“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.”
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.
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.”