Tuesday, September 13, 2005
My Religion and Me
WHAT IS FREE AGENCY?
We have been discussing the preface to this life, the pre-mortal existence, or what some have called the first in the three-act drama of life. We have touched on the eternal nature of our Heavenly Father and ourselves, as his spirit children. We have mentioned the spirit world and some of the preparations that were made there for our coming to the earth. It becomes necessary now to consider the matter of our freedom, without which the whole gospel plan would be meaningless.
Agency is the ability and freedom to choose good or evil. It is an eternal principle which has existed with God from all eternity. The spirit offspring of the Father had agency in pre-existence and were thereby empowered to follow Christ or Lucifer according to their choice. (Moses 4:3; D&C 29:36-37.) It is by virtue of the exercise of agency in this life that men are enabled to undergo the testing which is an essential part of mortality. (Moses 3:17, 4:3, 7:32; Abraham 3:25-28.)
Four great principles must be in force if there is to be agency: 1. Laws must exist, laws ordained by an Omnipotent power, laws which can be obeyed or disobeyed; 2. Opposites must exist—good and evil, virtue and vice, right and wrong—that is, there must be an opposition, one pulling one way and another pulling the other; 3. A knowledge of good and evil must be had by those who are to enjoy the agency, that is, they must know the difference between the opposites; and 4. An unfettered power of choice must prevail.
Agency is given to man as an essential part of the great plan of redemption. As with all things appertaining to this plan, it is based on the atoning sacrifice of Christ. As Lehi expressed it: “because that they are redeemed from the fall they have become free forever, knowing good from evil; to act for themselves and not to be acted upon, save it be by the punishment of the law at the great and last day, according to the commandments which God hath given. Wherefore, men are free according to the flesh; and all things are given them which are expedient unto man. And they are free to choose liberty and eternal life, through the great mediation of all men, or to choose captivity and death, according to the captivity and power of the devil; for he seeketh that all men might be miserable like unto himself.” (2 Nephi 2:26-30, 10:30;
Agency is so fundamentally a part of the great plan of creation and redemption that if it should cease, all other things would vanish away. “All truth is independent in that sphere in which God has placed it, to act for itself, as all intelligence also; otherwise there is no existence.” (D&C 93:30.) Expanding and interpreting this revealed principle, Lehi said: “It must needs be, that there is an opposition in all things. If not so,… righteousness could not be brought to pass, neither wickedness, neither holiness nor misery, neither good nor bad. Wherefore, all things must needs be a compound in one: Wherefore, if it should be one body it must needs remain as dead, having no life neither death, nor corruption nor incorruption, happiness nor misery, neither sense nor insensibility. Wherefore, it must needs have been created for a thing of naught; wherefore there would have been no purpose in the end of its creation. Wherefore, this thing must needs destroy the wisdom of God and his eternal purposes, and also the power, and the mercy, and the justice of God.
And if ye shall say there is no law, ye shall also say there is no sin. If ye shall say there is no sin, ye shall also say there is no righteousness. And if there be no righteousness there be no happiness. And if there be no righteousness nor happiness there be no punishment nor misery. And if these things are not there is no God. And if there is no God we are not, neither the earth; for there could have been no creation of things, neither to act nor to be acted upon; wherefore, all things mush have vanished away.” (2 Nephi 2:13; D&C 29:39)
Agency is the philosophy of opposites, and because these opposites exist, men can reap either salvation or damnation by the use they make of their agency. If it were not for the law of agency, there could be no judgment according to works and consequently no rewards or punishments. “Choose ye this day, to serve the Lord God who make you” (Moses 6:33), is the voice of the Lord to all people of all ages. (Alma 30:8; Joshua 24:15.)
Satan “sought to destroy the agency of man” (Moses 4:3), an eventuality which would have made the attainment of salvation impossible, and accordingly he was cast our of heaven.1
FOUR EXAMPLES OF FREEDOM
What is this liberty, whose very name makes the heart beat faster and shakes the world? Is it not the union of all liberties—liberty of conscience, of education, of associations of the press, of travel, of labor, of trade? In short, is not liberty the freedom of every person to make full use of his faculties, so long as he does not harm other persons while doing so?2Mr. Bastiat’s definition has merit for our purposes here, for he mentions or implies four freedoms which most of us presently enjoy and , generally speaking, take to much for granted. These are:
1. Freedom of decision
2. Freedom of action
3. Freedom of inaction
4. Freedom to become
FREEDOM OF DECISION
Suppose you are in prison bound with cords, straight jacketed, and surrounded by vicious people who are seeking to manipulate you in every way contrary to your won desires. Notice you still have a measure of freedom. Inwardly you can agree or disagree with anything they say or do! We may keep our thoughts to ourselves.
What we decide to approve or disapprove is up to us. In our premortal state we made at least one big decision to stay with our Heavenly Father and his Son in defending the principle of free agency. Even in such situations as the one described above, though you were forced to say things you did not mean or to do things you would never do if your were free to choose—even then no one can reach into your mind to see what is there and set it in order according to his will. What you decide to think is eternally your decision.
