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.

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  • aquinas

    Rachael, thanks for your post. I understand you to be saying that Mormonism is formulated in such a way that it prevents an appreciation or understanding of the specific genre of Tragedy. So you are using Tragedy as a term of art, not just to mean Mormons are not acquainted with grief, or sorrow, or loss in the vernacular. I completely agree with this point. As one example, I wrote a post on Nephi’s Vision as Tragedy:

    What is interesting is that I received push back from certain readers who felt I had not focused enough on Nephi’s faith or those who tried to explain to me that ultimately this wasn’t Tragic. I felt resistance from readers in seeing Tragedy (using the word as a term of art) in the Book of Mormon. There was always some way to interpret Nephi to prevent a reading of Tragedy.

    Because of this, I’m not exactly sure what you mean by the “Dilemma of Tragedy.” My observation in Mormon thought is that there is no dilemma. You provide one example of the Garden of Eden as Tragedy. However, if anything, the history of Mormon thinking on the Garden of Eden shows that Mormon interpreters have consistently sought to eliminate The Tragic from the Edenic narrative. If anything, Latter-day Saints do not need tips on how to reconcile Tragedy. This comes so naturally and instinctively, as evidenced in the general resistance to seeing Tragedy built-in to the world. Rather, the dilemma is how Mormonism can appreciate the specific genre of the Tragic without giving up a Mormon worldview that tends to eliminate it; or, where if Tragedy does exist, it is only the result of poor choices. Or, alternatively the challenge is how to draw upon latent Mormon themes of the Tragic that doesn’t immediately get overshadowed and muted by the louder and more robust Mormon optimism.

    • Rachael

      Yes, you catch my distinction between grief/sorrow/loss and the more particular qualities of tragedy, and I think your rendering of the vision of the tree of life is a great example. It’s interesting that Nephi doesn’t “handle” the grief or see the moral lessons or the positives in it, as much as he resigns himself to the inevitability of consuming the fruits of our own choices [which he views in terms of God's justice-- though I think it's God conveying, not creating, laws of the universe]: 2 Ne 26: 7 O the pain, and the anguish of my soul for the loss of the slain of my people! For I, Nephi, have seen it, and it well nigh consumeth me before the presence of the Lord; but I must cry unto my God: Thy ways are just…” Nephi, Lehi, Enos, Mormon, Moroni, Alma, and countless others, experience real anguish in the face of the agency of others, and have to come to terms with accepting the loss, and I don’t think it was humming “Count Your Blessings” that did the trick. It was doing everything in their power as a parent, a brother, a prophet, a captain, a leader, to love and strengthen their people–even in the face of rejection or refusal.
      I think the challenge is as you say–learning to draw upon latent Mormon themes of the Tragic without eclipsing them with the themes of optimism (both of which are true and worth affirming) and stepping back and acknowledging the real costs in the plan’s structure. I think there are ways of doing that which I’ll explore in a wildcard post soon.

  • Careers for Programmer

    Your site is great! This post really caught my eye when I was searching around. Thanks for sharing it.

  • Ben Huff

    Rachael, your post got me thinking, and then my comment was getting way too long for a comment, so I put up a post at Times and Seasons.

  • Daniel Ortner

    The brethren certainly have touched the question of the meaning of tragedy quite a bit lately

    Not especially The Songs They Could Not Sing by Elder Cook which talks in depth about the large scale tragedy of the sinking of the titanic.

    I think the most meaningful imagery used in the church to describe tragedy is that used by Elder Cook of a three act play

    “From the limited perspective of those who do not have knowledge, understanding, or faith in the Father’s plan—who look at the world only through the lens of mortality with its wars, violence, disease, and evil—this life can seem depressing, chaotic, unfair, and meaningless. Church leaders have compared this perspective with someone walking into the middle of a three-act play.3 Those without knowledge of the Father’s plan do not understand what happened in the first act, or the premortal existence, and the purposes established there; nor do they understand the clarification and resolution that come in the third act, which is the glorious fulfillment of the Father’s plan.”

    The suffering we face here is very real, but it is forgotten in comparison to the joy that comes in the third act. I think its interesting that in ancient theater a play was categorized as a drama or a comedy solely by the ending. If the ending was tragic it was a drama no matter how much humor was found and if the ending positive a comedy even if there were death and loss and sorrow throughout. In this sense the LDS worldview sees our life as a great comedy rather than a drama/tragedy.

  • Jeux en ligne

    Mormonism and the Dilemma of Tragedy has been saved like a favorite :), I really like your website!

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