• on September 19, 2019

Theological Book Club: Mapping Our Journey

Friends,

Here are some documents explaining the theology book club that begins this Sunday around 11:20. I also want to take this moment and thank Christopher Fatherly for his tremendous assistance in this endeavor, editing my words and supplying the helpful introduction to Henri Nouwen below.

I am excited to start our journey through these texts. As we anticipate wrestling with these testimonies, I thought it would be helpful to provide a sketch of how I hope the syllabus will unfold as well as some thoughts on why the books were chosen and their sequential flow.

In the Name of Jesus:Nouwen
Nouwen is our referential ocean. He is not the oldest author we are reading, but his theological contributions are the spiritual foundation on which we will build. His is the prophetic voice contouring our conversation.

Jesus and the Disinherited:Thurman
What does it mean to be one with “their backs against the wall”? What hope is Jesus to those born into a world without the authority of inalienable civil guarantees and the “quiet sense of security” implicit with belonging? Thurman, who wrote before Nouwen, is an example of a lived experience. Where Nouwen paints a broad picture, Thurman demands you internalize the verity of his theological embodiment.

The Prophetic Imagination:Brueggemann
While Nouwen and Thurman are contemporary prophets – those speaking on behalf of a particular divine understanding – Brueggemann offers an insightful sketch of Biblical prophets. What is a prophet? Should we be using the word? Can we claim a place in this narrative far older than us?

A Grief Observed:Lewis
This text functions on different levels. First, it offers an example of suffering that is ubiquitous and often forgotten by others: the death of a loved one. Second, it shows Lewis at his most vulnerable: humbling, terrifying, and instructive. Third, there is a specific reason we’re reading this during the Christmas season, a time often hard for those who have lost loved ones. Lewis is a profound 20th century influence. Through him, we will doubt and be uncomfortable, but we will be together.

Life Together:Bonhoeffer
Bonhoeffer will address leftover uncertainties we only lightly touched upon in the previous text. How are we to live together as particular individuals united by someone and something far bigger than us? We may disagree with some of his suggestions, but you can’t read this without being moved by it.

The Cross and the Lynching Tree:Cone
Cone was asked by Bill Moyers how he could accept the Christian God after years of slavery, torture, racism, and executions under the guise that the Christian God demands such things. This book is his answer. It made me weep.

Compassion:Nouwen, McNeil, Morrison
If we approach Cone with humility and earnestness, we are going to be left with some difficulty as to what to do next. We return to Nouwen here for theological guidance.

The Ethics of Authenticity:Taylor
We take a turn with these last three texts to work out some of our intellectual hurdles. This book transcribes radio lectures Taylor broadcasted throughout Canada in 1991. What are we to do with our intellectual tradition? The problems of relativity? Is there an answer to truth?

A Primer on Postmodernism:Grenz
Written by an expert for the uninitiated, Grenz essentially says “this is why you think the way you do.” He provides excellent definitions of words and habits with which we are very familiar and explains how we arrived at a culture that is often frustrating and exasperating. Finally, Dale and I say “Postmodern,” “Modernity,” and “Enlightenment” from the pulpit. This will help illuminate what we mean.

Proper Confidence – Faith, Doubt, and Certainty in Christian Discipleship:Newbigin
One of my favorite responses as to why faith, belief, and religion not only matter but how they can be practiced with dignity and confidence.

UCC Darien: Theology Book Club

September 2019

Review of Henri Nouwen: In the Name of Jesus

Henri Nouwen

Father Henri Nouwen (1932 to 1996) was a Dutch Catholic priest with an academic career steeped in the theological currents of pastoral ministry, psychology, and social justice. Father Nouwen (“Henri”) left the university system to permanently reside at L’Arche Daybreak near Toronto, Canada in 1986 until his death. Present in 38 countries across 5 continents, the L’Arche Communities welcome men and women with intellectual disabilities as a full-time residence for learning, caring, and sharing. Henri joined L’Arche Daybreak because, in his words, his “career was getting in the way of his vocation.” 

