Rebirth/Reincarnation in Christianity

Discussion in 'Comparative Studies' started by Vajradhara, Nov 17, 2003.

  1. Vajradhara

    Vajradhara One of Many

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    Namaste all,

    without further ado:

    Reincarnation as Taught by Early Christians

    George Borrow loved the Gypsies so much that he roved with them through many parts of Britain and Europe. Several of his popular books recount his experiences with them and tell a great deal about this mysterious people whose origins are still being debated. Some scholars claim they were the original Bohemians dispersed when their small empire collapsed a few centuries ago; others point to ancient Egypt -- hence the name: "Gypsies"; or to the Phoenicians; or again to India.

    In The Zincali; or, An Account of the Gypsies of Spain, Borrow speculates upon the reason for his lifelong fascination with them:

    "Some of the Gypsies, to whom I have stated this circumstance, have accounted for it on the supposition that the soul which at present animates my body has at some former period tenanted that of one of their people; for many among them are believers in metempsychosis, and, like the followers of Bouddha, imagine that their souls, by passing through an infinite number of bodies, attain at length sufficient purity to be admitted to a state of perfect rest and quietude, which is the only idea of heaven they can form."

    Metempsychosis literally means "transference of souls," and is related to the process of reincarnation. It is often asked, why was reincarnation unknown in Europe until recently? Why does not Christianity teach it?

    Actually, the idea is found in the oldest traditions of Western civilization, as well as being taught throughout the ancient Near East and Orient. And there is solid evidence that during its first centuries, Christianity did indeed impart what it had learned about the pre-existence of souls and their reimbodiment.

    Josephus, the Jewish historian who lived during most of the first century AD, records in his Jewish War (3, 8, 5) and in his Antiquities of the Jews (18, 1, 3) that reincarnation was taught widely in his day, while his contemporary in Alexandria, Philo Judaeus, in various of his writings, also refers to reimbodiment in one or another form. Moreover, there are passages of the New Testament that can be understood only if seen against the background of pre-existence of souls as a generally held belief. For instance, Matthew (16:13-14) records that when Jesus asked his disciples "Whom do men say that I am?" they replied that some people said he was John the Baptist (who had been executed only a few years before the question was asked). Others thought he was Elijah, or Jeremiah, or another of the prophets. Later in Matthew (17:13), far from rejecting the concept of rebirth Jesus tells his disciples that John the Baptist was Elijah.

    John (9:2-4) reports that the disciples asked Jesus whether a blindman had sinned or his parents that he had been born blind. Jesus replied that it was in order that the works of God may be made manifest in the blind man, that is, that the law of cause and effect might be fulfilled. Or, as St. Paul phrased the thought: we reap what we sow. The blind man could not have sown the seeds of his blindness in his present body, but must have done so in a previous lifetime.

    The earliest Christians, especially those who were members of one or other of the Gnostic sects, such as the Valentinians, Ophites and Ebionites, included reimbodiment among their important teachings. For them it enabled fulfillment of the law -- karma -- as well as providing the means for the soul to purify itself from the muddy qualities resulting from its immersion in matter and the egoism we have developed in the first stages of our journey through earth life.

    After the original generations of Christians, we find the early Church Fathers, such as Justin Martyr (AD 100-l65), St. Clement of Alexandria ( AD 150-220), and Origen ( AD 185-254) teaching the pre-existence of souls, taking up reincarnation or one or another aspect of reimbodiment. Examples are scattered through Origen's works, especially Contra Celsum (1, xxxii), where he asks: "Is it not rational that souls should be introduced into bodies, in accordance with their merits and previous deeds . . . ?" And in De Principiis he says that "the soul has neither beginning nor end." St. Jerome (AD 340-420), translator of the Latin version of the Bible known as the Vulgate, in his Letter to Demetrias (a Roman matron), states that some Christian sects in his day taught a form of reincarnation as an esoteric doctrine, imparting it to a few "as a traditional truth which was not to be divulged."

