Radical Freedom, Radical Grace — Part 1
This is a post that’s been brewing for a really long time. I’ve got bits and pieces written in fragment after fragment in my drafts folder. It’s a big topic. It’s an important one. At the expense of sounding melodramatic, it pretty much sums up my entire philosophy for living on this planet with other people.
It’s too big a topic to cover comprehensively in a format like this, but I figured I’d at least try to articulate some of the most important philosophical underpinnings. Then I’ll follow it up with a post on how this approach affects the way I interact with people. For the record, this is a faith-based perspective that is deeply informed by my Mormon beliefs and my own experiences with God.
Quite simply, it goes like this: I believe in a world of radical freedom and radical grace.
Books upon books have been devoted to the issue of free will (or “agency” in Mormonspeak), but for me, it all boils down to something C.S. Lewis once said:
Free will, though it makes evil possible, is also the only thing that makes possible any love or goodness or joy worth having.
As human beings, we seem to intuitively understand that coerced virtue really isn’t virtuous. Have you ever received a gift that was extended grudgingly? I don’t know about you, but I’d rather not have the gift. Have you ever done something, not because you felt in yourself that you should, or because you really wanted to, but because there was some external pressure that essentially forced you to do it against your will? It’s an unpleasant experience — and in serious or repetitive cases, one that can cause deep trauma and emotional scars. (In fact, we often call this sort of thing “abuse.”)
Not to get all nerdy on you, but there’s a reason the Borg of Star Trek are such compelling villains (some of the most terrifying ever created): they take away not only freedom of action, but freedom of thought through forced assimilation. They eradicate freedom in the most intimate, personal spaces. It’s horrifying.
Mormonism has a pretty fascinating explanation for why human freedom is so important. As opposed to most of the Judeo-Christian world, which posits that we are God’s creations and could not exist without Him, Mormonism says that within each human being there is a spark of intelligence that can be neither created nor destroyed. This is called being “self-existent,” a characteristic that most other believers on Earth impute only to God.
I don’t think most Mormons appreciate how radical this is. We are “agents unto ourselves,” not because of any external factor, but because of who we are. We are free by virtue of our self-existence. It is not something that even God can give or take away.
This is an earth-shattering concept of freedom, one that has profound implications about the nature and purpose of this life.
But in order to get to that, let’s take a little detour through the Garden of Eden.
The Blessed Fall
Mainstream Christianity sees what happened to Adam and Eve in the Garden as a true Fall. A step in the wrong direction. A major blunder that if Adam and Eve could have just avoided, we’d all be in Paradise now, and none of this ugly pain stuff would have ever happened.
But Mormonism says that without the Fall, there could be no progression. That even though Adam and Eve introduced death, pain, and suffering into the world, they later rejoiced that they had done so:
And Adam blessed God and was filled…saying: Blessed be the name of God, for because of my transgression my eyes are opened, and in this life I shall have joy, and again in the flesh I shall see God.
And Eve, his wife, heard all these things and was glad, saying: Were it not for our transgression we never should have had seed, and never should have known good and evil, and the joy of our redemption, and the eternal life which God giveth unto all the obedient.
And Adam and Even blessed the name of God, and they made all things known unto their sons and their daughters.
It’s kind of a startling thing to hear people praising God for their mistakes! But maybe Adam and Eve were on to something…
(NOTE: I dare someone to give this a go in Sunday School this week and then report back to me on the reaction: “Thank Thee, Father, for the chance to come down here and make a royal mess of it…”) 🙂
You see, if we really believe that we are free agents by virtue of our self-existence…and if we really believe that the Fall was a good thing, because it meant that human beings have the chance to learn by their own experience to distinguish good from evil…then doesn’t it follow that we must leave room for people to actually have those experiences?
We must accept weakness, imperfection, sin, and frailty as necessary conditions of this life.
We must accept that people will do wrong things, say wrong things, believe wrong things — and that, somehow, this is exactly the way it’s supposed to be.
In fact, as Mormons, we believe in a God who was so intent on honoring our freedom to choose, that He sent His Son to suffer with us — so that He might know, according to the flesh, how to succor us in our time of need (a need that would come hard and fast and often, due to the consequences of our own choices). THAT is how deeply He respects us as free agents.
And step-by-step, line upon line, He works with us to change our hearts and lives.
I believe that’s an expression of radical grace, for we haven’t really “earned” His favor. On the contrary, we screw up time and time again. But because there is something fundamentally important about learning from our mistakes, He helps us put it back together again…if we let Him.
That’s how free, self-existent agents who were made to be like God get to be more and more like God.
