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Sketch of Rudolf Steiner lecturing at the East-West Conference in Vienna.

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Reincarnation: Reincarnation in the Light of Religion



NOTHING, almost nothing is said about reincarnation in the Bible. The idea that the individual human being is not upon earth for the first time, nor for the last time, is certainly almost taken for granted in the older religions of mankind. But to the Bible, the religious guide of European humanity, it is foreign.

Indeed, when the doctrine of reincarnation came up during the last century and received sympathetic hearing, traces of it were sought for in the Bible. There was great activity, especially in English-American Theosophical circles, in seeking for Bible texts to support the new favourite theory. But only dilettanti could believe in such proofs as were brought forward.

For example, they pointed to the words in the ninetieth Psalm: “Thou turnest man to destruction, and sayest, Return ye children of men.” Surely reincarnation is here clearly taught? Well — apart from the fact that no Rabbi would ever have understood this passage so, and therefore its secret intention of speaking of reincarnation would have failed in its effect — if one looks up the original text one finds the words: “Thou causest man to return to the dust, and sayest, Go back, thou children of men.” It is a return into the earth which is spoken of, not a return on to the earth. In the parallel measure of Hebrew poetry death is here spoken of, not rebirth. Men are reminded that the God who has raised them up out of the dust will bring them hack thither. There were also other explanations of this passage: “Thou causest men to return to the dust and sayest, ‘Come again, ye other children of men.’” Even if this were correct, which is improbable, it would not say the least thing about reincarnation, but would rather speak against it.

Yet, is there not found in the ninth chapter of John's gospel, in the passage where Christ meets the man born blind, the question: “Master, who did sin, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” If it is declared to be possible that this man himself had sinned, because he had been born blind, then that must have happened in a previous life! Then, does Christ here teach the doctrine of reincarnation? Certainly not. Here, of course, reincarnation appears in the background. We can well imagine that in the world of that time, when commerce threw all kinds of men together, such ideas must have been discussed in Palestine also. It is also possible that out of the darkness of the mysteries it may have entered into the minds of the disciples. For it really was a significant moment in the history of man when the disciples appeared before Christ and said, “Master, a harsh fate here lies before us. Among men there are two entirely different explanations of such a fate. Israel teaches that the sins of the fathers are visited upon the children unto the third and fourth generations. India teaches that men's misfortunes point to their own sins in an earlier incarnation. Which of these explanations is correct?” But the disciples do not “teach” reincarnation, but at most ask about it. Still less does Christ in this passage teach reincarnation. He rather says, “Neither hath this man sinned nor his parents, but that the works of God should be made manifest in him.” Then does Christ expressly reject reincarnation in this passage? If so, then should we not have here the saying from the Bible that we should want, in order to prove the doctrine of reincarnation to be false; or, to put it in a more modern and unobjectionable way, not in accordance with Christ's opinion, but contradictory to it? Yet that would prove too much, more than we ourselves like. For one would say by that that Christ also expressly rejected the Israelitish point of view, that the sins of the fathers are visited upon the children. Can He have done that? Could He have placed Himself in opposition to the holiest thing Israel possessed — to the ten commandments — and not have brought upon Himself the accusation of heresy? No, that which Christ wished to tell the disciples can only be this: “Your attitude to such a human misfortune is false. It is your task to look at what ought to come to pass.” The decisive question is not “Why?” but “For what end?” One can feel Christ's dislike of the dead way in which the disciples think, making a case of need into a problem for discussion, whilst Christ came to such a case in quite a different spirit, having perceived long before, through His will to help, what ought to happen. And therefore Christ's saying is an energetic rebuff to the merciless theorising with which such urgent need was not seldom treated in the East as, for example, it was in the case of the women taken in adultery, immediately before. (John VIII, 5). For example, the Tamil proverb: “Wilt thou see virtue and vice, then look at the litter and those who carry it,” is conceived in a spirit as contradictory as possible to the spirit of Christ. And this will again become a danger, when men busy themselves more earnestly with the thought of reincarnation. Then the spirit of Christ may rise up against men's unfeeling ways of thinking. But one cannot incidentally by such a saying of Christ, overthrow an ancient human idea, without saying that one would be ready at the same time to break in pieces the Old Testament.

In a similar way we could discuss the pros and cons of other passages in the Bible. But there is one saying which we could not rightly treat in this way. It is a saying from Christ's own mouth, a part of the great declaration in which He placed His fore-runner in the right light, when John had sent messengers from his prison to question Him: “And if ye will receive it, this John is Elias who was for to come. He that hath ears let him hear.” (Matthew XI, 14, 15). And again there is an especially important passage after the transfiguration: “His disciples asked Him saying, ‘Why then say the scribes that Elias must first come?’ And Jesus answered and said unto them, ‘Elias truly shall first come, and restore all things. But I say unto you that Elias is come already, and they knew him not, but have done unto him whatever they listed. Likewise shall also the Son of Man suffer of them.’ Then the disciples understood that He spake unto them of John the Baptist.” (Matthew XVII, 10-13). These are words which one ought to consider carefully. Certainly, if one has no other basis for the doctrine of reincarnation, one can fall back upon the explanation that an Elias, a “man in the spirit and power of Elias” is meant. One will put beside it the announcement made by the angel to Zacharias (Luke I, 17). “He shall go before him in the spirit and power of Elias.” One will perhaps point to the testimony of John himself, who answered the question: “Art thou Elias?” by saying emphatically, “I am not.” (John I, 21). But can one prevent others from taking such a saying of Christ seriously, and understanding it literally? Even if John did not know about his former personality, that would be no proof that it had not existed. The Baptist's saying, “I am not,” apart from the immediate meaning of the words, may stress the contrary of the “I am” which from that time is constantly spoken by Christ in John's gospel. So that John whether consciously or not — leads one away from his ego, to the ego which now comes into the forefront. I, in my human personality, will be nothing but a voice calling for Christ, calling on behalf of Christ!

