Welcome to the fourth email in a series looking at Marden J. Clark’s collection Liberating Form: Mormon Essays on Religion and Literature. In this email, we’ll cover “Some Implications of Human Freedom.”
As always, the in-depth treatment of this week’s essay, including discussion questions, is at the end of the email and the discussion post for it can found on AMV.
Snapshot: Keeping in mind that he’s not a philosopher, Clark discusses why he thinks humans do have freedom—mostly by invoking Mormon ideas about a limited God, co-eternal beings, and the primacy of agency—and what that means for how we approach prayer, education, politics and society, and, most especially creativity. Because human freedom exists, those of us who are human must embrace the creativity that comes with it and use it for the purpose of expressing—and helping others express—their freedom.
Best Lines: “We cannot, at least at this stage or our being, be gods. But we can participate on our level with our capacities (nearly always much greater than we let them be, or force them to be) in His [God’s] most vital attribute: His creativity.” (49)
Why: I’m not really fond of the “force them to be” phrase because I don’t think actually effective creative practices can be forced. But I like that if we, by our understanding of agency and the co-eternality of being, account for the fact that we exist and are able to operate with some degree of freedom in that existence, this answers the question of what we should do with that existence.
Mormon Lit Recommendation: I’ve made the claim several times over the years that agency should be not only a core theme of Mormon art, but also that it has the potential to be a way to differentiate and innovate, especially narrative art. The two works that most come to mind when I think about the exploration of agency are A Short Stay in Hell by Steve Peck and The Worthing Saga by Orson Scott Card. They’re both tough reads. And I don’t really endorse OSC’s work if you can’t approach it with a certain academic distance (for the reasons why see Eugene England’s “Pastwatch: The Redemption of Orson Scott Card”). I also don’t find either quite satisfying, either. That is, they’re more on thought exercise end of the literary spectrum. I’d be interested in the theme of agency in Mormon lit that is more on the Tolstoy or Middlemarch end.
Other Recommendation: As I type this, I’m listening to the music by the Korean Indie Metal band Messgram. The lyrics to their songs Karma and My Second Funeral (both are in English) seem to me to be obliquely about freedom and the exercise of agency. Note that while the main vocalist is female, there is a male vocalist who does screamo parts in the songs. But these songs, although intense, aren’t as abrasive as a lot of metal is. Give them a try.
The problem with freedom, with agency is that too often it’s presented simply as having a choice and too often as a dichotomy. You’re either a rebel or the man. You’re either in or out. You’re either a sinner or a saint.
In this essay, Clark dispense with the common philosophical and theological conceptions of human freedom and the paradoxes of God and the existence of evil and divine foreknowledge. Then it teases out the implications for prayer, religion, education, politics, society, morals/ethics, and, most especially, creativity if we proceed with the assumption that humans truly have agency.
One can argue with how Clark arrives at a solution (not by using the careful, precise, grounded in certain traditions arguments of philosophy and theology) as well as the solution he arrives at (a God who is not absolute). But while the first part of the essay that covers that ground is important, it’s not the main point. The point is that if we believe that mortals have agency (and by extension a non-absolute God), then that opens up ways of thinking and being that the other way of thinking bogs us down in.
If you’d like more background on the Mormon conception of a non-absolute God, a great place to start is Eugene England’s essay “The Weeping God of Mormonism” (link is to a PDF file).
As a sidenote: England got in trouble with the LDS Church hierarchy over his idea of a “limited” God. I wonder if Clark received any pushback. This, essay, after all, appeared in Dialogue in 1970 years before Clark retired from BYU. Perhaps he wasn’t as noisy about it as England, although, of course, the fact that he included it in this collection suggests that Clark didn’t back down from the idea. If you know any details on that, I’d be interested in hearing them.
At any rate, here are some of the more interesting implications from the essay:
Clark writing about the fact human freedom in relation to the promptings of the Holy Ghost to guide our choice such that we assign the choice to inspiration:
“Such a concept has its temptations and surely some truth. But I distrust it as too easy. The choice, once made, passes the responsibility of freedom to the Spirit. Or if we think of the process as a continuing choice or series of choices, it remains always the same choice—to yield or not to yield” (36).
