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The Belief in Reincarnation – Man-Made Theory or Sacred Truth?

Representation of a soul undergoing punarjanma...

Representation of a soul undergoing punarjanma. Illustration from Hinduism Today, 2004 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Also called metempsychosis and transmigration, reincarnation is a man-made theory usually presented as fact or sacred law by believers.

Elements of the theory can be found in diverse religions and philosophies, including ancient Greek, Egyptian, Hindu, Buddhist, Taoist, Jain, African and New Age systems.

Reincarnation usually involves ideas of karma and grace. After bodily death, the soul (or in some schools, temporary personality attributes) returns for another birth.

In most traditions the self is said to be on an evolutionary path from unconsciousness to consciousness—that is, from lower to higher or gross to subtle forms of being.

Some branches of contemplative Hinduism maintain that the soul begins in the mineral world and moves upward to the vegetable and animal kingdoms. Eventually it takes birth as a human being. After learning about and making good ethical choices from many human incarnations, the soul reincarnates in astral and heavenly realms before achieving ultimate liberation, awareness and bliss. At this point it never reincarnates into a body, gross or subtle.

Bad ethical choices reverse the process. If a person abuses their freedom, they may reincarnate backwards into the animal kingdom or possibly further down into a temporary hell, of which there are many.

Popular wisdom says God gives perfect punishments and rewards for our deeds. And generally speaking, this is found in reincarnation theory. Good ethical choices gain merit and one reincarnates into a better life next time around.

Bad ethical choices, however, lead to a less auspicious life. This idea is expressed in a Taoist tale, paraphrased as follows:

A man had led a dissolute life and reincarnates as a horse. After a few years the horse grows weary of being whipped by his masters, refuses to eat and dies. He then returns as a dog. Despising this incarnation the dog bites his master’s leg who has him destroyed. He returns in the form of a snake. By now he’s finally learned his lesson. One must play out the hand one is dealt, patiently seeing it through to learn how to be virtuous. As a reformed soul, the snake avoids doing harm to other animals by eating berries and tries to keep itself out of danger. But one day the snake mistakenly dies under the wheel of a cart. Pleading his case before the King of Purgatory, he finds himself reborn a man—a reward for his good intentions. ¹

The Reincarnation of Peter Proud

The Reincarnation of Peter Proud (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

According to this view, suicide is like skipping school (in the cosmic sense) and leads to a regression or less desirable rebirth.

But not all believers in reincarnation take this attitude toward suicide. Some say a similar life situation arises again, and the suicide is forced to repeat the cosmic classroom they didn’t graduate from the first time around.

In most Asian religions God’s grace can mitigate or even erase the effects of bad karma, a fact often overlooked in superficial critiques of reincarnation.

As mentioned, the alleged purpose of reincarnation is to instruct and prepare the soul for a blissful existence in eternity. However, the exact nature of this eternal perfection is outlined differently among schools of Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism and Taoism.

African pre-colonial tribal beliefs about reincarnation differ from their Asian counterparts. African ancestors apparently reincarnate into one or several descendants to give their family more power. The African Ibo believe that one chooses between two bundles before birth – one bundle holds good fortune, the other bad. While the spirit tries its best to choose a favorable incarnation, a formerly evil person enters into a difficult incarnation as a human or animal.

More variants of reincarnation are found within ancestor cults.

In Shakespeare‘s The Merchant of Venice Gratiano suggests that Shylock is a reincarnated wolf. Shakespeare was widely read and often incorporated religion, myth, philosophy and physic into his plays.

In contrast to the belief in reincarnation, the Old Testament says that evil actions are repaid with evil, but not through reincarnation. Evil begets evil through one’s offspring:

The Lord…a God merciful and gracious…forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, yet by no means clearing the guilty, but visiting the iniquity of the parents upon the children and the children’s children, to the third and fourth generation (Exodus 34:7).

