Agency and Atonement

June 2, 2010 | 22 comments
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Thanks, Marc for the introduction, and for the opportunity to converse with friends old and new at T & S. Before I annoy (at least some of) you with some political reflections, let me run past you some thoughts on agency and atonement that occurred to me in trying to teach Religion 121 (Book of Mormon Part 1) to BYU students.  I’m not sure I connected with many of themwith these ontological meditations on Second Nephi 2, but I’m hoping somewhere out there in this cyberspace I might find some interested interlocutors. 

As I review the question of agency with reference to 2 Nephi 2, I notice three aspects of a rich and distinctive teaching on agency in the Restored Gospel:

1) agency is redeemed

2) agency is bodily & fruitful

3) agency is a principle of reality

 1) Agency is Redeemed

The Fall is finally good news (22-25) because it opens up the possibility of redemption through the Father’s loving sacrifice of His Son.  The joy that is offered through the Son’s infinite atoning sacrifice is a joy of infinite possibility, the possibility of acting for ourselves and not being acted upon (v. 26) in the meaningful context of eternal life.   In the present mortal probation we exercise our agency most fully by responding to this Sacrifice with our own gift of “a broken heart and contrite spirit” (7), and this free response opens the possibility of freedom on another order:  we are “free to choose liberty and eternal life, through the great Mediator of all men…” (27).  That is, the exercise of agency in offering our broken heart and contrite spirit – in repenting and embracing the Atonement – affords us the possibility of a richer, eternal agency:  in this way we are free1 to choose freedom2 .   This “second order” freedom might be called “redeemed agency.”

 This is why we have a doctrine of a “Fortunate Fall” (compare Milton’s “felix culpa”) in which redemption not just a repair, but a new and richer good.  Thus the atonement is not merely instrumental or extrinsic to the meaning of freedom; the redemption of agency is intrinsic its very meaning, to the choice of “liberty” itself.

 2) Agency is Bodily and Fruitful.

Next I notice that the development or unfolding of our agency is somehow deeply connected with our bodiliness and with the powers of procreation.  Our “innocent” state, prior to the possibilities of joy/misery and good/sin (23), seems to be associated with man’s pre-procreative condition.  “Adam fell that men might be…” (25): The Fall may be seen as a choice to become fruitful and to need redemption.  (See J. Holland, Christ & New Covenant, p. 204).  The eternal meaningfulness of agency seems to be connected at once with its being bought with an infinite sacrifice and with its expression in the generous fecundity of procreation. Thus in Moses 5 Adam, in rejoicing in the redemption, “began to prophesy concerning all the families of the earth,” and declares that “again in the flesh I shall see God.” (10)  And Eve immediately associates the joy of redeemed agency (“we should never have known good and evil, and the joy of our redemption…”) and eternal life with the possibility of having seed. (11)

(Note then in v. 13 that there occurs what might be called a “second Fall,” not apparently a necessary consequence of the first, in which men “loved Satan more than God” and became “carnal, sensual, and devilish.”)

This corporeal quality of agency might be correlated with scriptures in the Doctrine and Covenants that express the eternal significance of our bodiliness: such as: “…spirit and element, inseparably connected, receive a fullness of joy.” – 93:33.

 3) Agency is a Principle of Reality

This is a very striking feature of 2 Nephi 2: Without the plan of salvation, directed as it is towards redeemed agency, everything falls apart – or, in the event, and what comes to the same thing – everything falls together into “a compound in one” in which “all things have vanished away.”  (11-12)  This seems indeed to indicate that agency is not simply a deep principle of human meaning, but is in fact at the heart of reality, of the very possibility of the Being of beings.  The very existence of “things” as distinct and meaningful, the very heterogeneity of existence could not “come to light” and thus could not in fact be except for beings capable of meaningful (thus, redeemed & fruitful) choices.

 Agency thus may be understood as the “wonder that is keeping the stars apart” (a strangely evocative phrase from some e.e. cummings poem),the deep meaning that sustains the very “thinginess” of things that allows them to exist and stand forth or shine.

