when circumstances are ripe, have effects in a later lifetime.
So, reincarnation, to be plausible, requires:
- a soul (an immaterial aspect of the self),
- a framework of existence beyond the physical world,
- and some operating law governing the relationship or continuity between the two universes (e. g, karma).
Consider the sleeping-dreaming-waking cycle to get a tangible idea as to how this model, which expands the one life/one death paradigm to a continuous sequence of lives, might work. Our consciousness can be said to undergo a mini-reincarnation daily.
A Brief History of Reincarnation in the West
Reincarnation was not invented by New Age folks. A glance through the Wikipedia article on the subject shows its history and role in world religion and philosophy as ancient and complex. Eastern populations have been living with some awareness of it for all of written history. And evidently some Westerners, especially prior to the Christian era, did likewise.
Following is a telling quote from a surprising source: none other than Julius Caesar in his famous history of the Gallic Wars. Here he is speaking of the Celtic Druids he encountered in France and Britain, also credited as the source for the later Arthurian Grail tradition:
The principal point of their doctrine is that the soul does not die and that after death it passes from one body into another….. the main object of all education is, in their opinion, to imbue their scholars with a firm belief in the indestructibility of the human soul, which, according to their belief, merely passes at death from one tenement to another; for by such doctrine alone, they say, which robs death of all its terrors, can the highest form of human courage be developed.
While several remnants of belief in reincarnation remain in the biblical Gospels, (see Geddes MacGregor, Reincarnation in Christianity for one) most references to it are said to have been expurgated from the New Testament for reasons covered below.
But if authors from Plato to Julius Caesar wrote about reincarnation of old and poets like the Grail chroniclers and William Wordsworth have celebrated it more recently, why are so many Westerners either oblivious to the concept or consider it a primitive belief that has been supplanted by the dogma of Heaven/Hell?
A Personal Anecdote about the Blinding Effect of Education
I was raised and educated as a Catholic; the word reincarnation has long been “disappeared” from that religion’s lexicon.
Early in life, I became enamored with the famous piece from Henry David Thoreau’s Walden that began: “I went to the woods” and continued on with “because I wished to live deliberately…to drive life into a corner, and reduce it to its lowest terms, and, if it proved to be mean, why then get the whole and genuine meanness of it, and publish its meanness to the world; or if it were sublime, to know it by experience—” But that’s where I always stopped, not even noticing it was mid-sentence.
It was only after I had been introduced to the possibility of reincarnation that I finished reading that last sentence to the end: “…or if it were sublime, to know it by experience, and be able to give a true account of it in my next excursion.” Thoreau, a transcendentalist with reincarnation an integral part his life vision, just assumed he would return to tell the rest of the story. But before my mind was opened to the idea, my eyes did not see the phrase in my next excursion on the page.
I was chagrined, to say the least, to discover at the age of 20 that I had such enormous blind spots. It wasn’t that no one had written about reincarnation; I just didn’t see what was in front me. I was momentarily depressed but then realized that half the planet suffered the same selective blindness.
Justinian and the Council of Constantinople
I smelled foul play here and went on a furious research and reading campaign to discover what happened here. Soon, I was writing a sketch of the later Roman Emperor Justinian and his role in the Council of Constantinople in 553, which declared the doctrine of reincarnation a heresy. This obsession, fittingly, grew into my first major work of historical visionary fiction, The Anathemas, A Novel of Reincarnation and Restitution.
The book tells the whole story, but we can summarize the religious controversy that led to the anathematization of reincarnation with vignettes and quotes from the two opposing sides.
Origen was one of the most revered, influential and prolific theologians in the formative years of Christianity, which featured a struggle to balance Jesus’ original teachings with the need to conform to the mores of the Roman Empire. Unfortunately for Origen, already long deceased, his writings were deemed to contain teachings that did not fit the orthodox pattern when Christianity was adopted as the state religion under Constantine in 325. Reincarnation was one of them.
We know that the soul, which is immaterial and invisible in its nature, exists in no material place without having a body suited to the nature of that place. Accordingly, it at one time puts off one body which was necessary before, but which is no longer adequate in its changed state, and it exchanges it for a second; and at another time it assumes another in addition to the former, which is needed as a better covering, suited to the purer ethereal regions of heaven. ORIGEN, CONTRA CELSUM, BOOK VII
But Origen had a committed following, the neo-Platonist and Gnostic sects among them, and some three hundred years after the theologian’s death, Emperor Justinian, for complex political reasons detailed in my book and elsewhere, decided it was high time to declare Origen and his offensive writings as definitively heretical. Pope Vigilius proved reluctant, so Justinian had him kidnapped from Rome, brought to Constantinople, locked up, and finally forced to sign the Council’s decrees. The first item was this on reincarnation:
If anyone asserts the fabulous pre-existence of souls, and shall assert the monstrous restoration which follows from it: let him be anathema.
The Council issued 15 Anathemas against Origen, the remaining banning other Gnostic teachings that he was seen as upholding. The root heresy in Gnosticism was its claim that the individual had the right to observe and decide for himself based on his experience of God within rather than submit with blind faith to the dogmas promulgated by authority.
Emperor Justinian wrote The Anathemas against Origen and a church Council ratified them. Reincarnation was heresy. All references to it were purged from church literature, and discussion of it was prohibited. The anathemas became part of Canon Law and remain so today.
Here was the answer to source of my blindness. Why did I and so many Westerners not know anything about reincarnation? Because we weren’t supposed to know.
NEXT: Part 2: The Renaissance of Reincarnation: There’s an odd thing about truth… It is resilient; it keeps coming back…