Life to the Whole Being

The Spiritual Memoir of a Literature Professor


Spiritual experiences are famously transformative. They sometimes inspire dramatic effects of conversion and healing, of vision and new life direction. But even in their more quotidian forms they expand our cognitive and emotional capacities, help cultivate virtues, and intensify our feelings of closeness to God, others, and things we deem ultimate. For Wickman, spiritual experience makes us feel more deeply alive. And literature functions as a special medium for capturing the nuances of spiritual experiences, helping us reflect more deeply on them and become more receptive to them. In his case, literature has also helped him negotiate the complex relationship between spirituality, faith, and organized religion. He discusses all this by way of deeply personal experiences, theological reflection, and discussion of literary texts by Virginia Woolf, Denise Levertov, Gerard Manley Hopkins, Christian Wiman, and more.


“Life to the Whole Being is a user’s manual for how to be a Latter-day Saint who doesn’t have to be compelled to know in every fiber of their being and beyond the shadow of a doubt. It’s part of a salutary epochal shift in the epistemology of educated church members away from a kind of friendly but also destructive positivism that long uncritically seeped into the ways we thought about faith, evidence, and testimony. It nourishes young Latter-day Saint humanists and more generally those of a wondering or wandering bent of mind and heart by exposing the vulnerable, sometimes raw, mixed feelings of one who has nonetheless learned to be committed and engaged. It’s courageous in its self-exposure and tells an ultimately triumphant story, though one that refuses to seal off all ambiguity and wonder.”

John Durham Peters

This is a heroically authentic book, what Wickman calls “real speak” about existential angst and spiritual searching in intellectual life. Determined not to shelter himself in the analytic posture of the scholar, he also doesn’t shelter his religious life from rigorous examination, and the result is the refreshing sense of an examined life lived intellectually and soulfully in academia and beyond. Wickman’s is a story many academics will relate to, over-investing ourselves in academic success and gradually learning to see intellectual pursuits as means rather than ends – as spiritual odyssey and even a quest to contribute something meaningful to others. Wickman inhabits the research university with searing honesty about its scorn and condescension toward religion, and nonetheless retains the hope from his own religious tradition that a university can be both a house of faith and a house of learning. Wickman’s memoir helps us appreciate how living a life of faith in the academy means embracing one’s difference rather than experiencing the blessed sameness of secularity in higher education, and readers can feel their hearts racing when he braves pushing the envelope of academic secularity by giving an academic talk on literature and spirituality or teaching a class on literature and spiritual experience. Recounting a journey through spiritual deserts to deep, soulful longings for mystery, meaning and purpose, Life to the Whole Being conveys an astonishing sense of the spiritual experience of God’s vast endlessness and approachable meekness, what Wickman describes as the gentle contrariness of the Spirit who refuses to let us rest in our narrow ideas and shallow understandings. Wickman tarries with the subtle textures of transcendence felt beneath the fabric of the everyday, tuning our ears to vital reality of the divine quietness that respects our freedom and awaits our response, like a whisper that draws your attention – entirely winsome, uncoercive, and compelling, inspiring the quest for spiritual experience and peace that enlightens and heals us not from but even amid uncertainty and disquiet. Wickman is terrific in parsing religion and spirituality and spiritual experience, helping us understand how they are distinct and yet symbiotically related, contemplating the meaning of the delicacy of heaven accessed through the clunkiness of religion – what he calls “roughness illuminating an inner radiance” – a phrase that beautifully draws together the revelatory nature of literature, imagination, and spiritual experience. I’ll be recommending this to students and colleagues for years to come.

Lori Branch

At its best, Matthew Wickman’s Life to the Whole Being achieves the quality of voice it ascribes to its poetic divinity—a “gentle irony” that both winkingly unsettles what one thought one knew and hearteningly ushers one into the richer life that lies beyond the limiting “stakes” that any “creed” places on “the Almighty,” to quote Joseph Smith. “Truth cannot begin until my sense of rightness grows confused,” Wickman candidly illustrates with heartfelt anecdotes drawn from both his personal life as a friend, husband, father, and practitioner of the Latter-day Saint faith and his professional life as a scholar of literature. One “sense of rightness” that Wickman, in his quest for truth, deliberately confuses in a way that usefully challenges some members of both his faith community and his profession is the commonsensical distinction between “scripture” and “literature” insofar as he unapologetically finds divinity in texts by e.e. cummings, Fyodor Dostoevsky, Louise Erdrich, Gerard Manley Hopkins, Denise Levertov, and R.S. Thomas, among others. In so doing, Life to the Whole Being embodies a strong, confessional version of ongoing “post-secularist” work in literary studies and also what many will consider the best of the Latter-day Saint tradition: a “read[iness] to believe all true principles that exist, as they are made manifest from time to time.”

Jared Hickman

About the Author

Matthew Wickman

Matthew Wickman completed his PhD at UCLA in 2000 and began working that year at BYU as a specialist in eighteenth-century British literature. His interests multiply: currently, they include Scottish literary studies of the eighteenth century and after, literary theory, intellectual history, Romanticism, Modernism, interdisciplinary humanities (involving mathematics, law, the sciences, etc.), and more. For three years (2009-2012) he held a joint appointment between BYU and the University of Aberdeen in Scotland, where he was Senior Lecturer of Scottish Literature. He returned full-time to BYU in 2012 and assumed his current position as founding director of the new BYU Humanities Center. He is the author of The Ruins of Experience: Scotland’s “Romantick” Highlands and the Birth of the Modern Witness (U of Pennsylvania Press, 2007), of articles in several venues (Scottish Literary Review, The Yale Journal of Criticism, PMLA, and others), and of numerous chapters in books. He serves on the editorial board of Studies in Scottish Literature and is a member of the MLA Executive Committee of the Scottish Literature Discussion Group.

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Publication Information

  • Publication Month: April
  • Publication Year: 2022
  • Series: Living Faith
  • Language: English,
  • ISBN 13: 978-0-8425-0061-6
  • Binding: Paperback
  • Imprint: Neal A. Maxwell Institute for Religious Scholarship

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The views expressed here and in Maxwell Institute publications are those of the individual authors and do not necessarily represent the views of the Maxwell Institute, Brigham Young University, or The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

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