Free Agency

The last speaker in yesterday’s F&T meeting talked about the concept of free agency. First, he explained that that terminology was very flawed, because agency isn’t free, but was bought at great cost by our savior’s atoning sacrifice. Second, he told how his seminary teacher insisted that free agency only existed to make righteous choices, not wicked ones. He had great trouble understanding that, but finally concluded she must be right.

This muddled understanding of what free agency is I suppose helps to explain why that terminology has fallen out of favor.[1] But although contemporary Mormons tend to use agency or moral agency without the “free” qualifier, we still need to understand what is meant by “free agency,” since that expression is ubiquitous in historical Mormon discourse, starting in the 19th century (especially with Orson Pratt and Brigham Young) and continuing well  into the second half of the 20th century (with David O. McKay being a particular fan of the expression).

The qualifier “free” in “free agency” has nothing to do with absence of cost, as the speaker took it. When we use “free agency” that is just distinctive Mormon patter for “free will.” And that seminary teacher was simply wrong in her understanding of the expression. It doesn’t make any sense to say we are free to choose the good but not the ill; if we are only free to choose the good, then we’re not free at all but can only choose the good.

The contemporary preference is to use agency without a modifier, or to modify it as “moral agency,” since these terms actually appear in our scriptures and “free agency” does not. But we need to understand what these modifiers mean. When we speak of “free” agency we are emphasizing our freedom to choose (just as we were free to choose which plan to follow in the premortal existence). When we speak of “moral” agency we are emphasizing the consequences of our freely made choices. Both aspects of the principle are inherent in the traditional expression free agency, but apparently leaders want to place a greater emphasis on the consequences of choices and less on the freedom to make those choices.

It may be that the movement away from the emphasis on freedom to choose reflects a growing lack of theological sophistication. It’s a fair bet that our 19th century forbears understood this concept as being explicitly in contradistinction to Calvinism, and in particular the U of TULIP (Unconditional Election). That freedom to choose for ourselves is a very important part of Mormon theology, but I’m guessing most contemporary Mormon leaders don’t know the first thing about Calvinistic theology.

I’m not particularly bothered by the trend to omit the “free” qualifier from the expression. With or without that qualifier it means the same thing, and free agency is a somewhat awkward distinctively Mormon expression that does not facilitate communication with others outside the tradition. But the recent trend of our people to want to say the expression “free agency” is simply wrong is in my view incorrect.[2]

[1] This is but one example of many of purging the lexicon in contemporary Mormonism. Another would be avoiding the term “inactive” in favor of “less active,” or preferring “family history” over “genealogy.” Having grown up with the older terminology I sometimes blanche at the insistence on lexical correctness in the contemporary church.

[2] In my view Elder Christofferson gets it right when he began a speech at BYU on “Moral Agency” with this introduction: “In years past we generally used the term free agency. That is not incorrect.” See https://www.lds.org/ensign/2009/06/moral-agency?lang=eng

Comments

  1. The thing about free agency only meaning we are free to choose righteous things comes straight from Elder Oaks, sadly.

  2. Kevin Barney says:

    Thanks, John, I was not aware of that. To me the notion seems utterly incoherent.

  3. This is a particular pet peeve of mine, primarily because qualifying the free in *free* will seems to have the intent of making it okay to utilize intense social pressure and sometimes social coercion to get people to choose the right instead of, you know, their own free will. Nope. Free will is free. “You are free to choose for yourself, (nevertheless I forbid it).”

    The old “you can’t choose the consequences” thing doesn’t work when we’re not talking about natural consequences, but social consequences that are supported by the person invoking them precisely to keep people in line. (Ditto for “you have free speech, but you don’t have the right to not get hounded and fired for your private political views,” but that’s another issue for another day…)

  4. I don’t have a problem with “moral agency,” but I also don’t have a problem with “free agency” either. The moral agency thing seems like an argument not against the concept of free agency, but against a misunderstanding of the term “free.” It never meant free from cost or free from consequences. Maybe some people misunderstood it that way, but it never seemed like a widespread misunderstanding.

  5. Kevin Barney says:

    JKC, yeah, there seems to be a concern with a misunderstanding of free agency, but I never thought it was a particularly widely held misunderstanding. I understood it as a child in Primary; it’s not that tough a concept to grasp.