And if someone should reply: — “But even then it is an exceptional case that a man should return; and it is mentioned as an exceptional case in Christ's saying” then one must answer again; — “But that proves that a man can come back. And who will say that this was, and has remained, an exceptional case? In the same passage it is suggested that it was possible for Jeremiah also to return. And in the Talmud, reincarnations are spoken of.”

It is only reluctantly that we enter upon this game of question and answer. We are here speaking to people who can receive no new truth about man's life without consulting the Bible. With them we must wrestle for the right to take a saying of Christ in its proper meaning. For the refusal to accept the thought of reincarnation has today the upper hand in traditional Christianity, and in all that which, consciously or unconsciously, is influenced by it. But the path to reincarnation is nearer to the thought of the Bible than is usually supposed. Reasons, indeed, can be given why men's thoughts were at that time turned away from that path. This we shall still have to discuss.

At all events, on the other hand, it is noteworthy that in the New Testament there is nowhere to be found a saying which expressly refuses the thought of reincarnation in the great and wide sense in which we have explained it. For the single saying which has been brought forward is not sufficient to deny it. That saying is found in the Epistle to the Hebrews (IX, 27, 28), “And as it is appointed unto men once to die, but after this the judgment; so Christ was once offered to bear the sins of many; and unto them that look for Him shall He appear the second time, without sin unto salvation.” From such a passage it can only be concluded that the doctrine of reincarnation lay outside the apostle's circle of vision. His field of vision included the first and second coming of Christ. The contrast which stood before his soul is the distinction between the yearly sacrifice made by the High Priest in the temple, and the sacrifice of Christ made once only upon Golgotha. If Christ comes back, He comes again differently — just as a different life begins after death for man. To conclude from such a passage that in this comparative sentence “as” — “so,” the doctrine of reincarnation is incidently decided against, reminds one of the bad old method of using proof-texts. The only clear interpretation is that the author had no thought of the return of man to earth.

Therefore it is really certain that the doctrine of reincarnation is not a Bible doctrine. There is not even a hint of it — apart from Christ's saying about John the Baptist. Anyone, therefore, who will hold only to the doctrine expressed in the Bible, must give up the doctrine of reincarnation.

But ought one still to take the field in such Biblical armour against the perception of the truth? Once before, when the Copernican idea of the universe arose in the thoughts of men there was a struggle. Did the resistance to it, which was based on the Bible, help or hinder the Bible itself? And if anyone would say, “That is something external, but now the question is an inward one; then it had to do with a view of the universe, but now with a view of life” — where is the dividing line? Is not this separating of outward from inward a helpless expedient, an impossibility? That was shown when the doctrine of the descent of man came. Is it external or inward? No, one does the greatest honour to the Bible if one does not make it a prison, either for men or for truth. We do not accept the Bible, because it is the Bible, but because it is the truth. Therefore we accept the truth also, not because it is the Bible, but because it is the truth. If the last and highest truth is in the Bible, then we must seek the place of the spirit, from which this truth shines out beyond all other truths. We dare not let this gift of highest truth become an injury to all other truths.

But how is it with the Christian proclamation of the Resurrection? Quite apart from all individual sayings in the Bible, is it not as clear as the sun, that the Christian idea of the resurrection can never be combined with any doctrine of reincarnation whatsoever? And is not the resurrection the very heart of Christian hope for the future?

