A Question about Henri Nouwen

Do you suppose that no one ever argues with Henri Nouwen’s writings because he never really says anything?

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  • Seaton

    Is that what you really think?

  • Rob

    Sorry Tony, usually love what you have to say, but not this time. Henri says alot, but it’s soul care and doesn’t play well with eg0-driven evangelicalism.

    • http://tonyj.net Tony Jones

      Fair enough, Rob. I know I’m questioning a virtual saint here, but it just occurred to me. Nouwen seems like he was a beautiful man, but I’d like there to be something to sink my teeth into…

    • Beth Walters

      Rob, I would second you… but am not going to argue the point if Tony just doesn’t find Nouwen to be as meaty as I have.

  • Jo Ann W. Goodson

    At least for me Henri Nouwen is my all time favorite author and he speaks to the very core of my being. I do not believe in all of the “catholic” theology and neither did he. My belief in the meaning behind “catholic” sacraments and rituals, etc. are not the same as Henri Nouwen but what he writes about God, Jesus and the work of The Holy spirit in our lives we are very similar. What I believe in the most is what he writes about how God’s working in our lives and how all that has been written in the bible is lived out in our lives. God is our companion, guide, helper, etc. There is a devotional book “BREAD FOR THE JOURNEY” I have used everyday for many years, it is designed to use for a life time, as it brings me so much joy. I give it as a gift to many of my Wake Forest Divinity School friends when they graduate. There are so many people who “believe” that never make setting aside time for and space for God to touch their hearts and give them courage, strength and the “holy” energy to live each day and that really makes me so sad, I’m not speaking of setting aside that same time everyday and being legalistic about it. I believe and support what is now “emerging” but “knowing” that God is ever present and waiting for us to converse with God’s self through devotional, set aside time, as well as “praying without ceasing” is some how neglected in all the conversations. I’m so very thankful that “conversations” are taking place, I learn so much that way and can share myself that way. However, talking is not what it is all about. Our relationship with God and others is what it is mostly about and Henri Nouwen was the greatest at this. His love for God and others never ended even in his death because of his wonderful writings as well as his actions and giving of himself.

  • http://jasonsmith.wordpress.com jason smith

    Maybe you and Ken Silva have more in common than you thought?

  • http://twitter.com/jakebouma Jake

    “For the record, paragraphs full of rhetorical questions are among my most despised form of prose, and are rampant in Christian non-fiction writing.” — Tony Jones, earlier today

    (Not trying to be a dick, rather, pointing out something that made me chuckle)

    • http://charlieschurchofchrist.wordpress.com Charlie’s Church of Christ

      zinger! and for the record Tony would hate my blog, and I try to avoid the rhetorical question, but sometimes (okay often) they just work.

  • Steve Valenzuela

    I find your question provocative. Much like your critque of C.S.Lewis, I wondered if you are merely trying to provoke a response by questioning some of our sacred cows in both evangelical and roman traditions. For me Henri was the first one to tell me I could be in ministry even with some of the issues, problemes and Roman 6-ish failures I faced in my like. He was also the first to give me language of faith that I could understand especially as a young adult embarking on a more serious spiritual journey. I think his “sayings” are just that, not rigorous academic spiritual theology but reflections on a consciously lived experience of God in life as both a disciple and ordained minister (priest). While some have noted he seemed to never have an unpublished thought, his proliferation seems balanced with a kind of child-like vision spirituality that was accessable to we moderns and post-moderns.

  • Dan Hauge

    Guess it’s in the eye of the beholder. In terms of examining ourselves, and how our actions and work in the world are intimately connected with our emotional issues, and how those issues are intimately connected with how we relate to God, I think he offers a great deal to sink our teeth into. Sorry you don’t find him helpful.

  • http://mrhackman.blogspot.com Andrew

    I suppose it just indicates what speaks (or doesn’t speak) to you. I know a lot of folks have a similar reaction when I recommend Richard Rohr.

    I remember an insight he had of when he went to work with the physically and mentally disabled. No one there was interested or impressed that he was a professor, author, or speaker. No one stood in awe of his resume. His many talents were of no value. He felt it was then that God started to really use him.

  • bob c

    wow – what a snarky prompt. it is truly brief, subtle, yet quite stabbing.

    That said, I must say that I always admired Nouwen’s writing for the way they sidestepped the academic propensity to narcism and the practitioners’ propensity to practicality.

    Nouwen’s The Wounded Healer: Ministry in Contemporary Society is a breath-taking meditation on the wounded-ness from which real ministry is re-imagined. While struggling with my own experience as a son and a father, I drew wisdom and comfort from The Return of the Prodigal Son: A Meditation on Fathers, Brothers, and Sons. I would strong recommend both Out of Solitude: Three Meditations on the Christian Life and Life of the Beloved: Spiritual Living in a Secular World to anyone seeking to better understand what it means to follow God in a Jesus way.