FREEDOM OF ACTION
A certain man was trying to demonstrate that we all do what we are caused to do and that there is no freedom. He held up a candle before his audience. Extending his right hand, he said, “I put my finger in the flame, it burns, I pull it out! This is cause and effect, not freedom.”
An opponent, who believed in genuine freedom, arose took the candle, and said, “I put my finger into the flame, it burns, I grit my teeth and hold it there! THAT is freedom!”
A man who spent a few weeks behind the iron curtain in the rural areas of East Germany returned recently (before 1972) to tell of his impressions. He said that there was a feeling of death. “It’s stable,” he said, “but so is death. There were no cars on the road, no people in the fields, no visible signs of life, and many signs of decay.” Where freedom of motion is greatly restricted, death ensues, the death of a person or of a nation.
The story is told of a little girl who, watching a moth attempt to struggle from the cocoon in which it was imprisoned, felt sorry for it. Getting some scissors, she cut the confining strands of the cocoon to release the struggling moth. To her startled concern, the moth ceased it struggle and died. When, sobbing, she told her father what had happened, he said, “Now you know that often life itself depends on putting forth effort and having to exert oneself against things that are in the way. The moth instinctively fought to break open the cocoon because in so doing, he gained the strength he would need to live, to fly, to find food. You tried to help him but you robbed him of his one big chance to make himself free.” So it is with many people who are straining against the confines of their lives. It is best, beyond seeing that they don’t hurt themselves, to give them freedom of motion to a successful breakthrough.
FREEDOM OF INACTION
“I can, not do, anything I choose to not do.” Inaction sometimes seems the easiest course, but there are limits. You cannot cease to exist. The essential intelligence mentioned earlier is indestructible and therefore unavoidable. Among the impossibilities, therefore, if your mental health is sound, are: becoming someone other than yourself; destroying all consciousness by relapsing into the condition of a billiard ball without freedom or individuality. You cannot cease being, in some measure at least, an active agent.
There is however, still an open area of inactivity that we are free to enter, though it be dangerous. It has become the common practice in the Church to speak of people who do not come to the meetings, who do not have Church jobs, but who are nevertheless members, having been baptized, as inactive. Active membership in the Church implies motion, effort, growth. It is desirable if one wishes to make progress, for that is what the Church is for. Nevertheless inactivity is permitted; a person is free to do nothing if that is what he wants, and there are many who do.
The most basic inaction of life is this:
Behold, here is the agency of man (freedom to act for itself and at the other side of that, freedom not to act), and here is the condemnation of man; because that which was from the beginning is plainly manifest unto them, and they receive not the light. (D&C 93:31.)
To “receive not the light” which would tell us ceaselessly that we are free, that there is more we could have done, can now do, and may yet do, is to give favor to the darker aspects of the soul, which are found in the heavy down pull of the body. It is to flout, ignore, harden ourselves against the lightful elements, our spirits, which are glory laden and innocent when we enter mortality. They may encourage and persuade, but no one will force us to do otherwise if we choose to be inactive.
FREEDOM TO BECOME
This is a fourth kind of freedom, the most vital and most exciting and most enduring freedom. We hide it from ourselves and try to convince ourselves that our guilt feelings and anxiety feelings are all over the first three. You know what we are talking about here if you are a writer with a message in your heart who never sits down at the typewriter; a musician who can not discipline himself to practice or to master the mechanics; an artist who shies away from brush and canvas; a cook, mechanic, inventor, physicist, genealogist, a whatever, who backs off hardest from the thing he could become best qualified to do.
To be fully free is to unfold all the strains, facets, and functions latent within us which help us become what God created us to be! We are enslaved to the degree that we fall short of that self-realization. That kind of freedom, like the eight-day flowering of a bud into a rose, is the genuine freedom, the freedom to become what is in us to become. This is what Bastiat called “the freedom… to make full use of his faculties.”
There are Latter-day Saints in parts of the world who are meeting the challenge of becoming Saints in the midst of political tyranny. It is sometimes more possible to become in the midst of greatest difficulty. In fact, sometimes we need to be blessed with problems to make us put forth enough effort to become more than we are. While we stand pat in defending and scrapping over the first three freedoms, this one may be slipping from our fingers. We may paradoxically be digging the grave of freedom or losing it by default.
DIFFERRENCES BETWEEN MAN AND BEAST
We can get at what this freedom is by asking, what do we have that animals do not? Pressed to distinguish man’s advantages over other forms of life, those who study such matters often mention four qualities:
1. Man’s power to think in abstractions. A house pet can see the marks “7 plus 5 equals 12” and can be trained to understand the formula in the sense that he reacts to it: taps his paw, or learns to take it as a sign of forthcoming food. He does not, however, understanding the seven-ness, five-ness, plus-ness, or wquality. Those are all abstractions.
