Regeneration and Reincarnation

W. John Murray
The Astor Lectures
Divine Science Publishing Assoc.
New York, 1917, 8th ed.

“Except a man be born again, he cannot enter into the kingdom of God.”
“Verily I say unto thee, Except a man be born of water, and of the Spirit, he cannot enter into the Kingdom of God.” –John 3:3, 5.

[188] When the depths of Divinity within man come into manifestation throughman, it is called regeneration. One writer says that mystery has been thrown around the subject of regeneration, which does not properly belong to it. Another writer assures us that regeneration will be always necessary so long as generation continues; that is, so long as generation in the flesh goes on, regeneration out of the flesh is a necessary corollary. Regeneration is a process of being born again, but it is not a physical process; neither does it imply a return to a condition which is outgrown. The adult does not need to become less than man by returning to infant form in order that he may rise above past mistakes. The grand necessity is for progressive unfoldment, not retrogressive atavism. Therefore, regeneration is not the assumption of a [189] baby’s body, but the appropriation of a higher mode of thinking and living.

Regeneration is the beginning of the spiritual life, and all growth after this is an expansion of the spiritual consciousness by means of which man comes into a fuller realization of his relationship with God. When a man is “born from above,” he learns to reason from a higher basis than that of the senses. This makes for a fuller freedom and a larger outlook upon life. It is a grave question in the minds of thinkers as to how regeneration is accomplished. Some contend it is a process of orderly development or evolution, which comes about in the ordinary course of events. Others believe it to be due to divine intervention, while still others are convinced that regeneration is largely a question of re-education.

If regeneration were a natural and orderly process of evolution, it would conform to law much like the budding of a flower, or the growth of a child into man’s stature; but there is no such time limit and no fixed age at which this great event must take place. At times it seems as if it were due to divine interposition, as when a man suddenly stops drinking and turns to a life of sobriety. But a man may stop drinking, and still continue some other debasing habit inordinately. He may suddenly discontinue all these debilitating habits, and continue as spiritually ignorant as before. Moral reformation is not necessarily spiritual regeneration. When a person [190] discovers that the vicious habit is destructive to health and decides from pure fear of its physical danger to “cut it out,” it may be said that he has reformed, but his reformation is not attributable to a consuming love of virtue so much as it is due to a growing terror of the consequences of vice.

Moral goodness is only too frequently the application of a theory born of a love for physical comfort and a desire for physical ease, and in consequence of this it may not have one iota of spirituality in it. Reformation is too often the outside form which men mistake for the inner life. It is said in the Scriptures that “God is not mocked.” We may deceive ourselves and others into thinking that we have been regenerated, when as a matter of fact we have merely been reformed. It is not the outer observance of the moral law, but the interior consciousness of man’s unity with God, coupled with a strong desire to make this unity manifest, which tells the story of regeneration.

A man may be reformed without being regenerated, but it is absolutely impossible for a man to be regenerated without being reformed. One follows the other as the dust follows the cart wheel. If we say that education is a more important factor in regeneration than evolution and Divine interposition, it is not because we belittle moral evolution, or the action of God in the betterment of man, but because true education includes these important factors as regeneration [191] includes moral reformation. It is well to know that education means a “calling forth.” Education along spiritual lines is the drawing out from the individual the concealed possibilities.

Every man has within him the God-implanted germ of unconquerable divinity. In some it seems to be like one of those seeds of corn in an Egyptian mummy’s casket, which lies as unproductive as the mummy itself, until it is subjected to the germinating influence of heat and moisture, when at once it begins to expand in the direction of producing seed after its kind. “In every human being,” says one, “there is a sleeping Christ”; that is, there is a spiritual potentiality, dormant or latent perhaps, but nevertheless there, much like an oak in the acorn. It is not that the Christ is really asleep in us, but that we are asleep to this indwelling Divinity of ours which needs to be called forth only by our intelligent recognition and right use of it.

It is the office of spiritual education, therefore, to call to our attention this hidden Reality of ourselves, in order that we may perceive “what is that good and perfect will of God in us.” Regeneration through spiritual education not only makes for moral reformation by emancipating the individual from a chrysalis state of thought, in which he is neither an ant nor an angel, but it produces direct physical results. This is something of great importance, and is worthy of serious consideration. A regeneration [192] which makes for moral improvement is good, but a regeneration which makes for moral betterment and physical health at the same time is better. Many admit that spiritual regeneration makes for moral uplift, but they are not so willing to admit that it also makes for bodily harmony. It is a traditional theory with most of us that for diseases of the soul we must turn to Deity, but for diseases of the body, our only refuge lies in drugs. “The body without the spirit is dead,” that is, that the body without the mind is just so much inert matter. With this truth all thinking men are in complete harmony. Apart from the mind the body has no life, no intelligence, and no power of its own.

