Mormonism and the Dilemma of Tragedy

Mormons, it seems, are undeniably happy people.

Everything from the Church-sponsored “I’m a Mormon” campaign to Broadway’s Book of Mormon musical, to recent polls about religious groups and states reporting the highest levels of well-being (Mormons come in 2nd, and Utah, 1st, respectively) [1], point to a culture that is full of robustly optimistic do-gooders.

After all, Mormonism is deeply committed to the notion of happiness. The Book of Mormon teaches that “men are that they might have joy”; Joseph Smith told the early Saints that “happiness is the object and design of our existence”; and many Mormons take to heart former President Gordon B. Hinckley’s oft-repeated maxim, “Let us be a happy people.”

Mormons, yes, seem to have happiness down.

But do Mormons understand tragedy?

Let me explain what I mean by tragedy-or don’t mean, rather. Tragedy is not merely suffering, or pain, or the presence of evil. Tragedy is not simply a crippling disease, or the unexpected death of a loved one, or even a senseless genocide. These things may be catastrophic in scale, excruciating in impact, but they are not tragic. Tragedy is about a particular kind of loss, a product of the particular kind of universe we inhabit. According to G. W. F. Hegel, philosopher of the Tragic, tragedy is about the irreconcilable conflict between Good and Good, about the unavoidable loss of one when both have every claim on our assent. One Mormon scholar points to the Garden of Eden as the quintessential tragedy—where the “dream of universal human happiness and the complicating gift of human agency” simply cannot coexist; one must be sacrificed if the other is to be attained [2]. Or to put the contrast another way: whereas life can be restored to the dead, and healing can come to the sick, safety cannot accompany moral agency, nor can love exist without vulnerability and pain. This is the difference between mere suffering and tragedy. One is reparable, and one is not.

As it so happens, I don’t think we Mormons are particularly good at dealing with either suffering or tragedy. The two, of course, are related, simply because most (if not all) suffering and pain comes as a result of the underlying tragedy that structures our mortal existence—the freedom of choice at the cost of protection from pain and sin. But the fact is, Mormonism believes that agency was the appropriate choice for Adam and Eve to affirm; this means that we must deal with the cost.

I want to explore briefly how this great irony occurs—where a theology unsurpassed in its aspirations toward the divine and in its radically risky cosmology, has perhaps produced the culture most insulated from tragedy and grief. But I also want to argue why, at the end of the day, Mormons are still right to be happy (though perhaps not in the way Mormons think of “happiness”).

Mormonism has dramatic tensions at the heart of its theology—tensions that are particularly easy to miss in a religion as thoroughly pragmatic as ours. We have doctrines that are an invitation to tragedy, doctrines that tempt us to try and skirt it, but ultimately we have doctrinal resources that enable us to embrace its inevitability.

On the one hand, Mormonism holds that all human beings are uncreated, co-eternal intelligences in the same ontological class as God. As uncreated intelligences, we are endowed with agency. This means that, as Eugene England argued, the tragic collision of individual and group values is inescapable. The Book of Mormon prophet Lehi explains that “there must needs be an opposition in all things” for agency (and consequently, creation) to be meaningful, and whosoever tries to “reconcile contraries seeks to destroy existence,” as William Blake reformulates the principle. But Mormons believe that we—God included—inhabit a universe that is subject to laws. One of these laws is that wickedness never was happiness; sin will always bring pain. And as long as choice is operative, the risk for pain and sin is present. Such is the risky universe we embrace—one in which there is “no omnipotent God to make things right despite our choices”[3].

On the other hand, modern revelation teaches that God “is bound when [we] do what [he] says,” [4] providing a formulaic stability to Mormon notions of obedience and prosperity. And when things do go wrong, Terryl Givens notices that “the compulsion to find providential design—or fortuitous consequence—in every catastrophe can obscure from Latter-day Saints” the fact that there is no such “totalizing consolation” [5]; in efforts to affirm the meaning of life with a loving God, we seek a harmonious orchestration of all things—good and bad— leaving little space for actual tragedy or loss. As Sterling McMurrin points out, Mormons still use words like “omniscient” and “omnipotent,” yielding to reassuring absolutist ideas despite our belief in a finite God [6]. And as Phil Barlow muses, Mormonism’s missionary mentality can also inhibit tragic expression: “Mormonism is an optimistic and proselyting faith, which desires—appropriately – to convey its optimism to others. Yet,” he continues, “anguish is part of my reality, and Mormons are left largely without a profound public mechanism to convey and share the reality” [7]. Furthermore, rhetoric that polarizes despair and faith and links defeat with doubt makes reactions to tragedy a form of failure or betrayal of trust in God [8].

