"Let books be your dining table, / And you shall be full of delights. / Let them be your
And you shall sleep restful nights" (St. Ephraim the Syrian).

Monday, June 28, 2021

On the Relationship Between Theology and Psychology

I thought I would cross-post this from my other blog as the person in question, Rollo May, spent his life at the intersection of theology and psychology. At least one significant period of his time was spent in Greece where he encountered Eastern Orthodoxy, though his writings on it are sparse. Nonetheless, he was a major figure who interacted with major figures in existentialist theology and philosophy as well as psychology. 

It is always melancholy for me when I reach the end of an exceptionally good book, but my consolation is that if I leave it on my shelf long enough, I can come back to it again in a few years time and enjoy its riches anew. This I will do with a fascinating biography that was melancholy for me in a second way: it took me back to a time when there seemed to be a closer, richer relationship between psychology and theology (as well as existentialist philosophy) than obtains in most places today. 

That relationship was lived by Rollo May, whom I first encountered almost thirty years ago as an undergraduate in psychology with a strong interest in theology, especially in its mid-century existentialist manifestations which I had explored in the last year of high-school when a generous French teacher (who very much saw himself as a soixante-huitard and thus indulged his contempt for rules and routine) gave me the entire semester off from class provided I show up on the last day in June after having written him a final paper on existentialism. This I gladly did, and so availed myself of the opportunity to read a lot of Paul Tillich--in English--and then Sartre and Camus in French. 

The following year, as an undergraduate, I read at least one of May's books as I recall: Love and Will(I also read Will and Spirit: A Contemplative Psychology by his half-brother, the psychiatrist Gerald May.)

May is now the subject of Robert Abzug's brand new book, Psyche and Soul in America: The Spiritual Odyssey of Rollo May (Oxford University Press, 2021), 432pp. 

I finished this biography about a month ago on a lovely early summer evening on my patio. It is superbly written and a real treat to read. Abzug has an extremely deft touch in knowing how much detail to give about May's fascinating life and how much contextualization the reader needs without in either case overwhelming one with an excess of details. One would expect no less of so seasoned a scholar who is now professor emeritus of history at the University of Texas at Austin. 

Following standard practice, I e-mailed Dr Abzug some questions and was delighted when he agreed to my request for an interview about his new book, His thoughts are below. 

AD: Tell us about your background

RA: I grew up in a suburb of NY City, went to Harvard as an undergraduate and then to Berkeley for graduate school, both degrees in history. I was raised and remain a reform Jew by belief and tradition, though of course writing about May (and before that about 19th-century Protestant reformers) deepened my sense of the power of Christian faith and influence.

AD: What led you to writing Psyche and Soul in America: the Spiritual Odyssey of Rollo May?

RA: I tell the story of meeting Rollo in the Preface of the book, but the short answer is 1) After having taken Erik Erikson’s course on the life-cycle in college, I began to have an increasing curiosity about psychology and psychotherapy, one that had already been reflected in my first two books but only as a non-jargony use of what I would call a psychological aesthetic. 

Also, while in graduate school, had taken an external seminar in the latest psychoanalytic developments at the San Francisco Psychoanalytic Institute. And, of course, being in the Bay Area between 1967-1977, I was in a culture awash with therapeutic visions of the world. That said, it was only the accident of meeting Rollo that I became interested in writing about May and, for that matter, seeing some of the history of psychotherapy and religion through the lens of his life. Of course, the experience of knowing him and his world of friends and concerns for the last eight years of his life proved richer than I could  have imagined.

AD: I first read May in the 90s as an undergrad in psychology who also had an interest in theology, especially the existentialists like Paul Tillich. Tell us a bit about the long-term and hugely important relationship Tillich and May had

RA: The early 1930s were key in setting May’s future. First, while still in Europe as a missionary teacher, he encountered, and I would say “converted,” to psychoanalysis by taking a seminar in Vienna with Alfred Adler. That put a certain shape on his spiritual quest but didn’t end it, and when he returned to the U.S. he enrolled at Union Theological Seminary in New York. 

