All quotations from
When Souls had Wings: Premortal Life in Western Thought
In the age of Shakespeare, the clergyman poet George Herbert re-imagined the creation of Adam in such a way as to make sense of our yearning for the divine, the eternal, the ineffable.
When God at first made man,
Having a glasse of blessings standing by;
Let us (said he) poure on him all we can:
Let the world’s riches, which dispersed lie,
Contract into a span.
So strength first made a way;
Then beautie flow’d, then wisdome, honour, pleasure:
When almost all was out, God made a stay,
Perceiving that alone of all his treasure
Rest in the bottome lay.
For if I should (said he)
Bestow this jewell also on my creature,
He would adore my gifts in stead of me,
And rest in nature, not the God of Nature:
So both should losers be.
Yet let him keep the rest,
But keep them with repining restlesnesse:
Let him be rich and wearie, that at least,
If goodnesse lead him not, yet wearinesse
May tosse him to my breast.
Herbert believed that in creating the first couple, God deliberately left them incomplete. With a rationale similar to that given by the prophet Ether, God gave man weakness (not weaknesses!), that we may be brought unto Christ in our neediness.
Herbert was not creating an argument for belief in God. That would have been absurd. Belief in God was too universal to need a defense. Herbert was, rather, trying to make sense of the powerful impulse humans have to find the God they always and everywhere sense is there.
The reality of God was a given. The yearning we have for God was the mystery. In fact, for hundreds of years and more, the idea of God was considered a self-evident truth, not a religious concept arrived at by reason or argument. Even the father of rationalism, the French philosopher René Descartes, believed along with many of his followers that the “Idea of a Being absolutely and fully perfect . . . is Naturall and Essentiall to the Soul of Man, and cannot be washt out nor conveigh’d away by any force or trick.” In other words, not only do we not have to work to get the idea into our heads; it would be impossible to get it out! For centuries before and after Descartes, there was general agreement that faith was innate, not a matter of socialization or instruction.
So universal is religious belief of some sort, that even in a modern, secularized world, scientists and philosophers continue to seek for explanations behind a yearning for God that seems inextinguishable. Sigmund Freud was an uncompromising atheist, but he too acknowledged the sense of the eternal to be an almost universal human feeling.
In trying to account for this intuition of the ineffable, he theorized that it originated in the buried memories of infancy, from a time of a “more intimate bond” between the self and the surrounding world. As we grow older, we have a hazy longing for a distant past when we felt more unity with the universe, and mistake that longing for God.
Few of his peers found the idea convincing, and even Freud quickly abandoned the theory. But secular attempts to explain the root of religion persisted. In recent years, a few scientists have propounded a “god-gene,” and others have worked to locate areas of the brain where sensations we mistake for God or revelation originate.
Though the fact is largely lost in conventional histories of western thought or Christian theology, a powerful idea persisted from the earliest years of the faith to explain where the natural inclination toward God originated. For many thinkers in western history, our yearning for God is not a consequence of a general deficiency or a God imbued restlessness, but a specific hunger for a fullness we once knew and imperfectly remember. For these men and women, we were moved by a specific, though veiled, recollection of our premortal life with God.
In the second century, the Church Father Clement of Alexandria could only make sense of repentance, as spurred by a memory of a past bliss to which we want to return.
“There follows of necessity, in him who has come to the recollection of what is better, repentance for what is worse.
Accordingly, . . . the spirit in repentance retraces its steps.
In the same way, therefore, we also, repenting of our sins, renouncing our iniquities, purified by baptism, speed back to the eternal light, children to the Father.”
Augustine (354-430), the most influential Christian writer after Paul, found pre-existence by far the most compelling account of the soul’s origin. And he felt the doctrine was virtually self-evident: “Happiness is known to all, for if [people] could be asked with one voice whether they wish for happiness, there is no doubt whatever that they would all answer yes. And this could not be unless the thing itself . . . lay somehow in their memory.”
Then, making the observation personal, he asks suggestively, “But where and when had I any experience of happiness, that I should remember it and love it and long for it?” He also invoked the parable of the lost coin, writing that the woman in the story “ would not have found it if she had not remembered it. For when it was found, how should she have known whether it was what she sought. . . ? It is always thus when we seek and find anything we have lost.” We cannot seek God, in other words, unless we already knew him from some prior time.
In the seventeenth century, the Anglican clergyman Henry More wrote extensively on pre-existence, believing it explained an array of earthly mysteries. But most importantly, it explained what impels us to seek God. The search of the soul for God, he wrote, is simply our “groping after our Center’s near and proper substance.” True, we cannot fully remember our heavenly home, but, he points out, “who can call to mind / Where first he here saw sunne or felt the gentle wind?”
As for why God should create us, only to cast us across a veil of forgetfulness, he could only speculate. Perhaps, he wrote in a poem on the subject, “our Great Maker (like as mothers dear / . . . from them do their children shove / That back again they may recoil more near) / Shoves of our soule a while, the more them to endear.” (Several poets speculated, as one in the eighteenth century, that the veil of forgetfulness was an act of mercy, not cruelty. Wrote one anonymous poet, . “We had been inexpressibly more miserable, if we had retained the memory of our former Glory, and past Actions.”
In the nineteenth-century, the poet William Wordsworth wrote of how our memory of pre-existent glories provoked “obstinate questionings,” our soul never having lost sight of “that immortal sea that brought us hither.” During his lifetime, belief in pre-existence caught on with a number of American intellectuals, the “Transcendentalists.” They, too, could only explain human restlessness and soul-hunger for the eternal as provoked by our consciousness of a profound loss of glory.
One of their principal spokesman, Amos Bronson Alcott (father of Louisa May Alcott), asserted that “All unrest is but the struggle of the soul to reassure herself of her inborn immortality; Her discomfort reveals her lapse from innocence, her loss of the divine presence.” A few years later, Phillips Brooks, who wrote the Christmas Hymn “O Little Town of Bethlehem,” also wondered if we are not imbued with feint memories of heaven in order to “tempt men Godward, as they return to the source whence they came.”
How pre-mortal existence came to be anathematized and dropped from mainline Christian belief is a long and complicated story. But at the peripheries of orthodoxy, the idea has persisted in spite of official suppression. One reason for its persistence, is that it offers the simplest and most logical explanation for a hunger that is almost universally felt. Centuries before Christianity made its appearance, even before Plato gave literary expression to the idea, the Greek philosopher Empedocles (b. 490 BC) expressed what millions have felt: the inescapable feeling that our soul is a pilgrim here on earth, having come down “from the unspeakable bliss of its heavenly home.”