The God Who Weeps: Agency

November 20, 2012 | 9 comments
By

I agree with The God Who Weeps that agency is pivotal, but I disagree about what agency is.

Weeps takes a hard, all-or-nothing line on agency. It argues that “something is free only if it is not caused or created by something else” (803/2408). Freedom is freedom from outside influence.

The confused and cross-pollinated conditions of mortality compromise free will. Here, there are too many competing claims. “In our present, earthly form, we are clearly the product of forces outside our control that influence our personality, inform our character, and shape our wants and desires. And yet, we know we are free. How can this be, unless there is something at the heart of our identity that was not shaped by environment, not inherited from our parents, and not even created by God?” (841/2408) If we are free, then there must be some part of us that is not conditioned by our earthly conditions.

According to Weeps, any freedom that is given is, by definition, unfree. Freedom cannot be given or enabled or inherited or created. A doctrine of co-eternality figures large here as the answer to how we’re free.

If we are free, it must be because we are uncreated, our agency always already given only by ourselves to ourselves. Our ability to act must not be acted upon. Freedom is a form of self-possessed, self-informed, self-determining autonomy.

Along these lines, it follows that we are free in this world only if we freely chose this world. Weeps asks: “If we were simply cast adrift on the shore of this strange world, where is the freedom in that?” (867/2408)  But, “if we were involved in the deliberations that culminated in creating and peopling this world, then we are not passive victims of providence. We would have entered into conditions of this mortal state aware of the harrowing hazards mortality entails.” (879/2408)

You must, of course, decide for yourself, but I find this account of agency unconvincing. In fact, I think it obscures the truth about the kind of thing agency is.

Take, for instance, the claim that our freedom in this conditioned world depends on our having freely chosen those same conditions in a former life. Does this same logic apply to the preexistence itself?

For Weeps, if we were also free in the preexistence, then wouldn’t it have to be the case that either (1) the preexistence did not, itself, impose any unchosen conditions, or (2) we must have freely chosen even those preexistent conditions in a pre-pre-existence?

Option one seems to me to make little sense of the preexistence, but option two doesn’t seem much better. With option two we’ve just pushed the problem back a level and, to be fair, we’d have to pose the same two alternatives again. And again. Until we reached that ur-moment when we didn’t find ourselves already pitched into a world we didn’t choose, conditioned by conditions we didn’t will.

This hiccup in the book’s treatment of agency isn’t decisive, but it is, I think, symptomatic.

I’m inclined to think that our doctrine of co-eternality means just the opposite of what Weeps proposes above. Rather than safely positioning us (and God) beyond the reach of any unchosen conditions, co-eternality guarantees that there is no such unconditioned place.

Co-eternality guarantees that the only thing unconditional is the unconditional imposition of always already existing unchosen conditions. (In fact, I’m inclined to think that this is, at root, the reason why it makes sense for us to claim, as Weeps surely does, that our Mormon God weeps.)

Does this rule out real agency? No. Just the opposite: unchosen conditions are the condition of possibility for any meaningful agency.

The limits that constrain agency enable it. Recall our other Mormon narrative (one that Weeps also draws on) about why mortality is so important. Mortality makes agency meaningful because it limits our knowledge and constrains our agency. “We need the continuing spiritual friction of difficulty, opposition, and hardship, or we will suffer the same stasis as the bee” (1012/2408).

Friction is the thing. I’m empowered to act by the unchosen and unpossessed frictions that compose me and oppose me. Agency isn’t simple and internal, it’s complex and distributed. Agency is niche-dependent. It is a situated gift dependent on context.

Agency isn’t a kind of autonomy, but a peculiar, reflexive, and responsible kind of heteronomy. My freedom is always given and enabled by something other than myself (cf. 2 Nephi 2:26-27).

Agency isn’t possessed but borrowed. It isn’t a freedom from the conditioned world but a freedom for that world given by that world. Our ability to act is always both empowered to act and reciprocally acted upon by that which it acts upon. All active agents are enabled only by their passivity.

“Free” agency is a myth. Freedom is never free. Agency always comes at a cost. And that cost is often paid by others. This is why charity is greatest virtue.

Weeps concedes that, as a matter of fact, agency works this way. Given our mortal conditions, “hardly ever, then, is a choice made with perfect, uncompromised freedom of the will” (1631/2408).

But I would raise the stakes and push this one step farther: never, then, is a choice made with perfect, uncompromised freedom of will. Why? Because a perfect, uncompromised freedom of will is antithetical to the real expression of real agency.

My favorite passage in all of The God Who Weeps (and there are more than a few that I love) has to do with the intersection of agency and atonement. Weeps wants to know how the atonement can intervene in our lives without ruining the law of agency. The passage asks:

The question, however, remains: on what basis can the consequences of our choices be deferred or abated? The law of moral agency, of choice and consequence, does not require that we entirely bear the burden of our own choices made in this life because those choices are always made under circumstances that are less than perfect. Our accountability is thus always partial, incomplete. Into that gap between choice and accountability, the Lord steps. (1501/2408)

Into that gap between choice and accountability, the Lord steps. That gap, the beat of “imperfection,” is what makes room for love. Love is possible because our choices are always made under circumstances that are less than “perfect.”