Against this, one might first point out what difficulties have increasingly grown up in human history concerning this very belief in the resurrection. The idea that the outworn physical body will be brought to life again ; the idea that this will happen in a marvellous way, on one day for all people, and also the idea that in that day there will be a new earth similar to,and yet quite other than our present earth — all these ideas come up against difficulties in our thinking consciousness which do not simply arise through malice, and which are increasingly hard to overcome. Even in the Middle Ages, the pious monks pondered much over questions in which the coming materialism already showed itself. What age were the people when they rose again? What about those that had been burned? — and many questions like that. At the present day the situation within that Christianity which still survives is, that a general survey shows us two camps set over against one another. The one group appeals to the Bible, casts out all who doubt the divine power and unfathomability, expects the intervention of God, which will surpass and put to shame all our thoughts of it, and without wishing to form any thoughts about “life after death,” yet hopes for the miraculous day of the resurrection of all men. The other group is more cautious. In so far as they have not made the mistake of thinking that every individual soul is worthy of being preserved after death, they commit themselves more fully than the others to the divine wisdom, keeping an open mind and thinking that everything may be quite different from what we had imagined, and that a life which continues to evolve more highly after death may be at once our future, and the fulfilment of Christian hopes, and they are contented with every kind of “immortality of the soul.” One can perceive that in these two directions the spirits of Judah and of Greece are living on within Christianity. These are the same opposites which fought fiercely together as Pharisee and Sadducee in the time of Christ. These are the same differences which we saw working themselves out nobly against one another, over a hundred years ago in Klopstock and Schleiermacher in the sphere of Christianity. Within the world of ideas which has existed up till now, they can never be at one. And so it remains only for the representatives of the one point of view to excommunicate the others from Christianity on account of their heathen ideas — and this is done with vehemence at the present day — and for the others who are calmer but weaker, to look on the former party as posthumous Jews, and to be conscious that they themselves represent a valid interest of today and even of Christianity itself. This whole spiritual situation may be regarded as an indication that, as regards the fulfilment of Christian hopes, we have much to learn anew, or that perhaps we must look round for something quite different. Such a search for something quite different is to be found here and there in Christian literature. We remember the mediaeval story of the two monks of the same cloister who promised one another that the one who died first should appear the following night to the survivor and tell him what the world beyond was like. Because they had some doubts as to the possibility of an understanding between this world and the next, they agreed upon two words to he used in case of need; taliter — “it is as we have imagined” — aliter — “it is different!” After the death of one of them, his friend waited the following night for the message from the other side. And behold, his life-partner did appear to him. But he said totaliter aliter — “it is totally different!” In such tales there lives a deep consciousness of the fundamental difference between the promise and the fulfilment. In the same way Charles Kingsley in his novel Hypatia, makes the two women who have influenced Philammon's life appear hand in hand to him as he is dying, and say to him, “The life after death is not such as you believe; come and see how it is.”

How does the doctrine of reincarnation conceive of the resurrection? For it, the rising again is divided into several experiences. We experience the first resurrection when we are permitted to begin a new life here upon earth. We live on upon the earth. But this continuing to live has nothing to do with what the Bible says about resurrection.

But now another fact enters our field of vision. The man who has developed himself higher and higher towards the spirit, receives more and more the power of forming his body out of the spirit. He succeeds more and more fully in finding out of his ego, which becomes stronger and stronger, the bodily form which corresponds to his individuality, and in stamping this spirit-created bodily form upon this bodily embryo which his inheritance has provided for him. This is the reason why children of a more highly developed family less resemble their parents and one another, than do the children of a less highly developed family in which the inherited resemblance still prevails. Also for this reason, a more highly developed ego becomes ever more like itself in its successive incarnations.

And especially from Christ man receives such strong forces which act upon the body, so that the earthly body itself is increasingly compelled to yield and allow the “spiritual body” to become more and more perfect. Yes, the especial action of Christ, when a man receives Him living into himself, is that He not only awakens that man inwardly in this life, that already in this life He gives him the experience of a new body which is evolving, but that He also gives this new body power to endure, and to be united with that man after this life is over. In the coming times — and today the beginnings of them are here — there will always be a real resurrection when a man who is united to Christ returns to the earth. He will walk freely and ever more freely upon the earth. He has found his body — certainly, a spiritual body. In these facts the fulfilment of the Christian hope of the resurrection already appears clearly, even if it proceeds through longer spaces of time than the ordinary popular ideas have represented; more spiritually, and more according to law, does the Word become flesh in the sense of the spiritual laws in which the godhead works.

But even this is not the ultimate, is not the complete fulfilment. Rather there comes an hour when this earth ends. It has then given to men all that it can give. From henceforth it falls into crumbling matter. But man, who has become spiritual can now really live in the spirit. A purely spiritual form of existence is now appropriate to his development. In it he is united with all men who have reached this earth's goal. A “new earth,” will become his homeland, not any other star, but an earth which has become spiritual. But only those who have found the inward union with “the Lord who is the Spirit,” with Christ in the great and broad sense perceived by spiritual investigation, will be united with Christ upon this new earth. For others there follows, not indeed eternal damnation, but a new period of grace, of such a kind that they live in a world suited to their wills, and their stage of development. There they receive judgment and grace from a higher world, but both of such a kind that new possibilities of ascent open up for them.

Here we can draw with only a few strokes the picture which is given of the future. One can well understand that to all those in whom the churches' conceptions are still active, this picture will at first be repellent, and perhaps very disillusioning. But on calmer consideration they will be obliged to say that through it no essentially Christian thought is lost, that everything only moves into much greater, broader perspective. Has one not long recognised that it is always so with any “fulfilment?” The mountain which one has seen from a distance as only one towering summit, as one draws near it, spreads itself into a mighty range, with foot-hills and far prospects, with valleys and ridges; and the final summit lies behind and above all. Others who have lost the ideas held by the Christian churches will, however, see in such a description new possibilities of uniting themselves with Christian hopes. On thinking it over they will recognise that not only is no essential Christian conception lost, but no essential knowledge of nature is contradicted. It is only hasty conclusions, drawn from the point of view of natural science, which are revealed and rejected. At last, at last we are offered the opportunity of uniting the scrupulousness of the thought of today to the ancient hopes of humanity; yes, within these hopes of humanity, of uniting the ancient sacred idea of reincarnation to Christianity's announcement of the resurrection; of uniting them, not mechanically, but deeply organically, not eclectically, but in a higher perception whose unifying character is just as evident as its purifying character.

