Tragedy and the Promise of Mormonism
Some time ago, I wrote a short piece entitled “The Promise of Mormonism”, which picked five elements of Mormonism that I love and find compelling. The fifth and final of those was tragedy. So, here we are, to dig into a bit the ways in which I see tragedy baked into the very cosmology and fabric of Mormonism.
The War in Heaven
Lucifer, our brother and a son of the morning, challenges Jesus and leads one-third of our siblings, our family in a civil war against God. They lose and are all cast out of God’s presence, damned and without physical bodies. One-third of our family is gone. Right off the bat. I’m the oldest of six kids, so it’d be like if 2 of my siblings were gone, forever, turned against us, fighting us at every moment, hoping that we’d be miserable forever.
From this moment, Mormon cosmology builds a world where God fails. The Book of Moses teaches that His/Her/Their work and His/Her/Their glory is “to bring to pass the immortality and eternal life of man” (Moses 1:39). Yet, from the very beginning, this work and glory is frustrated by one of us.
How did we fail them? Why couldn’t we convince them to stay? To join us? What did I do wrong?
I’ve long been puzzled and frustrated by The Fall, particularly with the way that some of my fellow Saints interpret the unique Mormon angles. About a year ago, I read an article that drew on a variety of sources to posit that The Fall is a tragedy, in the Hegelian sense—“the irreconcilable conflict between Good and Good, about the unavoidable loss of one when both have every claim on our assent” (Rachael). In this telling, tragedy is re-woven into the narrative of The Fall, which is often presented as a triumph within Mormonism.
I love the idea of reading The Fall as a tragedy of “the irreconcilable conflict between Good and Good”, in part because that feels very relatable to my own experience. I feel like I often am faced with a choice between two competing Goods and that I cannot bring both Goods together. In this telling, you can read both commandments from God as good. Good, but irreconcilable. There was no way out of the Garden that did not require loss. And such is life.
I’m still not quite sure what to do with a God that sets up a situation in which it seems like there is no option but to disobey. But I am invested in a God that guides us through the world of competing Goods and the inevitable loss experienced in such a world and transforms that loss and suffering to our good.
How often do we face this same conflict today? What do we do with a universe that forces us to choose between competing goods? What do we do with a God that builds a world that necessitates such tragic choices? What does this mean for us? What lessons does such a reading give to us today?
The Book of Mormon
James Goldberg, Terryl Givens, and others, have rightfully pointed out that The Book of Mormon is a tragedy. The book ends with an entire civilization destroyed, except for one wandering prophet-warrior. As I’ve been studying The Book of Mormon this year, I’ve noticed how thoroughly this sense of tragedy and doom is woven throughout the text. Nephi in some of the first chapters sees a vision of this destruction and subsequent prophets mention it frequently.
Not only is the ending of the book tragic and devastating, but we see an earlier civilization destroyed in detail just prior to the destruction of the Nephites. This earlier destruction is discovered at some previous point in the narrative and foreshadows the coming destruction of the Nephites that has been prophesied. The Nephites are destroyed because of their pride, just like many classic tragic heroes, their hubris blinds them to the truths that God revealed to them.
This sense of tragedy pervades much of the book (indeed, Sharon Harris offers a provocative reading of the ending of Omni that feels relevant here: essentially, she draws attention to the ways that that book ends with uncertainty, grief, and loss accompanied by an outpouring of hope and longing). Understanding that The Book of Mormon is a tragedy changes how we read it, I think. The Nephites are no longer pure and good and blessed, but human and flawed, fatally. This makes them far more relatable, I think, and also requires a different engagement with their choices throughout the text, which Mormon and Moroni (as well as Joseph) seem to want us to pay attention to—why else tell us in the first 50 pages that everything ends with complete and utter devastation? That this group of people we see split off to save themselves are ultimately so wicked that they are completely destroyed? That the civilization we assume to be the protagonists and heroes, are doomed to turn from God?
Enoch and The God who Weeps
One of the most personally profound moments in Mormon scripture for me is Enoch’s vision of God weeping in the Book of Moses. What does it mean to believe in a God—a perfected, exalted being—who weeps in pain? What does this tell us about God? About perfection? About the universe? About our future? About Heaven?
To me, this suggests that the life of God is much like our own (as Brother Joseph says, “that same sociality which exists among us here” is among God and His/Her/Their fellows). God feels deeply, deeply enough to weep. Tragedy and sorrow and pain and suffering are woven into the very fabric of Mormon cosmology. We cannot escape them.
Death and exaltation do not deprive us of pain and sorrow. Those seem to be eternal facts of life. If God weeps, why should I expect anything less? Anything more? Anything different?
The Law of Opposition
Perhaps because of Enoch’s vision of the God Who Weeps, I believe that the Law of Opposition, described by Lehi in 2 Nephi 2, suggests strongly that tragedy is with us, as some sort of eternal law of the universe. Righteousness and goodness and comedy all must exist, and perhaps they depend on tragedy. Without one, we cannot know the other.
How exactly does this opposition work? What does it mean for tragedy to be eternal? What would life be like without tragedy?
I tend towards a Mormon universalism—eternal progression and all that—which perhaps undermines my assertion that tragedy is woven into Mormonism. But, I think given the way we talk about eternity and progression and exaltation, there’s a sense in which tragedy is eternal. Indeed, by being exalted and saved, I am not removed from tragedy—I experience tragedy and sorrow in the lives of all of my creation, this seems especially true if we lean into that particular tragic reading of The Fall as a Hegelian tragedy. In that sense, the pervasiveness of agency necessitates that we’ll near constantly experience the tragedy of choosing one Good over another. Not to mention that there’s a reading of Alma 42 that suggests that God can cease to be God, that personal tragedy of some kind could cost any exalted being their exaltation. Choice is elevated to the point where even God has the ability to choose something that would cost Him/Her/Them His/Her/Their divinity/exaltation.
So, what do we do with this? Take comfort. Tragedy is a constant, and we must always work to lessen its pain for our fellow pilgrims here on this mortal sojourn. God feels with us, weeping as we weep. And watch for our own hubris, or other fatal flaws, that threaten to bring tragedy and doom to ourselves. And perhaps we can feel for those around us that have chosen one Good over another and are reckoning with the consequences of that choice.