 It is this third point that offers me a direct point of engagement with the Western philosophical tradition.  For it is clear that every significant philosophical standpoint must articulate some connection between human meaning (“ethics”) and the way things are (“metaphysics,” or “ontology”).  My proposition is that nowhere in the philosophical tradition can we find an adequate account of human agency.  Every philosophy attempts to articulate human meaning within some understanding of a larger reality, but each finally explains it away or otherwise undermines it.  Rather than subjecting human freedom to some prior interpretive scheme, some understanding of being, Redeemed Agency should be considered a guide or a touchstone in seeking philosophical approximations of a truth that will always exceed any philosophical (not to mention scientific) categories.  There is no insight more originary than the meaning performed in accepting and freely responding to the gift of Atonement.

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22 Responses to Agency and Atonement

  1. Mike D. on June 2, 2010 at 10:17 pm

    I lurk here and rarely comment, but I just wanted to throw a welcome to Prof. Hancock. I took Political Science 222 (I could be wrong on the number, but it was the second half of the History of Western Political Thought) and found it thoroughly engaging, and I still remember things I learned in that class almost 15 years later. I look forward to your posts going forward.

  2. Mark D. on June 2, 2010 at 11:57 pm

    I have to say I consider the suggestion of a “fortunate fall” to be one of the most theologically insensible propositions ever conceived. For example, D&C 20:20 states, “But by the transgression of these holy laws man became sensual and devilish, and became fallen man.” There are five comparable passages in the Book of Mormon and the Pearl of Great Price.

    Not only that, the doctrine of divine redemption from the fall is taught in numerous places in the scriptures. The whole purpose of the plan of salvation is to preach repentance so that we can be redeemed from our spiritual fall, which is caused by sin:

    “And they that believe not unto eternal damnation; for they cannot be redeemed from their spiritual fall, because they repent not;” (D&C 29:44)

    Now I grant that it was beneficial for God to grant us sufficient agency so that we had freedom to choose for ourselves, and in a knowing manner. That proposition, however, does not in the least imply that it is fortunate for anyone to sin. And that is what the suggestion of a “fortunate fall” implies – that sin has some sort of “cash value”, that we are better off not for having the freedom to sin, but rather that we are better off for actually sinning.

    And if we were better off for sinning, God would be morally justified in tempting us himself, all the better for us to gain experience. But we know that “God cannot be tempted with evil, neither tempteth he any man”. Nor can he “look upon sin with the least degree of allowance”, let alone smile upon it, which is what the suggestion of a “fortunate fall” implies. And that is why I find the idea entirely untenable, if not repulsive in the extreme.

  3. Stephanie on June 3, 2010 at 1:32 am

    I’m looking forward to being annoyed by political reflections!

  4. Marc Bohn on June 3, 2010 at 6:52 am

    Mark D., in my view you are blurring the spiritual fall that each of us brings upon ourselves with the physical fall that we all inherited from Adam and Eve. The scriptures you quote both deal with the spiritual fall that comes from our own sins, while Ralph is talking about the physical fall that resulted from Eve and Adam’s decision to partake of the fruit.

  5. Mark D. on June 3, 2010 at 10:33 am

    Marc Bohn, That is certainly one way to resolve the difficulty that the account of what occurred in the garden, taken literally, is incomplete and incomprehensible.

    The scriptures are clear that the Fall is a consequence of “transgression of holy laws”. That mankind became “carnal, sensual, and devilish” because of sin. Now if there was some sort of “physical fall” that did not require transgression of those laws for its initiation, surely Adam / Eve / whoever could just pull the lever, without coming under divine condemnation.

    The whole idea of redeeming from the fall only makes sense if the fall is a bad thing, as opposed to some sort of beneficial joy ride. So while it is clear that we have been redeemed from the consequences of the original fall, that does not mean that the original fall was not caused by much the same process as accompanies our later spiritual fall due to sin. Because if it wasn’t, virtually everything said about the original fall is self-contradictory nonsense.

    Virtuous measures are not deserving of divine condemnation, nor can they possibly be considered “transgressions of holy laws”. If anything God should have been cheering them on, if not instructing them to do so, and according to the scriptures that is not what happened.

