Question: You mentioned that the books in the Spiritist Codification were written at a time very different from ours and that, to better understand them, we also had to understand the times in which they came. I wonder if it would not be better for us to have a “second edition” of these books… What do you think?
~ Denise, Joanna de Angelis Spiritist Society (JASS) in the Bay Area.
I am always fascinated by how The Spirits’ Book and the other four books in the Spiritist codification came to be – and how a better understanding of the historical, social, and scientific context of the times in which they were conceived and published help us grasp the magnitude of the great spiritual teachings we find therein. Whenever I talk about the topic, I often get the question of whether the Spiritist codification should be updated to better reflect our times. Should it? Should we update the codification to make it easier to understand? Perhaps go for a “second edition”?
That is indeed a great question – and a somewhat complex one. My perspective on this may also sound complex at first, but it is in fact simple: no, we should not try to produce a new, updated version of the codification – exactly because we are already doing something better on a daily basis: we are constantly adding to it. Although my take on it may seem paradoxical at first, allow me to explain it a little further in as few words as I can muster.
To better understand the question at hand, it may prove worthwhile for us to spend some time considering the underlying assumptions the question brings with it – because every question comes with its own set of key concepts and ideas embedded within. If we are able to comprehend them, we are more likely to address the actual question by getting to the heart of the matter, if you will; by taking time to consider the thinking process and the assumptions present in the questioner’s mind, our chances or providing a more meaningful answer are greatly improved – and that is the goal here: not just to provide an answer, but to offer a useful one.
Let us bring forth the assumptions behind the question, then. First, we recognize that whoever asks this question genuinely wants to have access to the wisdom found in the foundational Spiritist books – which is commendable not because it is the Spiritist codification, but because such attitude should be valued in any field of knowledge. The second inherent assumption implied in the question is that the contents of Spirit codification are perhaps dated and could use some refreshing. After all, why else would we update the codification? The third, and perhaps the most important assumption, is that we all would like to have the world made easier for us. If we can, why not create a new improved version so we may have less work trying to understand it?
Let us try to unravel these assumptions, one at a time, to provide a useful perspective to those who may harbor the same questions…
First assumption: the desire to know more.
There is not perhaps much more to add to the first inherent assumption. Wanting to know more, to better comprehend the world around us is a natural human tendency – and one that should always be praised and encouraged. As the “intelligent principle of the universe”, (The Spirits’ Book, q. 23) we, Spirits, are bound to use our intelligence, our curiosity, for our development and the improvement of all creation. It is, so to say, in our “spiritual DNA”. It is, indeed, how humanity has evolved through the times and why our society enjoys all the modern comforts of today. Plainly put, it is the natural course of things. In that sense, we are glad the question is actually coming up; we should welcome it.
Second assumption: the relevance of the codification to our modern daily lives.
The second implied assumption in the question, regarding the current relevance of the Spiritist codification books to our lives and times, is a far more complex one. Relevance is key – because if Spiritism is not relevant to us, to our daily lives, then there is very little point to it at all. After all, why would we want to learn more about Spiritism and engage with it if were not relevant to us? Spiritism would then not fulfil the role of the “promised comforter” (John 14:16-17) we sometimes talk about, but would serve as a mere curiosity.
To be more precise, this relevance issue can be further broken down into two separate aspects: the relevance of the teachings themselves and the relevance of the communication style used by Kardec in the books to transmit these teachings. Either one could warrant, one could argue, a modification or “update” to the books on the Spiritist Codification.
Relevance of the teachings.
First, onto the relevance of the teachings: it seems Spiritism continues to be relevant to adepts and sympathizers throughout the world because it continues to grow. We see more and more people, every day, become interested in Kardec’s books and those that followed suit. Clearly, these people are seeing a value in investing their time to learn more about Spiritism: they find it relevant and worthwhile. Likewise, we see more and more Spiritist “content” (books, videos, articles, etc.) produced every day as well – and being well received by the interested community at-large. Likewise, their authors also find value in producing such content. In short, the growth in the number of people interested in Spiritism and in the quantity of Spiritist content produce over the years are a good indication Spiritism is relevant. Conversely, if sympathizers and followers did not find it meaningful anymore, they would simply move on to a different philosophy to satisfy their needs; if the community at‑large also felt that way, we would see a reduction in the quantity of new content being produced throughout the world as well. Such is not the case. In fact, one could go further and venture that Spiritism is poised to continue to be relevant to our day-to-day lives in the future because it does an exceptional job at explaining a myriad of spirit phenomena very few philosophies, religions, or sciences can comprehend today. (Interestingly, one could submit that Spiritism validates and complements other religions exactly because of that – but that is perhaps a topic for another time.) Because these phenomena, being natural and constant in nature, will not cease, the relevance of Spiritism will likewise also not diminish.
Relevance of Kardec’s communication style.
