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God Squad: Are reincarnation, karma compatible with Christianity, Judaism?

In Catholic churches one in five parishioners believes

In Catholic churches one in five parishioners believes in reincarnation. This does not mean that reincarnation is approved by any Christian authority, but it does mean it is popular among a significant group of Christians. Credit: Dreamstime/Marek Uliasz

Q: Do you believe that the Hindu belief in reincarnation and karma are compatible with Christianity and Judaism? — M from North Carolina

A: Today we live in an era of "cafeteria Christianity and Judaism." People choose their beliefs from a theological smorgasbord of all the religions of the world. Syncretism, the technical term for theological borrowing of beliefs from another religion, is everywhere today. Yoga classes are being taught in my synagogue. When I asked the kids in my religious school whether they thought this was our only life or we all come back again and again after we die to other lives, the responses were about evenly split.

According to a study by Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, of those surveyed, one in five churchgoers finds "spiritual energy" in mountains or trees, and one in six believes in the "evil eye," the belief that certain people can cast curses with a look. In Catholic churches one in five parishioners believes in reincarnation. This does not mean that reincarnation or casting curses are approved by any Christian authority, but it does mean that they are popular among a significant group of Christians.

In the Jewish world, the idea of reincarnation (gilgul ha'neshamot in Hebrew) is an accepted teaching of the Hasidic community and in Kabbalah teachings of Jewish mysticism. In secular philosophy, we find that Plato also believed in reincarnation. Elements of Eastern faiths and New Age thinking have been widely adopted by 65 percent of U.S. adults, including many who call themselves Protestants and Catholics, again according to a survey by Pew.

What accounts for the popularity of these Eastern beliefs? Well, the first and most obvious attraction of reincarnation is that it supports our fantasy that death is not really real. If our souls are recycled, we never really die. We just keep living in new lives forever or (as Hinduism teaches) we eventually achieve release (moksha) from the cycle of rebirth and achieve ultimate enlightenment.

The Hindu belief in reincarnation is connected to the Hindu belief in karma, that our soul (atman) bears the impression of every good and bad deed we perform while we're alive. If the sum of our deeds is positive, we are reborn into a higher level. If we were corrupt, we are reborn into a lower level. Karma is appealing to all who believe God is just. Evil is punished by being low born, and goodness is rewarded by being high born. The problem with karma is that it teaches that people in this life who suffer are suffering justly for evil deeds in a previous incarnation, and this is a double burden. It has also made the Hindu caste system difficult to abolish.

Both Judaism and Christianity believe in a doctrine that is quite challenging compared with Hindu reincarnation. That belief is resurrection of the dead. This is the belief that our dead bodies will someday, like Jesus in the Christian narrative, be revived and brought back to life. It seems easier to imagine an immaterial soul being inserted into a new human life in reincarnation than to imagine that dead and decayed flesh would be brought back to full and pulsing life in resurrection. The Athenians derided Paul for teaching such an outlandish notion as resurrection (Acts 17:32). In I Corinthians 15:13-14, 17-18, Paul was resolute in placing resurrection at the core of Christian belief. 

"If there is no resurrection of the dead, then not even Christ has been raised. And if Christ has not been raised, our preaching is useless and so is your faith … And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile; you are still in your sins. Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ are lost."

The belief in the resurrection of the dead (Hebrew: techiyat ha'meitim) is also part of the Jewish prayer book and is even more a part of Judaism than the belief in the immortality of the soul.

This is why reincarnation is for many a more appealing theological option than resurrection, and in today's syncretistic age, making it a part of your personal cafeteria of faith is completely understandable.

As for me, both resurrection and reincarnation are less appealing than the belief in the immortality of the soul. We live once here, and we are with God forever after death. That works for me, that is taught by my faith, and that gives me the impulse to make of this life all that I can, knowing that it is my only time at bat.

Just one thing, dear M, if you are reborn as a cockroach, give me a wave, but stay out of my way.

SEND QUESTIONS AND COMMENTS to The God Squad at godsquadquestion@aol.com or Rabbi Marc Gellman, Temple Beth Torah, 35 Bagatelle Rd., Melville, NY 11747.

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