A few years ago, I asked myself some fairly typical midcareer — and midlife — questions as I reflected on the trajectory of my work as an educator and scholar: To what do I give the most importance? What do I value most? In what ways do I and those around me find the most pleasure? I’ll keep it brief: what am I passionate about? And how can I give more of myself to the things I care about? There were a plethora of obvious solutions to these problems.
As the director of a research center and a professor of English, I find both literature and the excitement of conceptual breakthroughs fascinating. I have made so many wonderful friends from all over the world through my experiences at university. There are dozens, if not hundreds, of students that I have had the honor of teaching and I love each and every one of them. Nonetheless, one solution kept beckoning to me with particular insistence, both as an end in itself and as the glue that holds together everything else I cherish. Possession of a spiritual awakening.
To be clear, my love for spiritual experience is not exclusive to other things; rather, it is the means by which all of my experiences can be the fullest expressions of who I am and what I value, while also serving as a conduit to realities beyond myself. This includes perceiving the beauty or significance of something to which we’ve become numb, or recognizing a connection between seemingly unrelated events.
It means discovering that we are capable of more than we ever thought possible—more love, more fulfillment, more health, more hope, more self-realization, more transcendence. Spiritual transformation as a means of redemption: that’s the stuff I live for.
Spiritual experience is often characterized by a profound personal transformation. It has the potential for either profound or subtle results. Experience’s root, ex-periri, means to pass through danger, suggesting that the very act of living through an experience transforms us.
Widely read spirituality scholar Philip Sheldrake emphasizes this feature by linking the “ultimate values” we acquire on our spiritual journeys with the “purely materialistic approach to life” we learn to reject.
Spiritual awakening alters our worldview and shows us an improved way of living.
One of Sheldrake’s contemporaries, Sandra M. Schneiders, defines spirituality as “orienting the subject beyond purely private satisfaction toward the ultimate good, the highest value that the person recognizes,” and this is what spirituality is all about. As a result of our pursuit of this “ultimate good,” we evolve into better people. It alters who we are fundamentally.
To me, literature took on a spiritual significance once I realized that it is inherently transformative: by engaging in it, we gain new perspectives on the world. When it comes to God’s dealings with humanity, poetry, to paraphrase John Milton, provides an explanation that makes sense. What we may perceive, intuit, or hope for but (yet) cannot say we fully know or understand can find expression in literature.
This is a fact that is still taking shape.
Literature enriches our humanity.” It also elevates our human nature to a divine level.
For this reason, literature serves as a forerunner to future realities, both external and internal, by creating novel synapses and expanding our cognitive and emotional repertoires. For me, reading great works of literature has always been an integral part of my spiritual development.
Reading great works of literature can help us gain new insight into our spiritual experiences and equip us with a more nuanced vocabulary with which to describe and share them with others.
What purpose does literature serve? There is much to appreciate in stories, poems, and plays that are well-considered and skillfully crafted, with intriguing plots, complex characters, and moving language. A person in need is more sincere and desperate than one who is merely admired.
A wise friend from graduate school once pointed out to me that there are many examples of societies throughout history that did not have the concept of private property, insurance industries, professional sports teams, universities, lawyers, financiers, or plastic surgeons (and so on and so on). However, we cannot find even a single instance of a society that lacked art. Evidently, everyone needs to express themselves creatively. The literary arts are included in this category. Literature, like religion, is essential to the survival of any given society.
In terms of anthropology, it is obvious that literature is essential. Coming back to school was the final piece in the puzzle that made me fully appreciate how much of an impact literature has had on my life. Literature arouses the intellect and stirs the emotions, enhancing our capacity for empathy and, by extension, feeling and perception. It allows us to imagine different realities and perspectives, which can lead to unexpected insights and beautiful (or heartbreaking) melodies of emotion.
No culture ever existed without some form of artistic expression. It would appear that the desire for artistic expression is intrinsic to the human condition.
Though they enhance our lives, spiritual experiences “cannot be uttered” or “given form,” making it hard to define and remember them. Here’s where literature could be an extremely useful resource. As William Wordsworth puts it, literature gives voice to experiences that have ultimate value, spiritual value, but also seem set apart from the rigors of everyday life and are therefore hard to understand.
When we read, we experience what Jewish poet Hank Lazer calls “an intensified awareness of being,” a “erratic movement” between the known and the unknown (or, in some cases, even perceive). Literature’s presentation of everyday things in new and surprising ways amounts to a novel tactic for revealing “ultimate” purposes, and is thus often categorized as an effect of wonder.