On the implication of human freedom in relation to prayer, Clark notes that if we are free, God isn’t fully in control of human events, which means there are things we may ask for that he can’t control:
“We usually pray wrongly when we pray for something (again the mercantile concept of our relations with God). Our prayers should act, I have to believer, primarily as the expression of our reverence, as communion” (40).
On human nature and the natural man:
“We largely create our own goodness or badness by a continuing process of choosing—not merely between good and evil but between good and good, evil and evil, good and lesser good or higher good, God and whatever is not God” (41).
“Education, then, becomes the process of broadening the base from which significant free will can operate and of providing more or less sheltered situations for it to grow by exercise. And the best education will be that which provides for and encourages the most meaningful and constant decision-making” (42).
On literature and tragedy:
“If God was not free to create us other than free, then our capacity for tragic action is part of God’s creativity [Wm note: this directly relates to England’s essay mentioned above] and God is profoundly involved Himself in tragedy—cosmic tragedy” (44-45).
A side note: one of the hoary tropes of Mormon literature (an imagined one, rather than an awareness of the actual field, I would note) is that due to their sheltered worldview and optimism for the ultimate fate of humanity, Mormons are unequipped to write tragedy. This is nonsense, of course. It’s a stunted view of what tragedy is, of what the Mormon worldview is, and of how the Mormon experience can shape artists. Whether the Mormon audience is receptive to Mormon tragedy, often choosing sentimentality instead, is a different question, of course (and I don’t have the space here to tease out sentimentality in art, which I believe to be defensible in some particulars and not at all in the broad strokes). But this is why this essay (and other work by Clark is important): the claim about Mormons can or can’t write is boring and misguided because it presupposes that literature should be confined to that created by those who don’t have the Mormon worldview. That is, if you don’t believe in human freedom, or if you’re an existentialist (love a lot of those dudes, though), or if you’re hung up on a Calvinist viewpoint (or, I should say, a cardboard version of that viewpoint), then, of course, the tragedy that you create is going to be different from that which a Mormon writes.
Incidentally, this is why most of my stories are both tragic and comic if you tease out their implications within Mormon metaphysics, history, community, etc. And also why Steve Peck’s fiction is so amazing.
And this brings us to the final implication Clark includes in this essay:
“The human freedom I have tried to define implies an absolute commitment to creativity itself. Art thrives on freedom, as we all know. But art is also one kind of ultimate exercise and expression of freedom” (47).
“[I]f we are free we are committed to create of it [the universe] and ourselves the highest meaning inherent in it and ourselves” (48).
“Our freedom imposes upon us the imperative to offer our highest worship through our creativity to the God who used His freedom to create us” (49).
Note that by creativity, Clark may privilege artists, but extends that creativity to any thing we do that is productively creating meaning.
But (speaking on freedom eliciting a new for creativity from us):
“[S]uch an imperative will not necessarily make for comfortable, well-adjusted Mormons. It may even make us discontented. But discontented, I would hope, with a measure of what P. A. Christensen used to call ‘divine discontent.’ Such discontent must be largely the virtue that engenders all creativity: artistic, religious, educational, personal. Such discontent coupled with our sense of the cosmic, public, and personal significance and dignity of freedom—all this grows out of the imperatives freedom imposes” (49).
Clark asks readers to take some philosophical and theological leaps. In particular, he asks active LDS to accept an approach to doctrine that doesn’t cleanly line up with what most of them have been taught. He leaves us in a scarier world: one where our choices are really our choices, our screw ups ours to fix (through the Atonement and/or the process of restorative justice and/or therapy, or whatever you do/believe that helps right wrong),
But here’s the thing: he frees us to be ourselves. If there is a God who is limited, one we are co-existent with, and we are beings who are truly free to choose then our individual particularity, our being-ness is real. It means that the differences in how we respond to everything we come into contact with are expressions of true and individual creativity. Which means that such differences will continue in the next life and throughout eternity, which will afford us the opportunity to continue to be creative.
Art is the creation of meaning that comes from grappling with existence. Agency is what gives that existence variety. Agency isn’t just the fact of being, but the experience of being and that experience is within the context and community of other beings undergoing similar but different experiences.
I’d take the discontent that comes with freedom any day over the shaky assurance that removes that freedom.
I choose creativity.
Thanks for reading!
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