  6. Lauren Arrington says:

    Free agency has been on my mind this week, and how to apply agency in trying to live the Gospel. I’m thinking of a time last year when some members of the Stake, most likely sent as a result of our ward’s low indexing numbers, brought us all into the cultural hall, placed guards at the door, instructed us to set a goal for a certain number of hours we would work on indexing, and informed us we would be signing a contract stating we would do so. They said no one would be allowed to leave without turning in this contract. I started to have an honest to goodness panic attack, and as I sat there shaking, was thrilled to have my friend next to me say, “This is absurd. Let’s just leave.” So we did. We got a tsk tsk and a finger wag from the “guard” at the door on the way out, but we managed to escape without being tackled. I still can’t believe that happened, and I’m still furious at the thought that no one else batted an eye. This got me thinking about all of the times I have felt coerced at church, told that I could follow this one path or disobey God, and how the very thought that in the end the plan of salvation can be boiled down to, “Do what I say or you’ll never see your family again,” it just all feels very Mob Boss to me, and much more like Satan’s plan than Satan’s plan ever was.

  7. “It doesn’t make any sense to say we are free to choose the good but not the ill; if we are only free to choose the good, then we’re not free at all but can only choose the good.”

    Maybe, taking a page from Elder Oaks, we are only free to choose among “good, better and best” and thus telestial, terrestrial or celestial. ;-)

    Seriously, I don’t see any way to make the claim that we’re not free to choose evil or ill or whatever you’d like to call it. Because clearly we do have varying degrees of “good vs. evil” choices, and people CAN and DO choose the wrong. What would that choice be if not agency?

    John, do you have a reference to Elder Oaks on this? There’s no indication of this view in what I’ve found so far. He did an extensive legal-brief-style talk at BYU in 1987 (https://goo.gl/9bZCBQ) which seems to take the standard view that we can choose good or evil, for example:

    “Without opposition in all things we could not achieve righteousness….To provide the needed opposition, Satan is permitted to try to persuade us to use our free agency to choose evil. In 2 Nephi, Lehi…gives us this important explanation: ‘…And they are free to choose liberty and eternal life, through the great Mediator of all men, or to choose captivity and death, according to the captivity and power of the devil….’ ‘Free . . . to act for themselves’ and ‘free to choose’ refer to free agency.”

  8. It does seem to be an attempt to use language to move the goalposts on theology in some disagreeable way, in the end

  9. These not-free moral agency talks are usually intended to strike fear and guilt into teens and young adults. They work well at their intended purpose for a while, but are hurtful in the long run.

  10. “This is but one example of many of purging the lexicon in contemporary Mormonism.”

    Yeah, lots of that going around lately. The current mantra in our area seems to be “this is not a program.”

  11. A Turtle Named Mack says:

    Yeah, I’ve heard the “agency isn’t free” sermon a number of times. It’s a lazy way to grab attention. I do think that, as Kevin mentions, the way we use it is interesting. Free agency is just a conflation of our conceptions of free will and moral agency. I like that we are more often just thinking in terms of agency. I don’t like that there seems to be an attack on agency – a move toward constraining behavior/choices, and characterizing agency as the problem of this life, and that we must learn to overcome the dangers of agency in a fallen world. That misses the point, completely. Agency is the gift of this life, allowing self-determination. Of course, self-determination is something many of our leaders wish they could stamp out.

  12. I think it’s possible to distinguish the concept of agency in Mormon scriptures from the traditional Christian idea of free will. Agency, understood as something close to stewardship, might be interpreted as God’s gift that enables us to be responsible for accepting Christ’s atonement. By the gift of agency we become the stewards of our souls.(“Steward” can mean “an agent for a principal,” or one who exercises an agency.) If we understand agency in this way, then free will is almost certainly a necessary condition for agency, but it is probably not identical with agency. I strongly suspect that this could be a fertile idea for theological development, but I don’t know of anyone who has written about this.

    In any case, I agree that Mormon doctrine has traditionally seen “agency” and “free will” as synonymous, and I agree that it is a mistake to think that a correct understanding of agency does not include free will. To develop a helpful and coherent alternative understanding of agency requires more rigorous philosophical work than we get in general conference sermons.

