GM: Gray, I remember meeting you for the first time over ten years ago. I was putting together a cluster of classes in Christian spirituality for mental health professionals and was searching for someone to teach the dynamics of spiritual direction. A mutual friend told me about you. She described you as a “Charismatic Episcopal priest from Atlanta, Georgia.” I was intrigued and assumed from the “Charismatic” adjective that you were a theological conservative—which would be the preferred stripe for most of the students. I flew down and met with you over lunch, had a wonderful time, and was excited when you agreed to do the class.
Several months later I introduced you to a group, and I’ll never forget the first thing you said, because it made me swallow my tongue. You began, “He forgot to tell you that I’m also a liberal and I’ll probably be saying some stuff that will peel the wallpaper in this room. You can take me on if you want to, but I warn you, I ain’t no virgin.”
So, with that shared history, is there anything you’d like to get off your chest before we begin this interview?
GT: Well, maybe, “Bless me, Father, for I have sinned; and since my last confession (of faith) . . .” Is it okay to start that way?
GM: Yes, and it was okay to start the way you did with that class too. I think in the end you got rave reviews from all the students. Honesty usually does.
GT: As a sort of conditioned reflex, I call myself a “liberal” when I’m around Evangelicals. It invites disapproval, but it does save time. To some Evangelicals I know that’s tantamount to saying, “I don’t believe [in] the Bible.” But if they hang in with the discussion—like those students did— they may at some point discover, and perhaps even acknowledge, my knowledge and love of the Bible.
Essentially, in claiming to be a theological liberal, I’m confessing to being a classical Anglican/ Episcopalian—one who lives an engagement with Scripture interpreted by reason (a far warmer concept of old than today) in the light of tradition. I often notice that references to reason and tradition make Evangelicals nervous, causing them to mutter about “liberalism.” So, in the strictest Christian charity, I like to save them the trouble.
GM: You are a considerate fellow, Gray; now on to matters at hand. Your latest book, Molten Soul: Dangers and Opportunities in Religious Conversion, was close to amazing. You grabbed me with the first few paragraphs of the introduction, and I knew I would finish it cover to cover when I read the question that produced the book: “Why is American Christianity so divided against itself? How would you answer that question if asked while standing in line at McDonald’s?
GT: I would likely say something to the effect that the Church is inescapably part of the world. The slice of the world Americans know best is America—a nation more divided today than during the Vietnam War. Our theological divisions reflect our political divisions. That realization invites us to wonder if our adopted religious opinions are Christian trappings festooned onto our economic and political yearnings.
GM: You must eat at McDonald’s only after your Mensa meetings, Gray. I was hoping you were going to say something about Christianity being so divided because it’s so difficult to keep our souls molten.
GT: How could I miss that pitch? So let me take advantage of your offer of a second shot. James Fowler says that when people reach stage five in faith development, they no longer need to define their own positions in opposition to alternative understandings. The divided state of American Christianity shows that those making the noise have yet to reach stage five. Also, David M. Schnarch, Ph.D., in Passionate Couples describes intimacy not as constant agreement but as the ability to hang in with another person when the two of you are not in sync, without abandoning yourself. That requires a higher level of personal differentiation than we see or hear on our national religious stage.
GM: Oh, no. You’re not going to use Fowler’s “stage five” as another name for “liberal,” are you?
GT: As long as you spell liberal with a lower-case “l,” the answer is yes. Before our politicians ruined the word, liberal used to mean generous, just as conservative used to mean stingy and selfishly cautious. Generosity is more characteristic of stage five than stinginess is. But I have been blessed to know any number of theologically conservative souls who occupied stage five and indeed stage six. Those souls were/are so filled with the love of God that they are no longer mad at anybody or impatient with people who see things differently. That attitude is not under patent to folks who vote Democrat.
Actually, I’d be tempted to equate Fowler’s stage five with a high level of differentiation or personal maturity, since it involves a tolerance for paradox and epistemological untidiness. Is that the same as liberal? Today’s “Doonsberry” [cartoon] suggests as much, but maybe that’s not the least biased source.
