Ernst Bloch, the Transmigration of Souls, and Life after the Apocalypse. (02/28/2001)

Putting the problem of the human soul into a proper historical context, as the ideology evolved during the early centuries of the church, has always been difficult from a philosophical point of view because the concept became a fundamental ground of Christian faith but always remained one that could not be demonstrated or verified by any empirical fact or evidence suggesting its existence whatsoever. How does one prove that such a thing exists? The answer is that nothing visible, nothing seen, nothing measurable has ever been found and presented to prove that any human soul actually resides anywhere in the real world. Making this problem even more nettlesome is the further claim that the soul is immortal and indestructible. If the soul exists forever, if it is in fact the most significant component of what it means to be human, why then does it reside outside the direct experience of everyone who possesses one? People have always claimed knowledge of their own soul, of course, but, in terms of actually presenting evidence for its existence, none has ever been brought forward.

The best argument for the existence of the soul seems to be that human beings have always believed that it exists. And why would they (or we) not embrace that idea, since it constitutes the only "proof" we have that our mortality, which is clearly verifiable in our material existence (every human being dies), is only an apparent fact and not an actual condition of our existence (the individual soul lives forever). Any "proof" at all, it seems, that we are not in fact transitory entities, no matter how improbable it might be of verification, fulfills so compelling a need that the concept itself has almost never been subjected to rational scrutiny. The mere suggestion that people do not have souls is one that immediately attracts vilification from every quarter of the religious and secular world simultaneously. So much of human identity depends on the possession of a soul that most people would be hard pressed to even say what human means, or is, if the idea of the soul is not included as the first and most fundamental element of its description.

I bring the issue to the foreground here for several reasons. I do not enter this torturous path because I intend to prove that the soul does not exist. Doing that is just as improbable as proving the opposite. What is true, and verifiable, however, is that not every human culture on the face of the earth over time has always inevitably embraced the notion that people have souls and that the soul they possess is immortal. In fact, a very large percentage of the earth's human population over time developed a belief system that did not include the concept of the soul, that did not embrace the idea that human beings are immortal. Animistic people, native and tribal people, in virtually every corner of the world, and for thousands and thousands of years, never asserted nor embraced either concept. This fact has always been cited by people who do affirm such concepts that tribal people are not really human, since the absence of such beliefs necessarily places them on a lower level of the evolutionary scale than the one occupied by people who do accept them. The fallacy goes by asserting that animistic people are not capable of the intellectual processes necessary to conceive of the soul and to recognize the fact that having one makes them immortal. This perception of the deficiency in tribal belief systems has always been used, of course, to justify treating tribal people as inferior members of the human community. In real historical practice, tribal people were either enslaved (African-American) or annihilated (native American) by the people who believed that possession of a soul makes them necessarily better and more moral than their victims.

Since possession of a soul necessarily elevates a person to a higher moral ground, it must be true that instituting slavery and practicing genocide against people who do not embrace that concept must rise to a higher level of moral probity than the one reached by its victims. Hence, and by definition, the slave-master and the mass-murderer occupies a higher ground of morality, by virtue of believing in the human soul, than do the countless millions who were enslaved and murdered precisely because they did not believe in it. The point here is that, as likely as not, belief in the existence of a human soul has not elevated anyone's behavior and may, in fact, have generated, and certainly did justify, practices of enslavement and genocide against people who did not share a similar belief.

Native and tribal people do embrace a belief in spirit. As often as not, Western religious thinkers have equated belief in spirits with belief in souls. That equation, however, is anything but a valid one. Tribal people do believe that one of several spirits thought to animate a particular individual is very long-lasting but calling the spirit of reincarnation, which is the one I mean, immortal and indestructible is probably not accurate. Tribal people generally reject the notion of human immortality, or did so prior to their exposure to religions that make it a primary article of faith. The reincarnation spirit is not a personal one. It has no essential relationship to any particular individual consciousness apart from the fact that the bond between a person and his/her reincarnation spirit is always one that is appropriate. A person suitable to membership in the clan of the Field Mouse, for instance, is not very likely to be animated by the reincarnation spirit of the Bear. People are not born with a reincarnation spirit; rather, people acquire one. People do not choose that spirit either; rather, they are chosen by it. What this means is that the spirit does not carry with it any knowledge or perception of a person's individual consciousness; rather, and because both field mice and bears possess identifiable characteristics, the individual people who are animated by the same spirit tend to be alike, tend to behave in certain more or less predictable ways, are similar in their concerns, their actions, their lives, their occupations.