    Synesius (AD 370-480), Bishop of Ptolemais, also taught the concept, and in a prayer that has survived, he says: "Father, grant that my soul may merge into the light, and be no more thrust back into the illusion of earth." Others of his Hymns, such as number III, contain lines clearly stating his views, and also pleas that he may be so purified that rebirth on earth will no longer be necessary. In a thesis on dreams, Synesius writes: "It is possible by labor and time, and a transition into other lives, for the imaginative soul to emerge from this dark abode." This passage reminds us of verses in the Revelation of John (3:12), with its symbolic, initiatory language leading into: "Him that overcometh will I make a pillar in the temple of my God, and he shall go no more out."

    We need at this point to recall what happened after Constantine declared Christianity to be the state religion of the Roman empire. The church forgot the injunction about rendering unto Caesar the things that are Caesar's only, and allowed itself to become entwined with the administration of Caesar's realm -- the political arena. Its destiny became linked to the fate of the empire itself and its rulers.

    The several differences in teaching among the Christian sects of the fourth century paralleled the provincial disturbances under the weak emperors, so that by the time Justinian took charge in 527, he had serious problems. He worked desperately to reunify his crumbling empire, and proceeded to do so on two lines: the first prong of his effort was the drive of his army against the petty states within the larger fold; the second set out to enforce a uniform canon of belief, to be strictly adhered to. No mean theologian himself, he launched his campaign against the beliefs of the Nestorian Christians and other minority groups, and to do so he had to circumvent the decisions of the Council of Chalcedon (451). He ordered Mennas, the Patriarch of Constantinople, to convene a local or provincial synod to deal with this and meet the demands of several churchmen who opposed certain teachings, including Origen's on the pre-existence of souls.

    The local synod accepted the bans phrased by Mennas, but this did not seem to achieve much. Ten years later, Justinian called the fifth Council of Constantinople, now known also as the Second Ecumenical Council -- but this is a misnomer. It was presided over by the incumbent patriarch of Constantinople, Eutychius, with the presence of 165 bishops. Pope Vigilius had been summoned by the Emperor, but he opposed the council and took refuge in a church in Constantinople. He was not present at the deliberations, nor was he represented.

    The Council drafted a series of anathemas, some say 14, others 15, mainly directed against the doctrines of three "schools" or "heretics," the documents relating thereto becoming known as "The Three Chapters." Only these papers were presented to the pope for his approval. Succeeding popes, including Gregory the Great (590-604), while dealing with the matters arising out of the Fifth Council, made no mention of Origen's concepts. Nonetheless, Justinian enforced the acceptance of the decision of what seems to have been merely an extra-conciliary session. He made it appear to have ecumenical endorsement or sanction. What concerns us here is that the clerics opposing Origen's teachings, mainly the one dealing with the pre-existence of souls, secured an official condemnation, which they tried to make binding.

    Although Gregory the Great made no reference to Origen when he took up the affairs of the Fifth Council, he did accept the trend toward codification of Christian belief that had been developing during the fifth and sixth centuries, and he could even say that he "reverenced" the conclusions of the first four Councils as much as he did the Four Gospels!

    From the point of view of public teaching, the idea of reincarnation disappeared from European thought after the provincial synod of 543 and the Fifth Council of 553 -- and this on the grounds that it conflicted with a proper understanding of the concept of redemption.
    Despite the anathemas, Origen's influence flowed down the centuries like a steady stream, through leading Christians of the day to Maximus of Tyre (580-662) and Johannes Scotus Erigena (810-877), the immensely erudite Irish monk. It even reached such late figures as St. Francis of Assisi, founder of the Franciscan Order (1182-1226), and St. Buonaventura, the 'Seraphic' doctor (1221-1274), who became a cardinal and General of the Franciscans. No less a theologian than St. Jerome said of Origen that he was "the greatest teacher of the early Church after the Apostles."

