Review: Terryl Givens, “When Souls Had Wings”

I mentioned Professor Terryl L. Givens’ new book last year and wrote that I would have more to say about it. So here it is. Not terribly polished, but school starts on Monday. So out the door it goes.

Preexistence, for purposes of definition here, will mean the preexistence of the soul. In other words, that human souls have had some sort of existence prior to being embodied in earthly human bodies. The nature of that life (in human thought over the last several thousand years) has varied. In some conceptions, souls were created by a Deity, then slept until being embodied in the mortal shell. In others, they were created by God as the beginning of creation, to dwell with him in bliss forever. But then sinned, or became bored with the beatific vision and “fell” to earth. In still other notions, the soul (often anciently called “intelligences”) shared eternity with God, but once again suffered a fall from that grace, or needed the humility of separation from the Divine and so ended up on earth. Still other incarnations of the idea make no reference to God whatever. Indeed, atheists have proposed preexistence to account for various philosophical, psychological or physical conundrums.

It seems that most of the major figures in western thought have had something to say about the subject. But nearly all versions of the idea fall back, consciously or otherwise on Plato, or perhaps his surrogate, Plotinus. And through them, the greats of early Christianity and Judaism took up the gauntlet.

The ball really gets rolling with Origen, probably the greatest of the early theologians of Christianity. Origen extracts Plato’s account of the soul to cover the sins of Gods’ justice. This is the job of preexistence in theology, to place the blame where it belongs for the acts of mankind.

To explain, it may be helpful to understand some of the competing theories of the human soul. This is Augustine’s own list apropos the 4th century status quo:

1. Souls come into existence by propagation. (Traducianism)
2. They are created individually for each person who is born. (Creationism)
3. They already exist somewhere and are sent by God into the bodies of those who are born. (Sent preexistence)
4. They “sink” into bodies by their own choice. (Fallen preexistence)

In traducianism, Adam and Eve have souls and after the Edenic fall, when they reproduced, their children’s souls were essentially pieces of Adam’s, broken off if you will as part of the process. In this way, they participated in the curse on Adam’s soul and thus traducianism provided a neat explanation of the reason why the original sin is grafted onto every human soul. Just one big happy family.

In creationism, each human soul is created (eventually, ex nihilo creation) at conception (or birth perhaps). Less friendly to original sin, more hoops are required to transfer guilt.

Strangely, while Augustine was familiar with some of the ideas engaged by Origen, he was not familiar with the eastern theological thought. He couldn’t read Greek.

Some early Christian thinkers were uncomfortable with preexistence: it moved man too high on the ontological ladder. In doing so, it reduced God’s “sacred separation” from what should be “the creature.” (Not the one from the black lagoon, the word simply refers to “created” beings.)

A partial reason for creatio ex nihilo was to preserve that distance.

Augustine’s review of preexistence does not shed real light on his own views, but in fact he was very much attracted to the idea, for the same reason Origen liked it. It dented some major theological problems. If man was the creation of God, then God is responsible for the acts of man. Hence sin cannot exist. But if man predated the earthly creation, and man fell from the heights by his own choice, then his sad situation on earth is but a continued extension of bad choices in heaven. Or if man chose to come to earth for whatever reason, he knew what he was getting into anyway.

Part and parcel of the attraction of preexistence was the issue of free will. Free will is necessary for responsibility. But being truly free places limits on what can be known about the future of such a being. Uncomfortable limits for a God who is supposed to be omniscient. At least they are uncomfortable for theologians who want to defend an omniscient God with exhaustive foreknowledge.

The breaking point for the early Christian church was Pelagius. Pelagius was a monk in Britain and advocated enough free will for man to pinch the free acts of God, in a sense. God can’t do anything he pleases because he can’t do damage to human freedom of will.

Free will for man was sacrificed on the altar of omniscience. And with it, eventually the need for preexistence. Without such a need, what was the point? It turns out, lots of people found points. Some of them were burnt for it.

Two major issues surrounded preexistence from the time of Pelagius. The first: why come to earth if you’re a soul in heaven? The second: can free will be sacrificed on said altar without doing damage to the fundamental notions of sin and accountability?

Another issue that several post-Pelagian thinkers saw: If God created souls, (and in the Christian church, this would mean ex nihilo, not ex materia) at *any* point, preexistent or not, wasn’t he responsible for how they turned out? To be fair, they must have identical environments, and identical abilities and tendencies, etc., etc. All, created by Goodness personified(?), would be good. No evil choices would be made. Why make evil choosers? One way out was to push man up the ontological ladder a bit further and take creation out of the equation altogether. Then, no bad heavenly home life or bad heavenly genes could be blamed for evil doers. God just had to deal with it. He did his best, but could not force rebels to do something they chose not to do. Not everyone liked this. It made the ontological divide about the size of a crack in the sidewalk.

