Copyright © 1996 Mars Hill Review 1 Fall 1996 · Issue 6: pgs 51-66.
My wife, Ellen, and I were thrilled at the opportunity. We had just finished our fall church conference in the Rocky Mountains, for which Dr. James Houston was the guest speaker, and were asked to drive Dr. Houston to the airport-a good two-hour drive. I had had little interaction with Dr. Houston over the weekend, other than exchanging a few greetings and introducing him as our speaker. Yet, evidently that was all he needed, because within ten minutes of our drive he had me pegged. It was as though he knew my whole life, and his penetrating words pierced deeply and rang true within me.
Later, I discovered that mine was not an isolated event. "It was the most amazing thing... " was a refrain I began to hear again and again from those who had attended the retreat. And, indeed, it is a refrain that has echoed throughout the halls of Regent College and from the lips of those all over the world whose lives have been touched by James Houston.
Dr. James M. Houston is the former lecturer in geography at Hertford College, Oxford. At Oxford, he was profoundly influenced by C.S. Lewis. He left there in 1970 to become the founding principal of Regent College in Vancouver, British Columbia. In 1978 he was appointed professor of spiritual theology. The Regent College Chair of Spirituality was endowed in his name in 1991. He is the author of three books: The Transforming Friendship, In Search of Happiness, and The Heart's Desire, and is currently writing a book on the subject of mentoring.
I have never met a man who blended so well two great attributes of God: strength and kindness. James Houston is a man who has been transformed by his friendship with God.
Mars Hill Review: The focus of much of the joy in your life has been your personal involvement with your students. Many see you as a pioneer in the art of spiritual direction. How would you differentiate between spiritual direction and the modern evangelical concept of "discipleship"?
James Houston: I think the fundamental difference is that, for many people, discipleship is simply being geared to be a Christian activist. The unexamined assumption behind this activism is, "I perform, therefore I am." So it is very much a functional identity to which discipleship is being attached. Clearly, this is very much a part of the cultural mood of American life today.
MHR: You have defined spiritual direction as the help given by one Christian to another to help that person become more "individuated" in Christ. What does this term mean, to be "individuated" in Christ?
JH: It means to discover that God is the ground for our uniqueness-only God so "particularizes" us.
JH: This means that God recognizes our particularity-our uniqueness. The grounding for uniqueness is in the only begotten of the Father. It is only of God in that sense, who in his infinite love has a relationship that is special to every one of his creatures.
If you look at the way we live naturally-that is, according to nature-nature never particularizes. You may belong to a species, but you are not particularized by nature. So naturalism is the antithesis of what we are talking about. Even our notion of personalities is that personalities belong to types. You may have a typology, but you are not recognized as a unique person.
MHR: Our society works against that.
JH: Yes. And the reason for it is that there is no foundation for uniqueness in secularism.
MHR: Do you see the megachurch and the church growth movement contributing to this thinking?
JH: Precisely. It goes contrary to how our Lord left the ninety-and-nine to search out the one sheep that was lost. Our society looks at people statistically, functionally, programmatically, instead of dealing with them personally. But the Good Shepherd knows each of his sheep by name.
MHR: Given the fact that there are increasing numbers of large churches, what would you say to leaders of a large church? Are you saying that we need to move toward smaller-sized churches, or that we should plant daughter churches to deal with growth?
JH: I would say that quality is not quantity. The whole mindset of our leaders needs repentance-needs metanoia-a total conversion. I think the emergence of small or "home" groups within these large churches represents a different mindset. It is an attitude that is relational, over and against a perspective that is successful and functional. It is a very revolutionary thing to call upon Christians to be so transformed in these attitudes. To set up daughter churches may be the alternative.
MHR: That will be uncomfortable for most of us. Most do not want to leave the mother church or see a segment split off.
JH: No, because we are possessive by nature, and not open to the well-being of others.
