“Out of the best books”: How I found God and myself by reading between the lines
An English professor argues for literature’s power as a tool to enrich our lives and deepen our spiritual experiences
A few years ago, as I reflected on the direction of my work as a teacher and scholar, I found myself asking some fairly typical midcareer — and midlife — questions: What do I most value? What do I deem most important? What brings me and others the greatest joy? In short, what do I love? And how can I attend to what I love more fully? Many answers to these questions offered themselves.
I am an English professor and the director of a research center, so I love literature and the rush of new and big ideas. I love university life and the friendships it has helped me form with people all over the world. I love so many students — scores of them, hundreds, more — whom I have had the privilege to teach. But one answer kept calling to me with particular insistence, both as something I love and value in itself and as something that binds together all the other things I love. Spiritual experience.
To be clear, I do not love spiritual experience instead of other things but rather as what best enables all aspects of my experience to be most authentic, most themselves, even as it connects my experience to things greater than itself. This includes discerning connections otherwise hidden from us or feeling more intensely the beauty or meaning of things to which we might otherwise be dulled.
It means finding ourselves capable of greater degrees of love and fulfillment, health and hope, self-realization and self-transcendence, and so much more. Redemptive immersion in a world made new through spiritual experience: This is what I love.
Transformation is one of the hallmarks of spiritual experience. Its effects can be dramatic or subtle. Provocatively, experience alone suggests as much, as its word root means to pass through peril (ex-periri), rendering us different than we were before.
Philip Sheldrake, a widely published scholar on spirituality, underscores this quality by associating our spiritual journeys with “ultimate values,” we learn to set against a “purely materialistic approach to life.”
Spiritual experience changes how we perceive the world and our place in it, thus revealing to us an alternative life story, a different and better way to be.
Sandra M. Schneiders, a peer of Sheldrake’s, elaborates that spirituality is a “conscious and deliberate way of living” that “orients the subject beyond purely private satisfaction toward the ultimate good, the highest value, that the person recognizes.” This “ultimate good” drives us toward new and better versions of ourselves. It transforms our character.
I began relating to literature as a spiritual medium because literature is, formally, a revelatory exercise: Through it, we see the world afresh. Paraphrasing John Milton, poetry justifies the ways of God to humankind. Literature gives voice to what we may perceive, intuit or hope but cannot (yet) be said fully to know or understand.
It is fact in process of formation.
“Literature makes us more human. And it makes our humanity seem more divine.”
As such, literature is a precursor of emergent realities, both in the world and in ourselves: it forges new neural pathways, new capacities to think and feel and be. The study of literature has been an important part of my spiritual journey, making the two, for me, a natural pair.
Spiritual experiences can be even more edifying if we learn to view them through the lens of literature, gaining from the wisdom of masters as they give us a new language to think about and communicate these profound moments more powerfully.
Why do we need literature? Certainly, there is much to admire in thoughtful, beautifully crafted narratives, poems and plays, in gripping stories, layered characters and poignant turns of phrase. But need is more intense than admiration, more desperate than mere affection.
A graduate school friend once remarked to me, astutely, that if one surveys all the world’s civilizations over the course of known history, one can find plenty of examples of societies that had no concept of private property or insurance industries or professional sports teams or universities or lawyers or finance capitalists or plastic surgeons (and so on and so on). But there is no example, not one, of societies that had no art. Art, apparently, is a universal human need. And that includes verbal art: literature. In that respect, literature is like religion: No society exists without it.
That we need literature is an anthropological truism. The realization that I need literature was a cumulative epiphany whose full realization only dawned on me once I was back in school. Literature stimulates the mind and stirs the heart, fostering greater empathy and thus increasing our capacity to feel and perceive. It opens us to new worlds and other lives, inspiring surprising turns of thought and exquisite — and sometimes anguished — threnodies of emotion.
“There is no example, not one, of societies that had no art. Art, apparently, is a universal human need.”
Spiritual experiences enrich our lives, and yet, they are difficult to define, let alone retain, as they sometimes “cannot be uttered” or given form. This is where literature potentially becomes a vital tool. Long imagined as a reservoir of spiritual associations (as William Wordsworth puts it, of “thoughts that do often lie too deep for tears”), literature lends expression to experiences that are of ultimate value, spiritual value, but also seem set apart from the rigors of everyday life and therefore can be hard to understand.
Literature precipitates, in the Jewish poet Hank Lazer’s words, “an intensified awareness of being,” an “erratic movement” between what is familiar and what we do not yet fully understand (or, in some cases, even perceive). Often categorized as an effect of wonder, literature’s presentation of ordinary things in new and surprising ways amounts to a novel tactic for revealing “ultimate” purposes.
