GOLIATH WAS THE BAD GUY, REMEMBER? An Assessment of Henri Nouwen’s Teachings

GOLIATH WAS THE BAD GUY, REMEMBER? An Assessment of Henri Nouwen’s Teachings

© 2012, by John Tors. All Rights Reserved.

Introduction

On October 8 of this year, the Toronto Star published an opinion piece called “The life of a spiritual Goliath.”[1]  It was a paean to Henri Nouwen, the late Roman Catholic priest and writer of many books on “spirituality.”  According to the author, Stephen Bede Scharper, Nouwen was a “remarkably influential spiritual explorer” who remains “a spiritual goliath.”  He had found “professorial landing sites” at Notre Dame, Yale, and Harvard, and entered communities with Gustavo Guttierez, the founder of “liberation theology,[2] and Jean Vanier of the L’Arche community.  According to Scharper,

Nouwen embodied a type of spiritual reciprocal vulnerability, a process by which he, in making himself vulnerable, became ‘evangelized’ by the vulnerable around him.  And amid these communities, he had to come to grips with his own homosexuality, as well as his own deepening feelings of inadequacy.[3]

Henri Nouwen’s books on spirituality have long been popular among Evangelicals and are even required reading in some seminaries.  This very popularity makes it incumbent upon us to apply the injunctions of 1 Thessalonians 5:21-22 to Nouwen’s teachings, that is, to

Test all things; hold fast what is good.  Abstain from every form of evil.

Are this man’s teachings good things to which we should hold fast, or are they a form of evil from which we should abstain?  Let us look at his own book to answer this question.[4]

Henri Nouwen’s Gospel

Believing and teaching the true gospel is a sine qua non for being a teacher that Evangelicals should accept, and, indeed, to be a true Christian (Mark 1:14-15; Romans 1:16; 1 Corinthians 15:1-2; Ephesians 1:13; Colossians 1:21-23; 2 Thessalonians 1:8; Hebrews 4:2-3).  And the true gospel is this: that man is alienated from God and under His wrath because of sin, and unable to save himself; that God the Son became flesh and dwelt among us as the perfect man; that He died on the cross as the propitiation for our sins and then rose bodily from the dead; that all who avail themselves of this sacrifice by faith alone in Christ alone will not perish but will have everlasting life and receive adoption as sons of God.  This is the greatest news of all, and our mission is to preach this news and plead with people to be reconciled to God through Christ, for it profits a man nothing even if he should gain the whole world and yet lose his own soul and be cast into hell.

What Nouwen teaches, however, is very different from this.  He teaches a purely humanistic “gospel,” the first element of which is human-potential psychology.  Far from becoming a new creation in Christ, as we read in 2 Corinthians 5:17, it is we who achieve our potential (phrased as “becoming man”) through our insights.  Nouwen writes:

In the end we will be brought to an entirely new insight, which might well bring about a new man in a new world. (p. 20)

… this scotosis that prevents us from really dealing with those factors that are crucial in man’s making of himself (p. 16)

The pastor’s job then, according to Nouwen, is obviously not to preach the gospel of salvation in Christ but to assist people in self-actualization:

The task of every preacher is to assist men in their ongoing struggle of becoming (p. 34).

Every preacher is called upon to take away the obstacles that prevent this painful process of man’s becoming man (p. 34).

In fact, according to Nouwen, the content of what the church teaches doesn’t really matter all that much, as long as the church is “teaching.”  Consider the following:

Christian churches … have always read in the Gospel a call to develop the human potentialities to the fullest through ongoing education.  The ministry of teaching has never limited itself, therefore, to the teaching of religion.  Education is not primarily ministry because of what is taught but because of the nature of the education process itself (pp. 4-5, bolding added).

Nouwen’s contention is diametrically opposed to the command of our Lord, who instructed us to preach the gospel and make disciples of all the nations “teaching them to observe all things that I have commanded you” (Matthew 28:20a).

