The God Who Weeps: Pre-existence

November 6, 2012 | 15 comments
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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.

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Terryl Givens and Fiona Givens, The God Who Weeps: How Mormonism Makes Sense of Life (Salt Lake City: Ensign Peak, 2012).

15 Responses to The God Who Weeps: Pre-existence

  1. Lincoln Cannon on November 6, 2012 at 9:54 am

    Amen, Adam!

  2. ji on November 6, 2012 at 10:56 am

    Thanks! We know essentially nothing about the pre-existence, except that it existed and some folk beliefs that circulate among us. Dreaming of heaven before or heaven after won’t save me; rather, what’s important to me today is today — loving my God and my neighbor, and faith, hope, and charity.

    The glimpses that our God gives us into the past and the future are VERY small, and I much appreciate them — but today is so much more important to me.

  3. Matt W. on November 6, 2012 at 10:58 am

    Seriously?

    Weeps is a devotional expression. I don’t see within it room for your complaint that it posits “that we should understand this pre-self as something more true, more divine, and more ideal than our present fleshy one.” To do so, after all would deny the need for our current state.

    Also

    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.

    You fail here to elucidate what you mean by self-possession. It is essentially an empty vessel which can be filled with any meaning. ie- you are making things up which Givens does not address and then critiquing his lack of addressing them.

  4. Adam Miller on November 6, 2012 at 11:23 am

    That’s possible, Matt. Thanks for commenting. I could be asking too much of the book on this count. But the claims that Weeps makes about the preexistence are central to its argument (they get a whole chapter of exposition) and they’re not ambiguous.

    I definitely don’t think that the position Weeps takes on why the preexistence matters is out of bounds. In fact, I think that position is pretty representative of what seems to be a majority position in Mormon thought. I just don’t happen to agree with that reading and want to argue for a different approach.

  5. Jacob B. on November 6, 2012 at 3:23 pm

    This is outstanding, and, unfortunately, somewhat along the lines of what I was going to say at BCC :) Keep up the good news/work.

  6. Carey on November 6, 2012 at 3:51 pm

    It seems to me our theology of the pre-existence supports your concluding thought (assuming I’ve understood it) when it emphasizes the fact that even in the pre-existence we still had the same ultimate choice to make in order to progress. Its our acceptance of Christ (aka God’s love) both then and now, that allows us to become whole.

  7. SteveP on November 6, 2012 at 5:48 pm

    Adam, I could read you all day. Great work and nicely said and argued. As you imply, stealing from this world to borrow on another (especially one about which we know so little) shrinks this world and abstracts our potential for living here fully.

  8. Matt W. on November 7, 2012 at 2:09 am

    I’ve reread this several times, and I have decided I was a bit overarched in my previous comment. I am not sure I wholly understand as to what you are objecting to. You seem to be objecting to is Givens’ use of yearning for a better self to be a yearning for a self we used to be premortally. You are a bit unclear as to what grounds you reject this. You seem to feel this in some way devalues the present world by its connecting it with another. I don’t follow your logic here, perhaps because you hinge it upon pre-existence corresponding to two terms you seem to be familiar with “eternal identity” and “self-possession”, but which I am unfamiliar of your meaning. I am fairly certain Givens does not use these terms, and does not intentionally take a position on them. In Fact, his next chapter, on the fall being a fall forward, seems to draw a conclusion that our identity and possession of self our improved via our mortal state, rather than degraded.

    Finally, Nietsche had a ridiculous mustache, and thus should not be taken seriously. His critique is akin to valuing today merely upon its own merits, and not within the context of human history, or at least upon the history of our own life.

  9. Thomas Parkin on November 7, 2012 at 2:54 am

    Nietzsche struggled to assert against the nihilism that threatened his position. I think that you face a similar problem, Adam. It is very difficult to assert – and what you want to assert I think is very valuable – while in the midst of constant negating. The pre-existence doctrine grants us an essential I. (Of course, our moment to moment existence does, as well. When Steve says “I could read you all day”, what in the world is he talking about? To your, “I agree”, same question.)

    Would you describe for me further what the “fantasies of self-identity” are that we must loose ourselves from?

  10. Robert C. on November 7, 2012 at 4:05 am

    Nice post, Adam. I like your critique here.

    I am not very clear, however, what role the pre-existence really plays in the view you are proposing. I look forward to hearing you elaborate on this some time.

  11. Adam Miller on November 7, 2012 at 9:11 am

    Matt W., thanks for the additional reflection. I think you’re right about Nietzsche’s mustache.

    Apart from that, I could be reading other things wrong. What do you make of Weep’s assertion that “there must be a true beginning rooted in a time and place of greater dignity and moment?” Or of the claim that there must be “an independent, existing principle of intelligence within us,” an “identity that lies deeper than our body, rooted beyond actions, reaching past memory”?

    Again, I think these are just examples of very mainstream and (typically) uncontroversial claims about our having a core of independent, eternal identity that is more ideal and real and true than the one that is apparent in this messy, compromised world. Do you read them otherwise?

  12. Adam Miller on November 7, 2012 at 9:18 am

    Good questions, Thomas. Re: fantasies of self-identity, you might try especially the essay called “Overwritten, Written Elsewhere” in my book Rube Goldberg Machines or a more playful post I wrote last year about Steven Peck’s book, Scholar of Moab.

  13. Adam G. on November 7, 2012 at 10:49 am

    Its not an impulse within Christianity or even within mankind that forces us to anchor the most basic verities outside the world.

    Its the world that does that. One of the most basic experiences is the sense that there must be more than this, that something, perhaps *the* something, is missing.

  14. Adam G. on November 7, 2012 at 11:03 am

    The resurrection is the fundamental Christian act: neither this-worldly nor otherworldly, but the shocking and un-looked for transformation of this world into something that is recognizably in continuity but different in kind.

    Zion and the Millennium are the societal and earthly equivalents.

  15. Michael G. on November 9, 2012 at 5:06 pm

    I joined this church because I saw an empathis on love and caring for one another. What happened before I was born and what will happen after I die are out of my hands and in Gods. My purpose is to become a better person, to love God and my fellow humans and try to leave a better place for those who will come after me. I fumble towards that goal, Occasionally succeeding and more often failing. I thank our Heavenly Father for the gift of the Gospel and the ability to become a better person. Where we came from and where we go are in his hands not mine.

    Which doesn’t mean we shouldn’t speculate only let’s not become to strictly tied to our doctrine on these issues. Live the kind of life that He has called upon us to live and spread love.