GM: Fair enough. Gray, your description of an encounter with God that “leaves the soul molten” is beautiful, and seems to cut across many of the categories that divide Christians. You used these words:
You may become aware of an energetic warmth progressively covering you like poured oil, bringing heightened awareness and vitality. . . . Gradually you become aware that you are in the Presence of a Person—One of unquestionable authority and boundless affection and goodwill directed at you. You see yourself as though for the first time with absolute objectivity—yet without psychological annihilation—because the Other holds you safe and precious. . . . Any worry you were experiencing feels eradicated. . . . Any sense of enmity towards another is swallowed up in forgiveness and understanding; you feel little concern about any future harm from him. Generous courage seems your natural state. Perhaps for the first time in your life, you feel normal. . . . During such an encounter real life feels somehow permanent, invulnerable to death. You sense that who you are at this precise moment is your true eternal self [italics added]. You anticipate a future of facing every person and vicissitude with affectionate, wise serenity. . . . The universe itself seems momentarily coherent, intelligible, and deeply good—friendly, perhaps even jolly.
This is a beautiful description, one I would think would resonate with experience in worship by devout Quakers, Baptists, Pentecostals, or contemplative monks.
GT: You are quite right that such occurrences transcend denominational boundaries. And they are repeatable. But they themselves are not the end-point. The subsequent openness to life they enable would be the point. Such encounters—or the recollection of them—offer us courage. Unlike physical growth that requires more patience than courage, we cannot grow spiritually or psychologically without being brave. Spiritual and emotional growth require that we follow our pains, resentments, fears, humiliations down to the bottom like so many pearl-divers until we find the pearls that, inaccessible to remote dredging, await us there. The melting encounter with God’s love can offer us that courage if we will draw on it.
GM: Such moments provide us with courage—I like that. In addition to relating a courage-giving, unitive encounter with God, Gray, do you believe this [your description of a molten soul] is also a description of the highest ideal of what it feels like to be living out of one’s true self?
GT: I wish. More likely the description is of the permanent quality of life that awaits us in heaven. In this life the true self emerges when and as we abandon false selves. We construct false selves to protect ourselves against pain.
C.G. Jung taught that all neurotic pain is the result of refusing to face into authentic pain. As the Spirit gives us courage to plunge into those zones within ourselves we’re scared of, and as Jesus accompanies us there, false selves start to be a solution that’s more trouble than the problem. So we drop them. Then we begin living primarily out of our truth.
GM: These molten experiences, you are saying, confirm our suspicions that there is another way to live and perceive, and stimulate our desire to develop enough trust in God to let go of the reins and live out of our true self more moments each day?
GT: Yes. It’s a matter of courage. Such encounters tell me, among other things, that I’m permanent because God loves me. So maybe I can risk the potential destructiveness of honesty.
GM: And honesty can cause the false self to melt like a salted slug. Sorry. What I meant to say was, How would you define the true and false self?
GT: The psychiatrist Eric Berne, the originator of Transactional Analysis, described people who are at the moment living out of a false self: he called them “jerks.” What we instantly sense in jerks is that they are retailing to us a self that they’ve crafted to get a desired response from us. That describes many car-sales folk— and at least a few evangelists. What drives me to develop false selves is my fear of pain. My false selves are self-protective. The true self is exploratory.
GM: Careful, I’ve gone way out on a limb to include you in this issue.
GT: Sorry! The true self is simply that: true. It is grounded in meditative access to a zone of perception in which “All will be well.” It is able to stay in relational connection with others without insisting that everyone always be in sync.
GM: It contains a settled hope for the future that breeds tolerance in relationships.
Do you believe it is fair to say that Paul used the phrases new self and old self with similar meaning to how true self and false self are used by many devotion writers today?
GT: That seems to have been his ideal. But I think Paul was more of a realist than to assume that everyone who is “born again,” or, to use his own term, is “in Christ,” is being a true self at the moment, though they bear new identities as Christians. The first verses of 1 Corinthians are filled with love and congratulations to people he names as “saints”— and then proceeds to scold for the rest of the letter. If they were not “new creations,” he wouldn’t have congratulated them as saints; if some of them weren’t being false selves, he wouldn’t have fussed at them.
GM: Would you mind saying a bit more, and then contrast Paul’s use of “old and new person” with your use of “false and true self”?
GT: I think Paul had a deep confidence in the power of the Spirit at work in the Christian community: if you stayed in the community long enough, you would mature. (Similarly, the pagan partner in a mixed marriage would eventually be unable to resist sanctification.) So there is an element of institutional membership in Paul’s references to “old and new” which do not always correspond to one’s level of individual development.
GM: What’s the main path of maturing, the practical ways by which you stay molten?
GT: Prayer, primarily—the sort of prayer where I listen more than I talk. In prayer my soul can become supple and pliable. In this prayer it’s important to let God drive me down the path of my dissatisfactions, resentments, fears, guilts, and everything else I like to keep at arm’s length. I need to stay on that path with our Lord until he has shown me the root system of my unhappiness and pulled it up.
