I’ve been listening to Ralph Waldo Emerson’s biography by Robert D. Richardson, subtitled:
“The Mind on Fire.”
Richardson wrote an intellectual biography on Henry Thoreau as well, called:
“A Life of the Mind.”
Perhaps because those phrases were foremost in my subconscious—resonating with me, exciting me, and providing motivation during the past year as I’ve anticipated and pursued graduate school—I was struck when I heard another phrase from a BYU professor this summer:
“The spiritual life of the mind.”
What is the spiritual life of the mind? How might one pursue it? What does that look like in the field of the humanities and here at Brigham Young University specifically? What obligations accompany the spiritual life of the mind? How might it help us in our present moment?
These questions percolated for me this summer as I dug mosaics of biblical heroines out of the dirt in Israel. Physically, the archaeological excavation was rigorous: swinging pickaxes, hauling buckets, pushing wheelbarrows, and hefting rocks in the shimmering Galilean sun. Intellectually, the trip required mental gymnastics. I went from quiet sessions of studying the New Testament under a tree to guided tours by scholars who believed that Solomon never existed. On Friday nights, I was huddled with fellow BYU students near a cemetery for a secluded devotional. On Tuesdays, I received secular lectures at holy sites—even visiting Capernaum without so much as a mention of Jesus. For students from other universities, Caesarea was just another pile of ruins, like Athens or Pompeii, not a place with spiritual significance, not the place where Paul testified before King Agrippa until “almost thou persuadest me to be a Christian” (Acts 26:28).
Another anecdote comes to mind. Fast forward to orientation for Writing 150 instructors. A professor jokes: “When my wife came to BYU, her dad told her to stay away from English majors and philosophy majors.” Should we have laughed? There it was again on the first day of ENGL 600: an explanation of why there was a “Faith and Graduate Study” class period on the syllabus, and the somber mention of BYU students gone off to PhDs at other universities and then off the deep end.
The mind on fire. Fire hurts—it burns, blisters, scorches, consumes, and destroys. Fire also helps—it warms, cooks, brightens, purifies, and enlightens. What of our spiritual life of the mind? Is it dangerous? Something to stay away from? Something to embrace?
The scriptures seem to be of two minds on the subject. On the one hand:
- “O the wise, and the learned… wo, wo, wo be unto them, saith the Lord God Almighty, for they shall be thrust down to hell!” (2 Nephi 28:15).
- “And the wise, and the learned… who are puffed up because of their learning, and their wisdom… they are they whom he despiseth” (2 Nephi 9:42).
- “When they are learned they think they are wise, and they hearken not unto the counsel of God for they set it aside, supposing they know of themselves, wherefore their wisdom is foolishness and it profiteth them not. And they shall perish” (2 Nephi 9:28).
But then, on the other hand:
- “… to be learned is good if they hearken unto the counsels of God” (2 Nephi 9:29).
- “… teach one another words of wisdom; yea, seek ye out of the best books words of wisdom; seek learning, even by study and also by faith” (D&C 88:118).
- “Happy is the man that findeth wisdom, and the man that getteth understanding” (Proverbs 3:13).
There seems to be a paradox in the scriptures about wisdom, learning, and knowledge. It is at once dangerous and destructive, both valuable and essential. A bit like fire.
Is that it? Trying to live a faith-filled life while pursuing knowledge is like playing with fire?
I’m ashamed to admit that is how I once felt. I don’t think I could’ve put my finger on that perspective until this summer, but it was there. Lurking. A constant anxiety that my reading and studying would increase my doubts or diminish my faith. A certain wondering if I would be able to do it, straddle the fence, emerge unscathed, warm myself by the fires of learning without getting burned.
But I don’t feel that way anymore. All it took was a brilliant professor to open my eyes to one transcendent, paradigmatic, and liberating thought—that perhaps the call to live the spiritual life of the mind is not a threat, but an incomprehensible opportunity. A blessing of infinite proportions.
My fear is not that the humanities are dangerous, but that people fear the humanities. Nothing could be more detrimental, more destructive to the beauties of thought in the long term, than a narrative of education that mistakes the delights of knowledge for the dangers of fire. The rewriting of this story—this gross mischaracterization—must be a part of our individual missions as students, teachers, scholars, and researchers into the future. For after all, “God hath not given us the spirit of fear; but of… a sound mind” (2 Timothy 1:7). Fearing the very thing that will help us cultivate a sound mind is not the way to navigate the paradoxical complexities of learning imperfectly in mortality.
I am not trying to say that the spiritual life of the mind is not challenging. And of course, all objects of desire taken to their extreme can become spiritually suffocating. Rather, as a student who somehow, somewhere along the way picked up this subtle, wary skepticism of the humanities—and later had to shed it—I simply hope to raise awareness about this pernicious narrative of education as something that is dangerous or destructive to faith and belief. Nothing could be farther from the truth. I am convinced that the spiritual life of the mind is one of the best ways to develop a robust, flexible, and resilient faith—the type of belief that holds up even when policies change, when life gets messy, when reality is complicated, and especially when we don’t know everything. Living a spiritual life of the mind can help us breathe in the complexity and await a future day when “nothing shall be withheld, whether there be one God or many gods, they shall be manifest” and the “glories, laws, and set times” of “the sun, moon, or stars… shall be revealed” (D&C 121:28-31). Until then, until we do know everything, learning is all we have.
Much like the metaphor of the academic silo can be rehabilitated to focus on the benefits of storage and protection rather than on the harms of isolation, so too can this popular narrative about the dangers of the humanities be rewritten in our conversations and communications. Such a perspective is not naïve; it is optimistic, confident, and full of faith. I personally know that learning in the humanities has enriched my study, strengthened my conversion, solidified my faith, and blessed my life immeasurably. Once I was able to see academic study as a strength rather than a liability, I was finally able to appreciate those blessings without guilt or fear. Similarly, inverting the fire metaphor to emphasize how the humanities can warm and brighten our sometimes-cold climate of rigorous faith is a strategy that will draw bright young people to our world in increasing numbers. Then, they too can experience the rich and rewarding spiritual life of the mind.
This post was written by Isaac Richards, BYU Humanities Center Intern.