Tillich meanwhile had just escaped arrest by the Nazis by being invited to teach at Union, which he started to do in 1934. He and Rollo met early on in that year, and it began a relationship that was intellectual, spiritual, deeply personal, and lasted for the rest of Tillich’s life (he died in 1965). That relationship is certainly a central theme of Psyche and Soul in America. The mentorship of Tillich for May is clear, but it was something of a two way street. That is best indicated by the fact that Hannah Tillich asked May to deliver the eulogy at his first burial in East Hampton, NY, where the Tillichs had a summer home, and his reburial at the park named in his honor in New Harmony, Indiana.  

AD: May was also influenced by Freud, Adler, and Rank. But Adler seems to have been especially important. Tell us a bit about his relationship to and influence upon May. 

RA: Paul Tillich and Alfred Adler came into May’s life at a crucial period in his life, where his spiritual searching needed greater guidance and inspiration. Adler certainly had a life-changing influence on May, giving him a new way of envisioning the world and the possibility of a new profession. 

But Adler died in 1937, only four years after May met him and aside from a few friendly and important encounters in New York, the two didn’t really have the same sort of relationship as May did with Tillich. Nonetheless Adler’s ideas formed a compelling basis for his exploration of Freud, Jung, and Rank

But May told me that in the end he found other first generation analysts and later American neo-Freudians like Harry Stack Sullivan and Erich Fromm more powerful than Adler in their sense of complexity of the human condition and intellectual reach.

AD: You note (p.54) that May for "remained all his life wedded to obsessive self-scrutiny." That certainly comes through in your biography down to the last years of his life. What lay behind such an obsession?

I was about to say, “that’s a question for his analyst,” but let me give you two answers. First of all, I think his sense of spiritual devotion, which as it developed was truly a relationship with Tillich’s “God beyond God,” one which a therapist might call, insufficiently, OCD, made him investigate and judge his every action. This compulsion was historically not unusual among what Max Weber called “religious virtuosi,” and May was certainly of that breed. 

But I think more important was that he had the genius to build a theory of therapy based in many ways on his somewhat perhaps narcissistic but very productive contemplation of self. In short, these ongoing themes that provoked incessant self-questioning were in fact the well from which he drew much of his best work.

 AD: Part of May's project, you write (p.114), was "marrying the insights of psychoanalysis with the eternal quests of religion in a manner meaningful to the modern reader." Given how popular his books were, it seems he was successful in this endeavor in one way, but I'm wondering in another way about the kind of reception his books received in the professional psychoanalytic community. Did you come across reviews of and reactions to his works by psychoanalysts, and if so can you give us an idea of what they were?

RA: From almost the beginning, he saw as his mission in life the spiritual counseling of individuals, whether in the first instance through religion and later through psychotherapy, but perhaps most of all by educating an interested public through his writings. This was true when he first started publishing books that implicitly or explicitly saw a crucial interaction between the spiritual and the therapeutic (The Art of Counseling of 1939 and The Springs of Creative Living from 1940), the latter being a main selection of the Religious Book Club. It remained true even after he shed the theological trappings of Protestantism for a spiritualized existentialism.

Much of the answer to your question about his impact on therapists and reviews of his books is as much the ever-changing nature of psychology, psychiatry, and psychoanalysis as it does with the specific contents of one May book or another.  

AD: In early 1940 or 1941, you write (p.135), May began an analysis with Erich Fromm. I've been re-reading Fromm for the last two years and amazed at how well some of his insights stand up three quarters of a century after his English-speaking debut. Tell us a bit about the influence of Fromm on May that you see.

Another very interesting question.

I think there was some influence, though some of the most important ideas about the world and culture were transformed in May’s work from neo-Marxist thought to existential thinking, for instance living in a culture where not so much through the transformation of society but rather the resistance of self an authentic sense of the world might emerge. 