MHR: You've said that a goal of spiritual direction is to remove obstacles, distractions, or distortions of anything that hinders the work of the gospel in one's soul. As you reflect over the past year, in what ways have you seen the gospel being worked out in your own soul?
JH: The thing that I am more and more convinced about is that theology cannot be abstracted. Theology has to be personalized and lived out.
I am more convinced that the way we communicate truth is through portraiture-people who express a living faith, people who are expressive of aspects of the incarnate Christ. There is only one perfect image of the nature and likeness of God, Jesus Christ. Insofar as we are able to express facets of that image and likeness, then we are portraits of truth. We can then communicate in a particular context, in a particular person, some manifestation of the truth of God. This approach may revitalize theology and its communication.
MHR: What does this say about seminaries and the way pastors are trained?
JH: Clearly they are not trained for this kind of approach. The whole abstraction or even systematization of theology needs profound reorientation for the postmodern world we have now entered.
MHR: Who are your spiritual guides?
JH: Those who throughout the history of the church have personalized their faith-Augustine, not Pelagius; Anselm, not Peter Abelard; Luther, not Erasmus; Pascal, not Descartes; Jonathan Edwards, not John Locke.
MHR: You have spoken and written often about your love and need for the "communion of saints"-Teresa of Avila, Bernard of Clairvaux, and Aelred of Rievaulx are ones that seem to stand out, among others. I'm curious to know if there are any contemporary works-whether in the realm of literature, art, music, or film- that have recently influenced your thinking.
JH: I have always had a classical tradition. A classic needs generations to test and prove its value. So you cannot evaluate the contemporary in the same way that you can evaluate those who have been tested by time.
I suppose this is my bias, but I tend to read contemporary writers who help to enrich my historical perspective. I enjoy contemporary writers for what they are communicating about the past.
For example, I enjoy very much the works of Michael Casey, who is an Australian monk. He has written a book on a thirst for God, which is a study of the theology of love of Bernard of Clairveaux. Books like that I deeply appreciate. I also enjoy biographies, such as William J. Bouwsma's book, John Calvin: A Portrait.
MHR: You have said that the desert is a place where we encounter our "false self" and where addictions are exposed. Yet in the midst of your own desert experiences, you persevered in being a spiritual father to many at Regent. It strikes me that your suffering and personal loneliness never removed you from relationships. Explain what you mean by the "silence of the heart" and how this contrasts with what you call "false silences."
JH: False silence can be moodiness, or depression-an indication that something is wrong within your inner life before God that you are not facing. True silence is when you have faith to be alone with God, and where there is no barrier between you and God. Then you discover what Dietrich Bonhoeffer emphasizes in Life Together-that "none of us can afford solitude if we do not live in community, nor can we have real community without solitude."
This is very much the refrain of the Desert Fathers themselves: you need solitude and silence in order to richly communicate with God and with other people.
MHR: It seems to me that false silence moves you away from relationships, to a more narcissistic type of existence, whereas the silence of the heart I hear you talking about moves you toward divine relationship.
JH: Yes. That silence or solitude is really "space for God" in your life.
MHR: You have said that something you learned from C.S. Lewis is how the relational quality of companionship assists us in deepening our friendship with God in prayer. You've also said that another goal of the spiritual director is to foster the life of prayer in the context of prayerful relationships. Talk more about this interrelationship between prayer and relationship.
JH: Prayerful relationships occur when you are deeply communicating mutually with each other about your experience of God. So we need to think of prayerfulness as a much wider connotation of experiencing of God than actually being "in prayer." Therefore a "soul friend" is someone I can share with about my struggles, my misunderstandings, and my communion with God.
MHR: Most of us see prayer as a discipline or technique to be learned or practiced. Yet you have said that prayerlessness results primarily from our lack of deep relationships, and, conversely, that prayer enables us to enter into a whole new world of relationships. This strikes me as something that much of the church has been unwilling to look at.
JH: This is counter to our whole self-identification. If I identify myself as functional, I am careless about the quality of my relationships. But if my identification is relational rather than functional, then clearly I'm much more concerned about the quality of my relationships.