In the Name of Jesus

This curious little book was first published in 1989 and is one of nearly 40 he had written. Henri was also a sought-after speaker for his passion, humor, and animated style. In one way, In the Name of Jesus, is peppered with mystical ascension and in another, deeply confessional – making this reader wonder if there is something more to Henri’s story that he is seemingly at pains to not fully admit? For example, page 47: “How can priests or ministers feel really loved and cared for when they have to hide their own sins and failings from the people to whom they minister and run off to a distant stranger to receive a little comfort and consolation?” The thematic volley between these two seemingly opposite forces is present throughout In the Name of Jesus.

Henri admits to having a comfortable life in academia, supported by unquestioned respectability and intellectual freedom, so where does the “inner turmoil” he so often turns to come from? Possibly the idea of “sin” is not to be interpreted literally as doing something “bad” but, rather, a metaphor for the intricate arc of our human condition? Can the anguish, loneliness, temptation, brokenness, and weakness he writes of be considered in the same light? 

God’s First Love

When Henri refers to “strenuous theological reflection” (page 65), why does he leaden the spiritual journey with a sense of burden and resistance? In this context, he is critical of Christian leadership as overly cerebral and adrift from God’s First Love; a love without “conditions or limits.” This is compared to Second Love, an earthly bearing subject to the mutable human heart.

Mysticism

Below are a series of book quotes on how the simple (and not so simple) act of welcoming the Holy Spirit into our daily lives is, like a rose waking to dawn’s light, a magical transformation.

 “God is a God of the present and reveals to those who are willing to listen carefully to the moment in which they live the steps they are to take toward the future” (pages 3-4).

“…God’s presence is often a hidden presence, a presence that needs to be discovered” (page 69).

“A mystic is a person whose identity is deeply rooted in God’s First Love” (page 28).

“For Christian leadership to be truly fruitful in the future, a movement from the moral to the mystical is required” (page 32). 

“…When we are securely rooted in personal intimacy with the source of life, it will be possible to remain flexible without being relativistic, convinced without being rigid, willing to confront without being offensive, gentle and forgiving without being soft, and true witness without being manipulative” (page 32).

Intimacy

Beyond the common temptations of earthly wealth and social position, what is it about revealing (and accepting) our “naked self” and “true identity” that proves so difficult? What does it mean to have intimacy with an ever compassionate and all-knowing God? How can sharing the “intimacy of our common life” bring us closer to God and each other (page 78)?

 “The temptation of power is greatest when intimacy is a threat” (page 60). 

“It seems easier to be God than to love God, easier to control people than to love people, easier to own life than to love life” (page 59).

 “Somehow we have come to believe that good leadership requires a safe distance from those we are called to lead” (page 43).

Spiritualization

This theme has proven the most challenging to understand. Why is there a need for tension between spirit and body? Is this God’s intention? Does the unity of our being not best equip us to extend God’s First Love in deed and word?

“Christian leaders are called to live the Incarnation, that is, to live in the body – not only in their own bodies but also in the corporate body of the community, and to discover there the presence of the Holy Spirit” (page 48).

“When spirituality becomes spiritualization, life in the body become carnality” (page 48). 

Summary Thoughts

This book requires multiple readings to somehow decode Henri’s underlying message. This reader cannot escape a consistent feeling Henri is on the edge of confessing something deeply personal – but cannot allow himself to go beyond suggestive allusion. Is it a yearning for physical intimacy that he is compelled to repress with feelings of guilt and “strenuous” rationalization?

In the Name of Jesus is the only book read with this level of attention. The answer may be addressed in his other writings. This undated video captures Henri’s reflections on joining the l’Arche Community, it is humorous and tender.

More information on his life’s work can be found via the Henri Nouwen Society.

 

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