The Chicken and the Egg: Henri Nouwen and the Coinherence of Christian Spirituality and Theology
Henri Nouwen’s spirituality was all of a piece. Although not necessarily all at the same time, he lived as the fullest picture, an amalgam as it were, of everything he believed to be true about life, love and God. His Catholic sensibilities offered him the mystical and relational foundation he needed upon which to build a life of inspiring integration. Nouwen loved movement. Journey. We find it everywhere in his writing. From loneliness to solitude; from hostility to hospitality; from illusion to prayer[i]; from opaqueness to transparency; from sorrow to joy; from resentment to gratitude; from fear to love, from exclusion to inclusion and from denying to befriending death,[ii] all which point to a profound understanding of the dynamic character of the spiritual life as lived out with God and among others leading toward self-understanding.
In the Great Commandment, Jesus gave to those who asked him a comprehensive curriculum for the invitation and expectation of the Triune God. It presents in kernel form the foundation and direction – the point – of the Gospel. It can be summed up in a single word: love. I am intrigued by the fact that Jesus did not say to believe in the Lord God absolutely with unassailable doctrine because out of it will come the safety of heaven. Nor did he say that, once our doctrine is without spot or wrinkle, will we then find the love to which Jesus herein alludes.
What Jesus does in fact tell them/us is that the sum total of the Gospel is a thoroughly inner disposition toward God and by extension, others. Moreover, since God’s definition of love is exceedingly more practical than ours, this idea takes root in the day-to-day realities with which we are faced. And, as love becomes an increasing reality in our lives, not only do we become more fully aware of God’s love for us but, reciprocally, others become the beneficiaries of this love. This is the integration I seek. It is the integration that Nouwen sought and, better than most, found.
As I would love to use the words “Rob” and “theologian” in the same sentence I must honestly affirm that I am an armchair academic at best. I know just enough theology to be interesting at parties, impress strangers and frustrate true theologians. I have, however, been an avid reader of theology among other areas of interest and believe I have sufficient epistemological architecture upon which to put the meat of life and my heart’s true passion: Christian spirituality. It is one of many ways I relate to Henri (as he would insist we call him). He believed that God was much more interested in the many ways theology serves spirituality, not the other way around. I suppose in a sense I am drawn primarily to what Henri Nouwen did intuitively – live an integrated life where all facets function in one kaleidoscopic whole.
For Henri, as for me nowadays, if it doesn’t start, continue and end in the vast expanse of contemplative prayer I am generally interested but not particularly invested. It was Nouwen’s answer for everything. His theology was apparent in both his teaching, his priestly duties and, with most clarity, through his spiritual disciplines. This, I think, is why I find him utterly refreshing and a good companion for my own journey.
I have already indicated that a reasonable summation of Christian theology could well be the ethic of love; love exhibited most beautifully and effectively through the presence, teaching and sacrifice of Jesus Christ. Much of contemporary evangelical theology leaves one with the impression that the incarnation and teaching of Jesus is of little account as long as one intellectually accepts the substitutionary-penal atonement (with ne’er a hint that, historically, other theories abound) made real through the crucifixion and heaven made available, personally, through the resurrection. Nouwen would find this insufficient at best, individualistic and self-serving at worst.
Nouwen’s Catholic theology permitted him to view the Incarnation as a central focus for his spiritual journey. The very fact of God-with-us told him everything he needed to know about the God he loved and served. Everything else was icing. It also gave much more room to see prayer as more than just ancillary to the Christian experience. It is the primary conduit through which we learn life-with-God in the now. For Nouwen, prayer was a daily, vital experience best found in silence. He advocated in almost all of his writing the further experience of prayer as silence in the context of solitude.
The Scriptures give us ample encouragement to do the same. Jesus’ wilderness temptations (a favorite passage of Nouwen, see Matthew 4:1-11; Luke 4:1-13), the choosing of the apostles (see Luke 6:12-16) and Gethsemane (see Matthew 26:36-46; Mark 14:32-42; Luke 22:39-46) provide Jesus’ own practice of peace and resolve through prayerful solitude. Although it is true that the reasons for our own foray into the spiritual desert, unlike Jesus, involves our battle with the ravages of sin, Nouwen is a tireless advocate for the place of silence and aloneness in which we are found and loved by this Jesus. Contemplative prayer can only happen between lovers; like the married couple, together for decades, each in their own chair beside the fire. Neither speak a word. There’s no need. They’ve said it all in the silence.
