Templeton ran his fingers through his hair. He had been talking in adamant tones, and I could tell he was beginning to tire. I wanted to be sensitive to his condition, but I had a few other questions I wanted to pursue. With his permission, I continued.
"As we're talking, Billy Graham is in the midst of a series of rallies in Indiana," I told Templeton. "What would you say to the people who've stepped forward to put their faith in Christ?"
Templeton's eyes got wide. "Why, I wouldn't interfere in their lives at all," he replied. "If a person has faith and it makes them a better individual, then I'm all for that-even if I think they're nuts. Having been a Christian, I know how important it is to people's lives-how it alters their decisions, how it helps them deal with difficult problems. For most people, it's a boon beyond description. But is it because there is a God? No, it's not."
Templeton's voice carried no condescension, and yet the implications of what he was saying were thoroughly patronizing. Is that what faith is all about-fooling yourself into becoming a better person? Convincing yourself there's a God so that you'll become motivated to ratchet up your morality a notch or two? Embracing a fairy tale so you'll sleep better at night? No, thank you, I thought to myself. If that's faith, I wasn't interested.
"What about Billy Graham himself?" I asked. "You said in your book that you feel sorry for him."
"Oh, no, no," he insisted, contrary to his writings. "Who am I to feel sorry for what another man believes? I may regret it on his behalf, if I may put it that way, because he has closed his mind to reality. But would I wish him ill? Not for anything at all!"
Templeton glanced over to an adjacent glass coffee table where Billy Graham's autobiography was sitting.
"Billy is pure gold," he remarked fondly. "There's no feigning or fakery in him. He's a firstrate human being. Billy is profoundly Christian-he's the genuine goods, as they say. He sincerely believes-unquestionably. He is as wholesome and faithful as anyone can be."
And what about Jesus? I wanted to know what Templeton thought of the cornerstone of Christianity. "Do you believe Jesus ever lived?" I asked.
"No question," came the quick reply.
"Did he think he was God?" He shook his head. "That would have been the last thought that would have entered his mind."
"And his teaching-did you admire what he taught?" "Well, he wasn't a very good preacher. What he said was too simple. He hadn't thought about it. He hadn't agonized over the biggest question there is to ask."
"Is there a God? How could anyone believe in a God who does, or allows, what goes on in the world?"
"And so how do you assess this Jesus?" It seemed like the next logical question-but I wasn't ready for the response it would evoke.
Templeton's body language softened. It was as if he suddenly felt relaxed and comfortable in talking about an old and dear friend. His voice, which at times had displayed such a sharp and insistent edge, now took on a melancholy and reflective tone. His guard seemingly down, he spoke in an unhurried pace, almost nostalgically, carefully choosing his words as he talked about Jesus.
"He was," Templeton began, "the greatest human being who has ever lived. He was a moral genius. His ethical sense was unique. He was the intrinsically wisest person that I've ever encountered in my life or in my readings. His commitment was total and led to his own death, much to the detriment of the world. What could one say about him except that this was a form of greatness?"
I was taken aback. "You sound like you really care about him," I said.
"Well, yes, he's the most important thing in my life," came his reply. "I ... I ... I," he stuttered, searching for the right word, "I know it may sound strange, but I have to say ... I adore him!" I wasn't sure how to respond. "You say that with some emotion," I said. "Well, yes. Everything good I know, everything decent I know, everything pure I know, I learned from Jesus. Yes ... yes. And tough! Just look at Jesus. He castigated people. He was angry. People don't think of him that way, but they don't read the Bible. He had a righteous anger. He cared for the oppressed and exploited. There's no question that he had the highest moral standard, the least duplicity, the greatest compassion, of any human being in history. There have been many other wonderful people, but Jesus is Jesus."
"And so the world would do well to emulate him?" "Oh, my goodness, yes! I have tried-and try is as far as I can go-to act as I have believed he would act. That doesn't mean I could read his mind, because one of the most fascinating things about him was that he often did the opposite thing you'd expect-"
Abruptly, Templeton cut short his thoughts. There was a brief pause, almost as if he was uncertain whether he should continue.
"Uh ... but ... no," he said slowly, "he's the most . . ." He stopped, then started again. "In my view," he declared, "he is the most important human being who has ever existed."
That's when Templeton uttered the words I never expected to hear from him. "And if I may put it this way," he said as his voice began to crack, "I... miss... him!"
With that, tears flooded his eyes. He turned his head and looked downward, raising his left hand to shield his face from me. His shoulders bobbed as he wept.
What was going on? Was this an unguarded glimpse into his soul? I felt drawn to him and wanted to comfort him; at the same time, the journalist in me wanted to dig to the core of what was prompting this reaction. Missed him why? Missed him how?
In a gentle voice, I asked, "In what way?"
Templeton fought to compose himself. I could tell it wasn't like him to lose control in front of a stranger. He sighed deeply and wiped away a tear. After a few more awkward moments, he waved his hand dismissively. Finally, quietly but adamantly, he insisted: "Enough of that."
He leaned forward to pick up his coffee. He took a sip, holding the cup tightly in both hands as if drawing warmth from it. It was obvious that he wanted to pre tend this unvarnished look into his soul had never happened.
But I couldn't let it go. Nor could I gloss over Templeton's pointed but heartfelt objections about God. Clearly, they demanded a response.
For him, as well as for me.
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