But how about Christ's saying to the thief: “This day shalt thou be with me in Paradise,” which has shone like a star of hope over so many a Christian deathbed? This very saying is difficult to reconcile with the usual picture of the resurrection. Is this “being in Paradise” a form of resurrection? Is it a rest before the resurrection? Is it an unconscious rest? How can Christ promise so confidently? Is it a conscious rest? Would not that be a “life continuing after death?” What relation have the “new earth” and the old “Paradise” to one another? One must point clearly to such difficulties if one is to bring out the self-confidence of the “Bible-believers” in its right light.

According to perceptions of spiritual science, we must think in the following way about the fulfilment of such a saying. A person who is united to Christ will from the moment of death already feel the nearness of Christ, and fellowship with Christ, much more strongly in the next higher world. As he leaves the physical form of existence, he is in “Paradise,” for this nearness to Christ is itself Paradise; and this “Paradise” is itself a high sphere in which man can rise higher and higher. Even the lowest form of existence in this course of evolution may mean surpassing splendour, as compared with the form of life on earth. Nothing is missing to the fulfilment of such a saying, but it fits into the resurrection development, as we have described it.

But if we think further of this concrete example, would it not be a painful discovery for the thief to make, that he must descend again to earth, even if after centuries? And, on the other hand, would there not be more really conscious Christians upon the earth, if so many souls have really been in “Paradise”? Well, by no means so many people have “been in Paradise” as have dreamt before their death they would be. Many have perceived that they did not yet really belong to Paradise. We think of Selma Lagerlof's legend, in which Peter's mother at the wish of her sorrowing son, was brought into Paradise: but she was not at all suited for it. The thief also might after a time have longed for the earth again, because he had learned by then to see it quite differently and wished to do many things upon it better than he had done before. And are there not many people who bring with them to earth, a kind of “natural Christianity”? Are there not such people amongst “free-thinkers,” people who do not recognise in official Christianity that which they bear within themselves as secret knowledge, perhaps even as an essential substance within them. Many a man might he named, who does not belong to Christianity in his external life, only because he surmises there is a greater Christianity than that which meets him here. Are there not also such men among far-off peoples? Rabindranath Tagore? Gandhi? That which a man has really acquired of essential Christianity — not of Christian thought — will remain his. But perhaps this is less than most “Christians” think they have. Perhaps we ourselves if we had to guide the universe according to our own estimate, would send most “Christians” back to earth.

Here also we find that a rethinking about this is necessary, and that in this rethinking no essential Christian truth is lost, that the Christian view of the world gains in sober earnestness and moral greatness. Such a Christianity grows, not only in probability, but also in lifelikeness and reality.

* * *

Further, for the first time, it becomes possible to think clearly about some of the sayings in the Bible. For example, the saying “For every idle word that men shall speak, they shall give account thereof on the day of judgment.” What fulfilment can we think of for such a saying? Because it is impossible for us to think of a court of judgment in which every fugitive word will be discussed, we form no idea, and so this saying disappears from our circle of vision, and is no longer taken seriously. Does not such a saying call for another method of forming ideas, in which the inaccessibility of the picture is overcome and yet its penetrating power is preserved?

After death, as spiritual investigation recognises, a man will live back again his whole life in a more spiritual form of being. This is the “second judgment” which awaits him after he has looked at the picture of his life as it arises out of his etheric body. It is not yet the last. As he now goes backwards he comes to all the places where he has spread useless talk around him. He becomes sensitive to the want of harmony between this chatter and the depths of the world's reality, and is shocked by it. Not “in a sense,” but actually, he stands before the tribunal of the spiritual world. Along with him the eyes of higher beings are looking into his life. Over him is the cosmic judgment out of the higher worlds, bringing before his remembrance every single word. In him awakes a feeling of responsibility for all that he has sent into the world. The earthly experience of judgment which we have before us in the picture of Christ gives, is itself only a defective image of the last judgment towards which we are all going, which is the nature of the world itself.

Bülow, the famous musician, is said to have been shocked when he heard for the first time from a phonographic record a sonata of Beethoven which he himself had played. He would not believe that it was he who had played it. In the inexorable objectivity of the machine there came to his consciousness for perhaps the first time the difference between that which he had wished, and had also inwardly heard, and that part of it to which he had given expression. It was a little last judgment, pronounced by a discordant voice. The phonograph had already brought some of the freer Protestant theologians to similar guesses at the nature of the last judgment. Thirty-five years ago, even, I heard in a sermon; “That which you say, you are speaking into a great phonograph, and at the last day it will ring back to you again.” Such comparisons are unspiritual, and materialistically coarse, in comparison with the overwhelmingly real spiritual nature of the actual facts. But do not external images of higher realities thrust themselves into many modern discoveries ?