In Catholicism, St. Thomas Aquinas refutes reincarnation on the basis of Romans 9: 11-12:

For when they were not yet born, nor had done any good or evil…not of works, but of Him that calleth, it was said to her: The elder shall serve the younger.²

The Reincarnation of Benjamin Breeg

The Reincarnation of Benjamin Breeg (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Some argue that the Catholic notion of purgatory was created as a Christian counterpart to the punishment and purification found in non-Christian beliefs in reincarnation.

In more recent times, some New Age thinkers say that every life is consciously chosen before birth.

Like most metaphysical speculation, we can’t know for sure one way or the other. It may be tempting to believe in reincarnation. As we go deeper in the spiritual life unconventional experiences may arise that seem to point to its reality. But I think we’d do well to stop, look and listen, as the American country western star Patsy Cline put it.³

  • Stop and don’t jump to conclusions
  • Look at what’s happening inside our heads and ask if there’s any other way to account for it
  • Listen to our hearts – Are we really happy with the belief system we’ve invested ourselves in? Or is something leading or, perhaps, calling us to a greater vista than that offered by a mere, man-made theory?

¹Raymond Van Over, ed. Taoist Tales, New York: Meridian Classic, 1973, pp. 52-53.

² The New Testament view of the body and its relation to the afterlife is expressed in I Corinthians 15; 51-52; 2 Corinthians 5:1; I Thessalonians 4:14; John 3: 4-7.

³ I don’t know why that analogy came to me while revising this. But I do know that the Canadian singer K. D. Laing apparently thought she was the reincarnation of Patsy Cline, for a while anyhow. See http://www.thecanadianencyclopedia.ca/en/article/kd-lang-emc/ I don’t know how that would have worked considering Laing was born (November 2, 1961) while Cline was still alive (died March 5, 1963). Delayed entry?

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Swami (or Yogi) Ramacharaka – Privileged mystic or just another person mistaking knowledge for belief?

William_Walker_Atkinson1

William Walker Atkinson (1862–1932) – derived from Wikipedia

Swami or Yogi Ramacharaka (true identity unknown) was a Hindu-influenced mystic philosopher.¹ He or she wrote extensively on astral planes where the self allegedly resides between different incarnations.

In his or her book Mystic Christianity Ramacharaka offers an imaginative, if not scholarly, interpretation of the Bible and the life of Christ. Most likely Ramacharaka had inner visions or experienced imaginal scenes about different Biblical figures. If so, the truthfulness of these interior perceptions seems impossible to prove or disprove.

Putting aside the remote possibility that this unorthodox thinker espoused absolute truth, I think it’s fair to say that, like so many religious thinkers, orthodox or not, Ramacharaka adapts scripture to fit with his or her personal and cultural biases.

The human tendency to select and interpret data runs throughout most of life. Not only are religious people prone to overgeneralizing their personal beliefs. We also see this in the sciences. But because science has impressed and stunned so many, we rarely hear sociological or philosophical critiques of science as we do of religion. Both science and religion, however, have efficacy and drawbacks.

Concerning questions about truth and knowledge, debates as to who’s ‘right’ are common. But it seems almost any truth claim – religious, philosophical or scientific – ultimately comes down to belief. Not everyone appreciates this view. For those hard-headed folk who can’t see past their own customs and habits, I refer you to the philosopher Hume’s critique of causality. I think any serious thinker should consider this at some point in their journey. Just because it’s old thinking doesn’t mean it’s bad or facile. We don’t say that about music and art, do we?

English: Ticket for

Ticket for “Chicago Day” at 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition of 1893. Photocopy by Jacobsteinafm. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

¹ Wikipedia says:

No record exists in India of a Yogi Ramacharaka, nor is there evidence in America of the immigration of a Baba Bharata. Furthermore, although Atkinson may have travelled to Chicago to visit the 1892 – 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition, where the authentic Indian yogi Swami Vivekananda attracted enthusiastic audiences, he is only known to have taken up residence in Chicago around 1900 and to have passed the Illinois Bar Examination in 1903.

See also http://users.telenet.be/ananda/ramach.htm


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What is a Saint?

