Thursday, October 05, 2006

The History of Pre-Heaven

The History of Pre-Heaven

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=97concepts 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

We would both welcome leads and criticisms.

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