The Adversary, Reciprocity, and the Atonement: Part 2A, The Role of Agency

First, I must apologize for the long delay between the first and second installments of this series. I got busy and lazy simultaneously (a rather easy thing to accomplish, really) and I was stalling for time as my thoughts coalesced. Here’s hoping what we got was distilled rather than excreted.

In the first installment, we surveyed the information that we have regarding the nature of Satan’s plan. There are two points on which all theories regarding the plan of the Adversary must agree as they are repeated within the Heavenly Council pericope. Satan wished to moved against agency and that he wanted something that is variously called, power, glory, and honor that our Father in Heaven had and that he did not. The degree to which agency would be destroyed was debated in the ensuing discussion. It was a good discussion and you should check it out. I just want to add that I do think that theories involving the removal of consequences for acts (the removal of punishment or law) are actually attacks on agency itself (as, if we cannot distinguish between two choices, we cannot consciously choose).

So, agency gives us the option of choosing. But who or what do we choose? That’s the question, isn’t it.

Why Free Agency is a crock

First of all, let me explain my sub-title. I don’t mean free agency here in the way that most people seem to mean it. For instance, there is the oft repeated phrase “free agency isn’t free”. I don’t really know what that is supposed to mean. Is it saying that our agency was bought for us? Does it mean that there are consequences to our choices? The second is how it is usually used, but the first seems to better capture what it means. I am curious about this meaning.

When I think of free agency, I think of sports (really, who doesn’t?). In most of the major sports venues in America, free agency was something fought for in the various labor disputes and lawsuits that have cropped up over the years. The definition of free agency in those venues seems to be “being able to operate from a position where you have no official affliation with a given organization.” When a free agent in sports is negotiating with teams, there is no need to compensate anyone aside from the player. Limited free agents are negotiated with, but you must also offer compensation to the team with which they have a current contract. Often, one cannot negotiate with a player under contract at all.

The plus in this situation to the player is that he can talk directly with any other team and negotiate the terms of his contract directly. The minus is that they have no protection should something bad happen to them during a period of acontractual status. These are the means that I am using to describe free agency in a gospel (and, in this case, negative) sense.

Free Agency in the gospel sense simply doesn’t work this way. At no time are we a free agent (ie. unaffiliated with a given team). Rather, we should understand that what we are choosing is the absence or presence of a certain contractual obligation. The presence of the contract asserts affiliation with God. The absence implies affiliation with the only other option. There is no place of neutrality and there is no place where we solely represent our own interests.

So, if our agency isn’t free, what is it?

Agency appears to be useful then for deciding to either follow God or the Devil and that’s about it. A corrolary of this is that you are either following God or following the Devil. There is no possibility of a theologically neutral act. Is this too much? Is the choice to brush our teeth, for instance, an ethically or theologically significant choice? Well, perhaps a better question is to ask if we are being agents when we brush our teeth? Is brushing our teeth something that we choose or is it something that we do automatically? If it is something that we choose, why do we choose it? Why are we concerned with the status of the cleanliness of our teeth? Are we concerned with what others think of us? Are we concerned with what we think of ourselves? Is maintaining minty-freah breath and adequately white teeth a service to those with whom we interact? If you aren’t concerned with the feelings or thoughts of the person you are kissing, would the status of your teeth register on your radar?

Most of the above is rhetorical (but please, feel free to answer). The point being that any choice consciously made does have some theological meaning behind it. Paper or plastic; chicken or egg; all of these choices mean something to us and, therefore, have meaning for God and the Devil. I am not advocating paper as God’s own grocery choice here, but rather I am saying that how you choose and what you think about that choice determines who you serve with it.

Let me explain it with a choice bit of dialog from one of my favorite movies, Joe versus the Volcano:

Marshall: They just pay me to drive the limo, sir. I’m not here to tell you who you are.
Joe Banks: I didn’t ask you to tell me who I am.
Marshall: You were hinting around about clothes. That happens to be a very important topic to me, sir. Clothes, Mr…
Joe Banks: Banks.
Marshall: Banks. Clothes make the man. I believe that. You say to me you want to go shopping, you want to buy clothes, but you don’t know what kind. You leave that hanging in the air, like I’m going to fill in the blank, that to me is like asking me who you are, and I don’t know who you are, I don’t want to know. It’s taken me my whole life to find out who I am, and I’m tired now, you hear what I’m saying?

I didn’t use to think that this was all that deep, until I considered that I never dressed well when I was depressed and that I did feel a little more intelligent and erudite back when I had a beard. How we dress is a reflection, not of who we are, but rather of who we think we are. The sweats or the tux are symbolic of possible lives and possible choices made available in periods when they are worn. Our choices regarding who we think we are always have deep moral significance. Our use of agency is the opportunity to act in a manner that reflects who we think we are or should be.

