Excursus: Pre-existence

Update:  I’ve been going back through old posts to cross-reference with another that I’m working on, and apparently I actually dealt with this issue already.  In short, this post has pre-existed.  Oh, well–one of the occupational hazards of blogging, especially if you do it like I do, with interludes of inactivity punctuated by flurries of intense activity.  Mea maxima culpa.  The Bellman said, “What I tell you three times is true,” but I think I’ll leave it at two.  It is speculation, you know!

Before we move on, I want to discuss the idea of the pre-existence of souls and how, in my view, it can be reconciled with orthodox theology.

It is necessary to admit up front that this concept has been traditionally seen as heretical by orthodox theologians.  This concept is (supposedly) at least a part of what got the writings of Origen and (possibly) Evagrius condemned, although in both cases there’s a lot that’s unclear about the exact teachings involved and the exact findings of the ecclesiastical bodies making the decisions.  In any case, we will do well to examine the orthodox view before moving on.

In the orthodox view of the relationship of the soul to the body, each human body has one and only one unique soul.  The soul can exist without the body—it does so by God’s providence between death and the Last Judgment, according to traditional teaching—but this is not its natural condition.  After the Last Judgment, the soul’s proper body will be returned to it permanently.  This is part of the reason that reincarnation is seen as being incompatible with orthodox theology.

In any case, the body is “ensouled” with its own unique soul at some point in time.  The Fathers disagreed as to exactly when occurred—some said at conception, others at the point of “quickening”, the point at which visible motion in the fetus occurred.  Nevertheless, all agreed that before, say, Alex was conceived, his soul did not exist; then at some point after his conception, God created a unique Alex-soul and infused it into his body (be it one-celled conceptus or first-trimester fetus), at which point Alex exists as a true, ensouled human being.

Now, I’m not interested in questions of when “human life” begins, or the exact relationship of the soul to the body, and other questions like that which would lead us far astray.  All who believe in souls believe that God creates them and that they end up in us at least by birth.  I’m concerned with the concept that a soul is created at or after conception, and then infused into the body, with the implication that the souls do not pre-exist.  My contention is this:  even if one takes the orthodox view laid out here, it is still possible to assert the pre-existence of souls.  Let’s see how this works.

First recall that in the Pleroma, there is no time as we know it.  What we call “time” is an aspect of the physical cosmos, and the Pleroma—God and the angels, Aeons, Ainur, or whatever one wishes to call them—exists without respect to physical cosmos, time included.  However, I want to nuance this a bit.

I’ve already asserted that one can speak of some kind of non-temporal sequence–what I’ve been calling “anterior” and “posterior”—with respect to the Pleroma.  I’d like to unpack that now.  For God in His true nature—what we could call the Unknown God or the Ein Soph or Brahman—time does not exist.  Past, present, and future are all the same to Him/It.  Another way to look at it is this:  God is unlimited.  The lack of limits implies all possibilities, everything at once.  Not only is God unlimited, but only God is—or can be—unlimited.  Since “unlimited”, “infinite”, etc., imply no limitations whatsoever, it logically follows that there can be no more than One Unlimited.  If there were two, each would be a limitation on the other—else there would be no way in which to distinguish them—and therefore neither would be unlimited.

Put it this way:  With true, boundless, unlimited, infinite Being, there can be no discrimination, no boundaries, no distinction.  There is no time, no space, no sequence, no separation.  Once you do get separation, discrimination, or boundaries, then you automatically get some kind of sequence.  Sequence, after all, is just an arrangement of separate entities.  They may be arranged by space (lined up), by time (past, present, future), alphabetically (Alex, Barbara, and Charlie), but there has to be at least one way (if not more) of arranging or sequencing them.  If this were not true, they’d not be separate, and you wouldn’t have distinction—you’d be back to the Ein Soph.

Thus, as soon as God creates or emanates the beings of the Pleroma, instantly divisions and differentiation occurs, of necessity.  What this separation or differentiation is like, we can’t conceive.  St. Thomas Aquinas said that the differences were in the number of innate ideas each angel had.  Other theologians have given different answers.  Regardless, once you have beings that are lower than God, that are finite, you have sequence.   Thus, Michael, Raphael, and Gabriel can’t be said to be “standing beside” each other—that would be space—nor that Michael is “eldest”, Gabriel is “youngest”, and Raphael is “in the middle”—that would be time—and yet somehow they, and all other spirit-beings are distinct.

As a slight aside, I’m not sure St. Thomas’ theory works here, either.  If angels are pure, unembodied minds; and if they differ only in the innate ideas they have; then it seems that “lower” angels would be proper subsets of “higher” ones.  E.g. if Azrael knows only A-G, but Uriel knows A-K, then it seems as if Azrael is just a part of Uriel.  Remember, there’s no space or time here:  one might imagine one book, Book A, that contained everything that a second book, Book B, contains plus extra material; but the two books are also materially separated.  Angels aren’t; so if they differ only in innate ideas, it’s hard to see how they differ at all, unless each one’s ideas are non-overlapping with that of each other angel; which then makes it hard to see how they communicate.  You see the problem.

