On a Characteristic Failing of Mormon Thought

June 23, 2005 | 20 comments

“Thou Shalt Have No Other Gods Before Me,” Jehovah commands. I suppose that applies to our fetishization of free agency. Fetishizing free agency, and getting twisted up in knots about it, are characteristic failings of Mormon thought. (By Mormon thought I don’t mean scholarly Mormon theology and philosophy, if there is such a thing. I mean something more homespun than that, and I think more important).

I’ve run across a passage in C.S. Lewis’ allegory, Pilgrim’s Regress, that reminded me of it. There is a character called Vertue who discovered the vast importance of being his own master. He is repulsed at the thought of being mastered by his passions and impulses, and led by the nose of his desires, like everyone else. Instead, he determines to be the master of his own fate. He will not take orders, he will not quail, he will not change his mind, he will choose his fate, he will act only through will. He does, and discovers that all his willing is barren. Now that he rejects the call of every passion and every desire, he has nothing to choose for. But if he does accept a passion or a desire, then at worst he is a slave to it, and at best his choices are tainted by the passion or desire. He strikes out furiously at the idea of Heaven and Hell. “Don’t you see? Suppose there is a Heaven and a Hell. How can that give me a motive for going on? Because there is something dreadful behind? That is a threat. I meant to be a free man. I meant to choose things because I chose to choose them–not because I was paid for it. Do you think I am a child to be scared with rods and baited with sugar plums?”
“Vertue,” his companion says, “give in. For once yield to desire. Have done with your choosing. Want something.”
“I cannot,” said Vertue, “I must choose because I choose because I choose: and it goes on forever, and in the whole world I cannot find a reason for rising from the stone.” Yet in the morning, though he has turned sightless in the night, Vertue does rise, and we are given no reason. It is very possible that there is none.

The only solution to Vertue’s dilemma, I think, is to reject his conception of freedom. We don’t always. Not that the error manifests itself in the sorts of existential quandaries that Vertue got mired in. Those are rare. No, the error manifests himself more humbly. In the pursuit of pure, authentic free agency, we resist rules, systems, and incentives that encourage better ways of being and discourage worse. “If folks will only adhere to traditional ideas of marriage if they’re enshrined in law, then they don’t deserve to have them!” We are willing, if pressed, to explain the gospel, but we’re not willing to press it on anyone. That would ruin it. The golden investigator is the only investigator. (For this same complaint from another angle, see here.)

The only thing that gives me pause is that God himself seems to want to drive us to Vertue’s existential state, where we choose because we choose, without motive. Is there another way of understanding the Abrahamic trial? If there is, I don’t know it. Abraham was asked to obey God when his every reason for obeying God–that God was good, that God loved Abraham and wished to bless him, that God was good–had been thrown into doubt by the commandment God gave him. Same with John Taylor when Joseph asked him for his wife. Did God deliberately do this so that they could finally make a free choice, a fully free choice?

Or did He do it so they could finally choose to reject choice, as we purport to do when we marry? Or was it to let them transcend choice, to see if, without will and without reason, they would rise from the stone?


20 Responses to On a Characteristic Failing of Mormon Thought

  1. Diebold on June 23, 2005 at 11:24 am

    I think you go too far to call agency a false god; you do have a point about struggling with our innate desires and giving them up to God.

    You forget the truth of christianity, however, that to put others before ourselves, we gain understanding of who we are. We gain understanding because we must know our strengths in order to help someone who desperately needs us.

