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.

  • DLewis

    Great post. I would agree that Mormonism’s resistance to tragic narratives has a lot to do with American optimism in general, but I think it also has to do with our vision of the afterlife, which not only allocates justice in the end, but also allows for correction and progress. As much as we emphasize agency, there’s a sense that even if things go screwy in this life, all would be amended and more in the long run. This optimism is a bit ironic, since the Book of Mormon is a deeply tragic book of scripture, but I think perhaps the D&C and JS’s theology of progress counter-balance it.

    • Rachael

      Yes, great point– I also agree that American optimism infused a lot of Mormon conceptions of progress and universalism that contribute to this resistance to tragedy. And yes, the Book of Mormon is a tragic text–but even within it, there are references to an omniscient and omnipotent God alongside weeping and resigned fathers and prophets and the Savior who laments over the children who “would not.” It is undoubtedly complex , and there are many strains of thought that can nudge the overall cultural attitude in the pendulum between optimism and eternal progression, God’s power, and the like, and the risks of agency’s supremacy and God’s finitude.

  • Xarissa

    That lament of Mormon– “nevertheless…without faith”– strikes me every time I read it. What I love about that verse, and this post, is the idea that love is the only thing that doesn’t get cancelled out in our theological attempts to balance the need for agency with their inevitable sidekicks of doubt + despair over the consequences of bad choices (or even good/good Catch-22s ). Mormon, here, recognizes the binary, feels its awfulness in all the particulars, and transcends it. In this moment, there is no “dealing with it,” there is no lean towards productivity or moral lesson or even hope. Yet he, himself, chooses love, which could be read– if you accept the historical truth of the BoM story– as the instigating factor for us having the Book at all.

    • Rachael

      Yes, exactly! According to Mormonism, the “plan” of salvation was really initiated on an act of uncompelled love and grace– God inviting us to become like him; and it is fueled by unjust, uncalculated love– God choosing to love and be vulnerable when, like Job’s friends rhetorically suggest, our sin and our righteousness should not have any claim on him; but He chooses to have our sin (our pain) and our righteousness (our growth and joy) matter to him. Love does indeed upset the binary and I think that is the great alchemy in all of this; I like the way Marilynne Robinson puts it: “There is no justice in love, no proportion in it, and there need not be, because in any specific instance it is only a glimpse or parable of an embracing, incomprehensible reality. It makes no sense at all because it is the eternal breaking in on the temporal. So how could it subordinate itself to cause or consequence?”

  • kt

    This is a thoughtful and wonderfully written article and I especially love the doctrines you lay out, Rachael. That being said, I don’t think that one can say that Mormons don’t understand tragedy when tragedy is such a personal thing. The individual who has suffered through the loss of a child and still trusts in God, the individual who has forgiven horrific offenses — these I have seen many Mormons endure and accept without reframing it as God’s will (and some have framed it that way, which is sometimes appropriate). There are many individuals, myself included, who do not understand tragedy in a godly way–in fact, can any of us truly understand it? I suppose it is the work of a lifetime to study and accept it. Regardless, I believe the scriptures frame it quite perfectly: the gospel literally means good news because there is so much bad news for all of mankind and for the individual. Ours is not a naive and innocent happiness, but a joy that is greater for the grief it has known.

    Isaiah, in my opinion, sums it up best:

    Isaiah 8 :
    21 And they shall pass through it, hardly bestead and hungry: and it shall come to pass, that when they shall be hungry, they shall fret themselves, and curse their king and their God, and look upward.
    22 And they shall look unto the earth; and behold trouble and darkness, dimness of anguish; and they shall be driven to darkness.
    [If one stops at the end of chapter 8, it is truly a tragedy, but if you go directly into chapter 9...]
    1 Nevertheless the dimness shall not be such as was in her vexation ….
    2 The people that walked in darkness have seen a great light: they that dwell in the land of the shadow of death, upon them hath the light shined.
    3 Thou hast multiplied the nation, and not increased the joy: they joy before thee according to the joy in harvest, and as men rejoice when they divide the spoil.
    4 For thou hast broken the yoke of his burden, and the staff of his shoulder, the rod of his oppressor…
    6 For unto us a achild is born, unto us a son is given: and the government shall be upon his shoulder: and his name shall be called Wonderful, Counsellor, The mighty God, The everlasting Father, The Prince of Peace.