Throughout the entire two and a half years of our program a number of key words have lodged themselves rather obtrusively in my consciousness: integration, transformation and grace. That is, if I could distill from the Christian journey a singular notion it would be this: spiritual transformation takes place in my life to the degree that the grace of God is woven into my entire being to the end that my personhood becomes visibly and existentially integrated.
With adequate observation and honesty, one can see just how much we have prostituted theology to rationality, reducing it to points of doctrine best kept on paper but divorced from our actual experience, much like studying quantum physics or cellular biology. When theology never makes its way out of the intellect and into one’s experience, it remains an abstraction and about as useful as reciting the phonebook. It is fascinating but ultimately worthless.
For Nouwen, theology should have the quality of prayer. In fact, theology should always lead to prayer. All theology starts with “fear” or “our trembling response of unknowing to the unknown God.”[iii] Just as Mary in the annunciation…”what was experienced as a moment of interruption proves to be a moment of revelation. The theologian responding in faith to the situation of the moment discovers God’s active presence in the midst of the pain and, trusting in that presence, dares to raise a question.”[iv] It is a primarily relational, not intellectual matter. Knowing God and loving God are one and the same. It is relational in terms of community and not to be understood as an ivory tower pursuit where individualistic intimations are done with cool detachment much like the study of genomes, tectonic plates or planetary motion.
Nouwen insisted that theology is best done in a spirit of obedience and awe. The irony of this is that, to some degree, we are all sinners on a theological journey in and toward salvation. From start to finish it is a work of grace – unearned and uninitiated. In the words of Augustine, “I believe that I might understand.” Faith, in terms of how we live our lives and with Whom must ever precede the intellectual tenets by which we define such faith. Christian theology rightly understand is that it is ultimately only a scaffolding for the cathedral of our soul under construction. It is the skeleton upon which the meat of our spiritual existence adheres and grows. This was ever Henri’s way. I would that it were mine, too.
I’m a musician. Musicians learn scales like Christians should learn theology – to forget them. The point is the music. Theology lies hidden, like the trout swimming just below the surface of the water, which is the peaceful beauty we see. They not only live in concert together but also are utterly dependent upon one another. The water needs the fish to add a practical context to the beauty it possesses. It will yield something wonderful to those who seek. The fish requires the water for life and survival. Without it, it lives but a moment and then perishes.
This, to me, is Henri Nouwen’s greatest gift to the faith community. Equal parts theologian, priest, prophet, psychologist, educator, communicator, author and friend, he spun out these numerous roles in richly diverse but integrated ways. I have never read a single word of Nouwen’s vast output that didn’t lead me into much deeper, more real, more genuine places in my spiritual journey. Long after others’ works have faded into distant memory and are collecting dust among my innumerable other “important” books, Henri’s will still be on my nightstand, my desk or even the car.
A favorite phrase parents everywhere direct at their self-seeking children, ourselves included, is “you can’t have your cake and eat it, too.” Similarly, whenever budding philosophers submit mutual queries for mental acrobatics a favorite one is, “what came first, the chicken or the egg?” When it comes to how we embrace God and the Good News of Jesus Christ, Nouwen would suggest, as much from his life as from his words, that, in the marriage of Christian theology and spirituality, we can indeed have our cake and eat it, too. God’s best-kept secret translates well to the necessary coinherence of what we believe with how we believe it. And, as far as chickens are concerned, no chicken, no egg; no egg, no chicken.
At least, that’s what Henri might say…
[i] Nouwen, Henri Reaching Out: The Three Movements of the Spiritual Journey Image Books: Doubleday Publishing, ©1975
[ii] Nouwen, Henri with Michael J. Christensen and Rebecca J. Laird Spiritual Formation:Following the Movements of The Spirit HarperCollins, NY ©2010
[iii] Nouwen, Henri, from Caring for the Commonweal: Education for Religious and Public Life, Chapter 5-Theology as Doxology: Reflections on Theological Education Parker J. Palmer, Barbara G. Wheeler and James W. Fowler, editors Mercer University Press, pg. 95
[iv] Ibid, pg. 95