Shape of Agency Part 2

In my last post I went through the foundational metaphor for agency in the scriptures. I argued it was a space that was cleared or opened so that people could be free. I want to continue this investigation a little by looking at early Hebrew creation accounts.

One of the most interesting books on what we might term the “basic ideas of early Israelite religion” is Jon Levinson’s Creation and the Persistence of Evil.[1] Levinson is Jewish but I think few Mormons could read it without noticing a strong parallel between what Levinson describes as ancient Israelite religion and certain tendencies in Mormon thought. Part of the book involves a critique of the very notion of creation ex nihilo. But if the “beginning” of Genesis 1:1 isn’t an absolute start to existence, what is it? He argues for a “primordial” existence not only of chaos, but of other divine beings.

Levinson sees in both Babylonian as well as Israelite religion the image of constant conflict between God and aquatic forces. These can be see in YHWH’s battles with sea monsters as well as the very story of the flood. The idea is that creation is a creation of an “opening” or “space” in the midst of chaos. The flood is God, for a moment, no longer holding back these forces of chaos. While the chaos is defeated, it is defeated only in the sense that their foces are held at bay with boundaries across which they can not pass.

You made the deep cover the earth as a garment;
the waters stood above the mountains.
They fled at Your blast,
rushed away at the sound of Your thunder,
– mountains rising, valleys sinking –
to the place You established for them.
You set bounds they must not pass
so that they never again cover the earth.
(Ps 104:6-9 // Job 38:8-11)

This notion of holding back is key, for Levinson, to understanding the Israelite mindset. Isaiah 54:7-10 uses this same imagery relative to the needs of Israel. Isaiah explicitly ties this to the covenant with Noah in verse 9. Thus this clearing of the waters of chaos is tied to other senses of chaos, whether they be war, suffering, or merely wondering where God is. Atonement is, in a certain metaphoric way, this ever ongoing battle with chaos.

While I don’t want to push this too far I want to suggest though that the very foundational archetype is the creation within chaos of a promised land for the Lord’s people.

The culmination of Levinson’s argument is surprisingly contrary to traditional liberal notions of freedom. Without going through all the arguments he presents out of the Old Testament let me summarize his position. He feels that because God is responsible for this space where freedom is possible that justice entails man submitting to God. True “freedom” in the classical liberal sense of the Enlightment isn’t part of this worldview. Rather it is the idea that freedom is simply to submit to God or oppose him. Now consider traditional liberal political philosophy where what is fundamental is human rights or inherent freedoms. Yet in the scriptures freedom is the freedom to take up duties or responsibilities. (See for example 2 Nephi 2:27) That scriptural notion of freedom can’t be considered liberalism, no matter how often people read it into the text. In Levinson’s words, “Israel will live only if she freely makes the right choice.” (142) Even in the covenant through Moses, it is on the basis of God already preparing a “clearing” for their freedom. “You have seen what I did to the Egyptians, how I bore you on eagles’ wings and brought you to me.” (Ex 19:4) Even the freeing wasn’t due to some hatred of slavery by God, but because Israel was already his chosen people.

The points I wish to bring out of this is how this clearing or opening for freedom is found throughout the Biblical text – often in a political sense. Further this freedom always is seen as something granted by God through his act of creation. Yet the freedom created is not a freedom in the Enlightenment sense of the term. I don’t think we can even say within the forms of the narrative that it is libertarian freedom. Rather it is the opening (or holding at bay forces acting upon a people) so that Israel can choose. But their only real choice is to choose to obey the one who created the opening. If they disobey then that support is withheld. The forces of chaos enter in and freedom is lost until the act of creation is repeated in some new sense.

The “sphere” of creation then can be seen on numerous levels. While we tend to think of it, thanks to Descartes and the Enlightenment, in terms of a kind of mind or soul[2], we can also think of it as the very world-horizon in which we find ourselves placed. The typology is thus a typology that can apply to numerous narratives. Indeed, I’d argue that it is the underlying typology of the Book of Mormon and its conception of agency.

I think the imagery Levinson brings out of the Old Testament is very interesting relative to the Book of Mormon. As I alluded earlier I think it helps explain 2 Nephi 2:272 Nephi 2:26-27. There we become free from the law (not be acted upon) until the end of this time. Yet our only choices are to choose liberty through the Messiah or choose captivity through the devil. As in Levinson’s analysis of the typology of Genesis 1 in the notion of freedom of Israel, the choice is merely to retain ones freedom or not. I think that if we read through the Book of Mormon it is this notion of freedom as acceptance or rejectance of the sphere of agency itself through its maintainer that is what constitutes freedom. In particular the Lehi’s notion of freedom as the ability to act and not be acted upon is only possible if there is some other agent preventing other action. As I discussed last week I believe that D&C 93 also retains this notion.[3] What is important to keep in mind is that the narrative is quite different from the narratives we typically have in post-Enlightenment philosophy about liberty and freedom. That’s not to say we can’t discuss those notions, merely that we must be very cautious about reading them into the scriptural texts.

1. Levinson’s award winning book is one of the few I’d consider a “must read” for Mormon philosophy as well as seeing how certain Mormon ideas relate to pre-exilic Judaism.

2. I’ll go through the history of the sphere in philosophy next.

3. This is not to say D&C 93 can’t be read ontologically. Just that I think our primary exegesis has to think through its connection to the traditional Hebrew conceptions of freedom.

2 comments for “Shape of Agency Part 2

  1. March 27, 2017 at 1:47 pm

    This was a truly great post Clark.

    As I’m sure you know, I am fully on board with pulling modern liberal freedom apart from “Hebraic” freedom….. With that said, the version of freedom that you speak of does sound a lot like a modern state whose primary responsibility is to enforce contracts and property relations while also remaining (ideally) neutral with regards to the terms of those contracts.

    The imagery of God holding back the chaos in order to give us space to choose doesn’t sound all that different from the freedom granted to producers and consumers within the modern state.

    Again, I absolutely do not wan to read such modern ideals into the ancient text, but I’m not seeing the big difference that you seem to see. Care to elaborate a bit?

  2. Clark Goble
    March 27, 2017 at 3:19 pm

    I don’t want to portray this sense of freedom as alien to liberal modernism. Rather I just want to note how different it is from what liberalism calls freedom (either political or ontological).

    You’re right that the state does hold a similar form. Thus to have a market and thus freedom in the classic sense one needs first to have the institutions that make a space for that market and choices. You can see then that rights of various sorts are a kind of creation by the state that enables freedoms. As I think we saw in Iraq when those institutions aren’t in place you really don’t have freedom.

    That said I’ll be taking up the philosophy of modernism next. I originally had written that part, then decided I didn’t like it and realized I wanted to write this part first even though it’s really just an extension of what I wrote last week.

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