February 1, 2010

Review: Terryl L. Givens, "When Souls Had Wings: Pre-mortal Existence in Western Thought"

Title: When Souls Had Wings: Pre-mortal Existence in Western Thought
Author: Terryl L. Givens
Publisher: Oxford University Press
Genre: History/Philosophy/Theology
Year Published: 2009
Number of Pages: 388
ISBN: 9780195313901
Price: 29.95

"Our birth is but a sleep and a forgetting
The soul that rises with us, our life’s star
Hath elsewhere its setting, and cometh from afar
Not in entire forgetfulness, and not in utter nakedness,
But trailing clouds of glory do we come from God who is our home."

-William Wordsworth, “Ode: Intimations of Immortality from Recollections of Early Childhood” (248).

Wordsworth’s captivating poem has worked its way into countless LDS General Conference addresses, books, seminary lessons and sacrament meeting talks.1 In today’s Christian landscape Latter-day Saints may feel somewhat alone in their belief of preexistence, that humans do not burst into existence at mortal birth.2 However, that loneliness can be quelled with the broad historical perspective of the concept traced in Terryl Givens’s When Souls Had Wings. Early-20th century Mormon educator John Henry Evans was significantly off-base when he said Wordsworth’s Ode “gives the first Christian hint, outside the New Testament, of a possible pre-earth life of the human spirit.”3 Givens discovered enough hints (Christian and otherwise) throughout the history of philosophy, theology, and literature in the West to fill a book. While institutional Christianity “has long consigned the doctrine of a pre-mortal soul to the realm of heresy,” he discovered that the tenacious belief “has persisted across millennia and across cultures” (4). 

In twelve chapters Givens follows the notion of preexistence from its earliest known embodiment in the Ancient Near East to Classical, Jewish, Christian, Renaissance, Romantic and Transcendental traditions, to the scientific speculations of the modern age. The concepts, people, and cultures surveyed make the book feel thicker than its 326 pages appear. Ancient philosophers like Plato and Aristotle cross paths with Origen, Augustine, Kant, Blake, Tennyson, Joseph Smith, and Richard Dawkins. Concepts including original sin, human depravity, grace, justice, theodicy, creation, existence, memory, language, personality, sorrow, politics, and the scientific method collide with preexistence, which has surprising implications for them all. This strange cast of characters and concepts is artfully (sometimes overwhelmingly) composed by Givens, creating a symphony of potential contemplation about what it means to be human. Even those who believe in a preexistence often disagree on its condition, whether it includes fully conscious and aware free agents, partial, ghostly pieces of identity, raw material from which an identity is crafted, or simple existence as a hypothetical—that is, existing only in the foreknowledge of an omniscient deity.

Treating the history of an idea is a slippery exercise. “The idea [of preexistence] appears to have more than one point of origin,” Givens notes, “and influence and inheritance are in any case notoriously difficult to establish with certainty where the history of ideas is concerned” (4). Givens negotiates these difficulties by focusing on the “cultural work” the idea performs (304). For instance, early Christian father Origen had embraced a concept of the human soul as preexistent. The idea fell into disfavor for the Church, however, when theological concerns shifted from defending God’s justice and human freedom to developing doctrines of God’s grace and human depravity. For many Christians thereafter, preexistence was too great a threat to the sovereignty of God to be seen as anything other than a dangerous heresy (103).

Instead of simply tracing the idea from source to source, Givens aims to “elaborate an entire series of motivations and purposes behind an idea that has flourished well outside and beyond the early Christian contexts” (5). It's been used by poets to account for feelings of resonance or familiarity with ideas, places or people they had never met in life before. It’s been used by philosophers to find an ultimate ground of existence or meaningful human free will. It’s been used by theologians to reconcile what seems like an unjust world with faith in a loving Creator. Givens does not attempt to prove the doctrine of preexistence, but to analyze its “ideological and practical significance” through Western history (7). A brief discussion on Mormonism barely scratches the surface of the origin and meaning of the idea in LDS history. This was an understandable disappointment. Hopefully it will encourage further research in this area of Mormon thought (212-220).

