Why I’m Teaching a Course on Spiritual Experience

The following post was written by Matthew Wickman, Director of the Humanities Center.

America has spoken: organized religion is uncool. Or (even?) less cool than it used to be. While America is still a predominantly religious nation, a recent Pew Research Center survey reports that a shrinking percentage of Americans believes in God, attends worship services, or prays. This is largely due, the survey reveals, to a spike among the “nones,” those who profess to be atheistic or agnostic. These nones are mostly composed of Millennials, the generation born between the early 1980s and 2000—presently the coolest among us. (Enjoy those fifteen minutes of hipsterism, my young[er] friends!)

But if religion is uncool, the same cannot be said of spirituality. In fact, the opposite seems to be true: spirituality is “in.” Mindfulness, meditation, ecospirituality, SBNR (“spiritual but not religious”), and a multitude of other cultural constellations—to say nothing of the West’s perpetual fascination with Eastern religions—tap into a kind of spirit of the age (excuse the pun). Even atheists are into spirituality. Rosi Braidotti, a philosopher who directs the Centre of the Humanities at the University of Utrecht, has written an essay calling for a “residual,” “non-theistic” spirituality as a way of bringing together diverse aspects of experience: thought and feeling, critique and affirmation, the individual and the collective, and so on. The spiritual, for Braidotti, is a powerful conceptual force that promotes perpetual becoming—new ways of being in the world, personally and politically. Hence, where cultural studies often draw our attention to the kinds of minute differences that distinguish groups and individuals from each other, spirituality bridges these chasms of difference. As such, the spiritual serves as a kind of antidote to postmodern fragmentation; it is an all-purpose wonder drug of the New Age.

The fact that the spiritual purportedly does all this while dragging in its wake the “residues” of its past—religious and metaphysical (and philosophical, supernatural, and aesthetic: think Hegelian Geist, the nineteenth-century séances of spiritualism, Kandinsky’s “spiritual” vision of modern art, and so on)—only makes the category that much more provocative. Why? Because, in one sense, the new cultural pertinence of spirituality, the fact that it suddenly means something all over again, suggests a historical process of refinement, a spiritualizing of spirituality, so to speak. (“Spirituality Now,” one might call it.) And in another sense, these residues, merging new relevance with old associations (“Spirituality Now . . . and Then”), evoke something redemptive within history itself, as though the answer to what ails the modern world may be found in a partial return to some mystery that is already known, but unrecognized. The LDS thought with which most BYU students are familiar embraces both sides of this historical matrix, the new and the old. A central tenet of the faith concerns the ongoing revelation available to Church leaders and individual members through spiritual ministrations, thus bestowing a promise of happiness on the idea of religious novelty. But the LDS idea of Restoration, a pillar of its religious narrative, also preaches of spiritual truths springing forth from the ground, or from the buried past, connecting the present to the primordial.

These religious ideas connecting spirituality to a kind of strained history—of what is not yet but also has always been with us; hence, of what can be located in time even as it exceeds time periods—are consistent with a long tradition of scholarship on the spiritual. For William James, back in 1901–02, spirituality connected the individual personality to the unconscious, such that the “harmonious relation” with a “higher universe” might mean, if nothing else, an opening of consciousness to less rational, less constrained parts of the mind. For modern scholars, the spiritual turns a lens onto the neurological workings of the brain and humankind’s evolutionary origins. In each case, for James and those writing a century later, spirituality connects present-day circumstances to what hovers mysteriously beyond them, whether that be the mists of the mind or the abysses of deep time. But as James acknowledged, efforts to explain spirituality often do violence to their own subject matter; the appeal of spirituality consists, rather, at least in part, of its defiance of the grounds of its own explanation. “By being faithful in my poor measure to this over-belief,” by adhering to the reality of the spiritual on its own terms, “I seem to myself to keep more sane and true. I can, of course, put myself into the sectarian scientist’s attitude and imagine vividly that the world of sensations and of scientific laws and objects may be all. But whenever I do this, I hear that inward monitor . . . whispering the word ‘bosh!’” Spirituality, James contends, seeps outside the boxes we build to contain it. It then breeds new/old ideas, new/old cultural forms, and new/old feelings concerning the meaning of life.

And so, to rephrase the title of my blog post in the form of a question: why am I teaching a course on spiritual experience? Well, why not? What “cooler” subject is there for someone, like me, a junkie for “meaning,” who is drawn not only to modern thought and cultural history but also to the limits where their explanatory power fades into the unknown? What draws me to them, really, and what always has, is that sense of fading—that zone where cultural monuments remain legible, and meaningful, but where their inscriptions grow blurry and a need instills itself for something they cannot provide.

Actually, there is (also) a more concrete reason. One year ago I was asked by the English Department to teach a senior seminar for the winter 2016 semester on an unspecified “special topic.” For the past several years I had repeatedly taught two subjects that I really like, and that would work well for such a course: one on intersections between literature and mathematics in the Scottish Enlightenment, the other on hard-boiled detective fiction as a key to solving “mysteries” of modern literary theory. But now, I felt compelled to step beyond the pale of the same ol’, same ol’. Still brooding over my department’s request, I found myself at the convention of the Modern Language Association, attending one of the panels the MLA puts into a huge hotel ballroom. There were several hundred seats in the room, most of them filled, and a well-known scholar was sharing ideas about a subject that was ethically as well as intellectually engaging. I became alert not only to the tenor of the scholar’s argument, but also to the dynamics of the room. The audience appeared unusually keyed in, drawn to an important subject and moved by the scholar’s remarks. There was a mood, an energy, to the moment that seemed to hang thickly in the air, vital but unspoken. I’d been in settings like that before, secular as well as religious, in which a visceral mood unified an audience around a sense of purpose and connectedness, a sense transcending the topic at hand. And so, I wondered, why not try to find a way to bring attention to that mood, that energy? Multiple fields of scholarly inquiry provide conceptual tools here, as do many religions, including my own. Each has something meaningful to say to the others. Each calls the dynamics I was intuiting spiritual. And so the idea of a course was born.

“Spirituality” is an amorphous course of study, so I have given the subject a little more shape by titling it “Literature and (the Theory of) Spiritual Experience.” Literature, theory, and experience each introduce tricky, but important, variables; I do not have space to explain their respective roles here, but you are welcome to check out the course syllabus. It describes a set of meetings and assignments that are loose, open-ended, eclectic, even a little random—more exploratory than explanatory, to be sure. The class is unabashedly experimental; mostly, I’m interested to see what the material and our class discussions bring to thought, or into view, or simply into the air. The class has a full complement of students, but I welcome anybody who wishes to sit in and join the conversation.

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  1. How I wish I could take this class! It overlaps with many of my own current musings, but an opportunity to study with a master of meaning and ideas such as yourself would be an amazing experience! Best wishes with this most creative and timely project.

    1. Glen, you’d not only be an ideal student in this class, you’d be an exquisite teacher of it! I look forward to talking about it with you when we have the chance to catch up in person.

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