The Great Plan of Happiness and (Apple TV’s) Severance

Apple TV’s series Severance is brilliant. Its topology in multiple dimensions is novel, strange, and thought-provoking. I want to talk about it because it problematizes Mormon theology in interesting ways. It is bursting at the seams with possible discussion topics, lesson plans, and late-night talks with family members among members of the Church. If you haven’t seen the show, there is really no point in reading on because this post is full of spoilers that will ruin the surprise in the unexpected directions the show takes. The series is just too beautiful to let my blog post ruin it with untimely reveals. So, back away if you haven’t watched it. Some future version of yourself will thank you.

The plan of Salvation, getting a body, and veil of forgetfulness

Recall the show’s central conceit is that a mysterious company called Lumon has created technology that can be implanted in your brain that allows your consciousness to be split into your work-self and your everyday self (presumably the true self). People have signed up for various reasons, but while at work, you have no memory of who you are, what your circumstances in life are, or anything about your previous life. You keep your set of knowledge skills, a working memory of how the world works (for example, you might remember details about the city of Baltimore, but you cannot remember anything about your place in the world or your relationship with Baltimore). Your true self enters into a Lumon contract freely, but your work self is thereby bound by that contract.

The trouble begins when your Lumon self has had enough and wants out of the contract. This is what happens to Britt Lower’s character Helly. She is miserable. She hates being a Lumon employee. She tries to escape multiple times. Finally, she sends a message to her outside self in a video asking her to release Helly from this work. Her outside self sends her a message back that she is not going to help her and to knock off trying to escape. She cannot leave. Helly feeling the injustice of her condition in this place starts to try harder to get out, even things like trying to injure herself to send a message to outside self that she can do damage to her outside self from right there in Lumonland.

So to LDS theology. Clearly, there are resonances with the plan of Salvation. There is no memory for the Lumon employees of their preexistence. They left that world freely, but are held to the conditions of LumonEarth based on a contract for which they apparently signed but have no memory of making this contract. And this sets up an ethical dilemma.

The body plays a vital role in our theology. Presumably, we all argue that the body teaches us things that cannot be learned in any other way. Theologian Deidre Green puts this nicely in her book on Jacob in the Maxwell Institute’s Theological Introduction to the Book of Mormon series,

The inestimable value of each human being attested by the death of Christ includes the body and the eternal relationship between an individual and Christ that is formed through their shared em-bodied experiences. Also valuable is the knowledge attained through the body that cannot be gained in any other way…Jacob is at pains to communicate that intelligence is located within the body and that a resurrection is required to retain that intelligence post mortally. In other words, neither minds nor spirits are the sole location of knowledge; there is knowledge about how to be in the world that is received through the body and necessarily re-mains in the body. This teaching implies that some truths can never be extrapolated from our embodied experience into rational thought; rather, this knowledge is forever only available through the body (Green 2020:26-27).

If this is true, then promises made in a preexistent state would have to be conditioned on knowledge we could not possibly know then but might find out in our bodily sojourn here on Earth. The terms of the agreement become untenable, just like in Helly’s case (in the show, we are led, rightly, to sympathize with her rather than the person who has landed her in Lumon). In coming to Earth under these conditions, has something manipulative and unsettling occurred?

There are some other things I want to explore with this show, but we’ll come back to those in another post. Let’s start with this. In coming to Earth, what if we learn things that make the conditions of our being here no longer possible to embrace? While it might hold legally, is it ethical for the company to keep Helly to her agreement if she is still an autonomous free agent while in the company. What of us? Are the conditions of the test inherently ethically unstable?

Discuss.

Comments

  1. lastlemming says:

    The questions you raise had not occurred to me and I will need some time to contemplate them. But I still wanted to thank you for calling attention to the show, which is the best I ‘ve seen in years.

  2. Hadn’t thought of this connection to Severance – love it. Weird, uncomfortable show but I agree the payoff is worth it.

    I don’t really believe in the “test” version of the plan of salvation or that we made decisions about coming here or that God would intentionally hide from us. And this is a good example of why that belief is really problematic and suggests a capricious, unfair God. And I don’t believe in a capricious, unfair God.