GM: What causes the soul to “congeal”?
GT: We quit praying—at least, we abandon the ways of prayer that God offered us in our closest encounters, allowing our prayer lives to be shaped by our teachers. In Berne’s term, we become jerks.
There’s a wonderful story of an Anglican bishop touring the South Seas on a sailing vessel. In one harbor he came on three native men wearing crude crosses. “Are you Christians?” he asked. “Yessir!” they replied happily. “So how do you pray to God?” asked the prelate. “We say, ‘You are Three and we are three; O Lord have mercy on me!’” “Oh dear, no, no!” remonstrated the Bishop. “You should say, ‘Our Father, which art in Heaven, hallowed be Thy Name. . . .’” The three received his teaching gratefully.
Some months later, the bishop’s ship returned to that island late in the evening and rode at anchor. Out on the deck before retiring to his berth, the bishop saw what appeared to be three lanterns bobbing across the water coming towards the ship. Looking over the side, he saw his three students standing upon the waters they had just traversed on foot.
They shouted, “Bishop, we have forgot the words to the prayer you taught us!” The bishop replied, “When you pray, you say, ‘You are Three and we are three; O Lord have mercy on me!’”
GM: That’s a wonderful story. And it reminds me of the insightful job you did contrasting religion (as a way to control God) and righteousness (intimate relationship) in Molten Soul. Talk about how religion can get in the way of righteousness.
GT: There is a perpetual, uneasy dialectic relationship between spiritual awakening and religious institutionalization. Spiritually awakened individuals gather with others of like experience—and then, necessarily, all the dynamics of social psychology, sociology, and eventually political science kick in willy-nilly. And on the other hand, even in the deadest, most stultifying religious establishment, every now and then someone pays attention to the actual words she is reciting—and finds her way Home.
The word religion itself comes from a Latin term for bondage. Religion is about control: controlling God by our correct behavior and beliefs, and controlling others by constraint. Politicians from Constantine to George W. Bush have resorted to religion to forge political unity, and those whose relation to religion is not based on actual experience of God normally go along with it.
GM: You don’t do very many interviews for Fox News do you?
GT: It has been a while since Fox called, now that you mention it. I’d wondered. . . .
I don’t think I need say more about religion, betting that your readers already know or at least sense all that. The real surprise is to discover what the biblical writers meant by “righteousness.” In the Bible, righteousness always refers to the quality of a relationship. It is behavioral or moral to the extent that my being in a righteous relationship with my mother allows you to predict that I won’t steal and hock her jewelry. But my late mother would never have described our relationship by saying, “That Gray—he’s a good boy; he doesn’t steal my stuff.”
Unless we understand righteousness that way, the many biblical references to God’s own righteousness will never entirely make sense. If righteousness means good only behavior, to call God righteous verges on le´se majeste´. But if it means faithfulness to another through thick and thin then, it’s news.
GM: Say more about that: “Righteousness is enjoying fellowship with God the First Person of the Trinity.”
GT: Jesus’ purpose and message was to bring people back into personal relationship (righteousness) with the One he called Father. In our churches our prayers are addressed to that Person of the Trinity—through Jesus. The service of the Lord’s Supper in all our churches, that most intimate concentration on Jesus, is always addressed directly to God the Father. So fellowship with the Father is the clear object.
What’s fun is to reflect on the enjoyment of it. If I love you, I enjoy you. If I quit enjoying you for whatever reason, I’ll eventually have to use some other word than love to characterize our relationship—even if I’m “supposed to” love you. When I profess that God loves me, do I dare imagine that God enjoys me? And when I say I love God, am I describing a relationship in which pleasure is an element?
When I can truthfully say, “I am at this moment enjoying fellowship with the Father,” you have reason to believe that at that moment my true self is at least nearby and that my dealings with God and people will likely be more righteous than religious.
GM: Do you believe that enjoying fellowship with God the Father is the best diagnostic question for determining if a person’s true self is alive and well?
GT: Not necessarily. There are true selves out there who manifest little interest in God or in the things of God. Maybe we could quibble and insist that their resolution to live authentically is a kind of work of the Spirit, but that’s disrespectful of their self-descriptions. One thinks of, say, Albert Camus. If true selfhood is confined to Christian cults, it is a religious illusion. The power of the Christian gospel is manifested in its mediating its adherents into a state of authenticity that shows up apart from the Gospel. A God confined to Christianity is not divine. And the allegiance of a true self to God must be a deliberate free choice, not a necessity.
GM: What is the curriculum you have in place at your church for maximizing the enjoyment of God?
