Hernandez Explores the Polarities and Tension in Nouwen

Henry Nouwen Polarities

Hernandez Explores the Polarities and Tension in Nouwen

Wil Hernandez. 2012. Henri Nouwen and Spiritual Polarities: A Life of Tension. Mahwah: Paulist Press.

Review by Stephen W. Hiemstra

When I was a scout, I loved working with map and compass. Out in the wilderness armed with map and compass, how do you find your location and plot progress towards your destination? Stories of survivors of plane crashes in remote places often have the theme that those who survived plotted a course out to the horizon while those that died walked around in circles following their own instincts. Because our spiritual journey often bears a resemblance to these survival stories, how do we  interpret the tensions and polarities that we encounter along the way? Wil Hernandez in his book, Henri Nouwen and Spiritual Polarities, takes up this challenge.[1]

Introduction

Hernandez describes himself as “a retreat leader, counselor, and spiritual director” who also teaches at various colleges and seminaries[2]. He finished his doctoral degree in practical theology at Fuller Theological Seminary (Pasadena, California) in with a special concentration in spirituality/spiritual formation.

Hernandez states his purpose as:

“This book is about the tension-filled journey of Henri Nouwen and centered around his inward, outward, and upward (or Godward) resolve to live out the dialectical tensions that characterize much of spiritual life.” (xxi)

Three key points arise in this statement.  First, the journey is Nouwen’s journey. Second, Hernandez sees Nouwen at work to resolve the tension in the journey. Three, the tension itself further divides into three dimensions—inward, outward, and upward—which Hernandez describes as a trilogy—psychological, ministerial, and theological (xxiv).  He sees Nouwen adopting a “both/and modality, moving closer to the center, and working towards integration” (116-117).

For Hernandez tension arises: “when we face various elements of irony, anomaly, absurdity, opposition, or contradiction in our experience” (2).  He asks how come:

“God is portrayed in Scripture as both transcendent and immanent, hidden and revealed, unknowable and knowable, unreachable and accessible, universal and local?” (1)

Opposition

While he acknowledges that this is the nature of the mystery of God, Hernandez is careful in his introduction to define three concepts of opposition:

Paradox“a paradox is characterized by a self-contradictory proposition that can appear absurd or nonsensical.” (2)

Antinomy: “As in paradox, the same element of contradiction is present, except that the appearance of contradiction does not reside in the clever phrasing of the language, but rather is constituted in the very nature of the proposition being articulated.” (3)

Polarity: “Polarity, at its simplest, refers to the presence of two opposites.  When two contrasting principles are placed side-by-side or invoked simultaneously, tension predictably rises.” (4)

Following Preston Busch, Hernandez distinguishes two types of spiritual polarities:  conversional and cooperative. In the first, natural movement is from one pole to the other, while, in the second, movement between poles is back and forth (4-5). While he sees Nouwen’s work in Reaching Out as an illustration of a conversional polarity (from loneliness to solitude, from hostility to hospitality, and from illusion to prayer), the emphasis in this book is on cooperative polarities—such as breathing in and breathing out (5). The reason being that Hernandez sees Nouwen having a proclivity towards integration (6), as mentioned previously.

Hernandez’s focus on this proclivity is highly ironic because, having focused on cooperative polarities, he organizes his chapters around the same trilogy—inward, outward, and upward—articulated in Reaching Out, which he describes as conversional.

Because Hernandez uses this trilogy—inward, outward, and upward—to organize the chapters in his book, let me focus on each in turn.

Inward

Nouwen (1975, 23) sees the inward journey as a movement from loneliness to solitude. Like Nouwen, Hernandez sees the Christian walk as a journey from the false self in ourselves to true self in Christ. Here Hernandez writes:

“Integral to the notion of loving ourselves is the capacity to accept and embrace the totality of who we are—good and bad, true and false. Lodged into our very depths is an ongoing interplay of light and darkness.” (16)

Hernandez interprets Nouwen as seeing the opportunity to re-channel negative energies into “more positive forces” (19).  This re-channeling of the negative is possible because “In God’s economy, nothing is ever wasted, but all is redeemable.” (20) He sees self-knowledge, especially knowledge of our own sin and brokenness, helping us reframe our fallen condition under the curse to become a blessing (24, 41).