  6. Adam Greenwood on June 3, 2010 at 10:40 am

    Mark D.,
    Ralph Hancock’s account of the ‘fortunate fall’ is actually pretty sensible. He’s not saying that the fall was itself wholly a good thing, like some of the more cringe-worthy panegyrics to Eve would have you believe. He’s saying that “the Fall is finally good news” precisely because it allows for redemption, and “redemption [is] not just a repair, but a new and richer good.”

    Ralph Hancock,
    the apparent connection between agency and fecundity is very interesting. Perhaps the connection is has something to do with the idea of taking responsibility for one’s offspring and creations.

  7. Dane Laverty on June 3, 2010 at 12:23 pm

    Ralph, I’m glad that you touch on the utter inexplicability of agency. I don’t think we realize how radical it is to claim that we are free agents. There is no model in language or science to explain what that even means. Physically, we have only probabilistic and deterministic models for choice making.

    I also enjoy your statement that “agency is a principle of reality”. I can imagine that being part of the reasoning against Lucifer’s plan — his plan may just not have been an actionable option. If agency is woven into the fabric of intelligence, there may not have been any way around it.

    I don’t see why the Fall has to be either good or bad. I’m finishing up my last semester at school right now, and I’m ready to be done. It’s been good for me to undergo the educational program, but I’m ready to be “redeemed” back into my non-student state.

    Mark D., you express concern with sin being valuable for its own sake. I think the experience of sin is both valuable and necessary, and there’s plenty of scriptural support for a God that tempts His children.

  8. Rob on June 3, 2010 at 1:56 pm

    Ralph, I spent a couple months trying to make sense of 2 Nephi 2 over at Feast Upon the Word and finally gave up. There is something to this connection between creation/fall/agency/redemption that seems to collapse in on itself for me. I still can’t make anything of it. But maybe with more and brighter minds working on this I’ll eventually see what I’m missing here.

  9. Nae Oman on June 3, 2010 at 2:12 pm

    Ralph: Can you flesh out for me why making agency prior to existence is unique. It seems to me that this is something very much like what Kant does with his metaphysics and epistemology. He has the ding-an-sich, but that’s off in the noumenal world where it is more or less meaningless. What we experience, he says, we experience because of our own rationality, a rationality that is structured in part around our freedom. Am I misreading Kant, you, or both?

  10. Dave on June 3, 2010 at 2:27 pm

    I like the discussion in the third section, although I’m not sure I follow Dane’s observation (#7) on “the utter inexplicability of agency.” Agency seems rooted in consciousness and human nature. From an evolutionary perspective, our whole sensory and cognitive apparatus is developed to enhance our survival. Choice is simply a necessary prerequisite for us to be here at all. If there were no choices to be made, there would be no field over which agency and evolution could operate. My sense is that it is human existence that is inexplicable without the existence of choice and agency.

    So thanks for, in a roundabout way, highlighting the connection between agency and evolution.

  11. Marc Bohn on June 3, 2010 at 2:29 pm

    Dane –

    “there’s plenty of scriptural support for a God that tempts His children.”

    A God that tempts his children or a God that allows his children to be tempted?

  12. Dane Laverty on June 3, 2010 at 2:38 pm

    Marc, here are a few examples (I realize that the first is a peculiar type of temptation, the second has a JST that I’m ignoring, and the third has a JST that I’m using. Still I think it’s enough to start a reasonable case for a tempting God.)

    Gen. 22:1 – And it came to pass after these things, that God did tempt Abraham.

    Exo. 7:13 – And he hardened Pharaoh’s heart, that he hearkened not unto them.

    Kings 13:18 – He said unto him, I am a prophet also as thou art; and an angel spake unto me by the word of the Lord, saying, Bring him back with thee into thine house, that he may eat bread and drink water, that I may prove him; and he lied not unto him.

  13. Kaimi on June 3, 2010 at 3:29 pm

    I had a nice chat with a Catholic friend about 2 Nephi 2 a while ago. His response was more or less, “meh. We Catholics thought of felix culpa centuries ago. You Mormons are just a bunch of Johnny-come-latelies.”