His contention is also diametrically opposed to what the apostolic church did:

And daily in the temple, and in every house, they did not cease teaching and preaching Jesus as the Christ. (Acts 5:42, bolding added)

Paul and Barnabas also remained in Antioch, teaching and preaching the word of the Lord, with many others also. (Acts 15:35, bolding added)

And he continued there a year and six months, teaching the word of God among them.” (Acts 18:11, bolding added)

Then Paul dwelt two whole years in his own rented house, and received all who came to him, preaching the kingdom of God and teaching the things which concern the Lord Jesus Christ with all confidence (Acts 28:30-31a, bolding added)

In fact, the Bible is crystal clear about the purpose of teaching:

[We are] teaching every man in all wisdom, that we may present every man perfect in Christ Jesus (Colossians 1:28b, bolding added).

We are to “teach no other doctrine,” for the purpose of our teaching doctrine is to “cause … godly edification which is in faith.” (1 Timothy 1:3b,4b).

And why is this?  Because people’s eternal souls are at stake! (John 3:18)  To claim, then, that what we teach isn’t of primary importance just so long as we teach, as Nouwen does, is worse than suggesting that talking to a man trapped in a burning building is what really matters, and it is not of primary importance whether we talk about the weather or the way out of the building.  In fact, I find it inconceivable that one who knows and believes the gospel can make the statement that Nouwen has made here.

The second element of Nouwen’s gospel is social engineering in order to restructure society to meet man’s physical needs; God, sin, salvation, and rebirth are conspicuously absent.  He writes that

ministers and priests … have become aware of their vocation to be agents of change” (p. 69).

The job of the church, he says, is “to change the structures of society itself in order to make a real Christian life possible” (p. 70).  Inasmuch as the New Testament teaches us throughout how to live the Christian life in an ungodly world, it would indeed be a surprise to a Christian to hear that our ability to do so depends on “the structures of society” rather than on the empowering of the Holy Spirit.

The models that Nouwen holds up for the Christian at this point are indeed telling.  He informs Christians who want to be agents of social change that

Only the synthesis between the commissar and the Yogi makes it possible … to be a real agent of social change” (p. 88).

Now, one would hope that Evangelicals would hesitate to accept a teacher who tells us that we should become a hybrid of the man who uses “violence, cruelty, and execution … to bring [real change] about” (p. 72) and a navel-gazing follower of Hindu deities.  Such hopes are increasingly forlorn, however.

In case we have missed Nouwen’s point, he affirms the following statement:

The likeliest model for the Christian minister – is the revolutionary leader; indeed, the priest should be a revolutionary leader, but one who goes in and through what in today’s terms is called a political revolution to a depth which today we call metaphysical or spiritual.  This interpretation of the revolution in its ultimate depths is the proclamation of the gospel.”[5]

So Nouwen agrees that the gospel is Marxist revolution, as long as it’s baptized in spiritual jargon.  Again, according to Nouwen, the gospel is Marxist revolution dressed in spiritual terminology.  And once again, it should be clear that this is nothing like the true gospel of Jesus Christ.

But it is as we come to Nouwen’s description of the human condition that we see most clearly how radically different his message is from that of Jesus.  Jesus made it very plain that eternal life is what is most important, far more than the affairs of this life.  The following are just a few examples of this:

“For what profit is it to a man if he gains the whole world, and loses his own soul? Or what will a man give in exchange for his soul?” (Matthew 16:26)

“He who loves his life will lose it, and he who hates his life in this world will keep it for eternal life.” (John 12:25)

“For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life.” (John 3:16)

“Most assuredly, I say to you, he who hears My word and believes in Him who sent Me has everlasting life, and shall not come into judgment, but has passed from death into life.” (John 5:24)

“Do not labor for the food which perishes, but for the food which endures to everlasting life, which the Son of Man will give you …” (John 6:27a)

“And this is the will of Him who sent Me, that everyone who sees the Son and believes in Him may have everlasting life; and I will raise him up at the last day.” (John 6:40)

Jesus answered, “My kingdom is not of this world. If My kingdom were of this world, My servants would fight, so that I should not be delivered to the Jews; but now My kingdom is not from here.” (John 18:36)

“Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy and where thieves break in and steal; but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroys and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” (Matthew 6:19-21)

“My friends, do not be afraid of those who kill the body, and after that have no more that they can do.But I will show you whom you should fear: Fear Him who, after He has killed, has power to cast into hell; yes, I say to you, fear Him!” (Luke 12:4b-5)

No wonder then, that there is one and only one mission Jesus gave to the church:

“Go into all the world and preach the gospel to every creature. He who believes and is baptized will be saved; but he who does not believe will be condemned.” (Mark 16:15-16)

This is the fundamental reality of life, and so hearing and believing and preaching the gospel is the most important thing, beside which everything else pales into insignificance.

But as we examine Nouwen’s writings, we see something very different.  All of his focus is on this life and this world; in fact, it seems clear that he believes that that this is all there is.  He writes that “the Christian invitation [is] to celebrate, to accept your life as the only life you have, to live it and accept it as good (p. 101)” and he calls the following a “powerful expression of faith”:

Man discovers that he has but one life to live – his own.  To accept that fact, and to live it, is to receive grace and to discover that all of life is good … We discover the secret of all life: to die is to live. (p. 93)[6]

It doesn’t seem to bother Nouwen that according to the Bible death is notthe secret of life.”  On the contrary, death is an enemy to be defeated (1 Corinthians 15:26), a curse that entered the world as a judgment on human sin and which is reversed through Christ’s work on the cross (Romans 5:12-19).  Yet Nouwen sees death as a friend to be embraced!  “To die is to live,” he asserts (p. 93), and, flatly contradicting the Bible, he claims that “Life and death are not opponents but do, in fact, kiss each other at every moment of our existence.” (p. 95)

Furthermore, Jesus made it clear that

“For whoever desires to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for My sake and the gospel’s will save it.” (Mark 8:35)

Giving up even our life in this world, if need be, to side with Christ and gain eternal life in the next is the best advice ever given.  Yet Nouwen makes the incredible statement that

We will be able to celebrate even our own dying because we have learned from life that he who loses it can find it (p. 95).

Losing one’s life simpliciter is a tragedy.  It is certainly worth giving up our lives for “[Jesus’] sake and the gospel’s,” for in that we gain eternal life, but giving it up for nothing is an unspeakable waste.  Nouwen’s suggestion that there is something to celebrate in dying without the accompanying proviso that it be for Christ is perhaps the worst advice ever given.  Again, death is an enemy, and not something to “celebrate.

With this view of life, with eternity ignored, it is no wonder that the state of man in Nouwen’s mind is radically different from that in the Bible.  According to the word of God, we Christians are never alone, for Jesus has promised that “I am with you with always, even to the end of the age” (Matthew 28:20b).

“… He Himself has said, ‘I will never leave you nor forsake you.’” (Hebrews 13:5b).

Furthermore, “God has not given us a spirit of fear, but of power and of love and of a sound mind” (2 Timothy 1:7), so that “we are more than conquerors through Him who loved us” (Romans 8:37b) and “God … always leads us in triumph in Christ” (2 Corinthians 2:14b).  Even in the face of adversity, then, the Christian life is one of joy (e.g. Luke 6:22-23; John 15:11; Romans 14:17, 15:13; 2 Corinthians 7) and victory (1 Corinthians 15:57; 1 John 1:4).

What a sad and pathetic alternative Nouwen offers in place of this.  He writes

We can squarely face our fundamental human condition and fully experience it as the foundation of all learning … teacher and student are both sharing the same reality – that is, they are both naked, powerless, destined to die, and, in the final analysis, totally alone and unable to save each other or anyone else (p. 19).

And the purpose of “fac[ing]” this “reality” is not to drive us to Christ; what Nouwen advises is that

Only if students and teachers are willing to face this painful reality can they free themselves for real learning.  For only in the depths of his loneliness, when he has nothing to lose any more and does not cling any longer to life as to an inalienable property, can a man become sensitive to what really is happening in his world and be able to approach it without fear (p. 19).

