“Not Even the Alphabet or the Multiplication Tables …”

The week before last, the Humanities Center held a discussion motivated by the never-ending “crisis in the humanities” and centered on how three colleagues have seen their fields, students, and jobs evolve over the past decade or two. These colleagues – Daryl Lee (French and Italian), Kristin Matthews (English), and Rex Nielson (Spanish and Portuguese) – spoke insightfully about these matters, as one would expect. At one point, I asked whether and how they thought differently about their jobs at BYU than they might if they worked at a direct peer of their PhD institutions (Yale, Wisconsin-Madison, and Brown, respectively). They finessed the question deftly, observing some important differences with lots of overlap between BYU and other universities. I agreed with the tenor of their remarks. I then injected myself into the conversation, adding a wrinkle about the uniqueness of BYU’s educational mission – something frequently on my mind these days. That wrinkle concerned the expressly spiritual mission of BYU and how one of the biggest changes I’ve experienced over the past decade is how I work as a teacher and scholar in light of that mission.

One talent I wish I could shed – let’s call it a talent, euphemistically – is that I’m a world-class conversation killer. There’s an irony here, because I enjoy good conversations; I even host a podcast built around open, vulnerable, and trusting conversations on sensitive subjects. So, I’m capable of conversation. It’s just that sometimes I also do a face plant in the middle of them, landing with a thud that scatters whatever pixie dust makes possible the magic of human exchange. In those moments, I elicit gazes of “uh-oh, what do we say now?” So it was, I felt, during the Humanities Center colloquium the week before last. I dropped my remark, I heard echoes of that all-too-familiar thud, and I witnessed the old, unwelcome bewilderment on the faces of my panelists.

This post amounts to an explanation of what I was trying to say in that thudding moment during the colloquium. What I’m writing here has nothing to do with the great responses given by our colleagues. This is me, in a vacuum, responding to the question I put to them as though I were a panelist myself: “You all earned PhDs from distinguished institutions. Do you, or do you feel you should, think of your careers differently as BYU faculty than you would if you worked at a university that was a close peer of your PhD institution? If so, what’s different for you about how you think about your job at BYU? And if not, why not?”

One good answer to this question – an answer that was once mine, and that I professed with all the energy of my soul (including in the early years of my role as Founding Director of the BYU Humanities Center) – is that there need be no meaningful difference. The sky is the limit for thinking at the world’s top research universities, and the sky should also be the limit at BYU; God loves his children at the world’s top research universities, and he loves his children at BYU; inspiration happens at the world’s top research universities, and inspiration happens at BYU. Far more unites us than divides us; the world is our campus.

I believe all that; I still embrace those credos. But I embrace something else, too, and that explains, for me, the uniqueness of my job at BYU.

By way of digressive illustration, I recall a student appointment one day when I was on the faculty at the University of Aberdeen, in Scotland – a chapter of my career I absolutely loved. This student was bright, mature, an eager learner, and also something of a seeker. He’d come by my office hoping to unpack part of a discussion during a previous class meeting, and it was clear he wasn’t trying to get answers to an exam question as much as wrap his mind around mysteries of the modern world. His question this day concerned the social and cultural theorist Theodor Adorno, and we began talking through the meaning and significance of negative dialectics, Adorno’s restless mode of philosophizing. Adorno is brilliant and the student’s insights were keen, but his questions were so earnest that I began to perceive, a little painfully (almost in Adornian negative), all I was not able to say in our conversation. This student wanted meaning, not (just) theory. And I felt myself not telling him about how, in my own life, I come at meaning not only through theory but scripture, not only through lecture but prayer, not only by study but also by faith.

A few weeks later, one of the young single adults in our Aberdeen ward brought a friend to church. I went over and introduced myself. “Yeah, I know you,” the friend replied, “you’re one of my university lecturers.” It turns out he was one of a sea of faces in a large, lecture-hall course on Scottish literature. In subsequent weeks, my family and I invited him and his girlfriend to our flat for dinner; we had the missionaries over too and hosted gospel discussions. These latter discussions felt fuller than the one I’d had with my other student in my office. Topics I’d raised in my lectures still came up in these missionary lessons, dropped in the middle of stilted, now graceful expositions of the plan of salvation; I may even have mentioned Adorno (and heard that familiar, conversation-killing thud as bewildered missionaries cast blank stares). But as a group we also discussed scripture and prayer and faith; we spoke about the mysteries of the world and what it means to be a child of God and the promise found in Christ.

Those meetings in Aberdeen sometimes come to mind these days as I talk with BYU students. I think about the ways my job at BYU affords me the privilege of merging the discussion with the “seeker” and the meetings with the visitor to our sacrament meeting. I think about how faith and reason fit together (how, for me, they belong together) especially when I try to listen for my students’ deepest needs. And, for that matter, my own.

