Review of Lee Irwin, Reincarnation in America

Book Review

Lee Irwin, Reincarnation in America: An Esoteric History. Lanham, MD: Lexington Books, 2017, pp. xxvi + 447, ISBN: 978-1-49855-407-7 (Hbk).

In the West, reincarnation may be most commonly associated with Asian religious traditions and thought of as a relatively minor or eccentric belief system. However, approximately 23% of Americans polled in the last 20 years believe in reincarnation as a viable post-mortem theory, and Reincarnation in America: An Esoteric History demonstrates that this belief has been informed by an incredibly diverse and complex array of cultural influences (xvi). In this ambitious book, Lee Irwin surveys the vast history of reincarnation theories that have influenced American ideas of rebirth, from ancient Greek theories of metempsychosis to current speculative models based on quantum physics.

The book consists of twenty chapters organised into three parts, and each part considers a different source for belief in reincarnation in the American context. Part I: Pre-American Theories of Reincarnation looks at ancient reincarnation beliefs among pre-American peoples. The six chapters document Indigenous, Native American, Greek, Roman, Medieval Christian, Renaissance Kabbalah and Christian Esoteric ideas regarding reincarnation. This extensive historical review demonstrates that reincarnation is an ancient theory that pre-dates both the written Asian wisdom traditions and monotheistic theories of heaven and hell. Part I covers many diverse theories of rebirth and the multitude of examples given illustrates the complexity of the topic. Far from simply being a religious idea grounded in abstract theological or philosophical discourse, reincarnation is presented as a complex phenomenon that is influenced by cosmology, community and culture, and often grounded in direct participatory knowledge gathered from dreams, visions, psychic encounters and the recollection of past lives. Here, Irwin introduces the idea that reincarnation might not be a religious idea at all, but rather a secular “expression of cosmological processes in harmony with similar processes of nature” (30). The various theories presented cover a wide range of – often conflicting and contradictory – beliefs regarding what aspect of personal identity, self or soul survives death, making them difficult to reconcile. However, this may be the point. As Irwin notes, the aim of this book is not to prove a single viable theory of reincarnation, but rather to clearly document the varied history of belief in rebirth and explore the value that such a belief might have for individuals in the American context (xvi). Hence, it is not so much about what reincarnates, but rather how a specific culture utilises theories of reincarnation in intellectual, ethical and spiritual life.

Part II: American Reincarnation looks at reincarnation beliefs in pre-contemporary America. The seven chapters cover reincarnation theories that have emerged from American Transcendentalism, African and Afro-Caribbean narratives, Spiritualism and Theosophy, the Occult Sciences, Freemasons, Rosicrucians, Asian wisdom traditions and Christian Esotericism. Part II discusses the eclectic mix of influences that shaped early American theories of reincarnation and also presents a developing trend; the detachment, over time, of reincarnation beliefs from religious tradition. Initially American colonialists were influenced by classical European reincarnation beliefs, which they assimilated into an esoteric Christian context, while simultaneously ignoring similar but non-Christian ideas regarding rebirth (such as those held by Native Americans) (120). However, with time, reincarnation thought gradually started to shift away from religious theory and become more influenced by demonstrable evidence. American intellectuals, such as Transcendentalist Henry Thoreau (1817 – 1862), started to make experiential claims about their own past-life recollections, and by the late 18th century, reincarnation theories found a new context in the “psychical sciences” (185). Mediums and psychics like Edgar Cayce (1877 – 1945), a “devout Christian” who validated reincarnation through past-life readings, were also influential (259). While personal past-
life narratives and scientific studies began to take centre stage, religious doctrine still played a role, particularly via the Eastern philosophical ideas that began to shape American views of reincarnation in the late 19th century. Irwin devotes two chapters (‘Asian Influences and Pan-Indian Theories’ and ‘American Buddhist Counternarratives’) to Eastern influences.

Part III: Post-American Reincarnation reviews contemporary American reincarnation theories that are, for the most part, based on participatory knowledge. The seven chapters cover theories that have developed from the evidence gained in altered states, spontaneous past-life recollections, regression therapy, and out-of-body and near-death experiences. These rebirth theories are even less dependent upon religious tradition and increasingly derive from direct personal experience, paranormal and psychic research, and psychotherapeutic models. Irwin describes this late twentieth century perspective as a “post-religious, transpersonal approach” that is “based primarily on past-life narratives, often gathered through case studies, hypnosis and regression therapy” (343). This section draws heavily on a new type of evidence in reincarnation theory; the spiritual autobiography (296). Irwin discusses how popular books that recounted past life narratives caught the attention of the media and fuelled further interest in reincarnation; as both a form of entertainment and an object of science. Part III clearly demonstrates how reincarnation has continued to shift away from religion, and further towards both the New Age and therapeutic milieus. But perhaps more interestingly, it reveals that even in contemporary Western society, theories of reincarnation are prolific and appear to serve a valuable purpose. They provide an explanatory framework in which to explore pertinent issues such as suffering and injustice (perceived by some as not adequately addressed by monotheistic belief systems), and the human desire for self-improvement and evolution towards a higher potential.
Overall Reincarnation in America provides a fascinating look at the rich and varied cultural influences that inform rebirth theories in America. The clear prose and engaging content make this book accessible to both academic and popular audiences interested in the topic of reincarnation. While not completely exhaustive, it covers an extraordinary amount of ground and should be a valuable resource for scholars of religion across many different areas, particularly those with an interest in esotericism.

Anna Lutkajtis

Published in Alternative Spirituality and Religion Review 9:2 (2018).

Photo by Mark Tegethoff on Unsplash