The body is the outward and visible sign of an inward and mental state. In its entirety, it is the external representation of the sum total of our states of consciousness, which record themselves in some corresponding change in the physical organism. If we accept the fact that the thought of fear tends to express itself on the body in the form of trembling limbs and pallid countenance, it ought not to be difficult for us to believe that spiritual thinking tends to manifest itself in improved physical conditions. In the animal kingdoms we have many instances of regeneration on the physical plane without the necessity of rebirth or reincarnation. Both the crab and the lobster annually cast off their shells and new ones form from within. The serpent [193] sheds his skin, and this is the last step in the renewal of his body. Birds cast off their feathers, and this takes place by a process which acts from within outward, and it is the last stage in the process of their renewal. The ox and the horse shed their hair in the spring of the year. The tree renews itself once a year, and a new layer grows around the old ones.

All these phenomena are illustrations of a general law of life that is called rejuvenescence. A wit once remarked that he would not care to become a lobster even to grow a new leg, but wit cannot take the place of wisdom, and the wise man is he who asks what mental quality of the lobster makes for the restoration of the new claw. A bald-headed man might not wish to become an ox to preserve his hair, but if he could discover the mental attitude of the ox in the spring, and adopt it as his own, he might never become bald. The difference between an ox and a bald-headed man is the difference between an animal who instinctively knows its hair will grow again and a human being who becomes panic-stricken when his comb and brush shock him with their load of dead hairs. Knowing nothing of the law of rejuvenescence, we become terror-stricken when we should be joyful. We forget that dead hairs must depart before live ones can take their place. Happy is the lobster who knows he is regenerating a new shell within himself; unhappy is the man who [194] feels that unless some hair tonic can do the trick he is doomed to persistent baldness.

These illustrations from the animal world would serve to arouse within us a form of divine inquisitiveness. If man casts off, as physiology declares he does, his outer garment of the physical body once a year, why does he not improve it? Why do scars remain on the body for fifty years, when every particle of the body has been renewed at least fifteen times? These are questions not for the physiologist, but for the psychologist. It is possible for man, governed by God, to renew his youth as the eagle, but whether the scar will continue to reappear with each successive change of cuticle rests with the fixed belief of the thinker, for the body is formed after the pattern or image in the mind. If this pattern is after the image of the good, the pure, and the beautiful, the body will conform to it as the water in a jug will conform to the shape of the jug, but if the image in the mind is after the imperfect, or the unbeautiful, the external will conform to it just as faithfully. Spencer says, “For soul is form, and doth the body make.” When it is better understood that man is not a body with a soul inside of it, like a bird in a cage; but that he is a soul with a convenient instrument, we shall exercise a greater dominion over sin and sickness. How quickly a thought translates itself into a facial expression, as when one becomes pale from a sudden fear, or flushed from a shock to the modesty.

[195] In like manner spiritual regeneration makes for physical rejuvenation. I have seen a bloated drunkard so transformed by the renewing of his mind that he looked like another person. I have seen the pallid invalid so changed by the regenerating force of spiritual treatment as to be almost unrecognizable. In the healing work of Jesus the cure always began in the mind of his patient, and the visible result followed as naturally as a pleased appearance follows a happy thought. This is not so much a miracle as the consequence of a spiritual chemistry.

The point to be emphasized and impressed upon our minds is the fact that when regeneration begins through scientific spiritual education, it tends to ultimate itself, not only in moral reformation, but in physical reconstruction. The same spiritual force which reforms the sinner will heal the sick. If it has not done so since the days of Jesus, it is not because the force is inadequate, but because we have limited it. “A three inch stream cannot be gotten through a one inch pipe.” If we have tapped the reservoir of God’s Love for just enough of the water of Life to cleanse us from our sins, while our sicknesses have been permitted to multiply, the fault does not lie with the inexhaustible Source, but with our meager demand upon it. In Divine Science, regeneration is the spiritual method by which one is made “every whit whole”–spirit, soul and body–by the healing energy of the Holy Spirit.

[196] Reincarnation is physical rebirth. Therefore, the difference between reincarnation and regeneration is the difference between being born again,–physically and spiritually.

There is much difference, even among Theosophists, concerning this ancient and modern doctrine; so much so, that it has been said that “Where masters disagree, pupils must needs be cautious.” Mrs. Annie Besant says: “The proofs of reincarnation do not amount to a complete and general demonstration, but they establish as strong a presumption as can, in the nature of the case, exist. The theory they support affords the only sufficient explanation of the growth and decay of nations, of the facts of individual evolution; of the varying capacities of man, of recurrent cycles in history, of unique human characters. I am content, despite my own certain knowledge that reincarnation is a fact in nature–to present it here as a reasonable working hypothesis, rather than as a demonstrable theorem.”

