The Idea of Reincarnation

In the concluding portion of The Education of the Human Race there are eight paragraphs that will astound the reader. Without prior guidance, nearly every reader will find it hard to understand why these timeworn hypothetical propositions were included in this book.

"It is so! Must every individual man—one sooner, another later—have travelled along the very same path by which the race reaches its perfection? Have travelled along it in one and the same life? Can he have been, in one and the selfsame life, a sensual Jew and a spiritual Christian? Can he in the selfsame life have overtaken both?" (§93). "Surely not that! But why should not every individual man have been present more than once in this world?" (§94). "Is this hypothesis so laughable merely because it is the oldest? Because human understanding, before the sophistries of the Schools had dissipated and weakened it, lighted upon it at once?" (§95). "Why may not even I have already performed all those steps towards my perfection which merely temporal penalties and rewards can bring man to?" (§96). "And, once more, why not all those steps, to perform which the prospects of eternal rewards so powerfully assist us?" (§97). "Why should I not come back as often as I am capable of acquiring new knowledge, new skills? Do I bring away so much from one visit that it is perhaps not worth the trouble of coming again?" (§98). "Is this a reason against it? Or, because I forget that I have been here already? Happy is it for me that I do forget. The recollection of my former condition would permit me to make only a bad use of the present. And that which I must forget now, is that necessarily forgotten for ever?" (§99). "Or is it a reason against the hypothesis that so much time would have been lost to me? Lost?—And what then have I to lose?—Is not the whole of eternity mine?" (§100).

The issue at stake here, to use science of religion terms, is the question of "metempsychosis" (Seelenwanderung) or "reincarnation" (Reinkarnation). Why, then, does such a modern intellect as Lessing bring up this hypothesis that seems absurd to the modern mind? This question is all the more urgent because Lessing brings up this "oldest" hypothesis immediately after he has declared the opening of the third age, the age when the human race is to reach its highest level of illumination and purity and thereby attain perfection. The answer, as Paul Tillich has aptly pointed out, is that Lessing took very seriously the ideal of human perfection. In other words, the ideal of human perfection demanded of him the idea of reincarnation.56

The question that inevitably arises when the idea of perfection is taken seriously is: how can every generation and every individual not belonging to the age of consummation participate in the ideal of perfection? Are they not shut out from perfection because they do not belong to the third age? If all past generations are merely steps to a goal of perfection that only the last generation can attain, what significance does the entire course of human development have for each of these generations? If they are destined to live, fight, and suffer solely for the benefit of the last generation, is not this destiny too cruel and too unfair to all generations except the last? And even if we are fortunate enough to live in the age of consummation, is not life too short for us to attain perfection?

Such questions arise, says Paul Althaus by way of criticism, only when we presuppose a moralistic worldview57 Christian theology has traditionally sought to solve these difficult questions by proclaiming otherworldly salvation alone. That is to say, it has taught that human perfection, or salvation, was attainable in the next world. There is no room for the idea of reincarnation in Christian theology when eschatology is preached in such a way as to annul the moral order of the world.58 But how will it be once dogmatic presuppositions for otherworldly salvation have collapsed? According to Tillich, there will then be only two possible alternatives. One is the path indicated by Hegel. According to this path, the problem is solved by asserting that "not [individual] personality but the objective spirit is realized in history." This alternative entails the difficulty that it devalues the individual personality and its perfection. The second possible solution is "Lessingian." It would solve the problem by assuming that each person is capable of returning to this world often enough that he/she may participate in the perfection of history as a whole. This is exactly what Lessing suggests with his problematic idea of reincarnation.59

It is true that neither alternative harmonizes with orthodox Christian doctrine. But Tillich argues that the Lessingian solution is more Protestant than the Hegelian. On Tillich's view, Lessing's idea of reincarnation does not go beyond the confines of myth and hypothesis. Nevertheless, in this dubious form "Lessing has given expression to a fundamental Christian truth, the unconditional value of the individual, on the ground of humanism."60 Hence Tillich draws the remarkable conclusion: "So in this question [of reincarnation] too, Lessing stands as the great representative of a Christian humanism."61 By and large, this conclusion of Tillich's seems justifiable. In any event, we basically agree with his interpretation of Lessing's idea of reincarnation.

To sum up, Lessing's idea of reincarnation is integral to his espousal of the education of the human race. He introduces hypothetical propositions about the reincarnation of the human soul because he takes seriously the question of how each individual can take part in the ideal of human perfection. Conceiving human history as an educational process that leads toward perfection, he deems it incumbent on each and every person to tread the same path by which the human race reaches perfection. How, then, is it possible for past generations to participate in the future consummation? And no matter how blessed and privileged one may be, is it possible to take all the steps necessary to perfection in one lifetime? Is not one life too short and limited for the attainment of such a sublime goal? These questions have induced Lessing to postulate that one should be able to exist in the world more than once.

It is clear, therefore, that Lessing's idea of reincarnation and the Buddhist doctrine of transmigration, though similar in appearance, are quite different in nature. The Buddhist doctrine of transmigration is a negative and pessimistic thought ruled by karma or the higher law of cause and effect, whereas the idea of reincarnation that Lessing holds is a positive and progressive thought demanded by the ideal of the perfection of human personality. Accordingly, Ernst Benz is quite right when he asserts: "By contrast, in Lessing a completely new, positive evaluation of reincarnation comes to the fore; namely, the thought of progressive perfection of the human person in a series of reincarnations."62

It would be improper, however, to take Lessing's idea of reincarnation dogmatically (SoYjicmKiai), since he puts it forward only gymnastically ((y^h vacant»;),), or as a mental exercise.63 His espousal of this idea does not go beyond the limits of a hypothesis. It may be suggested that it is in order to make this hypothetical character clear that he poses the idea of reincarnation in interrogative form.

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