Rachael Givens observes that Mormon theology is full of tragedy, but Mormons themselves don’t seem to be very good at dealing with it. She draws on some of the most distinctive ideas in Mormonism to offer recommendations on how to accept and process tragedy better. I enjoyed her post a lot and offer some thoughts of my own. In part I’ll press on some issues I’m not sure she really resolved, but I also want to expand on what I see in her closing paragraph.
Rachael describes tragedy as a situation in which something precious must be lost or given up in the process of securing something else precious, where there is an “irreconcilable conflict between Good and Good,” because both goods cannot be realized. I think she is right that tragedy in this sense is an essential element of Mormon cosmology, and that this role for tragedy is part of what makes Mormonism a radical departure from traditional Christianity.
Perhaps the most important tragedy is that in order to develop spiritually and fully partake of the glory of our Father in Heaven, we have to enter a realm of spiritual uncertainty, ignorance and weakness, and exercise moral agency in a context where grave sin is possible. As a result, many of us will depart from the path of salvation, perhaps permanently. This is a deeply non-traditional view in a few ways, and perhaps what is most non-traditional about it is its incorporation of tragedy–indeed, multiple dimensions of tragedy.
First, the idea that there is something good that Adam and Eve achieve through the Fall, and that we achieve in following them, is an uneasy idea in conventional Christianity. That we must give up innocence and the presence of God in order to achieve spiritual progress is itself a tragic notion. Second, the idea that to allow spiritual progress and the choice of exaltation, God must also open up the possibility of our choosing eternal damnation, and that some will almost certainly choose it, is tragic. Third, some traditional accounts, like that of Augustine, suggest that God’s plan is equally realized whether we are saved or damned, because when we are saved it reflects his mercy (and our purification from sin in some sense), and when we are damned it reflects his justice (and our guilt). However, in the Mormon view, the punishment of the wicked is something that is not in any way pleasing to God. He weeps for those whom Satan claims. Hence God’s justice is also tragic. God’s plan is shot through with tragedy in (at least) these three key ways.
I agree with Rachael about Mormons’ tendency (often) to avoid and deny tragedy, rather than face and deal with it. It is understandable that we do this, given human nature, the tendency of historical Christianity (which is always there as a cultural influence) to avoid tragedy, and the presence of other teachings in Mormonism that facilitate the avoidance of tragedy, depending on how they are interpreted. It is paradoxical, though, given how thoroughly tragic our cosmology is, and ultimately I think we are unfaithful to our prophetic inheritance if we do not take to heart the tragic dimensions of our theology. Thus far I fully agree with Rachael, though I have expanded on her themes in some ways of my own.
Rachael loses me, though, when she offers some doctrinal solutions to help us “handle tragedy without compromising Mormonism’s profound commitment to joy.” I think there is something promising here, but I am not sure how it is supposed to work, and I worry that her solutions might involve eliminating tragedy rather than accepting and dealing with it. Like some others who comment on her thread, I’d love to see her clarify what she has in mind and am looking forward to her promised sequel. For now, I’ll explain where my questions lie.
First Rachael points to the idea that our experiences, including suffering, will turn to our good. Certainly this is a key part of the Mormon picture, and part of why we must, tragically, spend time in mortality, away from God. But if our suffering all turns to our good, do we risk nullifying the suffering? I especially worry that we are thinking tragedy will ultimately be done away, like death will be, and if that is what we think, it seems we are ultimately not accepting it. I am particularly nervous about the way LDS sometimes seem to brush off the idea that there was something wrong with Adam’s and Eve’s choice to eat the forbidden fruit, which made experience of good and evil possible, and instead simply describe it as the right choice. Even as Nephi is explaining why it was necessary, he still calls it a transgression. If we make their choice too wholly and simply good, I think we are missing something and again, talking ourselves out of tragedy.
Next, Rachael points to the hope for universal salvation. This is certainly a reassuring idea. It makes the tragedy of leaving the presence of God and enduring ignorance and sin more acceptable. Yet isn’t it a bit too reassuring? If we maintain universal salvation, aren’t we still minimizing the possibility of another, very important tragedy? To me, there is a big difference between saying that God wants and hopes for and seeks salvation for all, and saying that he will succeed. I suppose there is an element of tragedy left so long as some people take a long time, and both suffer and inflict a lot of pain along the way before coming around to accept salvation. Still, the depth of the tragedy is drastically reduced. It becomes ephemeral, from an eternal standpoint, and so I worry that we are talking ourselves out of tragedy.
Also, I just wonder if we aren’t kidding ourselves to paint the rosy picture of universal salvation. In scripture I see God expressing the hope for all to be saved, a hope that applies to each of us, but not in any clear way the teaching that all actually will be saved. Moreover, the hope, for me, is part of the tragedy, so I affirm the hope . . . but I am not sure that my hope will be fulfilled, and if I were, I’m not sure it would still be hope! A lot of the urgency of the hope would seem to dissipate, and along with it, the sense of tragedy.
Finally, Rachael refers to the response of weeping in love, exemplified by Mormon and Enoch, and by God. I’m not sure how she means this to resolve the tension between tragedy and joy exactly, either. I am hoping she will write more. To me, though, this is the most important and, if I understand it, insightful part of her post.
It seems to me that one of the conclusions we must draw from a tragic conception of the universe is that sorrow is inevitable, and hence that we should not try to avoid it. This is not to say that we should not avoid it in any way. There are many things that lead to unnecessary sorrow, and we should avoid these as far as we can. Also, some things are not as sorrowful as we may think, when understood in eternal perspective, and we should avail ourselves of the comfort of that perspective where appropriate. Still, we should not expect or try to avoid sorrow entirely, and in fact, we should expect an enormous amount of sorrow if we follow in God’s footsteps. Perhaps we should even expect infinite sorrow, accompanying, though not surpassing the infinite joy of exaltation and reunion with God.
The trick is to accept that sorrow for some things is good and right, and part of the divine life. If loss is inevitable, it is only right that we should feel sorrow. Sorrow does not indicate a lack of faith in God’s plan, or a failure to appreciate his perspective. In fact, God himself feels enormous sorrow over the suffering of his children, especially their suffering due to sin, including their own sins. Proper sorrow, I suggest, is not opposed to joy, but is an element of it.
Part of a faithful response to God’s plan, then, is to accept the sorrow that comes from appreciating and seeing its tragic dimensions. Rather than fighting it, as Enoch initially seems to do, we should recognize that certain kinds of sorrow are part of holiness, and that in allowing this sorrow to wash over and through us, by weeping with God, we become more pure and grow closer to—not bliss, perhaps, but—the serenity and joy of heaven.