  13. Last Lemming says:

    This may seem frivolous, but there is some correlation between the decline of “free agency” terminology in the Church and the rise of free agency in sports. In the post-Curt Flood era of sports, “free agency” began to mean something to non-Mormons and it wasn’t what Mormons meant by the term. Having been baptized, we do not have free agency in the same sense that LeBron James will have it next summer–we are committed to one team for life. (I recall some CES type making this argument in the 70s, but I can’t find it now.) At any rate, I think it is wise to avoid the term when we mean free will.

  14. LL, more recently, Elder Oaks specifically referred to free agency in sports and stated it was not what is meant by free agency in the Gospel in a BYU devotional.

  15. My mother used to say that: “You have your free agency to do what I tell you.”

  16. Kevin, isn’t a big part of the problem reading into scripture modern debates about free will? I know critics like to claim that the Book of Mormon is largely just commenting on early 19th century religious debates. But the Book of Mormon use of “free” seems much closer to OT use than 19th or 18th century use. (It doesn’t use the term “free agency” but introduces a lot of the notion) In the Book of Mormon freedom isn’t freedom between choices the way it was thought of in early to late modernism. Rather it’s freedom to choose ones ultimate aim of which there are only two choices – God or devil. This in turn mimics Adam and Eve’s choice between the tree of life or the tree of knowledge but also the choice in Deuteronomy 30:19-20. “This day I call the heavens and the earth as witnesses against you that I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Now choose life, so that you and your children may live and that you may love the LORD your God, listen to his voice, and hold fast to him. For the LORD is your life, and he will give you many years in the land he swore to give to your fathers, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.” The “free” part largely follows the Exodus pattern where it arises out of the metaphor of slavery. However being freed from Egypt ends up just being free to choose God. That’s part of Dt 30:19-20 as well and likely the ultimate foundation of the conception of free in the Book of Mormon. (Whether or not they had that particular text)

    Agency just seems the question of being an agent. Again though, at least in the Book of Mormon, this personal identity seems secondarily to arise from the Exodus pattern and especially Nephi’s use of Isaiah’s captivity passages. So to be an agent is to be in a position where you are free to choose God’s commands. That is it’s less like what moderns were term libertarian agent free will and more just have external impediments removed.

  17. Just to add “free agency” itself as a phrase clearly has an early 19th century meaning. With just a quick Google I found “A Treatise on Free Agency” from 1829, “An Essay Concerning the Free Agency of Man” from 1820, and numerous other texts contemporary with Joseph. However that use comes later in the D&C. But it doesn’t occur in the Book of Mormon. As others have noted its use in D&C 93 in some ways parallels platonic uses as well as the theological uses. Most pay attention to the debates over free agency and Calvinism in the 18th and 19th century. The more interesting parallel, especially relative to D&C 93 is Swedenbog’s use of free agency.

  18. Agency in the way that LDS church uses it, should mean the freedom to make choices about the LDS church without fear of undue social punishment for making those choices. God punishes after we die, but not in the here and now. I should be able to stop participating at church without my wife divorcing me or being shamed and blamed by LDS believing family and friends. Too often, however, I hear stories of LDS leaders and members blatantly disregarding this and imposing austere consequences on members for leaving the church.

  19. john f (or other) could you give me a pointer to Elder Oaks saying “agency only meaning we are free to choose righteous things.” The only thing I can find (on a quick search) is a 1987 speech at a BYU symposium on the Book of Mormon which includes a well thought out distinction between (free) agency (an inviolable God-given power to choose . . . including to choose evil) and freedom (the power to act on our choices, which can be limited, as any jurist would well recognize).

  20. I have often heard people say things similar to what Ted B says above… That a person who did X should not suffer consequence Y because Free Agency. And I have often thought that the trend to remove “free” from the phrase was a response to that.

    But I have also always thought it was a misunderstanding of the term (Sorry, Ted). To me, “free agency” described a characteristic of the world, and more specifically a theodicy, an explanation of why evil exists and bad things happen. According to my definition, you can’t (and the church can’t) take away a person’s free agency any more than you (or they) can repeal the laws of physics. It has nothing to do with whether or not you can or will be punished for doing something. Rather, it is your capability to choose to do something in the first place.

