The Problem with Reincarnation

When you are raised believing in reincarnation, it seems so natural.  So fair and logical.  And when I say “believing in” I mean to say that it was a main component of our faith system.  It was integral to the theology.  It wasn’t some vague notion of having been someone awesome in your past life which thus makes you somehow more awesome by some kind of cosmic association and then will you please pass the carrots.

No.  It was, everyone was, quite serious.

When you are raised believing in a loving God who created a unique you, with all your marvelous talents and delicious quirks, your precious individuality that could never have existed and will never exist outside of you, that you, personally, are inherently worthy of respect and love merely by virtue of your existence, and you know it and believe it and love it, you will look at your mother with wide, incredulous eyes the first time she tries to explain the concept of reincarnation to you and you will say “that makes no sense!”.

Yes.  You will say it and you will mean it.

And that is the problem with reincarnation.  Either you, you, YOU, as an individual, the person you are, who God willed you to be, matter.  And other people, themselves, those imperfect, flawed, regular people, people just like you and me, matter OR there is reincarnation.  You can’t have it both ways.

Now before I go on (and to those of you whose heads are spinning and who wish I would stick to goat anecdotes, I’m truly sorry for delving into such a niche topic.  But I heard a whisper, so I answered), let’s be clear on the kind of reincarnation I’m referring to, just in case there are other types, because with this sort of thing there so often are.

I am talking about everyone reincarnating every time they die unless they have lived the sort of life or been given the sort of thing or have had the sort of luck (more on that another time if you demand, but I think for now we can leave it at that) that allows your soul, which is you, to go to heaven.  We didn’t call it heaven, but let’s agree to label it that today.  And if they don’t go to heaven, people don’t just come back as other people.  No, they can reincarnate as goats or blades of grass or trees or heiresses to multimillion dollar fortunes, all depending on what they’ve done in this life.  Well, what their body has done in this life.  Because you are not your body.  You are a soul trapped in a body and your job is to do enough good things and follow the rules so that you can escape the “cycle of birth and death” and finally go to heaven.

Gosh I hope that makes even a little bit of sense.  Because what I really want to talk about is how this kind of thinking made me a self-loathing jerk and how the answer to all the self-esteem questions of our age can be answered with three little words: God. Loves. YOU.

So, back to how you can’t have it both ways.

Believing in reincarnation requires that you distance yourself from your self.  The only self you can really know, which is the body you’re using right now to read this.  Reincarnation says “this body’s just a lump of flesh” (an actual line from a kids’ song we all used to sing when we were little).  Don’t get attached to it.  In fact, if you loathe it a little, that would probably be best, because then you won’t be in danger of loving this material illusion of self.  The self that you are is a soul, a soul you can’t possibly know.  A soul that has been in other bodies (which you don’t know) and may very well be in other bodies in the future (which you simply can’t know).

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Dwija Borobia lives with her husband and their five kids in rural southwest Michigan in a fixer-upper they bought sight-unseen off the internet. Between homeschooling and corralling chickens, she pretends her time on the internet doesn’t count because she uses the computer standing up. You can read more on her blog house unseen. life unscripted.

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  • http://lesliesholly.wordpress.com/ Leslie

    Love, love, love.  One of the (many) things I love about our faith is the incarnational emphasis–that we aren’t just souls or bodies but embodied souls.  This disdain for the physical seems to be present even in many Christian religions today.  And don’t you love it when your kids can see straight to the heart of issues that confuse adults?

  • Elise Hilton

    Another problem with reincarnation comes from Woody Allen:  “That means I’d have to sit through the Ice Capades again….”

  • http://twitter.com/HouseUnseen Dwija Borobia

    Exactly.  When my husband, who was then my boyfriend, first told me about me, as Dwija, not  just as soul, being important, I literally couldn’t understand it for a while.  And there my kids, 9 and 10 years old: instant recognition.  Pretty incredible.

  • http://twitter.com/HouseUnseen Dwija Borobia

    Ah, reincarnating as oneself might even be worse than doing the blade of grass thing.  Seriously.

  • http://www.martinfamilymoments.blogspot.com/ Colleen Martin

    I love reading things like this because it makes me realize how lucky I was to be raised by such wonderful Catholic parents.  I didn’t need to “learn” or “think” about any of these things.  They just *were*.  Of course we are created in the Image and Likeness of God, and He looked at His creations and said we were good.  To me, that’s like…duh!  It’s nice to see how other people come to understand the beauty of the faith when sometimes I take it for granted.

  • http://twitter.com/HouseUnseen Dwija Borobia

    I hope my kids feel the same way you do, Colleen.  Thank you!

  • http://www.clan-donaldson.com/ Cari@Clan-Donaldson

    The biggest problem I had with reincarnation during my travels, was the notion that it turned God into a dupe.  After all, if (as I understood it), people with more materially comfortable lives had gotten there as a result of playing by the rules in previous lives, what did that mean when they ended up obviously NOT playing by the rules in their cushy lives?  God couldn’t see that one coming?  And what about this version of God that obviously valued material comfort enough to provide it as a reward?  How did that jive with the material world being an illusion?  This meant that this god either gave crappy gifts that he knew were fake, or, as previously stated, he was a dupe.

