Thursday, February 18, 2010

On Agency

Due to a fluke of D.C. weather and a prophetic mandate, our stake conference was postponed this past weekend, which meant that our Elders Quorum and Relief Society enjoyed the Gospel Principles lesson that most Church units will be having this weekend on agency. In the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, we tend to use the words agency and choice interchangeably, but the two words are not synonymous. Choice refers to a specific act of selection, while agency refers to the power of acting. It is, perhaps, worth noting the etymology of both words. Choice derives from the French choisir, “to perceive,” while agency is from the Latin ago, agere, “to act.” In other words, agency refers to the exercise of decision-making power, while choice is more closely related to the perception of different alternatives. To say that we have agency is to acknowledge that God has empowered us to choose between good and evil in all circumstances, whereas choice involves a more limited understanding of a singular and particular set of options. To wit: I have been empowered by my wife to choose the dinner menu every week; I have agency when it comes to meals and can eat what I wish (or at least what I am willing to pay for, which is somewhat more problematic). My children, on the other hand, have a rather limited choice when it comes to meals; they cannot eat candy and cereal (which is what they would select if they had been given agency with regards to the menu). Instead, they have to eat what is on their plate or sit on the stairs and go hungry (and if you’ve read our annual family Valentines update, you know that this is not always an easy choice).

But agency and choice are also different in another sense. Agency is linked to the word agent and suggests that the power to act is exercised on behalf of someone, either another individual or ourselves. At times my actions represent only myself (as when I give a grade to a student in one of my classes), but I can also, on occasion, act as a representative of someone else (as when I give a grade in my current capacity as a teaching assistant; the professor is ultimately responsible for that grade, but I am empowered to act on his behalf). Now, when you and I come to the earth, the Lord has made it clear that our actions represent only ourselves; in describing the children of Adam and Eve, He said that “it is given unto them to know good from evil; wherefore they are agents unto themselves” (Moses 6:56). The challenge of mortality is learning to transcend this starting point.

The worst thing that could happen is that we could become self-absorbed, using our agency only to benefit ourselves. This is the result described by Mormon, who describes it as “a cause of much sorrow among the Lamanites; for behold, they had many children who did grow up and began to wax strong in years, that they became for themselves, and were led away by some who were Zoramites, by their lyings and their flattering words, to join those Gadianton robbers” (3 Ne. 1:29). We begin as agents unto ourselves, but if all we do with that agency is become for ourselves—lose ourselves in a ceaseless and, inevitably, fruitless search for self-satisfaction—we have failed. But if we are not to become for ourselves, what is the alternative?

The goal of this life, as it pertains to agency, is best described in the Old Testament, where the Lord commands Moses to “Speak unto the children of Israel, and say unto them, When a man shall make a singular vow, the persons shall be for the Lord by the estimation” (Lev. 27:2). Here singular is an adjective that describes separation, so a singular vow should be understood as a vow that sets the individual apart. The word persons might likewise be better understood if we read it as something like passions, appetites, will. Thus, the entire verse might be more clear if it was translated: “When a man makes a vow to separate himself (from the world), his passions, appetites, and will shall be—or become—for the Lord.” God was really telling Moses that covenants help us become for the Lord by aligning our will, appetites, and passions with his. That is the reason for which we have been given agency, so that we can become for the Lord.

Once we have made covenants and become for the Lord, we are His agents, no longer agents unto ourselves in the way that Adam and Eve’s children were but agents unto the Lord. This is the point of the Lord’s message to Newel K. Whitney and Sidney Gilbert in the Doctrine and Covenants: “Wherefore, as ye are agents, ye are on the Lord’s errand; and whatever ye do according to the will of the Lord is the Lord’s business” (D&C 64:29). Once we have made covenants, we have exercised our power as agents unto ourselves for the last time; from that point forward, we are agents unto the Lord. You occasionally will hear rebellious individuals who have a rudimentary understanding of agency say something like, “I don’t have to go to church if I don’t want to; I have my agency.” But these individuals have missed the point. As baptized members of the church we still have agency—power to act—but we have already agreed to use that power as agents of Jesus Christ. We’ve already made our choice. Our agency or power to act will, paradoxically, continue to increase in strength as we abandon the idea of choice and remember that we have already made the only choice that really matters: the choice to become an agent for the Lord.

Thursday, February 4, 2010

Fasting This Weekend?

On the first Sunday of every month members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints fast, abstaining from food and drink for a period of 24 hours and two meals. Funds that would have been spent on food are donated to the church, which disburses them to needy individuals around the world. Our fast should respond to the interrogation of Isaiah: “Is not this the fast that I have chosen? to loose the bands of wickedness, to undo the heavy burdens, and to let the oppressed go free, and that ye break every yoke? Is it not to deal thy bread to the hungry, and that thou bring the poor that are cast out to thy house? when thou seest the naked, that thou cover him; and that thou hide not thyself from thine own flesh?” (Isaiah 58:6-7).