Admittedly, this book is a bit more difficult to read than Givens’s former work.4 Those looking for simple, vindicating proof-texts on preexistence will surely be disappointed; this is an academic book that rigorously wrestles with the complexity of the topic, not the truthfulness of the LDS gospel. Nevertheless, Givens could make a reader stop and think twice about a joke on a LaffyTaffy wrapper. Imagine what he could do with a concept as deep, rich, and personal as the preexistence of the soul. Before the book was published Givens delivered an address on preexistence at a conference for the Foundation for Apologetic Information and Research. He noted: “my own appreciation for (and understanding of) the preexistence has been enriched and broadened by a comparative study of the idea and its myriad appearances in the history of philosophy, theology, and literature. What I have come to appreciate is this cardinal insight: If the restoration is not yet complete, then other traditions have much to teach us. Not by way of confirming, corroborating, or verifying the truths we already have. But by way of actually adding to the body of revealed doctrine we call precious and true.”5 For a greater appreciation for (and understanding of) the idea of preexistence, this unique book is a must-read.

Update: Givens has begun writing a series of articles on the preexistence based on his book. Check out his brief overview at Meridian Magazine.

The earliest reference I could locate in an LDS publication is Orson F. Whitney, "Spirit Promptings," Saturday Night Thoughts, Deseret Book Company, (1921), p. 299. Portions of the poem have appeared in nineteen LDS General Conference addresses, from Henry D. Taylor's "Some Rain Must Fall" (Conference Report, April 1963, pp. 119-121) to Thomas S. Monson's “I Know That My Redeemer Lives!,” (Ensign, May 2007, 22–25). Monson has referenced the poem in six addresses, more than any other speaker.

Givens prefers the contradictory term “preexistence” throughout the book. He acknowledges its inferiority to “pre-mortal existence,” but notes the former term “has far and away predominated in the history of the concept” (3).

John Henry Evans, Joseph Smith, An American Prophet, (Deseret Book Company (1946), p. 279.

His other books include: Viper on the Hearth: Mormons, Myths, and the Construction of Heresy (Oxford University Press, 1997), By the Hand of Mormon: The American Scripture That Launched a New World Religion (Oxford University Press, 2003), People of Paradox: A History of Mormon Culture (Oxford University Press, 2007), and The Book of Mormon: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford University Press, 2009).

Terryl L. Givens, "When Souls Had Wings: What the Western Tradition Has to teach Us About Pre-Existence," 2007 FAIR Conference, fairlds.org.


aquinas said...

Thanks for this review and also including Givens's thoughts about the value of studying other traditions. I feel the same way that other traditions have much to teach us. I also agree that premortal existence tradition in Latter-day Saint thought is extremely rich. For my own part, I've written a post examining this tradition from the perspective of just one element: the idea of a veil of forgetfulness.

BHodges said...

Sweet, aquinas. I'm definitely going to check out your post, thanks for bringing it to my attention. Givens discusses the veil in several places, the different part it was believed to play, etc.

Kevin Christensen said...

I read a couple of weeks ago. Brilliant work. I remember an investigator in England dismissing the pre-existence because the only evidence we had was Wordsworth.

An eye-opening book, seeing just how widely the notion has circulated, and why. From the time I first began pondering the implications, first after a home teaching lesson on the Plan, and later, on reading Madsen's Eternal Man, it's been one of favorite things about being LDS.

I was a little surprised that he didn't include the famous quote on the topic from William James. On the other hand, there were many pleasant surprises in compensation. I was pleased to see his discussion of Pre-birth accounts, something that LDS pioneered.

Kevin Christensen
Pittsburgh, PA

Kevin Barney said...

Did you happen to notice whether I got a nod in a note or the bibliography? He read my "On Preexistence in the Bible" for background, but since that wasn't a published work I don't know whether he cited it. (I don't have a copy of the book.)

BHodges said...


I forgot to mention in the review, there isn't a bibliography in this book. You aren't in the footnotes or acknowledgments, though.

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