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Sitting with Spiritual Questions

Professor Matthew Wickman encourages thoughtful questions with his new spiritual memoir.

Complexity in religious life can lead some people to doubt. So how do you overcome that doubt? Professor Matthew Wickman (Scottish Literature, Interdisciplinary Literary Studies) addressed this question in his book Life to the Whole Being: The Spiritual Memoir of a Literature Professor at the February 17 English Reading Series.

Cover image of "Life to the Whole Being." The cover includes fine art of a blurry figure walking in a field.

New to the creative nonfiction genre, Wickman realized he wanted to write a book that was “rooted primarily in the confession of faith” and that what he wanted to express couldn’t be done in the
analytic form of scholarly prose. His spiritual memoir centers on the intersection of literature and religion, drawing from his personal experiences with faith, some of his favorite literary passages, and scholarship from Latter-day Saints and scholars outside of our faith.

Wickman stated, “I found myself wanting to write a book that was not a book about answers. It was a book that raised questions and then sat in the questions.” To work through questions that arise, he said we have to reconcile our spiritual feelings with our lived experiences. “Spiritual life is not a life simplified but a life intensified.”

Wickman said, “A spiritual life, in my experience, is a lot like matriculating in school. . . . What you learn grows more expansive and more meaningful, but the problems also get more complex. And that’s where many faith crises begin, is in confronting complexity.” He continued, “The book’s motive was also to articulate . . . why I remain an active member of the Church despite the complexities of spiritual and religious life.”

Wickman shared a faith-shaking decision he made earlier in his life as a young returned missionary. In the bookstore at University of California Irvine in 1988, Wickman held a copy of Thus Spoke Zarathustra by Friedrich Nietzsche. The book was a favorite of his philosophy professor, and Wickman felt drawn to its magnetic prose. Struggling between the anti-Christian beliefs in the book and his spiritual experiences from his mission, Wickman ultimately decided to purchase the book during his second trip. “Leaving the bookstore that second time, my backpack heavier by one book, the world seemed to grow much larger and my place in it felt much less defined.”

In the years that followed this event, Wickman learned how to navigate this new worldview.

Two things that helped him were involving the Lord in his work and turning to literary texts. Although it was originally literature that caused Wickman to question, he learned how to select and approach literature that bolstered his faith. These actions helped him sift through the questions he faced in his education and strengthen his testimony in the truths he already knew. Ultimately, Wickman learned that not every question has a clear answer, but learning how to sit with those questions and work through complexity allowed him to remain unshaken.

Read more about Wickman’s spiritual insights in Life to the Whole Being: The Spiritual Memoir of a Literature Professor, and check out next week’s author at the English Reading Series website.