The Wheatley Institution

Straining at Particles of Light: Premortal Life and the Mansions of Memory

Terryl Givens
October 13, 2011

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It's a signal honor to be asked to speak at an event associated with Truman Madsen. I, like countless others, have been profoundly affected by his work, his life, and his testimony. I had only one encounter with Professor Madsen when I was a student here at Brigham Young University, and I guess you could call it my exit interview with him. I expressed at that time my desire to continue my studies at the graduate level and eventually secure a teaching position in the humanities. Professor Madsen suggested that I might consider something more practical instead. I resisted his counsel, so he said he would give me his blessing contingent on one promise: I would have to assure him that I would never return to BYU with my hat in my hand, asking for work. So I want him to know, wherever he is, that I was invited here tonight.

In 1818, as the poet John Keats nursed his beloved brother Tom through the final months of a hopeless struggle against tuberculosis, he wrote a sonnet about his own fears that he, too, would die before his pen could glean the wonderful riches of what he called his "teeming brain." By the next year, the disease had indeed caught hold of him, and he burst forth in a creative flood of poetry, producing a string of odes that are still the staple of many an English major's diet: "Ode on Melancholy," "Ode on a Grecian Urn," "Ode to a Nightingale," and others.

As winter turned to spring, the torrent of words spilled over the borders of his poetry and into his letters, where he contemplated the grandeur of the human race and the wellsprings of his own imagination. To his brother George, he wrote: "There is an electric fire in human nature tending to purify, so that among these human creatures there is continually some birth of new heroism. The pity is that we must wonder at it, as we should at finding a pearl in rubbish." He opined that Jesus may have represented a heart and a system completely pure, before his words were written and revised by men interested in the pious frauds of religion. Like so many his age, Keats was disheartened by institutionalized systems of religions that almost universally emphasized human depravity and inherent guilt, while themselves doing more to justify than to alleviate human suffering. But something would not let him give into despair as he wrote hopefully, "Yet through all this, I see Christ's splendor, even here, though I myself am pursuing the same instinctive course as the veriest human animal you can think of. I am however young, writing at random, straining at particles of light in the midst of a great darkness."

He continued that, while unsure of his own conclusion, he was confident that a superior being could not but be pleased with his struggle to make sense of it all. In his rather comical analogy he said, "Though a quarrel in the streets is a thing to be hated, the energies displayed in it are fine." At the least, whether he pled to God or to his brother is unclear: "Give me this credit: do you not think I strive to know myself? Give me credit."

The image is a haunting but a hopeful one, "straining at particles of light in the midst of a great darkness." It suggests, as it did for Keats' entire cohort of romantic poets and for myriad others, not just the reality of a realm of eternal truth behind the shadowy idols of the present, but a realm that beckons to us, through faint traces of memory that pierce the long night of forgetfulness. I want to consider tonight some of the implications of what we could call this secret life of the soul, and what might be and has been revealed therein.

The novelist and essayist Marilynne Robinson has recently referred to "the odd privilege of existence as a coherent self, . . . that haunting 'I,' who wakes us in the night, wondering where time has gone, the 'I' we waken to, sharply aware that we have been unfaithful to ourselves." We all know the sensation of having failed to live up to who we are, the sense that there exists a different "I" than the one sometimes manifest through our actions. This perception is engrained in our very language of self-justification. "I wasn't myself," we might say. Or, "you are better than that," a friend or relative might tell us after disappointing course of conduct. Who is this "I" we are referring to in such instances? It could be just an idealized self we have failed to manifest, except the sense is too strong that it is our actions that are unreal or fall short of an actual standard that already exists in some form. In other words, is our most plausible candidate for this other "I" a hypothetical self we might someday be? Or is it rather what George MacDonald called, "an old soul," a self with a long history that provides the contrast with current patterns of behavior?

One of the earliest church fathers, Clement of Alexandria, who lived in the second century, felt only the second hypothesis could explain the remarkable decision of an individual to abruptly reserve the course of one's life in quest of a better. This, he reasoned, can only be because when we sin, we sense we are falling short of who we really are and were. He believed only memory of the past, not imagination about the future, could be a credible prompt to such repentance. In the midst of lowly actions, our souls sometimes resonate with the dim intimations of a heavenly past and evidence of a more supernal destiny than the one our poor choices foreshadow. As Clement wrote, we at some point come to a vague reminiscence of better things and desire to renounce our iniquities and "speed back to the eternal light, children to the Father."

