A Fortunate Fall and Ontological Agency, cont.

Thanks for some good suggestions, objections, discussion re. my first post.  Let me try to kick the can down the road just a bit further with a few more reflections:

First, the Fortunate Fall  — that the Fall is good news, is extremely well attested in quite authoritative (or at least, to me, impressive) statements by LDS authorities.  To put it simply: to be fallen and then redeemed is better than never to have fallen.  I don’t have my sources here to document this – feel free to help me here if you wish – but I have little doubt of this.  Beyond Eve’s beautiful celebratory statement in Moses, which seems to me without any very close parallel in any other Christian tradition, there are many statements that go further, affirming even that Eve knew perfectly well what she was doing in “transgressing” and that it was all for the best.  Of course there are traces, and perhaps more, of the felix culpa idea before Milton in the Christian tradition.  In Benjamin Britton’s Ceremony of Carols, for example, there is a beautiful text from some middle-English (I think) source celebrating Eve’s partaking of the apple.  But the Augustinian association of the original sin of pride and sexuality as a disorder limit severely the theological development of any such notion.  So it does seem to me that LDS resources are quite distinctive in this respect – thus, for example, the deep connection I think I see between agency and bodily fecundity.

That said, I must add, or confess, that I have never been quite satisfied with the move from “sin” to “transgression,” which seems to make things just a little too easy, a little too rational in an instrumental sense  — as if the choice to “fall” could be reduced to a quasi-economic calculation of the outcomes.   The opening up of a new field for agency and redemption must involve some kind of qualitative leap, including a separation from God, a step away from the comfort of simple, immediate, unequivocal obedience to God’s commands.   This is risky territory, and you can see that I don’t quite know what I’m talking about, but it does seem to me that we miss something by making the Fall to straightforwardly rational and good and thus turning away from the pathos and the depth and, yes the mystery that connects Fall with agency.

Dave sees no problem in the meaning of agency, whereas Nate and Mark D invite me to try to explain myself a little further on agency/ontology.  Dave, you in fact exemplify the problem when you reduce agency to survival or to some other instrumental-scientific explanation.   What I am trying to get  at through a reflection on agency goes to the heart, I think, of the question of meaning.  How is human existence meaningful?  How does meaning happen?  How does this happening in our practical, active existence relate to our cognitive apprehension of what is, of the Being of beings?  If survival or some causal necessity fulfilled the question of meaning, we wouldn’t have anything to talk about, and language could be reduced to some technical communication of ends and means.  But that cannot account for our humanity, or for the meaning of things in a meaningful world. 

Now Nate raises a very good question about Kant.  Can’t we say that Kant’s making practice prior to theory (both in the epistemological doctrine that we know only what we make in the theoretical-scientific realm, and in practical philosophy proper, where moral meaning is rooted in a self-prescribed law, autonomy) is an adequate account in the philosophical tradition of agency?  Well, I think not, precisely because Kant can never recover from the neat separation between the theoretical and the practical, and between the phenomena available to knowledge and the realm of the thing-in-itself from which practical, moral reason is supposed to operate.  This gets technical, and I’m no master of Kant, but I am convinced that these separations are disastrous and can never be overcome.  To “limit reason to make room for faith” (from preface to 2nd edition of 1st Critique, I think) produces a disconnect that tends to denature both sides of the dichotomy.   To say that we are free but that our freedom is not somehow part of or connected with the way things are is untenable, and finally we end up trying to rebuild the connection, from one direction or another.  Hegel of course sees this and tries to put things back together, but then Freedom or Spirit must be the Absolute that somehow generates all and comprehends all in itself.  But it follows, then, as Marx saw, that freedom is interpreted as sheer rational, disinterested comprehension, whereby Hegel falls back into a kind of Platonic-Aristotelian privileging of contemplation, but without the subtle relation to actual moral practice that the ancients, I believe, retained.  Of course, Marx’s science of history cannot really account for agency, but merely unleashes a mad, revolutionary, totalizing agency that thinks it is authorized by science to transform reality.