The Hindu conception of reincarnation embraces all existence, including gods, men, animals, plants and minerals. It is believed that everything migrates, from Buddha down to inert matter. One authority on reincarnation tells us that Buddha himself was born an ascetic eighty-three times, a monarch fifty-five times, as the soul of a tree forty times, and many other times as an ape, a deer, a lion, a snipe, a chicken, an eagle, a sea-serpent, a pig, a frog, etc., amounting [197] to four hundred times in all. Another authority tells us that the Hindu conception is based on a false premise, since it is a maxim that the soul, once human, can never be reborn in the body of an animal. This authority, however, favors the possibility of the soul reincarnating itself in human infant form–something to which I shall refer as we proceed.

It has been said that nothing else so successfully explains the inequalities of human life as does the philosophy of reincarnation. Over against this declaration, however, is the theory that heredity and environment are the most important factors in social equality.

Abundant citations are given from the Bible to support the theory of reincarnation. It was the popular impression that John the Baptist was a reincarnation of Elijah, but when John himself was questioned on this point, he denied it. (John 1:21) This, we are told, is because it required an adept to remember his former existence. When Jesus asked his disciples: “Whom say ye that I am?” they answered: “Some say Elias; some say Jeremiah, and some say that prophet.” In this answer we see the evidence of a belief in reincarnation, but Jesus says nothing on this occasion for or against it.

When Mozoomdar, the eminent Hindu scholar and writer, embraced the teachings of Jesus, he began to change his views on the subject of reincarnation. In a lecture given in this country, he said: “Transmigration notoriously existed as [198] an indispensable article of faith among the sects of old Hinduism. In modern times, however, it is called Reincarnation and held by the more superstitious. Educated, free-thinking Hindus reject it as a fading, unreasonable relic of the past.”

Over against this declaration of Mozoomdar, the native Hindu who embraced the teachings of Christianity and rejected the doctrine of reincarnation, we have Professor Francis Bowen of Harvard University pleading that the Christian Church should accept this doctrine. In an article on “Christian Metempsychosis,” which is intended to prove that the doctrine of reincarnation was endorsed by Jesus himself, he says: “We learn that our Lord twice declared, in very distinct language, that Elijah and John the Baptist were really one and the same person. Once while John was still alive, but in prison, Jesus told the multitude who thronged him: ‘Among them that are born of women there has not risen a greater than John the Baptist,’ and directly he goes on to assert: ‘If ye will receive it, this is Elias, which was to come.’ (Matt. 11:14) And again after John was beheaded, Jesus said to his disciples, ‘Elias has come already, and they knew him not, but have done unto him whatsoever they listed.’ Then the disciples understood that he spoke to them of John the Baptist. (Matt. 17:12-13.)”

At the time of Jesus’ birth there seems to have been a general belief among the more devout [199] Jews that the coming of the Messiah was to be preceded or announced by the reappearance of Elijah, the Prophet. Malachi, speaking as the oracle of God has said: “Behold I will send you Elijah the Prophet before the coming of the great and dreadful day of the Lord.” (Mal. 4:5.) These words of prophesy were the basis of a nation’s hopes and expectations. But notwithstanding all this, John was beheaded, and Jesus was crucified.

India seems to be the birthplace, cradle and the home of the philosophy of reincarnation; yet Lanki R. Bhose, a noted Hindu scholar, writes: “Reincarnation, the legitimate child of transmigration (the latter is still the belief in southern India), held so tenaciously and almost universally by old India, is on the declining plane. Psychology, as taught by the British and the French, is rapidly displacing the belief by showing its irrationality and depressing influence upon the superstitious in relation to animal and serpent and insect life.”

Amid so many conflicting opinions, and with so many brilliant minds on both sides of the question, may it not be that the confusion arises from a too material conception of it? It may be somewhat disconcerting to one who is willing to believe in reincarnation to discover so many students of Theosophy, who claim to be the reincarnation of the same deceased personality. For instance, it is astonishing to learn of the great number of persons who are called the reincarnation [200] of Paul and Peter and John; not to mention the host of Anthonys and other ancient celebrities. A friend of mine tells me that there are eight ladies in London who claim the honor and distinction of being reincarnations of Cleopatra. The editor of the Occult Review says: “The number of Mary Queen of Scots, who are reincarnated simultaneously at the present time, are simply legion.”

Now it must not be inferred from the contradictory statements which I have quoted concerning this absorbing topic that I am opposed to it. I see in these great differences of opinion the results of a too gross material view of the subject and for this reason I am endeavoring to discover its spiritual side, if there be one, or if it has no spiritual side, to discard it altogether.

