Editors note: the following is an excerpt from the book, The God Who Weeps by Terryl and Fiona Givens.

god who weeps

Chapter Two

Man Was in the Beginning with God

We lived as spirit beings in the presence of God before we were born into this mortal life.

He has put eternity in their hearts, without which man cannot discover God.”

Let me but be taught the mystery of my being,” pleads one of Lord Byron’s characters, in tones the apostle Paul would have readily understood. Paul wrote a beautiful hymn to charity, which the King James translators rendered in part, “For now we see through a glass darkly.” By “glass” they meant a looking glass, a mirror. The original actually reads, “We see in a mirror, dimly” (NRSV). In other words, we are the mystery yet to be revealed. It is our own identity that we must struggle to discern, before we can rightly perceive our place in the cosmos and our relation to the Divine. With the poet John Keats we feel to say, “Do you not think I strive-to know myself?” And like him, we find ourselves, “straining at particles of light in the midst of a great darkness.” Straining because we never feel completely at home in this world and because we sense we carry within us clues to our origins. We experience those sparks in the night as though we were archaeologists glimpsing familiar fragments of our lost culture, not relics of an alien world. It is more than the recurrent intimations of a different sphere, a different domain of existence only dimly perceived, that haunt us. It is the familiarity we cannot shake, which tells us as much about ourselves as about those realms beyond the veil that shrouds our life in mystery.

Among the ancient Babylonians, Greeks, Romans, Jews, and early Christians, many believed the premortal life of the soul made powerful sense of myriad puzzles. Christians especially asked, “Might memory explain the turn of the longing soul toward God?” Scores of poets, philosophers, and clerics have thought it does. “My own experience is rather devastating desire’-desire for that-of-which-the-present-joy-is-a-reminder. All my life nature and art have been reminding me of something I’ve never seen: saying Look! What does this-and this-remind you of?'” writes C. S. Lewis. He was simply paraphrasing St. Augustine, who was similarly haunted by the suspicion that the longing in his soul was a pining for a past happiness. “How then do I seek You?” Augustine asks. “For in seeking You, my God, it is happiness I am seeking.” But how can that be possible? “Where and when had I any experience of happiness, that I should remember it and love it and long for it?” Clearly, those who seek God and the happy life He represents must “have known it,” though “I know not how,” he considers. The woman of the parable who lost her coin gives him a clue, for she “would not have found it if she had not remembered it. . . . It was lost only to the eyes; it was preserved in memory.” So it must be with God, he reasons. “How shall I find You if I am without memory of you?” We can only seek what we have known, and knowledge of God, then, must be memory of God.

A few centuries earlier, Augustine’s fellow churchman Clement of Alexandria had made a similar argument. To repent, he argued, is to turn from the life we know to another concealed in shadow. Only a reminiscence of “better things,” vaguely perceived, could be a sufficient prompt to make us renounce present certainties, with their satisfactions and pleasures, for something better. In turning to God, therefore, we are not converting-but reverting-to a holy model, “speed[ing] back to the eternal light, children to the Father.”

The sense that we are pilgrims in a strange land is one of the most universal themes in human culture. No argument can persuade, or logic confound, where our deepest feeling is the foundation. For William Wordsworth, the intimation of a prior existence was overwhelming-a “presence which is not to be put by.” He famously wrote that “heaven lies about us in our infancy” for the simple reason that “our birth is but a sleep and a forgetting. The soul that riseth with us, our life’s star, hath had 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.” His colleague, Samuel Coleridge, moved by the contemplation of his infant son, similarly wondered if “we liv’d, ere yet this robe of flesh we wore?” He defended his feelings as more than poetic fancy when he wrote later to a friend, “if you never have had [intimations of preexistence] yourself, I cannot explain [them] to you.”

In this view of human identity, the restlessness in human nature, which Herbert described, is not a deliberate deficiency bestowed by the creator. It is a simple longing for our true home, a “groping after our own Centre’s near and proper substance.” As Amos Bronson Alcottwrote, “All unrest is but the struggle of the soul to reassure herself of her inborn immortality; Her discomfort reveals . . . her loss of the divine presence.”