Outward

Nouwen’s outward movement journeys from hostility to hospitality (Nouwen 1975, 63). Nouwen hospitality uniquely describes hospitality as offering “a hospitable place where life can be lived without fear and where community can be found” (Nouwen 1975, 65). Like Nouwen, Hernandez sees the inward and outward movements closely bound, perhaps even in tension, for example, when he cites Bonhoeffer:

“Let him [sic] who cannot be alone beware of community. He will only do harm to himself and to the community. But the reverse is also true:  Let him who is not in community beware of being alone and only in aloneness do we learn to live rightly in the fellowship.” (48)

Closer to earth, opposite to a ministry of presence is Hernandez outlines a ministry of intentional absence or, what Nouwen refers to as, “creative withdrawal”. He writes:

“The rational for such withdrawal is to pave the way for the Spirit of God to work freely in a person or situation without us potentially getting in the way.” (75)

Perhaps the way to think of it is as an outward counterpart of solitude.

Upward

Hernandez sees our tension with God caught between Christ’s suffering and his glory which we, in turn, mirror (83). He cites a verse dear to my heart:

“I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the sharing of his sufferings by becoming like him in his death (Phil 3:10)” (83)

Nouwen (1975, 111) starts in a slightly different place talking about a movement from illusion to prayer.[3] Nevertheless, I prefer Hernandez’s perspective because of the temporal component that he takes from John Dunn’s “already” and “not yet” (93)—while we suffer with Christ today, we also look forward to sharing in his future glory.

Wil Herandez’s book, Henri Nouwen and Spiritual Polarities, provides a helpful and accessible commentary on the breadth of Nouwen’s writing, with special emphasis on Nouwen’s treatment of polarities. Nouwen is an important influence on my own spirituality and writing, yet on first reading I have not understood very well what he actually said. Hernandez’s writing has helped me move beyond that point.  Seminary students and pastors reading Nouwen will want to take  a look at this book.

References

Nouwen, Henri J. M. 1975. Reaching Out: The Three Movements of the Spiritual Life. New York: DoubleDay.

Nouwen, Henri J.M.   2010.  Wounded Healer:  Ministry in Contemporary Society (Orig pub 1972). New York:  Image Doubleday.

[1] This book is the third in a trilogy focused on Henri Nouwen. The other two are: Henri Nouwen: A Spirituality of Imperfection (2006) and Henri Nouwen and Soul Care: A Ministry of Integration (2008). For a review the first, see: Hernandez:  A Spiritual Biography of Henri Nouwen, Part 1 (http://wp.me/p3Xeut-1ey), Part 2 (http://wp.me/p3Xeut-1eJ), and Part 3 (http://wp.me/p3Xeut-1eN).

[2] Back cover of his book. Also see:  http://www.NouwenLegacy.com/author.php.

[3] I might have expected Nouwen to offer a detailed theology of prayer with transcendence embedded in it.  Otherwise, I might be concerned that Nouwen’s view of prayer is another aspect of his inward journey, an example of psychology overwhelming theology.

 

Also see: Hernandez: A Spiritual Biography of Henri Nouwen, Part 1 

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Tension Within Ourselves

Life_in_Tension_web“For I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate.” (Rom 7:15 ESV)

By Stephen W. Hiemstra

We are the best fed generation of all time and most pampered people on the face of the earth. Yet, suicide has reached epidemic proportions among both our young people and senior citizens. Author Max Lucado (2012, 5) observed: “ordinary children today are more fearful than psychiatric patients were in the 1950s.”

Why? One answer is that we are isolated from ourselves. Henri Nouwen (2010, 89) writes: “We live in a society in which loneliness has become one of the most painful human wounds.”  We are strangers to ourselves and the person that God created us to be.

Psychiatrists talk about rumination. Psychiatric patients obsess about traumatic events in their past. Such obsessions can be about the slightest little thing, real or imaged. Rumination becomes a problem because of repetition—daily or even hourly obsession with this memory. Because psychiatric patients have trouble distinguishing reality and illusion, each repetition is remembered as a separate, very real event. A single occurrence of parental discipline at age 8 could be remembered as a daily or evenly constant beating by age 20 and evoke rage when remembered.