    And a modern proclamation of the same message:

  • Weise

    Another point to consider is how the Mormon culture of certitude prevents a full reckoning with tragedy. Inherent in tragedy is the insecurity arising from doubt and loss. But, the Mormon personality tends to equate doubt with pessimism and faithlessness – cardinal sins for true disciples of Christ. Moreover, certainty is an important social currency within Mormonism. Mormons tend to treat the universe as a balanced equation; anything less might admit of a God in whom we could not give our full, unqualified trust. So, what is at stake here in the dilemma of tragedy is the internal calculus of how we struggle to assert our faith in God, and, I might add, how we come to terms with the implications of a finite God.

    Well done, Rachael.

    • Rachael

      Thanks for your comments, Weise– I think the culture of certitude certainly plays a strong role, as I wanted to expound more on in my reference to the rhetoric that links doubt with some kind of spiritual defeat or betrayal (and despair as annihilating hope and faith). I do agree that the ambiguity surrounding God’s finitude complicates our understanding of tragedy, and I think Bruce Hafen’s talk, “Love is Not Blind,” is a wonderful response to this tendency. This is also why I think a shift towards understanding God’s power in terms of making beauty from ashes and consecrating pain into understanding and joy is a much more consistent and sound form of faith than trying to reconcile notions of omnipotence and obedience/prosperity promises with the confusion of unanswered prayers and un-intervened catastrophes, as Eugene England also discusses in the essay Wm references.

  • Christopher Smith

    Beautifully said, Rachael. To put a bit of a sociological spin on this, there’s been some research done on “just world belief”– that is, the intuitive belief that everything that happens, including suffering, is just and has a purpose. As an example, researchers had test subjects observe students working in a room. These students were subjected to arbitrary electrical shocks of varying magnitudes. When interviewed afterward, the observers tended to say that the students who got the biggest electrical shocks had behaved badly and deserved the shocks they got. This seems to have been a way of rationalizing the injustice they had seen with their belief in a just world. Not surprisingly, religious people were more likely to offer these kinds of rationalizations than non-religious people– that is, religious people are more likely than non-religious people to believe in a just world.

    Just world belief isn’t necessarily bad. Those who believe all suffering has a purpose are more likely to be happy in the midst of suffering and to try to make the best of it. But on the other hand, there are obvious downsides. If we believe all suffering is deserved or providential, we may be less inclined to step in and help. Worse, we may even actively participate in the vilification of disadvantaged groups.

    To get back to your aesthetic approach, I’m reminded of one of my favorite quotes, from Kino’s Travels: “The world is not beautiful; and that, in a way, lends it a sort of beauty.” If disbelief in a just world tends to rob us of a certain measure of happiness and security in the face of tragedy, I think we can get a lot of that happiness and security back through the very theological resources you offer: an aesthetic appreciation of tragedy, a determination to make the best of it, a communal network of support to help people get through it. You offer, I think, a beautiful middle way between cynicism about suffering on the one hand, and providentialist rationalizations on the other. You offer a way to be both realistic and happy. And, at the same time, to be true to Mormonism.

    So, well done.

    • Rachael

      Thanks for those insights, Christopher! I love seeing the sociological lens on these issues. That example highlights how we crave meaning, and how one of the most disturbing things about tragedy is its resistance to any totalizing explanations or satisfactory equations. It reminds me of a line in an interesting book, Daniel Coleman’s “In Bed with the Word,” that claims “people with big souls are not people who hurry to solutions” but are willing to carry tension rather than shed the burden of ambiguity too hastily. I also like how you point to the fruits of tragedy in terms of aesthetics, community, etc., and I think this is worth discussing more, too.

  • Rockgod28

    Last year on May 6th I got a call from my mother. I was with my wife, my family and friends enjoying a wonderful Saturday together. The first thing my mother said was for me to sit down. I had no idea what she was calling about. I didn’t sit down, standing in the kitchen I asked her to tell me what was going on. My father, only 56 years old, had died. I collapsed to my knees.