    I actually agree with Ted about the need for freedom without undue consequences, and even his specific examples, but that is not, in my mind, free agency.

  21. We’ve been taught that free agency is a gift from God. In trying to understand how He could give us agency I concluded it was simply by giving us a choice. Before we had that choice we had no agency. The ability to choose made the difference. I don’t know what that first choice was. Perhaps it was whether we wanted to be a child of God, or not, and every choice since then has either affirmed that choice, or not. Every choice has consequences. The consequences, good or bad are not our choice.

  22. “This is but one example of many of purging the lexicon in contemporary Mormonism.”

    Obviously another system the Russians have hacked. How else to explain this disturbing Orwellian turn?

  23. Probably not incoherent to maintain that the reason we are given free/moral agency is in the hopes that we will choose good things. And perhaps even to say that poorly exercised agency is the mildewy underbelly of agency, hungry for some divine sunlight. I’d be thoughtful not to make the opponent out of straw.

    Historically I think you want to consider debates about Calvinism esp. as they’re refracted in Arminianism (via Methodism mostly in C19 US) but also be open to Scottish Enlightenment and Common Sense and Lockean prpto-poli-sci. I think all three axes are relevant for triangulating Mormonism. It’s one of Mormons’ most secularist positions historically–I wonder whether the lexical hesitation might not be in part a resistance to the beating drums of expressive individualism as they have come to drown out the other threads of modern identity.

  24. In the early 70″s at BYU I wrote a paper on Agency for my Book of Mormon class. The first use of the term “free agency” that I found was a talk by Brigham Young Jr in the 1860’s or 1870’s.

    In order to have agency, I believe one has to be able to make a choice or be free to choose. Some choices we make can limit out abilities to make choices. In the Book of Mormon, Korihor lost his ability to make righteous choices or the term I like from the BoM is being bound by the chains of hell.

    I don’t go to the extreme of saying agency only applies to righteous or good choices, but my take is that we can lose some of our agency by making bad choices.

    Good post Kevin.

  25. Left Field says:

    I’m not sure if I’ve ever known of anyone who actually thought the “free” means either “free from consequences” or “free of charge.” “Free from consequences agency” doesn’t even make sense grammatically and it’s dang difficult to interpret the phrase “free agency” to mean anything about being free from consequences. Agency that is free of charge at least makes grammatical sense, but I don’t understand what is supposed to be the big issue that we (or anyone else) did or didn’t “pay” for our agency.

    I think free agency in sports is pretty much exactly the same concept as free agency in the gospel. The athlete can freely choose to sell his/her services to anyone. We can freely choose to take whatever course we decide. I’m not seeing a fundamental difference in meaning.

  26. Here are a couple of links to talks where Oaks discusses agency:

    https://speeches.byu.edu/talks/dallin-h-oaks_free-agency-freedom/

    And

    https://www.lds.org/ensign/2001/01/weightier-matters?lang=eng

    One thing Oaks has differed from, I think it was Ezra Taft Benson(?) is whether agency can be taken away from us while here on earth. Oaks describes agency as an embedded part of our lives here while I believe ETB suggested sometimes our agency can be taken from us. Sometimes I’ve seen (conservatives) people argue against such things as taxation because it limits our agency.

    I’ve always understood free agency to mean free to choose from among many choices–not free having to do with the atonement or free as in no one “paid” for our ability to have choices.
    And certainly not that only if we choose good then we have agency, if we choose bad then we don’t have agency. People who end up in prison still have agency–but they don’t have freedom.

  27. Aussie Mormon says:

    We can use our agency to limit our future agency.

    If you start taking addictive substances, you may become addicted which limits your agency in the fact that it might be impossible to “just stop doing it”, or remove the ability to use your agency in other ways. (this is mentioned in Lois’ first link)

    On the flip side, if you use your agency to make a covenant (e.g. temple covenants) it’s not as simple as saying “I have agency, I’m not going to be bound by that covenant anymore”. Unless the covenant is ended (such as through name removal or excommunication, which gets all of them, not just the one you don’t want), then you’re still under the covenant whether you want to be bound by it or not. (much like the fact that you deciding to stop following the terms of a business contract doesn’t stop the business contract being in-force)

  28. In Ted B’s universe, his hypothetical apostate has the agency to leave the church but his wife and neighbors should be stripped of their agency in choosing how to react to his apostasy. Whether any of the parties’ exercise of their agency is correct is another issue altogether–but he wants them to exercise it only in the way that he thinks they should. Maybe the wife of his hypothetical apostate divorced him because he was a self-centered slob, not because he left the church.

