My last post cast a broad net over the dilemma of tragedy in Mormonism, so this Wildcard Friday post is meant to address some of the comments and questions, including the response by Ben Huff, which I received.
To briefly recap, I argued that Mormonism is simultaneously deeply committed to a tragic universe, where not all goods can coexist (primarily, agency and insulation from pain [sin], or love and invulnerability) yet also to a universal plan of happiness and an existence designed for joy. This paradox has resulted, in my mind, in an uncomfortable cultural resistance to tragedy, and its offspring, despair and doubt.
Some readers expressed concern that I didn’t factor in the doctrine of the Atonement. So let me expound: the inevitability of our sin and alienation from others and from God necessitates a reconciliation, or atonement. But the cost to God, who, for “lov[ing] the world, gave his only begotten son” and to Christ, who had to experience utter spiritual alienation and pain (“Let this cup pass from me…Abba, why hast thou forsaken me?”), is inevitable, and thus, tragic. Of course, God’s power and Christ’s atonement are key to Mormon theology, but in a reparative, not preventative, sense. The loss to us, God, and Christ, is real; the pain is suffered, no matter how consecrated or beneficial the ultimate outcome may be. God is an alchemist, not an editor. The Atonement is certainly critical to our notions of sanctification and progress, but it reinforces, in some ways, the tragic structure on which our universe of agency and law rests.
Some readers wished for more evidence, alongside the few doctrinal points I referenced, that Mormons do not, in fact, handle tragedy well. Anecdotally, I can point to some of the common refrains that greet the ambiguities of life when divine intervention, life’s promised joy, or the obedience-reward formulas do not pan out. These often focus on abstract future outcomes at the expense of dealing with present pain (“Everything will be fine in the end”) or seek the character tutorial in it (“God is teaching you patience”) or see it as some kind of test (“All suffering is a chance to prove our perseverance or try our faith”) or insist that it is, in some mysterious way, part of God’s plan all along (the oft-used tapestry example, where every experience constitutes a necessary thread in His design) or a result of some uncontrollable fate (“What is meant to be, will be.”) None of these actually engage with the loss at hand.
The polarization of faith and doubt, righteousness and despair, obedience and pain, can also exacerbate the problem. In a culture that places a high premium- even a spiritual metric– on certainty, and which equates righteousness with temporal and spiritual blessings, there is little, if any, safe space for expressing fear, doubt, and anguish. Such emotions are viewed as failures, rather than necessary human (even prophetlike—even godlike!) experiences.
My well-meaning co-religionists’ inability to let me to express my grief or my doubts, let alone bear them, has convinced me that we do not yet have an adequate language of grief; no wailing wall, no cross. I can also refer to comments like the following from Margaret Young, who teaches creative writing at Brigham Young University and is president of the Association of Mormon Letters: “The problem with many of [LDS authors] is that they…don’t explore depth of conflict, and have easy resolutions.” I can point to the many conference talks and discourses that I searched which follow these patterns , that, while I believe to be true and doctrinally grounded, are not always comprehensive.
Ben Huff’s response posed questions and concerns that I’ll briefly address here.
One: the belief that God can consecrate our afflictions for our gain, or alchemize our pain into wisdom, may eclipse the tragic altogether. This certainly can happen if we focus only on ultimate outcomes. But the destination does not rewind the journey. While God may help us retroactively glean wisdom from our painful experiences, the end result and the process are not the same thing. Contrary to CS Lewis’s claim that those who arrive in heaven find the whole way was heaven, I believe that heaven can have a hellish road.
Second: Universal salvation can shield us from tragedy. I clarify that it can mitigate it— its accessibility is constrained only by our own desires: Mormon scripture describes salvation as “receiv[ing] that which they were willing to receive…” The enormous significance of our own desires, then, is sobering—not insulating.
I should also clarify that the last concept, that of purposeful, unconditional love, is not so much a solution, as much as it is a response that is always within our reach when we encounter tragedy. And it is a response, which no matter the end result, is always worth doing. Perhaps we can find that model in Christ, who must have known that his atonement would be purchased for those who would not take the ticket. Love did not “solve,” or cancel out, those tragedies—but it somehow upset the scales, anyway. God still found love worth giving; and it was love, uncompelled, that started the clock of our world ticking—that first uncompelled act of grace that invited us to become like him. As long as we can choose to love, we have avoided the real tragedy, which is to be “past [any] feeling” at all .
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See Ecclesiastes 1:17-18, “I gave my heart to know wisdom—for in much wisdom is much grief, and he that increaseth knowledge increaseth sorrow”; 2 Nephi 2: 15 – “And to bring about his eternal purposes in the end of man… it must needs be that there was an opposition; even the forbidden fruit in opposition to the tree of life; the one being sweet and the other bitter”; note the parallel construction that links the tree of life with the bitter, and the forbidden fruit with the sweet; D&C 29:39 – “… for if they never should have bitter they could not know the sweet”.
 Matthew 27:46; Rom. 7:24; 2 Nephi 4:17-19
A quick search in conference talks for the word “tragedy” brought 230 results, and I did not come across any that discussed it in the sense I have described here (the discussions were of adversity and suffering, not actual unavoidable loss); search for “blessings” brought 2,091. Naming particular talks seems unnecssary simply because there are too many, and because I don’t wish to convey a sense of criticism when I am only trying to analyze components and patterns in them.
 Moroni 9:20; 1 Nephi 17:45