I have family members who have died recently, others who are dying, and some who tell me confidently every time we talk, “You know, I won’t be around much longer…” As distracted as we are, sometimes incorrigibly so, we can’t avoid our mortality – and not simply because we’re all confronted with our own and others’ demise, but because mortality structures the very nature of our life. It is the backdrop to the stage. It is the veil we soliloquize. This profound religious truth is also a profoundly mundane one.
Mortality likewise encompasses our finitude and insufficient knowledge. We are coerced to act on the basis of imperfection. One inevitable implication (and really this my whole point) is suffering. Sometimes our suffering is wrenching, profound and instructive, sometimes it’s a small buzzing fly, and sometimes it grinds on in a maddening, purposeless stupidity, the nauseating stench of carrion.
Prophets speak of the importance of mortality in school-ground metaphors – that it’s necessary in an eternal, progressional sense to undergo hardships and ultimately face the unknowable mystery of death. Among other things, mortality offers a context and an unique opportunity to be oriented toward God and Christ and to learn lessons that elude unembodied exaltations.
One common way to interpret this is by positing God as intentionally (thoughtfully, perhaps even lovingly) behind the various tragedies, losses, and puzzlements haplessly smeared across everyday: “God apparently needs me somewhere else, and not at that job I was just laid off from. I’m praying hard to find out where that might be.”
I struggle to wring from my heart more than a feeble sometimes. My obstinacy is less the result of profound grappling with various moral paradoxes that inevitably arise when we put God behind all details (particularly the bad stuff), than it is on account of my own vicissitudes and constant wavering back and forth in analyzing my personal experiences. Nonetheless, globally denying this interpretation likewise denies God the title of Providence and ourselves the virtue of gratitude. God forbid.
There is another interpretation which I have found as a firm foundation for my faith of late. Namely, our lives are mortal in the sense of their vulnerability to the senselessness and randomness that serves as at least one of the pillars of the grand temple of the cosmos. Sometimes the hardships we face happen not because God is pulling the strings with specific lessons or outcomes in mind, but simply because (Mormon heresy alert!) God’s fingers can’t reach the strings.
If we are to obtain eternal life – that is, if we are to learn to live God’s life – then we must learn how to resolutely and virtuously face up to the unpredictable whirlwind of existence in a way that ennobles ourselves and others. I do not believe that there is a Celestial Handbook dictating what Gods ought to do when when one of their brightest children rebel and exercise all agency and skill to impede others’ salvation. Part of being a God is an ability to cope with the mortality that underwrites existence in heaven as well as on earth – not according to prefabricated, general rules, but according to the particular, situational demands of divine life.
What does this make of heaven? Well, as Brother Brigham put it, “The only heaven we shall ever has is the one we build for ourselves.”
So, “Would it spoil some vast eternal plan, if I were a wealthy man?”
No. It’s just turned out that way.