The word saint (Latin sanctus = sacred or having been made sacred)  has several meanings. In everyday usage, saints are unusually kind, ethical people who perform good works on a local or grand scale which almost everyone can understand and appreciate. Examples would be, “That lady at the charity drive is a real saint” or “Bob’s wife is a real saint to put up with such a grouchy old man!”

The term also denotes the faithful Jews of the Bible and the body of Christian believers. A priest at a parish I attend says in homily that the main point of being a Christian is to become saints in heaven. So going to Mass isn’t only about the social aspects. That’s a part of it, for sure, but the main point is to become a saint worthy of heaven.

For some, saints are Buddhist arhats (monks having achieved Nirvana) and bodhisattvas (monks forgoing entry into Nirvana in order to help others reach that threshold). However, it seems dubious that the realms these saints achieve are the same, qualitatively speaking, as realms created by God. Recall that, no matter which way you slice it, Buddhists don’t believe in God, which is a huge theological difference from religions that do believe in God. And no political correctness will change that difference, not even well-intentioned political correctness.

English: Image of Saint Adalgott. Source Cropp...

Image of Saint Adalgott. Cropped from an image at http://www.unikk.ch/barock/pages/carlen2_1_text.htm (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The term saints also refers to Taoist, Confucian and Hindu sages and gurus (Skt. guru = teacher), African and Amerindian elders, as well as the Shamans of Central and Southeast Asia, Oceania, North America and the Arctic.

In Islam the righteous departed are said to mediate between heaven and Earth.

Robert Ellsberg regards great figures like Galileo Galilei, Leo Tolstoy, Stephen Biko and Dante Alighieri as saints in his book, All Saints.

Some believe that all public figures called “saints” are equally holy but this view is probably more about human preconceptions than God’s assessment of individual holiness.

In Catholicism, the canonized saint leads an exceedingly humble and holy life serving God, is often persecuted, may be martyred and performs by the power of God at least two verified miracles. Some critics of the Catholic process of canonization say that the alleged miracles are, for the most part, cooked up by the Vatican when they want to make someone a saint, mostly for political reasons.

Catholic sainthood often involves the idea of intercession. Intercession is the belief that God’s divine power and grace is mediated by souls in heaven to souls on Earth, purgatory and hell.

Catholics also believe in the communion of saints, the idea that all souls, except for the damned, are united in a “mystical body” with Christ as the head. So the idea of interconnected souls is not necessarily something of the occult (unless one views Catholicism as a Satanic cult, as some do).

Another aspect of the Catholic faith is the belief that individuals cooperate with God’s plan of salvation through vocal and mental prayer (interior contemplation). Prayerful saints cooperate with the divine plan but do not effect salvation through their own power.

Catholics may pray for one another but again, they request God’s help. They don’t play the role of spiritual “big shot” or “guru” like some in other religious paths do. At least, they shouldn’t. This unsavory element arguably creeps in with hot shot charismatic preachers who make the rounds in Catholic circles, charging considerable fees for inspirational speaking or guided retreats (some retreats seeming more like middle class getaways, social events or fundraisers than serious spiritual sanctuaries).

Some Protestants object to the idea of the Catholic saint, saying that the saints are nothing but manmade gods or goddesses—that is, pagan. Catholics reply to this misguided charge that saints are friends and servants of God, not a god nor God. Many Protestants pray for others but object to the Catholic idea of interceding saints. To this the Catholic replies: If someone on Earth can pray for another person on Earth, why cannot a soul in heaven pray for someone on Earth?

According to Catholic teaching there are innumerable unrecognized saints. These unsung heroes of the spirit are said to achieve a great degree of spiritual purity without ever having set foot in a monastery or abbey.

This is good to remember. Otherwise we might misunderstand or judge harshly some individuals in contemporary society not primarily concerned with sex, wealth, status or raising a family. In fact, there seems to be a recent trend to call people “mentally ill” if they don’t conform to prevailing norms which, perhaps, are not always in line with trying to follow God’s will.