“Then shall I say unto you, Whatsoever ye have done unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me!” Such a saying will not be fulfilled by some external voice speaking audibly sometime, somewhere, directing itself to us above all others, so that we accept its judgment upon its own authority; but it will be fulfilled when Christ's voice becomes clearly heard by us in the world next above this one. We enter then into a new world in which we no longer shut ourselves off, in which we can no longer deceive, in which we appear in the cosmic connection as those persons whom we really are. In that inescapable court of justice we hear the divine voice. We recognise it to be the same voice which spoke to us on earth through Christ. We recognise that evolution towards what is divine, which we ought to have served, in the people whom we meet. We recognise in ourselves the real being which perhaps our outward confession has completely contradicted. How literal and how gravely serious a fulfilment may this saying then have: “Depart from me! I never knew you.”

But the other saying also becomes true: “He that unites himself with me in faith, comes not into judgment, but has passed from death unto life.”

* * *

If all this is true, why has it not entered before into men's circle of vision? Why does not the Bible itself speak expressly or even give hints of such a method of fulfilment? We shall not point here to the traces of the thought of reincarnation which are still found in the most ancient Christian writings, especially among the Gnostics and Manichees. Only too readily do the circles of theosophists, who believe in reincarnation, appeal to all the great minds in the history of the world, and among them, not only to the Church Fathers, Origen and Clement of Alexandria, but also to Gregory of Nyssa, to Philo, Jerome, even to Justin and Tertullian. In reality one can find in many of these the idea of future development in other worlds, but seldom or never the opinion that there is a return to this earth. And yet this question requires thorough investigation. Till now, Christian theology has brought only uninterested interest to it. To us, this other question lies nearer: Does Anthroposophical investigation have anything illuminating to say about the question why Christianity in the first period of its development, that is, up till now, has remained so far from the thought of reincarnation?

Anthroposophy gives the following answer. In the great path of human destiny it was preordained that for two thousand years, humanity should completely lose the idea of reincarnation. That was the time during which the earth was to be conquered by humanity. The perspective was, as it were, obscured by clouds. Man's gaze had then to be directed entirely downwards to the earth. He had to dig deep here. He could do this the more undisturbed, if the view before him was dazzling in its brightness. Two thousand years is the period of time during which every man normally passes through two incarnations, one male, and one female, which contain totally different experiences. Now man saw his life not once but twice, enclosed within the space between birth and death, so that he might discover all that is to be seen between them. Man would never have taken the earth so seriously — the East proves this — as he ought to take it; he would never have studied his earthly home with such interest, would never have gained his earthly ego in its solidity, if his gaze had always been directed to the cosmic picture around the earth. In the history of the world, man receives always one thing after another, one thing at the cost of another. We should not have had all the culture of the individual, as it exists in Western lands, if we had retained the idea of reincarnation, if man had not resolutely turned towards the earth, and the divine powers had not arranged for this turning. But now we can win back this thought of reincarnation, yet in a form in which the physical earth with all its riches, and the individual life with all its importance, and the personal ego with all its value, can have their full rights.

To this we may add that as it were out of the densest form of earthly existence Christ had to be received by humanity. As we look at the successive thousands of years, we find that Christ made His appearance on earth just at the point of time when humanity set out on its journey through the valley of the earth. It is therefore not without divine significance that Jesus was baptised at the geologically deepest point in the surface of the earth. For the earth itself is not merely a lump of matter. From the deepest depths, humanity had to enter into Christ's life. From the very bottom of earthly need, not only with their sins but also with their remoteness from the spirit, men had to receive the new meaning of the earth. Christ, with humanity, entered into the very densest matter, which was acting upon the shaping of men's bodies, and bringing about the destruction of the body. Only through this is it possible now to ascend, through Him and with Him.

Let a man examine these thoughts, whether they can he rejected as a superfluous and ingenious apology for the unpleasant fact that in the Bible nothing about reincarnation can be found, or whether by their inward intrinsic truth, by their illumination of the picture history gives, they give a likelihood to an explanation of spiritual things which moves upon a higher plane.

Now that the spiritual vision of Rudolf Steiner has revealed that Christ Himself did not wish that in the first period of Christianity reincarnation should be spoken about, but that at the present day He wishes that this truth should gradually dawn upon humanity, one may judge of what Rudolf Steiner tells us of this by the present state of Protestant theology. Catholic theology is a much less adequate expression of the deeper movements of the time, through its imprisonment in dogma. But in Protestant theology rumours are abroad. To quote a saying of Otto Pfleiderer: “The Protestant doctrine of the eternal stability of the two different conditions of departed souls must be remodelled into the thought of an endless multiplicity of forms and stages of development in the life beyond, in which there is room for infinite love to exercise continually its educative wisdom.” That is not reincarnation, but it is on the way to the truth of it. We must mention also Ernst Troeltsch's saying: “It may be predestination, or it may be reincarnation which reveals the secret we do not know.” And still one more saying may be quoted which is uttered by a theologian who is not one of the best known, but which is yet not without interest as a historical judgment. Speaking of the rejection of purgatory by the reformers, Ernst Bruhn says: “Because of the thorn-hedge of barren superstition, they did not see the sleeping problem.” But in general, in Protestant theology, there reigns the stillness of the grave, even where it does not share that concentration upon the past, found in the work of Karl Barth and his school. If one opens the big encyclopedias and looks under the words “reincarnation,” “ transmigration of souls” — there is deep silence, or perhaps some laborious historical study, scarcely a refutation. And through refutation recognition begins. Even the controversial writings against Anthroposophy contain at most a few reckless assertions, which because of their wretchedness convince no one who takes the problem in earnest. Or there are the free ethical studies of the moral wickedness of the doctrine of reincarnation, which again show no acquaintance with the real facts. In Protestant literature I know of only one single pertinent refutation of the doctrine of reincarnation. We shall cite it verbally and deal with it seriously.