  29. What I have come to believe via my knowledge and reasoning…

    I agree and disagree with what Loursat said, 10/16 12:42, “By the gift of agency we become the stewards of our souls.(“Steward” can mean “an agent for a principal,” or one who exercises an agency.) If we understand agency in this way, then free will is almost certainly a necessary condition for agency, but it is probably not identical with agency. ”

    Where I disagree: Agency is not a “gift,” it is an uncreated reality. It is an intrinsic element of our existence (pre or mortal). All human beings with sufficient “knowledge” (the allegorical fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil) have Agency. We are “agents unto ourselves.” Agency is *simply* the process by which we change our character. We are constantly “choosing” to become more honest, kind, selfless, forgiving–or their opposites. Anything we think or do that effects a change in our character (or degree of righteousness) is Agency at work. A child has no Agency until that child reaches a level of understanding/knowledge/accountability.

    Viktor Frankl, holocaust survivor, was an early source of my current understanding, “Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms—to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.”

    Where I agree: “free will is almost certainly a necessary condition for agency, but it is probably not identical with agency. ” However, the conflating of the two is ubiquitous in the statements and teachings of/in the church, and it is incorrect. Choices are the function of free will. Intent and an improvement or decline in our character are the result of Agency.

    Surprisingly, none of the comments have yet mentioned the origin (in my experience–born in the late ’40s, life-long member) of “free” Agency. I was always taught (incorrectly) what Loursat said, that it was a gift from God.

  30. I’m sympathetic to the idea that agency is simply part of uncreated reality, but the idea of agency as a gift of god comes straight from canonized LDS scripture: “I gave unto them their knowledge, in the day I created them; and in the Garden of Eden, gave I unto man his agency” (Moses 7:32). So I don’t think it can be dismissed that easily.

  31. When Aaron B. speaks, the thinking has been done:

    “Moral agency costs like $3,700. Free agency doesn’t. But you get what you pay for.”

    (Link: https://bycommonconsent.com/2008/04/06/sunday-afternoon-general-conference-open-thread/#comment-41444)

  32. JKC, Yes I am familiar with what “canonized LDS scripture” says. But that does not actually make it true/literal. I, and many others, long ago came to see that the creation-Eden story is a myth. It is useful as an allegory (I guess). Hence, God (supposedly) referring to that myth is not at all convincing in its literalness. To me, it makes no sense that Adam and Eve (per the myth) would choose to accept that calling (using their Agency/free will) and then have to be tricked by a serpent/satan into partaking of the magical fruit so they would know they were naked/be able to progress to their purpose here. Then God claims the fruit didn’t give them knowledge (Agency) He did?

    Much more logical and sensible that Agency is the principle upon which God grew to be God–as His children can also–starting long before any of us came into mortal bodies.
    IMO

  33. JKC – Since there was agency in the pre-existence (choosing to follow Christ or Satan), it’s incorrect to suppose that Agency didn’t exist beforehand and was simple reiterated in the Moses account.

    fbisti – knowledge and agency are not the same thing. Uninformed choice is still choice. Also, even of those who are on the fence of myth and reality (since myth is often based in reality, etc.), it’s not always a given that Eve & Adam had to be tricked. I’m of the opinion that there were no wrong answers in Eden, nothing anyone could have done to frustrate God’s plan.

  34. Mark B., according to the LDS church’s teachings, spouses have the agency to divorce their partners for leaving the LDS church. However, it can also be inferred from its teachings that divorce on the basis of a partner leaving the church would be a morally wrong choice on the part of a believing spouse. Asking LDS members to uphold their beliefs is not a violation of their agency. If I tell an LDS believer to stop smoking cigarettes, that is not a violation of their agency. You seem to not understand the concept of agency as it is taught in the LDS church. You seem to want to seek justifications to shame and blame those who discontinue participation in the LDS church. Shaming and blaming runs counter to the LDS church’s teachings on agency. It teaches that the only valid methods to get someone to participate and believe are through invitation and persuasion, not coercion. You’re trying to justify coercion. Why can’t you follow the teachings of the LDS church? This is beyond me.