But it doesn't require the sense of guilt to turn our gaze backward in time in a quest for self-knowledge. One contemporary philosopher finds other common linguistic formulations reveal hidden insight into our souls' nature and history. "I . . . have the intuition," John Knox writes, "that I—this very self—might have been born of different parents, indeed as a different species of animal.  And this intuition is very strong with me; I think it is sound.  If it is, then that very fact may imply that my birth and my beginning are two different things."

In other words, if you can say meaningfully, "If I had been born in Calcutta," then you are presupposing an independently existing "I," who preexisted your birth in Orem or Panguitch, and might have been born elsewhere. What shines forth in such utterances, John Knox argues, is a deep core of identity that could have been manifest in any number of ways or places. Such a hypothetical statement could never be taken as proof of human preexistence, but he believes that that the ease and naturalness with which we can say such things is evidence of a deep, even unaware, assumption on our part that we really do intuit an eternal self behind the contingencies of our own mortal form and history.

That intuition is more rigorously analyzed in one of the greatest works of introspection and soul examination in the Western tradition. Writing his Confessions at the end of the fourth century, St Augustine begins with a series of questions: Where do I come from? Was I anywhere before I was in my mother's womb? Why does nothing satisfy the deep hunger of my soul? Why in spite of my success, my fame, my friends and family does this great chasm remain? Because it is not filled with God, he determines, nothing except God can fill the cavern of my soul. But how can that be? How can I possibly have such love for a God I have never seen?

To answer this question, he does not look to the natural world to theology or philosophy. Instead he turns inward and journeys ever deeper within himself because God, he concludes, must dwell in that same place where, in the moments of still solitude, we come face to face with all the great loves of our life. It is of course, in memory that such forms dwell, and this is where we encounter God. Strangely, he continues, this recollection is also our initiation, but how can this be?

His argument turns out to be a great psalm of wonder and praise. In his quest of knowledge for God, he writes, "I will pass beyond this power of my nature, rising by degrees unto him who made me, and I come at last to the fields and spacious palaces of my memory, where are the treasures of innumerable images. When I enter there, I require what I will to be brought for, and something instantly comes. Others must be longer sought after, which are fetched as it were out of some inner receptacle. All these doth that great harbor of our memory receive in her numberless secret and inexpressible windings, to be forthcoming and brought out at need."

And now, across the span of almost fifteen hundred years, we hear his words foreshadow those of Keats: "For even when I dwell in darkness and silence," he notes, "I discern the breath of lilies from violets, though smelling nothing. These things do I do within that vast court of my memory, for there are present within me--heaven, sea, earth, whatever I could think on therein, besides what I have forgotten, nor do I comprehend all that I am." And then, he finally comes to this great revelation: "The images in my mind of mountains, billows, rivers, and stars--all those things that populate my memory--could not be there unless at a prior time I actually saw the mountains, billows, rivers, and stars, because if a thing is imprinted on the memory, it must have first been present.

But what of God and the life of godliness? "For when I seek thee, my God, I seek a happy life." How can that be possible? Clearly by analogy, those who seek God and the happy life must have been happy once, just like the New Testament woman who lost her coin. She would not have found it if she had not remembered it, and she would not have remembered it unless she had previously known it. Knowledge of God, Saint Augustine concludes, must then be memory of God. C.S. Lewis said something very similar. He wrote, "My own experience is a rather 'devastating desire'—desire for that of which the present joy is a reminder. All my life, nature, and art have been reminding me of something I've never seen, saying, 'Look! What does this, and this, remind you of?'"

As it happens, few if any religious or philosophical ideas in the history of Western thought have experienced such widespread fervor followed by such precipitous decline to the point of erasure as the belief that Augustine here expressed, that these faint intimations betoken a life before birth, lived in God's presence. The story of why the idea of preexistence suffered recurrent suppression is complex, and involves shifting theological winds that pushed it aside: the doctrine of creation ex nihilo, the overshadowing of free will by grace, the removal of God to realms of incomprehensibility and inaccessibility. All these militated against the idea.