MHR: I have heard you say that a person's Achilles heel is the guide to his relationship with God.
JH: Our Achilles heel is the compass of our spiritual journey. "Where I am weak, there-by God's grace-I become strong." When we discover what our basic weakness or woundedness is, or our basic handicap, then we ask for God's presence and grace to enter that which is recognized as most needful of God's grace. A broken bone, once healed, is stronger than one never broken.
MHR: That seems counter to what we typically do-that is, to look to one's strengths and abilities and giftedness and education. You seem to be saying that these things may serve to keep us from relationship with God.
JH: Our strengths are usually the areas where we practice atheism. In our ability, we don't need any outside help. Yet what we don't recognize is that very often our so-called "natural strengths" are the areas where we live addictively, and also practice addiction in our relationships.
MHR: What do you see as being the primary qualifications needed to being a spiritual mentor or guide?
JH: That one is, above all, seeking to honor God in his or her life, regardless of career, reputation, or other self-sustaining ambition or desire. It requires an "unconscious self-forgetfulness," which is needed so that we can listen to "the other."
For example, if you are going to enter into this kind of ministry, then forget building an empire. You're not seeking recruits, but listening to the heart of the other to set him or her on the pathway, even at the expense of your own interest. And proper listening to somebody else requires recognition of that person-the context of their narrative-in order to direct them. There has to be selflessness. And, of course, there also has to be a wise discernment of human nature-an ability to read the hearts of people.
MHR: How did you learn to read the hearts of people?
JH: I think it comes through self-understanding. One of the characteristics of all the great saints, right up until the seventeenth century, is that they always saw knowledge as a double form of knowledge. It is a knowledge of God and a knowledge of oneself. "Let me know Thee, O God, and let me know myself" is the great prayer of Augustine in his Soliloquies.
MHR: So you can only take a person as far as you are willing to go yourself.
JH: Yes. The limit to which one has self-understanding is the limit to which you can understand others.
MHR: Sounds like courage would be another needed quality.
JH: You need a lot of courage. You have to be kindly-gutsy and lovingly confrontal-and, if need be, not afraid of losing the relationship. If the relationship is broken by such honesty, well, that's sad, but the truth is more important than a dishonest relationship.
MHR: As I think back to that two-hour drive through the mountains to the airport last fall, I was struck by the fact that, for someone who barely knew me, you stepped out and said some words that were, shall we say, straightforward (chuckles). Yet it was apparent to me how much your words-honest and piercing as they were-were bathed in kindness.
It seems that often when Christians attempt to "speak the truth in love," the element of kindness is lacking, and people end up feeling attacked and assaulted.
JH: True kindness is "giving space" for the uniqueness of the other. True gentleness is in the Spirit of Christ.
MHR: Say more about that.
JH: Kindness is giving others territory in which to be safe. I have a text that rests above the head of the person sitting in the chair across from me when we talk together: "The foxes have holes, and the birds of the air have their nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head." That's the kindness of God. The kindness of God is to give territory to others "to be," for God's relationship with all his creatures is in love.
MHR: Thus, the importance of one's own self-awareness before God.
JH: Yes. And the model for that is the servant in John 13, who, knowing where he came from, and where he was going (the Father's bosom), took the towel, and took the posture of a slave, to wash the disciples' feet. These are all elements of divine kindness.
MHR: You say that one of the roles of "soul friends" is to expose addictions and compulsions, and to free one for godliness. Yet all that most American churchgoers want, from my experience, is some fine-tuning to make their life work better and to be free of conflict. (You have described this as "helping people to become more efficient atheists.")
It seems to me that it would be rare to find a friend who would be the kind of mentor you're talking about, and even rarer to find someone who would be willing to receive such input.
JH: Yes. I think true spiritual friendship is one of the most precarious and difficult fruits of human life. It indicates, therefore, how profoundly rooted we need to be in the love of God.