  35. fbisti: Sure, that’s a reasonable explanation, but of course taking the garden of Eden story as only an allegory is probably the minority view within the church. Like I said, I’m sympathetic to the idea that agency is uncreated, but I think there’s room in LDS scripture, doctrine, and tradition for both sides of the question.

    Frank: Good point, but rather than get caught up in the timing, I think the point is more whether agency is God-given, or inherent. Bringing it back to the pre-existence doesn’t solve that question, it just takes it back. Where you come down on this might depend, I suspect, on where you come down on the whole question of the tripartite intelligence-spirit body-physical body model vs. uncreated spirits. But even so, I could see an argument for the idea that whatever adoption/spirit birth means, it could involve God endowing the intelligence/spirit with a level of consciousness that makes agency a meaningful reality.

    I agree that knowledge and agency aren’t the same thing, but I don’t think they’re entirely unrelated either. Without at least some level of knowledge sufficient to make choice more than picking at random, it doesn’t seem like there is agency, or if there is, it doesn’t mean meaningful.

  36. JKC – If the act of creating spirits out of intelligence is what gave them agency, then both God giving it to them and it being an uncreated reality are correct.

  37. Yes, that’s what I’m saying. There is room for both.

  38. As I said in my comment, Ted B, I express no opinion as to the rightness or wrongness of any choice people in your hypothetical example have made. How you infer then that I favor coercion or shaming or shunning of anybody is beyond me.

  39. Mark B., you said it is a violation of agency to tell an LDS person that it is wrong to push for divorce of their partner for leaving the LDS church. By your logic the LDS leaders are repeatedly violating people’s agency by telling them not to smoke or to marry people of the same gender. The idea that I violate someone’s agency by telling them to live their religion is absurd. Since divorce is discouraged by modern LDS leaders and completely forbidden by Jesus, the idea that I am violating someone’s agency by telling them that it is wrong to divorce a no-longer-believing spouse, simply over his or her lack of belief and discontinued participation in the LDS church, is completely absurd.

    It is as obvious as daylight that you were trying to justify the coercive act of divorcing a spouse over non-belief. Stop trying to act as if you weren’t. If you claim to be an LDS believer, how about you actually follow your own beliefs. Oh, whoops I’m sorry, did I violate your agency by saying that? Words from the wise, go violate yourself Mark B. Your trollish activities have long been a blight on the bloggernacle.

  40. Two thoughts:
    -I think of possible that the early brethren were using this strange new term to paint a unique concept. There are arguments they meant blue (free will) or red (moral agency) or as simpletons from the past- conflated the two terms, but I give them credit for describing something “purple” . Holding them to “red” or “blue” is imposing our view on their time to construct a trite (and spiritually manipulative) tidbit. I find that giving historical persons credit for their position opens up quite a bit more understanding of their time and place and is quite illuminating. Conversely, ‘bashing’ the simpleness of the past is intellectually lazy.

    – If you cling to the “non-free” agency story, you’re tied to the ransom theory of the atonement. Elder Packer would be proud (‘The Mediator’). But, there are OTHER atonement theories out there. The ‘non-free’ stuff doesn’t mesh with other perspectives. Perhaps the early saints were conceptualizing this completely differently?

  41. Do you imagine Satan to possess free agency or moral agency? Does he still have the power to change (repent) or has that possibility been lost forever? If you believe he does not still possess free agency, when did he lose it, what choice cost him the power to change?

  42. I always thought free agency meant you were free to join another professional team at the end of your contract. Dang, I’m all confused now.

  43. Great comment, Mortimer!

  44. Paul Ritchey says:

    FWIW, I have heard Elder Bednar teach the concept that one is not free to use agency to choose the wrong. That is surprising, given that he also really, really likes to emphasize the nature of persons as being “things to act…not to be acted upon.” Can anyone point to a way to make those views compatible, or to an instance in which Elder Bednar does so?