But the story of why the idea persisted, surfacing time and time again in spite of anathemas, purges, and orthodox resistance, is more simple. This idea has demonstrated greater intellectual power than its alternatives. Over its three thousand plus years of history, the idea of preexistence has been invoked in a large array of arguments, and the philosophical and theological work that it has performed is immense. Origen was convinced that it gave the most persuasive background to a world so variegated in its populous beings. Some Neo-Platonists opted for preexistence because, simply put, it was more symmetrical and aesthetically satisfying than a universe where humans were endless in one direction only; they suddenly appear on the scene of eternity.

In the seventeenth century, Cambridge Platonists had recourse to preexistence because, among other merits, it gave the most logically coherent account of the soul's origin, with fewer problems than the Catholic version that God creates the soul at birth or the Lutheran version that the parents created it at conception. Preexistence was employed by philosophers like Immanuel Kant to ground a theory of free will and theologians like Julius Müller to justify human accountability. Its most conspicuous use in the nineteenth century was to give a more coherent account of the justice of God, as when Edward Beecher wrote almost a thousand pages on the topic to explain our immersion in a life of pain, sin and suffering.

Any one of these topics could fill hours in the telling, from the ancient Greeks and Christians and Jews to Medieval mystics to Renaissance humanists to American transcendentalists like Emerson and Alcott to the poet Robert Frost. All these people arrived at the idea of preexistence through deduction, inference, or as a desperate measure to make sense of other religious and philosophical problems. But today I've chosen to keep the focus, not on the intellectual rationales that sustain the scaffolding once it was up, but on what we could call the most intuitive dimensions behind the foundations themselves. I want to survey what we could call the history of intimations of premortality, or what I called earlier, the secret life of the soul.

Today seems a propitious moment to emphasize this approach because of recent developments in the God debates: the New Atheism that was referred to earlier. Terry Eagleton is no choirboy but a seasoned Marxist critic. And he has recently taken the secularists to task, not for failing to answer the right questions, but for failing to even ask them. "Science has gone a long way toward explaining our world," he writes, "but it has yet to explain the kind of commitment that human beings make at the end of their tether, foundering in darkness, pain and bewilderment, who nevertheless remain faithful to the promise of a transformative love. Maybe," he reasons, "reason is too skin-deep, and science does not go back far enough."

To quote Marilynne Robinson again, in her Dwight H. Terry lecture on religion at Yale she refers to the lamentable triumph of scientism in the human sciences. One result, she remarks, is the odd practice of "defining humankind by exclusion of those very things that distinguish us as a species." What she means is that curiously, those things that are most closely wrapped up with what it means to be human—the inner life that defines us, those things that defy measurement or analysis or reproducibility—cannot be taken too seriously in the intellectual pursuit of self-understanding. More specifically, there has been for some time an arrogant and yet provincial modernism, holding that, "the experience and testimony of the individual mind should be excluded from consideration when any rational account is made of the nature of human beings."

One problem with modern approaches to the human being begins with the assumption that there is no qualitative distinction between the animal and the human. But as the scientist John Polkinghorne has observed, "Our surplus intellectual capacity, enabling us to comprehend the microworld of quarks and gluons and the macroworld of big bang cosmology, is on such a scale that it beggars belief that this is a fortunate by-product of the struggle for life." G.K. Chesterton put the case rather more simply. He said, "It sounds like a truism to say the most primitive man drew a picture of a monkey, and it sounds like a joke to say the most intelligent monkey drew a picture of a man.  Something of division and disproportion has appeared; and it is unique.  This human creature is truly unique and different from all other creatures."

Now, acknowledging this difference, I want to emphasize, does not require a religious perspective per se, since it is embraced by any number of atheist philosophers, such as John McTaggart, who affirmed the eternity of the human soul, or Thomas Nagel, who wrote that it is hardly credible that the appearance of that miracle called the human mind can be explained in the same way we account for the emergence of mammals. What all these commentators have in common is a shared conviction that the fullest understanding of what it means to be human must come from taking more seriously the personal, the subjective, the intuitive, the inner world we inhabit, filled with its private but very real yearnings, loves, and hopes, for they are what actually nourish, guide, shape, and ultimately define us.