Magnified in this way, normal relationships become strained. Time and emotional energy focused on this rumination displaces and slows normal emotional development because the patient was busy ruminating and has not devoted that energy to other, more pressing life issues like being fully present at school and in relationships. The ruminator becomes isolated from those around them and from themselves.

The thing of it is, we all ruminate. We all daydream; we all isolate ourselves from other people; and we all do it substantially more than other generations. The ever-present earphone with music, the television always on, the constant texting, the game program played every waking hour, and the work we never set aside all function to keep dreary thoughts from entering our heads having the same effect as rumination [1]. We are distracted every waking hour from processing our thoughts and from dealing with our emotions. Much like addicts, we never reflect on our condition. We become anxious and annoyed when we must actually are forced to tune into our own lives—a kind of escalation [3].  Rumination, stress addiction, and other obsessions have become mainstream lifestyles that leave us fearful even to be alone [2].

Jesus understands. He said:

Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light. (Matt 11:28-30 ESV)

Sabbath rest, prayer, and forgiveness all work to break rumination by encouraging us to reflect on our past, present, and future in Christ and by refusing to let sin hold our relationships with God and our neighbors hostage.

In the Beatitudes, Jesus addresses disciples and says that we will be blessed in at least 3 ways:

Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.
Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth.
 (Matt 5:3-5 ESV)

Jesus reframes threats to our identity, self-worth, and personal dignity by offering promises that we will receive the kingdom of heaven, be comforted, and inherit the earth.  But we must accept the yoke of discipleship; these promises are not extended to spectators [4].

We are not alone—God is with us and we can be part of God’s community on earth—the church.  This community focus is obvious in the Beatitudes  because Jesus addresses his disciples in the plural [5].  Through our faith and our participation in the church, we can also be at peace with ourselves (John 14:27) even when we are alone.

 

[1] Technology connects yes, but it more often isolates us from one another.  A “Facebook friend”, for example, is denied a vote if you get tired of them and remove them as a friend.  Real friends give us immediate feedback and require explanations.

[2] Nouwen (1975, 25) sees loneliness as related more to addiction than to rumination.  Blackaby (2014, 47 ) talks about getting stuck in a particularly sad or particularly happy season of life.

[3] Escalation is another term from psychiatry which describes the tendency of psychiatric patients to amply rather than dissipate any tension in conversation.  Even polite disagreement with such patients will quickly evoke an increasingly hostile response from such patients.   Even in normal people, escalation is a flag for personal instability.

[4] The yoke (Matt 11:28-30) Jesus describes is a leather collar worn by a work animal, such as a horse, to allow them to bear the burden of the work.  Disciples bear the yoke of discipleship; spectators do not.  This implies that the blessings of Jesus are available exclusively to disciples.  This is what James, Jesus’ brother, means when he says:  “But be doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving yourselves.” (James 1:22 ESV)

[5] In verse 3, for example, the Greek reads: “Μακάριοι οἱ πτωχοὶ τῷ πνεύματι, ὅτι αὐτῶν ἐστιν ἡ βασιλεία τῶν οὐρανῶν.” (Matt 5:3 BNT)  Both πτωχοὶ (those poor) and and αὐτῶν (theirs–genitive plural).

REFERENCES

Blackaby, Richard . 2012. The Seasons of God:  How the Shifting Patterns of Your Life Reveal His Purposes for You. Colorado Springs:  Multnomah Books.

Lucado, Max. 2012. Fearless. Grand Rapids: Zondervan.

Nouwen, Henri J. M. 1975. Reaching Out: The Three Movements of the Spiritual Life. New York: DoubleDay.

Nouwen, Henri J.M. 2010. Wounded Healer: Ministry in Contemporary Society (Orig pub 1972). New York: Image Doubleday.

