Agency is central to LDS theology. We fought a war in the pre-mortal existence to preserve it, and it is an essential part of becoming like God. For this reason, one of the aspects of patriarchy that I find most disturbing is the way in which it affects agency, particularly female agency.
To make sense of this assertion, I need to start with a discussion of the nature of freedom. Mormons as well as other moderns tend to have what is called in theology a Pelagian understanding of freedom, as advocated by the early fifth-century Christian thinker Pelagius in his ongoing dispute with the well-known theologian Augustine. For Pelagius, freedom means the absolute ability to choose good or evil. The will is neutral, un-inclined in either direction, and entirely autonomous. Although in reality all humans fall short, perfection is in fact within human reach—there is no reason why a human being could not in theory make all the right choices. Sin is external to the will, something we choose; it does not infect the will itself.
There are a number of problems with this model. Perhaps most significantly, this approach does not reflect the actual experience of choosing. We do not make decisions in some neutral setting which is carefully insulated from the world. We do not exist, as one theologian puts it, “as executors of absolute choice in some kind of antiseptic neutrality above the involvements of real life.”1 From such a perspective, rather than having a person making a choice, we have an isolated, neutral will, which cannot be connected to any particular characteristics of the person. The will gets disconnected from ourselves as whole persons—ultimately, “a Pelagian account of willing saves the freedom of the will but loses the person.”2
I prefer an Augustinian model, which holds that the will is never neutral; it is always inclined in some direction. It does not exist in some isolated, detached sphere from which it surveys good and evil and then makes a choice between them. The will as we actually experience it is always oriented in some direction, always shaped by our desires and our moral judgments. Agency is exercised in a context of some kind, both internally and externally. From this perspective, we can talk about sin as infecting the will. Sin is not simply an alternate choice, after all; it is something that closes off possibilities.
This brings me to original sin. I realize that off-the-cuff, Mormons are likely to say that we do not believe in original sin. But what I think this assertion actually means is that we do not believe that children are born tainted in such a way that infant baptism is necessary. If we are talking about original sin as the reality which shapes our lives and our very nature after the Fall, such a perspective can be found throughout the Book of Mormon. Perhaps the most oft-cited comment on the subject is King Benjamin’s remark that “the natural man is an enemy to God, and has been from the fall of Adam, and will be, forever and ever, unless he yields to the enticings of the Holy Spirit.”3 But King Benjamin is not alone in this sharply negative assessment of the natural human condition. This an idea repeated throughout the book. Alma explains that the Fall resulted a “a spiritual death as well as a temporal,” which means that humans have become “carnal, sensual, and devilish, by nature.”4 According to the brother of Jared, “because of the fall our natures have become evil continually.”5 I think it is fair to say that the Augustinian view that the will itself can be corrupted is displayed in such passages.
How does this work, exactly? Contemporary theological models appeal to social structures as the means of transmitting original sin. We find ourselves in these sinful structures prior to conscious choice. As one theologian puts it, “before being able to choose, one is, merely by being historically situated, inextricably caught in an immense web of reciprocity in evil that one cannot escape and that has forming power.”6 These structures literally affect who we are, as aspects of society become embedded in a person’s most basic sense of self. It is from this perspective that we can talk about sin as in some sense corrupting human nature.
Sin in this sense is used in the singular, understood as a power, state, or condition, something that has cast its shadow over human existence—as opposed to “sins,” as particular, discrete human acts. These two uses of the term reflect the tension between talking about sin as something outside of us, outside of our control, and as something in which we are individually involved. The basic paradox in this notion of sin is that there is a way in which it is beyond our control, and yet also a way in which we choose it and are therefore accountable for it. We run into problems if we lose sight of either side.
I have found the work of Anglican theologian Alistair McFadyen to be particularly helpful in illuminating how the two interact. McFadyen is critical of much modern discourse on the subject of sin, with its emphasis on independence and autonomous choice. In the moral framework posited by modernity, he observes, freedom is understood as freedom from external forces. But this causes us to frame things in an either/or way—either I resist external forces, or I am overpowered by them—that does not actually connect to our experience of sin in the world. As mentioned earlier, we cannot pull out something called “personal will” and talk about it in isolation from other forces, because the very notion of personal will is already entangled in broader dynamics. The situations in which we are embedded exert more than an external pressure which overrides our individual will and forces us into particular behaviors; they actually appropriate the will.
How does this appropriation happen? The social dynamics in which we find ourselves shape our view of what is good, what is desirable, and therefore the way in which we make judgments. The problem is not that we have lost our ability to choose between alternatives. The problem is that our relation to those alternatives has been distorted. The way in which sin diminishes freedom, then, is not that it takes away our capacity to choose; what it does is “appropriate the means and criteria by and direction in which choices are made.”7 Sin is “an unavoidable reality conditioning and shaping our freedom.”8
Original sin, in other words, works by shaping the values, the norms, by which a person makes judgments. And what is the source of the norms and values which shape the will? On what basis do we judge something as good? I believe we draw on social and cultural narratives. Narratives serve an ethical purpose—it is through narratives that we learn to distinguish right and wrong, determine what goods are worth pursuing. Narratives are never neutral; they are always oriented in some direction, and they convey particular values. We cannot examine human acts in isolation, for our actions are always embedded in stories—and therefore, like the stories, have a teleological element, are aimed at a particular purpose, are guided by certain values. If sin has to do with values and norms, then, it is inevitably tied up with narrative.