Principal among these sources of insight and illumination is a kind of vague longing, a straining for residual particles of light that Keats described. What Keats felt, and Augustine plumbed, was a sentiment as universal as hunger and thirst. Even Freud acknowledged that almost everybody had an innate desire to connect with something eternal and oceanic, and, in the final analysis, that is why the doctrine of the preexistence has never died out. As I said, any number of rationales for the preexistence has been articulated, but the idea has erupted into poetry, letters, sermons, and philosophical texts over the centuries, impelled by something more fundamentally human than syllogistic argument. I believe that it is only the coming together of the rational and the affective, or the emotional--only the doctrine's pull on both the heart and the mind--that can explain its tenacious grip on the human imagination, despite the best effort of emperors, priests, and secularists to expunge the idea from Western thought.

Let me give you a brief survey that will illustrate this point. "The oldest religious system we are aware of," writes Jean Bottéro, "is the religious system of ancient Mesopotamia, dating from the fourth millennium B.C." One of that civilization's creation narratives recounts an assembly of gods, convened to plan the making of humans under extraordinary circumstances. According to Atrahasis, an Akkadian poem dating to about 1700 B.C., a minor race of deities inhabits the earth, doing the work of the greater supreme gods. They sculpt the mountains, dig the rivers, irrigate the land, but so burdensome does their labor become that they unite in protest and plan to go to war against the seven ruler gods. These greater gods convene a council to consider the problem, and one of their number proposes a brilliant solution: they will create a new race, they will call them humans, and they will make them out of clay. But if they are to perform the work of the gods, they decide that they must infuse that clay with the divine element. So they take a god and sacrifice him and take his spirit and put it into the clay tabernacle of these humans. According to this Mesopotamian myth, the foggy recollection of our ancestry remains, but it so shrouded in oblivion that we will never aspire to return to our home and threaten the dominion of the gods.

In the process of its mortal incarnation, the soul is reduced to a distant and pale shadow of immortality so that we would never seek it again. And thus is established a pattern that will persist for almost 4000 years. Cultures and peoples inside and outside Christianity will simultaneously assert memory and forgetfulness of pre-earth life. The proof of the first is the yearning, the haunting echoes, and the traces of the eternal that clearly persist in human consciousness. As for the oblivion, well, we can only imagine or infer a series of explanations. A recurrent form memory takes is melancholy. Sadness itself does not betoken loss, but that variety that goes by the name of nostalgia does. Nostalgia is rooted in a perceived chasm that separates present conditions with the happy experience or past now lost to us. Sometimes the sadness is indistinct enough that we grope feelingly toward the nearly effaced memory.

Empedocles was an ancient Greek philosopher who took the melancholy of his human condition as a whole to point unmistakably to a happier preexistent life. "I wept and shrieked," he wrote, "on beholding the unwonted land where Murder and Wrath, and other species of Fates and wasting diseases . . . [prevail]. From what honor and how great a degree of blessedness have I fallen here on earth."

Plato, his more famous successor, turned to the theme of preexistence in half a dozen of his works. He used logic, analogy, and deduction to make his points, but he also relied upon the simple human experience of falling in love. Human love, he was convinced, was an imperfect echo of an earlier knowledge of a more perfect beauty. Previously, he believed, beauty was radiant to see at that time when our souls saw the blessed and spectacular vision. Beauty, he said, can only be experienced by someone who has seen as much in heaven. But how do we know that this mortal love is not the real thing? How do we know this is an echo of a more perfect form? Because, as he writes elsewhere, we spend our lives searching for our soul mate. And when we find each other, he writes, "the two are struck by their sense of love, by their sense of belonging to one another, and by desire, and they don't want to be separated from one another even for a moment." And yet, he says, it is obvious that the soul, even of every lover, longs for something else, but his soul cannot say what it is.

From Mesopotamian and Greek sources alike, belief in the preexistence made its way into the very early Christian church. An early vociferous opponent of the idea was the church father Tertullian in the second century. He thought preexistence was a dangerous idea; it made us too like God, he worried, and he thought he'd found its Achilles' heel in the soul's failure to preserve a memory of that prior estate. "I cannot allow that the soul is capable of a failure of memory," he says, and then he elaborates a series of related objections: How happens it that the knowledge of the intellectual faculties fails, which are supposed to be so superior? Why and how does the soul forget, only to remember again?

