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  • Forgiveness Seventy-Times-Seven:Reincarnation in Valentin Tomberg's Meditations on the Tarot
  • Amy Slagle (bio)


In his remarkable work Meditations on the Tarot, the Russian-born, Roman Catholic mystic, Valentin Tomberg (1900–1973), asserts that a certain degree of "daring" is required of the person actively engaged in the Christian life.1 It is, after all, no ordinary task to aspire to the "higher knowledge" that may be obtained when a humble, prayerful "living soul" enters into true communion with the "living God."2 One area where Tomberg dared to aspire beyond the bounds of normative Catholicism was in his active embrace of reincarnation, which is simply, if rather obliquely, defined in the work as "successive lives of the same human individuality."3 While observers, such as the Catholic theologian Hans Urs von Balthasar, who wrote a famous afterword to the work, have often dismissed Tomberg's reincarnationist views as something of a curiosity,4 a benign theological misstep that need not be taken too seriously, Tomberg himself maintained a deep personal commitment to the notion. He described reincarnation, in no uncertain terms, as a "fact" of the inner world,5 one to be recognized through direct spiritual experience. Cultivated during Tomberg's early years as a practicing occultist (particularly as an Anthroposophist during the 1920s and 1930s), his adherence to the concept of multiple lives (as well as to the idea of karma) was carried full bloom into his mature thought, influenced as it was by his conversion to Roman Catholicism in 1945.

Interestingly, it is precisely on this point of reincarnation that Tomberg and his masterpiece of twentieth-century western esotericism, resonates with the "daring" exhibited by many Christians today to embrace the possibility of multiple lives. Despite the heavy weight of traditional orthodox Christian rejection of the notion, increasing numbers of lay Christians in western Europe and North America find reincarnation quite plausible and attractive. According to a 2018 Pew Research Study, 36% of American Roman Catholics (slightly more than the 33% of adult Americans more widely) claim belief in reincarnation. Even 19% of evangelical Christians admit interest in the idea.6 Bradley Malkovsky has recently observed that the opening decades of the [End Page 243] twenty-first century represent the "third great encounter" of Christians coming into sustained contact with notions of reincarnation on a broad and pervasive scale.7

However, even in a contemporary context of lay interest in reincarnation, most mainstream theologians have either ignored reincarnation or dismissed it out of hand as alien to orthodox Christian cosmology and soteriology. This rejection of the possibility of multiple lives, on the part of theologians and clerics, is all the more noteworthy when observed against the backdrop of an active critical reevaluation of traditional notions of the Christian afterlife more generally in recent decades. For example, belief in eternal damnation has been on the wane in a number of quarters (across the denominational spectrum of Roman Catholicism, Protestantism, and Eastern Orthodoxy) as scholars and clerics have advocated for universalism, the notion "that in the end all persons will be saved and joined to God in Christ"8 as more compatible with views of an ever-loving and merciful God.

In the theological daring he exhibits in Meditations on the Tarot (henceforth Meditations), Valentin Tomberg remains one of the few modern Christian thinkers to take the possibility of the transmigration of souls seriously. While in no way advocating for formal doctrinal recognition of reincarnation on the part of the Roman Catholic Church (as we shall see), Tomberg does subscribe to this premise with a quiet, unshakable determination. Tomberg takes what many observers consider a heterodox concept, one seeded and nourished during his years of active engagement with occultism (particularly his involvement with Anthroposophy), and plants it firmly into his traditional, post-conversion Christian worldview without so much as a blink of a self-effacing eye.

I argue that Tomberg's embrace of reincarnation should not be dismissed as a theological curiosity or mistake. Although Tomberg does not provide as much explanatory detail on the processes of and reasons for "successive incarnations" as a reader may hope, the notion aligns with the emphasis he places on...