It reveals the spiritual — human and divine — mystery of our lives.
Thus, when Christ on the cross utters his plaintive cry of agony — “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?” — he cites poetry: Psalms 22:1. Through that literary allusion, the Gospel narrative creates a set of associations for what is otherwise unfathomable. Empowering us to reflect on the unthinkable and intensifying our experience, literature makes us more human. And it makes our humanity seem more divine.
Why do religion and literature seem to need each other? Because while they are sometimes held apart in the modern world — I know plenty of religious people who read very little literature and plenty of literary scholars who are nonreligious — the two are mutually implicating.
Imagine Christianity without the Gospel narratives of Christ, dense with such literary features as rising and falling action, protagonists and antagonists, and metaphors and paradoxes; or consider some of the lovely lyrics that grace our hymns. Literature is all through religion. And the reverse is also true.
Literature is sometimes said to have usurped the place of religion in the secularizing world of the 19th century, to have become the focal point for our collective stories of love and loss, grace and perplexity, hope and redemption. But this only displaces the religious impulse onto literature, such that the very wedge that would divide them becomes the linchpin that unites them more profoundly.
If literature becomes a modern religion, then this is only to acknowledge we need them both.
A life more like itself — this quality emerged historically as an integral effect of literary narrative at the same time that modern scientific methods were being elaborated in the 17th and 18th centuries. As new ideas of factuality, or of what constitutes fact, entered the world, predicated less on philosophical reason than on experimentation in laboratories, literature evolved into a kind of virtual reality.
It modeled itself on discourses of fact — on evidence and objective truth — even as it displaced itself from them. “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 ...” So opens Daniel Defoe’s 1719 narrative “Robinson Crusoe,” sometimes labeled the first modern novel. Defoe’s readers knew that Crusoe was a fictive character, but there was an authenticity to his story, a contemporary relevance to the way he presented himself and sized up the world.
“If science gave us facts, literature accorded us meaning; it spoke not only to what is real but to why we care.”
Defoe’s narrative was vividly lifelike, true to life. It staked a position of proximity relative to these new ways of knowing, “in but not of the world” of fact, of science. This became literature’s strategic vantage point. It could mirror life in familiar ways even as it imagined new lives, new worlds into existence. If science gave us facts, literature accorded us meaning; it spoke not only to what is real but to why we care.
In the modern world, literature thus became a special sanctuary of meaning, a spiritual sanctuary. Perhaps it should not be surprising, then, that in a lesser but related way, literature is said to cultivate similar traits, stimulating the mind and stirring the heart, fostering greater empathy and thus increasing our capacity to feel and perceive. Literature helps us cultivate our sensitivity to spiritual things, opening us to new ways of thinking and feeling.
My work has thus always had a kind of quality of metaphor, one area of life opening transformatively onto another: my spiritual life onto my scholarly life, the latter onto my devotional life, and that last onto pulsations and colors of the everyday.
Metaphor is a powerful tool in life as much as literature. Evoking one thing by way of another, as in the phrases “My love is a rose” or “God is love,” metaphor helps us visualize otherwise unfamiliar situations or problems; it renders abstract ideas more concrete by connecting them to objects of our experience. More than just comparative, metaphor is transformative: at the very least, it changes how we think about the objects, ideas or experiences it names. It converts this into that.
But spiritual experience, I find, also changes how we perceive metaphors. Usually, we recognize a metaphor as a metaphor. Love is not really a rose, but the figure of speech renders love more sensuous, more vivid. But when we appeal to metaphors to describe spiritual experiences, something happens: The metaphor almost melds with the object it describes.
And so it is with other aspects of our lives.
Time with friends can be a spiritual experience, and once we have had such an experience, we think about these friends differently. An experience of learning can also be a spiritual experience, and if it is, we always think a little differently about what we have learned. Spiritual experience fundamentally changes its vehicles; it converts metaphors from tools for thinking into emblems of a world reborn. In its way, it brings literature, so rich in metaphorical language, to life.
This essay is a modified excerpt from Matthew Wickman’s “Life to the Whole Being: The Spiritual Memoir of a Literature Professor” published by the BYU Maxwell Institute. Matthew Wickman is a professor of English and founding director of the BYU Humanities Center. He is the author of numerous articles and two books: “The Ruins of Experience: Scotland’s ‘Romantick’ Highlands and the Birth of the Modern Witness” and “Literature After Euclid: The Geometric Imagination in the Long Scottish Enlightenment.”