  3. wayfarer says:

    I do believe in the ‘experience’ model of the plan of salvation as a means to increase our capacity for compassion. I spoke to a 93 year old friend this week who has recently recovered from covid, who said that she has learnt so much about human compassion and love for others through the past 2 years, which I had seen simply as unnecessary suffering.

  4. LOVED THIS SHOW. I think the plan of salvation is very analogous to this show. I sometimes wonder if the narrative of the War in Heaven is actually false propaganda that the evil side uses to trick us into thinking that they were good. I mean, what if Lucifer was actually the freedom fighter, and actually had a better plan instead of the pseudo-communism as he presented in the Book of Abraham.

    This makes me think of the His Dark Materials trilogy and how the God was actually the evil one.

  5. You describe exactly the scenario of sexual minorities who were promised by Church leaders that mixed orientation marriages would work out OK and would be a healthy way to proceed, even being beneficial to the gay spouse. And then 5, 10, 15 ,20 years later the married couple realizes through lived experience the mental, emotional, physical, and spiritual toll such an arrangement exacts. Decisions were made on incomplete and incorrect counsel from authority figures and systems. Today we as a society know better and certainly the lived experience of the couple who made the marriage commitment witness that such an arrangement was entered into without any kind of informed consent.

    Decisions were made using the best information we had at the time, but when new information comes along, there is all kinds of pushback to hold mixed orientation couples together in an arrangement made on faulty counsel and lack of knowledge.

    Do you ethically hold expectations that a mixed orientation couple stays together using yesteryear’s now discarded expectations… especially in the light that the Church no longer councils people into mixed orientation marriages?

  6. BHodges says:

    Love the show and love the post, SteveP!

    What if we learn things that make the conditions of our being here no longer possible to embrace?

    This reminds me of a fascinating book I read called “Transformative Experience” by philosopher L.A. Paul. She’s looking at decision making in circumstances where a choice will lead to a radically changed situation that a person can’t rationally assess in advance. She uses the thought experiment of vampires. Suppose all your friends became vampires and they come to you and tell you how incredible it is, that they have found ways to minimize harm to others and that vampirism is different than stereotypes suggest. And you trust these people, but can you make an informed decision? She points out how this is similar to other choices we make, like becoming a parent, marrying a person, joining a religion, etc. The choice itself results in changes to the person who made the choice, making them different than they were in a way they can’t understand until they’ve experienced it. One suggestion she makes in how to still make a rational decision in such cases is to ask ourselves about the value of changing versus staying the same. If I remember correctly she talks about such decisions as laden with faith. I hadn’t thought about it in connection with Severance until I read your post!

    While it might hold legally, is it ethical for the company to keep Helly to her agreement if she is still an autonomous free agent while in the company.

    This gets at the anthropology of consciousness, right? Is Helly R. an autonomous person with the same rights as her outie? Watching the show it’s obvious to side with her, she experiences real consciousness and real distress. A more ethical way would be to allow innies an opt-out possibility. To do otherwise seems like slavery.

    What of us? Are the conditions of the test inherently ethically unstable?

    I think LA Paul offers one possible way to preserve the ethics of the theology of the veil, but for me personally I’m not really sure what pre-mortality really looks like and think that it is impossible for us to make a fully informed decision about mortality, except for the decision that change is desired even though it entails risk.

  7. BHodges says:

    PS- in other words, I like what Deidre Green describes of mortality as a place to facilitate moral growth through shared experience generating empathy and bond-building, and LA Paul perhaps offers a model that preserves the ethics of the setup.

  8. Nathan, a crucial comment and insight. My second installment for my four planned “Severance” posts is about the character Irving (played by John Turturro) and his experience of “Severance,” where we will do a deep dive into the issues+ you just raised.