  2. john fowles on June 23, 2005 at 11:24 am

    Vertue is grappling with Kantian ideas of morality. In that system, the most moral person possible is the person who has every reason to kill him or herself but does not do it based on the demands of the categorical imperative. It is, therefore, the person who chooses to perform their duty without any regard to inclination. It was Kant who was hung up on the idea that if a deed was done with the expectation of any gratification of any inclination whatsoever, then that lowered the moral value of the act done, the choice made. Friedrich Schiller, a disciple of Kant, was repulsed by this aspect of Kantian thought and tried to rid it of such stricture with his conception of the schöne Seele idea. Schiller was essentially saying to Kant, “can’t I do my duty but love doing it?” For Schiller inclination could indeed be behind the fulfillment of moral duty; that is, one could relish the fact that one has done right, feel good about it, love doing it, and in so doing would be a much richer and better person. The beautiful soul, for Schiller, was someone who fulfilled their Kantian duty out of their own free will and choice, but not inhibited the question of whether it also benefited them or not (the latter being the only way for the choice to be truly moral for Kant). The most moral person was someone who had honed their choices and desires to the point that every action done was, by nature, a moral act that did not transgress any moral law. It was a state of being where the moral law has been internalized such that the actor will simply never act against it, based on that actor’s own free choice. Conscious free choice has become subconscious and a concern of the past. It is a godlike state of being which, Schiller hoped, each individual would see the value in striving for, in becoming a beautiful soul.

  3. Jack on June 23, 2005 at 1:11 pm

    I suppose moral agency can become an idol if we use it to justify our disobedience to God–that we have some kind of “right” of sorts to do according to our own desires. But I think that misses the point. Moral agency isn’t so much a garanteed right as it is simply a facet of who we are because of the way God has designed our existence. It is impossible (in this sphere at least) NOT to have moral agency, otherwise God would cease to be God, as per 2 Ne ch 2. Without it we don’t have the capacity to sincerely embrace the things of God. And to sincerely embrace the things of God is to love them. And I think we know, because of the Book of Mormon, that we will be judged by what we love (our desires). Therefore, moral agency makes true worship AND idolatry possible. IMO you can’t really love moral agency per se. I think, when we cling to agency in the way that Adam has described, what we’re really doing is worshiping ourselves, or clinging to our own identity–or what we would like to think is our own identity.

  4. lyle stamps on June 23, 2005 at 1:56 pm

    Adam: I really don’t get it. The scriptures talk about the Spirit (and the Enemy) having the power to tempt/suggest to us different paths. And yes, institutions and traditions do shape the context in which decisions are made. However, what is wrong with wanting to be an individual making a choice?

    Jack: Agency isn’t innate in the way God designed existence. Agency is innate in who you are. What is an intelligence if not an agent who can exercise that agency? Then again, maybe this is my false god.

  5. Jack on June 23, 2005 at 2:05 pm


    You may be right, but on the other hand Adam and Eve had no comprehension of good or evil until they were placed in a context where they could learn how to distinguish between the two thereby inciting a moral agency of sorts. Now where/when that experience actually took place I cannot exactly say.

  6. lyle stamps on June 23, 2005 at 2:37 pm

    Jack: Hm. It is a poser. The scriptures are replete with statements that God “gave” man his agency. My explanation is that the giving of agency is in the context in which it takes place, as you suggest. Agency without options/choices is very hollow indeed.

  7. Shawn Bailey on June 23, 2005 at 2:52 pm

    It seems that there are two parallel things being said between Adam’s post and John’s comment:

    (1) That a moral agent in a vacuum is an absurd concept—that moral action consists of directing passions and choosing between available paths*—not creation ex nihilo.
    (2) That a moral action is no less moral because it is influenced by incentives.

    Although these two things are slightly different, I discern in them an interesting common thread: seeking to free oneself entirely from one’s own passions, available paths, and the influence of incentives look like ways of disembodying oneself as a moral agent. This is interesting to me because I take it that the emodiment of moral agents is something that Lucifer most despises—most seeks to undo or neutralize. Furthermore, it is interesting that the appeal of this disembodiment seems to be the promise of things like power, independence, self-sufficiency, and so on. All good things—things that, I believe, one must get from God to keep.

    People who never submit their will to God’s enjoy a measure of power, independence, and self-sufficiency. They can say both that no one ever told them what to do and that they never asked for anything from anyone. And, I believe, when it is all over they have their reward: the ability to say these things for eternity. Thus, perhaps an antidote to the problem Adam sees—in addition to thinking the issue through and acknowledging to oneself that agency is contingent on passions, paths, and incentives—is to simply bear in mind the weight of responsibility that comes with agency. The thought “don’t screw it up” certainly deflates any arrogance I might accumulate from time to time about my independence as a moral agent.