But I digress.  My main point, if I have one, must be something like this:  Aristotle is right, as Heidegger sees, to look for the meaning of human action… well, practically, in some way that cannot be reduced to a unified theory of Being as available to technical mastery.  Both these authors, in my view, end up subordinating agency to something else:  Aristotle to disinterested, impersonal contemplation, and Heidegger to … well, this is harder to explain – I would say to the a kind of pure openness to Being that despises as “anthropological” or “humanist” the meaning of actual human action.  But whatever you think of Aristotle or of Heidegger, my point is finally a kind of postmodern point that intersects with Jim Faulconer’s reflections on the non-theological character of Mormonism.  To understand agency as redeemed, and to understand redeemed agency ontologically, as seems to me suggested by 2 Ne 2, is to say that there is no theoretical comprehension of finalities (in terms of classical contemplation – a model that hovers over all traditional, medieval theology, or in terms of eternal “laws” understood on the model of scientific “laws of nature,” for example) that can get us deeper than redemption or atonement itself.  There is nothing freer and nothing more real than the sacrifice that draws beings out of the closed circle of instrumentality and of knowledge-as-power and into the fecundity of meaning.  Atonement is not instrumental to agency-fecundity; atonement lies at the heart of agency.

So my attempted reading of 2 Ne 2 does not lead to some comprehensive theory or theology, but perhaps, on the one hand, back to an appreciation of covenants and practices available to the simplest saints (and thus away from the authority of intellectuals), and, on the other hand, to literary and poetic responses to the meaning of these covenants and practices.  But I, you will have noticed, am not a poet.

16 comments for “A Fortunate Fall and Ontological Agency, cont.

  1. These thoughts seem intimations of similar, and similarly difficult, notions in D&C 93, through verse 40 or so, about a tight relationship among creation-fall-atonement, agency, intelligence, truth, corporality, and fecundity.

    As I gather to be part of Ralph’s point, it should be no surprise that we are finally unable to understand these points fully because there is no more fundamental ground to stand on than the ground of Atonement and agency, which seems to be indispensable (“otherwise there is no existence”) to the Being of any beings.

    But that does not prevent the wonder at contemplating these issues, nor render such contemplation fruitless.

  2. To put it simply: to be fallen and then redeemed is better than never to have fallen

    The only way this statement makes any sense is to equivocate on the word “fallen”. If the claim is “It is better to have agency and fall and be redeemed than to never have agency”, I don’t see why anyone would dispute that.

    The problem is that it makes no sense to conflate the granting of agency with sin itself. Everyone understands that the granting of agency leads to increased opportunity for sin. But that doesn’t make the sin itself a good thing. It is only the granting of agency, rather that is the sine qua non of moral existence.

    Ultimately we are left with a garden account that makes little or no sense. It is irrational in the extreme to maintain that the granting of agency was absolutely conditioned on the transgression of holy laws. It is like we have to sin in order to have agency so that we have the freedom to sin. Well, why doesn’t God just give us agency in the first place?

    And furthermore, given the doctrine of pre-mortal existence, can anyone really even begin to claim that no one had agency before this curious incident (or whatever it stands for) took place?

    On the contrary, no one could substantively sin in a manner of deserving of divine condemnation without prior agency. The only way to make sense of the Fall is if agency came first, and the sin came second. The idea that sin leads to agency is irrationality writ large. If anything, it is the other way around.

  3. Mark D., how do you define sin? If you have agency, then you can make good choices and bad choices. In other words, I don’t think that you can separate bad choices from agency, or say that agency came before sin. In this sense, neither agency nor sin was created in the fall.

    I’m inclined to view the “knowledge of good and evil” obtained in the fall rather as a knowledge of physical pain. This is something new, something that did not exist in the premortal existence or in the garden.

  4. Dane L: I don’t think that you can separate bad choices from agency, or say that agency came before sin. In this sense, neither agency nor sin was created in the fall.

    I define sin generally to be when someone knows that something is wrong and willingly does it anyway.

    Agency logically comes before sin because it is possible to have agency and not (seriously) sin, where it is not possible to sin if you do not have some sort of agency. You can’t sin without a willing mind and the opportunity to carry the action out.

    I agree that neither agency nor sin was created in the fall. It certainly seems reasonable to claim, however, that the fall was preceded by a substantive grant of agency, and that was followed by significant sin on the part of the grantees.

    I claim that:
    1. Agency is required to sin, but does not mandate it.
    2. It is impossible to fall spiritually without sinning, by the very definition of the term.
    3. Sinning inevitably decreases rather than increases agency, by reducing the freedom of discretion for both the sinner and those that he harms.
    3. Therefore it makes no sense to claim that the fall, in and of itself, substantively increased the agency of the fallen.
    4. Instead it was agency first, then sin, then a plan to restore agency diminished or lost in the fall.

    And the Messiah cometh in the fulness of time, that he may redeem the children of men from the fall. And 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. (2 Ne 2:26)

    If there was no redemption from the fall, agency would have decreased. not increased. Agency was not created _by_ the fall, it was restored by the redemption _from_ the fall. The fall itself cannot be considered fortunate in any greater sense than the Holocaust or the BP oil spill. “Shall we do evil so that good may come? God forbid”.

