Nouwen’s Letters on the Spiritual Life

NouwenbookcoverIn my most recent post, I cited a letter from Henri Nouwen to a person who wrote to him about his (Nouwen’s) celibacy. The letter is part of a book that was published in 2016 that is a complication of letters that Nouwen wrote to different people, many of whom where friends of his, but others were those who had been moved by his writings. The overall theme of this book is that these are letter on the theme of the spiritual life. It is a terrific book.

I’ve always been drawn to Henri Nouwen’s letters more so than his other books, as good as they are. I am embarrassed to admit that I saw myself in one of the letters he wrote to a person who criticized him for his more polished books often seeming repetitive and overly simplistic. I have sometimes had a similar reaction, but I suspect it’s because I tend to read academic books that are making an argument and that you scrutinize the book, etc. I probably haven’t approached his books in the right spirit.

My favorite book by Nouwen (until this current book of letters on the spiritual life) had been the Genesee Diary; I recall it read as more raw and just less polished over all. But I’ve enjoyed other books, especially his reflections on the prodigal son and his reflections on icons, which I have collected for a few years now, as well as The Wounded Healer, which we read in our graduate training in psychology. In fact, Nouwen was lovingly referred to by one of my professors as the “patron saint” of our graduate psychology program.

In any case, I don’t think it is a fair criticism of Nouwen’s other books, and Nouwen was gracious to the person who wrote and made that observation, and I think he would have been gracious to my own response.

Nouwen’s letters challenge me in so many ways. It felt strange to read them, like I was eavesdropping on a private conversation, which I suppose is how I should feel. How else should we feel when we read other people’s letters?

His letters have been a gift to me. I’m still digesting and making adjustments in response to reading his book. In fact, I’ve been ordering many of the books and resources that he recommended to other people. So this will be part of a larger journey, I’m sure.

Here are a few takeaways:

  • It matters that we are good friends and mentors to one another. Nouwen takes the time to maintain correspondence with friends and with those who see him as a spiritual mentor of sorts. I was challenged to invest the time and energy and to ask God for His support in this.
  • Stay practical. I was drawn to the concrete and specific aspects of discernment in a letter from Henri Nouwen to a friend: “Try to take little steps in the direction of your inner call (a regular hour of silent prayer, talks with people who can truly listen to you, reading books that help you sharpen your own inner vocation, visits to places and people where some of your dream is lived out). Be sure never to let your life go flat. Always know that God is calling you to ever greater things.”
  • Live out “convicted civility.” This is a phrase made popular by Richard Mouw, but I was reminded of it when I read Nouwen’s letters. He would be so gracious and kind to critics. That would be a great quality to further cultivate.
  • Attend to your interior life. This book came to my attention at a good time in my life. I was wrestling with spiritual questions and how to cultivate my interior life. Nouwen writes letter after letter to people like me, people who would benefit from leaning into God and the reality of the love and acceptance of Go, to spending time in prayer and reflection, to have time to develop a liturgy of spiritual life (or use the liturgy if that is part of your faith tradition), and so on.

In a collaborative project I’ve been working on with a colleague, we discuss the different approaches to the integration of psychology and Christianity. I won’t go into all of the various approaches here, but reading Nouwen reminds me of what we refer to as “personal integration,” which involves attending to your spiritual life as one aspect of what it means to bring your faith as a Christian into a meaningful dialogue with the field of psychology.

Personal integration rests on the foundation that your spiritual life and corresponding experience of vocation is a journey. Your walk with God orients you to everything else. Let me encourage you to take the next practical steps to attend to spirituality, to invite God into it, to ask God to help you set aside the time to cultivate your walk, to be increasingly aware of your journey.

Mediating and Discussing LGBTQ+ Experiences in the Church

VWCI was recently invited to speak at Virginia Wesleyan College on the topic of “The Challenges of Mediating and Discussing LGBTQ+ Experiences in the Church.” This talk was part of a religious studies course on Mediating Religious Conflict in the Center For the Study of Religious Freedom.

In developing a handout, I listed a few things I suggested students avoid (“vices”), along with some “virtues” to cultivate. Some vices included demanding respect, dehumanizing others, and setting exclusive goals. In contrast, I recommended building goodwill, seeing/relating to people, and identifying superordinate goals whenever possible. I shared a few examples of what we try to do in our research institute, including past volunteer work with local HIV/AIDS organizations (that are often staffed by LGBTQ+ persons) to work to reduce rates of infection in the local area.

