Like many religious people around the world, Latter-day Saints affirm that humans are created in God's own image. And so the humanities—the academic disciplines of literature, history, philosophy, art, and more—give us opportunities to learn more about God’s image as we learn more about each other.
In other words, the humanities are a wonderful training ground for charity. They teach us how to imagine communion. They are methods for experiencing reconciliation, for imagining beauty and meaning in the wake of chaos and suffering, and for connecting us to one another and to the cosmos. Reading great literature, learning languages, listening to music, watching live theater or great films, participating in religious ritual—all of these experiences can reinvigorate and expand our sense of self and our feeling of belonging in the world.
Nothing captures the way literature can teach charity more beautifully than this statement by C. S. Lewis: “Literary experience heals the wound, without undermining the privilege, of individuality. . . . In reading great literature I become a thousand men and yet remain myself. . . . Here, as in worship, in love, in moral action, and in knowing, I transcend myself; and am never more myself than when I do.”
Without the experience of charity, we're prone to the allures of mass emotions that obliterate particularity, or perhaps worse, we face what some have called "balkanization"—the abandonment of the quest for community and the retreat to our own like-minded camps.
Experiencing the Divine Amidst Each Other
Sometimes I've experienced charity in the arts and sometimes in religious contexts. I don’t think God is as interested in the distinctions we like to make between the sacred and the secular. For example, a few years ago my son Sam and I flew out to Los Angeles to visit my brother. As we sat listening to Mahler’s Second Symphony performed by the Los Angeles Symphony, we all wept at the words: “What was created / Must perish, / What perished, rise again! / Cease from trembling! / Prepare yourself to live!” I was both transported and grounded, purely loved and invited to change.
Then there was the time when, on a research trip, I sat by myself in the celestial room in the Santiago Chile Temple at a particularly desperate and low point. I imagined what it would be like to have my deceased brother by my side, and suddenly I felt the real presence of his arms wrapped around me. I felt guided in my research from that moment.
On another occasion, I was called to serve in a stake presidency and Elder Marcus Nash asked me in an interview to imagine what I would say if Jesus were in the room alone with me. At that moment Christ’s presence became unmistakably real, and I was overcome with tears and could only mumble “Thank you.” I felt forgiven, accepted, known, and loved. And called to serve. It was empowering to discover how much I loved Christ.
I've similar experiences when listening to church leaders, which gave me a foundational witness of their calling as his special witnesses. I can still recall as a missionary in the Missionary Training Center the way my hair felt blown back (short as it was) by sheer force of testimony of the living Christ from Elders Dallin H. Oaks and Neal A. Maxwell—and similarly from Elder Henry B. Eyring when he was a Seventy visiting my stake in Oakland when I was in graduate school, from Elder D. Todd Christofferson when he was a Seventy visiting my stake in Flagstaff when I taught there before coming to BYU, and twice from Elder M. Russell Ballard here in Provo. In each case, I felt the unmistakable presence of the Savior and experienced and received their witness of his living reality.
These experiences—those within and those beyond Latter-day Saint contexts—have anchored my hope and faith in the restored gospel. In each case, God’s love healed me of doubt, hurt, pain, and discouragement. Doubts sometimes benefit from answers, but most often my doubts spring from fear, anxiety, abandonment, or lack of self-confidence. For this reason, my doubt has been best resolved not with knowledge per se, but in loving relationships and with experiences of God’s pure love. Nothing is more important to experience than this.
The End Purpose of Life
Music. Literature. MTC talks. Aesthetic and spiritual experiences like these teach that understanding matters and it comes, but it doesn’t matter most and it doesn’t come first. As the great Spanish poet Miguel de Unamuno says, “The primary reality is not that I think, but that I live.” Thus, “the end purpose of life is to live, not to understand.”
The more we live, the more we come into contact with other people, the more opportunities we have to develop charity. This is why I believe that the humanities are not just an adornment but are essential to our spiritual lives. Our intellectual and spiritual growth must occur in relation to each another—all of us as sisters and brothers, all of us created in the image of God. As the humanities teach us, there is something fundamentally healing about listening compassionately to the stories of others. Let’s listen together.
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Get more profound insights into the nature of truth in If Truth Were a Child.
We live in an age of polemics. Choices are presented as mutually exclusive and we are given little time to listen. You're either secular or religious. you either believe in the exclusive truth of your own religion or you believe truth is everywhere or impossible to discover. The battle over truth rages on.
But what if truth were a child?
With how much more care and humility would we speak and act if truth was not the result of some war of wills, but a flesh-and-bone living child, a living soul? Humanities scholar and Latter-day Saint George B. Handley charitably invites us to put away the false traditions of the fathers while seeking to lay hold of every good thing wherever it may be found in the world, thereby increasing our faith in the gospel of Jesus Christ.
George B. Handley is author of the new book If Truth Were a Child: Essays, from the Neal A. Maxwell Institute for Religious Scholarship. He teaches interdisciplinary humanities at Brigham Young University, where he also serves as the associate director of the Faculty Center. He received his BA from Stanford University and his MA and PhD in comparative literature at UC Berkeley. His scholarly publications and creative writing focus on the intersection between religion, literature, and the environment.