And destructive narratives have the ability to undermine freedom, as they shape identity in problematic ways. A crucial point here is that narrative identity is not something we construct on our own, but is something which arises from our interpersonal context. I draw here on the work of Hilde Lindemann Nelson, who looks at the effects of oppressive narratives. She makes the point that “identity is a question of how others understand what I am doing, as well as how I understand what I am doing.”9 This is particularly important when we are talking about a person’s agency, because her ability to act freely depends on both the perception of others that she is morally trustworthy, an agent, and her own perception, her own view of herself as a moral agent. Agency arises interpersonally, in other words, as it requires recognition of one’s actions by both oneself and by others.
This brings me (finally) to patriarchy. I am not arguing that patriarchy is the original sin, but I do think it is destructive, and I find all of this to be helpful in making sense of how it functions. On an external level, it is fairly clear how patriarchy undermines female agency. Men are put in charge; they preside over women. Women thus have fewer opportunities, and have their actions constrained by male decisions. But patriarchy is more than an external system which subjugates women. It shapes our understanding of what it is to be a person in the first place. In a patriarchal system, to be a person, to be a full moral agent, is to be male. In the biblical narrative, Eve is created for Adam. Women’s very existence is explained in term of how it benefits men. All too often women are not even subjects, but objects, as in D&C 132, where they are part of men’s eternal reward. That the male is the default is bolstered by male-centric scriptures, and the worship of a male God.
In shaping the cultural narratives from which we construct our identity, patriarchy affects us internally as well as externally. It is “a pathology that distorts our internal dynamics.”10 Going back to what I said earlier, the problem is not that this system overcomes or stifles the will, leaving us unable to choose. The problem is that this form of social distortion shapes the will itself. In other words, this is not a Pelagian sort of choosing; we do not have a neutral will, which can survey the options and decide whether or not to select patriarchy. Rather, patriarchy becomes ” the basis and foundation of all choosing and acting, as the rules by which one makes choices.”11 Female attempts to challenge patriarchy are shut down by a system which interprets women’s experience through the lens of patriarchal norms, and de-legitimizes any experience which challenges the status quo.
Take, for example, the idea that men should lead, and women follow. One might argue that women still have their agency in such a situation, because they can choose whether or not to follow. But the problem is not that a woman loses the ability to say yes or no; it is that this choice is already shaped by patriarchal norms and values. It is taking place in the context of a worldview in which authority and obedience are central, and significant questions are things like who is the leader and who is the follower. In such a system, a woman’s choices are framed solely in terms of compliance and rebellion. Being limited to those options restricts her agency to a very narrow set of options.
Additionally, and perhaps even more disturbingly, putting a woman in this subordinate position conveys the message that her ability to make decisions cannot be trusted. Women are not viewed as full moral agents. Going back to Nelson’s work, oppressive narratives arise when “a powerful social group views the members of her own, less powerful group as unworthy of full moral respect.”12 Such narratives affect both of the perceptions of others, and the way in which an individual views herself. What is particularly troubling is that when someone believes a story in which she is not a full moral agent, she cannot simply challenge it rationally, because the story already identifies her as someone who cannot trust her own judgment.13 The narrative has already shaped her values in such a way that she loses the ability to challenge it. Oppressive narratives, then, diminish a person’s ability to act as a full moral agent by undermining that identity in both her own eyes, and in the perceptions of others.
Does this leave us with any hope? Is it possible to challenge patriarchy when all of us find it already shaping our values? I see hope in proposing alternate narratives, alternate worldviews. Take the tired notion that men have to preside in a family because someone has to be in charge, has to be authorized to make the final decision. This makes sense if one sees the highest good as efficiency, easy and clear decision-making. As mentioned above, it is steeped in a worldview which values hierarchy and authority.
The answer, then, is not simply to resist the authority; it is to resist the entire worldview. What might be an alternative? One possibility is a perspective in which the highest good is relationship. From such an angle, a hierarchical relationship between men and women is problematic because it undermines healthy relationships. Decision-making may become more difficult as a result, as one has to engage in the difficult work of negotiation and compromise—but this is ultimately positive, as it strengthens relationships. Since humans are fundamentally relational beings, this promotes development and growth for both women and men. Freedom is much richer, and has all kinds of creative possibilities.
But how do we judge between different narratives? What case can be made that the alternate worldview I propose here is superior to a patriarchal one? One way to make such an evaluation is to look at which perspective most promotes human flourishing. This is very much in line with teachings about mortality as a place for humans to develop their abilities and capacities. And if we truly do value agency, we need to examine the ways in which patriarchal narratives negatively affect it.
- Colin Grant, A Salvation Audit (London: Associated University Press, 1994), 343 [↩]
- Alistair McFadyen, Bound to Sin: Abuse, Holocaust, and the Christian Doctrine of Sin (Cambridge, U.K.; New York: Cambridge University Press, 2000), 178 [↩]
- Mosiah 3:19 [↩]
- Alma 42:9-10 [↩]
- Ether 3:2 [↩]
- Stephen J. Duffy, “Our Hearts of Darkness: Original Sin Revisited,” Theological Studies 49, no. (1988): 616 [↩]
- McFadyen, 128 [↩]
- McFadyen, 108 [↩]
- Hilde Lindemann Nelson, Damaged Identities, Narrative Repair (Ithaca; London: Cornell University Press, 2001), 22 [↩]
- McFadyen, 146 [↩]
- McFadyen, 148 [↩]
- Nelson, xii [↩]
- Nelson, 33 [↩]