The second issue of relevance, that of the communication style employed by Kardec when writing the books in the second half of the 19th century, is also an important one. Although Kardec was an established educator and author skilled at getting his point across to diverse audiences, one can see why some would argue nowadays his books warrant a “re‑do”. Kardec wrote in the language of his time which, naturally, may feel a little different than the more colloquial language we speak today. Add to that the longer sentence structure of the French language when compared to English, and we arrive at a set of books which today may feel more formal than we are accustomed to. For some, this may understandably prove to be a barrier. This, in my view, would be the strongest argument in favor of “revising” the codification: updating the language to make it more accessible to all.
Following that line of thinking, let us for a second pursue the option of “modernizing” the codification to consider its implications and possible unintended consequences – which, I hope, you will find the prudent thing to do before actually embarking on a re-do of Kardec’s works. If we were to update the language in Kardec’s books to make them more accessible to today’s readers, what would some of the challenges and consequences be? The first hurdle we may run into is deciding who should be the one to do it: would the “editor” be credible enough, knowledgeable enough to earn our trust as Kardec has? Could we agree on someone to lead that charge? As we do not have the author himself (Kardec) at hand for the task, we would need someone as knowledgeable as Kardec to ensure we do not end up modifying or limiting the original meaning when changing the language he used to describe the concepts we brought forth. In a way, these challenges are analogous to the challenges translators face everyday – and I am yet to meet a translator or interpreter who believes their work has surpassed or even equaled the original. As the saying goes, there’s always something lost in translation.
Still, if we wished to persist on this line of thinking, we could take a step further and try a group approach to minimize individual mistakes and shortcomings; having multiple people working at it could help balance out any individual shortcomings in editing Kardec’s work. Yet, we would run onto the same issues as before: would we agree on committee’s make up? Would they have the necessarily skills and qualifications? Regardless of whether we chose one or many editors for the task, we may end up hurting Spiritism more than helping it.
This very issue of modernizing the language of older texts has surfaced before outside the Spiritist context – and we may benefit from investigating it. To make a parallel to the literary world, look no further than to Shakespeare’s works. Although Shakespearean English is far more distant to modern English than Kardec’s language is to that of our times, scholars shy away from re-interpreting the great Bard into modern language for fear of losing the subtleties and depth of his work – and Shakespeare’s work is far older and more cryptic. Instead, scholars prefer to teach the original, helping students of all ages understand the language so they can experience the works first‑hand themselves. Why should we do any different? In essence, by attempting to make Kardec’s style more adequate to our modern times, we could be “downgrading” the quality of Spiritism’s message and consequently, its usefulness to us. A far more constructive approach would be to empower readers to make sense of the language, thus giving them access to the content while giving them new linguistic knowledge as well.
Further, here is another idea to consider: why haven’t the good spirits themselves nudged us to start this project if there were a real need for it? After all, according to Spiritism, it is they who truly guide the work and bring us all this great knowledge (The Spirits’ Book, q. 459). They are the authors of the original books; Kardec was merely the editor – hence the title, “The Spirits’ Book” as opposed to “Kardec’s Book”; hence why Kardec saw fit to use the term “Spiritism” (and why we should shy away from using the term “Kardecism” – another topic for another time). Simply put: Kardec played a major role, but the work was truly done by the enlightened spirits who took part in the Spiritist Codification. Thus, if the guides of humanity felt a need to substantially alter the language in the books they previously published, chances are they would have already manifested themselves in numbers to express their desire (see Kardec’s “Universal Control of the Spirits” on The Spiritist Review of April 1864). The fact they have not speaks loudly to the idea that we may not need a language revision. Sometimes, the silence on some issues is pretty telling.
Additionally, even if we ignored these arguments and produced a new version of the codification anyways with a communication style more in-tune to the contemporary world, another issue would present itself in time: how often should we carry out these reviews/re-evaluations/re-edits? Should a new rewrite take place every 100 years? Every 150 years? How should we determine it? Again we would fall back into the two challenges we raised earlier: we would have to make sure we found adequate, credible editors for every revision performed, ignore the input of the good Spirits themselves, and hope our efforts do more good than harm. Even if you do not agree with the second argument regarding the silence of the good spirits on the topic, you may still agree on how difficult it would be to review or re-write the codification on an ongoing basis. Over time, that would pose an even greater challenge to maintaining quality, as we would end up with a re‑interpretation of a re-interpretation of the interpretation of the original. Any of us who have played the children’s game of “telephone” knows very well how this ends: a very different message at the end than the one we started with. Perhaps a re-write to improve Kardec’s 19th-century communication style may not be the best course of action for us, then; perhaps the search for the context with which Kardec wrote may best suit us if we want to drink straight from the “living fountain” (John 4:1-15) the good spirits have afforded us.
Third assumption: why not make things easier for us by simplifying things?