Anyway, I’m inclined to posit something like the aevum of the Scholastics.  They asserted (using different terminology and coming from a different angle) more or less what I’m getting at here:  that is, only God is truly eternal properly so-called—that is, totally outside time.  We are temporal.  Thus, the Scholastics posited the aevum, a sort of intermediate form of existence, that characterized the spirit intelligences (angels, demons, Pleroma, whatever you want to call them).  They were immortal and existed in a mode that just wasn’t an infinitely extended linear span of time (as would be the case if a human were immortal); yet they were not utterly transcendent, as God was.  Thus, they were neither temporal nor eternal but aeviternal.

What this would be like we obviously can’t imagine.  However, C. S. Lewis, in a different context, used the relationship of a writer to his story as one analogy.  Maybe Chapter One and Chapter Two of my book take place a thousand years apart; but maybe I wrote them back to back in a span of a few hours.  What seems to the characters in the book to be a millennium is hardly anything to the writer.  On the other hand, maybe I write half a chapter, hit writer’s block, and agonize over it for years before finally finishing it.  To the characters in the book, the action is uninterrupted, despite the time I took to write it.

If you want to use science-fiction-type terms, you could consider how time flows differently in different frames of reference; or psychologically, you could say that a small taste of this is in the way time seems to flow differently, from a subjective point of view, according to our state of mind, seeming sometimes even “timeless”.  In any case, I think the idea of different “times” is one way to look at the relationship between the Pleroma and the Cosmos.

Thus, we can say that there is a sequence in the Pleroma, though it is not time as we know it, and has no relationship to time as we know it.  Call our time T0 and “time” in the Pleroma TP.  Thus, we may say that in TP, God was alone “at first” and then “later” made the angels.  We might even say that some angels were made or emanated “after” others and are therefore “younger”; and that it was “awhile” after their creation that the Fall occurred.  However, from the perspective of T0, all of these events happen at the same time—or, better, happen outside time completely.  Thus, it may be that Gabriel was created “eons” after Raphael; but there is no difference in their ages in terms of our time.  From our perspective, they’re the same “age”, since their “time” operates without reference to ours.

All right; now let’s see how this applies to the pre-existence of souls.

If we take the perspective of Evagrius Ponticus, all human souls were originally part of the Pleroma.  From the perspective of TP, Pleromic time, the various members of the Pleroma may—or may not—have been created simultaneously.  It is equally possible that they were created over “time”, and that some angels, devils, souls, etc. are “older” than others.  In the context of Pleromic time, these may be important distinctions; but to us, they have no meaning.

At some point, that part of the Pleroma that become human souls enter the Cosmos and first become subject to T0, that is, to what we know as time.  The instant a soul enters a body (and for our purposes here, it doesn’t matter if that instant is at conception, quickening, or any other time), then and only then it is possible to speak of temporal sequence—Ann was born before Bob, etc.  A person’s soul does not exist in this cosmos before ensoulment.  It was in the Pleroma, true; but any and all points in Pleromic time can be considered as an instant—or no time at all—with respect to normal time.  Thus, Ann and Bob may have existed for ages, Pleromically speaking; and yet when they become incarnate, it is not incorrect to say that their souls were created at the moment of ensoulment, since all of TP maps to a single point in T0.  In short, regarding pre-existence and creation of the soul at ensoulment, it’s not an either/or situation, but a both/and.

This also allows one to make some sense of the commonly heard expression that so-and-so has “an old soul”.  In a traditional Christian context, of course, this makes no sense, and is even heretical.  Even in a dharmic context it’s not quite logical, since presumably all souls are equally “old”, having eternally existed, or having existed at least from the beginning of the current world-cycle.  In the model we’ve looked at here, though, it can make sense.  As we’ve seen, sequence in the Pleroma does not (and cannot) correspond to temporal sequence as we know it.  Thus, it is quite possible that Alice is created in the  Pleroma “ages” before Bob; but Bob may take human birth years, decades, or even centuries before Alice, in terms of our time.  Though Alice may be much, much younger than Bob chronologically speaking, she may indeed have a much “older soul”.

This has been a rather lengthy discourse, and I appreciate your patience if you’ve made it this far.  I think that this is a way of viewing the pre-mortal existence of souls in a way that is compatible with orthodox theology—though I’m not holding my breath in thinking that any orthodox church or theologians are going to accept it any time soon.  Still, I think it is useful in modeling the Fall, which is what the discussion here has been about.  In an Evagrian system, the Fall occurred “before” the creation of the physical cosmos, and thus most of the knotty problems presented by traditional theology on this issue are avoided.  There are still a few issues, which I will discuss soon, but much fewer, in my view, than you get with standard-issue Christian theology.

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 24/06/2012, in Christianity, metaphysics, philosophy, religion, theology and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 4 Comments.

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