When I talk about dehumanizing, I am thinking about ways in which we look past the person in order to convince others of the veracity of our position. People need to be seen by you, and one way you do that is by entering into a sustained relationship with those with whom you disagree. Along these lines, no one wants to be seen as a project. Even if you feel led to engage the topic, you are also engaging real people who represent that topic in the real world. Toward that end, it’s important to see the person in the exchange.

It has been helpful to move past winning an argument or entering into debate. It has been more productive to listen (more than talk), to enter into dialogue (more than debate), and to identify the moral logic in my own reasoning and that of those who are dialoguing with me. In fact, this was part of the “frame” of the talk: How do I become a better dialogue partner?

This question came out of a recent experience. This past year I was part of an event in Cincinnati hosted by LoveBoldly in which I was on a panel with a celibate gay Christian, a liberal or progressive gay Christian, and a transgender Christian. At the close of the event, one of the other panelists leaned over and said, “If you are ever looking for a dialogue partner, keep me in mind.” It had me thinking: What makes a good dialogue partner?

The kinds of suggestions I was offering to the students and guests at Virginia Wesleyan College were suggestions based on what I’ve learned over the years in becoming a better dialogue partner and what I look for in people I agree to be in dialogue with in front of an audience.

Homosexuality: A Christian View

The CBN News program titled, Homosexuality: A Christian View, was launched over Easter weekend. You’ll recall that there was a slow roll out of several interviews over the past couple of weeks. Well, the entire program is now available.

What I appreciate about the program is that the producer brought together a Christian theologian, pastor, and psychologist, as well as a parent of a gay man and a celibate gay Christian. So there are elements that address what we know/do not know from Scripture and from research on sexual orientation. There is also the experience of a compassionate pastor who holds in a tension the traditional Christian sexual ethic with a remarkable degree of compassion. I also appreciated hearing the personal stories of a mother of a gay son and the story of a celibate gay Christian. It accomplishes a lot in just 30 minutes.

Anti-Christian Diatribe and the Need for Increased Cognitive Complexity

There has been a lot of discussion of Dan Savage’s recent diatribe on the Bible and on Christians at a national journalism conference, including discussions about insulting the estimated 100 or so teenagers who didn’t care to listen to him trash their faith in such a vulgar manner.

Predictably, people are reacting to his extremism. Before I get to that, let me say this: It is always interesting to hear someone who does not understand hermeneutics discuss the Bible. Not only does he make the mistake of claiming that Scripture is pro-slavery, but he proceeds to demonstrate his lack of understanding of the Holiness Code. It is obviously intuitively appealing to some of the students, as there is a fair amount of applause at different points. But throughout his rant there is a steady stream of teens leaving the session.

The timing is interesting; I actually just finished reading the biography of William Wilberforce (by Eric Metaxas), Amazing Grace: William Wilberforce and the Heroic Campaign to End Slavery. I’ll likely blog about the book because it is a helpful reminder of the role Christians played in creating a social conscience around those who were suffering and dying through slavery, which was clearly seen as an institutionalized evil by many evangelical Christians of that day. The book Amazing Grace is a good place to start for anyone who thinks Savage got any of this right about slavery. Also helpful might be Slaves, Women and Homosexuals by William Webb. I realize that neither of these resources is as colorful as Savage; but there is something to be said for historical accuracy.

What I want to focus on is not the claims themselves but the process that comes from any extremist rant or diatribe. It creates  further division and emotional polarization. By not entering into a thoughtful, informed exchange of ideas around biblical scholarship, theological ethics, or care and protection of others, these kinds of outbursts only create more polarization. They can reflect the speaker’s lack of cognitive complexity around values and will drive others (in the audience – live or via the web) toward less cognitive complexity and tolerance of differing values. (In fact, the web is a prime setting for fostering value polarization.)

I do think that if I put myself in the speaker’s shoes and try to give him the benefit of doubt, which is difficult, I suspect that his primary value has been around protecting vulnerable youth – sexual minorities who he sees as at great risk of hurting themselves – which he associates with religious doctrine. But I do not think that the enemy here is Christianity, even when we are talking about a doctrine that teaches an orthodox sexual ethic. Many Christians would stand in solidarity against violence toward anyone by virtue of that person bearing the image of God. This would obviously include young people who are sorting out sexual identity questions or who have embraced a gay identity. By attacking Christianity, the speaker fuels emotional polarization which leads to further entrenchment because it limits cognitive complexity. It moves people toward black and white thinking that does not lend itself to living in a diverse society.