Time. It formed a large part of the discussion around preexistence. Most committed churchmen and women who had a stake in the idea, and most philosophers placed preexistence in the Greek eternal. The idea of that was not too carefully examined, just as it wasn’t too carefully examined in relation to God.

Thus, a few of the factors which surrounded the idea of preexistence in the history of ideas. Givens treats all of this in much more detail for the most part, and covers far more than the tiny summary above. He machine guns through several thousand years, but manages to make the ideas and positions understandable and does it in a sympathetic way. You see for the most part *why* people thought what they did, or at least you get reasoned narratives of their positions without the polemics of torch bearers for current belief systems. But he is not afraid to pull out the sword of logic and do a little chopping from time to time. No one is really spared from this until perhaps the last chapter. In a few words, it’s a fine treatment of what turns out to be a monumental clash of ideas and people over many centuries.

The book begins with ancient near eastern ideas. This is not Givens’ specialty, but he chooses the best in the business for help. The heavenly court and other relevant notions get readable and clear treatment. It’s a nice summary of current thinking about the subject.

Next we are introduced to Plato and his cohorts of the classical period. It’s a fine discussion without getting too bogged down in the wider issues. Givens is insightful and clear here.

Professor Givens then begins his tour of Plato’s invasion of Christianity. He treats the Gnostics, early Christianity and the influence of Alexandria. Again, he ranges wide, but in a focused way to get at most of the important people and ideas orbiting the subject.

The love affair of Greece and the Christian church had its ups and downs. Up and then down with Plato, then up with Aristotle. Aristotle was having nothing to do with preexistence. You get the picture. Givens treats neo-platonism and it’s influence or reaction with the church fathers. Then he gives a fine treatment of the development of orthodoxy and its relation to the soul doctrines. Givens is careful to be both honest and sympathetic with regard to the people and issues of the time.

Givens then spends some time with Jewish mysticism and Kabbalistic matters. This is a tough subject both because the sources are not easy to deal with and the people are more obscure. But again he does a reasonably good job here with difficult material. He gets at the meat of the thing and moves on. It’s well done.

With Christianity either opposing preexistence for ontological reasons or neglecting it because it’s reason for being has been crushed, we get a study of some very interesting people who found in Origen their life’s intellectual work, at least as far as preexistence is concerned. Though the church had discarded him, the Cambridge Platonists found in him their guiding star. They argued well for the doctrine, based on the old chestnuts of justice and responsibility and free will, but the Protestants found themselves in bed with the Medieval church here. The reduction in status of man was a good thing. Hence the CPs had little impact beyond their own rather eccentric groups. But the poetic and formal arguments for the idea make great reading. This was one of my favorites in the book.

We then get Descartes, Leibniz, Hume and Kant. This is fun stuff with interesting drill-downs on the literature. Plato shines through again.

The book then moves to a dual study of the 19th century, first in regard to philosophical and theological treatments of preexistence and then a chapter on romanticism and transcendentalism. This is Givens comfort zone and he is very good here. His elucidation of the literature is expert and you are drawn into the minds of the movers and shakers of the era.

It is at this point that we encounter Joseph Smith. He gets a brief treatment (about 7 pages). Oddly, while Givens does a fine job of placing Smith’s ideas in the context of what he has discussed previously in the book (and this is exactly what I wanted here) there are a few problems. Givens lays Smith’s ontology at the feet of the King Follett Sermon. Then he places the interpretation in doubt by focusing on a tiny part of the sermon. He quotes from the Book of Abraham to establish Smith’s advocacy of preexistence, but fails to quote the portion that establishes Smith’s ontological foundation in the matter (Givens quotes Abr 3:22-23, but misses 3:17-18) for some reason. Indeed, Smith’s later remarks on the issue (and KFS is, as everyone knows just a part of that stuff) are pretty clear that he believes in an eternal backward. Givens does not miss the fact that Smith votes for ex materia, not ex nihilo.

Givens then squashes Bruce R. McConkie into the mix for some reason and mixes up McConkie with Evagrius Ponticus. The error here is that McConkie took a position rather different from Smith: McConkie believed that spirits began as individuals in the pre-earth life. Moreover, Evagrius believed that spirits or souls transitioned from “intelligences” to souls and then to earth-bound humans.[1] Their ontologies are quite different.