    Thanks for writing this.  

  • http://www.clan-donaldson.com/ Cari@Clan-Donaldson

    The biggest problem I had with reincarnation during my travels, was the notion that it turned God into a dupe.  After all, if (as I understood it), people with more materially comfortable lives had gotten there as a result of playing by the rules in previous lives, what did that mean when they ended up obviously NOT playing by the rules in their cushy lives?  God couldn’t see that one coming?  And what about this version of God that obviously valued material comfort enough to provide it as a reward?  How did that jive with the material world being an illusion?  This meant that this god either gave crappy gifts that he knew were fake, or, as previously stated, he was a dupe.

    Thanks for writing this.  

  • http://twitter.com/HouseUnseen Dwija Borobia

    Or, He doesn’t actually care.  “Here’s the game.  Play it.  If I see ya back someday, that’ll be cool.  If not….sucks for you!”

  • C W

    Dwija! You rock! But you are not a rock. Thank you for taking the time to explain this. I love your perspective and your insights into a culture I know absolutely nothing about. I’m letting my teenagers read this!

  • C W

    I didn’t mean to log in with my Google account. This is Charlotte (Waltzing Matilda) by the way.

  • Gail Finke

    Dweej that was beautiful and heartbreaking.

  • http://truedaughterofmary.blogspot.com/ Meganj@truedaughter

    This was interesting. As a cradle Catholic, I have never given the concept much thought. I just thought it was another nutty idea. I have looked at other belief systems, and for me, it always, always brings me back to the Catholic faith – it is where the Truth is…as I like to say to my non-Christian friends….if they are right, I have done no harm to myself or humanity as a Christian. If they are wrong, well, I’d not want to be them on judgement day!

  • http://people-as-guate.blogspot.com/ Steph

    This is an interesting topic, thanks for sharing!  I had never thought about this before but I think you hit the nail on the head with the idea that reincarnation is problematic, since it would tell us that we as individuals don’t matter.

    There is a really fascinating book out there called “My Stroke of Insight” in which a neuroscientist relates her experience of having a stroke localized in her left brain. At some point, she lost brain cells in enough parts of the left brain to the extent where she could no longer perceive the limits of her body (turns out there is a brain center in the left brain responsible for this) and was consumed by a sense of peace that almost prevented her from calling to receive help. (Some part of her left brain reminded her that she had an individual identity!) It took her months to recover the perception that her body was separate from her surroundings and even after her recovery, she can slip back into that “right-brain” state of mind. Her story is a fascinating testimony to the power of balancing the left and right brains. After her stroke she says she is way more relaxed, kinder, and mellow because the self-critical part of her left brain has been quieted down a bit.

    After reading her book, I wondered (as does she) if many of the traditions that believe in reincarnation/strive for nirvana are tapping in to those areas of the brain when they talk about being able to cut off the self-ego? 

    Her book is nothing if not  a testimony to the power of how we train our brains… on that note I don’t
    find it surprising that kids in the US would intuitively take issue with the idea of
    reincarnation. Our left brains are heavily trained from a very young
    age that each of us is special and important!

    Although human existence wouldn’t be possible without that synergy between left-brain ego and right brain super-ego, let alone some of human existence’s most beautiful attributes such as love and kindness…  Analyzing just on a purely physiological standpoint it would seem evident that our greatest capacity for those things is based on an intricate balance between right and left brains.

    that is a mystery to puzzle out and one that I think has always
    remained for those faiths espousing detachment as the path to salvation.
    But I think simultaneously keeping our smallness in mind is not a bad thing, either, though, especially when our left brain calls us to cruelty or pettiness.

  • Issy

    I believe in reincarnation as the true consequence of going to hell.

    When we die we will face true judgement.. if we lived our life according to the teaching of Love then we will carry on the path that’s been created for our soul..

    But if we lived our life selfishly and only according to our own ego then the punishment will be to be sent back to earth and have another opportunity for redemption.
    That theory makes perfect sense to me as God is love and will always give that extra chance for change.

    Also, hell has always been described as a Godless place and there are so many situations and places in this world in which God doesn’t seem to be there..

    I do believe that the Catholics got it right in believing that through suffering we can redeem ourselves. But i also believe that Love is another accessible way to earn Heaven.
    In fact the difference between Heaven and hell is in the physicality of it. Hell is just like earth where it’s the matter, the material that counts; on the other hand, Heaven is spiritual, that’s why inaccessible on earth.

    The souls of the “good” people will carry on on the path that they have already started in this world whereas the souls of the “bad” people will be thrown in the lake that burns with fire and brimstone.. meaning they are going to be sent back to earth through the process of purification. They will come back to face the consequences of their sinning and will be given the chance to walk on the right path. Then once they die again they will be reminded of their previous life or lives. Just like a person suffering of amnesia they will be able to remember who they were and it all will make sense to them.

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