  45. Paul Ritchey says:

    Also, I’ve never hear Elder Oaks make the same argument (restricting agency to good choices), likely because a lawyer of his intellect would be sharp enough to note (and address) the inconsistency I express above.

  46. TJ – to answer your question. Yes, Satan has agency, free and moral, or however you define them. What he does not have is the ability to do some things. Agency is simply the ability to choose. If there is no ability, choice is a moot point. You can’t fly unaided (assumedly); it doesn’t matter if you choose to or not.

  47. Paul, I think I must have been remembering this odd teaching from Bednar.

  48. We have agency because of the law. The law creates opposites which entice us. We are free to choose among the opposites. However, without the Atonement, any good choice we made would not stick because God can’t look on sin with the least degree of allowance. In essence, one sin would keep us away from God no matter how much good we did. Our good choices wouldn’t matter. We would be completely acted upon with no real control over our outcome.

    So, with agency we are free to choose good or evil. But it is the Atonement, which creates a means to repent, that allows for the good choices to really matter and count. We are truly made free, to act and not to be acted upon.

  49. Before ascribing odd teachings to church leaders, it might be well to actually figure out what they said and what it means. It’s possible, for example, that Elder Bednar taught that we should not use our agency to make wrong choices, or that wrong choices (not repented of) limits our ability to make right choices in the future. Or maybe he said something that, fairly interpreted, really does sound like “you can’t use moral agency to choose the wrong,” although I doubt it.

    So, please provide quotations and links.

  50. Frank said (back a ways): “fbisti – knowledge and agency are not the same thing. Uninformed choice is still choice.”

    To clarify my position, I agree with both of those statements. But he later said, “Agency is simply the ability to choose.” I don’t agree with that, though it could just be semantics. Depends on how one defines “ability” but in my paradigm I try to keep a clear distinction between making choices and using agency. Agency is essentially in effect continuously while we (adults) are conscious. Our thoughts/feelings and intents effect changes in our character. “Repentance” is the process by which we consciously try to improve our thoughts and intents–though obviously it isn’t solely a mental process.

    I define “Agency” as the principle/reality by which we, and only we, can change our character. (We are agents unto ourselves and we are the “book in heaven” upon which our thoughts and deeds are written) Clearly some “choices” involve intent but not all do, so we are not always becoming more or less righteous when making them. By adding in the concept of “accountability” I think my understanding/definition is clearer. A child can steal a cookie and lie about it. But, before a certain point of maturity/understanding/knowledge (as the allegorical fruit provided), they are not “accountable.” This means that they did not effect a change in their character by those actions/choices–not that there is some later “judgement” that will hold them accountable. In other words they were not exercising their agency–because their understanding/knowledge wasn’t sufficient. They, technically have no agency before that point of maturity/accountability.

  51. Aw shucks, thanks John F.!

  52. Paul Ritchey says:

    Mark B.:

    That’s fair. What I heard Elder Bednar teach (in one of his famous question-and-answer sessions in the adult session of our stake conference) is that, with respect to a wayward or misbehaving child, parents should not use the fact of the child’s agency as a reason to permit wrong choices, because the purpose of agency is not to allow us to make wrong choices, but to empower us to make correct choices. I can’t quote him, since I didn’t record him, but that’s a decent paraphrase, I think. He did not elaborate.

    Contrast that view (the purpose of agency is not to permit wrong choices) with this quote from Elder Bednar’s “And Nothing Shall Offend Them”:

    “In the grand division of all of God’s creations, there are things to act and things to be acted upon (see 2 Nephi 2:13–14). As sons and daughters of our Heavenly Father, we have been blessed with the gift of moral agency, the capacity for independent action and choice. Endowed with agency, you and I are agents, and we primarily are to act and not just be acted upon. To believe that someone or something can make us feel offended, angry, hurt, or bitter diminishes our moral agency and transforms us into objects to be acted upon. As agents, however, you and I have the power to act and to choose how we will respond to an offensive or hurtful situation.”

    Even given a charitable interpretation (which is proper), those two views are logically incompatible. Agency cannot have the purpose of allowing us to choose right (as expressed in the second, quoted statement) without also having the purpose of allowing us to choose wrong (as expressed in the first, paraphrased statement).

    Have I been unfair?

