Since the beginning of 2017, I have been participating in an online book club hosted by an organization called Renovaré (thanks, Mom and Dad, for the sweet Christmas gift). Although I've encountered many quotations from Henri Nouwen's writings, I hadn't read an entire book. And I wasn't disappointed; reading his Life of the Beloved has not only been timely for me, but also profoundly impactful.
Nouwen, a Catholic priest, wrote the book at the request of a friend, NYT journalist Fred Bratman, a secular Jew, who asked him to discuss Christian faith in a way that "speaks to men and women in a secularized society" in a way that "he and his friends 'could hear.'" Life of the Beloved is the result of that request.
I won't discuss the content of the book here (there is my thinly disguised attempt to encourage you to read it for yourself--it's that good). What's fascinating, though, is that
Nouwen initially considered his attempt a "failure" because of Bratman's response. After reading the book, Nouwen's friend commented that the book contained writing that was "for the 'converted'" rather than "for truly secular people."
Nouwen's attempt to articulate his faith, Bratman's experience of reading Nouwen's book, and Nouwen's disappointment all resonate for me in many ways. Perhaps I'll write more about that later.
In the epilogue, Nouwen discusses his conversations with Bratman after having written the book. And there I found Nouwen's thoughts to hold rich guidance for today's American cultural climate, and for my own life.
My sense in my own community and nation is that now, more than ever, the long-held American Christian belief that we are travelers in a foreign land has given way to a fearful and, at times, hostile view of the world around us--our acquaintances, neighbors, colleagues, leaders, or anyone who does not profess Christian views. This angst colors the way we relate to that world, so that we do so from a defensive or even antagonistic posture, as if we are now being forced to fight for our views to be validated, or to aggressively attack anything or anyone that might cause us to be discriminated against, regardless of what means we "must" use.
Yet I find that many of my "secular" friends are, at this time, experiencing and sometimes acting out of that same sense of fear: they, too, are afraid that their views and lives are in danger of being discounted (at best) or eliminated by governmental mandates (at worst). They too feel the need to fight more aggressively than ever before.
In light of the current cultural climate, what resonates for me, as a believing faculty member at a secular community college, is Nouwen's emphasis not on fighting, fearing, oppressing, or mandating, but instead on the importance of Christ-followers questioning and exploring our "inner solidarity with the secular world." Rather than giving fuel to an already-well-cultivated view of the world as threatening, Nouwen writes that believers "don't have to be afraid to enter fully into [that] secular world and speak there about faith, hope, and love."
Perhaps now more than ever before, Christ-followers have an opportunity to (in Nouwen's words) be honest about how we have approached those who are "other" than us--to "bridge the gap within [ourselves]" between the secular and sacred.
I wonder whether we can do just that by hearing and supporting all of those in our lives during this anxious time. Perhaps the act of fearless listening to, identifying with, and validating the justifiable fears so many have during this time can be a way of gaining entrance into conversations with people from all walks of life, convictions, and beliefs. Perhaps those conversations can be places where our articulating the reason for our hope is seen not as condescension or criticism, not as unsolicited advice, not as an irrelevant or oversimplified truism, but instead received and even welcomed as the relevant, palpable, transformative hope that it is.
I'm certainly not saying I have the wisdom to navigate such conversations with any sort of grace. In fact, now more than ever, I desperately wish for that ability as I interact with so many who are justifiably fearful and angry about what the future may hold for all of us. But maybe--as the unexpected and grateful audience for Henri's "unsuccessful" book suggests--the point isn't to strive for such wisdom or ability, but instead to move into our own world with a ruthless authenticity about our own brokenness coupled with a ruthless trust in a God who is graciously uses our lives, not because of our accomplishments or knowledge or "superior" beliefs not with any certainty about how or where our lives will "count," but instead--and miraculously--out of our shortcomings, struggles, and fears, and with a hopeful anticipation that He will use us where and how He sees fit.