The Wheatley Institution

Fellow Notes

Education & Agency

“If our theology does not inform our moral lives, then it is a vain enterprise.”

Terryl L. Givens | January 12, 2015
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A person exercises their agency by moving forward with their life, having been properly educated about the consequences.

A right faith is an excellent and valuable thing. But it is advantageous no further than it
. . . leads us to live an holy and godly life.
-Jonathan Mayhew

If our theology does not inform our moral lives, then it is a vain enterprise. In my recent study of Mormon theology, I have come to see one overly simplistic version of a core principle as a potential moral hazard when it comes to engaging the contemporary world. In Mormonism’s cultural grammar, Lucifer’s plan to destroy agency has often been associated with coercion. A common version of the story holds that his intention was simply to “force” people to be righteous, or to keep the commandments. The expression “sought to destroy the agency of man” has in common parlance been equated with a strategy of compelling human beings to do the right thing. Such a reading is problematic, for reasons besides its naiveté. (It is hard to see how an appeal to force could be persuasive with a substantial proportion of the heavenly hosts.) Clearly, there are far more subtle and sophisticated ways to “destroy the agency” referred to in the scriptural passage—principal of which is the simple tampering with the consequences of choice.

If our theology does not inform our moral lives, then it is a vain enterprise

If every choice a person made resulted in totally unforeseen and unpredictable consequences, one would be inhabiting a realm of chaos. Agency would be meaningless and freedom effectively nonexistent if no reliable principles existed by which to make choices that were inexorably attached to the particular ends desired. This is what the Book of Mormon prophet Lehi suggests in his great sermon on freedom, when he says that “men are instructed sufficiently,” “and the law is given to men,” and that as a result they are “free forever, . . . to act for themselves and not to be acted upon, save it be by the punishment . . . according to the law” (2 Ne. 2:5, 26). That insight produced in early Mormonism a different conception of “Satan’s plan” than commonly obtains in current Mormon discourse. They understood the Book of Mormon heresy of saving one in his sins in just such terms.

The theological implications of this reading are striking: they delimit the workings of grace and undergird the Mormon conception of eternal life and theosis. As section 88 tells us, that which doesn’t obey a law “cannot be sanctified” by either justice or by mercy (35). Because law is the principle by which choice entails consequence. By this logic, an undeserved punishment or an unchosen outcome are both challenges to moral agency; in both cases the meaning of one’s choice has been vacated and freedom compromised. One inevitably chooses one’s outcome (with the understanding that in the uneven playing field of this mortal world, complicating factors and mitigating circumstances always qualify that claim, and that is why Atonement allows one to re-choose without violating consequence).

Severing consequences from choice provides a powerful illusion of freedom

But the implications for a Mormon perspective on contemporary moral trends are equally dramatic. If the work of the destroyer unfolds here in lieu of in heavenly councils, coercion is unlikely to be its principal form. Severing consequences from choice provides a powerful illusion of freedom, even as agency is radically undermined. The pro-abortion rhetoric of our day provides an excellent case in point, whereby the undermining of natural consequences and accountability, and thus the effectual undermining of actual freedom, masquerades as a celebration of “choice” and freedom. (Or, as Elder Oaks has written, “using arguments of choice to try to justify altering the consequences of choice is a classic case of omitting what the Savior called the ‘weightier matters of the law” (“Weightier Matters,” Ensign 31.1 (January 2001):13–15.) By contrast, those policies and strategies that enhance the quality of and access to education, mechanisms that empower the individual to make life choices in the full clarity of consequences and outcomes, are furthering the project of mortal agency and moral independence Hence the twin Mormon emphases on education and on agency make perfect theological, as well as ethical, sense.