I agree with The God Who Weeps that our doctrine of pre-existence is crucial, but I disagree about why.
Weeps argues that our world can’t support its own weight. Life, meaning, agency, and morality aren’t native stock but must be imported from elsewhere. Meaning and stability are drawn from off-world accounts.
Here, our doctrine of pre-existence is a handy answer as to why things still manage to make sense when our world is so senseless. ”The only basis for human freedom and human accountability is a human soul that existed before birth as it will after death. Moral freedom demands preexistence, and preexistence explains human freedom” (854/2408). Because this world is too weak, “there must be a true beginning rooted in a time and place of greater dignity and moment” (765/2408).
This kind of theological outsourcing is, again, a classic gesture with a prestigious pedigree.
The issue is identity. Given how messy and multiple the world is – and this includes, especially, our split and messy selves – there must be (the story goes) some deeper source of unity and identity. If something else isn’t holding the world together, won’t the whole thing just fly apart?
Against the complicated dependencies of this world, there must be “an independent, existing principle of intelligence within us” (231/2408). Moreover, “a sense of unease in the world and the poignant yearnings and shadowy intimations of an eternal past, attest to a timeless heritage at the core of human identity” (152/2408). To be spiritually solvent, we need some kind of “identity that lies deeper than our body, rooted beyond actions, reaching past memory” (738/2408).
The only trouble with this approach is its nihilism.
You must, of course, decide for yourself, but I endorse Nietzsche’s sharp critique of our Christian tendency to devalue the present world by anchoring it’s true meaning and substance in another.
The irony, in this respect, is that Weeps is well aware of the Nietzschean critique and it too wants to agree with Nietzsche: “Nietzsche was right when he said Christians had a tendency to turn away from this life in contempt, to dream of other-worldly delights rather than resolve this-worldly problems” (1801/2408). But a sensitivity to this Nietzschean problem never shows up in any of the many celebrations of our doctrine of a pre-world as an essential supplement to this world’s poverty.
Rather, with respect to pre-existence, Weeps ignores the Nietzschean critique of theological outsourcing by ignoring the more fundamental Nietzschean critique of identity.
Pre-existence figures large in the book as a ready-made way to stabilize meaning and identity. In this world you may be composed of messy, split, and compromised selves that require your patience and care, but beneath this jumble lies a pre-self, a divine self, that doesn’t have these same problems. The pre-self is the true, ideal self. Religion is the work of being faithful to this primordial intuition that my self is something better, simpler, and more independent than it appears.
When we hear an echo of this other self, when we intuit that we must be something more ideal than we appear, what are gesturing toward? “Who is this ‘I’ we are referring to in such instances? It could just be an idealized self we have in mind, except the sense is too strong that it is our actions that are unreal, not the self to which we compare them. So, is the most plausible candidate for that ‘I’ really a hypothetical self we might someday be, or is it what the minister and novelist George MacDonald called an ‘old soul,’ a self with a long history, that provides the contrast with present patterns of behavior?” (751/2408)
This is where Weeps and I part ways.
Where Weeps sees a solution, I see a problem. Where Weeps reads this ideal pre-self as what’s real and our present split selves as pale shadows, I regard the ideal pre-self as a dubious and sticky fiction and the present, competing, and multiple selves that compose my soul as the truth about what’s really eternal.
Now, this is not to deny that I have a pre-self from a pre-existence. But it is to deny that we should understand this pre-self as something more true, more divine, and more ideal than our present fleshy one.
On my account, the Mormon doctrine of pre-existence is crucial because it prevents us from positing a “deeper” and “truer” original self. Pre-existence shouldn’t be read as a guarantee of my eternal identity and self-possession. It should be read as what guarantees their impossibility.
Pre-existence names my always pre-existing lack of self-possession. It testifies that I have always already been emptied into a world that both composes and divides me with its competing loves and demands.
Here, both the pre-world and the post-world must be understood as continuous with the messy work of the present one.
Weeps wisely notes that, with respect to the post-world, “it is in the continuity of our lives now with our lives hereafter that we find rescue from the dangerous heaven of fairy tales” (1801/2408).
I agree. But I would warn that our lives heretofore must also, just as surely, be rescued from such dangerous heavens and fairy tales.
Our belief in a pre-existence should commit us to the doctrine that our work in this world is the only kind of work there has ever been: we must work loose our fantasies of self-identity for the sake of love.
Terryl Givens and Fiona Givens, The God Who Weeps: How Mormonism Makes Sense of Life (Salt Lake City: Ensign Peak, 2012).