REINCARNATION IN EARLY CHRISTIANITY
In the first five hundred years of Christianity, reincarnation was most certainly on the main stage. It was a prominent and well-respected merchant in the bazaar of Christian theology.
A significant number of early church pillars such as St. Augustine, Clement of Alexandria, St. Gregory of Nyssa, Justin Martyr, and St. Jerome believed in the doctrine of reincarnation. In his Confessions, St. Augustine ponders the common sense viability of reincarnation:
Did my infancy succeed another age of mine that dies before it? Was it that which I spent within my mother’s womb? . . . And what before that life again, O God of my joy, was I anywhere or in any body? Confessions of St. Augustine, Edward Pusey, translator, Book I.
There is one early church father who is the central figure in this complex story of intrigue and deception. According to the Encyclopedia Britannica, Origen (C.E. 185-254) was the most prominent, most distinguished and most influential of the early church fathers. We would do well to consider the enormity of this statement. The Encyclopedia Britannica also declares that he was the most prolific writer and theologian of early Christianity with works numbering around 6,000. St. Jerome asks, “Which of us can read all that he has written?” It is important to understand that Origen’s story, is not about the trials and tribulations of an obscure backwoods rogue theologian. How such an important and prominent luminary receded into the blackness of obscurity is a fascinating story and underscores the ego’s perennial effort to have its own way.
The Encyclopedia Britannica describes Origen as both a Neo-Platonist and a Gnostic. Socrates and Plato were arguably the most important bearers of the doctrine of reincarnation to the Western world. The first clear presentation of reincarnation by these two is in Plato’s Meno and later in the Phaedo where the concept is fully articulated. In the Phaedo, Socrates (under the pen of Plato) goes to great lengths to explain the philosophy proposing that the soul is immortal and does not cease to exist when the body expires. In Plato’s Republic, the character Er describes the after death journey of the soul in graphic detail before “coming back.” These ideas are expanded in the Timaeus and the Phaedrus in which Socrates presents reincarnation in the strongest terms.
Aristotle emphasized a more empirical materialism which focused on the here-and-now; the observable. It should be pointed out that through the centuries many philosophers have strongly disagreed with Aristotle’s “logic of categories” axiom which proposes a tidy compartmentalization of all aspects of existence both cosmic and human. This theory supposes no overlapping connection of the various categories of knowledge such as science, history and religion. Thomas Aquinas, who played a large role in shaping Christianity as we know it today, based his entire view of life on Aristotelian logic thus abandoning the mystical experiential traditions altogether. In this light we can understand more clearly the Encyclopedia Britannica’s categorization of Origen as a Neo-Platonist with a decidedly Gnostic flavor. The Gnostics, as described earlier, believed that truth could be gained only through “Gnosis” or direct experience of God. They emphasized ecstatic communion and the inward path toward God. About reincarnation, Origen has this to say:
If it can be shown that an incorporeal and reasonable being has life in itself independently of the body and that it is worse off in the body than out of it, then beyond a doubt bodies are only of secondary importance and arise from time to time to meet the varying conditions of reasonable creatures. Those who require bodies are clothed with them, and contrawise, when fallen souls have lifted themselves up to better things their bodies are once more annihilated. They are thus ever vanishing and ever reappearing. Origen, from A Select Library of the Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers of the Christian Church, P. Schaff and H. Wace editors
By some inclination toward evil, certain spirit souls come into bodies, first of men; then, due to their association with the irrational passions after the allotted span of human life, they are changed into beasts, from which they sink to the level of plants. From this condition they rise again through the same stages and are restored to their heavenly place. Origen, On First Principles, B. W. Butterworth, translator.
As with many great saints of the past, there was nothing lukewarm about Origen. While his supporters were passionate in heralding his views, his detractors passionately pursued his destruction. Origen was banished forever from official church recognition at the Second Council of Constantinople (the Fifth Ecumenical Council) amidst a back drop of swirling political intrigue and dissension that was so severe it leaves many students of the event to question whether or not Christians are bound by the edicts and anathemas that were adopted there.
