This is a subject that divides many serious and sincere spiritual thinkers. Some, probably influenced by Eastern religions in which it is fundamental, regard it as an integral part of the process that turns a man into a god. A number of the ancient Greeks, Pythagoras for example, also believed in it. Others, however, see it as a mistaken doctrine. This would particularly be the case for most Christians and, as far as I know, all Muslims, both of whom took many of their founding beliefs from Judaism. Some of the early Christian Fathers, Origen for one, were believers in reincarnation but it was eventually decisively rejected by the church in favour of the idea that we have one life and one life only in which to earn our salvation. Here I would like to set out why I do believe in reincarnation, but also to add some caveats and provisos.
Let me start with a couple of relevant questions. What is man and what is his intended end? I see the human being, rather like its Maker, as triune. In other words we are constituted of spirit, soul and body. Spirit is the uncreated part of us that is the spark of the divine fire within us. It is our life, our being, the point at which we and God are one. The soul is our individual self. God is the spirit. God created the soul. But I don't think of the soul as the self we are aware of on an everyday basis. That is the soul as manifested in a body, our outer material form, the thing through which we experience the external world. By no means all the soul is consciously available to us 'down here'. It is a spiritual being and heavily restricted by operating through an earthbound mind and body. This gives rise to the ego, the sense of a separate self which is not so much an illusion (as some say) as an inevitable result of the constraints of being in a material world. Of course, we have to overcome that, or full identification with it, but the point is that it is a real thing; at least it is so in terms of this world.
So, spirit, soul and body. That is what we are, simplified certainly but fundamentally this is how we are made up. And our intended end is to become consciously one with God. This requires the union of the soul, the individual self, with spirit, the universal self or God. Consciously one. Spirit on its own level is one with God but not consciously so, not in an individual sense. You might well ask why God wants to create individuals. He is God, surely all-sufficient in himself? No doubt that is so but that is leaving out two very important things. One, God is creative. His nature is self-expression and abundance, becoming more. He becomes more through other beings, some of which are us. And two, God is love. What does love want to do? To give of itself and to have a relationship with the loved one. Again, that is us. That is why God creates us as individuals with free will. What kind of relationship can you have with slaves and automata?
Thus far I have said nothing with which a non-believer in reincarnation would necessarily disagree. The question now is what is the process by which a newly created soul becomes a god? I think it requires experience in the material world which is the place where separation is possible. Through the sense of being separate we can develop our individual self which we must do before we can consciously transcend it in union with God. This all has to be done as a free and conscious act. I don't doubt for a moment that learning can take place in non-material spheres of existence but this world is the best environment for an undeveloped soul to grow into self-awareness, and eventually grow out of self-awareness, because it is the place in which the soul is alone. It's where the soul can suffer and where it can learn from that and move on to a new and higher level of understanding and self-mastery. And it takes a lot more than one life for a soul to progress from a more or less unconscious oneness with nature (its environment), which is the condition of primitive man, to a fully conscious union with God which means all of life. In the process the same soul develops the faculties of will, intelligence and love, all dependent on self-consciousness and none really known to primitive man, to a high degree.
That's the theory. From a personal perspective I believe in reincarnation for several reasons. Intellectually it makes sense for the reasons given above. But it also rings true to me as I feel a strong connection with certain times and places though I recognise that is far from conclusive evidence of anything. Then the idea that human beings, so individual and so different with widely varying talents and destinies, came into being with physical birth never seemed right but I realise that a doctrine of pre-mortal existence could account for that. However the Masters who spoke to me, and in whom I have complete confidence, made certain comments that strongly implied reincarnation. Some of them I can't remember now because unfortunately I lost the habit of taking notes. But I do remember being told (and I still have the notes for this) that I had asked to come back to this world. I was also informed that Michael (their medium) and I had been together in the past, and, further, that I had a previous connection with India. The Masters also referred on one occasion to my 'karmic weakness' (karma being the consequences of one life manifesting in another) and a tendency to mental sluggishness being 'partly due to karma'. There were other references that I can't recall now and, although things were never spelled out in plain black and white, the idea that Michael and I had been here before, and more than once, was referred to on several occasions. Now this might mean that I have had previous lives here but not everyone has. It might, but I don't think it does for the reason given above; that this world is the best arena for learning particular lessons and that it takes a very long time to turn a primitive man into a saint.