    Apart from Christian sects like the widespread Cathars that included the Albigenses, Waldenses and Bomogils, isolated individuals -- such as Jacob Boehme, the German Protestant mystic, Joseph Glanvil, chaplain of King Charles II of England, the Rev. William Law, William R. Alger, and many modern clerics, Catholic and Protestant -- have supported the concept of reincarnation on logical and other grounds. Henry More (1614-1687), the noted clergyman of the Church of England and renowned Cambridge Platonist, wrote in his long essay The Immortality of the Soul -- a considerable study of the whole subject of the soul, with cogent answers to critics of pre-existency. His poem A Platonick Song of the Soul tells it beautifully:

    I would sing the Prae-existency
    Of humane souls, and live once o'er again
    By recollection and quick memory
    All that is past since first we all began.
    But all too shallow be my wits to scan
    So deep a point and mind too dull to clear
    So dark a matter, . . .
    Speaking then to Plotinus in the poem, he adds:
    Tell what we mortalls are, tell what of old we were.
    A spark or ray of the Divinity
    Clouded in earthly fogs, yclad in clay,
    A precious drop sunk from Aeternitie,
    Spilt on the ground, or rather slunk away.


    As More said in his essay mentioned above, "there was never any philosopher that held the soul spiritual and immortal but he held also that it did pre-exist."

    The general opposition of some theologians in the last century is ebbing away as their successors take a more open-minded stance upon the subject. Clergymen of varying denominations are beginning to endorse the ancient teachings about the pre-existence of the soul, reimbodiment in general and reincarnation in particular. It is spoken about more widely than it has been for centuries, and the earlier derision based upon a misunderstanding of transmigration has given way to a more intelligent inquiry.

    One of the more common arguments against the idea of rebirth is that we do not remember our past existences. But there is a memory other than that stored up among the cells of the brain. Skills, or facility to do or understand certain areas of thought or activity, often evident in early childhood, surely betoken a resumption from a past familiarity. Does it matter what the name of a personality was, if the quality expressed through that lifetime continues into the present, modified according to the kind and intensity of the earlier period of self-expression? We so often think of life and death as a pair of opposites. Whereas in reality life is a continuum, with birth and death the two doorways into and out of our earth phase. Birth, death and rebirth -- the cycle turns and completes itself over and over until we refine the dross in our nature into the pure gold of spirit.

    Works consulted for this article include The Ring of Return, An Anthology, by Eva Martin; The Cathars and Reincarnation, by Arthur Guirdham; Reincarnation, A Study of Forgotten Truth, by E. D. Walker; Fragments of a Faith Forgotten, by G. R. S. Mead; Reincarnation in World Thought, compiled by Joseph Head and S. L. Cranston; The Esoteric Tradition, by G. de Purucker; and Essays and Hymns of Synesius, translated by Augustine FitzGerald.
     
  2. aged hippy

    aged hippy drifting gently

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    Vajradhara,

    You said: "One of the more common arguments against the idea of rebirth is that we do not remember our past existences."

    An absence of evidence is not evidence of absence. I cannot remember my (last) birth, but i assume that it happened.
    : )


    Warmest Regards,

    malcolm
     
  3. Nogodnomasters

    Nogodnomasters New Member

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    It is my speculation the belief in reincarnation was wide spread and common. It was so common, it was never written about, everyone just assumed it was believed. There are several passages which support this idea. One concerns John the Baptist. The apostles believed he was the dead Elias.

    The second is the story of the man blind from birth. Jesus asks if he is blind from his parent's sins or his own? Since he was blind from birth, the only way he could be blind from his own sins was to have a previous life.

    The Gnostic belief was people chose their life while in heaven based on excerpts. Those who lead the best lives were given early choices. Stars were seen as souls and meteors were souls descending to the earth. The portals were located in Cancer and Capricorn. One would leave by one and enter by the other. This belief seems to be Greek in origen or influence. While it is impressed upon Christianity, it is not part of the ancient Hebrew astrology or belief system as far as I can tell. They did believe souls were meteors. The sin of Onan was the "spilt seed." This was a reference to a meteor shower associated with the Northern Crown (May 10-18).
     
  4. aged hippy

    aged hippy drifting gently

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    There are different ways to read the story of Onan, Nogodnomasters.

    It seems to me that Jehovah murdered Onan simply because he refused to get his brothers' widow pregnant.