MHR: Your father was a man you deeply admire, yet your relationship with him was not without its pain and struggle. J.I. Packer wrote that because he withheld his approval from you, you were left with inner wounds and frailties with which you took a long time coming to terms. Can you describe how it was that you came to terms with those hurts, and what role this had on your spiritual formation?
JH: My father was a man of intrepid faith. Although he was a missionary in Spain, he was not beholden to any mission society. He followed very much the model of George Muller, that he could pray for his daily bread.
That's how he lived, and that I admired. But at the same time, he was limited ecclesially, in coming from a rather strict background of the Brethren movement. He was somewhat narrow in his view of other Christians, and that's where we crossed swords. And (laughing), the fact is that I was probably just as strong-willed as he was.
MHR: Were you able to talk with him about such things?
JH: Oh, yes. And toward the end of his life he was trying to give more ground to my more open position, but he still found it hard. Sadly, it was an unconcluded story as far as our lives were mutually concerned.
MHR: As you think about the story of your father, and therefore about who you are, what traces of redemption do you hope to see in the story you pass down to your children?
JH: Just last night I was talking with my son, one of my four children. He was sharing with me the trait that he had inherited from both of his parents-that is, to be able to talk so openly. It's a wonderful thing when you can have that kind of redemption. I feel I have it with my son in a way that I didn't have it with my father. And that is very precious.
MHR: You've said that evangelicals are better at giving out advice than at listening, because they are trained to be preachers. You attribute your attentiveness to the classical paideia model you learned at Oxford, which is in sharp contrast to the modern educational approach. How can the church recapture this "tutorial" model?
JH: We can only recapture it by recognizing that the truth has to be lived out in life-in persons. If we really believe that the communication of the truth lies through personal formation, then, of course, we'll be very concerned with personal formation. But if we assume that the truth can be best communicated abstractly, as in a sermon, then we'll assume that that is the way to continue. It really lies in where we place our values.
MHR: Do we give too much emphasis to the sermon?
JH: It depends upon the preacher. But we all tend to give too much emphasis to the abstraction of truth.
MHR: How would you see the opposite of that fleshed out on a Sunday morning?
JH: I think one would need to speak more transparently, from one's own heart, of the things one is struggling with within oneself. What I find is that I may apologize by saying, "Well, this is very personal, this is me." Yet what is most universal is what is most intimately "me." It is there that we touch the hearts of everybody. It's a great paradox: that which is most intimately "me" is also most universally "you."
MHR: The idea of the church being comprised of "nurturing companions" sounds intriguing and alluring. Yet I've often wondered how much we can accomplish in this generation. What needs to happen to bring about a shift in the current way of thinking in the evangelical church? Moreover, hat would you like to see occur in the church by the end of your life?
JH: The first thing to look for in the life of the church today is humiliation. I think the church will have to be brought to its knees.
Something I see happening to us in our western world is that Christianity is becoming more and more marginalized. It is not viewed as having much relevance. Unfortunately, religion is still viewed as politically relevant in the United States, and as long as that continues, we will remain a worldly church.
In western Europe, on the other hand, the church is very much more marginal to society. It's viewed as something that belongs to a presecular past. It is within such intensely secularized society that Christian life can become again more vitalized, for there it is not nominal but radical. As long as religion remains popular in America, however, there will be less likelihood of revival and reform.
MHR: You have said, "Without love, there can be no genuine human existence." Does it grieve your heart to see the amount of time, energy, and money that American Christians pour into the political realm and legislation? By doing so, are we not forfeiting our calling?
JH: There's always an element of tension and ambiguity with this, because on the one hand, we do want to be the salt of the earth, and the light on the hill. Therefore we do want to be able to express our voice, even in politics. There is, therefore, a real need for social spirituality. But if we have the same kind of motives for seeking power as the politicians, then we are not salt and light. Motives are the problem.
MHR: You've said that it takes centuries to build up a "heritage of community," which can enrich the lives of many people. And once it is lost, it is hard to put right. What do you mean by building up a "heritage of community"?