GT: We start in the nursery, delighting in and praying over every child delivered to our care.
Then the children enter a program called “The Catechesis of the Good Shepherd,” a Montessori-like curriculum that assumes that the children already “know” God and allows them to express that knowledge. Visitors to our classrooms come away awestruck at the spiritual serenity they sense among the children in that setting.
We then move the emerging adolescents into a curriculum called “Rite 13” which will usher them into the “Journey to Adulthood.” This allows the young people to integrate their relationship with God into their dealing with each other, into their burgeoning identity rumblings and their emergent sexuality— all led by adults they can’t shock and encouraged by the adult congregation.
Adults are invited to lodge their lives into a rhythm of corporate Worship, leading to intimate Fellowship with fellow-worshipers, and to engage jointly in Ministry in the church and in the world— bringing the fruits and scars of those ministries each week back to worship.
Two evidences confirm the effectiveness of those curricula. First, our congregation shows some of the highest per capita giving in the Episcopal Church—and the Episcopal Church, believe it or not, often leads the pack in giving. Second, our congregation produces more applicants to the ordained ministry per capita than any other congregation I know of.
GM: Your excitement for what is happening in your congregation is contagious. It makes me regret needing to transition to another question. But I’m also struck by your discussion about the dread of God. You say that far from enjoying God, it is common for people to fear him, dread being around him. How does the dread of God and desire for self-preservation effect the formation of a false self?
GT: The dread of God is a subspecies of our desire for self-preservation. Ironically, it’s separation from God that makes the desire for self-preservation so urgent. A false self emerges from that lash-up along three vectors. First, we retail a phony self to God—praying for world peace when we ought to be praying about our hatred of the next-door neighbors. Second, when gathering with the Church, we retail a false self to other believers—often in the form of an unmeant bonhomie. Third, self-preservation means presenting ourselves to the world in some form that promises social viability.
GM: How does the cross relate to and inform our battle with the false self?
GT: Well, one of the forms the false self assumes is respectability. A friend of mine once remarked, “Jesus said everything he intends to say about respectability on the cross.”
The gospel narratives of the crucifixion show how the cross X-rays each person in his or her truest expression: Peter, Pilate, Pilate’s wife, Herod, the Sanhedrin, the various Marys, the centurion, the two thieves, Judas, the Ten, the beloved disciple, Joseph of Arimathea, and Nicodemus—for a moment we see all of them for who they are most deeply. Jesus had said something to the effect that gazing on him as he was lifted up would do us as much good as gazing at the bronze serpent did the snake-bitten Israelites at Sinai. Part of that benefit is that we drop pretenses.
GM: As you talk, I’m reminded that you have a deep appreciation for Ernst Becker. What do you think his ideas concerning our denial of death (and in a sense, our resistance to a personal cross) contribute to why the false self is so tenacious?
GT: I think Becker was clearer than any contemporary psychologist about our preconscious fear of death being the mainspring for so much of our behavior, thoughts, and feelings. I like your recognition of how he indicts our resisting our personal crosses. If Becker were with us today, using religious vocabulary (which he could do with the best of them), he might describe sin as resulting from a failure of nerve. Becker compels us to face the following question: Has my new relationship to God in Christ embraced my fear of death and helped me transcend it—or has my fear of death sucked up my “faith” as another ploy to attract God’s favor and postpone my extinction? Becker would urge us to the terrifying task of “getting our deaths over with,” of facing into the fear of nonbeing. He would agree with Tillich, whom he often cites, that “the courage to be is grounded in the God who appears when God has disappeared in the anxiety of doubt.”
Until we are “born again” on the far side of such a preliminary death, our religious self will likely be phony.
GM: How have you experienced that?
GT: You didn’t say this was going to get personal! But since you asked for it, here’s an illustrative anecdote: I once faced a crisis in my congregation that eventually led to a split. I realized I was being a “jerk” in the face of it, trying to behave over-cordially and overconfidently. Sensing that I was in for a lot of trouble, I sought out an intensive psychotherapeutic weekend retreat a friend offered, asking for help to work on the issue of fear. That sort of therapeutic work is scary. This therapist blindfolds you, lays you down on a sheeted mat, gets you hyperventilating and yelling your throat raw. Within minutes, you’re in a regressed, nearpsychotic state. While you’re in that condition, he puts you through all sorts of physical and mental exercises, intensifying metaphors of whatever issues you’re working. You take a controlled trip deep into what you’re most scared of—and back.