It sheds light on life’s spiritual mystery, both human and divine.
Hence, Christ quotes poetry when he cries out in anguish from the cross, “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?” One of the Psalms, specifically Psalm 22:1. The Gospel story provides a framework for understanding the incomprehensible by making use of that literary allusion. Literature enriches our humanity by allowing us to contemplate the inconceivable and by heightening the impact of our experiences. It elevates our human nature to a divine level.
Why is it that faith and books go hand in hand? Because even though they are kept apart in the modern world — I know many religious people who don’t read much literature, and many atheists who are experts in the field of literature — they are inextricably linked.
Try to picture Christianity without the Christ stories in the Gospels, which are rife with literary devices like rising and falling action, protagonists and antagonists, metaphors and paradoxes, and the lovely lyrics that grace our hymns. Religion permeates all of literature. It works both ways, too.
Some argue that in the increasingly atheistic 19th century, literature supplanted religion as the primary medium through which people shared their experiences of universal themes such as love, loss, grace, perplexity, and redemption. While this may seem to be a step in the right direction, all it does is shift the religious impulse from religion to literature, making the very thing that could drive a wedge between them into the thing that ultimately brings them closer together.
To say that literature has become a modern religion is merely to admit that we require both.
At the same time that modern scientific methods were being elaborated in the 17th and 18th centuries, the concept of “a life more like itself” emerged as an integral effect of literary narrative. Literature transformed into a kind of virtual reality as new ideas of factuality, or of what constitutes fact, entered the world, based less on philosophical reason than on experimentation in laboratories.
At the same time that it was moving away from them, it was patterned after discourses of fact, or evidence and objective truth. As he puts it, “I was born in the Year 1632 in the City of York, of a good Family, tho’ not of that Country, my Father being a Foreigner…” With these words, Daniel Defoe’s “Robinson Crusoe,” published in 1719 and often referred to as the “first modern novel,” begins. Though Defoe’s readers knew Crusoe to be a fictional character, they found his story believable and his assessment of the world striking in its modernity.
To paraphrase, “if science gave us facts, literature accorded us meaning; it spoke not only to what is real but to why we care.”
The story that Defoe told was extremely realistic and vivid. It claimed a place “in but not of the world” of fact, of science, in close proximity to these new ways of knowing. Literature’s high ground, so to speak. It could create new lives and worlds from scratch while also reflecting the realities of existing ones. If science provided us with information, literature gave us insight into what that information means.
As a result, literature in the modern era has come to serve as a kind of spiritual sanctuary. It’s perhaps not surprising, then, that literature is also thought to cultivate these qualities, in a more indirect and tangential way, by stimulating the mind and stirring the heart, fostering greater empathy, and increasing our capacity for feeling and perception. We can develop new perspectives and perspectives on spiritual matters through reading literature.
My spiritual life gave way to my academic life, which gave way to my devotional life, and my devotional life gave way to the pulsations and colors of the everyday in my writing.
Metaphor is an effective device in both everyday life and creative writing. By evoking one thing through the use of another, as in “My love is a rose” or “God is love,” metaphor makes abstract ideas more concrete by connecting them to objects of our experience, such as in “My love is a rose” or “God is love.” Metaphor is more than a mere comparison; it actually alters our perceptions of the things, concepts, and experiences it names. The thing changes this into that.
However, I have found that having a spiritual experience also alters our understanding of metaphors. Typically, we can tell when someone is using a metaphor. Although love is not analogous to a rose, this figurative language serves to heighten its sensuality and vividness. The use of metaphors, however, has an interesting effect when attempting to describe spiritual experiences; the metaphor seems to merge with the object it is meant to describe.
And the same holds true for other facets of our existence.
Spending time with friends can be a transformative spiritual experience, and once we’ve had that, we view them in a new light. Learning can be a spiritual experience, and when it is, we reflect on what we’ve learned in a new way. When one has a profound spiritual experience, the metaphors they use transform from mental devices into symbols of a new and improved world. Literature, with its abundance of figurative language, is brought to life in this way.
This article is an adapted section of Matthew Wickman’s BYU Maxwell Institute essay “Life to the Whole Being: The Spiritual Memoir of a Literature Professor.” Professor of English and first director of the BYU Humanities Center Matthew Wickman. Numerous articles and two books (“The Ruins of Experience” and “Literature After Euclid: The Geometric Imagination in the Long Scottish Enlightenment”) are his work.
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