In the seventeenth century, a group of churchmen known as the Cambridge Platonists would answer Tertullian's query. Why should it be surprising, they reasoned, if the soul cannot recall all that has passed, when in the brief span of life, we have again forgotten so much? "For who can call to mind when first he here saw the sun, or felt the gentle wind?" Henry More was the most prolific memory of this group. He was sure there was proof of the preexistence in those traces of memory that do remain. The "Idea of a Being absolutely and fully perfect . . ." he said, "is Naturall and Essentiall to the Soul of Man, and cannot be washt out . . . by any force or trick."

Where, he said, could that have come from? He wrote thousands of lines of poetry elaborating the doctrine of preexistence as the most plausible explanation. "It seems indisputable," he writes, "there is an actual knowledge in man of which those outward objects are rather the reminders than the source. The mind of man may be jogged and awakened by external objects, but those outward senses do no more teach us of eternal truths than he that wakes up the magician taught him how to play." One of his poems begins: "I would sing the Preexistency / of human souls, and live once more 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."

A kindred spirit in this regard was Benjamin Whichcote, a contemporary who noted: "No sooner doth the truth of God come to our soul's sight, but our soul knows her as an old acquaintance." Another of the group, Nathaniel Culverwel, in trying to account for human recognition of ideas and universal values, similarly refers to "seeds of light scattered in the soul of man, which fill it with a vigorous pregnancy that brings forth innumerous and sparkling posterity." Other thinkers from Descartes through the nineteenth century commonly invoked preexistence to explain the innate sense of universals, of morality, and of God.

Echoing the Cambridge writers, the philosopher Kant confessed, "There are only two things which fill my soul with endless wonder: the starry sky above, and the moral law within me." Whence could we have acquired that moral faculty which intuition told him was not a simple social or cultural acquisition? Kant would eventually come around preexistence from three separate arguments. His most un-philosophical sounding argument is based entirely on the human sense of self. It's neither logical nor empirical, but it is intuitive. Kant asks us, does it make sense to believe that a being invested with an infinite potential and eternal future and a divine nature could just have come into existence through casual sex or happenstance? It is difficult to believe in the eternal existence of a being, "whose life has first begun under circumstances so trivial." If we could see ourselves and other objects as they really are, we should see ourselves in a world of spiritual natures which did neither begin with our birth, nor will end with our death.

In these same centuries, defenders of preexistence are returning to the objection raised so long ago by Tertullian, trying to explain, if we had a preexistence, why we have forgotten it. If the Babylonians had imputed the veil to the gods through jealousy and insecurity, wanting to keep us at a safe distance from godlike aspirations, Christian theorists suggested something more like mercy was at work. One English poet, Abel Evans, conceived of the entire human race as the fallen angels from the war in heaven. In his version, God casts them—that is, us—all out but decides to let us expiate our crimes with time served on earth. With questionable mercy, God imposes by way of preparation for our descent here long drafts of the river forgetfulness. The resulting human condition is one that dulls the shock of our cataclysmic expulsion from heaven, like a narcotic.

But at the same time, the vague memory torments the soul, Tantalus-like, with reason and memory alike, that feed but cannot satisfy an inarticulate longing for home. Though we are entombed in flesh in a fallen world, the physical travails pale alongside the horror of a fettered spirit, displaced from heaven. "We had been inexpressibly more miserable," another eighteenth-century author concluded, "if we had retained the full memory of our former Glory."

In a later century, the greatest poet of the age, the German Goethe, suggested a personal belief in some kind of human pre-mortality--stages of preexistence, he said, on our way to a glorious future. As to why we cannot remember any of it, he wrote to his friend Johannes Falk, "the former states or circumstances through which we . . . have passed, were too insignificant . . . for much of it to be, in the eyes of Nature, worthy to be remembered." Then he admitted his intuitions about the human soul and its potential were greater than even for his evidence for God himself: "If there is not a God, yet, perhaps, there will be one."