    Warmest Regards,

    malcolm
     
  5. iBrian

    iBrian Peace, Love and Unity Staff Member

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    Very good article, Vajradhara - thanks for that. Certainly more than a few references to sift through. :)
     
  6. Vajradhara

    Vajradhara One of Many

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    Namaste malcolm,

    true enough. i have no issue with the concept of rebirth, it seems to me that it makes the most sense out of all the theories that i've seen expounded.

    generally speaking, as this is a comparative religion site, i'm more interested in finding parallels whereby members of other faiths can find a common ground from which to begin a dialog.

    it is not easy to do, especially since many of the eastern concepts of religion and whatnot are very odd to most westerners. hopefully, through the efforts of this sites owner and others like him, people will be able to stop viewing each other as "us" and "them" and rather see people as "all".
     
  7. Nogodnomasters

    Nogodnomasters New Member

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    Spilt seed and not getting her pregnant are pretty much the same to split hairs over.

    The key factor was a child was not made, therefore a soul was lost.
     
  8. WHKeith

    WHKeith New Member

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    With respect, Nogodnomasters, the story of Onan appears to be a moral lesson drawn from Jewish law, as described in Deuteronomy 25: 5 - 10, which required the brother to "raise up his brother's house" in the event of the man's death. There is a very large difference between obeying the law and "losing a soul." There is absolutely no scriptural justification that I can see for this latter interpretation.

    As for relating incoming meteors to incoming souls, there may be some faint and poorly attested historical justification for that, albeit certainly not in scripture. Linking meteors to spilt seed, though, is really straining credulity. Maybe from the point of view of an ant on the floor at Onan's feet, yeah, but . . .
     
  9. Nogodnomasters

    Nogodnomasters New Member

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    There is an ancient Celtic story which relates the two. The fact that it is moralistic does not matter to astrology. The justification is not scriptual, but astrological. The Bible has been mistranslated at times because the translators do not understand the astrological background to the stories. This actually makes the stories more interesting and adds to them when you understand the astrology.
     
  10. Vajradhara

    Vajradhara One of Many

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    Namaste ngnm,

    can i extrapolate from your posts on this subject to mean that you believe that all religious texts are astrological in nature?
     
  11. Dave the Web

    Dave the Web New Member

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    I too would be interested in more information on the issue of belief in Reincarnation among the Early Christians. Are there any explicit references rather than interpretations of meaning with reference to the Early Church Fathers and apocryphal writings?
     
  12. Thomas

    Thomas Super Moderator Staff Member

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    Pax, Vajradhara

    I think the true ground for discussion of this issue is to do with doctrinal perspectives - the JudeoChristian perspective is of this life, rather than a succession of lives, the message of Christ is in what can be attain in one life, not many. Thus the idea of cosmic cycles, whilst implicit in Scripture, ('from age to age'; 'Lord of Ages' and so forth) does not receive too much attention.

    The Christian view, inherited from Judaism, is that body and soul were created as one psychdynamic unit, and that each one is individual and unique. The notion of reincarnation, and metempsychosis moreso, reduces the body to a vessel awaiting habitation by a migrant soul - and this unleashes all manner of distortions of the Christian message, notably those that persist in gnosticism, which permeates the sources you quote, and is contrary to Jewish doctrine also.

    The aspect of karma is stated in 'the sins of the fathers shall be visited on the sons' but this does not speak of the transmigration of souls, but of the fate of fallen man.

    In looking at the article, a number of references are quoting out of context, a common error when someone is trying to make a case contra to doctrine.

    What Origen actually wrote was:
    "Or is it not more in conformity with reason, that every soul, for certain mysterious reasons (I speak now according to the opinion of Pythagoras, and Plato, and Empedocles, whom Celsus frequently names), is introduced into a body, and introduced according to its deserts and former actions?"

    Thus not only does the author of this article actually and intentionally misrepresent Origen's words, for he was quoting Celsus, but also ignores the fact that Origen goes on to demolish this argument on logical grounds (that is a Christian logic).

    * * * * *

    Knowing (and respecting) you from what discourse converse we have had, I still think your basic point - reincarnation or metemphpsychosis - is a valid area of discussion, and maybe one we might explore together, as you say, rather than in opposition.

    The sources, however, are in some cases shameless if not invideous in their selectivity - if necessary can be demolished point by point (the misrepresentation of Christian doctrine that is, not the notion of reincarnation).