    * It is interesting to note that while human passions are probably universal (even if they vary in degree from person to person), the paths available to each vary dramatically. Doesn’t this constrain agency concieved in the way Adam criticizes? Are only the most wealthy, healthy, brilliant, and attractive are truly free?

  8. Shawn Bailey on June 23, 2005 at 2:54 pm

    Another note: this thread struck me as interesting in light of some reading I have done recently: Flannery O’Connor’s novels, Wise Blood and The Violent Bear It Away. At the risk of being horribly reductive (there is much more to these than I can really spell out in a slapdash comment like this) both books portray the futility of attempting to render oneself independent from God. Definitely worth checking out.

  9. Daylan Darby on June 23, 2005 at 7:37 pm

    As we give our agency to God’s will we become more like him. If this is true then how much ‘variance’ is there in Godhood? How identical are the Gods?

  10. Shawn Bailey on June 23, 2005 at 10:02 pm

    I do think the Gods must be completely identical in the way that we think of identity. Same purpose. Same limitless power. Same “perfect” immortal bodies. Same white robes. And so on. Anyway, Isn’t our notion of individuality determined by the fact of individual incompleteness and limitation? What is the use of such a concept to Gods who are in a sense complete and unlimited?

    Perhaps Gods remain distinct from each other only to the extent that they have different memories of their distinct identities and experiences in mortality. I also have a vague notion that the Gods may be distinct from each other in ways we cannot possibly understand.

  11. Kelly on June 26, 2005 at 9:33 pm


    Quite frankly, I don’t follow your argument. It seems to be this, however: If we exercise our agency and choose to follow God, we are indeed giving up our agency.

    I find that comment somewhat odd. We have all heard that if we want to become like someone, we would do best to immulate him or her. Are we then giving up our agency? Or are we exercising our agency? If we want to become like God, is it not best to do as He does, to think as He thinks, to conform our will to His? If I choose to do so of my own free will, am I not exercising my agency in an effort to become someone better than I could possibly be following my own imperfect path?

  12. a random John on June 27, 2005 at 4:57 pm

    This concept of perfection implying sameness keeps coming up. Shawn will you and your wife be the same in every way, assuming you are both exalted?

  13. Shawn Bailey on June 28, 2005 at 10:32 am

    John: I do think there are ways in which “the Gods” will be different. Above I speculated that different memories of mortality as well as differences that we could not now possibly understand may make the Gods distinct from one another.

    I agree with you that Gender will be a difference between the Gods. See Proclamation on the Family (“All human beings—male and female—are created in the image of God. Each is a beloved spirit son or daughter of heavenly parents, and, as such, each has a divine nature and destiny. Gender is an essential characteristic of individual premortal, mortal, and eternal identity and purpose.”)

    Also, although it is not clear to me whether this is a permanent situation, it appears that there may be different degrees of development among exalted beings. See D&C 130:18-19 (“Whatever principle of intelligence we attain unto in this life, it will rise with us in the resurrection. And if a person gains more knowledge and intelligence in this life through his diligence and obedience than another, he will have so much the advantage in the world to come.”)

    These (and potentially other) differences aside, it is interesting to note that becoming perfect and complete — obtaining unity with God — means becoming the same as God and other exalted beings in many ways.

  14. Todd Hopkinson on June 28, 2005 at 6:41 pm

    The failing of Mormon thought is no different that the failings of any man’s thoughts. It is the vain reliance on one’s own intellect over the plain and simple precepts taught by the Lord’s annointed. It is the desire for sophistry and hidden meaning where there would otherwise be found clarity and simple truths.

    The sophistries of man feed his vanity. The vanity of man corrupts his perception. The perception of man influences his choices. The choice between wrong and right is hardest for him who fails any longer to recognize the difference between right and wrong.

    Frankly, the confusion on this topic is indicative of the failings of mormon thought. The plain and simple answers are found in the scriptures. This blog seems to be a diversion.

