Preacher: The Rev. Doyt Conn
Let me tell you a story I heard this week. Many years ago there was a family visiting a Civil War battlefield and museum down in the south. There was a mom, a dad, an older sister, and a younger brother who was about two at the time. As they were walking across the battlefield the little boy began telling his mother about the battle fought there. He spoke of two generals, by name. He talked in really specific terms, like where the attacks came from, and where round black balls fell from the sky. It was a really weird experience for the mom. To start, it wasn’t the child’s nature to speak with that much authority, let alone clarity. He was two after all. What’s more, the Civil War wasn’t part of the family’s cultural conversation. So it wasn’t like this was stuff he picked up around the house. The real spine-tingler came when they got to the museum. There on the wall were the names of the two generals! Maybe you have had an experience like this? Maybe you have heard of experiences like this? Maybe for you they were a little less dramatic, but similar, more like déjà vu? Maybe you have felt at some point like you have seen “that” before, been “there” before, or have known “that person” before.
Last week we talked about cosmic evil, so this week I thought we’d do something easier like reincarnation. I link the idea of reincarnation to the story above because it is experiences like these that often give people cause to believe in, or at least consider, reincarnation. Now I don’t know much about reincarnation. All I know is that it is a central theological tenet in South Asian religions. It is built around this idea that the spirit of a person, after death, returns in the body of another person, with the purpose of learning a particular lesson that prepares them for divine union.
Now there is a bunch of stuff around this doctrine that I don’t know, but what I do know is that most people I’m around who talk about reincarnation do so when they tell an “I’ve been here before” story. So the reason I want to look at the reincarnation is not to examine or undermine Hindu theology, but because I want to acknowledge these “I’ve been here before” experiences as real, and then I want to help us understand them from a kingdom of God point of view.
The Gospel today and the season of Advent inspire me to consider reincarnation. I know we heard the John the Baptist story last week from the Gospel of Mark. This week it is from the Gospel of John. Why the people who organized the lectionary did that I don’t know. Maybe it was to inspire us to consider reincarnation, though I doubt it. My real inspiration comes from the reading itself. It turns out that John 1:19-28 is an often cited example for how the doctrine of reincarnation can be found in the Bible.
The logic runs like this: If John the Baptist was asked if he was Elijah by the Levites, who were Jewish scholars, then they must have been doing so because they thought John the Baptist was the reincarnation of Elijah. But here is an interesting thing about the Bible: if we are looking for something we want to find, we will probably find it in the Bible. It is called proof texting. Slave owners were good at this, as were people who didn’t want to ordain women. I do it as well, sometimes.
But it is the context of scripture that gives it meaning, so let me unpack the context of the Levites questioning of John the Baptist.
Elijah was a prophet who lived 800 years before the birth of Jesus. You can read about him in the book of Kings. But the most memorable thing about Elijah is that he didn’t die. Instead he was carried directly into heaven by chariots of fire: No dead body, no burial, just a direct ride into the presence of God. The prophet Micah thought this was cool, and predicted that Elijah would come again, the same way, right before the end of all time.
What the Levites were asking John is this: “Are you a forerunner to the end of time?” To which he responds: “No, I’m not. I’m here to testify to the light.”
That is the context going on between the Levites and John the Baptist, and it has nothing to do with reincarnation. Reincarnation was not a tenet of ancient Judaism. But my hope today is not to refute all of the proof texts in scripture that have been used to lay claim for a doctrine of reincarnation. There are quite a few it turns out. Also I don’t think it is enough to just say that the Second Council of Constantinople banned the doctrine of reincarnation as anathema in 533AD. That probably only succeeded in getting more people interested in it. My hope today is to build a kingdom of God understanding for that sensation of, “I think I’ve been here before;” because it is real, and it has to do with our souls.