With Goethe we come to the greatest modern flowering of modern poetry: the Romantic Movement. Most Mormons are familiar with Wordsworth's great ode describing how we come to earth, "trailing clouds of glory." Latter-day Saints may celebrate it, but generations of scholars have been embarrassed by Wordsworth's intimations of a pre-earth life, admiring the poem, but treating its theological content with a deafening silence. Wordsworth begins his ode with a meditation on the mystery of human melancholy. Given the beauties of the world we inhabit, the laughter of children, and the richness of nature, how can we explain that nagging sense of loss, that in his words, "there hath passed away a glory from the earth"? The answer, he senses with equal power, lies in the only spiritual anthropology that makes sense out of this human condition. "It must be that we experience at our birth what it actually is," he wrote, "the loss of a greater Eden we once knew."

In an interview after his poem was published, Wordsworth was too embarrassed to own up to his own belief. "I think it right to protest," he said, in one of his conversations with Isabella Fenwick, "against a conclusion . . . that I meant to inculcate such a belief [in the preexistence]. It is far too shadowy a notion to be recommended." Still, he could not resist defending what he had felt. "For there is nothing [in scripture] to contradict it," he wrote, "and the fall of Man presents an analogy in its favor." And then the inner Wordsworth speaks, "To that dream-like vividness and splendor which invest objects of sight and childhood, every one . . . if he would look back, could bear testimony." Or, as he had phrased the case in his poem, "there is a presence which is not to be put by." So if Wordsworth's conservatism was ultimately sufficient to impel him to a formal disclaimer, it took the form of Galileo's confession as he murmured before his inquisitors, "And yet it does move."

The case of Samuel Coleridge was perfectly parallel to Wordsworth. In a magnificent sonnet to his sleeping child, Hartley, Coleridge ponders the possibility that "We liv'd, ere yet this robe of flesh we wore." He even imagines that if he found his child had died, he would know it was from shock at his fall from heaven into this lower sphere. Like Wordsworth, Coleridge tries to insist that he doesn't really believe in this descending and incarcerated soul as anything more than a poetic device. At the same time, however, he confided to his friend Thomas Poole, that he had often experienced the feeling of a pre-mortal past. To his friend John Thelwall he said, "If you have never had [intimations of preexistence] yourself, I cannot explain [them] to you."

What we find in every case I have mentioned so far is that, although the cardinal insight leads to wonderful poetry, sound philosophy, or even good theology, it begins as pure intimation, prompted by introspection, meditation, or reflection upon a sleeping child. Human intuition, not logical deduction, is the starting point.

One nineteenth-century Biblical student helps us see why this might be so. Wilhelm Benecke came to religious studies late in life, after a career in business. He was materially prosperous, but tragedy intervened to rob him of wife and child alike. The agony of personal loss combined with the intellectual incomprehensibility of human suffering to plunge him into a spiritual crisis. It is at this point in his life, he writes, that a mysterious mentor appeared, under whose tutelage he emerges from despair in a story has the ring of legend. He said a man with "an apostolic appearance and bearing," whom he met by chance, led him to "the fountain of all solace" by bringing him to look upon this life as a short period placed between a preexistence and a future existence.

Benecke found that this doctrine once furnished him with the key for the solution of all his religious and philosophical doubts. He kept his personal understanding of his sublime theodicy to himself through years of exile from Hamburg during the Napoleonic wars and during years of wandering abroad, but eventually he returned to Heidelberg, the seat of German philosophical and theological training. There he took up religious studies and produced, in 1831, a highly regarded exposition of St. Paul's epistle to the Romans. There he proposed human preexistence as the only workable solution to the problem of original sin and human suffering. Other theologians were shocked by his stand, though they acknowledged him "one of the finest theologians of our time" and "one who has few peers."