What can Mormons do in the face of these tensions? I think two doctrines in particular provide a way to handle tragedy without compromising Mormonism’s profound commitment to joy. One is the two-fold belief that “all experience is for [our] good,” and that God can “consecrate [our] afflictions for [our] gain” [9]. In this sense, God’s power rests not on totalizing omnipotence, but on the ability to alchemize suffering, tragedy, and loss, into wisdom, understanding, and even joy. It is a form of joy that is emphatically not the absence of pain or conflict, but one that gladdened Adam and Eve in Mormonism’s version of the Fall: “Because of my transgression my eyes are opened…”; “Were it not for our transgression…we never should have known good and evil, and the joy of our redemption, and the eternal life which God giveth unto all the obedient” [10]. In Mormonism, it is joy consciously, not effortlessly, chosen that is godlike.

The second doctrine that can mitigate the tragedy inherent in our universe is the belief in universal salvation. Nothing but ourselves stands between us and God’s joy—no predestined damnation or inaccessible salvation. “All might be saved” and enjoy all “that which they are willing to receive” [11].

There is one more truth that Mormonism teaches that is pertinent to our encounter with tragedy. At the close of the Book of Mormon, Mormon, the prophet after whom the compilation of scripture is named, reaffirms the cataclysmic lessons in vulnerability and love that God teaches to Enoch in the Book of Moses, by choosing to love in the face of utter hopelessness. On the eve of his people’s horrifying destruction, Mormon fully realizes that there is no hope of his people turning back to God—yet still, he loves them “according to the love of God which was in me, with all my heart… nevertheless… without faith” [12]. And such is how God loves. In Enoch’s glimpse of God weeping, Enoch sees God love in naked vulnerability. It is love in the face of absolute loss. Love that bows to the agency of the Other, but does not break; rather, it draws. God the Father weeps out of love for his children and unfathomable pain at their suffering, and Christ the Son’s vulnerable, broken body lifted up on the cross has the power to “draw all men” unto himself —but not the guarantee [13].








[1] Catherine Rampell, “The Happiest States of America.” The New York Times: Economix. March 10, 2009. and Cahterin Rampbell’s “The Happiest Man in America,” The New York Times: Economix. March 7, 2011.

[2] Terryl Givens, People of Paradox. (Oxford; 2007), 154.

[3] Eugene England, “Joseph Smith and the Tragic Quest,” in Dialogues With Myself (Midvale, UT: Orion Press, 1984).

[4] Doctrine and Covenants 82:10

[5] Terryl Givens, People of Paradox. (Oxford; 2007), 153.

[6] Sterling McMurrin, The Theological Foundations of Mormonism (University of Utah Press, 1965), 106.

[7] Philip Barlow, “Uniquely true Church”, in A Thoughtful Faith (Canon Press, 1986), 237-238.

[8] Thomas S. Monson, “Examples of Righteousness” April 2008 General Conference, for example

[9] Doctrine and Covenants 122:7 and  2 Nephi 2:2.

[10] Moses 5:10-11.

[11] Doctrine and Covenants 76:42 and 88:32.

[12] Mormon 3:12 and 5:2.

[13] 3 Nephi 27:14-15.

  • Wm

    “As it so happens, I don’t think we Mormons are particularly good at dealing with either suffering or tragedy.”

    Why don’t you think this, Rachel? And what is your evidence of this insulation?

    It seems to me that both because of our engagement with scripture (especially the Book of Mormon and the Doctrine of Covenants) and our history and our doctrine and with the community of our fellow Saints, we are deeply acquainted with (and not at all insulated from) tragedy. As for how we deal with it: does anyone deal with tragedy well? Does anyone really deal with it head on? Isn’t most of literature, and especially, modern fiction about how we as humans don’t deal with it?

  • austin

    Wm, I think a great example of insulation from tragedy is how we Mormons treat death. I remember when I was at BYU and the VA Tech massacre happened. There was a wonderful candlelight vigil on the BYU campus that night, but one song was performed that basically said “It’s OK, God had bigger plans for those people on the other side.” That’s one example I remember in particular, but I think it’s representative of a Mormon tendency to say “No, there was no tragedy here, everything happened according to plan, everything’s OK here.” We don’t do grief. We do try to reconcile contraries very quickly. Of course, not all Mormons do this, but I think it’s a pretty common belief. We use the word “tragedy” plenty (in our scriptures, history and doctrine) but we quickly skip to the resurrection, not focusing on the cross.