The whole treatment here is confused in some respects and gives the feeling that Professor Givens wants to establish the Encyclopedia of Mormonism view, rather than explore Smith’s thought. There are other problems with this little section, but it is generally still quite good. The schizoid discussion just leaves me a tiny bit cold. I left it wondering if Givens himself was confused about Smith and the history of preexistence in Mormonism.

Givens points out that Mormonism rejects original sin, and hence one of the historical reasons for proposing preexistence if you didn’t appreciate traducianism. Preexistence for Smith, just drops onto the stage. In Givens’ words, “it is as if Mormonism propounds the solution but isn’t sure what the question is.”

He also points out another unique thing about the Mormon version of preexistence. It gives reasons for being encased in flesh that are fundamental to the faith, but nearly unique: a body is good, you need one to progress, souls engaged in the process because the wanted to, and God wanted them to. No preexistent fall involved. This is an expanded version of Augustine’s reason number 3, above.

After Givens’ brief study of Mormonism’s preexistence, he dives into one of the really fascinating stories of the 19th century, that of Edward Beecher. Brilliant scion of a brilliant family he basically blasts his career for the sake of trying to breach the orthodox wall around preexistence. Beecher’s episode essentially marks the end of any further movement of mainstream Christianity in regard to the doctrine. The dynamics here are very interesting and this is a nice bit of writing, I think.

The book ends naturally with a study of the modern era and some remarkable ideas coming from diverse sources in philosophy and science. Aside from some minor players like the Mormons, religion has become a dead end for the doctrine. But it still finds a resurgence in the strangest places. You’ll have to read chapter 11 to find out.

In summary, this book is a fine piece of work and gives us a remarkable view of the history of a fascinating idea. I would be surprised if it does not garner accolades for the author.

Terryl L. Givens, Professor of Literature and Religion
Bostwick Professor of English, University of Richmond.
When Souls Had Wings: Pre-Mortal Life in Western Thought.
New York: Oxford Univ. Press, 2009.
388 pages. With an average of 440 words per page, it is a compact book.
Illustrations. Endnotes (BOO!). Index is *very poor*. Come on, Oxford!
ISBN-10: 0195313909
ISBN-13: 978-0195313901

Highly recommended.

P.S. The title comes from, guess who? Plato.

[Edit: I realized too late that some people might be confused as to the nature of this book. It is not a trek through the musty archives of European monasteries or the deep dark places where primary sources hide. It's a survey in Western Cultural Issues. That doesn't make it less valuable. It is what it is. I should add that the quality of the book construction is not great. The boards are badly warped on my copy.]
[1] Remarkably, this is B. H. Roberts all over. But Givens never mentions Roberts’ promotion campaign of the idea or the reluctance of some Mormon leaders about KFS or their classical Christian concern with reducing sacred distance. This would have made his discussion deservedly longer but much more coherent.

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10 Responses to Review: Terryl Givens, “When Souls Had Wings”

  1. Matt W. says:

    Thanks for this review, even if it does turn me off a bit to the book itself. It’s still Givens, so I’ll still read it.

  2. Thanks for the review. Received it for Christmas, but have not gotten into it yet. I am primarily interested in the modern era thinkers, particularly Kant and the social contract thinkers because it relates to my dissertation.

    Just from skimming through it, I am impressed by what a mammoth task a book like this would be. I think there is room for further writing and research on many of the areas that Givens covers.

  3. Geoff J says:

    Great review WVS. I gotta get my hands on a copy of this one.

  4. W. V. Smith says:

    Thanks all, I hope it is useful.

  5. J. Stapley says:

    I appreciate the review, WVS. I have been somewhat interested in this volume, but haven’t gotten around to check it out. I have to admit that your comments about his treatment of Mormonism make me wince. Too bad, really.

  6. WVS says:

    J. I guess I have a little sympathy for this. It is a massive undertaking just to survey that many (mostly secondary) sources and make a coherent narrative out of it. In a way the Mormon portion follows suit: there is a survey going on, but you just have to look a bit deeper to find out what was happening. Anyway, as you can tell, I liked the book as a whole.

  7. BHodges says:

    Good review, WVS. I just finished mine earlier this week, and I was sorely tempted to read yours first. It was much more fun to read than to review, IMO.

  8. Pingback: Preexistence Reviewing the Review of Terryl Givens «'s Blog

  9. Pingback: Uh Oh. Foreordination. «'s Blog

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