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The Gospel as Divine Template

Life_in_Tension_web“if you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.” (Rom 10:9 ESV)

By Stephen W. Hiemstra

Christianity began with the resurrection in a graveyard (Ps 16:10). Without the crucifixion, the resurrection could not have occurred. Without Jesus’ life and ministry, the crucifixion could not have occurred. The Jesus story—life, suffering, death, and resurrection—is repeated over and over again in the New Testament [1].  Christianity began with God working miraculously in this world through Jesus’ life, suffering, death, and resurrection.

The Apostle Paul writes about the importance of the story of Jesus saying:

that I may know him and the power of his resurrection, and may share his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, that by any means possible I may attain the resurrection from the dead.
(Phil 3:10-11 ESV)

In other words, Jesus lived, suffered, died, and was resurrected; therefore I should be willing to live, suffer, die, and so also be resurrected. The Gospel is accordingly lived out with the end in mind. Christian hope lies in the knowledge that we know the end of the story is in Christ.

Knowing the Gospel template (life, suffering, death, and resurrection), as Christians we pay careful attention to the words and life of Jesus [2]. We also know implicitly that our lives will be in tension with our own sinful nature, the world, and a Holy God. Every word in the New Testament should be read: because Jesus was resurrected, therefore…

The Gospel writers wrote with the resurrection in mind. Writing to a Jewish audience, for example, the Gospel of Matthew portrays Jesus as a new Moses. Early in Matthew we see Jesus giving the law of grace on a mountain (much like Mount Sinai) with the Beatitudes. Moses traveled through the desert with the people of Israel to reach the promised land; Jesus likewise travels with his disciples through Israel ultimately reaching Jerusalem—a representation of the promise land. When the Apostle John writes about heaven, [because Jesus rose from the dead] heaven is more than just a metaphor for Eden or a magical new Jerusalem (Rev 11:12).

Because the Gospel template requires that we live a life patterned after the life of Jesus, we are in tension with our own sinful nature, the world, and a Holy God. Our Trinitarian God assists with each aspect of this tension. The Holy Spirit works in us to break the power of sin, to keep us in communication with God, and to give us power for Christian living. Jesus Christ provides our example in coping with life in the world. God our father demonstrates love, grace, and power over all earthly powers.

Early readers would accordingly have read the Beatitudes as the new law of grace and in view of the resurrection. For example, [because Jesus rose from the dead] “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” (Matt 5:3 ESV) As we reflect on the tension we feel in our distracted lives as Christians, the Beatitudes are especially important because in them Jesus responds to the tension in all three dimensions of our spiritual life: our tension with our own sinful nature (poor in spirit, mourning, and meekness),  the world (peacemakers, reviled, and persecuted), and a Holy God (righteous, merciful, and pure).   As Nouwen (1975, 15) observes:  in our inner life, we can move from loneliness to solitude; in our communal life, we can move from hostility to hospitality; and in our life with Christ, we can move from illusion to prayer.

Because Jesus rose from the dead, we can live into the law of grace in our lives knowing that the end of the story is in Christ. We do not expect perfection in our walk, but we know the Holy Spirit will guide us along the way;  we do not expect perfect community, but  we have the example of Christ in seeking reconciliation; we do not expect every day to be a mountain top experience, but we know that God loves us. Our faith walk starts with God, not us.

 

[1] After the Gospels themselves, consider, for example, the sermons by both Peter (Acts 2:14–41; 10:34–43) and Paul (Acts 13:16–41) which focus on Jesus’ life story.

[2] Smith (2006, 29-30) sees the church as a place where the Gospel is not intellectualized by rather lived out (incarnate).  It is a place where the story of Jesus is told and retold.  He writes:  “The church is the site where God renews and transforms us–a place where the practices of being the body of Christ form us into the image of the Son.” (30).  These practices include the sacraments, Christian marriage and child-rearing, radical friendship, and learning patience.

REFERENCE

Nouwen, Henri J. M. 1975. Reaching Out: The Three Movements of the Spiritual Life. New York: DoubleDay.

Smith, James K. A. 2006.  Who’s Afraid of Postmodernizm:  Taking Derrida, Lyotard, and Foucault to Church.  Grand Rapids:  Baker Academic.

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Bothersome Gaps: Life in Tension

Cover, Life in Tension

“Be holy because I am holy” (Lev 11:44) says the Lord God.

