The Division Of Consciousness:
The Secret Afterlife of the Human Psyche
By Peter Novak
Hampton Roads Publishing, Inc., 1997
258 pages, $14.95 paperback.
Every so often there comes along a book built on an idea that is so provocative that it poses the danger of drowning the original insight in a sea of other ideas that give the impression of trying to prove too much.. This book is one such example, and if, for that reason, this book becomes ignored, we will be the poorer for it.
Basing himself on Freud's discovery of the unconscious, and on Jung's division of the self into the masculine animus and the feminine anima principles, Novak invokes what he believes to be an almost universal -- although long-forgotten in many cultures -- tripartite division of human nature into body, soul, and spirit, and then attempts to correlate the latter two with what he takes to be well-researched scientific data connected with two types of psychological phenomena, seeming past-life recall under hypnosis on the one hand, and the future-oriented "near-death experiences" on the other.
Out of this mix is born Novak's central thesis (his "Division Theory" ) which holds that if these modern psychological insights and data are projected back into ancient but hitherto opposed views of the afterlife -- namely "reincarnation" or transmigration of the soul through a series of different bodies as taught by most oriental religions vs. "resurrection" of the same body as found in the Judeo-Christian (and Islamic) tradition -- then these long-opposed views cannot only be better understood but completely reconciled. For as Novak sees it, it is only the "spirit" or pneuma (equated with the the Jungian "animus") corresponding to the Hebrew ru'ah, but also identified by Novak with rationality and full consciousness, that reincarnates -- which explains, among other things, why, even in the oriental traditions, seldom does anyone claim to have remembered their past lives. On the other hand, it is the "soul" or psyche, which although it remains largely unconscious, yet containing the sense of our own individual identity, which "descends" as it were to the netherworld (Hades for the Greeks, she'ol for the Hebrews) and which in Christian theology occupies the alternate states of either heaven or hell -- or as Novak seems to envision it, some sort of "collective unconscious" as suggested by Jung. What Novak seems to be envisioning is not simply a conceptual resolution of these apparently differing views of the afterlife, but an ontological resolution where all the various reincarnations of the spirit are eventually resurrected into a state of mutual reconciliation and supreme union with God. Certainly an impressive scenario if there ever was one and Novak does not hesitate to exploit it for all that it is worth!
Of course, skeptics are bound to find flaws or voice objections. One, which Novak seems to some degree to have to anticipated, might be that at most this theory would explain these ancient beliefs in terms of being psychological projections of the right-brain vs. left. Instead, Novak uses this morphological distinction to further advance his basic insight, seeing this physiological division as the biological underpinning for the corresponding division between soul and spirit and quickly moving on from there by reviewing classical views of the afterlife from ancient times, speculating on the nature of the primordial "fall" and sharing his own views of Jesus' own inner reconciliation of psyche and spirit.
Others, (like this reviewer) while finding Novak's collection of anthropological data as to similar beliefs impressive and his psychological insights exhilarating, are apt become much more skeptical when taking even a cursory look at his proposed biblical evidence. Novak's ideosyncratic interpretations would leave even a medieval exegete envious of his sheer inventiveness. Nevertheless, Novak's similarly approached interpretations of the Gospel of Thomas and the other Nag Hammadi manuscripts, seem to make considerably more sense. This is hardly surprising, considering that his expressed aim is quite similar to these Gnostic-influenced texts, which was, at that time, to reinterpret Christianity, with the help of Greek philosophy, in terms of a mix of radical middle eastern dualism with various oriental religious ideas. But even here he falls into sweeping historical judgments or other generalizations which, however intriquing, are of dubious accuracy.
My main problem with Novak's theory, however, is not so much with his claims of biblical evidence, or with his frequently too broad generalizations, but in trying to make any sense of what appears to be his rather literalistically understood ideas of resurrection, much less, his ideas of reincarnation, in any way that is compatible with the modern scientific theory of evolution. Both these ancient concepts may very well have originated -- as Novak's theory would illustrate -- from the depths of the human mind perplexed by the mystery of death. But I do not believe that reincarnation and resurrection, literally understood, can be completely reconciled nor, even if they could, would prove very convincing to the modern more scientifically-oriented mind. If Tipler's Physics of Immortality drew hoots of derision from his fellow scientists, can we expect a literal representation of reincarnational ideas, no matter how psychologically re-expressed, to fare any better?
Indeed, if we see the human mind and personality as both a function and an expression of our physical existence here and now, then what is there that could be possibly reincarnated that could be called "us" when we came back to life? I suspect that the Buddhists, especially as found in the Theravadin schools, are quite correct on that point -- with their denial of the existence of individual "souls" and "reincarnation" becoming more or less a metaphor for the interconnectedness of life in general and its particular moral consequences. In this respect, Novak's too ready acceptance of the nephesh (though he never refers to this Hebrew term, although he cites quite a few other Hebrew words) as meaning "soul" in the sense that most uncritical bible-readers would take it, is quite misleading. While no doubt some other primitive soul-beliefs were circulating in the ancient mid-east, contemporary biblical scholarship would take us to a position regarding the meaning of this peculiar Hebrew term that is much closer to the Buddhist starting point than most would realize.
On the other hand, even if we try to redefine it, is resurrection belief any more comprehensible today? Literally, it would seem not, other than through the kind of rather dubious cybernetic reductionism found in Tipler's 1995 book. So is Novak's version any more satisfying? If anything, despite his attempt to interpret typical apocalyptic imagery (which like popular writers such as Hal Lindsay he fails to distinguish from more classical biblical prophecy) in very eloquently expressed psychological terms, Novak's often literalistic starting points for his free-wheeling reinterpretations often end up leading him into what seem like even less believable scenarios. For example, his attempt to explain as to how the "souls" of multiple past reincarnations could be all resurrected into a single body runs into the same sort of difficulties as faced by Aquinas and other medieval theologians when faced with the old conundrum about whose body is whose when cannibals rise with all the rest on the judgement day! Would it not simply be easier, and certainly more compatible with -- though admittedly far beyond -- the tenets of biological evolution, to suggest, with St. Paul, that what dies as a physical body somehow rises as a "spiritual" one?
Neverthless, despite what must seem my harsh criticism of this book, I think that where Novak's thesis makes its most valuable contribution is in his psycho-theological interpretation of the radical division between psyche and spirit that exists within us all, and in his expression of faith in the promise of the healing of this division . Equally of value is his insistence that our own personal identity is bound up, even if often very egotistically, with our psyche and all its largely unconscious drives and his recognition that the "spirit", no matter how much it aspires to reach higher levels of consciousness, is ultimately a life-force originating from and ultimately returning to God. Indeed, it is here, in his insistence on this radical division and its existential longing for reunification that Novak may have given Christian theologians a new and powerful insight into both the mystery of death and what "resurrection" might in fact be. And for this Novak deserves our thanks. For if the Resurrection of Christ means anything to today's Christians, would it not be in the faith that the psyche that has taken its own unqiue identity during our brief, never-to-be-repeated, life-span, however flawed as it may have been, will not have been totally lost and that our "spirit" -- our striving, our potential to have become even more than what we were -- will not remain unfulfilled?
Indeed, if this book can teach us anything about recounciling these ancient beliefs, it is that the psychic residue of our short life (surely a bit-part on the stage of space-time) will nevertheless be raised up and "reincarnated", not in some isolated, endlessly repeated individual existence, but instead, as Novak himself suggests, by ultimately being "incorporated" into the full, unbounded life of the risen Christ.
Richard W. Kropf
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