The third and final assumption contained in the question of whether we should produce a rewrite of the Spiritist codification is perhaps the most delicate and difficult to face head-on. It is so because it necessarily makes us take a hard look at ourselves to see whether our desire to simplify things, to have less work, and to employ less effort onto a task is born out of an aspiration for greater efficiency or out of the self‑centered desire to simply have things handed to us so we do not need to dedicate to them the time they may require. The first is admirable: the desire to make things better for all. The second is self-serving and questionable: the wish to have others do all or most of the work that should fall on us so we can reap the benefits of it. Only those asking the question can fully ascertain what they intended. Nevertheless, we can all profit from reflecting as to where we individually fall on this spectrum because sometimes the answer is not as obvious, requiring us to dig deeper into our subconscious through reflection and meditation before arriving at a final answer.
The heart of the matter, though, is that every worthy endeavor requires a certain amount of effort.
The heart of the matter, though, is that every worthy endeavor requires a certain amount of effort. Those who truly wish to understand Spiritism and the liberating spiritual wisdom it unveils must necessarily put a good deal of effort into it – like anything else in life. It would be unrealistic to expect that all the details of such a vast and transformative body of knowledge could be made so simple that it would take only a matter of hours to master it. Much the same way we do not expect to learn the whole of physics, mathematics, psychology, or literature in mere minutes, why would we expect to do so with Spiritism? Were it possible, Spiritism would be shallow, not rich, and multi-faceted as it is, often bridging these different fields of studies to present a more holistic picture of the cosmos. In fact, distilling the whole Spiritist body of knowledge down to just simple tidbits of content would go against one of the teachings we see highlighted in chapter 6, item 5 of The Gospel as Explained by Spiritism: love one another and educate yourselves. Learning is a central aspect of Spiritism: it is ongoing, never-ending, and a necessary component of our spiritual evolution. Without it, we simply cannot improve (The Spirits’Book, q. 780). As such, effort must always be applied to learning – which is perhaps the most difficult aspect of Spiritism because it requires dedication, discipline, and persistence. Therefore, we must be careful and honest with ourselves when we face this third assumption and assess whether our desire to change the Spiritist codification comes from the aspiration to improve on what we already have or from the desire to have others do the work that is incumbent upon us.
In the question of whether a modernized version of the Spiritist codification would help new and existing sympathizers better understand the beauty of the spiritual messages Spiritism has come to revive, it is important for us to consider three underlying assumptions implicit in the question itself as well as to entertain a couple of other worthwhile considerations. First, we should celebrate the desire for growth and intellectual curiosity on the part of those who ask it. Second, we should consider that the content brought forth by the good spirits or the communication style employed by Kardec do not really merit revision – or the good spirits themselves would have more broadly spoken to the matter. Instead, we should strive to grow in understanding to better comprehend it. In addition, the challenges of revising the work would certainly outweigh any advantages, as we would struggle with finding adequate editors and “translators” to carry out the task while also risking changing the meaning of the original content we would be modernizing. Third, we must ask ourselves whether the desire to update the codification is ultimately not a reflection of our inability to change ourselves and devote more time and effort to the proper study of Spiritism. There are no shortcuts to evolution; learning comes through our own doing – and not that of others.
Should Spiritism never be changed?
Does that mean the Spiritist codification should never be changed? Are we arguing here that Spiritism should remain unchanged throughout the ages? No – I would argue that Spiritism is actually changed every day, but not in the way we normally think of or in the manner proposed by our initial question.
The Spiritist codification is changed every day through the hundreds or thousands of supporting books that have been published ever since The Spirits’ Book was first printed in 1857. Every time we read one of these ancillary books and better understand an aspect of Spiritism, we are, in essence, changing how we understand the codification. The codification itself has not changed – only our understanding of it. Many of us have already had this experience: we read something new or listen to someone speak about a specific topic, and a fresh perspective comes to us, making us change our previous understanding of that subject.
When we do that, when we seek out new knowledge through either reflection or interaction, we expand our awareness and, ultimately, our understanding of the world around us. So, the proposal we put forth is one of growth rather than restriction: instead of trying to narrow or limit the content of the Spiritist codification (which happens when you define or try to redefine something) or Kardec’s language, let us grow our understanding of it – and of the world around us –, so we can better interpret and understand the work. Let us add, not subtract; let us learn more, read more books, talk more about Spiritism and our world – the way Kardec and the enlightened spirits intended. Spiritism is a progressive body of knowledge, to which depth and breadth are constantly added via the new materials that are produced every single day throughout the world. If Spiritism started with the five books published by Kardec in 19th century Paris, it was never meant to stop there – or possibly stop altogether. All these new works add incredible girth to the codification, contributing to the growth of Spiritism and those who engage with it.
In that sense, Spiritism is always changing, adapting, and growing, although its base remains the same to this day. Should we change it? Yes, always – in two ways: by adding to its vast body of knowledge as our understanding advances with time and when we are faced with new scientific facts that irrefutably contradict its teachings. However, we should shy away from attempting to change it because we ourselves do not want to change; much the same way Spiritism has stretched our understanding of life and the world we live in, it is time for us to take it upon ourselves to stretch and grow our selves into new levels of spiritual awareness and practice. And it all starts here and now, through our own effort.