However, this would seem to make agency simply a matter of appearances. This does not appear to actually be the case. More on this in 2B…

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  • J. Watkins

    distilled rather than excreted

    What a beautiful turn of phrase! So visual!

    There is no place of neutrality and there is no place where we solely represent our own interests.

    What a jerk Satan is for taking “serving our own interests” as his default position. (I mean after the whole war in heaven thing failed) I mean, really!

    I did feel a little more intelligent and erudite back when I had a beard

    I’m feelin’ ya all the way on this one man. It was like Brigham with the beard and Brigham without. Bearded all the way. 🙂

    Ok, but seriously, I’ve given this exact argument a lot of thought (only substitute teeth-brushing or clothing for breakfast cereal). My initial conclusion was that there are choices that don’t matter, like regular Total or Total with strawberries. But then I never had the thought that you just expressed either.

    Our choices regarding who we think we are always have deep moral significance. Our use of agency is the opportunity to act in a manner that reflects who we think we are or should be.

    This is a very profound statement that my initial reaction to is very positive. It seems to fit very well with the statement that everything is spiritual to the Lord, nothing is just temporal. And that word, temporal, is exactly what you’ve honed in on. What could be more temporal than chosing what pants to wear or what cereal to eat? Yet, these things would seem to have some meaning to God, even if its overall value is significantly less than deciding to be baptised and the like.

    I can’t say that I’m all the way convinced yet but I will say that something here rings true to me.

  • J. Watkins

    Oh, and by the way. Chris may be listed as the philosopher of the group, but I know better. How long is it going to take for you to come out of the closet HP? Hmmm?

  • Chris H.

    I actually think that HP was smarter (and better looking) when he had a beard.

    HP is not a philosopher. He is more like Hugh Nibley: an all around genius.

    As for free agency, I am now a bit confused (what else is new). However, I think that the terminology is confusing. Free agency has nothing to do with cost. The cliche “free agency is not free” is one of the most idiotic things said at Church (an that says quite a bit). “Free” here means free to act, not without cost. One member of my ward likes to argue on a regular basis that it should be called moral agency rather than free agency. Yet, when viewed through a philosophical lens these terms are not any different. It seems that if we argue that people are free to choose, we must be arguing that all choices are valid. Of course this is not the case.

    HP is correct when he says that “Our choices regarding who we think we are always have deep moral significance. Our use of agency is the opportunity to act in a manner that reflects who we think we are or should be.” I think that the gospel (though maybe not always the church or Mormon culture) encourages the development of Kantian individualism on many issues and levels. Free agency is not a crock, it is just misunderstood. It is particularly misunderstood by conservatives who are far more interested in tradition and convention than freedom and liberty.

  • Jason

    So it seems that God won’t be so much concerned about the what that we did, but the why behind what we did.

  • HP

    I suppose the crux of my argument is a proposition that all preference means something and that anything that means something, means something moral. There are reasons why we choose the Total with strawberries or not, after all.

    I think that we as a church are awful Kantian (except for when we do Divine Command Ethics). The conflation of the two lead us, I think, to a Kierkegaard-type position. Wow, check out my jargon mastery!

    I agree and I think that this is why Moroni 7 is such an important chapter.

  • Chris H.


    Kant’s conception of autonomy requires us to respect the dignity of others by respecting there choices. Clearly Mormons are not Kantian is this sense. Mormons do approach questions about “right and wrong” with a deontological form of divine command theory. However, I do not see much of an appreciation for reason, universal rationality, and particularly liberty rooted in autonomy.

    To be honest I think that LDS theology is not philosophical enough (or systematic enough). I think part of this is that we as a conservative people are wary of intellectual approaches to faith.

  • HP

    “Clearly Mormons are not Kantian is this sense.”

    Well, they can make that choice all they want. Whether or not I will esteem it, is another matter altogether. I don’t even think Kant was Kantian in that sense.

    “However, I do not see much of an appreciation for reason, universal rationality, and particularly liberty rooted in autonomy.”
    Really, you should post on this (nudge, nudge). I see all of those things in Mormon Doctrine, so I look forward to slaughtering you with my mad debate skillz.

  • Neat stuff. I’m glad this got on the snark or I’d have missed it. Well done.

  • Wow, Snarked! Aren’t we up and coming?

    HP, did you mean Mormon Doctrine as a concept, or the book by McConkie?

    Bravo on the use of Joe vs. the Volcano!
    (I’m not arguing that with you!)