In a nutshell, the true individual is often misunderstood and sometimes persecuted by the crowd. Considering the tremendous diversity of individuals and spiritual paths throughout our ever changing world, to insist on rigid criteria for sainthood seems both arbitrary and unwise.


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Skepticism – An old way of finding out new things

skepticism by Christina

Image – Christina B Castro via Flickr

In philosophy skepticism is the notion that we cannot know things beyond a shadow of a doubt.

Extreme skepticism contends that we cannot be certain about the truth of any belief, including the belief in skepticism.

Softer forms of skepticism point to specific branches of inquiry or to a method of doubt that attempts to clarify uncertainties, even if imperfectly so.

One can believe and still be a skeptic, as outlined in the following:

The true meaning of the word skepticism has nothing to do with doubt, disbelief, or negativity. Skepticism is the process of applying reason and critical thinking to determine validity. It’s the process of finding a supported conclusion, not the justification of a preconceived conclusion.

It’s thus inaccurate to say “Skeptics don’t believe in ghosts.” Some do. Many skeptics are deeply religious, and are satisfied with the reasoning process that led them there. Skeptics apply critical thinking to different aspects of their lives in their own individual way. Everyone is a skeptic to some degree.¹

The notion of skepticism is, perhaps, traceable to the apparent humility of Socrates (469–399 BCE),  as opposed to the use of Socrates as a literary character by Plato to advocate the theory of Forms. However scholars usually say that the first known skeptic is Pyrrho of Elis (365–275 BCE).

English: René Descartes, the French philosophe...

René Descartes, the French philosopher, by the French engraver Balthasar Moncornot. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The influential Islamic philosopher and psychologist Al-Ghazali (1058-1111)  promoted a type of skepticism that some say may have influenced René Descartes method of doubt as found in his Discourse on the Method. Here, Descartes starts off as a skeptic, finds himself in intellectual hot water, so relies on his essentially theological beliefs about the goodness of God to bail himself out.²

Another type of skepticism is geared more toward corrective social practice—namely, professional skepticism. A professional skeptic would be hired to discover and help prosecute frauds, hostile infiltrators and unduly corrupt individuals hiding out under seemingly legitimate covers.³

¹ The reference to this quote also mentions the popular usage that to be a skeptic is to, more often than not, bash certain ideas: https://skeptoid.com/skeptic.php

² Descartes looks into the problem of solipsism, which I don’t think requires a belief in God to reject. The mere uncertainly should be enough. For what if the solipsist is wrong? Can he or she be a truly ethical person with no respect for the (possible) reality of others?

³ http://www.answers.com/Q/What_is_professional_skepticism

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Synchronicity – A concept that may become increasingly important in our emerging quantum worldview

Chambre de glace dans le pays

Chambre de glace dans le pays by Sýn En via Flickr

Synchronicity is a term coined by the Swiss psychiatrist Carl G. Jung to represent the idea of meaningful coincidence. Implicit to Jung’s idea of synchronicity is the belief that all of creation is somehow interconnected, not only through space but also time.

Whether or not synchronicity is a truly scientific concept remains open to debate. If science is understood as something that must be predictive, then synchronicity can probably never be a scientific concept. If science, however, is understood as acquiring knowledge and wisdom though trial and error, then synchronicity might play into a new kind of scientific rubric, one that believes in an essential connection between consciousness and the world in which it resides.

Synchronicity takes three main forms:

  • The coincidence of a psychological state with a corresponding, simultaneously occurring external event with no evidence of causality
  • The coincidence of a psychological state with a corresponding, simultaneous external event that occurs at a distance, beyond the observer’s normal range of perception
  • The coincidence of a psychological state with a corresponding event that will occur in the future and which may be verified after its occurrence

Also a point of debate is whether or not synchronicity is a causal or acausal phenomenon. Jung says it is acausal but also suggests that the archetypes of the collective unconscious can lead us toward synchronicity, implying some kind of causality.