I believe this is an important dinstinction from narratives that say it is by our good choices alone that we become perfected. Here, I’m making the case that it is actually through our experience of both bad AND good that God works with us and in us to perfect us. I also believe that if we really internalized our belief in this kind of radical freedom and radical grace, we’d become some of the kindest, most accepting, most forgiving people on the planet…but I’m getting ahead of myself. 🙂 In my next post, I’ll share how this can affect the way we interact with others.
In the meantime, I’d love to hear your feedback on some of the thoughts I’ve shared. Please feel free to make comments below!
Posted on February 23, 2012, in Mormonism, Thoughts on God and tagged adam and eve, freedom, garden of eden, grace, love, Mormonism, relationships. Bookmark the permalink. 15 Comments.
“It is actually through our experience of both bad AND good that God works with us and in us to perfect us”. I totally believe that statement. We need all we experience, all the good and bad choices we make, to ultimately become who we need to be, who we are meant to be. Everyone has their own path to trod and it ain’t always lined with primroses.
Thanks, Cathy. I agree. 🙂
That was definitely an interesting post — I’m looking forward to part 2! The idea that we are self-existent had never crossed my mind, at least in the terms you used. That definitely gives me something to ponder.
What you’ve written so far reminds me of the approach we’ve tried to take with raising our kids. Unfortunately, even in the LDS world, parenting “experts” such as James Dobson have reinforced the idea that the No. 1 goal of Christian parenting is getting your children to obey and to behave even if you have to punish them to do it. But the goal should be to help them grow, and most often the way to do it is to recognize the free will they have and use that to help them learn. We had to remind ourselves with little children that their saying no their parents can be a positive thing, something that at their age of development they’re supposed to to — learning how to say no to people you care about can be a useful skill later in life, especially in countering peer pressure.
More than once (although not all that often) I remember watching a child throw a temper tantrum and telling myself, “That’s what (s)he’s supposed to be doing at this stage of development.” It can be difficult not to micromanage a kid’s life, but in some ways it’s a lot more fun and more relaxing too.
(Guess who’s 11-year-old said something like this in a recent primary talk: “As an example of choosing the right, I decided to go to bed before 1 o’clock this morning so I wouldn’t be cranky instead of staying up until 3 or 4 a.m. with my brothers like I was going to.”)
Eric, thanks for your comment. I think the self-existence thing has pretty profound implications across the board, some of which I hope to get into in this series (which seems like it might be evolving into a 3-5 post series), and some of which I probably haven’t really thought through yet.
I think it has some particularly interesting implications for the Problem of Evil. Free will is often used to mitigate the Problem of Evil, but under traditional Christian theology, where God created human beings and gave them free will, He’s still the initial cause of evil. If we are self-existent, it lets God off the hook a little…though I know people like Jack have argued that the Mormon God is still to be blamed for suffering here on earth, since apparently He couldn’t come up with a better way of helping us reach our potential — to say nothing of natural disasters and stuff. 🙂 (Unless you say that nature itself is free — kind of like a divinely-sparked wild evolution model — but that’s a whole ‘nother topic, eh?)
I’m actually thinking about an entire post on the Problem of Evil, because one thing you can take from the radical freedom/radical grace worldview is that suffering itself isn’t inherently bad. But I don’t know that I dare get too much into that, because I proposed this idea once in a conversation on the Problem of Evil/freedom a couple years ago when I was first considering these concepts, and I was literally laughed at. I wondered if there was something I’m missing — is it so counter-intuitive as to be utterly ridiculous?
Anyway, I digress: those are some REALLY interesting points about parenting. It’s so tempting to micro-manage other people, especially children. There’s a fine line sometimes between teaching responsibility, life skills, and consequences and taking away their dignity.
Your kid’s talk sounds hilarious. What I wouldn’t have given to see the looks on people’s faces. 🙂
I am co-teaching the youth Sunday School in our ward. There are about 10 youth, 8 boys and 2 girls, between the ages of 12 and 16. As we’ve been going through the Book of Mormon, we keep returning again and again to the Plan of Salvation, the Atonement, and grace. The lesson on 2 Nephi 2 was particularly interesting. My co-teacher asked the kids if we are supposed to sin. They said we were not. She told them they were wrong.
She said that God does not want us to sin, but that doesn’t mean we aren’t supposed to. Sinning is how we recognise what is good in the world and choose to do the right. Sinning is how we learn. Just as she does not want her son to get hurt, she knows he is supposed to get hurt so that he can appreciate not being hurt and so he can grow.
