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Q & R: Reincarnation

Here's the Q:

Hello I am a avid follower of yours and am very grateful for all the work you do. My place of spirituality would not exist without the help of your books. They have inspired me to re-think the things I had always been scared to think about and ask questions to get to deeper meanings of things. Thank you.

So speaking of line pushing questions that inspires a lot of fear in most, is the question of re-incarnation. I understand that this question is as controversial as they come, so other than just straight debate that goes no where with either my christian, new-age, or buddhist friends, I thought I'd bring this question to you. Of all the authors I've read, of all the scholars I've spoken with, I believe you would be the only one I could really respect for a thoughtful response.

So here we are, the question is of re-incarnation. From my understanding in the prophecy of both the coming of the Christ and the Return of Christ both involve another character. Elijah. It was said in both prophesies that the Messiah would be proceeded by the return of Elijah. What do you think that means? When the disciples asked Jesus what was meant by this, I believe His answer said something like, "I say to you Elijah has come already." I believe He also said Something like, "For all the prophets and the law have promised until John. And if you are willing to receive it, he is Elijah who was to come."

By several statements made by Jesus himself regarding this matter it seems there is some belief by the early church that re-incarnation was an accepted reality. I do also understand that this may be limited to the story of Christ and the prophecies and all. However, the question can't stop coming to mind... If it is a possibility, if it has been done and accepted before, then why is it so out of the question now? Why now if I even consider the possibility and start asking questions about it am I considered a New-age radical Heretic. Like I said, You are one of the only outside influences that I can really respect. My own inside voice keeps telling me something but I really need another opinion.

I understand that you have countless questions to answer on a constant but I do believe this question is an important one. Even if you don't answer on your blog if you could even send me some resources where I can use the practice of Lectio Divina to truly find out for myself it would be most appreciated. Thank you so much for your time.


Here's the R:
Thanks for your question. Your question points out that in biblical times, as today, there were thousands of interpretations and theories and superstitions and amalgamations of the previous three. Which raises this question: just because a belief existed in a biblical writer's mind, does that make it legit and orthodox? Of course the answer must be no. I imagine that in many biblical writers' minds was the belief that the universe is three tiered - the underworld, the world, and the heavens. I'm glad we aren't pressured to think that way now.

Having said that, I think we often "mis-underestimate" the ancient mind. We assume our ancestors were as literalistic as our readings of them. My suspicion is that many of our distant ancestors were far wiser than we, in the sense that they knew how little they knew, and they knew that their language and imagery were "fingers pointing to the moon" and not the moon itself. I think they were more poets and mystics, and less technicians of language than modern technicians of interpretation are able to discern.

I also suspect that the difference between more literalist thinkers and more symbolic or metaphorical thinkers was as real in the past as in the present. So I wouldn't assume that all Jews thought the same about something in biblical times any more than any of us do today. But they did have certain shared parameters - a paradigm, if you will - and I think theirs was quite different than what we might have found in the Indian subcontinent (or in some passages of Plato).

I doubt that many if any Jews believed Elijah would be reincarnated - i.e. that the substance of his soul would transmigrate into a baby's body in which to live another lifespan before transmigrating elsewhere. It's more likely, from what I understand, that they may have believed Elijah - who, according to the text, never died but was taken to heaven in a fiery chariot - had returned in the same body he left with.

Others may have believed that what the times needed was someone who came "in the spirit and power of Elijah." Not a literal reincarnation or return, but someone who did in their time what Elijah had done in his own. This would be like those who speak of us needing a new Harry Truman or Martin Luther or St. Benedict today. They don't mean a reincarnated soul of these departed leaders - they just mean someone who is like them.

Your question especially interests me because the book I'm writing right now - btw, the title will be We Make the Road by Walking - offers a reading of the Elijah and fiery chariot text that is quite different - more poetic, I guess you'd say. That's all I'll say for now ...

BTW - I recently read an article by a contemporary Buddhist who is arguing that Buddhists need to leave behind the old paradigm of reincarnation because it makes dualistic assumptions about body and soul that are no longer tenable. Interesting times, eh?