Professor Terryl Givens is the James A. Bostwick Chair of English at the University of Richmond. He is the author of By the Hand of Mormon, The Viper on the Hearth, and most recently The Latter-day Saint Experience in America. We invited him to guest post regarding his latest project.
I am currently involved in a project regarding which I would be happy to have input and suggestions from a larger LDS/academic community. John Tanner and I are working on a book that will be the first to attempt a comprehensive “history of pre-heaven.” With the working title “The Life Before: Pre-mortal Existence in Western Thought,” our study will be organized chronologically and topically, yet aim at much more than a survey or catalogue. We are attempting not only to document the presence of this idea historically but to attend to its meaning for those who embrace it, the reasons for its prevalence, the literary, cultural, ideological, and theological functions that is has served, and the reasons for its demise or disappearance at various times in Western history.
We believe that even Latter-day Saints generally familiar with the concept will be surprised at the immense scope of the idea and its analogues. There are roots in Ugaritic tablets and other Semitic sources, an abundant apocryphal and pseudepigraphical tradition, and rabbinic versions. Plato’s writings on the subject are well-known, but John Locke, David Hume, and Immanuel Kant also weighed in on the subject. In the twentieth century, the British philosopher J. Ellis McTaggart emphatically asserted that “the belief in human pre-existence is a more probable doctrine than any other form of the belief in immortality.” More recently, Daniel Dennett, Thomas Nagel and Roderick Chisholm have revisited the conundrum of free will and the problem of created moral agents, with direct bearing on the matter of pre-existence. Perhaps most curiously of all, the Platonic legacy finds an echo in the work of Artificial Intelligence “extropians,” a field where pre-existence, technology, philosophy, and science fiction combine in fascinating synthesis.
In poetry, Latter-day Saints know Wordsworth’s “Ode” almost by heart, but few are as familiar with literary treatments in a tradition extending from Vergil, through Spenser and a host of 17th century Platonists, an extensive coterie of Romantic and Victorian poets, and including Robert Frost and a Nobel Prize winning Polish poet in the 20th century.
Where we also hope to go beyond conventional treatments of pre-mortality is in our examination of a variety of concepts that perform comparable intellectual work, attesting to the archetypal dilemmas and enigmas of the human condition (principally but not solely in the realm of epistemology) that have called forth the pre-existence as a solution or palliative idea–concepts such as Kant’s mental categories, Freud’s “oceanic,” Jung’s collective unconscious, Chomsky’s pre-wired mind,” and even Darwin’s principle of evolution (which Darwin explicitly identified as a counterpart to pre-existence). All these paradigms have been summoned in order to account for a human inheritance that seems to transcend the immediate and purely biological, or in order to explain elements in our human identity that seem to derive from a nebulous past, a heritage whose import and influence seem to demand expression in quasi-mythic terms. The question the book hopes to illuminate in this regard is not, is pre-mortality a truthful reflection of reality, but rather, what moral, epistemological, psychological, and cultural work does the paradigm perform? How, in other words, do they satisfy our need to explain: why there is injustice in the conditions we are born into; why we seem to know things there is no accounting for?; why we have yearnings for God, when as Augustine said, we can only seek what we have known and lost; and how to make sense out of cultural and personal affinities that we feel transcend blood and earthly association?
We would both welcome leads and criticisms.