This is the case that Benecke makes for preexistence: because God inhabits a spiritual world, and this is a fallen, mortal one, revelation is necessary, if there is to be any communion at all between the two realms. Our powers of reason and sensation are insufficient to penetrate beyond the visible world. What spiritual certainties we do attain to cannot emerge in a vacuum, but they are present in our hearts and souls nevertheless—it's as if we speak fluent German before we have learned a word of vocabulary. We can sing a sacred hymn though we have never learned the words or the music. Yet, we do speak the language of spiritual recognition, he wrote. In no other sphere do we find a certainty which our intellect did not provide. So it can only be the outgrowth of that which we find ourselves endowed with in our entrance into the world, as a gift in the germ. In other words, we somehow come to have a sense of certainty about certain suprasensible propositions that was not logically derived. If conviction about such truths takes root or resonates, he says, it can only be because like is responding to like. We must come already equipped with the language or background to make sense of these spiritual intimations.

Preexistence then, in his argument, represents not the consequence of reflection; it's the very precondition for the possibility of attaining to any spiritual knowledge we have. It is not a mere religious proposition, nor even one truth among many. It is the condition of all other eternal truths that can be known. Spiritual memories, in this case, are like the footprints in the snow: they tell us whence we have come. But of perhaps greater importance, they are the grammar that allows us to decipher the only language that penetrates our soul. And they are the aspect of self--an eternal self--against which we measure the reality and the value of all which we experience in this world of sense.

Preexistence, like many other myriad intimations of the human soul, cannot ultimately demand ascent on the basis of purely human feelings. Certainly memory is as prone to its own errors as our other faculties. But the reasons why preexistence has faded from the religious landscape have nothing to do with the roots of the idea in the inner life of the soul. As a Cambridge classical scholar wrote not too many years ago: "However many readers believe that their soul will survive death, rather few, I imagine, believed that it also preexisted their birth. The religions that have shaped Western culture are so inhospitable to the idea of preexistence that you probably reject the thought out of hand, for no good reason."

A case in point comes from a highly regarded biblical commentary. Noting the allusion to premortal existence in the ninth chapter of John, you may remember this is where Jesus passes through the temple and there was the man who was born blind, and his disciples ask, "Who did sin, this man, or his parents?" And Jesus says, "Neither [one], but that the works of God should be made manifest."

Most commentators recognize in this episode a clear assumption on the part of his apostles that there was a preexistent life. Here is what a rather well-known scriptural commentary says about this belief in the preexistence: "There is something majestic in this conception of a fundamental justice woven into the very web of life, running through all things, and working itself out in everything that happens to us: a conception which leaves no room for whimpering or whining or self-pity or railing against fate." Majestic and effective. Nevertheless, our commentator concludes with unexpected curtness, "surely it is much too crude and easy a solution." For those who value the strains of the soul over the strictures of convention, however, simplicity has never been a barrier to beauty.


Question: Your examples [are] from the Western tradition. Can you give a non-Western example of this "human intuition"?

Givens: No. There are, as I understand, and am superficially familiar with, other traditions of the preexistence in Egyptian texts and in Hittite texts. There are extensive beliefs involving transmigration and reincarnation, more in the Eastern tradition than in the Western. But I felt that I was already showing brashness and presumptuousness enough in pretending to try to cover the Western tradition, so I will leave the Eastern to someone else. I will just add that the American transcendentalists like Bronson, Alcott, and Emerson, and many others of the nineteenth-century were themselves profoundly influenced by Hindu and other Asian traditions.

Question: As a child raised in the Lutheran faith, when I would play pretend games, I would give myself names along with my playmates, and I always chose names like Joanna and Christina and similar names that sounded beautiful to me. After I joined the church and had an outpouring of genealogical information about my father's ancestors in Germany, the names of the ancestors that I found on the roll of film were Joanna and Christina, and the other names Catherine, with a "C." (I loved the name Catherine spelled with a "C.") All of those names that I loved as a child were in the genealogical records. Could you comment on the possibility that the Spirit of Elijah is related to the intuitions and intimations that you've described and how that might fit into the proto-Indo-European poetics where eternal fame and memory of the dead is the most important definition of civilization?

Givens: Let me just say this: the thing I love about political debates is they teach you how to just ignore any question you don't want and pretend to answer it with a different one. Most of us are familiar with near-death experiences. That seems to be a phenomenon that transcends culture and time; they tend to have certain commonalties wherever they've been recorded. They're not quite as well known, but there have been several collections in recent years that have been made of pre-birth narratives as well. Some of those are particular to Mormon theology and to Mormon culture, but there have been studies that have collected similar kinds of stories about contact with or intimations of people from the preexistent world, especially in the African subcontinent. So, what you're describing has this peculiar caste in Mormon theology, being associated with the Spirit of Elijah, but it does seem to be a rather universal phenomenon. I actually cover that in my last chapter in the book on preexistence.