Let’s start by talking about what it means to be a person in the framework of Christian theology. The foundation is built on Deuteronomy 6, which Jesus loved to repeat. It says, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, mind, body and soul, and your neighbor as yourself.” You’ve heard that before. You’ve heard it from this pulpit before (are you having déjà vu?) The heart is our center, the home of decision, freedom, and character. The mind does the thinking and feeling. The body locates us in place and time, and it has certain capacities, unique unto itself. Then there are neighbors, which include family, friends, colleagues, actual neighbors, random people we meet along the way, and maybe even dead people who we follow as disciples. For me this is Dallas Willard, or for Jon Roberts, C.S. Lewis, or for all of us, Jesus.
A person is made up of many components. If someone were to ask you the question the Levites ask John the Baptist, “Who are you?” you wouldn’t just describe your body. That would be weird. You would talk about interests, where your body lives, hopes, jobs and friends. You would talk about places you’ve been, your relationships, and maybe the place you were born.
I had a friend tell me the other day that every time he lands in Beijing he has this beautiful, settled feeling. I said that is because you were born there, and your soul rejoices and connects with your birth place. The soul is big, and it lingers in the places we have been, and with the people we know or meet along the way, because the soul integrates and correlates all aspect of our being. That is the definition of the soul. It integrates and correlates all aspects of our being.
Here are two imperfect analogies I use for thinking about the soul. For computer programmers, think of the soul as the 1’s and 0’s that keep the entire system together and humming. For Charlie Brown fans, imagine the soul like the dust cloud that follows Pig Pen all over the place, with little specs of dust remaining on the people and places that he passes by.
The soul is bigger than time or space as well, and is immortal. The prophet Ezekiel quotes God as saying: “All souls are mine, for all time” (Eze 18:4) It is through understanding our soul and how it works that we gain understanding into that “I’ve been here before” sensation. Now this may seem a bit woo woo, particularly if we think this body is the sum total of who we are. But let me say this. The idea that all we are is this body is a pretty new idea. It came to us by way of “science” vis-a-vis the Renaissance. I have no quarrel with science, in fact it is perfectly compatible with Christianity. It is just incomplete, as we know from our experience, if we have experienced that “I’ve been here before” feeling.
Thomas Moore in his book Care of the Soul says a few interesting things about the soul. He says: “The body is the soul presented in its richest most expressive form, but the soul is not limited to the form of the body.” He says that the soul can take flight. He cites how all cultures through all time have shared stories about people soaring on the wings of their soul. The Greeks had Icarus, the Muslims had Mohammad, and the Jews Ezekiel and Elijah himself. That chariot ride into the sky was the body chasing the soul into the presence of God. Moore writes: “The soul exists beyond our personal circumstances and conceptions.” “During the Renaissance,” he continues, “it was believed that the soul was what one glimpsed when one looked deeply into themselves. And it was believed that within the deepest places of the soul a connection was to be found to the broader soul of the world” (pg. 267). Karl Jung had a name for this: the “collective unconscious.”
The experience of “I’ve seen that before,” “I’ve been there before,” or “I’ve known that person before,” is an experience of the soul, as it correlates and integrates our soul with other souls, in a realm called the soul of the world. Jesus said we can trust the soul of the world. It is available to us. And he called it the Comforter and the Advocate. We know it as the Holy Spirit. Kids are more open to this idea than adults, which is why that little boy on that Civil War battlefield let his soul wander out of curiosity, into the soul of the world, and then shared his observations with his mom.
So the question to ask is not, “Have I been here before?” but, “How am I being fully present here right now?” That is what the “I’ve been here before” feeling is all about. It is about fullness of being in the present moment, and this is about incarnation, not reincarnation. And incarnation is what we contemplate in Advent. God came into the world to connect with us. He came to articulate for us, in a way we could understand, how we are connected with each other, and with God. It happens when we are present to our souls, to the souls of others, and to the soul of the world, as made known by Jesus, because his soul came and it lingers with us.
My hope for us going forward is that when we hear someone talking about reincarnation, or we hear a story like the story I opened with, or when we have that feeling that “we have been here before,” we think about our soul, and we think about the incarnation of Jesus.
Consider the bigness of your being. Consider how you are correlated and integrated within yourself, with others, and with God. Consider your soul and the freedom it gives you to be deeply, incarnationally connected to, and be present in, the world.