“As they were coming down the mountain, Jesus instructed them, ‘Don’t tell anyone what you have seen, until the Son of Man has been raised from the dead.’ The disciples asked him, ‘Why then do the teachers of the law say that Elijah must come first?’
“Jesus replied, ‘To be sure, Elijah comes and will restore all things. But I tell you, Elijah has already come, and they did not recognize him, but have done to him everything they wished. In the same way the Son of Man is going to suffer at their hands.’ Then the disciples understood that he was talking to them about John the Baptist.” (Matt 17:9–13)
In his stunning work Meditations on the Tarot, Valentin Tomberg, as fervent (if idiosyncratic) a Catholic as you could find, nevertheless holds to the doctrine of reincarnation. It’s not exactly the thesis of his text, but it is a thread that runs throughout it. For Tomberg, reincarnation is not something one needs to prove; it’s simply a fact. As he writes,
“Reincarnation is in no way a theory which one has to believe or not believe. In Hermeticism no one would dream of putting forward a case in order to persuade, or even to dissuade, people of the truth of the ‘eincarnationist theory’. For the Hermeticist it is a fact which is either known through experience or ignored. Just as one does not make propaganda for or against the fact that we sleep at night and wake up anew each morning —for this is a matter of experience —so is the fact that we die and are born anew a matter of experience, i.e. either one has certainty about it or else one does not. But those who arc certain should know that ignorance of reincarnation often has very profound and even sublime reasons associated with the vocation of the person in question. When, for example, a person has a vocation which demands a maximum of concentration in the present, he may renounce all spiritual memories of the past. Because the awakened memory is not always beneficial; it is often a burden. It is so, above all. when it is a matter of a vocation which demands an attitude entirely free of all prejudice, as is the case with the vocations of priest, doctor and judge. The priest, doctor and judge have to concentrate themselves in such a way on the tasks of the present that they must not be distracted by memories of former existences.”1
To this he adds:
“For reincarnation is neither a dogma, i.e. a truth necessary for salvation, nor a heresy, i.e. contrary to a truth necessary for salvation. It is simply a fact of experience, just as sleep and heredity are. As such, it is neutral. Everything depends on its interpretation. One can interpret it in such a manner as to make it a hymn to the glory of God—and one can interpret it in such a way as to make it a blasphemy.”
Of course, some might take issue with this.
Rudolf Steiner, another devoted but idiosyncratic Christian, also held to reincarnation, and Tomberg, deeply influenced by Steiner, no doubt found validation for his own intuitions in the work of the Austrian philosopher.
Some people suspect that, because I have written positively about both Steiner and Tomberg, that I, like they, am a believer in reincarnation. It’s not so simple as that.
Now, I have no qualms about believing that Tibetan Buddhist lamas are able to predict who will be their parents in their next lifetime. The reports of such occurrences, like this one, are far too common to dismiss so easily. Furthermore, having studied it over many years and having taught it in college courses, I can confidently say that The Tibetan Book of the Dead may be the best book on Purgatory ever written. Plato also believed in the return of souls after death. And he wasn’t exactly a dummy.
My problem with reincarnation, in fact, is mostly due to the simplistic or egotistical ways I’ve seen people—among some esotericists, Anthroposophists, Theosophists, and American practitioners of Buddhism, in particular—propose their notions of reincarnation (comparable to the droves of bush league Deconstructionists who followed in the wake of Jacques Derrida’s more subtle employment of Deconstruction). Rudolf Steiner also encountered the type. When after a lecture a woman approached him and told him that she was the reincarnation of Mary Magdalen, Steiner is reported to have replied, “Congratulations! You’re the twenty-fifth Mary Magdalen I’ve met this lifetime!”
Many postmodern reincarnationists, it seems to me, have a spiritually lazy approach to dealing with, as we call it, “their shit.” They attribute interpersonal strife as “due to karma” and then move on. But this kind of moving on is not exactly moving on. More like running away. The main thing it avoids is forgiveness. People don't like to forgive.
Understanding the Church’s hostility to the notion of reincarnation, Tomberg explains why its popularization could be problematic:
“It is the faith that you, dear Unknown Friend, understand the weight of responsibility that weighs on each person who sees himself treating reincarnation nor as belonging to the domain of esoteric (i.e. intimate) experience, but as an exoteric teaching to popularise—called to convince everyone—which has determined me to speak of the practical abuse of the fact of reincarnation. I implore you therefore, dear Unknown Friend, to have the good will to examine, in the light of moral conscience, the question whether the way of treating reincarnation in exoteric teaching that has been adopted and is practised in general both by representatives of the French occult movement of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries and by Theosophists. Anthroposophists. Rosicrucians, etc., is justified and desirable.”2
Though some suggest the Bible doesn’t teach reincarnation, I don’t think it’s as simple as that. First of all, the kabbalah, a Jewish mystical teaching born of deep contemplation of scripture, proposes a doctrine of sod ha-gilgul, “the revolution of souls.”3 And it is easy to interpret, as many have, Jesus’s words following the Transfiguration quoted above as evidence for reincarnation.
For my part, I could best be described as a reincarnation conscientious objector or reincarnation agnostic. I certainly think it is possible, and probably true, but I don’t sit around thinking about what my past lives must have been or how they may have contributed to my path through life. There is simply too much important to attend to right now.
A clip from Sean Walsh's film Bloom, based on James Joyce's Ulysses, a book structured on the motif of metempsychosis.
Michael's latest book is Transfiguration: Notes toward a Radical Catholic Reimagination of Everything. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org See also The Center for Sophiological Studies' available courses, including one on The Metaphysical Poets.
1 [Valentin Tomberg], Meditations on the Tarot: A Journey into Christian Hermeticism (Angelico Press, 2019), 92 – 93 (forthcoming).
2 Ibid., 362.
3 Simcah Paull Raphael, Jewish Views of the Afterlife, 3rd ed. (Rowman & Littlefield, 2019), chapter 8, “The Afterlife Journey of the Soul in Kabbalah.”