“... In the first place, our insight into the connection between body and soul and our insight into the immeasurable difference between individuals, has become so lively and strong that we are obliged to say: ‘My soul is suited to no other body than to my own; in every other body it must of necessity become something different.’ Aristotle already declared in opposition to Pythagoras that to assert that one soul could pass through very different bodies is to assert that a carpenter can do his work with a flute just as well as with an axe. And even if one calls that which passes from one body to another, not soul but karma, or some thing of the sort, yet as it lives in another body it is no longer that which it has been, is really not that which evolution requires, namely my fully personal ego. Our body is not so much a matter of chance, is not so exchangeable as the doctrine of reincarnation presupposes. One would be obliged in that case to assert that it is the soul alone which freely creates its bodies according to its previous behaviour—an assertion which scarcely anyone can maintain in the face of the facts about the origin of men and animals ...”

The author is quite right if it were the same soul which had to live in the new body. But this is not so. According to Anthroposophical investigation, the soul spends a period of some centuries in the higher world before it gets ready for an earthly life again. It works out all that it has learned in the past life, and under the guidance of divine powers it unfolds out of these experiences the plan for a new life. But by then it becomes different and requires another body. It can no longer use its former body.

But when at the end of the passage quoted the natural origin of man is pointed to, by way of objection, then we have in the Anthroposophical doctrine of reincarnation a form of this idea which takes full cognisance of all the facts of heredity. We have already discussed this thoroughly. Let anyone who holds it to be a myth that the soul works unconsciously upon the body, think how even a climate works upon the bodily being to make it suitable for itself. A soul, certainly, is not “a fully personal ego” when it thus works creatively on the body. But, how often are we not that, during our own lives? How little, even, are we that?

The second objection of our author is concerned with memory.

“In addition to this, the idea of evolution, of becoming perfect, on which this is based, must appear to us to be unsatisfying. Once we have become conscious beings, living personalities, there is only one idea of evolution which is worthy of humanity and ethically satisfying, namely, that we should gather living experiences, and that upon the ground of these experiences, which we gradually come to understand better and to explain more correctly as we compare them with new experiences and thus enrich them, we should deliberately advance towards the goal of goodness. into this advance towards ethical perfection the doctrine of the transmigration of souls brings something ghost-like. My experiences are extinguished, as far as they are valuable, namely, as experiences of my conscious ego, and accompany me like a kind of natural fate, into a new existence, as a dark force of nature to which I have formerly succumbed, without retaining the free relationship to them of my will. Experiences are a much too living and movable possession to bear that sort of petrification, which the doctrine of reincarnation presupposes. In this way, perhaps, an embryo may be evolved but never an ethical being. Although such ideas may have been held in India, where they have still little understanding of the finer values of personality, among us it is no longer possible to maintain such a conception.”

Here again, anything which is illuminating in this argument disappears as soon as one looks more closely at it. Does a psychology which says that we evolve only by means of our conscious experiences, really correspond with the facts of life? It is often those impressions which do not enter fully into our consciousness, which have the strongest effect upon us; for example, our first youthful impressions, the impressions of powerful experiences which we do not expressly think about afterwards, the impressions of our dreams, which enter only occasionally into the light of consciousness. Such experiences are not ghostly, but matters of feeling. One cannot call them “petrifactions,” they are the seeds of life. Everyone who has kept a diary for a number of years, will know how surprised we are when we stray about among old memories, and ask ourselves time and again. “What! did I ever think that? Did I intend to do that? How different life would have been if I had held fast to these perceptions, to these intentions!” If this is true of this one life, and in the course of a few years of consciousness, would it not be still more true of experiences which we have had in an earlier existence, in other conditions of soul, in quite different bodies? No, the simplest experiences in life, the simplest perceptions in the soul, contradict such declarations of psychology.

Conscious development is certainly the ideal. In the far future it will become a reality. Then our experiences of earlier earthly lives will also come clearly to light, and become a part of our will to ascend ... But in the present stage of human development this desire can have only very limited fulfilment.

