THOUGHTS ON AGENCY
Our stake theme for the year (school year, since I’m in Provo and our calendar tends to relate to academic years rather than the 12-month cycle others use) is “Choose Christ”. I fine theme as far as such things go (even if all I can think when I hear it is “I choose you, Pika…oh, I mean, I choose you, Jesus Christ!”). That, in relation to a course I’m taking looking at agency in fairy tales, has brought agency and choice to my mind frequently. I don’t quite get agency and what it fully entails and I am often frustrated or confused by conversations at Church and in the bloggernacle or other online Mormon circles that seem to me to misunderstand agency. So, here I am, seeking to get greater understanding.
Questions that I’ll be musing on:
When did we get agency?
Can we lose it?
Does it require equally valid, opposing forces?
Does it need consequences?
How would “Satan’s Plan” have destroyed it?
Did God give us agency?
Did Adam and Eve have agency? If so, when? How?
How does knowledge relate to agency?
Does God have agency?
How do right and wrong relate to agency?
Do animals, plants, other things have agency? If so, which? How many? What kind?
Are there levels or types of agency?
I’m not going to directly answer these questions (at least not definitively), but they will be shaping how I explore the issue at hand. I’m going to dive in with a quote from the second half of Joseph Smith’s King Follett Sermon:
“The first principles of man are self-existent with God. God himself, finding he was in the midst of spirits and glory, because he was more intelligent, saw proper to institute laws whereby the rest could have a privilege to advance like himself. The relationship we have with God places us in a situation to advance in knowledge. He has power to institute laws to instruct the weaker intelligences, that they may be exalted with Himself, so that they might have one glory upon another, and all that knowledge, power, glory, and intelligence, which is requisite in order to save them in the world of spirits.”
There’s a lot we could unpack from that, but I think focusing on what it seems to me to be saying about agency gives us a direction and focus. There are a few aspects. One, that God seems able to act from the get-go. God in this conception from Joseph is an agent, suggesting that He/She/They has agency (yeah, I know Joseph uses male pronouns, but I stand by my collective coupling of Heavenly Father and Heavenly Mother as one in “God”, or whatever myriad of possibilities that you choose from my language). Second, that God institutes laws and that we as other intelligences make choices relating to those laws.
It strikes me from this that we’ve had choice as long as we’ve existed in any form, intelligence, spirit, body—all of them. In this sense agency is integral to our existence—it is inherent in existing. To borrow Joseph’s phrase, this tastes delicious to me. I love the idea of agency being inherent and inextricable from existence. Yet, it goes against the idea that I frequently hear (and may have some scriptural backing) that God granted us agency.
I think the role of laws and commandments is a fascinating one. It seems that many decry the place of directions, commandments, and obedience more broadly as being antithetical to agency. While I think there are places where this concern is appropriate (in light of the scriptural injunction that it is not meet to be commanded in all things and Joseph’s “I teach correct principles and let them govern themselves” quote), it seems that often these complaints misread what agency is. God issuing a commandment—say, Thou shalt not kill—does not remove your ability to kill. The existence of that commandment does not strip you of your agency. Agency is the ability to choose (I think). And in that light, the sort of obedience that I think God wants from us necessitates agency. If we were not choosing to do His/Her/Their will, we would not be transformed by that process. If we were coerced into doing good, we would not profit from it—we would not be exalted, because exaltation in my eyes is a process of becoming someone new, someone truly divine. And God’s work would be frustrated.
That may have been “Satan’s Plan” that we were presented. All would return. All would be saved (which is still, maybe, kinda sorta the plan? Just some are more saved than others?). I see two main ways that this would happen. 1) Coercion. As I outlined above, under this strategy we don’t have choice and are forced to do good. This strikes me as hardly appealing, though that may be Western, and particularly American, individualism talking. Though, I suppose the idea of helping people to be the best they could be has its appeal. Rather than viewing it as a loss of choice, it could be framed as a guide for us all to be the best we could possibly be. And that has some appeal. 2) That all are free to choose whatever they wish, but all choices are stripped of consequences. I can murder, steal, abuse, fornicate, etc. and no matter what I do, how many lives I hurt, I make it back to God. That seems quite appealing.
Yet, this too may “destroy agency,” which suggests that part of having choices is accepting the consequences of those choices. I’m not quite sure what that entails. Especially since some consequences seem dependent on social norms or other varying factors that give two people who made the same choice hugely different consequences. Does God keep some cosmic ledger that balances out all this stuff at Judgment? Or, is the lack of fairness in mortality really what we need to have agency? Is it true choice when we choose to do good, even if we are uncertain of the consequences? That we make the right choice, regardless of what is coming to us?
What makes a choice the right one? How do we make that call? Some choices seem easy, others far less so. Are right choices constant and consistent? How do intentions play into our choices and their rightness? How do social pressures and other sociological or psychological factors increase or decrease our agency? It seems to me that, while I believe I can choose certain things, some of those choices were made, at least in part, by factors in and out of my control. Can we have absolute agency? What does that look like? Does knowing everything precisely remove agency? Can you choose to do something that you know will cause yourself untold harm and suffering if you fully and completely comprehend that suffering?
More and more questions.
I don’t know. But, I believe that I can choose. I can choose to do good. I can choose to help others. I can choose to lift up rather than tear down. I can choose to reach out, even if I don’t know what the consequences will be. I can choose to not make my goodness dependent on reward.
But perhaps most importantly, I choose love. Love of God. Love of my fellow humans. Love of life. And I think that choice has, does, and will make all the difference.