Emperor Justinian wrote a letter to the Patriarch of Constantinople naming Origen as one of the pernicious heretics. To be a heretic is bad enough but pernicious means “1. insidious harm or ruin; 2. deadly or fatal.” In other words, there are no human beings worse than this. Justinian then convened a synod at Constantinople in 543 C.E. which issued an edict refuting Origen. Pope Vigilius opposed the edict and promptly suspended all communication with the Patriarch of Constantinople. When the Pope arrived in Constantinople he reversed himself issuing a document supporting the Justinian edict. Many speculate that this document was issued at the gunpoint of intense political pressure. These speculations are confirmed by the fact that Pope Vigilius withdrew the document seven years later in 550 C.E. After much rancorous discussion and many maneuvers, Justinian called for a meeting of the entire Church in 553 C.E. known as the Fifth Ecumenical Council or the Second Council of Constantinople. The Church was geographically divided into East and West with these lines of division also extending into religious and philosophical matters. In general, the West was supportive of Origen while the East was not. Justinian himself presided over the meeting because Pope Vigilius had boycotted the gathering as an act of protest over irregularities such as stacking the arrangements for attendance against the West. It was highly irregular for Justinian and not the Pope to preside over this conclave. Of the 165 bishops who signed the acts of the Council not more than six were from the West because they were not in attendance. Let us recap for emphasis. The Pope refused to attend, Justinian ran the meeting and half of the bishops, the ones most likely to support Origen, did not attend the Council meeting.
In the long run, Pope Vigilius accepted the Council but the West did not recognize the Council as legitimate for some time. Several Western dioceses even broke off communication with Rome. Milan was so righteously indignant over this blatant skewering of propriety that they did not rejoin Rome until the end of the sixth century. To add to the vagary of Origen’s demise, it should be noted that in the end of the Fifth Ecumenical Council’s fourteen anathemas, Origen’s name is mentioned in only one of them nestled in a list of heretics. There is some evidence that even this was an error. The tragedy is that Christians have been led to believe that the doctrine of reincarnation has never been part of Christian faith. Others have supposed that the question of reincarnation was forever closed at the Fifth Ecumenical Council.
To further clarify the picture of Origen’s crucifixion, it is important to understand his principle antagonist, emperor Justinian. The Encyclopedia Britannica has interesting things to say about him.
The truth seems to be that Justinian was not a great ruler in the higher sense of the word, that is to say, a man of large views, deep insight…
Justinian was quick rather than strong or profound; his policy does not strike one as the result of deliberate and well-considered views, but dictated by the hopes and fancies of the moment.
In contrast, no previous ruler had taken such an interest in church policy as did Justinian. In what way is a man who is a shallow-minded opportunist (to summarize the Encyclopedia Britannica’s characterization) interested in deeper spiritual matters? This question has left many to speculate that Justinian saw the Church as a means of control and exploitation with the whip being his “one life then heaven or hell” policy.
While Justinian is portrayed as soft and indecisive, his wife the empress Theodora, was an indomitable freight train of decisiveness and strength. It should be clearly understood that she was not merely his consort but was empress regnant which means she had the legal right to interfere and run the empire. Officials took an oath to her as well as to Justinian. In the great Nika insurrection of 532, her courage alone saved her husband from being overthrown.
According to Procopius the historian, Theodora was the daughter of a bear feeder of the amphitheater at Constantinople, and she began working as an actress (regarded as an extremely low vocation) while still a child. Later she became a well-known courtesan and eventually met Justinian in Constantinople. Justinian’s aunt, who was the empress at the time, forbade the marriage but upon her death Justinian repealed a law which prohibited senators from marrying women of the stage. In 527, at the death of Justinian’s uncle the emperor Justin, Justinian and Theodora became rulers of the Roman Empire. He was forty-four and she was twenty-four.
According to Procopius as written in the Encyclopedia Britannica, “She surrounded herself with ceremonious pomp, and required all who approached to abase themselves in a manner new even to that half-Oriental court. She constituted herself the protectress of faithless wives against outraged husbands, yet professed great zeal for the moral reformation of the city, enforcing severely the laws against vice, and confining five hundred courtesans, whom she had swept out of the streets of the capital, in a “house of repentance” on the Asiatic side of the Bosphous strait. Procopius portrays her as acting with the greatest cruelties. The Encyclopedia Britannica goes on to state that we are able to gather from other writers that Theodora was indeed extremely harsh and tyrannical.
The following is an excerpt from the Anecdota by Procopius describing Justinian.
I think this is as good a time as any to describe the personal appearance of the man. Now in physique he was neither tall nor short, but of average height; not thin, but moderately plump; his face was round, and not bad looking, for he had good color, even when he fasted for two days. To make a long description short, he much resembled Domitian, Vespasian’s son….