“And lastly, the idea of justice which lies at the bottom of this idea of reincarnation is unacceptable to us. Herder has already pointed this out in his polemic against Lessing, when he says: ‘The hidden tiger in the human race is now a real tiger, without obligations, without conscience, yet these often trouble him. Now he makes a rush, and mangles his prey with hunger, thirst and appetite, urged on by inward desire, which he only now satisfies entirely. That was the wish of the human tiger, that was his will. Instead of being punished he is rewarded. He is that which he willed to be, and which once in his human. form, he was very imperfectly!’ To this we add that the higher conceptions of justice demand that he who is condemned and punished must be in a position to see that the punishment is just, and to transform it voluntarily into atonement. Where the possibility of this insight is lacking, as in small children or the mentally disordered, then, according to our ideas the punishment is ethically unjust. We think more highly of the ethical constitution of this world than to think of it as a kind of bank where possessions are paid out to heirs, who do not know very well how they came to get them. Yet the doctrine of reincarnation ultimately teaches that there is a kind of mechanical reckoning made with the life of man, but there is no real justice, or training of spirits.”

We do not need to point out that here the author, along with Herder, is combating a form of the doctrine of reincarnation with which Anthroposophical perception has nothing to do. Man remains man, and never again becomes an animal. People of past centuries have indeed had all kinds of visions of animals when they perceived clairvoyantly the “astral body” of the dead. Anthroposophy teaches of course, that in man every kind of animal being, according to the nature of its soul, is summed up, and tamed into humanity; that one can perceive in the astral body of a man this property of the animal soul, which is the basis of the visible animals as well as of man. The heraldic animals in the coats of arms of ancient families may have been designed out of such a perception. But it is a misunderstanding, arising from a false and degenerate form of the doctrine of reincarnation, to draw from such impressions the conclusion that a man actually lives as an animal in a later birth.

So now there remains only the question of justice, But does not even a wise training of children consist in bringing a child into a new situation, after he has fully tried out what he has earlier experienced, so that one may see what he has learned from his experiences. Must one be for ever explaining to him the art of education? It is not a question of “punishment,” nor of “expiation,” these are pre-Christian ideas, from which one is here drawing conclusions, as they are drawn in modern inflictions of punishment — but it is a question of a hidden, but not therefore less real and active training. The tiger in human form does not become a real tiger who may tear and mangle to his heart's content, but he becomes a man who is faced by a tiger in human form, and who now experiences the action of the tiger nature upon his own body, and who enriches the circle of his experiences by acquiring something he has not yet held. That which is of far greater importance, is that which happens, and not the mere knowing. A holy justice reigns in destiny, leading man rightly as a child is led, even when he does not yet understand it at all. She allows him gradually, according to his ripening understanding, to share her own wisdom. If today we do not see the use of a particular destiny, is that a proof that we shall not see it in the future? Do we not, even in this life, need to grow ripe for the blessing that comes from a misfortune, before we receive the blessing? And — is it not possible that humanity has now, and only now, reached the stage when it steps out of childhood into riper years, and so is only now learning something of the deeper wisdom of destiny?

We have now relentlessly tested the objections of this Protestant theologian, without considering his personality, but we owe it to the reader to mention his name. I myself am the author, in an essay which I published in the “South German Monthly,” May 1910. It was a dispensation of destiny that I should bring together all the evidence against the doctrine of reincarnation, so that then — from the beginning of 1911 — I should make the acquaintance of a doctrine of reincarnation, which these arguments did not touch.

Yet even then I did not deal only critically with the doctrine of reincarnation, but through it I tried to show that the present-day Protestant's idea of the life beyond is not adequate today, and that, at least speculatively — one could not then see it otherwise — many opinions which are active within the doctrine of reincarnation must be acknowledged to be right within Christianity also.

“Without doubt, in the doctrine of the transmigration of souls, some truths are admitted to be valid, which are too briefly treated in traditional church doctrine. In respect of the life after death, traditional church doctrine knows only heaven and hell. But it is a fact of experience, to which we cannot shut our eyes, that no one dies who would not be too good for hell and too bad for heaven. And so, within the Catholic Church the doctrine of purgatory has come into existence, of necessity, as the doctrine of an intermediate state, although there was no sufficient basis for it in the Bible. The Reformers refused to accept the doctrine of purgatory, because they wished to hold entirely by the Bible, and feared the notorious misuse of this doctrine ... Everyone is free to accept or reject a belief in a life beyond: he, however, who wishes to hold fast to such a belief, and who ponders things in the light of it, comes to these conclusions, if his ethical feeling is highly developed: (1) Man's destiny must not be regarded as being uniform, but is quite differently shaped in each individual case. (2) There cannot be simply a complete break between this life and the life to come; but there must be an inner connection, which is exact even in its details. (3) There can be no question of a magical transformation, but there must be a further development of that which was begun in this life. These three statements, can be united with the very kernel of the Biblical ideas, and cannot be rejected by anyone who accepts the saying of Bismarck: “That death is an end, I see indeed, but that it is the end, I can never believe.” The truth in the doctrine of the transmigration of souls is this, that it gives living expression to these three thoughts. Upon this depends its power to attract so many of those who will not give up a belief in the life beyond.”

In this passage I look forward to ideas of the life beyond in which the truths of the doctrine of reincarnation are united to the religious and ethical truths revealed in Christianity.