This uncertainty might result from different understandings about the nature of consciousness—particularly, what constitutes the locus of consciousness. From the perspective of the ego, synchronicity is acausal. But from the perspective of the unconscious, particularly the collective unconscious, synchronicity could have seemingly causal elements. Jung touches on this ambiguity but, as far as I can see, never fully resolves it. Some might see this as a weakness or, more favorably, as a reflection of our essentially mysterious world.

seaorange by shannon kringen

seaorange by shannon kringen via Flickr

Concerning ethics, synchronicity is ambiguous in the sense that nasty people, even murderers, experience synchronicity along with saints, seers and holy people. Because the concept of synchronicity bears some similarity to the notion of the religious sign, it is not surprising that various attempts have been made to link this aspect of Jungian thought to theology.

The following represents an attempt to synthesize Christian belief with the concept of synchronicity:

The natural universe, in the Jungian sense of the term natural, contains physical and spiritual dimensions. A person who acknowledges only the reality of the physical realm is incapable of recognizing how synchronicity operates in the New Testament and in our world and cannot see the power of the spiritual. By contrast, a person who goes to the other extreme, who sees reality only in the spiritual realm and denies reality in the physical world, will not spend much time bettering the world and will fall readily into superstition.¹

Some philosophers dismiss the entire notion of synchronicity with the idea of “confirmation bias.” Confirmation bias is described in Wikipedia as

the tendency to search for, interpret, favor, and recall information in a way that confirms one’s preexisting beliefs or hypotheses, while giving disproportionately less consideration to alternative possibilities.²

However, we can turn the idea of confirmation bias right back on those who adhere to it as if it were some kind of sacrosanct universal principle. The idea of confirmation bias is certainly worthy of consideration; nevertheless, Jung stressed that one doesn’t look for synchronicity but simply witnesses it. So people who actively seek out “signs” in every bird that flies across the sky, for instance, are not really candidates for the legitimate experience of synchronicity, as defined by Jung.³

Synchronicity (album)

Synchronicity (pop music album) via Wikipedia

Moreover, some theologians consider the possibility that a biased mind, which we all most likely have, could be informed by supernatural influences transcending one’s psychological makeup.

So to reduce all synchronistic experience to a humanly constructed idea of “confirmation bias” is arguably limiting and not scientific in the fullest sense of the word. This is especially so since Jung says synchronicity often involves the inner experience of numinosity along with the observation of external data.4

The following graphic about synchronicity came up through the Zemanta blogging assistant plugin. I haven’t fully reflected on it so am hesitant to say it accurately depicts Jung’s vision. But it is thought-provoking and might help to illustrate some, if not all, of the issues that synchronicity could involve:5

Image via Wikipedia

Image via Wikipedia

¹  Morton T. Kelsey, Christo-psychology, New York: Crossroad, 1982, p. 131.

² Compare to the Wikipedia definition provided at the time of the last update for this entry: a tendency to search for or interpret new information in a way that confirms one’s preconceptions and avoids information and interpretations which contradict prior beliefs (2009/04/15).

³ (a) See https://epages.wordpress.com/2016/09/08/carl-jung-a-complicated-guy-in-a-complicated-world

(b) Not unlike religious people and their signs, believers often feel that synchronicity confirms choices they’ve made, that they are still on the right path, even if they’ve been through a trying time. I must admit that I have felt this way in my life. But we should keep in mind the possibility that had we made different choices along the way, we still might have experienced synchronicity. A friend once suggested this possibility to me. And although I still do feel comforted by synchronicities from time to time, I think my friend’s suggestion is a good, healthy reality check to keep in mind.

4 I am fully aware that using the term “external ‘is problematic, especially in this context. But a discussion of this complex philosophical issue is beyond the scope of this entry.

5 Compare to Jung’s own diagram, reproduced on p. 197 here http://www.collectionscanada.gc.ca/obj/s4/f2/dsk3/ftp04/nq21958.pdf

On the Web:

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What is a Doctrine?

Cora Indian man, wearing a scary colorful demon mask, walks in a procession during the sacred ritual ceremony of Semana Santa (Holy Week) in Jesús María, Nayarit, Mexico. The annual week-long Easter festivity (called La Judea), performed in the rugged mountain country of Sierra del Nayar, merges indigenous tradition (regeneration of life worshipping) and animistic beliefs with the Christian dogma… Click on image for full description.

