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.
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).