I know reincarnation is rejected by Christianity but it could have been one of the many more things that Jesus wanted to say to his disciples which they could not currently bear (John 16:12). It's also possible that, as a belief in only one life might give one a much greater impetus to seek salvation in that life, it was not taught in the religion destined for the West. After all, belief in reincarnation has no particular relevance in the context of treading the spiritual path so its omission is not important in that respect. So I don't think the fact of Christianity's rejection of reincarnation is that significant. There are hints of it in the Bible and, though these are often explained away, I would say that as long as scripture (by which I chiefly mean the teachings of Jesus in the Gospels) doesn't deny it outright I think a Christian can have an open mind. I don't say that he has to but he can do if he so wishes.
This is the basis of my belief in reincarnation. At the same time I would add that, while reincarnation may have explanatory power for the inequality of men, why some suffer and some are rich and others not and so on, it is not something to pay too much attention to in this world. Undue interest in searching out details of past lives will only distract you from the here and now, the lessons you have to learn today. All you need to know about your past is in you now in the present time, in your character, your tendencies, your weaknesses and your strengths. It doesn't matter if you were a notable person in the 16th century. Now you are who you are today and that is all you should focus on if you are to learn what you are supposed to.
Why don't we remember previous lives? If reincarnation is true how is it that no one (to all intents and purposes) can remember their past incarnations in this world? I don't see this as a problem. The doctrine is not saying that I, William Wildblood, existed in a previous life in such and such a place at such and such a time. It is saying that the soul that took birth as WW in this life took birth on a former occasion but then it manifested through a different mind as well as a different body. The brain on each occasion was entirely a new thing though the form the mind that used that brain took would have been decided by causes originating in the past and determined by karma (see above) and the needs of that particular lifetime. So WW is a new person in this life though he is not just made from his parents' genetic material. His karma, his purpose and the quality of his soul all play a part in making him what he is. The Masters told me, and I believe because it is what I have always felt, that the greater part of you remains with us. That is the soul of which only a fraction manifests itself through the earthbound personality. May I reassure those who think this means that when a loved one dies you will never meet them again in the form you knew that this is not the case. They will be more truly themselves just as you will be. The real individual will stand forth, almost as though a limited being acquires an extra dimension.
If and when reincarnation becomes more established as a concept in the West it should not be viewed in quite the same way it was and is in the East. For a start, the idea that human beings can be reborn in animal form should not be a part of it. It is possible, I suppose, that extreme karma might cause a man to be born as an animal. However at this stage of human evolution (as in unfolding of the spiritual seed within) that would be extremely rare. The point of reincarnation is education not punishment and, though painful conditions might sometimes be necessary, they only come about in order to teach a soul what it needs to learn. Then there is the idea of the soul or higher self as the reincarnating agent which is not properly present in Hinduism or Buddhism. There is no real individual in Buddhism, of course, and the jiva in Hinduism appears mostly to be just an individual unit of consciousness with none of the sense of a higher self or greater part of you that I would give it. So I would hope that Western ideas of reincarnation would view souls as real spiritual beings with a real life on their own spiritual plane who come to this Earth to learn needed lessons before returning to what is their real home. Of course, that home is not their final destination but it is still their current real home, the place they originated in as souls and where they belong for now. The experience of reincarnating in this world is designed to take them deeper into the heart of God, and to transcend their limited individuality in divine oneness, but that is for the future. Now they have a home and it is in the spiritual realm not the physical plane of this Earth. So what I am saying is that reincarnation is better viewed from the standpoint of the higher self or soul than that of the man as he is on this Earth. It is the soul that takes incarnation rather than the man who has been incarnated that is the important element in all this.
For any spiritual believer there are three possibilities of our whereabouts before we were born into this world. Firstly, we were nowhere and it's an entirely new person. This is what materialists would say and it's also what most orthodox Western religions teach. For me it's the least plausible of the options. It really doesn't take into account the vast differences between human beings and their lives in this world, never mind the intuition that some people have that they are not beginners at the game of life. Then there is the idea of pre-mortal existence. We may not have been in this world before but we have not come from nowhere. Our creation was in a spiritual realm and we have lived and learnt in higher worlds before coming to this one. This makes much more sense than a fresh creation but, for me, it doesn't provide as satisfying an answer as reincarnation. I certainly agree that there is a pre-mortal or pre-physical existence which is that of the soul on its own level or other non-material levels but I think earthly experience is required on many occasions before one has extracted all the possibilities this world has to offer and learnt all it has to teach. But that's just my belief. No doubt we shall only find out for certain when all mysteries are revealed in the fullness of time. Until then the important thing is to love and serve and seek to know our Creator to the best of our ability.