Christian Fathers on Reincarnation
The Path, May, 1894
Our brother George R. S. Mead, the General Secretary of the European Section T.S., has held that whether or not Origen, the greatest of the Fathers, believed in reincarnation, the Christian Church never formally anathematized the doctrine. If this position is sound there will yet be an opportunity for the Roman Church to declare the doctrine by holding that the anathema pronounced was against a species of incarnation or of metempsychosis not very clearly defined except as a pre-existence of the soul as opposed to a special creation for each new body. This declaration can only be made by placing the future lives of the soul on some other planet after leaving this one. That would be reincarnation, but not as we understand it.
The issue of Lucifer for February has valuable contributions under “Notes and Queries” on this subject, and from that I extract something. Beausobre says:
It is a very ancient and general belief that souls are pure and heavenly substances which exist before their bodies and come down from heaven to clothe and animate them. . . . I only quote it to show that his nation (Jews) believed for a long time back in the pre-existence of souls. . . . All the most learned Greek fathers held this opinion, and a considerable portion of the Latin fathers followed them herein. . . . It has been held by several Christian philosophers. It was received into the Church until the fourth century without being obnoxious to the charge of heresy.
Beausobre, however, calls the belief an “error.” It would be interesting to know whether it is not the fact that at about the fourth century the monks and bishops were ignorant men who would be more likely to take up a narrow dogma necessary for preservation of their power than to hold the broader and grander one of pre-existence. Origen died about A.D. 254. He was so great and learned that even in his lifetime other men forged his name to their own writings. But while he was still living uneducated monks were flocking into the ranks of the priesthood. They obtained enough strength to compel Jerome to turn against Origen, although previously holding similar views. It was not learning, then, nor spiritual knowledge that brought about the subsequent condemnation of Origen, but rather bigotry and unspiritual ignorance. Origen distinctly held as a fundamental idea “the original and indestructible unity of God and all spiritual essences.” This is precisely the doctrine of the Isovasya Upanishad, which says:
When to a man who understands, the Self has become all things, what sorrow, what trouble can there be to him who once beheld that unity?
Francks Kabbala is referred to in these answers as saying that Origen taught transmigration as a necessary doctrine for the explaining of the vicissitudes of life and the inequalities of birth. But the next quotation throws doubt again into the question, closing, however, thus:
When the soul comes into the world it leaves the body which had been necessary to it in the mothers womb, it leaves, I repeat, the body which covered it, and puts on another body fit for the life we lead on earth. . . . But as we do not believe in metempsychosis, nor that the soul can ever be debased so as to enter into the bodies of brute animals…
There are several ways of looking at this. It may be charged that some one interpolated the italicized words; or that Origen was referring to transmigrating back to animals; or, lastly, that he and his learned friends had a theory about incarnation and reincarnation not clearly given. My opinion is that he wrote as above simply as to retrograde rebirth, and that he held the very identical doctrine as to reincarnation found in Isis Unveiled and which caused it to be charged that H.P.B. did not know or teach reincarnation in 1877. Of course I cannot produce a quotation. But how could such a voluminous writer and deep thinker as Origen hold to the doctrines of unity with God, of the final restoration of all souls to pristine purity, and of pre-existence, without also having a reincarnation doctrine? There are many indications and statements that there was an esoteric teaching on these subjects, just as it is evident that Jesus had his private teaching for the select disciples. For that reason Origen might teach pre-existence but hold back the other. He says, according to Franck, that the question was not of metempsychosis according to Plato, “but of an entirely different theory which is of a far more elevated nature.“ It might have been this.
The soul, considered as spirit and not animal soul, is pure, of the essence of God, and desirous of immortality through a person; the person may fail and not be united to the soul; another and another person is selected; each one, if a failure in respect to union with the Self, passes into the sum of experience; but finally a personal birth is found wherein all former experiences are united and union gained. From thenceforward there is no more falling back, for immortality through a person has been attained. Prior to this great event the soul existed, and hence the doctrine of pre-existence. For all of the personal births the soul was the God, the Higher Self of each, the luminous one, the Augoeides; existing thus from all time, it might be the cause of rebirths but not itself be reincarnated, as it merely overshadowed each birth without being wholly in the flesh. Such a doctrine, extremely mystical and providing for each a personal God with a great possibility held out through reunion, could well be called by Origen “a different theory” from metempsychosis and “of more elevated character.”
When once more the modern Christian Church admits that its founders believed in pre-existence and that Jesus did not condemn reincarnation, a long step will have been taken toward uprooting many intolerant and illogical doctrines now held.