People who believe in the individual soul, who believe it is immortal, who believe it makes a person more moral, and who want to attribute these same characteristics to the spirits thought to animate native people, completely miss the point of the difference. A tribal person is animated just as much by the "good" qualities as he/she is by the "bad" ones that exist in the reincarnation spirit. Bears can be aggressively dangerous. People animated by the spirit of the bear can also exhibit those same characteristics. Field mice often eat food grown for human beings, often destroy grain stored by people against future needs. What drives the field mouse to behave in this way also drives people animated by its spirit to do similar things. Native people never condemn bears and field mice for exhibiting their natural tendencies. Native people never condemn people for following the directions and dictates of their spirit identities. What we have always done instead is find ways to use the talents and proclivities of individuals in ways that benefit the tribe, to always accept difference, to always embrace it for the sake of the well-being of the larger community.

Facing the psychological distress of explaining how a wholly wise and benevolent God could have created a transitory and mortal entity capable of desiring immortality, human beings, but without actually granting them the object of that desire, eternal life, Ernst Bloch (in The Spirit of Utopia) regresses or progresses, depending on how you look at it, to arguing for the transmigration of souls. This is an old idea in Western philosophy, of course, probably traceable to the Pythagorean mystery cult in pre-Classic Greek civilization, as well as to other Near Eastern sources. Plato depends on that same notion in his discussion of the human soul in the Timaeus. The problem with that idea from a Christian point of view is that Tertullian, in his Treatise on the Soul, completely rejects the concept as heresy. Bloch puts his version of the concept this way:

"as the contact between all of heaven and all of earth . . . . the souls live, right up to the end, our collective circulation between the Here and the There that is not truly a Beyond if the Here does not finally appear fully within it, and they function right up to the end as the organs of that great soul-migration, that cosmic process of self-recognition, which the lost, riven, unknown Soul-God or Holy Spirit describes in accordance with the true gnosis of the doctrine of the transmigration of souls." (262, emphasis in original)

In one sense Bloch may acknowledge the fact that the early church Fathers rejected the idea, which he sees as a mistake, when he says that "[t]he doctrine of the transmigration of souls, this penetrating application of the certainty of the We to the improvident course of this world, should have proved itself as the strongest antidote to the contradiction between our brief time and the historical time we cannot live" (263). In other words, Bloch suggests that transmigration did not rise to the level of an "antidote" against what he sees as a contradiction between human mortality and the long history of human presence on the earth. He does say he believes that it should have risen to that level but, without identifying a reason why, he says that the concept failed that potential. One reason for the failure is that the word of an early church Father in favor of, or against, any concept tended to seal its fate as an acceptable position for subsequent generations to embrace or not. Tertullian's rejection of the transmigration of souls made it an unacceptable concept for virtually the whole of Christian history.

With respect to the notion that the transmigration of souls is a "cosmic process of self-recognition," Bloch seems to be suggesting that the purpose behind God's creation of human beings as entities who are physically mortal but spiritually immortal was to set the individual soul on a course of travel through time where it created an identity through experience as it lived each new life in a different body so that it could then remember and call to mind those previous lives in an act of gradual but complete self-realization. This final, complete recognition of self is supposed to occur at the end of time. What stands in the way of this complete self-recognition, of course, and as always, is the existence of original sin, and just ordinary sin as well, as an inescapable component of all else in created reality, in the material world itself. Bloch notes that "Christianity is the paradox against all creatureliness, and all nature, in the Apocalypse heaven will depart like a rolled-up cloth, and the Kabbalah teaches, not without reason, how it was out of precisely the debris of nature that the hostile demons emerged who wanted to destroy the human realm" (271). He goes on to assert that the "mere physical world" is an "impediment" to self-realization, that it is "the collapsed house in which no one lived, is a rubbish heap of cheated, deceased, degraded, misled, and ruined life" (271). Bloch's denunciation of nature as the source of all that is evil in the universe is excessive even in comparison to early accounts of the same thing that appeared as de Contemptu Mundi in the first several centuries of the Christian era. The demons that appear out of the "debris of nature" after the Apocalypse are probably the spirits native people recognize as the cause of its animation.