  15. Jack on June 28, 2005 at 7:28 pm


    The gospel is simple, but not simplistic. Our perceptions may be corrupted by any number of things, not just our vanity–and I agree that vanity” choketh the word”. But, lets make a little room for the traditions of our fathers, shall we? Or the scales before our eyes that we inherit along with the coarseness of the flesh.

  16. JKS on June 28, 2005 at 8:38 pm

    If we exercise our agency and choose to follow God, we don’t give up our agency. Just like our marriage. Marriage does require continual choice. I choose to have a happy marriage over and over again every day. Someone can easily stop “choosing their spouse” or “choosing to follow God.”

  17. Kingsley on June 28, 2005 at 11:53 pm


    A diversion from what? Reading the scriptures?

    If the scriptures are so exceedingly plain and simple they exclude the need for discussion, exploration, and so forth (as you seem to claim, especially in your sniffy dismissal of the current thread), why must we read them so often? Why must I, e.g., go back to D&C 88 or Moses 7 or Abraham 1 again and again and again — and why do I find new things in them each time, added layers of complexity, deeper levels of profundity? Why, if the scriptures have the sort of ABC clarity that you suggest, do we misunderstand them so often? Why do we need official interpreters — i.e. the prophets — and why do the interpreters themselves disagree now and then (to put it lightly)?

    I suggest that your ideas on the failings of Mormon thought are themselves a little simple.

    Take a look at the history of the JST and you realize that Joyce and Proust have nothing on the Old and New Testaments as far as ambiguity, subtlety, and sheer artistry and poetry go. Borges’s labyrinths are nothing as compared to the million passages and doorways of the Book of Mormon.

    Thank God for the possibility of conversation with sincere, intelligent, well-meaning Saints. Thank God for agreement and disagreement, point and counterpoint. Faith, hope, and charity, after all, may be exceedingly plain and simple precepts — but I botch them all the time.

    Also, please give me a few pointers on how to stifle my vanity long enough to make Paul and Isaiah as easy as 123.

  18. Shawn Bailey on June 29, 2005 at 10:48 am

    I may agree with you up to a point: by the light of Christ each of us has a sense of right and wrong by which, sans intellectual gymnastics, each of us can usually choose the right. Moreover, I think that every person can and should understand and enact the first principles and ordinances of the gospel in a simple and humble manner. I certainly hope no blog distracts people from doing so.

    However, you seem to discount the value of further light and knowledge regarding God and His creations both for its own sake and as a source of motivation to continue to choose the right—to continually enact the first principles and ordinances of the gospel.

    To adapt an argument of CS Lewis, Mormons will read the scriptures, and Mormons will have literature and philosophy. The question is whether Mormons will understand well their own scriptures—and whether Mormons will understand well and contribute to literature and philosophy.

    Particular individuals may be able to avoid intellectual work and still be saved, but I do not believe we can afford to have a mass allergic reaction to complexity.

  19. Todd Hopkinson on June 29, 2005 at 11:41 am

    Having literature is one thing. Having philosophy another. Both highly important in their own right – depending on the philosophies and the literature, and their harmony with truth. However that is not the same as mingling the philosophies of man with scripture and muddling the clarity of the gospel up with unneccassary sophistries.

    How much has history show that even when light and knowledge was freely available to people, time and time again, they reject the prophets because of pride and vain imaginations and follow their own learning and wisdom…eventually to their own end? Too often it is not the complexity of the gospel for which people miss the mark, but the plainness of the way.

    There are mysteries. There is deepness. But there is also a human and historical tendancy to miss the mark by habitually taking up sophistry and philosophies in contradistinction to the plain and precious knowledge that comes from the right approach.

    Nephi reminded his brothers who were confused and disputing about their own father’s words, of the Lord’s directive regarding things they wanted to understand better, “If ye will not harden your hearts, and ask me in faith, believing that ye shall receive, with diligence in keeping my commandments, surely these things shall be made known unto you”.

    Discuss what you want here. I’m simply observing a trend on this board regarding unneccessarily complicating things more than they are, that is as much a failing of mormon thought as anything.

  20. Adam Greenwood on December 11, 2008 at 11:56 am

    Shawn Bailey has said some things very worth thinking about. Thanks. Better late than never.


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