Who has never felt the utter inadequacy of the world to satisfy the spiritual longings of our nature? Why the heart’s persistent inkling that we are adrift from our origins? Why such easy agreement with the poet’s picture of a “soul, uneasy and confined from home?” Why are we so ready to lament with the dramatist that we have been set “naked and miserable upon the shores of this great ocean of the world?” The insatiable longing for wholeness described in the myth of Aristophanes, finds myriad echoes in the centuries since. In Frances Cornford’s poem, “Preexistence,” the poet gives expression to what many have felt:

I laid me down upon the shore

And dreamed a little space;

I heard the great waves break and roar;

The sun was on my face.

. . .

The grains of sand so shining-small

Soft through my fingers ran;

The sun shone down upon it all,

And so my dream began:

How all of this had been before:

How ages far away

I lay on some forgotten shore

As here I lie today.

. . .

I have forgotten whence I came,

Or what my home might be,

Or by what strange and savage name

I called that thundering sea.

I only know the sun shone down

As still it shines today,

And in my fingers long and brown

The little pebbles lay.

One theologian found in premortal existence a solution to “the mystery of that inextinguishable melancholy and sadness, which lies hidden at the foundation of all human consciousness, being most profound in the noblest natures. The lower animals,” he noted, “are light and joyous, content if their actual wants are supplied, secure and untroubled from without. But in the consciousness of man . . . amid the sounds of heartiest joy there runs an unsilenced undertone of secret sadness. . . . Its existence can be traced back beyond the confines of time.”

Reason lends weight to haunting suspicions. We know things we have never learned. One does not need to be a Mozart prodigy to encounter this mystery. The poet/artist William Blake was convinced that his mind was filled with “books & pictures of old, which I wrote & painted in ages of Eternity before my mortal life.” More commonly, yet sublimely, we are born with a moral compass, a sense of the beautiful, a capacity to respond to what is best and noblest in human nature. Marcel Proust wrote of this sense thateverything is arranged in this life as though we entered it carrying the burden of obligations contracted in a former life; there is no reason inherent in the conditions of life on this earth that can make us consider ourselves obliged to do good, to be fastidious, to be polite even. . . . All these obligations which have not their sanction in our present life seem to belong to a different world, founded upon kindness, scrupulosity, self-sacrifice, a world entirely different from this, which we leave in order to be born into this world, before perhaps returning to the other to live once again beneath the sway of those unknown laws which we have obeyed because we bore their precepts in our hearts.

A sudden insight illuminates the mind, words resonate like chords of memory swept by an invisible hand, and we know a new truth as an old one. The music is familiar, even if we have forgotten the words. “Seeds of light, . . . scatter’d in the Soul of Man,” one seventeenth-century philosopher called these ornaments of the spirit, which we bring with us when we acquire “the veil of Sense.” An eternal soul, one that stretches as endlessly into the past as the future, makes sense of much that an abrupt entry upon the world’s stage cannot.

For example, how can we be stirred by our sense of the eternal, how could we even resonate to such music, if we were not tuned to the same scale? Something analogous to the pre-wired mind is going on. Psychologists and linguists have long asserted that babies are born with their brains pre-programmed to learn languages, or music, or other skills. It is as if the human computer has all the software already installed. This is one way of explaining the infant’s phenomenal capacity to acquire linguistic or musical proficiency with such astounding ease and rapidity. They already “get” the idea of language when months old, acquire the entire grammar from spoken samples, and plug in vocabulary at the rate of dozens of words a week until fluent. (Try learning Mandarin that way at the age of fifty!)

In a more fundamental way, we are pre-wired to speak the language of the Spirit. Our powers of reason and sense don’t give us access to many things that lie beyond the physical. Yet we recognize and respond to this larger realm we call the infinite, the eternal, the holy, or the sacred. How odd that such intimations strike us, not as the babble of a foreign tongue, but as a song heard long ago-“church bells beyond the stars heard.” We may think that the spiritual intimations Wordsworth describes are necessary to conclude there was premortal existence. But it may be the other way around. It may be that premortal existence best explains why we are able to respond to spiritual intimations in the first place. We bring the grammar of sacred things with us.

We are also, most of us at least, possessed of a suspicion that we have an identity that lies deeper than our body, rooted beyond actions, reaching past memory. “I . . . have the intuition,” writes a contemporary philosopher, “that I-this very self-might have been born of different parents, indeed as a different species of animal. And this intuition is very strong with me; I think it is sound. If it is, then that very fact may imply that my birth and my beginning are two different things.”