Nakedness, powerlessness, loneliness, and death are the “fundamental human condition,” says Nouwen.  Those who accept this will “free themselves for real learning,” he promises – until they die, that is.

It should be clear even to the most obtuse by now that Nouwen is preaching a different gospel, which is no gospel at all.  And we know what God has to say about those who preach a false gospel:

I marvel that you are turning away so soon from Him who called you in the grace of Christ, to a different gospel, which is not another; but there are some who trouble you and want to pervert the gospel of Christ. But even if we, or an angel from heaven, preach any other gospel to you than what we have preached to you, let him be accursed. As we have said before, so now I say again, if anyone preaches any other gospel to you than what you have received, let him be accursed. (Galatians 1:6-9)

Henri Nouwen’s Jesus

In light of the nature of Henri Nouwen’s gospel, a gospel that has nothing to do with the forgiveness of sins or eternal life, it is perhaps inevitable that his Jesus is not the incarnate Son of God Who came into the world to make atonement for our sins and thus to offer us reconciliation with God.  No, it seems that his Jesus is nothing more than a good teacher and revolutionary, one who has faced and embraced the “fundamental human condition” of Nouwen’s view.  Consider the following:

When Jesus had become aware of His vocation to criticize the society in which He lived, to question its basic supposition, and to work for the Kingdom to come, He knew that He too could have become an organizer in the long row of those who had already called themselves Messiahs … But only through overcoming these temptations could He become a revolutionary man who was able to break through the narrowing chains of His world and surpass all political ambitions in order to make visible the new Kingdom to come (p. 77).

It could not be clearer.  Jesus is not God incarnate; he is the “revolutionary man,” the perfect blend of commissar and Yogi.  His mission is not to die on the cross as the sacrifice for sins, but “to criticize the society in which He lived.”  He works for “the new Kingdom,” but it is not the Biblical kingdom of heaven.  (Presumably it is the “spiritually-baptized” Marxist society that Nouwen has already agreed “is the proclamation of the gospel.”)

How did Jesus become this “revolutionary man”?  Why, He faced up to the “fundamental human condition,” as Nouwen explains it:

Christ … lived His life with an increasing willingness to face His own condition and the condition of the world in which He found Himself” (p. 34, bolding added).

Unlike the Jesus of the Bible who announces that “I lay down my life for the sheep … I lay it down of myself.  I have power to lay it down, and I have power to take it again” (John 10:15b,18a), Nouwen’s Jesus, like any other man, “found His life by losing it” (p. 34).  So Nouwen’s Jesus is not the true Jesus of the Bible, any more than Nouwen’s gospel is the true gospel of the Bible.

Henri Nouwen’s New Age Teachings

There was a time when the evangelical church understood that the monistic/pantheistic teachings of the Eastern mystic religions and new world tribal religions are diametrically opposed to the teachings of Christianity and the Bible, and were not to be endorsed or embraced.  Those days seem to be gone.  Nouwen is only one of many that are promoting such teachings and yet are being warmly embraced by professing Evangelicals.

For example, Nouwen affirms claims of “the new understanding of the Zen-Buddhist tradition,” including the belief that “there are two forms of consciousness … the former stresses individuality, the latter unification” (pp. 50-51).

The fact that Zen Buddhism denies that there even is a god, and that the “unification” it teaches is the extinction of the soul in the Void, doesn’t seem to bother Nouwen.  In fact, he goes on to say that

the growing interest in the way of Siddhartha [i.e. the Buddha], so beautifully described by Herman Hesse, is a powerful suggestion for the pastor of the future,” to help avoid “the inflation of the pastor’s ego [that] prevents his mystical union with God.” (p. 51)[7]

Nouwen also holds to the occult belief of animism i.e. that animals and plants are imbued with living souls.  He laments that

we have lost our sense of [God’s] presence in all that is, grows, lives and dies” (p. 105).

He believes that

nature indeed speaks: the birds to St. Francis, the trees to the Indians, the river to Siddhartha” (p. 104).

