“Satan” = Moral Agency and the Problem of Evil

Milton's Lucifer

[Along with a bunch of friends – linked below – I am reviewing LDS General Conferences beginning with the first available at lds.org, April 1971. At one session per week, we should finish when I’m about … 117, I think. Here are a few thoughts relating the April, 1971, Saturday Afternoon session.]

Most people today, even most Christians, take the idea of Satan, the Devil, about as seriously as we take… well, SNL’s Church Lady. Clearly it’s much easier, not to mention more genteel, more polite, to believe in a Supremely Good Being than to believe in a Supremely Bad Being.

Apostle Marion G. Romney showed not the slightest concern for good modern manners, however, when, in April General Conference, 1971, he delivered a pointed sermon on “Satan – The Great Deceiver.”

Before considering this sermon, let’s consider why the subject tends to be considered so beyond the pale for enlightened persons today.

In truth, the idea of evil, personal evil, has always been a stumbling block to reason’s pride. For anyone who aspires to run their life by pure, self-sufficient reason, the idea of evil, of choices and actions inherently wicked, malevolent, and destructive is necessarily a non-starter. While it is natural, quasi-instinctive to attribute wickedness to one’s enemies, the first moral philosopher, Socrates, saw that passions would be calmed by considering that “the only sin is ignorance,” that is, that people do bad things because, ultimately, they are simply mistaken about what is Good, and therefore about their own good.

Socrates is of course right that it is generous to assume that a person who seems bad is just misguided, and such an attitude can help to calm the passions of a society of warrior-citizens. But the problem is that there is really no place for human agency under the principle that “the only sin is ignorance.” Thus Plato’s understanding of goodness as rationality essentially bypasses the problem of moral choice and culminates in the idea of pure intellectual communion with an impersonal, eternal necessity far above the personal loves and longings of real people.

The most powerful strain in modern thought also tends to explain away moral agency, but in the opposite direction: Thomas Hobbes and John Locke, for example, reduce freedom to the lack of external restraints – the mechanical freedom of a billiard ball that rolls “freely” as long as it doesn’t strike another ball. Jean-Jacques Rousseau proclaimed the natural goodness of man, but reduced this goodness to the amoral “innocence” of a pre-rational “human” in a “state of nature” in which morality played no role. Thus, for Rousseau, humans are naturally good, and all evil is the result of “society”: we don’t need personal morality; we just need “social justice.”

Moral agency is central to LDS thought, even more so than for Christianity in general. And so, therefore, is the reality of personal evil, and thus of — yes, Church Lady — “Satan.”

And Satan’s Job 1, Elder Romney reminds us, is the destruction of moral agency:

During the vision given to Moses, the Lord said:

“… because … Satan rebelled against me, and sought to destroy the agency of man, which I, the Lord God, had given him, and also, that I should give unto him mine own power; by the power of mine Only Begotten, I caused that he should be cast down.

“And he became Satan, yea, even the devil, the father of all lies, to deceive and to blind men, and to lead them captive at his will, even as many as would not hearken unto my voice.” (Moses 4:3–4.)

The LDS appreciation of agency makes for a very rich and subtle understanding of the Fall, not (as for traditional Christians) as the expression of the radical evil of Pride, the wish to be like God, but precisely as an expression of human agency, an openness to the trials and choices that constitute the path to progression towards divinity. This understanding of the positive role of agency in the original Fall makes for a kind of two-stage understanding of the Fall. The second stage is marked in this passage from Moses 5 that Elder Romney quotes:

“And Satan came among them, saying: I am also a son of God; and he commanded them, saying: Believe it not; and they believed it not, and they loved Satan more than God. And men began from that time forth to be carnal, sensual, and devilish.” (Moses 5:12–13.)

The mystery of evil is an offense to the rule of pure reason, both classical and modern. But so is the mystery of human agency. So it seems very “reasonable” to deny the existence of Satan, or just to dismiss the question altogether – and of course the suppression of the question of evil and of moral agency suits Satan just fine. For Elder Romney, accordingly, much depends on our resisting the comforting illusion that there is no such thing.

The general acceptance of Satan’s declaration, “I am no devil, for there is none” (2 Ne. 28:22), accounts in large measure for the decadence in our deteriorating society.

We Latter-day Saints need not be, and we must not be, deceived by the sophistries of men concerning the reality of Satan. There is a personal devil, and we had better believe it. He and a countless host of followers, seen and unseen, are exercising a controlling influence upon men and their affairs in our world today.…

“And behold, others he flattereth away, and telleth them there is no hell; and he saith unto them: I am no devil, for there is none—and thus he whispereth in their ears, until he grasps them with his awful chains, from whence there is no deliverance.” (2 Ne. 28:19–22.)

Now I am not calling attention to these things to frighten, stampede, or discourage anyone. I refer to them because I know they are true, and I am persuaded that if we are to “conquer Satan, and … escape the hands of the servants of Satan that do uphold his work” (D&C 10:5), we must understand and recognize the situation as it is. This is no time for Latter-day Saints to equivocate.

Platonic and Rousseau-ist   rationalisms, lofty transcendence and social-justice militancy, are both comforting and flattering, each in its own way. But Elder Romney reminds us that the Church Lady has a point about Satan – that is, about the reality of personal agency, and therefore of personal evil.

 

About rhancock

Ralph C. Hancock holds degrees from BYU and Harvard, and has taught political philosophy at Brigham Young University since 1987; he is also President of the John Adams Center for the Study of Faith, Philosophy and Public Affairs, an independent educational foundation (johnadamscenter.org).