Now such was Justinian in appearance; but his character was something I could not fully describe. For he was at once villainous and amenable; as people say colloquially, a moron. He was never truthful with anyone, but always guileful in what he said and did, yet easily hoodwinked by any who wanted to deceive him. His nature was an unnatural mixture of folly and wickedness. What in olden times a peripatetic philosopher said was also true of him, that opposite qualities combine in a man as in the mixing of colors. I will try to portray him, however, insofar as I can fathom his complexity.
This Emperor, then, was deceitful, devious, false, hypocritical, two-faced, cruel, skilled in dissembling his thought, never moved to tears by either joy or pain, though he could summon them artfully at will when the occasion demanded, a liar always, not only offhand, but in writing, and when he swore sacred oaths to his subjects in their very hearing. Then he would immediately break his agreements and pledges, like the vilest of slaves, whom indeed only the fear of torture drives to confess their perjury. A faithless friend, he was a treacherous enemy, insane for murder and plunder, quarrelsome and revolutionary, easily led to anything, but never willing to listen to good counsel, quick to plan mischief and carry it out, but finding even the hearing of anything good distasteful to his ears.
How could anyone put Justinian’s ways into words? These and many even worse vices were disclosed in him as in no other mortal: nature seemed to have taken the wickedness of all other men combined and planted it in this man’s soul. And besides this, he was too prone to listen to accusations; and too quick to punish. For he decided such cases without full examination, naming the punishment when he had heard only the accuser’s side of the matter. Without hesitation he wrote decrees for the plundering of countries, sacking of cities, and slavery of whole nations, for no cause whatever. So that if one wished to take all the calamities which had befallen the Romans before this time and weigh them against his crimes, I think it would be found that more men had been murdered by this single man than in all previous history.
He had no scruples about appropriating other people’s property, and did not even think any excuse necessary, legal or illegal, for confiscating what did not belong to him. And when it was his, he was more than ready to squander it in insane display, or give it as an unnecessary bribe to the barbarians. In short, he neither held on to any money himself nor let anyone else keep any: as if his reason were not avarice, but jealousy of those who had riches. Driving all wealth from the country of the Romans in this manner, he became the cause of universal poverty.
Now this was the character of Justinian, so far as I can portray it.
Translated by Richard Atwater, in Procopius, Secret History, (Chicago: P. Covicii; New York: Covicii Friedal, 1927), reprinted by University of Michigan Press, 1961
The historian Procopius, who wrote the above narrative, was appointed secretary to General Belisarius in 527 C.E. The General was Justinian’s right-hand man and personal confidant. Procopius also wrote the well known Histories in eight books, the Buildings of Justinian in six books and the Anecdota. For obvious reasons, the Anecdota was not published until after the death of Procopius. As a historian and chronicler of Justinian and his court, he was constrained to write only positive accounts while everyone concerned was still alive. Secretly he wrote the Anecdota to expose the utter immorality and disregard for decency expressed in the lives of Justinian and Theodora. The Encyclopedia Britannica says:
Owing to the ferocity and brutality of the attacks upon Justinian, the authenticity of the Anecdota has been called in question, but the claims of Procopius to the authorship are now generally recognized.
In other words, the Anecdota reflected so badly on Justinian and Theodora that it was difficult to believe it could be true. It is not the intent of this book to serve as an indictment of these two souls – may they find peace and love wherever they are. The information about Justinian and Theodora and the demise of Origen is printed here as an aid to understanding that the fortunes of the Holy Scriptures and Christian doctrine in general have not always been in the hands of God’s servants. The removal of the doctrine of reincarnation may not have been God’s doing. God may have originated or inspired the scriptures that we have now accepted to be Christian but since then, they have, on occasion, been placed in the hands of those with little understanding. Because of this, we should abandon the expectation that these scriptures would arrive in the twenty-first century unscathed.
The doctrine of reincarnation was banished because it gives power and authority to the people. Reincarnation contradicted the aspirations of a few bishops and deacons who felt they alone should dispense the truth to the multitudes. This authoritarian strangle-hold is strengthened by the doctrine of “one chance-one life” because a person who wrongly chose to think for themselves, dismissing the authority of the hierarchy, would not get another chance to put things aright if they guessed wrongly. The position of the hierarchy is that eternal damnation without parole would be the irrevocable fate of those who dared to question the hierarchy’s authority.