  5. Mark, your definition of sin appears circular to me — you’ve defined sin = “doing wrong”, but what is “doing wrong”? Please don’t tell me it’s sin!

    But mostly I want to respond to your 4 points.

    1. I agree that agency is required to sin. I agree that agency does not mandate any specific person to any specific sin. However, from a practical perspective, I don’t believe that people with agency will sin. This sin isn’t technically the responsibility of agency per se, but rather is the responsibility of the nature of the people holding the agency. But it’s kind of splitting hairs. So from a functional/behavioral perspective, I believe that granting imperfect agency will always result in some sin.

    2. I agree — “fall”, “sin”, and “moving away from God” are all synonymous.

    3. Again, in a technical, immediate sense sin reduces agency. However, the lessons we learn from sin can increase our understanding of right and wrong and our motivation and ability to choose right over wrong. In other words, righteousness isn’t just a choice — it’s a skill. There’s more to righteousness than just the desire to do right. It also necessitates the technical knowledge and ability to do right. These are things we learn from sin, in the same way we learn to ride a bike by falling off of it. Obviously, falling off a bike isn’t technically a necessary part of riding a bike, but from a practical perspective, any inexperienced rider is going to fall off at times in the process of learning to ride safely.

    4. So, yes, agency precedes sin, but only in the way that a bike precedes skinned knees. Sin is not a thing that exists on its own, it’s only a descriptive term for a quality of certain kinds of choices.

  6. Dane L, I didn’t say sin was “doing wrong”, I said it was doing willing, conscious wrong. As for, “wrong” it is most simply defined as doing something that causes or will cause harm to oneself or others. If you ask me what “harm” is, I will say it is that which tends toward misery and death.

    I generally agree with your other points. I am making an argument against the proposition that the fall, in and of itself, was a boon to mankind. I don’t deny that it was educational, nor do I deny the inevitability of some degree of sin.

    The BP oil spill is educational, and some level of spillage in the business is inevitable. That doesn’t mean that we consider either to be a boon to society, silver linings notwithstanding. Ten years from now we won’t be claiming “I am sure glad we had the BP oil spill, because otherwise we wouldn’t know how to prevent oil spills”. Not with our heads screwed on straight at any rate. Far better to avoid a serious spill completely.

  7. I’m all for any argument that invokes choral music as evidentiary! The text, incidentally, is believed to date back to the reign of Henry V, or possibly earlier, and it’s a roundabout bit of Mariolatry, so possibly not quite doctrinally kosher. Also, Boris Ord’s setting is quite as wonderful as Britten’s.

    Your last paragraph is tantalizing–it looks like you might be headed towards something like Fichte’s attempt to bridge the theory/practice breach in Kant by investing the aesthetic with moral significance. Say more, please?

  8. Kristine, I won’t vouch for how Ralph would invest the aesthetic with moral significance, but I would do so by noting (a la Levinas and Marion) that our encounter with the world is as much about being touched by it (aisthesis) as it is about touching the world. We are passive (and so passionate) beings as much as we are active ones. At least in the 1st Critique, Kant thought that ultimately we only touch it, we are only active because we are only mind. The 3rd Critique–now there’s another kettle of fish, the kettle that Johann Gottlieb was eating from. (How’s that for caricaturing all of Kant and Fichte in two sentences?)

  9. Mark, I’m interested in this part of your commment:

    Ten years from now we won’t be claiming “I am sure glad we had the BP oil spill, because otherwise we wouldn’t know how to prevent oil spills”. Not with our heads screwed on straight at any rate. Far better to avoid a serious spill completely.

    I agree that it’s far better to avoid the serious spill completely, but I don’t see any way to avoid it other than for it to occur. We don’t prepare for problems that we haven’t experienced. So, while I wish that sin or “wrong” weren’t the best option, but I don’t see any better one.

  10. Dane L: I don’t see any way to avoid it other than for it to occur

    I can think of plenty of ways to have avoided this problem. Clearly both BP and the federal government have not had a proper conception of the cost benefit ratio of stricter regulation, an abundance of caution, and better use of technology to make these kinds of virtually irresolvable incidents vanishingly unlikely if not impossible, and effectively mitigate them when they do occur.

    To mention a trivial example, oil companies could be required to pre drill relief wells. In the computer industry, it is common to have double and triple redundancy for everything from hard drives to network equipment. This is expensive, but more than worth it given the critical nature of many computer systems. I don’t see why the offshore oil industry is any different.

