Psychotherapist Thomas Moore writes on archetypal (Jungian) psychology, mythology, and the arts. But the former Roman Catholic monk is more known for his writing on spirituality. His 1992 book Care of the Soul reached the top of The New York Times bestsellers list. The Soul's Religion: Cultivating a Profoundly Spiritual Way of Life, a companion to his earlier book, was published earlier this year by HarperCollins.

I want to start with your own journey, which is illustrative of the combination of somebody that was hungering for more but was also kind of launched from within a religion, an organized religion.

At 13 I left home to enter a monastic order, essentially. It was a prep seminary, called a minor seminary, preparing for the real thing. But it had a lot of the monastic style to it, and I stayed with that community studying to be a priest for about 12 to 13 years.

I decided to leave just before I was to be ordained a priest. I just outgrew it or something, or I just felt changes in me. I tried to be a musician, because I love music. But I just couldn't shake the interest in religion. I ended up finally at Syracuse University in New York, where I could study religion as not related to any particular church or tradition and where I could study the arts and psychology in relation to religion. It was wonderful for me.

At what point did you become a professor?

After getting my degree, I taught psychology for a year because I couldn't find a position in religion. Then I found one at Southern Methodist University. In some courses, in the connection between religion and psychology, I focused a lot on mythology, and so I was doing both things.

And that's the point at which it became clear unto you, revealed in a clear way that this was not your career trajectory.

They invited me in to say that we don't want you anymore.

The reason I think this is an important story is that your writing in The Soul's Religion isn't just theory.


I mean, when you get to things like disintegration and suffering and …


It's part of the journey.

Oh, it is part of that.

But at the time it doesn't feel like it always.

No. And even now it doesn't feel great. Especially since they told me that there were only two problems they had with me—I couldn't teach and I couldn't write. They meant not writing academically. But I didn't understand the not teaching part because I really love teaching and I had a lot of students. I don't know really what was going on but I took it as a clear signal to move on.

Article continues below

The thesis of Care of the Soul had to do with moving our thinking from cure to care. And from heroic to foolish. What did you mean by that?

That's a good summary. From trying to fix things, to trying to be an improved version of yourself, I think all of that is narcissistic. It's focused on self. And religion moves beyond self. It's wonderful that religion can transcend all that self-centeredness and self-focus. And part of it is that you have to give up the illusion of knowing anything or that you're one day you're going to figure things out. And once you give that up you enter the realm of the fool.

Why do you think we have such a distinction drawn between religion and spirituality?

The institutions have become worried about their own existence and get caught up in the rules and the specifics and the nitpicking about their teachings, and they feel competitive. They want their membership to be strong. I think it's all taken too literally. And the depth of religious experience is not visible in the churches right now.

You start by saying the quest for spiritual depth really starts with emptiness—holy ignorance.

I learned this from the religious traditions, all of them. They all have an idea that we can't really know what we're talking about when we get in this realm of the spirit. Christianity has the notion of kenosis, which means to empty the self. Buddhism has sunyata, which means everything has to have an emptiness. What that means to me is that we can keep talking about what we imagine the meaning of life to be and what religion is all about, but we have to understand as we go that we can't know it all and that everything we say also is, in a way, not true as we speak. I don't think we have to be 100 percent uncertain, but I think we need some uncertainty just to keep us honest.

One of the things you deal with in the section of the book on mystery is belief is a word of love.

I always look at words. And I looked at this word, belief, and found that its root means endearment. That's how I feel about Catholicism. I love it. I don't agree with most of it in some ways. I agree with a lot of it, but not the way it's presented, not the way it's done. But I love it, because I was born with that. My belief is love. It's not intellectual. I don't get caught up in all those rules, and all those distinctions that they make philosophically.

Article continues below

In this book you talk about the danger of the secular: "As far as I know, we are the first people on the planet not to have a religious and spiritual perspective on all of experience." That's a radical statement. But it's true.

I think it is. We divide church from what goes on in politics or business or other parts of life. Even home to some extent. But other peoples that lived on this earth, they've gone to a doctor, who was a spiritual leader. Their king, or whatever it was, was a spiritual leader. You know, even business could be a spiritual thing.

But you have to be careful. It's not about applying spirituality, because it has to be fully integrated. For example, if you really saw that the work in business is for community, it's for people, there is a necessity for ethics. There's a necessity for a sense of community in business. And that allows it to be a meaningful experience. Otherwise it becomes the, you know, the pursuit of mere money and that makes people go crazy.

You argue that all of life is touched with the holy. As matter of fact, towards the end of the book you're talking about how the goal would be a secular holiness, a way of bringing life together.

I'm not advocating, in case there be any confusion, making all of life absorbed in some kind of religious ideology—that's nothing at all—but to enjoy secularity. To really live a secular life and enjoy it is part of being a religious person. I think we need to get to the point where our spirituality is so infused in our daily life that you can't separate the enjoyment of secular existence from a spiritual awareness. It's very different from focusing only on what you believe and becoming very pious about your belief. This has to do with facing life as it comes, every single aspect of life, and giving yourself to it completely. Bonhoeffer said the challenge is to find God in the thick of life, in the best place, and not just where we're falling apart.

How would you summarize the goal of secular holiness?

I think it would mean going about our work, for example, whatever our work is, and really getting into all the details of it, no matter what the business is, or how much money is involved. Like, for me, it means getting into the marketing of books. Not being above it, but really getting into it. But recognizing all the while that all of this is part of the religious life. I learned as a monk that my work, whatever my work is, is part of my prayer. You know, to pray is to work. I think if you just take that very seriously, then our secular life and our religious life are essentially the same.

Article continues below

Related Elsewhere:

Visit for audio and video of his radio program (4-7 p.m. PST), media reviews, and news on "where belief meets real life." The full text of this interview will be for sale on the website soon.

Earlier Dick Staub Interviews include:

Os Guinness | Whether we're seeking or have already been found, we're all on a journey. (July 2, 2002)
Oliver Sacks | The physician author of Awakenings talks about his Orthodox Jewish upbringing, order in the universe, and testing God. (June 25, 2002)
David Myers | People say they know money can't buy happiness, says the Hope College psychology professor. But they don't truly believe it. (June 18, 2002)
Richard Lewis | The comedian, actor, and author talks about his humor, addiction, and spiritual journey. (June 11, 2002)

The Dick Staub Interview
Dick Staub was host of a eponymous daily radio show on Seattle's KGNW and is the author of Too Christian, Too Pagan and The Culturally Savvy Christian. He currently runs The Kindlings, an effort to rekindle the creative, intellectual, and spiritual legacy of Christians in culture. His interviews appeared weekly on our site from 2002 to 2004.
Previous The Dick Staub Interview Columns: