Thanks, Marc for the introduction, and for the opportunity to converse with friends old and new at T & S. Before I annoy (at least some of) you with some political reflections, let me run past you some thoughts on agency and atonement that occurred to me in trying to teach Religion 121 (Book of Mormon Part 1) to BYU students. I’m not sure I connected with many of themwith these ontological meditations on Second Nephi 2, but I’m hoping somewhere out there in this cyberspace I might find some interested interlocutors.
As I review the question of agency with reference to 2 Nephi 2, I notice three aspects of a rich and distinctive teaching on agency in the Restored Gospel:
1) agency is redeemed
2) agency is bodily & fruitful
3) agency is a principle of reality
1) Agency is Redeemed
The Fall is finally good news (22-25) because it opens up the possibility of redemption through the Father’s loving sacrifice of His Son. The joy that is offered through the Son’s infinite atoning sacrifice is a joy of infinite possibility, the possibility of acting for ourselves and not being acted upon (v. 26) in the meaningful context of eternal life. In the present mortal probation we exercise our agency most fully by responding to this Sacrifice with our own gift of “a broken heart and contrite spirit” (7), and this free response opens the possibility of freedom on another order: we are “free to choose liberty and eternal life, through the great Mediator of all men…” (27). That is, the exercise of agency in offering our broken heart and contrite spirit – in repenting and embracing the Atonement – affords us the possibility of a richer, eternal agency: in this way we are free1 to choose freedom2 . This “second order” freedom might be called “redeemed agency.”
This is why we have a doctrine of a “Fortunate Fall” (compare Milton’s “felix culpa”) in which redemption not just a repair, but a new and richer good. Thus the atonement is not merely instrumental or extrinsic to the meaning of freedom; the redemption of agency is intrinsic its very meaning, to the choice of “liberty” itself.
2) Agency is Bodily and Fruitful.
Next I notice that the development or unfolding of our agency is somehow deeply connected with our bodiliness and with the powers of procreation. Our “innocent” state, prior to the possibilities of joy/misery and good/sin (23), seems to be associated with man’s pre-procreative condition. “Adam fell that men might be…” (25): The Fall may be seen as a choice to become fruitful and to need redemption. (See J. Holland, Christ & New Covenant, p. 204). The eternal meaningfulness of agency seems to be connected at once with its being bought with an infinite sacrifice and with its expression in the generous fecundity of procreation. Thus in Moses 5 Adam, in rejoicing in the redemption, “began to prophesy concerning all the families of the earth,” and declares that “again in the flesh I shall see God.” (10) And Eve immediately associates the joy of redeemed agency (“we should never have known good and evil, and the joy of our redemption…”) and eternal life with the possibility of having seed. (11)
(Note then in v. 13 that there occurs what might be called a “second Fall,” not apparently a necessary consequence of the first, in which men “loved Satan more than God” and became “carnal, sensual, and devilish.”)
This corporeal quality of agency might be correlated with scriptures in the Doctrine and Covenants that express the eternal significance of our bodiliness: such as: “…spirit and element, inseparably connected, receive a fullness of joy.” – 93:33.
3) Agency is a Principle of Reality
This is a very striking feature of 2 Nephi 2: Without the plan of salvation, directed as it is towards redeemed agency, everything falls apart – or, in the event, and what comes to the same thing – everything falls together into “a compound in one” in which “all things have vanished away.” (11-12) This seems indeed to indicate that agency is not simply a deep principle of human meaning, but is in fact at the heart of reality, of the very possibility of the Being of beings. The very existence of “things” as distinct and meaningful, the very heterogeneity of existence could not “come to light” and thus could not in fact be except for beings capable of meaningful (thus, redeemed & fruitful) choices.
Agency thus may be understood as the “wonder that is keeping the stars apart” (a strangely evocative phrase from some e.e. cummings poem),the deep meaning that sustains the very “thinginess” of things that allows them to exist and stand forth or shine.
It is this third point that offers me a direct point of engagement with the Western philosophical tradition. For it is clear that every significant philosophical standpoint must articulate some connection between human meaning (“ethics”) and the way things are (“metaphysics,” or “ontology”). My proposition is that nowhere in the philosophical tradition can we find an adequate account of human agency. Every philosophy attempts to articulate human meaning within some understanding of a larger reality, but each finally explains it away or otherwise undermines it. Rather than subjecting human freedom to some prior interpretive scheme, some understanding of being, Redeemed Agency should be considered a guide or a touchstone in seeking philosophical approximations of a truth that will always exceed any philosophical (not to mention scientific) categories. There is no insight more originary than the meaning performed in accepting and freely responding to the gift of Atonement.