    For me personally, Nouwen’s ongoing writing on his struggle reconciling his depression with his Christian faith has proven to be transformative. His diaries Inner Voice of Love are powerful in their honesty and in their insights.

    • http://tonyj.net Tony Jones

      Bob, et al,

      I’m not saying it’s not edifying. I’m not asking a rhetorical question or fishing for traffic, either. I’m honestly wondering if he wrote anything that is worth debating. I already know that what he wrote is worth living.

      • Tom

        Obviously he did write something worth debating, because debating is happening here. For the record, we just read Nouwan at our staff meeting this morning and it prompted some great edification and discussion for us to sink our teeth into.

      • bob c

        honestly – you think he he never really says anything ?

      • Dan Hauge

        Tony–well, why didn’t ya just say so up front? Whether it’s worth intellectual debate is an interesting question, but that’s pretty different than saying he ‘doesn’t say anything’.

  • bob c

    Also, in terms of “never arguing” you may not be aware of the strong reaction from the traditional church to Nouwen’s (semi-public) struggles with same-sex attraction. He was also very vocal in opposing the Vietnam war, which spurred a lifetime advocacy of peace – something the establishment institutions tend to really grapple against.

  • hubcityrob

    I wanted to, but couldn’t let this one go without comment.

    There is a bit of irony in your post for me. I loved Soul Shaper since it compiled some great information about disciplines, but also never recommend it to anyone because I felt like nothing new was said – it was simply a compilation of thinking one could find in other authors who provided more information to sink one’s teeth into.

    That having been said, I am more concerned that there seems to be an inference here that only in having someone argue against you will you actually be providing “meat” to be chewed on. Perhaps one of Nouwen’s greatest strengths was saying things that needed to be said, but also saying things to the point enough there was no great need to argue against him. Perhaps he was not prophetic – prophets seem to always lose! – but as a pastor, I think many of the things he said were spot on. (Others have already pointed out, rightly so, that not everything he wrote about was received with open arms.)

    I hope that we have not reached a stage in our living out theology where the only good theology is one that causes waves or strong reactions or dismissals. We seem to have enough people doing that already – we could use some more people to speak some peace into the stirrings of troubled waters.

    Sorry Nouwen did/does not stretch you. That is neither the fault, I think, of Nouwen or you. I – and others – do not feel the same way.

    • Vicki

      Well said. Thanks.

  • http://www.donbryant.wordpress.com don bryant

    I love the “irreverence” on this one. I teach college and the administration wants me to use one of his books. The blank stares of students after they read it and try to write a paper on it are predictable. No real assertions. Lots of whatevers. The spiritual formation crowd needs to take some clues from this. I think Ben Witherington’s critique of the spiritual formation movement bears rereading. I write as a fan of it, but there are some serious downsides.

    • http://tonyj.net Tony Jones

      Thanks, Don. That’s what I’m trying to get at. I had a seminary professor of spiritual formation tell me the very same thing, which is what got me wondering about this. Then, I started grading papers from DMin students who’d been reading his books, and it became an even more pressing concern. Maybe the takeaway for me is that his books aren’t appropriate for a grad school syllabus.

      • Dan Hauge

        I can see that. Maybe the academic context just isn’t the best one in which to teach spiritual formation–which doesn’t mean that spiritual formation isn’t worthwhile to teach, it just doesn’t fit well into the paradigm of sustained intellectual argument and discussion, which is what the classroom is for.

  • Gary Manders

    Usually have a lot of time for what you have to say, but not today. I don’t think you can argue you are not fishing for a response, as this is a public blog site whose purpose is to promote itself. You were looking to provoke with your question. May I suggest you make a more academic evaluation of Nouwen’s legacy rather than a barbed comment.

  • JoeyS

    Couldn’t the same be asked about anybody who’s work is rooted in humility?

    His notions are counter cultural, like the idea that the Christian leader is s/he who makes her/himself irrelevant, and may be too far fetched for most people to submit to but they are hardly worth arguing.

  • Mike Mc

    I would agree that Nouwen’s books don’t lead to deep theological discussions or meat as you say but I find him profoundly meaningful. He has put into words what is often difficult to express with language…that is the inward spiritual journey of our pilgrimage.

  • Gail

    “I”m not saying it’s not edifying,” you write.
    But originally you didn’t say “he never really says anything I want to debate.” You said, “he never really says anything.” Big difference. I find debates usually to be a waste of time; others are energized by them. I haven’t ever met anyone who “never really says anything.”

    • JoeyS

      It seems that with further nuance he means that they are not appropriate texts for academic practices. I get that. I love Nouwen’s writing, but there isn’t much to think critically about. Just beautiful challenges. Still good for the class room but more for spiritual development than academic development.