The author of this book feels himself to be so inwardly united with Christianity that the idea of reincarnation—in spite of all that which can be said for it — would be non-essential and unimportant, if he had not gradually come to perceive how organically it is bound up with the deepest Christian impulse. in the book, “Rudolf Steiner enters my Life” I wrote as follows upon this subject:

“Karma and reincarnation — the laws of destiny and rebirth. They are exactly contrary to the Christian experience of Grace and the biblical Gospel of salvation — so it is said. Over against this let it be stated with all emphasis that in our time both these truths, although they are not found in the Bible, can be recognised as Christian truths. For me they are not so much scientific results of spiritual research with which Christianity has come to terms — although they are that too — but far rather actual demands of Christianity when it is rightly understood.

Think of it for a moment; a man passes into the higher world. How will it be with him? For a time he may rejoice to find himself free of the earth and all her misery, but then, if he is allowed a prayer — what will it be? He will surely wish again to meet all those human beings whom he wronged in earthly life and he will crave for the opportunity to do good to those whom he wronged on earth. ‘Grace’ will lie precisely in this, that he asks if this may be granted him. The law of Karma may have appeared in the East as irrevocable world-necessity, in the light of Christ it becomes an act of Grace, our own free wish. But that Act of Grace, the only one of which we usually hear mention, namely that a man has been seized by the reality of Christ, that Act of Grace must have gone before, in order to make such a wish possible at all.

And now suppose the man in the other world is allowed a second request — what will he wish? He will wish that he may help the Christ, where His work is heaviest and most menaced, where Christ himself suffers and has to fight most bitterly. This wish, if it were fulfilled, would lead a man back again to earth.

It is not Christian to long for rest and blessedness far from the miseries of earth. It is Christian to bear within one the consciousness which once brought Christ from Heaven to earth, to find one's joy in being like unto Him and to work with Him wherever He may need us. The whole truth of the Christian doctrine of Resurrection remains intact — as could be shown in a theological treatise — indeed increases in clarity and grandeur.”[1]

Even in these thoughts it is not intended to give an external proof of reincarnation. Only we must grapple with the opinion which, in discussions about reincarnation, expresses itself in the following words: “But I do not want to be reincarnated!” It is out of this corner of the will, that the real reistance to the doctrine of reincarnation proceeds. If it is once seen that such an opinion is not the only possible Christian opinion, that it is not even a Christian opinion at all, then the field is free from impure moods and struggles. Then a calm objective pronouncement can be given. Let everyone who confesses himself to be a Christian, put to himself this question today when the idea of reincarnation comes up: “Would you be prepared to recognise and accept the world to be such as it appears to be from the thought of reincarnation? Would you be ready to think of death, judgment and the perfecting of the soul, and could you bear them as they appear to be through the doctrine of reincarnation? Would you, above all be willing to allow yourself to be sent back to earth, if it were the divine will, if it should be necessary for the work of Christ?” If you can answer yes to those questions, then one may hope to reach a pure decision. Otherwise, religion might again become the opponent of the truth, as happened on similar grounds in the case of Copernicus. Only in a spirit freed from evil growths, can new truths arise in such a way that their true life force is revealed.

And here we are not dealing with any new thought in particular, but with a new way of looking at the world, which suggests and brings to us a broader, more serious, purer, more heroic, greater Christianity. In this view of the world we must not think that after death we are free of all the rubbish of earth, and leave all else, whether development or transformation, to the divine will, with only one reservation, namely, that we have no more to do with the earth. On the contrary, we must think that we find, indeed, after death, fulfilment of that which has been prepared in us, but we find also serious slow development, and above all we remain united to our earthly home, more deeply and enduringly than we had formerly thought. We must not think of the earth as being only the place of sin and need, worthy of destruction when it has served as a training-school for humanity, but we must believe that the earth is capable of evolution, that it has still to endure a long time, giving to us and expecting from us; that it is and remains the star of humanity, woven far beyond the single life into the destiny of all men. We must not think of Christ that He once touched this earth, and since then looks down upon it from a higher world, but that He has united Himself lastingly with the earth and carries on His work upon earth, in those who have entered into close connection with Him, towards a goal which consists not in the saving of individual men, but in a new earth and a new humanity.

The question is not: “What does the Bible say about reincarnation?” but much more: “What does the innermost mind of Christ say about reincarnation? Which view of the growth of the world unites us more deeply with Christ's will, which is directed not merely from earth to heaven, but also from heaven to earth?”

Rudolf Steiner has often compared the emergence of the truth of reincarnation. with the discovery by Copernicus of the starry heavens. Then, space was broken through, now time. Then, Christianity had to find its way into a greater world, now, into a greater history. Both times the knowledge came from outside Church circles. Christianity will not find its death in such knowledge, but its resurrection. One can already clearly see that through such new knowledge, Christianity will be placed in a position to fulfil better the three demands made upon it at the present day: namely, to acquire a new understanding of the real knowledge gained in a scientific age; to acquire a new understanding of the earth and its tasks, including the social question; to acquire a new understanding of the different religions of the earth, their meaning for the world's history and their hidden truths.



1. “Rud0lf Steiner Enters my Life” English Edition. pp. 109-110.

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