  53. It may be that the movement away from the emphasis on freedom to choose reflects a growing lack of theological sophistication. It’s a fair bet that our 19th century forbears understood this concept as being explicitly in contradistinction to Calvinism, and in particular the U of TULIP (Unconditional Election). That freedom to choose for ourselves is a very important part of Mormon theology, but I’m guessing most contemporary Mormon leaders don’t know the first thing about Calvinistic theology.

    Truer words were never spoken. (Written. Whatever.) It’s a big handicap when trying to understand why other Christians don’t think we’re Christians, especially with the Calvinist-leaning denoms. I once spent nearly an entire EQ lesson sidetracked in explaining what significance it had that Joseph came home saying “I have learned for myself that Presbyterianism is not true,” and why so many early LDS leaders were Methodist converts.

    I think that, as sometimes happens, Elder Oaks may have been misinterpreted. I don’t know what exact statement of his people might be referring to, but the aphorism I’ve generally heard is, “God didn’t give you agency so that you could choose the bad.” That seems to me to be a rhetorical flourish, a way of hyperbolically saying that, since our mission here is to learn to distinguish good from evil and choose the good, God gave us agency to help us accomplish that. It’s a tool meant to be used for our benefit.

    Then again, it is Elder Oaks – there’s no telling.

  54. Paul Ritchey:

    As Lehi taught, there cannot be any right choices unless there is the possibility (and power) to make wrong choices. Agency matters because we are “agents unto [our]selves” and therefore worthy of reward if we choose the right, and of punishment if we choose the wrong. I can’t believe that Elder Bednar doesn’t understand that principle.

    What Elder Bednar seems to be saying (and I realize that I’m relying on a distant memory of a paraphrase) is that God desires us to make right choices, that the great blessing of agency is that we can in fact choose to do right and good things, and that that is what God wants of us.

    That seems perfectly unremarkable, but a long way from suggesting that agency makes us “free only to choose righteous things.”

  55. Paul Ritchey says:

    I have to concede, since I can’t quote, alas, but that’s not what he said: he said that the purpose of agency is NOT to permit wrong choices. That is different than saying that God wants us to choose rightly. The latter is true. The former cannot be.

    And to New Iconoclast’s good point, I’m not adverse to hyperbole, but when it causes people to misunderstand fundamental doctrine (as Elder Bednar’s statement did), it’s gone too far.

    I am desperately curious to know if there’s a print source that might have given birth to the not-free-to-choose-bad nonsense. It clearly is out there, and it’s really remarkable for its inconsistency with both scripture and prophetic teaching.

  56. To say that the purpose of agency is not to permit wrong choices obviously doesn’t mean that agency does not permit wrong choices. Since that nonsense (as you rightly call it) is so clearly inconsistent with the scriptures and the teachings of the prophets (and, for that matter, simple logic–how on earth could there be right choices if there were no wrong choices?), I’m surprised that anyone would understand Elder Bednar to be suggesting it.

    I am curious what you mean by “it clearly is out there.”

  57. Paul Ritchey says:

    I mean it’s a concept that exists in our discourse and has been articulated independently, including in these comments (not that it’s crazy – speaking of ambiguities – though it is that, too).

    So what does it mean to say that the purpose of agency is to PERMIT good choices, but not bad ones (distinguishing it from the true proposition that God intended and hopes for agency to PRODUCE good choices and not bad ones)?

    Another related statement I’ve heard (but not from an Apostle) is that, once one makes a covenant, one has given up her agency to choose contrary to the covenant, as though a covenant-breaking choice is somehow not legitimate agency-wise.

  58. It makes sense to me to say that the purpose of agency is to permit us to choose good, not evil, but that we have to be able to choose evil as well as good in order to accomplish that purpose. The ability to choose good is the purpose. The ability to choose evil is a necessary condition for that purpose. The idea that agency doesn’t permit us to choose evil sounds like a horrible misconception of that idea–as well as just being obviously false.

    Similarly, it makes sense to me to say that by making a covenant we voluntarily agree to not use our agency in certain ways, which you could describe as “giving up” agency, in a colloquial sense. But the idea that we no longer have agency to choose to break the covenant sounds like a misconception of that idea–and again, it’s just obviously false.

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