    I could bearly talk and while everyone noticed my collapse to the kitchen floor I could only ask one question. “How?”

    My mother in tears explained he had a heart attack while on a father-sons campout as Scoutmaster he was in charge of at the time. He died on the way to the hospital and medics tried to save him in the hospital then he was pronounced to be deceased.

    Just a month before I saw him. He looked tired, but he was active and happy to see me and my family. He was at work so we did not spend much time together. My daughter 3 years old just went to Disneyland for the first time. It was a struggle to get to California when as my family drove to my parents’ home in April. We got TWO flat tires out in the desert. It was a miricle there was a gas station/truckstop very close. The steering wheel was difficult to control. I did not know I had two flat tires at the time. I fixed one and filled the tires with air, but the steering was terrible. When I got further we stopped again. I found the other tire was flat.

    I fixed that one and the steering was still bad. I made it to my parents’ house. The next morning I popped the hood and found the power steering belt snapped.

    Everything was fixed and I spent a wonderful time in California.

    The next month my father was dead. No good bye. He was gone.

    I helped prepare him for his funeral. I touched death. No burns, scares or brusing were visible. I lifted, pulled, slipped on his funeral clothes onto his empty mortal coil.

    After he was dressed I stood in silent reverence as my mother entered the room. She said what I was thinking. “He looks like he is asleep.” We all agreed. (My dad always had a bear like snore when he slept we pointed out lightly.)

    Now my daughter would never get to know my dad except from pictures which I show her from time to time. My mother is alone and we all miss him. I miss him.

    However while I did not get to say good bye I knew who he was. A disciple of Christ. As I helped my mother pack away his stuff everything in his life reflected that commitment. It is safe to say in every respect he was a devout and righteous man. The kind of man I can only hope to be.

    I reflected upon the teachings my father encouraged me to follow. The faith of my father was my faith. I struggle to be the man he knows I can be. I stumble, but he is there even when I don’t know it getting me back on track.

    I am so grateful to him and I know that as I follow that faith I grow within myself I can go to where he is now. Others in our family have had miracles after his passing. My mother admitted she was a little jealous they could see what we could not, however she knew did not need it.

    My father was no stranger to tragedy either. His father died in a plane crash at the age of three. His mother suffered for years from medical problems that left her in pain most days. She got to see me married before she passed away a short time later.

    Death is inevitable, a 100% certain. None can void it.

    There is only one question that either makes life a triumph or tragedy.

    “When I die will I live again?”

    If no then life is futile and short with no purpose or point.

    If yes then life is a time of testing and trial to be experienced according to a plan.

    If there is a plan then all tragedy can be overcome and as the scriptures tell in Revelations God shall wipe away all tears. There shall be no more death, neither sorrow, nor crying, neither shall there be any more pain for the former things are passed away.

    So Mormons experience tragedy all the time. We put our hope in Christ. Because of the early Saints, Joseph Smith and previous followers of Christ we know how much suffering and tragedy we must endure by the words of Christ himself. (D&C Section 122).

    If it isn’t true then life is tragic.

    If it is true … life is sweet and beautiful!

  • BHodges

    Great post, Rachael. I’ve seen a few such discussions on tragedy and Mormonism, some of those you mentioned like England, Givens, etc. When one of my bets friends’ mom passed away a few years ago I sat down and stream-of-consciousness’d a post about it, and I thought it was interesting that you referred to “beauty for ashes” and Hafen, because I think my post must have been partly inspired by Hafen. Sorry to seem a little spammish, but it seems since your post is indirectly talking about how we wish more Mormons would talk about this it might be appropriate to include a link:

    • Rachael

      Blair, your post is beautiful. I love these lines: ‘The God in which Mormons place their faith is a weeping God.4Jesus Christ experienced sorrow; he was (and thus is) a man “acquainted with grief.”5 It was not a sin for Him, it was a condition, and it can be sanctifying and even beautiful, though perhaps not so beautiful in the moment. Granted that sorrow should be experienced with care, and allowing it to slip into despair is a real danger. Still, I believe there is something sacred, important, and righteous in sorrow. “Jesus Wept.”6″ Thanks for sharing and expanding the dialogue.