2. Men are equipped with the amazing power of language. Shakespeare knew and used some 25,000 words. The rest of us have about 5,000 on the average. Beyond his verbal powers, man has the fantastic ability to communicate his feelings, responses, needs, and subtlest shades of thought by facial and symbolic means and be understood as if by magic.
3. Men “tie together” their past and futures. These ideas have no other relationship, apparently, except in men’s minds. We are uniquely the “time-binding” species, capable of ever-increasing expansion of memory and thus of imagination and projection. We can think a million miles ahead, or imagine a million years back, or picture what it would be like to be on the other side of the moon. Man can. Can other animals? Apparently not. Decisions, projects, and plans can be infinite in scope—not so for the squirrel who at best plans for next winter. Man can build on the experience of all men in all ages.
4. Man is capable in a measure of predicting and creatively controlling his environment. The best of dogs or birds have not learned interplanetary travel, nor written poems and symphonies, nor filled other lives with expressive, creative activities.
5. Man is the spiritual offspring of God. This is the most important difference of all. Through the restored gospel we learn this most basic truth and become aware of the spark of godhood within us. From the very beginning man was given dominion over the beast of the field who do not share man’s spiritual heritage.
God will assist us to magnify the freedom of becoming by increasing these qualities of life to their fullness, to intensify our mental life, to intensify our communication with ourselves and with all other kinds of intelligence, to increase our mastery of earth as preliminary to our mastery of the universe, to increase our creative abilities. One step forward in any of these areas increase our freedom. Thus it is important, as the scripture says, to be “anxiously engaged in a good cause (D&C 58:27-29) and to be involved in something greater than we are which causes us to extend ourselves.
One step backward diminishes that freedom. The divine way for increasing our freedom by increasing our capacities is through “persuasion, by long-suffering, by gentleness and meekness, and by love unfeigned.” (D&C 121:41-43.) The opposing method is that of Lucifer—force. We opposed force as spirits, and many of us continue to oppose it here.
God gave us a privilege to advance like himself. He made his work the fulfillment of our purposes. “This is my work and my glory—to bring to pass the immortality and eternal life of man.” (Moses 1:39.) Every step of the way our Heavenly Father has plans laid to help us, but not to interfere with our freedom—not to cut us free and destroy us, but to give us difficulties with which to cope and thus to grow.
Let us now turn to what it means to say “we make ourselves.” How much really depends on us?
HAVE YOU REALLY ACCEPTED FREEDOM?
It is common to suppose that all of us want more freedom. We pay lip service to the idea. As a matter of fact, though, a little serious and quiet “in looking” will show that we have deep longings in the opposite direction. All of us want an escape from freedom. Freedom can be frightening. How can this be?
Fatalism, behaviorism, predestinarianism, and mechanism all say: Everything that happens has to happen and whatever is, is right. Nothing is avoidable. Few of us believe or even seem impressed with these doctrines. Yet we sometimes seek a permanent, unanswerable, and effective excuse that says, in effect, “You couldn’t help it.” We want to escape from the responsibility of having to say, “I could have done something about it.” We see freedom as what it has always been—responsibility.
It actually is a great enticement, a great comfort, if we can believe (or at least have others believe,) that when it gets right down to it, we are not responsible for what happens. “I can’t help,” we say, or, “It’s not my fault.”
A felling of fatalism is reflected sometimes even within the Church as people try to shirk responsibility: “Why worry about a graduate degree? The world will be blown up by then, and it won’t matter.” “Don’t plan. Just get a bomb shelter and a year’s supply of food.” There is a tendency to regard a patriarchal blessing as akin to fortune-telling—saying what will happen to you instead of what can happen, still leaving it up to you.
The fact is that a certain relief is felt when one can finally say, “It is my fault. I could and should have done more, and I am still trying.” There is more to be done. This is true, not just in the sense that if things were different and you were different, more could be done. With everything just as it is, there is still more you might do if you want to do it as much as you want to avoid doing it.
“I cannot do otherwise,” we say. Why not? Someone else, looking the situation over, not unkindly, might say, “What about doing this? Have you tried that?” until we wonder whether we have done anything at all.
“The world has need of willing men,” says the hymn. (Hymns, no. 206.) It means men who are willing to accept the responsibilities of freedom, to ride the waves in, like a skilled surfer, risking a dangerous fall, but steadily, practiced, and surefooted. He knows a thrill and the senses of accomplishment that is never known by the lazy beachcomber who grudgingly moves up the beach as the tide comes in and never dares to try.
We are not alone. God is not dead, and he will help us however badly we may feel we have failed. The only real failure is not to try, not to become, not to extend the bounds of our freedom and our responsibility. Knowing your own weakness, “Be thou humble; and the Lord thy God shall lead thee by the hand, and give thee answer to thy prayers.” (D&C 112:10)
1. Bruce R. McConkie, Mormon Doctrine (Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1966,) pp. 26-27
2. Frederic Bastiat, The Law (New York: The Foundation for Economic Education, 1964), p.51