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 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 the 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.

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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