It does not seem that he means this figuratively, as he gives an example of “the trees [speaking] to the Indians: ‘The tree says, “Don’t, I am sore.  Don’t hurt me.”  But they chop it down and cut it up.’” (p. 104).

Perhaps most shockingly, Nouwen writes

when Roszak describes the shaman, he describes at the same time the service every minister and priest should offer” (p. 107).

What is shamanism?  It is an “occultic religious practice by those who claim to have direct communication with the spirit world.  The shaman at times is possessed by the spirits who enter him and speak through him.  His purpose is ‘to reconnect people with the sacred, as mystic mediator, guide, and healer.’[8]

Does Nouwen really believe that the service Christians ministers should offer is to act as mediums, to be possessed by demons “to reconnect people with the sacred”?  Even for Nouwen, this seems too outré, so perhaps he is one like those in 1 Timothy 1:7, “desiring to be teachers of the law, understanding neither what they say nor the things which they affirm.”  Either way, this is completely unacceptable.

Conclusion

Second Timothy 3:5a warns of people “having a form of godliness but denying its power,” and it is clear that Henri Nouwen is one of these.  The gospel he preaches and the Jesus he follows are impotent, offering only nakedness, powerlessness, loneliness, and death.  They provide no victory over death, but can only speciously redefine death as a friend and accept and celebrate it.  And 2 Timothy 3:5 tells us what to do when encountering those “having a form of godliness but denying its power”; “From such people turn away!”

To my dismay, however, that is not what is happening.  Instead, more and more Evangelicals are embracing Nouwen (and others like him) as a teacher and promoting and recommending him to others, even in churches and seminaries.  Indeed, it is as Paul wrote to the Corinthians:

But I fear, lest somehow, as the serpent deceived Eve by his craftiness, so your minds may be corrupted from the simplicity that is in Christ.  For if he who comes preaches another Jesus whom we have not preached, or if you receive a different spirit which you have not received, or a different gospel which you have not accepted—you may well put up with it! (2 Corinthians 11:3-5, bolding added)

In conclusion, when I saw the title of Stephen Bede Scharper’s opinion piece about Henri Nouwen, “The life of a spiritual Goliath,” I thought that it was inadvertently appropriate.  No doubt Scharper meant it as a compliment, that Nouwen was a spiritual giant, but “spiritual Goliath” seemed far more apt, as Goliath was an enemy of God’s people.  Of course, Goliath was openly hostile to the One True God, whereas Nouwen may have been sincere but seriously mistaken.  Either way, his teachings are toxic to true Christian faith, and should be avoided by all believers.  And we should think long and hard about listening to any Christian leader – lay leader, Sunday school teacher, deacon, elder, pastor, or seminary professor – who endorses or promotes Nouwen’s material.


Endnotes

[1] Scharper, Stephen Bede. “The life of a spiritual Goliath,” Toronto Star, October 8, 2012, p. A11

[2] Liberation theology was a movement designed to use a patina of Christianity as a cloak for Marxism.

[3] Scharper, op. cit.

[4] Nouwen, Henri J.M. Creative Ministry. New York: Image Books, Doubleday, 1971.  All page references in this article are to this books.  All bolding in the quotations are added.

[5] Nouwen here is quoting Herbert McCabe, from “Priesthood and Revolution,” Commonweal, September 20, 1968, p. 626.

[6] Nouwen here is quoting from the “Bimonthly Newsletter” of  The Ecumenical Institute, Vol. IV, No.3,  Jan-Feb 1970, p. 3.

[7] Nouwen is confused here.  Buddhism doesn’t teach “mystical union with God,” as it denies there is a god at all.  It is in Hinduism that escaping the illusion of the world leads to “mystical union with God,” or, rather, realizing the unity of the self with Brahman, the impersonal “god force”.  Is this supposed to be a desirable goal for Christians?

[8] Watson, William. A Concise Dictionary of Cults & Religions. Chicago: Moody Press, 1991. pp. 209-210.

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