    Elisa, I’m not down with the “test” model either. I see this life as a chance to create a work of art. More on this in another installment on “What is life for?” as we examine the tasks assigned to the severed by the Lumon Corp. A foretaste of what’s coming comes from my AML post about my new BCC book “Heike’s Void,” in which I say the following about the characters of that book:
    “They reflect my theological conviction that God has no plan for our lives (if he had one, I long ago thwarted it with my aimless choices and poor judgment—a trait my characters share), only desires that we live meaningfully. God provides the capacity for music, but we are to fashion our instruments, learn to play them, develop their score and themes, and improvise freely, considering the other players and contingencies that emerge. Our lives are a work of art we offer back to God. Evolutionary biology has taught me that we do not live in a deterministic universe but one of chaos and randomness. Mind you, there are regularities like those that allow us to sail: winds, tack, and knowledge that will enable me to navigate on the ocean of this fragile existence. And the Gospel has taught me I am a free agent. But all and all, my theology is grounded in the notion that we are here (not just here on Earth, but here in existence) to create both meaning and beauty.”

    Blair, I really like your bringing up L. A. Paul in this. She does seem to offer a unique solution I had not considered. The trick is the amount of trust (in her thought experiment, the trust in your Vampire friends). In the severance case, it’s an interesting twist in that you have to have trust in your outie and trust that your outie knew what it would be like within Lumon. Hellie communicates that she is miserable, but her outie does not trust that her innie understands what her integrated person would think. This opens an interesting question about what’s going on. Can the outie imagine what life is like on the inside (likely not)? Does the outie see the innie as so utterly other that they don’t care what the innie faces (I burn my future self down all the time by accepting things that I end up having to do later and get really mad that my past self took on these obligations when I get to the future where they have to be performed). Does the innie trust that the outie really had a complete picture (probably not). So sticking this in the preexistence gets as problematic, in that clearly, we had no idea what we were getting into (“Remove this cup from me . . . seems relevant here). Nevertheless, I think your point with Paul is interesting because often, we have no idea what we are getting into. How do promises work, then? Such an interesting question!

  9. Interesting, to say the least. In real life I understand the concept of Agency to be the natural and uncreated (there is no *gift* of *free* agency) reality in which we, as individuals exist. We will (as in “freewill”) ourselves to be honest, kind, etc. or less so regarding each of these traits/attributes. Our actions, thoughts, aspirations, and choices are continually improving or degrading our character because of Agency. AND only we can make those changes. Only we are “accountable” for the state of our character. We are *agents* unto ourselves.

    So a question: in both the notion of Pre-existence and in the fictional Severance narrative, is the state of our character a function of both or independent in each “sphere” of existence? If we were especially kind and caring and honest, etc. in the pre-mortal existence is our character (and/or our personality) in mortal life affected by that?

  10. The thing I kept thinking while watching the show is, what prevents an inside person from just deciding that they don’t want to do the work anymore? Just go on strike, be there and have a coffee and take a nap and be insubordinate. Yes, they have the apology break room experience, that is tedious and manipulative but just decide to not comply or feign “repentance” and get back to your work-avoidance. Yes, they mentioned that the pay to the outside person could be docked but if the inside person absolutely refuses to work to the point the outside person is receiving no pay, regardless of what reason the company provides them they would simply decide to stop taking themselves to the office each day and go work somewhere else. Perhaps there is an employment contract that has been signed, but would it require them to keep showing up to offer their body for “work” when they receive no compensation due to their inside person refusing to go along with the arrangement?

  11. Sheldon Lawrence says:

    Thank you for recommending this show. It was completely obsorbing and thought provoking. Comparing it to the plan of salvation, for me it drives home the necessity of universal salvation. The injustice of not knowing exactly what we’re getting into with this life is mitigated by the idea that no permanant harm will come from the experience, and indeed a lot of long term good in terms of our soul’s evolution. And, presumably, souls we know and love had alreayd gone through it and recommend it, inspite of its occasional horrors.

    Imagine if in the show they took a group of people and said, listen, you’re going to go through this experience, your memory of your current life will be wiped, it will last about six months, it’s going to feel tedious and pointless but also there will be moments of beauty and love. During the experience you’re going to hear and even believe some wierd myths about how eternal hell awaits the people who mess up, but in the end you’ll find everyone comes out alright. No permanant harm will come. We’ll bring your former memories and sense of self and review your life to see what you can learn from it.

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