Most often, these needs are spiritual. They include, but are more expansive than, religion as we tend to imagine and practice it. This has required a realignment of my thinking. One helpful scholar and friend, a Jesuit, describes spirituality as “the deepest center of the person: the place of surrender to authenticity and love.” [1] Other scholars also widen the “spiritual” view, defining spirituality as “intuitions that can lead to fullness of life,” while still others portray it as “the divine-human relational process” or as “prayer spread across the many works and habits of each day.” [2] In these cases (and in scores of other studies), there is an encompassing aspect to spirituality, a recognition of the ways it informs every area of our experience. At a foundational level, it works on our brains, “involv[ing] strong and broad neural activation … [leading to] strength of feeling and connectedness of ideas, memories, and emotions in such a way as to … leverage significant personal change and social effects.” [3] Spiritual intensities are a conduit to our highest cognitive functioning as well as our deepest sense of personal and social well-being. They not only unite us with God, they connect us to everything else, including ourselves.

Learning about all this a few years ago, I began wondering whether I was being a little shallow in imagining the spiritual aspect of my classes solely as an “aim.” Yes, I want what I teach to be “spiritually strengthening” as well as “intellectually enlarging,” [4] but even putting it this way needlessly segregates spiritual experience, indeed, almost misrecognizes it. Spiritual experience is not one thing or category among others; rather, it is the medium through which we experience everything more intensely, the vehicle through which the mind opens, the world deepens, and life’s mysteries acquire layers of compelling detail.

All BYU faculty learn of Brigham Young’s injunction to Karl G. Maeser (the founding principal of Brigham Young Academy, BYU’s forebear) not to teach even the alphabet or the multiplication tables without the Spirit of God. When I first heard that line as a much younger man, it sounded provocative but also a little quaint, a way of imagining the endless possibilities of knowledge in familiar terms. I hear it differently. It reminds me that all things in the world – alphabets and the myriad ways we arrange them to generate meaning; multiplication tables and the ways we process a multiverse of staggeringly complex information – become at once larger and more deeply personal when we include God in them. Brigham Young’s statement speaks to the spiritual promise of higher education, that is, to the way we all learn best.

So, back to the questions I posed above, now personalized: “Do I, or do I feel I should, think of my career differently as a BYU faculty member than I would if I worked at a university that was a close peer of my PhD institution? If so, what’s different for me about how I think about my job at BYU? And if not, why not?” In one sense, no, there’s no difference: whether at BYU or anyplace else, spiritual experience – spiritual life as a medium for understanding the world at large – should be a framework for how I approach learning, teaching, writing, being.

But in another sense, yes, absolutely, my job is different at BYU. Here, I can bring direct (even theoretical) attention to the spiritual basis of my pedagogical practices; I can cultivate ways to invite the Spirit into class meetings as a way to promote better, fuller, higher speed, more intensive learning. That’s true of any subject I teach, whether the alphabet, multiplication tables (I used to teach a course on literature and mathematics), or a seminar I’m currently teaching on literature and spiritual experience.

Let me say a brief word about that seminar. I’m presently teaching it for the fifth time. I’ve come to expect extraordinary insights from my students into the affordances and paradoxes, the kinetics and deep silences of spiritual life and its manifestations across literature and the everyday. These insights come from the students’ own rich experiences with the Spirit as confirmed members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, from their reception (with that confirmation) of the gift of the Holy Ghost, and hence from their receptivity to spiritual things as learned spiritual practitioners. Making spiritual life the foundation for all our inquiry, I find, unsurprisingly, that students in this class are open to any topic, no matter how difficult, and that they respond to each other more vulnerably and generously.

Students in all my classes deserve this kind of learning environment, this opportunity to learn not only about but with the Spirit. Nurturing this environment and making my students conscious of it have become the most important aspects of every class I teach. Does that make my job at BYU different? Yes, it does. In short, yes.

This essay was written by Matthew Wickman, Founding Director of the BYU Humanities Center.


[1] David Perrin, Studying Christian Spirituality (New York: Routledge, 2007), 22.

[2] Elisabeth Hense, Frans Jespers, and Peter Nissen, eds. Present Day Spiritualities: Contrasts and Overlaps (Leiden: Brill, 2014), 5; Kees Waaijman, Spirituality: Forms, Foundations, Methods (Leuven, Belgium: Peeters, 2002), 6; Andrew Prevot, Thinking Prayer: Theology and Spirituality amid the Crises of Modernity (South Bend, IN: Notre Dame University Press, 2015), 17.

[3] Wesley J. Wildman, Religious and Spiritual Experiences (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011), 104.

[4] https://aims.byu.edu/aims-of-a-byu-education. Accessed March 10, 2022.

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