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Under-Standing Reincarnation

In a helpful Summer 2000 New Thought article dealing with reincarnation, Robert Winterhalter deals with the question of whether Changeless Being or process is basic. What one believes about reincarnation and other aspects of postmortem life depends to a great extent on one’s overall philosophical outlook. Among believers in reincarnation, there are different philosophical interpretations of what is going on. For example, Hindus believe in a soul that continues through multiple incarnations, while Buddhists believe that there is no substantial soul, but there is a transmission of qualities, likened to the lighting of one candle by another. This Buddhist view is akin to modern Western process thought.

Process thinkers teach that we are "new every moment." In this we are like everything else: the universe has been characterized as similar to a giant electric sign, flashing on and off; or to a movie with 24 frames projected each second while appearing to be continuous. One might say that we are "reincarnated" perhaps ten times a second, although process thinkers do not ordinarily refer to this replacement as reincarnation. Each momentarily developing self (mind, experience) includes all the earlier ones in it, thus providing continuity, along with constant change; it also provides powerful psychological support for belief in the possibility of major improvement from one moment to the next. To be sure, process thought does not prove the existence of reincarnation, nor any other form of life after bodily death, but it can be supportive of such beliefs.

In addition to the moment-by-moment "reincarnation" that process thought recognizes, it emphasizes another type of immortality: objective immortality. This is a name for the fact that nothing ever is lost: no effort ever is wasted; it all remains influential (some call it karma) in later experiences, and is perfectly, permanently in the ultimate experience or mind called God. Objective immortality is what underlies the order of the universe. What we call natural laws are patterns of influence provided by vast numbers of objectively immortal experiences.

Some process philosophers suspect that objective immortality is the only immortality, but others believe that the line of subjective, personal experience that we live can go on forever—;with or without reincarnation—;regardless of the losses of the great groups of associated experiences known as our bodies. New Thoughters should note that subjective here simply refers to oneself as a subject, a center of awareness, not to be confused with the meaning "subject to," as in subjective mind.

Questions about the existence and nature of life after bodily death are of major importance, but no more so than the underlying metaphysical issues that Robert raises. He recognizes that New Thought now faces the question of whether what is basic is changeless or changing. The ancient Greeks also confronted this, and, for millennia, those who opted for changelessness had the upper hand, to the point that we, at least in the West, have taken their views for granted. But advances of science and philosophy in the past century have led us to start to realize that we need to reexamine the assumptions of New Thought founders.

Robert questions the use of the term substance New Thought, since no teachers have applied that name to their own positions. This is as understandable as the fact that nobody used the term geocentric for a theory of the relationship of our planet to the various heavenly bodies before the challenging heliocentric theory was offered.

The term substance has various definitions, but it comes from the Latin meaning "to stand under." It is what underlies all appearances. In this broad meaning, it even could be applied to theories that process or activity or living energy or experience or mind (terms that a process thinker would equate) underlies everything. However, it is helpful to reserve substance for belief that some sort of material and/or nonmaterial stuff is basic, and in that status enter into the process of co-creation of new experiences. They never are more important than the involvement of the supremely active—;therefore changing—;God, who is, however, changeless is perfectly loving, guiding character.

If advocates of Changeless Being as basic take their own words literally, they assume that somehow such static stuff could produce activity, that process could come from the non-processive. Process thinkers believe that process could not have arisen from an essentially different sort of reality, that process—;as the blending of the contrasting influences of the past and of the perfectly tailored possibilities given by God to each experience—;is ultimate. It may seem natural to believe that experiences need to be grounded in some universal stuff, but dropping that assumption is essential to clear metaphysical thinking.

Robert Winterhalter demonstrates a constructive attitude when he refers to belief in figurative reincarnation (and also figurative resurrection) as being born anew to new ideas. Whatever may be the final verdict on the adequacy or inadequacy of belief in Changeless Being, it and similar ideas can be recognized as psychologically powerful myths, accounts that touch deep levels of ourselves and help us to make sense of life, regardless of whether or not they are literally true. Another way of putting this is to say that some of our cherished New Thought ideas should be subjected to such symbolic or "metaphysical" interpretation as New Thought uses in Biblical interpretation.

We would do well to consider something that Rod Hyatt Carter pointed out in his presentation at the SSMR session at the 2000 INTA Congress: "There is a tradition in Zen Buddhism that if the student does not surpass the Master, the Master is thereby dishonored." We should honor our founders by employing conceptual tools that were unavailable to them, and thereby produce a metaphysics adequate to serve as a firm foundation for explaining the magnificent experiences of healing of body, mind, pocketbook, and interpersonal relations that are the glory of New Thought.