Review: Life to the Whole Being: The Spiritual Memoir of a Literature Professor, by Matthew Wickman

There is an ironic, even impish innocence to earth, an endless provocation to the human impulse towards wonder that provides no recourse for satisfying that impulse. Humans, then, live at odds with nature, forever, seeking to graft meaning, purpose onto a branch that cannot support the weight of our need. To live is to want to understand, but to seek understanding is to look past the wordless bounties of living.

—Matthew Wickman, Life to the Whole Being, p. 101

To the extent that we can believe Aristotle about such things, the Ancient Greeks had a single word to represent the entire purpose of philosophy and all other human endeavors. This word, eudaimonia (εὐδαιμονία), describes the highest good of human life. The word literally means good ( ) spirit or minor deity (daímōn). In English texts, this word has been translated as “happiness,” “virtue,” “welfare,” “thriving,” and, my personal favorite, “human flourishing.”

For Aristotle, a eudemonic life is one that has all of the elements of flourishing—intellectual fulfillment, physical health, satisfying relationships, material prosperity, and spiritual understanding—in exactly the right proportions needed for a person to thrive. Though Matthew Wickman does not use the word in his remarkable new memoir Life to the Whole Being—a phrase that Parley P. Pratt used to explain the gift of the Holy Ghost—a key objective of the book is to describe a spiritual ideal of eudaimonia. In fact, “life to the whole being” would be a reasonably good translation of eudemonia, should the author ever want to take up his hand at translating, or even paraphrasing, the Nicomachean Ethics.

The subtitle of the book, The Spiritual Memoir of a Literature Professor, was all that I needed to know before buying the book, as I, too, was once a literature professor looking for a spiritual vocabulary—and a large part of me hopes that I will be so again someday. The author tells us in the introduction that the book grew from two highly interconnected seeds: a course that he taught at BYU on spirituality and literature and a devotional talk titled Thriving Spiritually that he gave, also at BYU, in December of 2020.

As one might expect from a book by a literature professor about spiritual thriving, both literature and religion play important roles. But the connection between these two things is slippery. Wickman rejects the popular enlightenment idea that poetry has replaced religion as the source of human spirituality, but he also rejects the common religious conceit that imaginative literature is a meager substitute for the scriptures and that fiction and poetry can only divert our attention from the revealed word of God.

For Wickman (and for me), religion and literature are responses to the same fundamental human problem: that our desire for meaning far outstrips the universe’s ability to provide it. Hence, we must thrust ourselves into the breach to fill the gaps in our understanding with something more than ordinary experience. Both religion and literature fall into the category of “something more than ordinary experience,” and both give us strategies to set the chaos of the external world into orderly frames that we can use to generate the narratives we need to turn the world’s often-random messiness into things like meaning and purpose.

Wickman’s literary palette is broad, and he explores the work of Nietzsche, Dostoyevsky, Levertov, Hardy, Woolf, Blake, Elliot, Wordsworth, Sartre—and many more—to crystalize the kinds of spiritual meaning that can come through literature. But this is not really a work of literary criticism, nor is it a study of ideas. “Ultimately,” he writes in the introduction, “this is a book less about ideas than experience—spiritual experience. . . . I focus on spiritual experience, rather than spirituality because I wish to emphasize the experiential aspect of a spiritual life” (29).

Wickman is true to his word. Life to the Whole Being is built around experiences that one might classify as spiritual: his mission to France, where he found very few people interested in the religious ideas he cherished, his marriage and the letters he has written to his wife, the deaths of his brother and his good friend, conversations he has had with LGBTQ friends who tried, but failed, to stay in the Church. These experiences, he suggests, are raw encounters with God—often as experienced through other human beings—and these experiences matter. They are the basis of a spiritual life. They are, one might say, the primary texts.

Both institutional religion, as represented by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and imaginative literature, as represented in the text by the poems and novels that he discusses, are ultimately secondary to the spiritual experiences themselves. But they both play important roles. They structure the narratives that turn experience into meaning, they help us interpret the silences and gaps that come with all spiritual experiences, and they teach us the right questions to ask of the answers we receive.

Life to the Whole Being is a complex work in that it does a lot of things at once while navigating an often torturous path. But Matthew Wickman is an excellent guide to the landscape of faith. His prose is clear and moving, his experiences are relevant and illuminating, and his taste in literature is (from where I sit at least) impeccable. I loved this book, and I think you will too. It is not a book of easy answers; it does not need to be. It is a book that identifies some of the most important questions that we must ask as we journey towards spiritual understanding. Finding the answers to these questions is the work of a lifetime, and it is the journey, as much as any destination, that helps humans flourish.

Comments

  1. BHodges says:

    I’ve known Matt for a long time and I really look forward to reading this book. I’ve been inspired and encouraged by his example of discipleship. Thanks for this review.

  2. patriciakaramesines says:

    He lost me at “…but to seek understanding is to look past the wordless bounties of living.”

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