Regarding this aspect of the fast—its potential to provide temporal support to those in need—the late President Spencer W. Kimball said, “Sometimes we have been a bit penurious and figured that we had for breakfast one egg and that cost so many cents and then we give that to the Lord. I think that when we are affluent, as many of us are, that we ought to be very, very generous. … I think we should … give, instead of the amount saved by our two meals of fasting, perhaps much, much more—ten times more where we are in a position to do it.” Fasting is, in this way, an opportunity to show the Lord that we understand the true purpose of temporal resources: to help a neighbor in need, not to acquire more temporal resources.

But fasting has an even more important spiritual purpose: it allows us to receive a fullness of joy in mortality. In a series of instructions describing how the saints should worship Him on the Sabbath, “my holy day,” the Lord explains that “on this day thou shalt do none other thing, only let thy food be prepared with singleness of heart that thy fasting might be perfect, or, in other words, that thy joy may be full” (D&C 59:9, 13). This is a beautiful promise, but what does it mean?

In the scriptures, being full of joy—or having a fullness of joy—is a description of exaltation, when the body and soul are perfectly united. The Doctrine and Covenants explain that “man is spirit. The elements are eternal, and spirit and element, inseparably connected, receive a fulness of joy” (D&C 93: 33). We can only receive a fullness of joy when our spirit and our flesh are in perfect harmony with each other, when they are inseparably connected and united in purpose. Currently, the flesh or “natural man is an enemy to God” and our spirits (Mosiah 3:19); we are engaged in a struggle to “not choose eternal death, according to the will of the flesh and the evil which is therein, which giveth the spirit of the devil power to captivate” (2 Nephi 2:29). But when we fast and subject the flesh to the spirit we win that battle and experience—if only briefly—the fullness of joy that will characterize our existence as exalted beings with a perfect, immortal body inseparably connected to our spirits.

In this sense, fasting—like bridling our passions—is an act of creation. A few months back, I wrote this about bridling our passions:

“Consider this insight from Clement of Alexandria (the earliest, and therefore most authoritative, of the post-apostolic Christian fathers): ‘The whole creation is to be understood as a synthesis: the imposing of inner order on outer material’ (from Nibley, Temple and Cosmos, 273). Clement's claim is consistent with revealed truths about the creation; as we learn in Abraham, the Gods ‘counseled among themselves to form the heavens and the earth’ BEFORE they actually ‘came down and formed these the generations of the heavens and of the earth’ (Abraham 5:3-4). The act of creation is the act of translating mental images and understandings onto physical matter.

“What does all of this have to do with bridling our passions? Consider: 1) Our passions are the products of a fallen, physical body. 2) When we ‘bridle’ them, we impose a mental or spiritual order on material substance. In other words, the act of bridling our passions IS an act of creation. We are creating ourselves--or at least our future selves--by organizing and ordering our own bodies. It is in this sense that I understand Elder Bruce R. McConkie's suggestion that ‘[i]n a real though figurative sense, the book of life is the record of the acts of men as such record is written in their own bodies. It is the record engraven on the very bones, sinews, and flesh of the mortal body. That is, every thought, word, and deed has an affect [I think he means effect] on the human body; all these leave their marks, marks which can be read by Him who is Eternal as easily as the words in a book can be read’ (Mormon Doctrine 97). As previously noted, apostles are entitled to express opinions that may not reflect official doctrine, but I believe that this particular opinion is consonant with scripture (see Revelation 20:12 on the books of life, and Alma 41 on the principle of restoration, as those who live celestial law are restored to celestial bodies, etc.). So--when we bridle our passions, our soul expands because we have extended our control over our physical bodies, and we are blessed with an everlasting dominion, because we have already begun to wield the creative power that we will exercise in the eternities.”

Our bodily hunger and thirst is one of the passions that we must bridle, and as we do so this fast Sunday we will wield a bit of the divine creative power with which we, as God’s children, have been endowed. We will also experience a small portion of that fullness of joy which awaits us in the eternities and take a small step closer to perfection. As a final note, let me point out a secular writer who got this concept. The first of Benjamin Franklin’s thirteen virtues was temperance: “Eat not to Dulness. Drink not to Elevation.” If you read his Autobiography (which I HIGHLY recommend), you’ll see that he was constantly tinkering with his diet, trying to exercise dominion over his flesh; he understood that control over his own flesh, his hunger and thirst, was a necessary precedent to the acquisition of other, more ethereal virtues.