Somerset Maugham wrote in his memoirs that the idea of reincarnation was the only meaningful solution he had ever found to the problem of evil, suffering and death. (Now, since it is possible to argue that death is the ultimate form of evil and suffering, we may shortcut that formulation to speak solely of death.) In other words, death becomes a problem only if we assume that any individual life is a unique event, with a beginning, middle and end, implacable and unrepeatable.
That life is a continuum from conception to death would seem to be a given. (This, by the way, is the ultimate argument against abortion: The continuum of life stretches from conception to death. That continuum does not begin at birth nor at some arbitrary point in gestation. The process of life and living and dying begins where it begins: at conception. It is a continuum unbroken though not unbreakable, and to argue otherwise for personal or political purposes is pernicious.) To put the matter more simply: Death becomes a problem when we believe that we live only once.
As Maugham pointed out, the idea of reincarnation provides a solution to this problem since it posits that individual life is not a unique event, confined to a single nexus of space and time; but, rather, that it is a part of a chain of being that stretches throughout time and space, offering the soul (which transcends time and space) the opportunity to free itself from death. Thus, any given life is groundwork, as it were, for the soul's self-liberation.
There are three components to this proposition: life, the soul and liberation. In contrast to this, the Western or Christian point of view offers life, death and salvation. The difference is critical, since reincarnation removes death as a problem if not as a fact. If one lives and dies and never lives again, then the idea of salvation is all one has to sustain hope. But no matter how we conceive of salvation, it still leaves us with the problem of death. All those who have gone before and died, whether saved or not, are simply gone once and forever. They may live in our hearts and memories, and we may believe they are in some sort of paradise, but the fact remains that they are dead, and will not live again until the purported resurrection of the body at the end of time.
The Western view thus makes us the victims or slaves of time, wholly at its mercy, unable to liberate ourselves from it. And what becomes of space? The Christians do not say. Time, they tell us, will end at the Second Coming of Christ, but what of space? Herein has always lain a contradiction, for if the resurrection of the body which they posit occurs at the end of time, it must nonetheless occur in space. And there can be no space in the absence of time. The resurrection of the body is a silly, pointless and meaningless idea, and it fails utterly to solve the problem of death. In fact, it serves merely to place death at center stage - the focal point of the relation between life and salvation. To put it another way: The Christian view of life makes life impossible without death, for salvation is impossible without death. Death thus becomes the determining factor, as crucial as it is final. For that which must follow death in this schema is not life at all, but some contradictory, mutant form of life, a fantasy that exists in space but out of time.
The Western, Christian, view of life, death and salvation does not solve the problem of evil, suffering and death. And there is a further contradiction: As Tolstoy pointed out, Christianity is unique among the world's religions in insisting that the individual can do nothing to achieve his own salvation. Instead, Christianity posits that Christ accomplished this through his suffering, death and resurrection, and so, all that we can do is to make ourselves worthy of a salvation which Christ has already achieved for us. Far from liberating the individual from the problem of death, this view makes him entirely helpless in the matter of his own survival of death. It shifts the responsibility for salvation from the individual to Christ and, conveniently, to the church which he is said to have founded. Believe and you shall be saved, the church says; or, in other words, Refuse to believe and you shall die. Thus not only does this approach make us slaves to death, it also makes us slaves to the church, wholly dependent upon it for our salvation.
And so the alternative, as Maugham realized, lies in the idea that we do not possess one, unique lifetime, but that our lives are part of a much longer chain of being stretching through time and space, and offering us the possibility, through greater spiritual insight and self-realization, of liberating ourselves from them. In this view, it is the soul which lives, and the soul which experiences evil, suffering and death through consciousness as a means of self-liberation. Evil, suffering and death thus take on a positive, teaching role (as it were) in human experience, neither malign by nature nor neutral in effect. They are cast as opportunities for self-liberation through understanding, spiritual struggle and growing enlightenment.
This latter is key, for it is essential to self-liberation that one profit by the experience of evil, suffering and death (as well as that of rebirth, joy and hope) to work out one's own salvation. This idea, that the responsibility and opportunity for salvation lies with the individual, is potentially terribly liberating, and does offer a solution to the problem of death. For it posits that salvation lies, not with some misty, dependent relation to a church, but rather with the education and realization of the soul. Because the soul survives any particular death, it says, it may survive death entirely, by using death as a means to rebirth and, so, to the re-experience of life and the attainment of enlightenment.
One implication of this idea which does not exist in Christianity is that of the relation of love and life. If one believes that death is the unique end to the unique event of life, and that salvation is its goal, then it follows that one must despise one's life and hope for that which follows life. We can enjoy life, of course; but, ultimately, life has no intrinsic purpose beyond the experience of becoming worthy of something which lies outside of life; namely, salvation. And so Christianity teaches us to despise life (certainly in Catholic school I was taught to do so), and to prefer and cherish and hope for that which lies beyond life.
