Finding Faith in the Empty Tomb

In his 2017 Education Week Address, Matt Wickman, BYU professor of English, shared his thoughts on what it means to be a scholar of faith and how that relates to Christ’s empty tomb.

PROVO, Utah (Aug. 23, 2017)—English professor Matt Wickman stood behind his podium and asked the audience, “What does it mean to be a scholar of faith?” After carefully listening to their answers, he shared some thoughts about the question, including a quote by the historian of science, Steven Shapin: “Truth lives on a credit system. . . . There is very little that we know without reliance on the testimony and support of others.”

Wickman explained this principle through his childhood experience of taking a school field trip by air from Los Angeles to Sacramento. While on the plane, Wickman’s friend Chris began to panic at the thought of taking flight in a metal tube. “All that is keeping us up is a stupid law of air!” he exclaimed. “In a way, that is a type of faith,” Wickman explained. “I know little about how airplanes work, but I know there are scientists who better understand aerodynamics, and when we get on a plane we place trust in the knowledge of others. Faith is actually a very broad thing which all people, whether they are people of religious belief or not, subscribe to.”

A familiar scripture regarding faith is Hebrews 11:1, “Faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.” On the surface this scripture seems very straightforward, but Wickman explains what it would mean in a seventeenth-century English context when the King James Version of the Bible came into being. “It’s a paradox,” Wickman said. Substance designated something gritty, hard, and undefined, something that one can hope for but not fully see. Evidence, however, meant to “see clearly the truth of something.” Hebrews 11:1 thus implies that faith is a palpable hope in something we can feel but not fully know, a clear vision of things we cannot entirely see.

This principle of faith is illustrated by Christ’s empty tomb, an idea Wickman borrowed from the French Jesuit philosopher Michel de Certeau. Without Christ standing by the tomb to prove that He had risen, the tomb is merely circumstantial evidence. What it would most need to show, Christ Himself, is not there. “It’s a really provocative emblem [of faith] in our world.” Wickman continued. “The tomb’s emptiness becomes quasi-factual, but it isn’t fully explanatory. It is hard to see the tomb as proof of Christ’s resurrection unless one already has faith in it.”

De Certeau applies the principle of the empty tomb to everyday life. He believes that Christianity has lost its place in secular society, but that it can assert itself as something real and good, if not fully intelligible on society’s terms. “Insofar as Christians are active in social life, a Christian ‘spirit’ makes itself felt in work . . . either through the motivation governing it (militancy, testimony, etc.), or else through moral conduct (dedication, generosity, pardon, etc.), or else again through specific tasks (teaching, cultural activities, social or medical work, etc.). These diverse elements constitute a ‘style.’” In other words, other people will recognize a faithful Christian through their daily actions and see the evidence of their testimony in Christ through their works.

What about people who experience tensions between faith and learning, or who feel that knowledge sometimes damages belief? Wickman drew from his own experience in confronting and meeting these challenges. He said three things have worked for him. First, he encouraged the audience to have an expansive view of learning. If we feel our faith shaken by something we have read or heard, we probably haven’t learned enough about it. When faced with things he does not understand, he says, “I simply keep learning. And the more I learn, the truer the gospel seems to me.” Another principle that has worked for him is to remain devoted to standard LDS spiritual exercises, including scripture study, church attendance, and service: things that bring and keep one close to the Spirit. Third, he encouraged people to pray over their work, seeking specific guidance from the Lord to help them with their large projects and other tasks of everyday life. Acquiring a testimony that the Lord cares about such things, or at least that He cares about us as we pursue them, can help us through spiritual crises.

Wickman spoke about his current scholarly interest in the intersection of literature and spirituality. “There is abundant scholarship on spiritual experience, and in a wide variety of fields: religion, popular culture, business, psychology, medicine, cognitive science, evolutionary biology, and more.” Drawing on the image of the empty tomb, he said that researching spirituality allows him to make a place for his faith in his work, even if it is difficult to prove the religious meaning he infers from the kinds of spiritual experiences so many people claim to have. But intensive study of this subject, he remarked, “helps expand my understanding of literature and of ways God communicates with people, and it inspires me to be a better person. I hope it will bring something of value to people who share my faith as well as to those who do not.”

He concluded his lecture by quoting words spoken by Elder Neal A. Maxwell in a 1991 talk given at BYU: “Whatever our particular fields of scholarship, the real test is individual discipleship, not scholarship. But how good it is when these two can company together, blending meekness with brightness and articulateness with righteousness. Such outcomes occur, however, only when there is commitment bordering on consecration.” There is something a little counterintuitive about Elder Maxwell’s idea, Wickman observed. But it hinges on a principle of faith: “Put the Lord first—put our studies second—and we will realize our potential as scholars, and more important as disciples.”

Hannah Sandorf Davis (B.A. Art History and Curatorial Studies ’17)

Hannah covers events for the Humanities Center for the College of Humanities. She is a senior pursuing a degree in art history with a minor in art.

Image: Fra Angelico, Noli Me Tangere, 1440–42; Courtesy of Wiki Art