In that state, as I confronted the fears that threatened me in the parish, it was as though I was in darkness and something huge, hideous, and hateful—colored arterial-blood red—was rolling ineluctably toward me to annihilate me. I could not get out of its path. It was so utterly terrifying that I felt the onset of a cardiac episode and suffocating asthma. The therapist shouted instructions to me: “Call on some people for help!”
I could think of none to call on, none who’d be adequate. “Call on your parents—call their names aloud!” I did. Still the thing—death itself—came rolling at me. “Find a resource!” he commanded urgently.
“JEEEEESSSSUUUUUUUUUUUUUSSSS!” I cried.
“I AM HERE,” Jesus said. Do you know the place in Psalm 139 where it says:
Where can I go from your spirit? Or where can I flee from your presence? If I ascend to heaven, you are there; if I make my bed in Sheol, you are there. If I take the wings of the morning and settle at the farthest limits of the sea, even there your hand shall lead me, and your right hand shall hold me fast. If I say, “Surely the darkness shall cover me, and the light around me become night,” even the darkness is not dark to you; the night is as bright as the day, for darkness is as light to you. (verses 7–12, NRS)
That’s all true.
Jesus and I held each other in the dark, my weeping like a child with the relief of terror immediately past. I think the therapist deduced what was happening and lent Jesus his own form to hug me with and hold me safe. We stayed like that a long time until I was back.
It was now really clear. There would be no resource but our Lord himself in the parochial struggles to come. And he would be enough.
If I were asked to string every moment together for the rest of the year in which I experienced active fear, that daisy-chain would amount to less than two minutes.
GM: Wow, that’s a pretty productive use of pain. To be stripped of all attachments and to realize at the bottom of a pit that all you have is all you need, the sustaining love of Christ. It’s enough to wound the false self and vivify the true.
GT: The effect lasted a long time. For months afterward, I was able to withstand scathing personal attacks—in person, in letters and emails, toxic phone messages, and two sliming articles in national conservative Christian magazines—to withstand all that without snapping back or cravenly placating the critics. I was able to repeat what they’d said back to them to their satisfaction. I was able to refrain from disparaging my critics in front of my friends. All of that was effortless enough to help me recognize that there’s a way you can live out Paul’s instructions authentically, without contrivance.
GM: Thank you for being willing to share that. A deep sense of experiencing the love of God, like a helpless child loved by a parent, is so deeply healing. And it seems to have left you open to input from groups you may not see eye-to-eye with on everything. You say in your book that “whatever success I have enjoyed in staying molten has resulted from blending Evangelical procedures for spiritual direction, classical (largely Catholic) procedures for spiritual guidance, Charismatic procedures for spiritual growth, and ‘liberal’ approaches to the Bible and to group dynamics for spiritual sanity.” What makes it possible for you to celebrate theological differences that would rip the average church apart?
GT: Properly addressed, those are not rival theological postures any more than the violin section is rival to the winds and brasses.
Whenever I get tempted to throw out one of those emphases, I realize that I’ve succumbed to thinking of my own package as complete again. My best defense against rejecting the possible contribution of other perspectives—a way of staying molten—is to cultivate the habit of always regarding myself as incomplete.
GM: “Regarding yourself as incomplete.” We’re running short on time, but that phrase reminds me of your refreshing take on what is meant in Scripture by pride. You say it is much deeper and more sinister than conceit or vanity. Say more about how pride can to a toxin to the soul.
GT: A word study on the terms pride and proud through both Testaments shows us that the writers normally do not mean vanity or conceit in our sense. The writers always mean reliance on self rather than reliance on God. That’s toxic for the simple reason that my self is not nearly as reliable as God. So to compensate for not being up to the job, my false self lies to itself and exploits others in the pursuit of self-preservation. It’s so much simpler to recognize that, “Yes, I’m mortal—I’m going to die and rot and quit being.” But what holds me permanent is not wealth or fame, but the simple fact that I am the object of God’s love.
Jesus asks us regularly to “Do this for the remembrance of me.” Obeying that instruction helps me trust in all that the Holy Trinity does in remembrance of me.
The Reverend Canon Gray Temple, Jr., has been rector of St. Patrick’s, Atlanta, since 1975. He holds an M.Div. degree from Episcopal Theological Seminary in Virginia and has completed additional graduate work at Gottingen and Oxford Universities. He is the author of 52 Ways to Help Homeless People (1990) and Molten Soul (2001). Correspondence regarding this article should be addressed to Gray Temple, M.Div., St. Patrick’s Episcopal Church, 4755 North Peachtree Road, Atlanta, Georgia 30338. E-mail at email@example.com.