The enemy, then, is not Christianity; nor is it the gay community. Nor is the answer necessarily to foster a gay Christian community as such. Rather, I would say that all of these can coexist, but it means identifying the real problem, which I think is found (from a psychological standpoint) in the  cognitive elements found in extremism, in how both “sides” in a debate can make certain values trump when they reflect their extreme views.

People who want to move forward in a world that reflects substantive diversity will be able to think in more complex ways, particularly around values and social issues. (Substantive diversity refers to really respecting genuine differences in values, hence the adjective “substantive”.)  That does not mean finding ways to have other people agree with you. That does not mean winning the public debate. That does not mean passing laws that enforce your preferred values. No, it is recognizing the diverse world in which we find ourselves and creating space for that diversity of thought and values. The capacity to see that, to demonstrate perspective-taking and to find pro-social ways of relating to one another, reflects this kind of cognitive complexity.

Examples of extremism and lack of cognitive complexity are ubiquitous and can be found around many emotionally-charged social and values issues. This is just one recent example. And it is tempting to point a finger at the “enemy” who is opposed to your preferred values. Again, there is a resource in the field of psychology that can assist. The way forward is found in increasing cognitive complexity.

New Book Available in September

Word on the street is that my new book on sexual identity/homosexuality will be available September 10th. Here’s what the publisher is saying about it. Also, they’ve just added some nice endorsements to their web site, so I included them below:

Homosexuality is one of the most controversial topics of our day, and we all need clear, biblical answers that are grounded in love and compassion. As a Christian and a leading expert in the field of sexual identity, Mark Yarhouse provides honest, accurate information about hot-button questions like:
•    What causes homosexuality and same-sex attraction?
•    Can attractions or orientation be changed?
•    What is “sexual identity” and why does it matter?
•    What should I do when a friend opens up to me about his or her homosexual attractions?

Always keeping in mind the real, hurting people—Christians and nonbelievers alike—who are struggling with the issue, Dr. Yarhouse provides a balanced and accessible look at today’s research. He also introduces a new way to think about the topic, carefully separating “same-sex attraction” from a “gay identity.” This book provides a much-needed, deeper understanding of homosexuality that will help our churches, our communities, and our families speak the truth in love.
Endorsements

“As a Christian professor and clinical psychologist, Mark Yarhouse, in his book Homosexuality and the Christian, utilizes his unique experiences to provide Christians believing in a traditional sexual ethic with realistic viewpoints of the current debatable topics of sexuality, while simultaneously giving a compassionate framework leading to a more nuanced understanding of the complexity that is faith and sexuality.”

Andrew Marin, President of The Marin Foundation and author of the Love is an Orientation

“This is a must-read book for anyone who wants sound guidance and trustworthy information about homosexuality, including its relevance to Christians and the church.”
–Gary R. Collins, Distinguished Professor of Coaching and Leadership, Richmont Graduate University

Homosexuality and the Christian is the best book I have seen for evangelicals who want an accessible book that provides accurate, research-based information.”
–Warren Throckmorton, Associate Professor of Psychology, Grove City College, and Fellow for Psychology and Public Policy at the Center for Vision and Values

Pre-order your copy today through bethanyhouse.com, bn.com, or amazon.com.

Sexuality & Holy Longing – 6

We come to the last chapter in Lisa McMinn’s book. It is titled “Sexuality and Culture: Bodies and Scripts.” In this chapter she wants to introduce the reader to the idea of “cultural scripts,” or “taken-for-granted, learned ways of being that reinforce behaviors and roles for men and women that are considered important in a society” (p. 154). She sees these scripts as absolutely inescapable – we swim in it – and changing from culture to culture and throughout history.

 

McMinn also discusses a sociobiological explanation and a social learning explanation for differences between men and women. The former emphasizes hard-wired differences that impact behavior, while the latter focuses instead on the influence of culture and environment. She then offers “composite pictures of manhood and womanhood” from a Christian perspective. She also offers an account of the challenges facing young adult men and women in the area of how women dress (modesty) and the response of some men.

 

For reflection: What are your thoughts about sociobiological and social learning explanations of differences between men and women? How would you describe a “composite” view of manhood and womanhood? In terms of dress and modesty, what responsibility, if any, do women have for the struggles some men say they have?