Interlude: Pre-existence, or Déjà Vu All Over Again

In order to lay some more groundwork for what I want to do next, I want to look at one of the biggest issues separating orthodox Christian belief, on the one hand, from that not only of Gnosticism and the Evagrian system, but from that of many other world religions–that is, the issue of the pre-existence of the soul.

I should first point out that this is a separate issue from that of reincarnation.  It is true that many religions which hold that the human soul exists before it enters the body do in fact believe in reincarnation.  Logically, though, the two issues are separate.  Mormonism, for example, believes in the pre-existence of souls, but does not believe in reincarnation.  The same could be said about Evagrius and Origen.

At least some of the Gnostic sects seem to have accepted some form of reincarnation, although the systems vary enormously, and are often unclear, at least on the basis of the available evidence.  On the other hand, it doesn’t seem possible to reconcile reincarnation with orthodox Christianity, nor with the systems of Origen, Evagrius, and the Alexandrian school in general (though it is often contended that Origen, at least, and some of his followers did teach reincarnation, the surviving writings of Origen give no evidence of this).  In fact, that is neither my intent nor my interest here.  Doctrine aside, I’m not much interested in the idea of reincarnation, which has always seemed rather undesirable to me.

I do think that it might be possible to reconcile the notion of pre-existing souls with orthodox doctrine.  That is my goal in this post.

Orthodox Christian teaching has consistently stated that God creates each new, unique soul when a human being comes into existence.  The exact point has never been precisely defined.  The current point of view generally held is that a soul is infused at the moment of conception.  At times in the past it was thought that the soul entered the embryo at the point of “quickening” (the point at which motion could be observed) or after 40 days, or at any of various other points.  All were agreed that this ensoulment happened before birth and that the soul was specifically created and infused into the body of the child-to-be.

I think the key words here are “before” and “after.  As I’ve said numerous times in the course of this series, these terms have meaning only in terms of linear time and space as we think of them–as we cannot help but think of them, being temporal creatures.  God and the Pleroma, however, are beyond time and space, existing without reference to past, present, and future.   For them, while there may be a kind of atemporal “succession”–i.e. God existed “before” the Pleroma–there is no “before” or “after”, no “past”, “present”, or “future”.

This is impossible fully to grasp for time-bound creatures such as we are.  I think, though, that one type of experience and one analogy might be of some help.  The experience of the flash of insight after struggling long with a problem is often subjectively experienced not unlike atemporality.  My field of study is mathematics, and I’ve done my share of mathematical proofs.  Sometimes after working long and fruitlessly on a particularly difficult proof, I would suddenly get it and realize what I had to do to complete the proof.  The fascinating thing about this flash of insight is that I would see the entire proof all at once.  After this the task (which was sometimes also a challenge) was to sit down and write down the steps one by one–in short, to distill the atemporal “all at once” to the temporal “one step at a time”.  I hope that non-mathematicians will have had similar experiences in different areas.

The analogy is a simple graph in a coordinate plane.  Time is a horizontal line, the axis, left to right, past to present to future.  Note that only one direction of movement is allowed, left to right in a straight line.  This is time as we experience it.  One might think of the axis as a long, clear plastic tube from an ant farm.  It is just wide enough for the ant to go through, but not wide enough for her to turn.  All she can perceive is straight ahead, and that which is behind her is lost forever to her perception.  Even though the line (or tube) is infinite (it goes forever to the left and to the right) it is not eternal.  The plane in which the line lies is “more” infinite than the infinite line, since it holds it and also goes infinitely up, down, and at an angle.

One could consider the “up” or “down” direction–the axis–as representing the relationship of God to time and space.  He resides, with the Pleroma, in true Eternity.  Eternity proper is not a matter of an infinite sequence of time, an infinite progression along the axis, but is off the axis altogether.  Note in the diagram below how from the point of view of Eternity (the y axis), all of time and space (the axis) can be seen at once.  Using the analogy of the ant, though she can’t see the “past” in the tube, and only a short stretch of the future, I, standing above and beyond the tube can see the entire stretch of tubing and her travel through it at once.

Thus, to God (and to the Pleroma) what we call past, present, and future are all simultaneous.  They are all equally present in an eternal moment.  What happens in the Pleroma happens in an incomprehensible way which has no reference to time or space, past, present, or future, as we know them.

This, I think, is how we reconcile the idea of pre-existence of souls with the orthodox Christian notion of special creation of souls when or shortly after a human is conceived.  The Pleroma, as we see, exists totally without reference to time and space.  Anything and everything that happens in Eternity is simultaneously before, during, and after any given point in time; or nothing that happens there is before, during, or after any given point in time–it’s the same thing, from the Eternal perspective.