JH: Habits of attitude are formed slowly. And it needs more than one generation to do it. It may not be centuries, but it is certainly multigenerational.
Look at what has happened since the Second World War to the first, and the second, and now the third generation of a divorcing culture in family life. What a mess we're getting into. When the first generation accepted the possibility of divorce, the second generation practiced it vigorously, and now the third generation lives with the collapse of commitment. How long is it going to take to rebuild? Many generations again?
MHR: So we need to have a long view, rather than a short view, of our impact on those around us. This is a hopeful and enticing vision to have-of what I can impart to my grandchildren, upon which they will then continue to build.
JH: Yes. If one generation can look at a few "mountain peaks," then the next generation can say, "Well, perhaps more of us are imitating now." And then you have the third generation taking it once more for granted.
MHR: Recently, I was in a donut shop in a poor part of town while I was waiting for my car to be repaired. For more than two hours a group of four or five older men sat at the table next to me, and they spent the time telling stories. Occasionally, a few younger men would stroll in and out of the group and would engage in the discussion.
It was so relaxed, so natural, so leisurely. Something in my heart was drawn to them and what was transpiring there. And I thought, "Leisurely relationships are what's missing in the church, especially among men." How do we recapture this?
JH: I think in non-Christian friendships, you can often have a simpler motive for being a friend. There's no concealed agenda. Whereas, in our evangelical activism, we tend to have a concealed agenda of ecclesial promotion.
MHR: Rather than just exercising friendship.
JH: For its own sake, yes. Even "Friendship Evangelism" suggests that friendship is secondary to the task of evangelism! So it creates an unreality about it.
MHR: In The Transforming Friendship, you write that in the midst of our cultural obsession with expertise, it is essential that the Christian life be preserved with its proper "amateur" status, and that prayer is the greatest antidote to professionalism. Could you elaborate on these thoughts?
JH: There are territories of life that are not capable of being professionalized. One of them is friendship. To have a specialist in friendship is to destroy the very innocence a friendship should have. So we tend to fragment our lives into roles that are professionalized. Pure relationality is like a child on its mother's breast.
MHR: You are working on an upcoming book on mentoring. You say that it won't be a "how to" book on how to mentor, but rather an exposition on the human heart's longing for the mentored life, where we move from self-consciousness to "we-consciousness." Can you give me a foretaste of your thinking on this?
JH: In the human need for the mentored life there have been different models of mentoring, so to simply seek for mentoring isn't good enough. It is like saying, "I need to be educated." Well, there are different kinds of education.
There has been, for example, what you might call "Homeric" mentoring, where you have the model of Ulysses-i.e., "follow the great hero." That's a pagan form of the mentored life. And then throughout the Middle Ages there was a very strong emphasis on intertwining Christian graces with Stoical virtues, and thus the virtuous life was looked upon as another model-the "good girl" syndrome, and that too is falsifying. Then, more recently, we've had therapeutic mentoring-the healing of one's emotions and feelings. And that too can be distorted.
So there are many false forms of mentoring. The first prerequisite a Christian must have is to recognize all the false inheritances we've had-and that we still practice.
MHR: Describe the original vision of Regent College and how it relates to your vision for the church. What role can and should seminaries play in preparing and assisting the leadership of the church?
JH: What I have always wanted to believe possible is that Regent should become a school for persons. Persons belong to the relatedness that we have with God. And Regent was a place where people, having got their secular qualifications, could thoughtfully fly with two wings: first, that they were as thoughtful and competent in their faith as in their profession-and second, that at the same time their characters were being reshaped, so that the ultimate result was not their qualification of expertise, but the transformation of their person.
MHR: You speak of an extended "desert experience" from 1978 to 1990, when you said you had to die to your own vision for Regent, with regard to its vision for the laity. Could you take me through that struggle?
