Interlude: Pre-existence, or Déjà Vu All Over Again
Posted by turmarion
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 x 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 x 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 y 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 x 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 x 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.
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 metaphysics, orthodox Christian thought, philosophy, pre-existence of souls, souls, theology. Bookmark the permalink. 13 Comments.