Thus, no matter how “long” ago God created the spirits in the Pleroma, from the perspective of time and space, the moment at which a soul is infused into a conceptus–the moment the spirit “leaves” (even spatial terms are analogous here) the Pleroma and enters the universe of time and space–is the moment of its creation.

The sequence in the Pleroma doesn’t even have to follow that of space-time.  Soul A might have been created “before”–or better, anterior to–Soul B; but Soul B might be infused into a human body years, decades, or even centuries before Soul A in terms of time and space.  Thus Soul B, while being “younger” than Soul A, might enter our world long before Soul A.  Given the paradox of Eternity as compared to time and space, it would still be correct, from our perspective, to say that both A and B were created at the moment they were infused into the embryo!

I don’t necessarily think that this outlook would convince many orthodox theologians, be they Catholic, Orthodox, or Protestant.  Nevertheless, I think it is a useful way of thinking of this particular issue, and a good way of reconciling at least one aspect of orthodox metaphysics with seeming heterodox views such as those of Evagrius Ponitcus or those of many of the Gnostic systems of thought.  From that point, we can go on to see just how much we can reconcile different systems of thought.

Update (20 May 2018):  Not long ago, I came across this excellent article by David Bentley Hart.  A few excepts (but please, read the whole thing):

It is true that something remembered by tradition as “Origenism” was condemned by someone in the sixth century, and that Origen was maligned as a heretic in the process; and it is also true that for well more than a millennium both those decisions were associated with the Council of 553 by what was simply accepted as the official record. But, embarrassingly, we now know, and have known for quite some time, that the record was falsified.

But, really, it is the most shameful episode in the history of Christian doctrine. For one thing, to have declared any man a heretic three centuries after dying in the peace of the Church, in respect of doctrinal determinations not reached during his life, was a gross violation of all legitimate canonical order; but in Origen’s case it was especially loathsome.

Moreover, he was not only a man of extraordinary personal holiness, ­piety, and charity, but a martyr as well: Brutally tortured during the Decian persecution at the age of sixty-six, he never recovered, but slowly withered away over a period of three years. He was, in short, among the greatest of the Church Fathers and the most illustrious of the saints, and yet, disgracefully, official church tradition—East and West—commemorates him as neither.

The oldest records of the [Fifth Ecumenical] council (which was convened to deal solely with certain Antiochian theologians) make it clear that those fifteen anathemas were never even discussed by the assembled bishops, let alone ratified, published, or promulgated. And since the late nineteenth century various scholars have convincingly established that neither Origen nor “Origenism” was ever the subject of any condemnation pronounced by the “holy fathers” in 553. The best modern critical edition of the Seven Councils—Norman Tanner’s—simply omits the anathemas as spurious interpolations.

Thus, the condemnation of pre-existence of souls and Origenism, to which I referred in this post, rests on the fifteen anathemas which Hart references; but these anathemas are, according to modern scholarship, altogether spurious!  Thus, it would appear that there never has been an official, dogmatically binding condemnation of pre-existence as such by the Church (either Orthodox or Catholic) at all.  I still think the atemporal model I suggest here is the best way of looking at it; but it was originally designed to get around what I thought, at the time, was the binding view of the Church with regard to pre-existence of souls.  Given what Hart points out here, it looks as if that model, while it may be useful, is not necessary.

Even if one did accept the legitimacy of these anathemas, it’s interesting to look at the phraseology of the first, which references pre-existence:

“If anyone asserts the fabulous pre-existence of souls, and shall assert the monstrous restoration which follows from it: let him be anathema.” (courtesy of here)

The idea–not explicit here, but implied–is that the original state of the intelligences was as a sort of undifferentiated mass; and that this will be the final state of the apokatastasis (restoration) of the cosmos.  This, more than pre-existence itself, seems to be the sticking point of the first anathema.  It’s hard to figure out exactly what Origen and Evagrius taught in their specifics, since much of their writing is lost and much that survives altered; but I don’t read them as denying individuality of souls, at least in some sense.  One could assume pre-existence of souls and a restoration of all to God without assuming at either end an undifferentiated mass.

The takeaway from this is twofold.  One, while I won’t be stupid enough to argue that Church teaching as currently understood is A-OK and dandy with pre-existence–so much the opposite–still, I think, given the new information on the Fifth Ecumenical Council, that one can at least posit that some form of pre-existence of souls is not, in fact, irreconcilable with Christian teaching, even if the official Church currently disagrees.

Second, this gives a new possibility of legitimacy to adopting an Evagrian outlook with regard to the Fall of Man.  This is something I’ll come back to in a future post.

Part of the series Legends of the Fall.

Also part of the series Reincarnation

Posted on 21/05/2012, in Christianity, metaphysics, philosophy, religion, theology and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 14 Comments.

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