JH: Around 1981, the college moved away from being entirely a lay institute, to establishing the Master of Divinity. Since then I've changed my mind on that. I believe the exposure of people going into ministry, alongside of laypeople who are equally intelligent and competent, facilitates the changing of attitudes within the clergy.
MHR: If you were a father speaking to your eighteen-year-old son who came to you and said he wanted to go into ministry, what advice would you give him?
JH: I would tell him that he should see a bit more of the world first. I would tell him it is far better to understand the life of the marketplace before you enter the life of the church.
It was characteristic in the past-certainly in the Scottish church-that people spent more time in the world and came into the ministry later as more mature pastors. I think today people have an inclination-perhaps it is only subconscious-that you can have a safer, "cushier" job in the church than you might have in the outside world-which, of course, is a very misleading attitude to have.
MHR: You have commented that in the current church we have become "map readers" without being traveling companions, and that what we really need are living "mountain guides" to walk alongside us. What role do seminaries play in this, and how can we change to a more relational model?
JH: If the real emphasis of seminaries is upon spiritual formation-and there are indications that this is being taken more seriously-then they will view the role of the mentor as much more important in the curriculum.
MHR: What is the "need of the hour" in our churches today, in your estimation?
JH: To be a community of friends-to see the importance of living a deeply be-graced life-in the sense that we are living more honestly and intimately in relationship with God.
I think a higher priority is needed for prayer and worship in our church life. We have to be a real worshipping community. Often it is in the church that we are most unreal. I can be honest in the marketplace, I can be honest at home, but I can't be honest at church. So the need for emotional honesty-personal honesty-is one of the great needs for ecclesial man today.
MHR: You've spent much time fellowshiping with Christians from diverse traditions, including Nicholas Zernov, who strove to promote dialogue between the Orthodox and Anglican communities. As one raised in the Eastern Orthodox tradition myself, I'm curious to hear what has impacted you from the Orthodox stream of thought.
JH: What I've learned is that the Orthodox have a tremendous respect for the spiritual-minded person.
One of the things that is imprinted in Eastern Orthodoxy-and it goes right back to John of Climacus in the sixth century, and to Simeon the New Theologian in the tenth century-is that if you have conflicting authority of an ecclesial prelate and a spiritual layman, the spiritual authority of the layman transcends that of the prelate.
MHR: That is something I had not heard before.
JH: That never happened in the west. But that is why there is a long tradition of the "staretz"-the mentor, or spiritual director.
The authority of a godly man has its own authority in the Russian church. And that is why, presumably, there has not been the same need for splits as we've had in the west-because you split sometimes over the worldliness or inconsistency of an institution, whereas there you have "spiritual guides" who inspire and help you to navigate your own life.
MHR: The theology of the trinity is foundational in your understanding of the relational life. Many Christian theologians and counselors today stress the importance of our being made in the image of God, yet the doctrine of the trinity is given little attention. How does your understanding of the trinity affect your understanding of who you are as a person?
JH: Profoundly. If we take the persons of the triune God of grace seriously, then they determine what is the nature of being a person oneself.
One of the traits of the trinity that we can experience in our own life is that we are particularized-that the Father is always the Father, and the Son is always the Son, and the Holy Spirit is neither Father nor Son. Therefore that awareness of particularity of the person is essential for us to have genuine relationships.
Often in codependency you find people who are so fused with the other that there is no individuation. What they're doing in their relationships is falsifying their identities. True relationship must be particularized.
A second important trait of the trinity is that each is for the other, and none is for himself. Other-centeredness is a distinguishing mark of the triune God of grace. And I also marvel at the reality that God relates to us by his own character, his own nature. He doesn't relate to us by our nature. That is why his grace is so amazing, his love so infinite.
MHR: What exactly happened in that moment on the cross when the second person of the trinity was forsaken by the Father?
JH: It was the greatest moment in history. On the one hand, he was the sin-bearer. And at that point as the sin-bearer, you could say he bore our alienation as sinners. But at the same time He was never forsaken of God, because he remains God.
