One of the themes of conference that emerged for me was that of agency. Elder Hales and President Monson (priesthood session) both spoke on this topic directly. One idea from the scriptures, which both men shared, is that agency is God-given. This might seem unambiguous and straight forward, but it brings to my mind questions about what is agency, and how is it given?
What Is Agency?
There has been a centuries old debate regarding free will, that for the most part the Mormon Church and its members seem blissfully unaware. I have only scratched the surface of it myself. Many of the greatest philosophers have concluded that the choices that humans make are the results of prior causes – and thus there is no free will. Some theologians assert that God is so absolute that everything that happens is a form of divine intervention – and thus there is no free will (or at least it is greatly foreshortened).
For the most part this assumption of free will in Mormonism suits me just fine, since I believe is free will. Yet, when basic free will is just assumed as a given, I think it is then easy to miss out on the possible insight that ‘free will’ (in philosophical and theological contexts) and agency (in a Mormon context) are different things.
I did a little searching for definitions, and found a couple from a Merriam-Webster online dictionary that I like. For free will we have:
Freedom of humans to make choices that are not determined by prior causes or by divine intervention.
And for agency we have:
The capacity, condition, or state of acting or of exerting power.
From the above definitions we can see that while there may be some overlap between the two terms, there are important distinctions as well. With free will one may make independent and original choices, with agency we have the capacity to bring such choices about – or to act on our will.
How Is It Given?
The scriptures say that God gave us our agency. With the above definitions in mind, it seems then that what God gave us was the stuff of capacity, but not necessarily will. It is my personal opinion that free will is an eternal thing, likely associated with our ‘intelligence’. If God were to absolutely give us this will, it seems that this would be a form of creation out of nothing – where at one point in time we were without any will at all, and then God absolutely gives us will. This places God right back into a position of being responsible for moral evil in the world. If God absolutely gives us our will, why did he not give us better or stronger wills?
Now, if what God gave to us is agency, rather than will, it all begins to make more sense to me. If we consider that our spirit bodies and/or our mortal bodies (and ultimately our resurrected bodies) are given to us by God, then this speaks of capacity which we may not have had as intelligences. This would avoid much of the problem of attributing moral evil to God since it would be our eternal will involved, and gives meaning to God-given agency.