It was awesome to see the discussion that grew out of this! I think this touches on the Problem of Evil. The best part of this lesson (and the subsequent ones) has been seeing the youth grapple with their own agency and understanding that every makes mistakes and every needs to make mistakes. I’m looking forward to part 2!
That’s really cool, Alex. And, I think, a much healthier way of viewing the world than the one that says that sin is a disaster and CAN be avoided, if we just try hard enough. Thanks for sharing!
I’m amazed by the reaction of others to your ‘suffering in itself isn’t inherently bad’ because I read that and thought – duh! Of course suffering isn’t bad. I literally thought that was part of the plan of salvation that everyone got. I have had many discussions about how it is impossible to eliminate all suffering everywhere and a bad idea anyway: not that I WANT to suffer, you know, but still…
I hope I understood you right about the suffering thing. If I didn’t, know I’m not mocking. Apparently it may just be too late for me to be lucidly and intelligently discussing this stuff…
Hi Rosebriars, you seem to be understanding what I’m saying very well! Didn’t come across as mocking at all. 🙂 I’m still working on my Problem of Evil post. I’m not a trained philosopher by any means, so smarter people could probably blast it out of the water, but it makes sense to me at this stage of my journey, anyway. 🙂
I feel like a total theological neophyte, but I actually do not understand what exactly you mean by the ‘Problem of Evil.’ It’s not a term i’ve ever run across before. I’m interested to read more from you!
One thing I loved from Bro Campbell(?) in Stake Conference was about how the plan of salvation is God’s plan for helping his children grow up. So well put. You can’t grow without suffering, opposition in all things, etc. And really, who would want to? It’s like the conversation between Anne and Marilla (or Marilla & Rachel Lynde?) in the Anne of Green Gables series where Anne says the soaring makes the falls worth it.
Hi Rosebriars, the Problem of Evil is the philosophical conundrum that arises when you posit that God is all-powerful, all-good, and all-knowing, and yet live in a world where evil exists. Because I’m lazy, here’s the Wikipedia entry: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Problem_of_evil 🙂
Thanks for the wiki entry on the Problem of Evil. I read parts of it and my head started spinning, but at least now I get the main concept. It is indeed a conundrum that requires a certain level of nuance to really get into. It once again reinforced to me the insufficiency of logic (as a discipline) to explain everything.
Tackling something you threw in rather off-handedly earlier, I do, in fact, believe that the very world and all its systems of nature have free will. We know that “I, the Lord God, created all things, of which I have spoken, spiritually, before they were naturally upon the face of the earth.” (Moses 3:5). This is alluded to in Genesis 2:5 and Ecclesiastes 12:7 as well, although not so plainly. If all things were created spiritually it means they have a spirit.
Interestingly, in D&C 122:7 the elements are spoken of in a way that makes them sound sentient; “if the billowing surge conspire against thee; if fierce winds become thine enemy; if the heavens gather blackness, and all the elements combine to hedge up the way… ”
In the creation account given in Abraham 4 it refers to elements obeying God and Jesus Christ as they were created, (it doesn’t say that about the first or second day but starting with the third day, the gathering together of waters and land). Verse 18 says “And the Gods watched those things which they had ordered until they obeyed.” And in verse 21 “…And the Gods saw that they would be obeyed, and that their plan was good.”
This is an understanding that came to me as I was pondering the way we are taught the creation in the temple, and our knowledge and understanding of creation, the age of the earth, and evolution as compared to that of other Christians. My husband is a biologist by hobby and horticulturist by training, and we have had many discussions (frequently with our botanist bishopric member friend) about how evolution is a reality that is not inconsistent with gospel teachings. Sure, there are things I don’t yet fully understand about evolution and creation, but in general they make so much MORE sense when fit together.
This understanding has also led to an increased reverence and respect for the earth and all things on it; how can I possibly be wasteful of any natural resource knowing it has a spirit, and will? Ought not I fervently pray in gratitude for the animals and plants I eat, knowing that I am consuming something that is not only physical but also spiritual? Or, in other words, it’s a big contributing reason to why i’m so “crunchy.”
This is a great post. This has given me a lot to think about. I feel like this hit me like a ton of bricks as I realized and really “got” the “radical freedom” idea. Now I need to work on developing some “radical grace”, as I deal with other people, church leaders, etc. Thank you so much for sharing these ideas!
I’m glad you liked it. This has done wonders for my relationships with others, the church, etc. 🙂 I’ll be writing more about this topic in the weeks and months that follow. There’s A LOT to explore here.
Hope you’re doing well.
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