The whole element of God in Christ entering into hell is such an amazing mystery. We celebrate not only Good Friday-that he died for us as the sin-bearer-but also that on "Good Saturday" he descended into hell, so that there is no dimension of despair, no depth or abyss, that he himself has not gone into deeper.
Humanly we try to build bridges across the gulfs to try to reach and help others, but we cannot enter into the depths of their anguish. Christ has undergirded the depths of our anguish, by entering into hell.
MHR: I recently have been reading a book by Brother David Steindl Rast, a Catholic contemplative, entitled Gratefulness: The Heart of Prayer. He asserts that the heart of prayer lies in nurturing a life of gratitude, and that gratitude hinges on the element of surprise. An example of "surprise" would be the feeling in your heart when you see a rainbow or a hummingbird. It is the unexpected gratuitousness of God that bursts in and awakens one's soul.
Nature ought to intrigue us, and people ought to intrigue us. Yet there seems to be little intrigue among evangelical Christians. Isn't mentoring little more than having a healthy intrigue about people and the God who is at work in them?
JH: This whole question of gratitude is so much related to grace, and so much related to the humility we need to have-that "in him we live and move and have our being, and without him we can do nothing." That's what prompts gratitude, isn't it?
I think intrigue is related to admiration, and admiration is unpossessiveness. I can't afford to be admiring of others, or intrigued by others, if I am self-grounded. Gratitude and admiration and surprise-like being "surprised by joy" as C.S. Lewis described in his own journey-all of these are expressive of no longer being self-grounded.
MHR: As I counsel people, and as I look at my own life, I have found that it's like pulling teeth to get people to reflect on what they really want. Most of us want so little, and in doing so, we kill friendship with God. In your counseling with your students, how do you entice them to want more?
JH: This is a great theme of Augustine, and that is why he has been so admired in the church. Augustine has great longing-"God made us for himself, and our hearts are restless until they find their rest in God."
It is a wonderful perspective to give to people who are on the journey of faith to open their hearts to infinite desire. God is not man, and because he is not man he therefore is not going to disappoint as human beings disappoint. So we cannot afford to desire infinitely if we live in a secular world. It is a mockery of our condition. That is probably the greatest weakness of secularism-that it cannot desire infinitely.
MHR: Your background is in geography, and some have called you a "geographer of the soul." How does your interest and experience in geography continue to shape who you are and how you look at life?
JH: In two ways. First, geographically, I was trained to think synthetically. I saw the whole landscape from the various components. And the history of change in the landscape was my particular interest.
I do see things synthetically, rather than analytically. So, for example, when someone tells me about their temptations, I also look at their temperament, and relate their personality and temperament to their temptability-to view things ecologically, even the life of the soul. That has been one great heritage that I've been given from that training.
The second thing is my lifelong interest in the history of ideas, as applied to landscape changes. Now I've applied that to the study of the history of spirituality and of spiritual consciousness.
MHR: You recently celebrated your forty-third wedding anniversary. Talk about the influence of your wife, Rita, upon your life. I understand that her approach to spiritual direction is a bit different from yours?
JH: I think the most significant thing that my dear wife has always given to me is that she has always been very self-honest, and confrontal, whereas I have always been the opposite. She has influenced me significantly to be much more straightforward and honest. That has been deeply redemptive in my life.
MHR: (Laughing) And you are straightforward and honest!
JH: (Laughing) It's her influence.
MHR: At the age of seventy-three-and you don't look a day above sixty-what are you learning about God?
JH: I'm learning the sheer immensity of who God is-that his thoughts are not our thoughts, nor his ways our ways.
I am in awe of the mystery of godliness, more so than ever before. It is an unfathomable ocean. At the same time, I am learning the intimacy of God-that he has never been closer, never more intimate. So how in the world do you keep the fear of the Lord, where you have this great sense of the awe of his otherness, and yet live in conjunction with his intimacy, knowing that no one is closer to you-no one more remote, yet no one more intimately close?