Two talks at the most recent GC raised important questions concerning agency. Consequently I want to consider those questions through the work of Walter Brueggeman. Elder Patrick Kearon used an analogy based on scorpions and flip-flops to illustrate how people can act in ways that cause pain to themselves through rebelliousness or laziness. In addition Elder Robert D. Hales spoke on the significance of agency and the central place that choosing God has in our spiritual progression. Moreover Elder Hales rightly calls us to turn toward God again. The question I want to explore, in light of these talks, is the act of choosing to do things that cause pain when we are aware of the potential consequences. For example, I do not think that these two categories of rebelliousness and laziness are wholly adequate to explain why Elder Kearon wore flip-flops rather than shoes during his exploring. Rather it seems essential that we refer to the process of self-deception.
Walter Brueggeman, in his treatise on the art of preaching, notes that people have a tendency to bury their sins so that they can get on with their lives . For Kierkegaard, people try to cover or obliterate their dissatisfaction, their guilt or their alienation by various kinds of activity . This may take a demonic insatiability or it may be found in the respectable life of the involved Church member or citizen. Yet, this alienation has powerful and destructive implications, for our guilt can linger unnoticed or at least suppressed. In covering our sins both in the moment and in the weeks, months and years after, we engage in a form of self-deception which enables us to act in ways which cause hurt but which also allow us to bury the subsequent pain of such actions.
Alienation is grounded in the interpersonal pain that resides within us; the pain inhibits our ability to be reconciled with those around us and with our God. For Brueggeman, separation is enacted by inability to respond to the voice or call of God and of other people. This is symbolised by our capacity for ‘conversation’. More than the dialogic revelation discussed by Givens (HT: Brad Kramer), Brueggeman observes that ‘conversation shows that lives impinge on each other. The impingement is mutual, for in the process of speaking and hearing, both parties are transformed. We are… to act and to be acted upon’ . This is not a simple expression of revealed truth in dialogic form rather it is the very act of redemption. God is changed through our suffering as we are changed through his.
Too easily, it seems, we allow God’s love to be that covering for our sin and in so doing we make him a co-conspirator in our self-deception. God’s omniscience nor his omnipotence  do not protect him from such pain and we would do well to more readily admit the pain our actions cause Him. Moreover, there are times when we are willing to seek forgiveness without being reconciled to the people our actions (however well-intentioned) have hurt. Too often we live our lives between two distinct poles: either we consistently harangue ourselves regarding our sins (as a supposed mode of repentance) or we feel too little of the pain that comes to us. Neither is part of the divine relationship, according to Brueggeman. Reconciliation requires restitution and openness not quiet resignation or numbness.
Too often we harden our hearts; refusing to feel the pain of our sins and using that shell as a covering for them. That shell serves as a protection to our sense of self and is ultimately alienating. To break our hearts, it seems to me, is a willingness to feel the full weight of our sins and to openly acknowledgement that pain in our lives and the lives of those significant others. Christ set a model for this type of pain. He did not shrink from that suffering and he willingly struggled with those who suffered even though he was innocent? Our ‘innocence’ therefore does not seem to adequately justify our failure to avoid such pain when it occurs in the lives of others. In this view, perhaps the fall should also be focussed upon both Adam and Eve’s attempt to shift the blame for their sins onto others, to harden their hearts, rather than to openly acknowledge their sin and to honestly seek to heal the breach in their fledgling relationships.
Elder Hales said: ‘For those who find themselves captive to past unrighteous choices, stuck in a dark corner, without all the blessings available by the righteous exercise of agency, we love you. Come back! Come out of the dark corner and into the light.’
Elder Kearon taught: ‘Our Savior is the Prince of Peace, the Great Healer, the only One who can truly cleanse us from the sting of sin and the poison of pride and change our rebellious hearts into converted, covenant hearts’.
Laziness and rebelliousness are part of the reason we sin, though I believe that self-deception is more often at the root of such actions. God calls us to break our hearts and we must respond; but to do so will require more than cursory attempts to live our religion. Moreover, as Levinas points out, the life of Other also calls us to break our hearts. At conference I felt inspired to seek out that divine and redemptive dialogue that will bring such change to my life. I was moved by both Elder Kearon’s and Elder Hales’ attempts to help me break my heart in response to God and other people. I want to choose to remove the barriers of self-deception that are rooted in my egoistic paradigm and, instead, choose God.
- Walter Brueggeman, Finally come the poet: Daring speech for proclamation, Fortress Press, 1989.
- Soren Kierkegaard, Either/Or, Princeton University Press, 1959.
- Brueggeman, ibid., p. 76.
- I think both of these terms need to be carefully qualified but they are adequate to serve their rhetorical purpose here.