  11. I’ve got to admit that the reference to “A Fortunate Fall” left me expecting something completely different. Some of my relatives are Christian Scientists and to them the term “Fortunate Fall” deals specifically with Mary Baker Eddy.

  12. Clearly both BP and the federal government have not had a proper conception of the cost benefit ratio of stricter regulation, an abundance of caution, and better use of technology

    I think you’re making my point here. In hindsight there are lots of things that could have been done — that’s always the case. But before the spill happened, BP and the federal government didn’t see these to be necessary precautions. How do you suggest they could have learned their value without the spill occurring? Sure, someone could have told them, but that presumes that the person would have prior insight to the wisdom that wouldn’t be available until after the spill.

    To phrase it in theological terms, it’s easy not to commit sin if you’re perfect. But that’s tautalogical. Imperfect people, by definition, commit sin. Fortunately, repenting for sins is the process whereby people become perfect. So sin is good and necessary (or at least necessary). When my mom was young she took piano lessons. Her brother would give her a hard time about her mistakes — “Just play the right notes, don’t play the wrong ones.” That’s a nice ideal, but just playing the right notes isn’t an option. We learn to play the right notes by playing the wrong ones, realizing that they were wrong, and then practicing (repenting) until we are capable of playing the right ones (in that particular song at least).

  13. As far as the BP oil crisis I read on CNBC that the previous US administration relaxed safety requirements in order to encourage mining. They said Brazil and all other advanced countries requirements would have prevented the BP spill. So if they are right it was not foresight of potential problems but political/financial expediency that caused the problem. A different lesson- the joys of deregulasted capitalism.

    So Dave is it possible to reduce the number of wrong notes we play? As far as exercising agency, I believe that if we were taught to exercise our agency by carefully considering the options,and the consequences of each option for the short, long, and eternal term, we would make fewer mistakes.

    Not only would we be less likely to make the wrong choice if we foresaw the consequences, we would also have less percieved trials, because we would recognise the consequences of our choices when they arrived, not as trials, but the consequences we chose.

    We can decide to give up our agency. For example we could decide to always accept without question whatever our p’hood leaders say, without question. I believe this would be easier but irresponsible, but others (particularly the young) believe the Lord will not allow leaders to go astray.

    I’ve had a Stake Pres advise that we need to choose which of the Church programes to adopt at any one time, and only adopt those that will benifit ourselves and family. Is it a sin to ignore the others, or sensible exercise of agency?

  14. So Da[n]e is it possible to reduce the number of wrong notes we play?

    Yes, it is. Looking back on what I’ve written so far, I can see that I sound pretty pessimistic about human capacity for avoiding sin. I’m actually quite optimistic about humanity, so let me clarify by saying that, while everyone is going to sin, some life strategies are certainly more inclined to sin than others.

    Going back to my piano analogy, there are two common approaches to learning to play a song. The first is to play it over and over again at full speed, making lots of mistakes along the way, in hopes that eventually your fingers will figure out the right notes. While this approach can work (mostly for simpler songs), it tends to result in bad habits and brittle learning. On the other hand, more experienced pianists tend to approach songs systematically. They divide them into sections, learn to play each section as slowly as is needed to play it right, and then once they can play the section slowly, incrementally increase the tempo until they get where they want to be. This approach takes more discipline, but it results in a deeper, more robust familiarity with the song. This approach feels slower, but for long, complicated songs, it actually works more quickly (and less frustratingly) than the first approach.

    I believe life works the same way — we careen through life, hoping for the best and crashing into all the obstacles on the way until we figure out how to avoid them, or we can take the time to reflect, examine, and plan (which I believe are some of the great benefits of prayer and scripture study) in order to identify the best paths forward. Of course there will be sin and error in both approaches, but when we allow ourselves to reflect on and repent of those mistakes, we can more quickly gain the valuable lesson hidden in those mistakes.

  15. Kristine and Jim,
    My knowledge of Fichte is a little thin and stale. So I’ll just venture that his overcoming of the theory/practice dichotomy still bears the mark of that dichotomy, which makes it radically constructivist, no? Schelling might be more promising, I gather. In any case, one main point of my speculations was to point towards some unity of theory and practice, and of knowledge with existence and agency. I’m looking for a way to say that we are active creators of meaning, but at the same time that meaning is not simply our (arbitrary) construction. Meaning is neither simply given, as an object of theory (or an “absolute” consummation of theory-practice), but neither is it purely poetic in the sense of produced. Our fecundity is open to and grateful for a fecundity and redemption that precedes and enfolds us. Or something like that.

  16. “It’s easy to play any musical instrument: all you have to do is touch the right key at the right time and the instrument will play itself.” – Johann Sebastian Bach

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