Question: When we talk about "pre" and "post," or "simultaneously," we're generally talking about time. Modern science seems to indicate that there may be states of existence that are outside of time, and I know early Christians talk about eternity being outside of time. I was curious how that plays into what you're talking about.

Givens: Mormons are virtually unique among Christian traditions in defining eternity differently. Going all the way back to Neo-Platonic traditions, eternity has always been defined in atemporal terms. In other words, God is that being who inhabits a realm outside of space and time. Mormon cosmology collapses that kind of dualism, because Mormonism is radically materialistic. Mormonism simply extends the present into an eternal future so that eternity simply becomes an endless continuation of the present. What this means is that the significance of preexistence will have a different valence for those inside the Mormon tradition and those outside.

I'll give you just one example of this. One of the ways in which Kant argues for the human preexistence is in his belief that we are free. He recognizes, as most philosophers do, that free will is a very, very difficult proposition to prove, but he said the fact that I feel guilty when I do something wrong is, in and of itself, proof to me that I could have acted differently. So I know that I'm free. But how can I be free if I'm a material entity embedded in a causal chain of events that have material causes themselves? In other words, there's no way to step outside of this causal chain that we're imprecated in and find a place that we can act spontaneously out of a genuinely free will.

Yet Kant says, I know that I am free. He solves the problem by positing a kind of preexistence, a functional preexistence, related to what he calls "noumenal man." In other words, he says there is a phenomenal aspect of the self--a material, this-worldly aspect of the self. There's also a dimension of the self that is not subject to the constraints--the contingencies--of space and time in quite the same way. One could say that he is believes that there is an aspect of the soul that exists outside of time and is therefore free from this causal chain of events and can act as a genuinely spontaneous and free will. So, in many cases when people refer to eternity, it's not clear if they're talking about something that is right before the creation of the world or something outside the framework altogether.

Question: With your work in Mormon studies, in furthering the cause of faith and intellect together, and with the Mormon studies program at Claremont, do you see further opportunities for Mormon studies to hit the mainstream? Might it become not just something that's centered around BYU but, in a larger historical and comparative literature sense, an opportunity to discuss what we believe in an academic world?

Givens: Mormon Studies is a two-edged sword. Mormon Studies faces the same kind of challenges that Women's Studies did and that African-American Studies did. I remember, for example, a statement made by Maya Angelou, who was listed in a literary dictionary as an African-American female author. She said, I resent that. I'm not an African-American female author. I'm an author; I'm a writer. No one defines William Shakespeare as an Anglo-Saxon male writer.

The problem is the problem of ghettoization, and yet there seems to be a period of transition that every subculture, every minority group has to go through. First you ghettoize them. At least by doing so, you acknowledge their existence as a significant entity in their own right and attribute to them an important cultural identity and heritage. But at some point, that entity has to become assimilated into the broader culture of which it is a part or they're going to continually be patronized and ghettoized.

I see a similar problem in the case of Mormonism. For many, many years, in the American religious tradition, Mormonism was completely ignored. There was a Puritan narrative of religious history in this country, and then suddenly in the last generation people realize, "Wait a minute. There's a whole flowering of American religious traditions that are indigenous, that don't have anything to do with Puritan roots." Suddenly, Mormonism is becoming incorporated into that narrative.

It's a struggle that Mormonism is in the midst of. On the one hand, Mormonism wants to be recognized as having a significant theology, a significant cultural heritage and tradition, but at the same time, it wants that story to be told in the larger context of American history and American religion. One solution that I'm trying to enact in my own work is represented in a book that I've just spoken about. Rather than write a book about Mormon preexistence, I write a book about the preexistence and suddenly, you see this enormous and vibrant conversation that's been going on for thousands of years, in which Mormonism has a really important role. But you only see that if you see the larger conversation. That, ultimately, is the kind of Mormon studies that I think we need to be pursuing, in which we are integrating Mormonism into broader disciplinary conversations.

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