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Op-ed: Toward a Latter-day Saint sense of spiritual learning

By their nature, spiritual experiences are neurologically and psychologically intense. Parley P. Pratt once observed that the gift of the Holy Ghost invigorates our “physical and intellectual” capacities and “strengthens and gives tone to the nerves.” Mod
By their nature, spiritual experiences are neurologically and psychologically intense. Parley P. Pratt once observed that the gift of the Holy Ghost invigorates our “physical and intellectual” capacities and “strengthens and gives tone to the nerves.” Modern scholars of spiritual experience, even those who are non-religious, confirm Pratt’s insights.

Editor's note: This commentary by BYU professor Matthew Wickman is part of an ongoing Deseret News opinion series exploring ideas and issues at the intersection of Faith and Thought.

“Could someone actually do that? Could I?”

These are familiar questions to me, and probably to most people who seek inspiration. They indicate things brought to mind we had not previously considered, and that may require us to leave our comfort zones or undergo a trial of faith. For that reason, I associate these questions with a peculiar compound of feelings: excitement and anxiety; joy and terror; anticipation and dread.

Three years ago, I experienced a wave of these feelings as I pondered teaching a course on literature and spirituality. The idea intrigued me, moved me and even frightened me a little. But few models for such a course exist in the secular field of literary studies where I dwell professionally. To teach this subject, and potentially write about it as a scholar, would mean stepping out a long ways on a slender limb. And even if it held, I wasn’t sure my balance would.

One can resist spiritual promptings. But I have learned, am trying to learn, not to. Three years later, I have taught this course three times. It’s the richest intellectual (and, yes, spiritual) experience I have ever had in the classroom. It has opened new horizons to me as a scholar and helped me better understand how spirituality works and why it sometimes confounds our habits of thought. I now have a fuller grasp of why spirituality often brings those heart-stopping questions, those supercharged feelings.

By their nature, spiritual experiences are neurologically and psychologically intense. 19th century Latter-day Saint Apostle Parley P. Pratt once observed that the gift of the Holy Ghost invigorates our “physical and intellectual” capacities and “strengthens and gives tone to the nerves.” Modern scholars of spiritual experience, even those who are nonreligious, confirm Pratt’s insights. They explain spirituality as a mixture of heightened thought and feeling, a quickening of perception, memory and imagination, a vehicle of self-transcendence, an agent of transformation.

Spirituality draws us out of ourselves and moves us to do difficult things. Religious people believe it brings us closer to God. No wonder it often puts one’s heart in one’s throat.

Bearing these qualities in mind, we can better appreciate the irony in Brigham Young’s famous counsel to Karl G. Maeser. At the newly founded Brigham Young Academy, now Brigham Young University, Maeser was told he “should not teach even the alphabet or the multiplication tables without the Spirit of God. That is all.”

Right. Simple as that.

The LDS Church’s new teaching curriculum for 2018 brings such admonition into ward and branch settings. Though more structured than Young’s counsel to Maeser, it nevertheless injects spontaneity into lesson plans and tailors weekly instruction to the needs of individual congregations. As the church presents it, this curriculum “affects how we prepare, teach, counsel and learn together, and receive and act on inspiration.”

Its aim is to initiate transformation, not (just) positive feelings — conversion, not (just) learning. Its success turns on whether we as individual Latter-day Saints expand our capacities of thought and feeling, discern new opportunities for service and growth, extend our range of experience, deepen our compassion – in short, become something more than we presently are.

Such an approach blurs the lines between teaching and learning. It brings to mind the saying attributed to Marion G. Romney: “I always know when I am speaking under the inspiration of the Holy Ghost because I always learn something from what I’ve said.” Applied to Young’s mandate it means that teachers must teach what they do not yet know; what is most essential is always a little beyond the scholar’s current level of expertise.

Admittedly, the teacher-scholar in me finds this enigmatic – a little like being a fisher called to catch men.

Or a lame man commanded to walk. Most readers are familiar with this story:

“Now there is at Jerusalem by the sheep market a pool, which is called in the Hebrew tongue Bethesda, having five porches.

“In these lay a great multitude of impotent folk, of blind, halt, withered, waiting for the moving of the water.

“For an angel went down at a certain season into the pool, and troubled the water: whosoever then first after the troubling of the water stepped in was made whole of whatsoever disease he had.

“And a certain man was there, which had an infirmity thirty and eight years.

“When Jesus saw him lie, and knew that he had been now a long time in that case, he saith unto him, Wilt thou be made whole?

“The (lame) man answered him, Sir, I have no man, when the water is troubled, to put me in the pool: but while I am coming, another steppeth down before me.

“Jesus saith unto him, Rise, take up thy bed, and walk.

“And immediately the man was made whole, and took up his bed, and walked.” (John 5:2-9)

For me, this story lends form to some core principles of a spiritual education.

The man's initial reply to Jesus (“Sir, I have no man …”), though brief, reveals his cultural understanding (the legend of the angel troubling the water) and his capacity to reason: Because he cannot get in the water first, he cannot be healed.

In effect, like a good student, the man is versed in common wisdom and he knows how to put it to work. In essence, his reply to Jesus captures what we know and how we apply it, the common substance of what university administrators call a “course objective” or “learning outcome.”

Learning outcomes are all the rage in higher education. But in this story, they get in the way. Like a diligent student with a clear plan, the man is too precise about what he needs. Someone must help him into the pool, that being the necessary step, as he imagines it, to healing. This is what he implicitly asks of Jesus: to be placed in the pool, and hence to be healed according to his expectations.

What then do we make of Christ's invitation that the man “Rise, take up (his) bed, and walk”? More pointedly, what do we make of the man’s response to that command?

The story effectively communicates, between the lines, a moment of monumental change, a paradigm shift in the man’s understanding. It appears to ensue less from the persuasive effects of what he already believes than the transformative prospects of something he had not considered. It isn’t that he hadn’t entertained the idea of walking, as that wish seems to have been his reason he was waiting by the pool. But it hadn’t occurred to him to try it in quite this way, with Christ acting as the motivating force and him suddenly perceiving in himself an unforeseen power to respond.

Hence, as he rises and walks, he acquires an ability to rethink his cultural inheritance and his capacities. He is “made whole” because he is not empowered to walk only: He is also able to perceive, understand and act in new ways.

In my experience, any student, any teacher, is like the man lying beside the pool of Bethesda, at once empowered and hindered by what he knows. A spiritual education begins the moment we discern an invitation not only to know more, but also to know differently. When the Spirit informs our learning, similar to Christ’s invitation to the man at the pool, we undergo something transformative that is consistent with the diverse aims of a spiritual education. It simultaneously enlarges our intellect, strengthens our faith, develops our character and inspires us to serve. It engages, and helps shape, the whole person.

This process is never one we can fully anticipate. More expansive than a single learning outcome, it always takes us at least a little by surprise.

To be a teacher of spiritual experience, one must first be a student of it. This is less about adopting pedagogical techniques than being open to inspiration and, with it, the prospect of change. It means cultivating an ability to respond to a peculiar kind of feeling and an inclination to act on what one knows — indeed, before one fully knows it: “Could someone actually do that? Could I?”

It means believing that you can before fully understanding how.

Matthew Wickman is a professor of English at Brigham Young University and Founding Director of the BYU Humanities Center. His views are his own.