Bloch ultimately identifies the true nature of original sin as "not-wanting-to-be-like-God" (269) and would very definitely place a person like myself firmly in that category on the simple ground that I have chosen to reject as non-existent the very thing God has given us as a means of becoming like He is. Virtually every church Father has said at some point or another that human can only reach God through the exercise of the faculty of the soul. Since I do not believe I have one, I am not very likely to exercise it in the pursuit of becoming like God. Bloch makes his best case in the following terms:

"First [original sin] can harden our hearts, and cause us to shut ourselves off from our neighbors. Thereupon it can interfere even more fundamentally, and mark off our wanting-to-be so abruptly, satisfy it so permanently, that every more definitive fire within dwindles. And it seems that the cold, poisonous fog, so damaging to our respiration, not only so hardens our hearts that envy, obduracy, resentment, a murderous rejection of the likeness and the brightness can lodge there, whereby we commit the one true original sin, the not-wanting-to-be-like-God. Our bad conscience of the end also knows how to weaken, to harden our spirit so much that here the other part of this original sin insinuates itself, namely delusion, contentment with the world, the state as its own purpose, the omnipotence of the world brought about by our worship of the diabolical, and so embeds in us a tolerance for our remove from God, a not-wanting-to-be-like-God, as the true and deliberate formula of Antichristendom." (269)

Statements like this one find so much favor in a Christian society, are so popularly believed and accepted as the absolute Word of God, that there is no sensible way to answer them. I am a person so utterly consumed with a passion for not-wanting-to-be-like-God that Ernst Bloch, had he caught wind of my eventual existence even as recently as 1918, probably would have been perfectly willing to consign my eventual body to the nearest tree for eradication by fire as surely as the same would have been done during the Middle Ages for the crime of heresy. I no more worship the diabolical than I do God, and for the same reason: I do not believe either one exists. To say that I am an agent of "Antichristendom," even as I formulate a response to its fractured and broken sense of what the real world is, would not be an exaggeration. Any ideology that denounces nature as the harbor of all that is evil in the universe, and that clearly is Bloch's position here, even if it is slightly over-the-top of what passes for orthodox belief in Christian doctrine, truly needs to be opposed and condemned in the strongest possible terms. Bloch's sense of utopia, his utopian ideal, comes at the expense of nature, at the expense of any and all who embrace the material, the natural, world as the only home human beings have. He concludes his flow toward the sea of his annihilation of all sense by saying that "Within . . . Marxism and religion, united in the will to the Kingdom, flows the ultimate master system of all the tributaries: the Soul, the Messiah, and the Apocalypse, which represents the act of awakening in totality, provide the final impulses to do and to know, form the a priori of all politics and culture" (278). From a native and tribal point of view, what Bloch anticipates is an awakening, not to totality, but to nothing at all, to the absolute void of species annihilation, to the death of life itself, since all life depends on having a material ground, as opposed to the fantasy of soul and messiah, as the only place it can be. Apocalypse, as the hope of every Christian, is the only tributary in Bloch's Trinity that can actually be realized, where soul and messiah cannot ever emerge by virtue of being both unnatural and anti-natural, since human has evolved to the point where it can create a nuclear winter of its own to cancel the only home any of us have. As the "a priori of all politics and culture" Bloch's view is truly and totally, even dangerously, insane. As marriages go, this one between Christianity and Marxism seems to be one truly born in Hell.