We have observed the tendency on the part of educated Hindus to get away from the belief that “For simple acts most corporeal, a man shall assume after death a vegetable or mineral form; for such acts, mostly verbal, the form of a bird or beast; for acts mostly mental, the lowest of mental conditions.” Since it is the nature of the species to perpetuate itself, it is not the opinion of advanced Theosophists that man ever becomes reincarnated in the body of an animal. The most popular theory at present, is that of the soul’s necessity of rebirth in the body of a human infant, on the principle that past mistakes can be corrected only in this way. This is much as though one would have to return to a grade [201] in school for the lessons which had not been properly mastered,–like coming from San Francisco back to Boston to get what you missed in high school there. The theory is supposed to be substantiated by the words of our text: “Except a man be born again, he cannot see the Kingdom of God.” This text is regarded as one of the strongest arguments in favor of the necessity of man’s return to this planet for the purpose of doing that which he failed to do when he was here before. But if one studies carefully the whole context from which this text is detached, he may see that it does not refer to a physical rebirth, quite so much as it refers to a spiritual awakening.

Nicodemus had gone to Jesus under cover of the night to inquire of him concerning the Way. He perceived that Jesus was a man of God; despite the fact that he, Nicodemus, was a teacher of Israel, schooled in the law and the prophets, he was humble enough to seek Truth wherever he could find it. (John 3:1) When Jesus told him that he must be born again, he could think of this requirement only in material terms, for he asked: “How can a man be born when he is old? Can he enter a second time into his mother’s womb?” And the answer Jesus gave to this well-meant question, if accepted in its spiritual significance, will do much to explain reincarnation from the highest point of view. In that remarkable statement of Jesus, “That which is born of flesh is flesh, and that which is born of Spirit is [202] Spirit,” is set forth the solution of the problem, the explanation of the riddle. He draws the sharp line of distinction between the spiritual man, made in the image and likeness of God, and the so-called material man formed from the dust of the ground. He declares that one is eternal and indestructible, while the other is temporal and evanescent. In this metaphysical description of man, Jesus makes it clear thatregeneration is far more important than reincarnation. If reincarnation is a change in the physical nature of man, regeneration is a change in the spiritual nature of man; and it was on this particular change that Jesus laid most stress.

The necessity of being born again, according to the philosophy of Jesus, was not that an adult must go through all the processes of physical conception, gestation and deliverance into the world as a shrieking, helpless infant. Jesus realized that man, in a state of spiritual ignorance, is shut up in the womb of materiality from which he must be delivered by Truth, if he would open his eyes on a world of God’s creating.

It has been argued that if it is possible for the soul to clothe itself in infant form, it is equally possible for it to clothe itself in adult form, and so begin where it left off, instead of wasting so many years in acquiring knowledge that it must be in possession of already from its previous incarnations. I agree with Mrs. Besant that “The proofs of reincarnation do not amount [203] to a complete and general demonstration”; and for this reason I feel that regeneration is the point to be most emphasized in Divine Science.

The best religion is that which helps one to be of most service to humanity. It is not so much a question as to whether we were a St. Paul, Mark Anthony or a Cleopatra in previous incarnations, as it is a question of what we are now. The great science is the science of ontology, which tells a man what he is, and enables him to transcend all limitations by the knowledge of the power of the Holy Spirit which works in him.

Reincarnation is a truth, but in a higher and a more spiritual sense than many of its most ardent advocates realize. The Logos, or the Christ, incarnated itself whenever men have been sufficiently spiritual to perceive it. The Christ incarnates itself, not in fleshly forms, but in spiritual qualities. The same Christ which incarnated itself in Elijah the Prophet, could incarnate itself in similar spiritual qualities in John the Baptist, and this without making one the necessary reproduction of the other in physical form.

When we understand the spiritual significance of the doctrine of reincarnation, we shall see that it is the perpetuation of persistent spiritual qualities, and not the repeated visits of the soul to this particular planet. The changes which go on in the world of time and sense have no [204] more relation to man, as God sees him, than errors have to the fixed truth of mathematics. Man is not what he appears to be, any more than the sun is what it appears to be. Man, as God and the spiritually minded man sees him, is no more subject to birth and death than the sun is subject to ascent and descent.

We say that immortality demands reincarnation, yet if we are to enjoy conscious existence after death, we must have had it before birth, since we cannot predicate immortality with one end. In the very nature of things, since we believe in immortality, we must believe in pre-existence, but we must not be too dogmatic in our declaration that pre-existence is limited to this particular planet upon which we are at present masquerading. Just as it cannot be proved that we continue to live on this planet after the transition called death, it cannot be proved that we lived on this planet before birth; while the fact that God is Life, and that man is the Idea of God, is sufficient proof that the life of man is eternal, and is the life of God.

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