Reincarnation, on the other hand, implies that one should embrace and love life fully since any given life is part of the process of liberation from the cycle of suffering and death and rebirth. Life, instead of the trial and transit toward salvation which Christianity posits, becomes a hope for freedom and a celebration of the endurance of the soul. In this view, we are continually moving towards self-realization and self-liberation as we move through the process of life, death and rebirth; understanding and accepting the role of death as a transitional experience, rather than dreading it as an end point from which there is no hope of return. In other words, Christianity makes us fear death and despise life, while reincarnation offers us a means to understand death, and to love life.
Now, I think it should be needless to argue that the Christian view of life, death and salvation is utterly inadequate to offer a solution to the problem of death. This should be evident on its face. There is no heaven - that is a primitive child's fairy tale which every thinking person ought to have shrugged off by adulthood. There is no celestial reunion of the long deceased, resurrected at the end of time by a triumphant Christ, and invited to bask in eternal bliss (at least, those who have not been condemned to eternal torment for sins committed in their paltry few years on earth). This is nonsense, and no thinking person can entertain the idea seriously, let alone take solace from it.
But, on the other hand, reincarnation contains within it, if not absurdity, at least a conundrum. One part of this conundrum lies in the question of the relation of one consciousness to another in the chain of life, death and rebirth. Can the soul be said to be individuated, at least to the extent that it can recognize itself from one life to the next? To believe this suggests that the soul retains consciousness, and I am not convinced that this is so. Consciousness, it seems to me, is the product of the soul's interaction with organic life, heightened to its grandest extent in man. But does the individual soul carry this consciousness with it after death? And does the concept of "the individual soul" even have any meaning?
Yet if the soul does not retain consciousness after death, how is it to profit from successive rebirths? Would not death break the chain of consciousness, forcing the individual to begin the process of learning and the movement toward enlightenment over again with each rebirth? How, then, is enlightenment ever to be achieved, and liberation of the soul realized? Yet, if consciousness, or some part or form of it, remains with the soul after death, why then are we born, as it were, clean slates? And how, exactly, does consciousness remain with the soul in the absence of a corporeal substrate, such as the central nervous system and brain? Is not consciousness the product of corporeal incarnation of spirit, and, thus, must it not cease to be when that incarnation ceases?
The second part of the conundrum is more subtle, pernicious and dismaying. What impressed Maugham about the idea of reincarnation was that it alone, in his experience and thought, offered a solution to the problem of death. That solution, it seems to me, appealed to him because it was so rational; in other words, because it was an intellectual solution. Reincarnation makes sense of suffering and death; it gives us a way to understand them; it puts them into perspective. But is it the truth? For we know from our experience that that which make sense is not always true. May reincarnation merely be a forlorn hope in the presence of death; yet another grasping at straws?
Here one is tempted to ask for evidence, for proof, and indeed, there are some proponents of reincarnation who try to offer this. They point to the possibility of the knowledge of the existence of past lives as evidence; but I find such tenuous and tendentious recollection no more satisfying than the Christian notion of heaven. There is no proof that reincarnation is the truth, and the fact that the majority of the world's people accept it does not make it so. And so we are (or at least I am) left with the possibility that reincarnation, though it makes good sense, may not in fact be true. Rather, it appeals to us and offers solace as an intellectual proposition only.
On the other hand, the absence of evidence does not necessarily render an idea false. Before Columbus there was no hard evidence that a New World existed, but that did not mean that Europe, as a continent, was unique. And so we are thrown back on the question of belief, full in the knowledge that believing something, likewise, does not make it true. What, then, are we to do?
To abandon hope for a solution to the problem of death is to despair altogether; to submit to the idea that life has no purpose and that death is the end. And while this may, in fact, be the truth, there is no joy or meaning or solace in it. To accept death as the absolute end of life is to cancel out life itself; to render it null and void, arbitrary and pointless. Love, hope, joy, suffering and death all become empty since they are transitory and death is terminal. Nothing endures, and the soul, if it exists, disappears into some eternal ocean of its own substance. There is no individuation, no salvation, no liberation. As Tolstoy's Ivan Ilych realized to his horror: There is nothing but death, and death ought not to exist.
Can one live under these conditions? Can one survive with this suspicion? In fact, many people do, meandering through their lives as if they had meaning, while all the time suspecting that they do not. They are like skaters on the most delicate film of ice trying to blind themselves to the possibility that the depths beneath it are infested with sharks. Logic, emotion, instinct suggest that there must be an alternative; that this vast and deep experience of life must possess some purpose.
It seems to me that life itself may be the evidence that death is not the end point, not the negation of consciousness and hope and life. It is irresistible to my mind that life itself, and the consciousness which it engenders, argue for something which transcends them; that life is the problem which must be solved, not death. What is the meaning and nature of life; what is its purpose and point? What is its destiny? And so I come back to Maugham's conclusion: that rebirth, renewal and self-realization, perhaps uniquely, offer an opportunity for the soul's liberation, and for a freedom finally, from death.