Weeps qualifies that “always” with an “in this life,” but I don’t think that qualification is necessary.

The borrowed and incomplete character of our agency is not an “imperfection” in the expression of that agency but its condition of possibility. And, moreover, it is the condition of possibility for the fullest possible expression of agency: redeeming love.

“The paradox of Christ’s saving sway is that it operates on the basis of what the world would call weakness” (496/2408).

The paradox of agency is the same.

————————————-

Terryl Givens and Fiona Givens, The God Who Weeps: How Mormonism Makes Sense of Life (Salt Lake City: Ensign Peak, 2012).

9 Responses to The God Who Weeps: Agency

  1. Julia Taylor on November 20, 2012 at 11:19 pm

    Thank you for expressing well what I felt but could not explain.

  2. Kirk Caudle on November 21, 2012 at 8:05 am

    I don’t normally comment on this site, but this post was great Adam. Well done!

  3. Rob on November 21, 2012 at 12:51 pm

    I was left a little confused by the post. Agency is the act and freedom to choose in righteousness. those who choose evil lose that ability- lose their agency.

  4. Carey on November 21, 2012 at 7:50 pm

    Rob now I’m confused. If you can’t freely choose then how can you have agency. If I choose evil can’t I later decide to choose righteousness, and if I choose righteousness can’t I still later choose evil. In fact, I choose those options all the time. I’m still trying to figure this life thing out.

  5. Rob Perkins on November 21, 2012 at 8:33 pm

    I’m not that Rob, but when I had the CES curriculum in front of me while teaching four years ago, it made clear that the concept of agency we were teaching specified a choice between “liberty” or “captivity”, in other words, one is not free unless he exercises agency to select freedom from “the captivity of the devil”. Further, that it is the Atonement itself which makes agency possible, since without it the only course is the aforementioned captivity.

    There was even an entertaining little 10 minute video and accompanying visual aids.

    The freedom to select whether to be an artist or an engineer, or to enjoy Twinkies instead of Ho Hos, or gas vs. electric stoves, or even to have the marketplaces where such choices are extant, has nothing direct to do with this Book of Mormon idea of agency.

    In that sense maybe the discussion in Weeps is a distraction of sorts, addressing the idea of “free will”, which may not be found at all in the Restored Gospel, if agency is not the popularized notion of “free agency” which got all the attention in my own youth.

  6. SteveP on November 21, 2012 at 11:37 pm

    Thanks Adam, you always hit all the right notes. Dennett, in his book ‘Freedom Evolves’ does a nice job of showing that unfettered freedom (unconditioned or unconstrained) devolves into choices just being random.

  7. Rob on November 22, 2012 at 1:42 am

    Agency means “the power of action”. Its the state of acting or of exerting power. In oder to really understand what it is one must understand its opposite- its antonym. We could say that its opposite definition would be the state of not able to exert power or even powerless. Take this word for example- “captive”. Here is its definition-

    “being such involuntarily because of a situation that makes free choice or departure difficult”

    We could thus surmise that a person who is captive does not have the “power of action” or being in a state where they can exert power according to free choice. As we sin, we get encircled about by the chains of hell which captivate and bind us. Satan destroys our agency as we fall captive to temptation and are then led captive to his will and not our own.

  8. Dave White on November 22, 2012 at 11:32 pm

    For several years I’ve worked with autistic teens and watched them struggle so hard just to have the freedom to chose to complete a simple task. The chemistry of their minds and bodies is so mind clouding and variable which robs them of much of their free agency. They long to be free from the internal noise of their body so they could to read a page or write or speak without such horrendous struggles. They are unwilling captives all their lives. Such a discussion as we can have would seem like heaven to them. They don’t need a devil to torment or tempt them as they are already in hell.

  9. Anon on November 23, 2012 at 10:28 pm

    Adam,

    Is it appropriate to refer to a previous existence as pre-existence? Would it not be better to refer to it as pre-earth existence?
    And if I understand D&C 93:30 correctly, then at any point in our existence, wherever God has placed us, we had to act independently (or use agency)in order to fulfil our measure in that existence. That implies acting and being acted upon, and making choices in my mind.
    At the same time, I have to agree that we act in an imperfect environment, in an imperfect way, and have to rely totally on the Atonement in order to progress. I believe that this applies to whatever pre-earth existence we had, also to mortality, and also post mortality beyond the Celestial Kingdom (see D&C 130:10)until we reach the state of being filled with light and know all things (D&C93:28).
    If agency means anything, though, I believe that it requires that we choose the best we know how, even if we make mistakes, and that will be to our benefit, somehow.