Nonetheless, there can be no question that Fromm influenced May, especially in those early years of analysis before the post-tuberculosis restart of the analysis. And certainly, by reading Fromm’s Escape from Freedom, he got a new and materialist view of an idea that he was already familiar with from reading the late Victorians and conversing with Tillich: the notion that both faith and community had been in decay for some time and that these trends had deleterious effects on the ability of individuals to “be” themselves. In that general sense, May joined with Fromm and others of the postwar era—David Riesman, William H. Whyte, John Kenneth Galbraith, and others—each in their own way critiquing the conformity, consumerist values, and general weakening of individual autonomy.

AD: I sometimes wonder if the existentialist movement in theology and psychology alike has been largely left behind, but then you trace out the burgeoning relationship between an older Rollo May and a then-young and upcoming Irvin Yalom, who is still with us after an astonishingly prolific career. Tell us a bit about that influence of May on Yalom.

RA: As Irvin Yalom has said many times, it was his reading of May’s Existence (a collection of essays from European therapists) introducing an existential framework to psychoanalysis and psychotherapy that inspired him to follow a psychiatric and analytic path. Later, when they got to know each other, I believe each helped the other in imagining the possibilities of existential psychology. However, there were differences. Yalom was a doctor, taught at a prestigious university medical school, pioneered group psychotherapy, was a self-declared atheist, and was a successful novelist. Rollo May was many things but none of those. In short, while they came together on existentialism, their careers and commitments were strikingly different.

AD: May's relationship to Christianity waxed and waned over the decades--from being a pastor and preacher early on to falling away it seems and then to returning to attending church later in life as an Episcopalian (p.331). Where, in the end, do you see May's life in relationship to Christianity?

RA: I think it is fair to say that past the early 1950s, at which point the formal church was no longer part of his life, he nonetheless lived a life imbued with the values he gained within the Protestant church culture and retained an abstract but real sense of what he called “infinitude.” His attendance at the Episcopal church in Tiburon in the 1980s had more  

AD: For those new to May and wondering where to begin, do you have, say, your top three favorites of his writings? What would you recommend beginning with for those who want to discover May today?

RA: My top three for getting to know May’s work would be Man’s Search for Himself (1953), Love and Will (1969), and The Courage to Create (1975), which is short, fits creativity into a vision of society, and as usual is clearly and compellingly written. And I would also suggest reading May’s introductory chapters in Existence (1958), an edited introduction to the possibilities of merging psychotherapy with existential thought. These are marvelous explanations of the power of existentialism. I might add that since the book’s publication, I have received any number of emails, some quite lengthy attesting to the influence May’s ideas had on their lives, and the three I recommended were ones that most often came up in our exchanges.

AD: Having finished this biography, what are you at work on now--new works in the pipeline?

I am still catching my breath but have thought about a short book based upon some lectures I have given recently about the practice of spiritual life in America, both in and out of formal denominations and traditional ritual practice. One element I wish to explore is the impact of religious and cultural pluralism on individual and group spiritual practice.

AD: Sum up your hopes for the book, and who especially should read it.

RA: Most of all, I hope to restore Rollo May’s place in the history of public intellectual life and, indeed, allowing readers to grasp the significance of his work to contemporary society and thought and inspire to engage with his ideas. As a biographer, I have also tried to write as “intimate” a biography as the sources allowed in order to provide readers with an account of May’s life that conjoins the public and private, as well as the unconscious and conscious—that is, brings an understanding that the origins of significant public lives lie in unique and often less than ideal sojourns. 

As for a readership, my hope is that psychologists open to a broader view of their profession as well as all who in one way or another were affected by May’s writings would profit from it. Yet, I also hope that those too young to know of Rollo May first-hand but who are in need of a broader and deeper sense of life somehow find the book and seek out May’s own attempts to offer roads to a richer life.

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