    Thomas
    (Steven Wright said "Right now I'm having amnesia and deja-vu at the same time. I think I've forgotten this before.")
     
  13. Nogodnomasters

    Nogodnomasters New Member

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    Certainly not all religious texts are astological in nature. Some texts are moralistic codes which could never relate to astrology. I cannot speak for all religious texts as I have not read and studied them. However, I will say what I have found is that the basic underlying stories, myths, sagas etc. of the religions in Europe and the Middle East, including Egyptian and Hindu seem to have their basis is astrology since their stories are all very similar or have some of the same basic elements. I also understand there was been some work in this area concerning the Mayan religion.

    Religions born in the Southern Hemisphere would be radically different unless influenced. I wouldn't know where to start on those.
     
  14. Vajradhara

    Vajradhara One of Many

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    Namaste Thomas,

    unfortunately, i do not time right now for a more comprehensive response... however, you should be clearly aware that Reincarnation is taught in Judaism, to wit, see my post about it on this same forum.

    i shall hopefully have time to fill this response out a bit later tonight or, perhaps, tomorrow.
     
  15. Thomas

    Thomas Super Moderator Staff Member

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    Pax, Vajradhara,

    Not to pre-empt your reply, but a note -

    The teachings of reincarnation or metempsychosis are not part of orthodox Christianity. This is not to say they weren't espoused by early Christian sects, but that is not to say that those sects were right because they did. Invariably such teachings 'crossed over' into Christianity from Greek or Egyptian mysticism.

    How or in what way they existed in Judaism I cannot say - but again it would appear to me to be a heterodox notion at least.

    There is an attitude to the body that locates the individual self as something of a 'ghost in the machine' - that the body is just a temporary receptacle at best, and the misbegotten creation of something evil at its worst. The gnostic notion of the creation - in fact everything that we call 'nature' - being an abortive attempt to mimic the Divine Realm is this notion in extremis.

    Christianity is founded on the notion that God created the world 'and saw that it was good' - and in the case of man 'very good' - and believes that this includes his body as well as his soul.

    The theomorphic nature of Adam, or Primordial Man, is the marriage of essence and substance, of purusha and prakriti to use the Vedic terms, and both are Divine in their own dimension.

    Thus to orthodox Christianity man is a hypostasis of body and soul, to allow for either reincarnation or metempsychosis reduces the essential dignity of the body to that of a vessel - and again denies nature any part in the Divine Theophany.

    This was one aspect of the Christian 'scandal' - that the body had a validity with regard to God, and furthermore that resurrection applied to the body and not the spirit alone - or rather the resurrection applies to the whole person, and not a constituent element of that person.

    What form this body takes is another issue, but basically the body, in all its forms - subtle and gross, corporeal or otherwise - is a manifestation of the soul in a given dimension or domain, and as such the soul has its body, the body has its soul, and these two are one.

    Thomas
     
  16. Vajradhara

    Vajradhara One of Many

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    Namaste Thomas,

    thank you for the post.

    i realize that these teachings are not included in the Orthodox tradition in the modern day. that there existed such teachings in the Christian tradition, however, is not in dispute between us, it would appear. moreover, that these teachings were espoused by some of the most prominent members of the early church also is not in dispute betwixt us.

    perhaps this is an attitude that is prevelant in the west and in Christiandom? which gnostic sect are you referring to, they did not share a common cosmology nor a common set of teachings... though there were many things that they had in common... hmm.. that was a bit cumbersome but i think that you see what i'm getting at.

    i would go so far as to say that all monotheistic traditions have this same general worldview. though perhaps outside the narrowness of this thread, i have always considered that Jesus' sacrifice was the foundation upon which Christianity was built.

     
  17. Thomas

    Thomas Super Moderator Staff Member

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    Pax, Vajradhara

    I think we shall have to agree to disagree, as our two perspectives are fundamentally different on this point.

    This stems from the view that 'existence' in all its modes of manifestation, from God downward, is distinct from the One - its distinction being the means of its recognition - and this distinction is real (ie not a dream, etc); that its ontological source is in the Divine which lies beyond all knowing, all comprehension, and that it is therefore essentially 'good'.

    The corporeal body is a manifestation of 'body' in a particular form in a particular domain - the mineral, flora, fauna, human and angelic forms are all 'bodies', as are natures, characters, ideas, colours, sounds, concepts, truths, and so forth - so we believe that although an angelic body might be 'more perfect' than a human body, or the Platonic Idea might be more perfect than its manifesting Form, but all is relative and thereby a matter of degree.

    The determination of man as body and the 'self' which possesses the body, and that thereby the body is disposable if not detestable, is counter to Christian doctrine, which believes in the essental sacred nature and origin of all things.

    Thomas
     
  18. Vajradhara

    Vajradhara One of Many

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    Namaste Thomas,

    it's taken me a little while to respond to this.. sorry about that.

    here's the entire Chapter:

    CHAP. XXXII. But let us now return to where the Jew is introduced, speaking of the mother of Jesus, and saying that "when she was pregnant she was turned out of doors by the carpenter to whom she had been betrothed, as having been guilty of adultery, and that she bore a child to a certain soldier named Panthera;" and let us see whether those who have blindly concocted these fables about the adultery of the Virgin with Panthera, and her rejection by the carpenter, did not invent these stories to overturn His miraculous conception by the Holy Ghost: for they could have falsified the history in a different manner, on account of its extremely miraculous character, and not have admitted, as it were against their will, that Jesus was born of no ordinary human marriage. It was to be expected, indeed, that those who would not believe the miraculous birth of Jesus would invent some falsehood. And their not doing this in a credible manner, but (their) preserving the fact that it was not by Joseph that the Virgin conceived Jesus, rendered the falsehood very palpable to those who can understand and detect such inventions. Is it at all agreeable to reason, that he who dared to do so much for the human race, in order that, as far as in him lay, all the Greeks and Barbarians, who were looking for divine condemnation, might depart from evil, and regulate their entire conduct in a manner pleasing to the Creator of the world, should not have had a miraculous birth, but one the vilest and most disgraceful of all? And I will ask of them as Greeks, and particularly of Celsus, who either holds or not the sentiments of Plato, and at any rate quotes them, whether He who sends souls down into the bodies of men, degraded Him who was to dare such mighty acts, and to teach so many men, and to reform so many from the mass of wickedness in the world, to a birth more disgraceful than any other, and did not rather introduce Him into the world through a lawful marriage? Or is it not more in conformity with reason, that every soul, for certain mysterious reasons (I speak now according to the opinion of Pythagoras, and Plato, and Empedocles, whom Celsus frequently names), is introduced into a body, and introduced according to its deserts and former actions? It is probable, therefore, that this soul also, which conferred more benefit by its residence in the flesh than that of many men (to avoid prejudice, I do not say "all"), stood in need of a body not only superior to others, but invested with all excellent qualities.

    this seems unequivical to me. a soul is being put into a body.. plain and simple. this is saying that Jesus' body had to be special becuase his soul was superior to others.

    wouldn't you agree?
     
  19. Vajradhara

    Vajradhara One of Many

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    Namaste Thomas,

    yes, we shall have to agree to disagree on this point. you are absolutely correct, we are approaching it from two radically different persepectives and there seems to be little room for agreement or common ground.

    so be it. it would be strange, as i said earlier, to find that we agreed on everything :)

    in essence the difference is thus, as far as i can tell:

    God is seperate from creation

    and

    God is creation.

    of course, this is a Brahmaical view, and i don't share it due to the concepts it's imputing, though i agree with the general nature of the statement.






     
  20. neoxenos

    neoxenos New Member

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    We do not remember our past lives just as we do not remember our current ones.

    For example, there are huge gaps in every day in which we cannot remember. If we had to dictate everything we said 20 years ago we could not do it. Maybe we could get a few things, here and there, but there is more blanks than memories... and when this life is no longer around to remind you of the past, everything goes...

    This is because are consciousness is sleeping, and we need to awaken it.

    Love not sleep, lest thou come to poverty; open thine eyes, [and] thou shalt be satisfied with bread. – Proverbs 20:13

    Therefore let us not sleep, as [do] others; but let us watch and be sober. – 1 Thessalonians 5:6
     

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