  • http://thepracticeofbeauty.blogspot.com/ david bunker

    Because so much of Henri is rooted in the mundane dailiness of community & service, it often seems “under” sensationalized. In other words, “That’s it? That is what we should do just love people?” What is remarkably profound & I find this in many communal mystics, is that their daily regimen is a submission to a life of extreme obedience that I, in my suburban egoism, would not even consider. Bathing an emotionally challenged young man daily is not my idea of the outworking of spiritual disciplines. But in reality it is. Also, Nouwen is a melancholy.

  • Geraldine

    I think Nouwen is a great writer when it comes to heart-stuff and he has an amazing story to tell about his own life and his struggle. I guess he might not be as provocative as some scholars, but especially in his later years Nouwen didn’t want to write as a scholar, he wrote as someone who is trying to follow Jesus and as someone who admits that he struggles. Sharing and owning our story is amongst the most courages things we can do, cause it makes us vulnerable. Therefore I think Nouwen was a living example of what it means to live a vulnerable life.

  • Gary Manders

    A few thoughts worth considering.

    Nouwen taught at both Harvard and Yale bringing academia and spiritual development together. Remember the audience he was writing for. He is not a systematic theologian. I would argue he has a lot to say about practical theology. His work needs to be taken as a whole and seen within the context of his life and minstry. An engagement with his life gives pause for thought. Maybe a more considered approach to his work and legacy is called for, see below.


  • http://www.thewanderingroad.wordpress.com Alan Stucky

    Henri Nouwen is in the category of great inventions to me. Namely, that a great invention is often something that is incredibly simple and elegant and I find myself thinking, “well that’s so obvious, I should have thought of that”. I have a similar reaction to Nouwen. I often find myself thinking, “well that’s obvious, I should have understood that about myself.”

    The genius lies in the response to both of those statements, which is, “yes, you should have, but you didn’t, and they did.”

  • http://www.clausen-consulting.com Lorinda Clausen

    You’re the South Park of Christianity. Love it! Jungian typology answers your question. Henri Nouwen writes from an Intuitive Feeling perspective which speaks to those who resonate with subjective, transcendent reality. It’s quite difficult to sink one’s teeth into subjectivity, thus frustrating to those who prefer objectivity (the academy for one). I’m going to break a cardinal rule of my profession and type you, Tony. I experience your writings as coming from an Intuitive Thinking perspective which rings with objective, but still transcendent, posits. It makes perfect sense for me that Saint Henri’s writings can seem vacuous to you. As an Intuitive Feeler myself, one of the reasons I read your writings (Intuitive Thinking) is to bring wholeness to my being. You challenge me to use logic, research, and reasonable criteria when evaluating an issue. I appreciate that. I read Henri Nouwen to be spoken to in my own language, to experience transcendence, and to feel at home.

  • http://www.clausen-consulting.com Lorinda Clausen

    1) Subjective truth, by its very nature, is impossible to debate.
    2) Nouwen should be included in a seminary syllabus not to be studied classically, but to bring greater wholeness to the otherwise objective nature of academia. The catch is finding a methodology for interacting with his text that fits subjectivity. Think Shakespeare’s Sonnets.

    • Jordan

      I’m not sure if “subjective truth” is impossible to debate. Though, I’m also not sure if there should be a distinction between subjective and objective truth. But, I still think that subjective experience (which, maybe, is to just say experience) can be debated and talked about. Something like an intersubjectivity. And/or a sensus communis. Where, as a community, judging is possible, despite the apparent ownness of an experience (for Kant, this is at least aesthetic judgements, Hannah Arendt seems to expand it to the political and such). If we can put it into words and write it down, then we can talk about it, make judgements of it, come to conclusions about it, and so on. But then, there maybe should be something to say about it…I don’t know

  • http://twitter.com/diecast David

    Certainly the same could be said of the writings of any mystic. I don’t think the academy was created to be compatible with that mode of contemplation.


  • http://collationes.wordpress.com/ Joshua Brockway

    You are probably right in that Nouwen does not have a body of work that enters well into the Socratic mode of argument. I imagine that much of Nouwen’s work was penned with the intention of avoiding such egoism and intellectual masturbation. The man left significant tenure positions at Ivy League institutions. Seems like he was onto a different project.

    Regarding your observation that there is “no meat” in Nouwen’s work, I think you reveal your hand here. Obviously you are not saying there is no value to Nouwen’s corpus, but rather meat signifies a form of academic debate. I think that Nouwen pushes us intellectuals into a process of looking at our selves- in other words the meat isn’t the text, but the self. We circle back again to the academic, Socratic form of argument which assumes an objectivity that divorces the character of the person arguing from the debate itself. Nouwen’s keen intuition, and even formation in that very system, reveals the shallowness of our own intellectual formation.