A doctrine is a teaching or specific belief within a larger set of beliefs. The term usually refers to religion and politics but is used for emphasis in other areas.

For example, some believe that the entire notion of progress is something that should be subject to sociological and philosophic scrutiny. Does society really progress or just change? Do we advance in some areas and regress in others? This question doesn’t only apply to technology but to human rights and morality.¹

¹ The following shows that “doctrine” is also used historically » http://www.answers.com/Q/What_is_the_doctrine_of_progress

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Shaman

The Shamans vision by seriykotik1970 / Ian

The Shamans vision by seriykotik1970 / Ian

A shaman (From Evenki, saman: ecstatic one) is a healer or wise-person, believed to have the ability to perceive spiritual beings and matrices of power, and in some instances perform magic.

Shamans believe that their otherworldly focus may bring tangible results into the mundane world.

Shamanic practice often involves entering into trance states induced by rhythmic music, drumming, dancing, the wearing of animal pelts or paraphernalia such as feathers and horns, and imbibing in naturally occurring psychedelic drugs like peyote.

The visions and journeys of the shaman are said to transcend the usual boundaries of space and time. And some shamans apparently perform unusual feats such as creating a butterfly out of thin air.

Many shamans adhere to a cosmology of three interconnected worlds:

  • The underworld of demons and spirits of the unhappy dead
  • The middle world of everyday earthly life
  • The upper world of helpful spirits

In shamanism mental and physical illness is often seen as a loss or theft of the soul. To heal another person, the shaman apparently embarks on a spiritual voyage to recover a soul to its rightful owner. Alternately, they may remove a spiritual object from a sick person’s soul that is presumably responsible for the illness.

Because it is believed that illness may be brought on by spiritual attack or molestation, the shaman battles negative spiritual forces, beings and objects, which in subtle planes may be tampering with a sick person’s soul.

Most negative forces are said to emerge from the underworld into the middle world, where the shaman battles them by harnessing the helping powers of upper world spirits.

dream of the shaman by Cornelia Kopp

dream of the shaman by Cornelia Kopp

Anthropological research on shamanism suggests that many shamans undergo some form of crisis at a young age, which in contemporary society would likely be viewed as a breakdown or the onset of a mental illness.

This crisis may involve an inner experience of being dismembered, seeing one’s skeleton or being skinned alive.

While some may uncritically accept the enchanting and miraculous truth-claims made by shamans, others would probably say we have no way of knowing whether or not shamanic altered states are genuinely spiritual or mere personal wishes, physiologically induced hallucinations or the activation of memory or primitive brain regions. As for stories about magic, these in large part remain part of an oral tradition, sometimes recorded by anthropologists but clearly not part of the mainstream media or scientific community.

Some traditional Christians see the whole shamanic experience as somewhat egotistic, perhaps compensatory, and spiritually inferior to the Christian light. Some may see it as demonic deception.

Regardless where one stands on this issue, it seems valid to ask the following questions:

  • Are some shamans opportunists capitalizing on the vulnerability or gullibility of others?
  • Do some shamans deceive themselves and truly believe they’re doing valuable spiritual work when, in fact, unresolved psychological issues contribute to their spiritual deception?
  • Or, conversely, might the shaman truly have access to realms, powers and abilities that most of us do not understand nor possess?
  • And a fourth option – Do some shamans access actual realms and do real work but, nevertheless, could “graduate,” as it were, to a higher level of spiritual work?

The Romanian scholar Mircea Eliade notes that not all initiated into shamanism emerge as successful shamans. Some fail to regain a sense of psychological balance deemed meaningful by self and society. Others choose to pursue another vocation if being a shaman is not economically viable within their community.¹

¹ Eliade stresses that shamans experience “ecstasy” but some feel that he doesn’t define that term very well. See http://community.davidbowie.com/index.php?app=core&module=search&do=search&fromMainBar=1

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