  14. Mark D. on June 3, 2010 at 6:05 pm

    Dane L: there’s plenty of scriptural support for a God that tempts His children

    Really? Despite James’ flat out denial? The Hebrew term translated as “tempt” in KJV Gen 22:1 normally means “test” or “prove”. Translating it as “tempt” is clearly questionable here. Most other translations translate it as “test”.

    Ex 7:13 is proto-Calvinism, i.e. where God determines our “free” will. Compare Amos 3:6, where God is held to be the cause of evil.

  15. Dane Laverty on June 3, 2010 at 6:13 pm

    Calling Ex 7:13 proto-Calvinism doesn’t mean that it’s not a viable interpretation of the scripture. We are free to say that the scripture is rendered wrong because it goes against our understanding of the nature of God and the nature of free will, but then we have to take responsibility for that deviation from the scriptures, and we can’t pretend that the scriptures say what we believe they meant to say instead of what they actually say.

  16. Mark D. on June 3, 2010 at 6:16 pm

    Nate O, I don’t think Ralph H. is saying that agency is prior to existence, he appears to be claiming it is prior to being.

    In this case, I think “agency” is the wrong term. What is logically prior to or coincident with being is not “agency” but rather “will”. Nobody has agency in any real sense unless they have a protected realm of discretion.

    It makes no (moral) sense for God to give us our “will”, but it certainly makes sense for God to give and protect our moral agency, or in more conventional terms “liberty plus (moral) responsibility”.

  17. Mark D. on June 3, 2010 at 6:19 pm

    we can’t pretend that the scriptures say what we believe they meant to say instead of what they actually say

    I don’t doubt that is what the author of that passage meant. I just believe that he was wrong, on the grounds that a God who tempted his children and then punished them accordingly would be guilty of the sin of entrapment. And God per force does not commit (substantive) sin. If he did, he would either not be or would cease to be God.

  18. Silas on June 3, 2010 at 10:24 pm

    Is entrapment a sin, a malum prohibitum, or just a really bad Sean Connery movie. I agree with your point re God and substantive sin. Not sure that entrapment qualifies though.

  19. Mark D. on June 3, 2010 at 11:34 pm

    Silas, the general idea with entrapment is to prevent more crime than one causes. Divine temptation, if it all like other temptation, would not have that effect, but would rather tend to increase the amount of sin committed.

    The Apostle John states: “If there come any unto you, and bring not this doctrine, receive him not into your house, neither bid him God speed: For he that biddeth him God speed is partaker of his evil deeds.” (1 John 10:11).

    How much more so a God that entices and persuades people to do evil?

    However, the scripture states, “Whatsoever thing persuadeth men to do evil, and believe not in Christ, and deny him, and serve not God, then ye may know with a perfect knowledge it is of the devil; for after this manner doth the devil work, for he persuadeth no man to do good, no, not one; neither do his angels; neither do they who subject themselves unto him.” (Moroni 7:17)

  20. Geoff-Australia on June 4, 2010 at 2:19 am

    I don’t believe God tempts us or tries us. I believe we are here to prove to him and ourselves that we can keep our second estate ( which I believe entails the full temple covenants. He does not put extra trials or tests in front of us. And many of the rules members place importance on are provided by leaders as ,a one size fits all, help to us to achieve our second estate.

    Most of what we think of as trials, in the church, are the consequences of previous decisions.

    On a practical level; can we exercise our agency without learning decision making skills. Considering the consequences of each alternative both short term, long and eternal, and when we have made the decision and listed the consequences we will not feel that someone(the Lord) is testing us when they come to pass.

    Do we exercise our agency by strict obedience or by choosing which of the programes etc will help us to achieve our eternal goals, rather than trying to perform every requirement whether it will benifit us or not?

    Finally what do we choose as our purpose in life, is it to be totally obedient and face our trials like a man/ woman? Or could we choose to become the kind of person Christ discussed in Matt 5: Loving, kind charitable, joyful, and of course meek?

  21. Editor on June 4, 2010 at 1:18 pm

    Editor’s Note: Ralph Hancock has responded to the questions raised here through a subsequent post.

  22. Amy on June 5, 2010 at 3:05 am

    Is entrapment a sin, a malum prohibitum, or just a really bad Sean Connery movie. I agree with your point re God and substantive sin. Not sure that entrapment qualifies though.