I taught the captioned lesson at Institute Wednesday night, to about a dozen or so young single adults. I was a guest instructor for that one evening in the Doctrines of the Church class, and my assigned topic was The Agency of Man. [I made a little joke telling the sisters that this lesson obviously didn’t apply to them, then made sure everyone knew “Man” here was used in the generic, not gendered sense.] I thought I’d try to convey the gist of my lesson here for anyone interested.
I. The word “agency.” Derives from the Latin verb agere, which (among many other meanings) means “to do.” So the gerundive form, agendum “something that ought to be done,” in the plural agenda “things that ought to be done” becomes our English word “agenda.” The nominative participle is agens, and in the accusative the form is agentem, which becomes a noun, agentia, and which is anglicized in our English words agency and agent. The basic notion behind these words is that of “doing” something.
II. The other kind of agency. When we talk about agency in the Church, there are usually two possible referents. One is agency as a field of secular law, applied by analogy to the church context. Agency law has to do with a principal authorizing someone else, called the agent, to act on his behalf. (Thus the “doing” sense of the word.) Agency law has to do with how the relationship is established, the duties of the principal to the agent, the agent to the principal, and both to third parties. (I also briefly described the funnest legal doctrine in the history of Anglo-American common law, “frolic and detour.”) Since we are a hierarchical church with all sorts of delegation of authority and things like prophets, priesthood, keys, quorums, offices, assignments, etc., agency principles can be very instructive in the church context. See for instance D&C 1:38, “…whether by mine own voice or by the voice of my servants, it is the same.” That is an agency principle. (One of the best church lessons I’ve ever sat through was early in my mission when an EQP, a pharmaceutical rep, gave a lesson on principles of agency derived from the law and applied them to the Church. Simply outstanding.) But that’s not the kind of “agency” this lesson is actually about.
III. Free Agnecy and Politically Correct semantics. The lesson manual talks about “agency,” but the concept was when I was their age widely called “free agency.” We have certain terms that have fallen out of favor, like inactive or nonmember, and free agency seems to be one of them. I understand the drift away from “free agency,” as that is not a scriptural formulation, it is an in-house expression that non-LDS don’t use, the “free” part is sort of redundant and seems to derive from a mash-up of free will and agency, and most influential of all is how many of our young people seem to misconstrue the word “free” to mean that they can act free of consequences. But I grew up with that formulation, and I still kind of like it, and in any event it is ubiquitous in older church literature, so they need to be aware of that usage.
IV. So what is free agency? It is the eternal, unfettered right we have to make choices for ourselves (thus “doing” for ourselves), given to us as a gift from God. There are two sides to the coin: one is complete freedom in making choices, but the other is that we must bear the responsibility for the choices we make.
V. Alternatives need to be genuinely open. I told them I saw a movie once where Fred Astaire danced on the ceiling. (Had any of them seen it? No, only the regular instructor. Boy did that make me feel old.) I would like to do that. Is that a choice I can make? I can try, but unless I live in the Matrix (a more recent cultural allusion!) I’ll get maybe two steps up the wall before I fall and hurt myself. So we’re constrained in our choices by physical law.
When the movie “Mr. and Mrs. Smith” came out, the theater had these huge posters of Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie, both dressed to the nines, Angie with a long slit in her dress and a gun strapped to her thigh. I thought these have got to be the most beautiful people on the planet. So suppose I made a choice to have an affair with Angelina. I might be able to find her, say in New Orleans. Is that ever gonna happen? Of course not; I’d probably get arrested for stalking. Because while I have agency to do what I want, she’s a free agent also. And so my free decisions as an agent unto myself are of necessity limited by the free decisions of other free agents. (This was, I wager, the first time in the history of humankind that a point was made in a CES classroom based on a proposed adulterous tryst of the instructor!)
I said it’s like that creepy RM guy at BYU who asks out the most gorgeous girl on a date and tells her he has had a revelation that they are to marry. That’s nice and all, and he’s perfectly free to propose, but she’s an agent unto herself, and she’s perfectly free to kick him to the curb, which is exactly what she should do.
This is why I don’t like missionary goals for baptisms. At Zone Conference the elders all start to get competitive, and pretty soon by the end of the line guys with no teaching pool are setting goals to baptize 20 people within a month. But you have limited control over who gets baptized; ultimately that’s someone else’s free decision to make, not yours.
VI. Not all choices have moral significance. If I go to Subway and have a tough time deciding between the chicken club or the Italian BMT, does God care? No. There are lots of choices like that in our lives, even significant choices. If I have offers for a job in San Francisco or Boston, God might care which I choose, but more often than not it’s six of one, a half-dozen of the other. You do your due diligence and examine each job and location carefully, discuss it with your wife, make a tentative decision, and then you pray about it. Don’t put the decision in the first instance in God’s lap, but pray for ratification.
VII. Choices we make today can constrain the choices available to us in the future. “There is an old man up there ahead of you that you ought to know…. Whether he is miserable or happy depends on you. For you made him. He is you, grown older.”
It’s like a game of chess. Every move involves a decision, and the decisions you make early in the game constrain the decisions available to you later in the game.
Elder Bednar has talked about how students at Ricks were always complaining about the honor code, saying “But we have our free agency!” Yes, they had their free agency when deciding where to go to school; they could have gone to the community college or to Berkeley, but they made a decision to go to Ricks, with its honor code. And you’re still perfectly free to violate the honor code; no one is stopping you. I talked about the Naked Guy at Berkeley, and how you’re free to walk around the Rexburg campus naked if you like. But of course, there are consequences to that action, and you will be arrested and kicked out of school. When we make commitments, such as joining the church, going to the temple, enrolling in a church school, our freedom to make choices doesn’t change, but the consequences of the choices we make do.
VIII. Appreciating the consequences. Of course, for free agency to be fully operative we need to have a full appreciation of the consequences of our actions. I talked about my autistic brother, and how he can understand some consequences but not others.
IX. Is Free Agency a truism? I talked about how when I was younger the principle of free agency seemed so obvious to me that I didn’t understand why we talked about it so much; I assumed that of course everyone believed it. Only much later did I learn that it’s actually a pretty radical idea, and that lots of Christians don’t believe it at all. Talked about Augustine, who taught that man had moral freedom in the garden, and was posse non peccare (“able not to sin”) there. But as a consequence of the Fall, man lost his moral freedom, and became non posse non peccare, “not able not to sin.” Talked a little bit about the difference between hypothetical free will and libertarian free will, and also talked about Calvinism and went over TULIP. I never realized just how radical that cheap little CTR ring really was…
X. Free agency in the premortal world. We talked about how the principle of agency was so important that we fought a war over it in the preexistence.
XI. Our accountabiity to God for the use of our agency. Our eternal destiny is determined by the use or misuse of our agency. John Taylor (The Gospel Kingdom, 341):
“Are we not the framers of our own destiny? Are we not the arbitrators of our fate? This is another part of my text, and I argue from it that it is our privilege to determine our own exaltation or degradation. It is our privilege to determine our own happiness or misery in the world to come. What is it that brings happiness now–that makes us so joyous in our assembling together? It is not wealth; for you may pour wealth, honor, influence and all the luxuries of this world into the lap of man; and, destitute of the Spirit of God, he will not be happy, for that is the only source from which true happiness and comfort can come.”
We are what we have willed ourselves to be. We choose those alternatives that we want–that we love. In the final analysis, we will end up in the kingdom that we choose for ourselves.