    You’re absolutely right, of course, that it’s universal to not handle tragedy well. We all want to avoid pain and loss; denial is always the first step. Maybe Mormons then aren’t unique in this regard, but I do think the relative gap between how well we handle it (using theology to further our denial) and how the best aspects of our religion would tell us to handle it (accepting that tragedy is real, that it’s painful, but ultimately moving forward and using the suffering constructively) is quite pronounced.

  • Rachael Givens

    Yes, I agree to austin’s response to Wm. The example of the cross (or its total absence, rather), is a perfect example of this.
    My footnote-laden paragraph (Fn 4-8) is meant to provide a few examples of [ one facet of] Mormonism’s resistance to tragedy. I think your references to scripture (the Book of Mormon being an undeniably tragic text) and our history (see the reference to People of Paradox 153-4 for a perfect example of how even devastating trek tragedies were recast as necessary or positive experiences) highlight the gap between our history/theology and much of our cultural rhetoric and practice that I am interested in exploring here. We speak much of adversity and trial, perhaps, but not of actual loss or tragedy or God’s tears. I am not trying to say Mormonism is uniquely bad at coping with tragedy–simply, that given our doctrinal resources (which I’ve only very briefly limned), we of all people should perhaps be most intimate with it.

  • Andrea

    Well-expressed. I liked this: “the underlying tragedy that structures our mortal existence—the freedom of choice at the cost of protection from pain and sin.” I agree that Mormons (among others) sometimes rush to retrofit painful events with facile explanations. Sometimes we’re not better off in the short term for a loss – it’s just painful, and facing that pain and its existential ramifications is part of growing up spiritually…part of becoming more like God. And these escape routes can belittle real suffering, and help us dodge difficult lessons about the nature of life. I think acceptance is what lets us metabolize the bitter parts of life into material for growth.

  • Emily Belanger

    Rachel, your article is probably my favorite from the column so far. You’ve nicely captured the contradictory way we discuss God and tragedy. I was only sad that the article ended at a reasonable length, instead of lasting as long as I’d have liked. Do you have any work that expands on this concept? I too would have liked to hear more about how, specifically, these contradictions make us bad at dealing with tragedy.

    • Rachael

      Thanks, I appreciate that, Emily. I do not as of yet have anything formal written that expands on this concept, though there are several good resources out there– I like the approaches and perspectives of Eugene England, Terryl Givens, Clark Pinnock, Sterling McMurrin, etc. But I find the tensions fascinating– I plan on exploring this theme more in the future. It’s difficult to do in a space-limited post! We can chip away at the effects of these contradictions if you have particular questions about them, perhaps.

      • Emily

        Rachel, when I shared a link on facebook, one of my friends made the comment, “I feel like I’m reading the first half of an article,” and explained that she wanted to read more because she wanted to understand your perspective better. I think that’s what I meant to say. It’s not so much that I have particular questions, as much as I’d really like to hear more from you on this topic. I think it would be wonderful if you continued on this topic, with a wildcard Friday post.

        I’m most interested in hearing a bit more about what you mean about Mormons not being particularly good at dealing with tragedy. You offer so much evidence of tragedy (as a choice between good and good) being at the root of our theology, that your claim that we’re not good at dealing with tragedy then feels unsupported. But I mostly get the feeling you have more to say.

        • Rachael

          Yes, that is true– I do have more to say than I could fit in my post (it was a sweeping topic, I admit) and will plan on responding to your question more on a wildcard Friday post. Thanks for the prodding questions! Stay tuned :)

  • Wm

    I don’t find those platitudes to be uniquely Mormon at all, but perhaps some modern American members have embraced them as part of the turn towards a more Evengelical-style understanding of Christ. That’s something Eugene England feared in his similar essay The Weeping God of Mormonism.

    It’s not clear to me that our cultural rhetoric and practice ignores loss and tragedy. I hear heartache and loss in fast and testimony meeting. I hear it in EQ, especially when we talk about less active members who can’t be reached or those promising investigators on the mission who couldn’t quite make the leap. And I hear it in discussions of godly sorrow and what that means and why that is an attribute that we will need to develop.

    I definitely would be interested in there being a stronger, more uniquely rhetoric of loss and tragedy. And I think we very much do “do” grief. Just because we think we have the long-view answers doesn’t mean it’s not tragic and painful right now in our mortal existence. Tears are not absent from my experience with Mormonism.

  • Saskia

    I found your distinction between sorrow and tragedy interesting; it’s something I’ll be thinking about today.