Bothersome Gaps: Life in Tension

By Stephen W. Hiemstra

To become a Christian, we must invite the Holy Spirit into our lives. The spirit of holiness becomes part of us and we begin the journey of faith.  To be holy means to be set apart; to be sacred.  We take on a new identity in Christ.  The invitation to be holy is an invitation to approach God and bear His image more clearly.  The Apostle Paul calls this process sanctification (Rom 6:19).  As Christ’s church–the called out ones–our sanctification process is a group activity [1] and it sets us in tension with the world.

Introduction

If we lived alone on a mountain top, then our process of sanctification would pose no problem other than obedience. But our mountain top experiences are necessarily short. We depend on other people and they also depend on us. Success in sanctification creates a gap between ourselves and other people because biblical and cultural values differ [2].  It also assumes a gap between us and God characterized by sin, inattention, and other shortcomings.

A pastor recently asked:  would you drink from a dirty cup? (2 Tim 2:20) Of course not.  If you were given a dirty cup, you would refuse the cup and ask for another [3]. In the same way, the call of God to be holy naturally sets us apart from those around us as God’s Holy Spirit acts in our lives.  The gap that emerges between us and those around us in our actions (not just our words) which identifies us as Christians.  This gap also sets us in tension with the world. Image bearers naturally bear the image of their creator—it cannot be otherwise.

The Gaps

In this simple analysis, we actually experience three related gaps.  The first gap is the gap between who we were and the person that God created us to be.  The Apostle Paul writes:  “For I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate.” (Rom 7:15 ESV) The second gap is between us and those around us.  Sin separates us even from those closest to us [4]. The third gap is between us and God.  The Prophet Isaiah writes:

“Woe is me! For I am lost, for I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips, for my eyes have seen the King, the LORD of hosts!” (Isa 6:5 ESV)

These gaps are related because we are born in sin and only imperfectly reflect God’s image.  Progress in reducing one gap, therefore, leads to progress in reducing the other two (Nouwen 1975, 15).

Tension

As a practical matter, gaps created by the work of God’s Holy Spirit in our lives cause tension.  The gap between who we are and who we were created to be causes us shame and grief.  The one between us and others can lead to ridicule, isolation, and persecution.   The one between us and God—our sin— deprives us of spiritual power and leaves us alone.   Writing from a prison cell in Rome, the Apostle Paul reminds us: “our citizenship is in heaven” (Phi 3:20 ESV).  Here on earth, we are refugees, undocumented workers earning subsistence wages.

Can you feel the tension created by these gaps?  Are you okay with it or do you try to run away?

Jesus talks about the gap, addresses the tension, and points to the source.  He says:

“You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hidden. Nor do people light a lamp and put it under a basket, but on a stand, and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven.” (Matt 5:14-16 ESV)

If we expect tension both individually and collectively, what does it look like and how do we deal with it?

Footnotes

[1] The word for church in Greek is ekklesia (ἐκκλησίᾳ) which literally means ones called out (1 Cor 1:2).

[2] Niebuhr (2001, 39) writes:  “In his single-minded direction toward God, Christ leads men [and women] away from the temporality and pluralism of culture.”

[3] Pastor Anthony K. Bones of African Gospel Church of Nairobi, Kenya (http://AGCKenya.org) speaking at Trinity Presbyterian Church, Herndon, Virginia on January 14, 2015.

[4] “The LORD said to Cain, ‘Why are you angry, and why has your face fallen? If you do well, will you not be accepted? And if you do not do well, sin is crouching at the door. Its desire is for you, but you must rule over it.’ Cain spoke to Abel his brother. And when they were in the field, Cain rose up against his brother Abel and killed him.” (Gen 4:6-8 ESV)

References

Nouwen, Henri J. M. 1975. Reaching Out: The Three Movements of the Spiritual Life. New York: DoubleDay.

Richard Niebuhr. 2001. Christ and Culture (Orig. pub. 1951). New York: HarperSanFrancisco.

Also see:

Christian Memoir: Looking Back 

Other ways to engage online:

Author site: http://www.StephenWHiemstra.net, Publisher site: http://www.T2Pneuma.com.

Newsletter at: http://bit.ly/2vfisNa

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