In other words, if you can say meaningfully, “If I had been born in Calcutta,” then you are presupposing a someone or something that existed before your birth, and might have been born in one place as well as another, but took up its earthly home where your birth certificate indicates. Such a hypothetical statement could never be a proof of preexistence. But the ease and naturalness with which we all can say such things is evidence of a deep, even unaware, assumption on our part that we exist as something that precedes and transcends the particular form in which we find ourselves at the moment.

The novelist and essayist Marilynne Robinson has referred to the “odd privilege of existence as a coherent self, . . . that haunting I who wakes us in the night wondering where time has gone, the I we waken to, sharply aware that we have been unfaithful to ourselves.” We all know the sensation of having failed to live up to who we are-the sense that there exists a different “I” than the one that sometimes manifests itself through our actions. This perception is ingrained in our very language of self-justification. “I wasn’t myself,” we might say. Or, “you are better than that,” a friend or relative might tell us after a disappointing course of conduct.

Who is this “I” we are referring to in such instances? It could just be an idealized self we have in mind, except the sense is too strong that it is our actions that are unreal, not the self to which we compare them.

So, is the most plausible candidate for that “I” really a hypothetical self we might someday be, or is it what the minister and novelist George MacDonald called an “old soul,” a self with a long history, that provides the contrast with present patterns of behavior?

The stuff of our physical bodies is almost immeasurably old. “We are made of material created and ejected into the Galaxy by the violence of earlier stars,” writes one physicist. “The iron atoms in our blood carrying oxygen at this moment to our cells came largely from exploding white dwarf stars, while the oxygen itself came mainly from exploding supernovas . . . and most of the carbon . . . came from planetary nebulas, the death clouds of middle-size stars.”

Surprisingly, a poet and churchman writing over three centuries ago recognized this same fact. Before it acquired its present form, he wrote, the stuff of which the body is made was “in places unimaginably distant,” and has traveled “through the triangular passages of as many Vortices as we see Stars in a clear frosty night, and has shone once as bright as the Sun . . . insomuch that we eat, and drink, and cloathour selves with that which was once pure Light and Flame.” One could hardly accord our paltry mortal shell a greater or more ancient legacy than the soul it houses, he thought. Both, it would seem, “do bear the same date with the Creation of the World.”

If an origin among the stars is difficult to believe, an existence thought to commence with our mortal birth has its own absurdities to contend with. Many beginnings may be inauspicious, but they should at least bear the seeds of future glories. True enough, butterflies and swans come from crawling caterpillars and unremarkable goslings, but the finished product is all present in their beginnings. They may be invisible to the naked eye, but the delicate wings and downy feathers, are all present at their conception. But what are we to say about human beings? That a paltry creature, an anonymous urchin, may grow into a Shakespeare, a Newton, or a Mother Teresa is miracle enough. Shall we also claim the destiny of an eternal being, for a babe that springs into existence by mere happenstance?

There is an almost intolerable lack of sober reflection, foresight, and design behind most human conception. Life begins by chance, by accident, by violence or by carelessness. The young, the frivolous, the unworthy, and the thoughtless can engender a child. And yet the product engendered is one we recognize as something majestic, touched with divinity, and endowed with immortality. “It certainly seems questionable to expect such a powerful effect from such inconsequential causes,” mused the great philosopher Immanuel Kant. There must be a true beginning rooted in a time and place of greater dignity and moment. How much more reasonable, it would seem, to posit an origin commensurate with our future, to place our soul’s true birth, like its potential destiny, in divine realms.

Editors note: this is an excerpt from the book, The God Who Weeps by Terryl and Fiona Givens.


Terryl Givens (PhD Comparative Literature, UNC Chapel Hill) holds the James A. Bostwick chair of English and is professor of literature and religion at the University of Richmond. Author of several books, his writing has been praised by the New York Times as provocative reading, and includes, most recently, When Souls Had Wings, a history of the idea of premortal life in Western thought, and a biography (with Matthew Grow) of Parley Pratt (winner of the 2012 Best Book Award from the Mormon History Association).

Fiona Givens (MA European History, University of Richmond) recently retired from directing the French Language program at Patrick Henry High School, in Ashland Virginia. Besides education, she has worked in translation services, as a lobbyist, and as communications director of a non-profit. A longtime collaborator in Terryl’s previous books, this is her first co-authorship.