“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?