Henri Nouwen has long been a bon vivant of the evangelical world, even before his death in 1996. Nouwen was a Dutch Roman Catholic priest who held prestigious posts at the University of Notre Dame and Yale Divinity School before giving up a promising academic career to work at a home for the mentally disadvantaged in Toronto, L'Arche Daybreak.
His writings are immensely popular, especially with evangelicals. JP Moreland, in his recent Kingdom Triangle has said that Nouwen's work has a different “texture” than many other writers on the spiritual life. It's as if Nouwen had just met with God. I would have to agree.
In my undergraduate days at Tyndale, Nouwen was all the rage. In fact, Tyndale has always had a special relationship with Nouwen, given his proximity to the campus. In Timothy Larsen's history of Tyndale Seminary, For Christ in Canada, Larsen tells the story of how Nouwen was the controversial guest speaker for Tyndale's (which at that time was known as Ontario Bible College) graduation in 1991:
The Academic Dean of Tyndale (OBC) at the time, Ian Rennie, recounts that at his last meeting with Nouwen before his death, Nouwen had requested that he have an office in the seminary after his retirement, saying that “the faculty and students comprised the only academic theological audicence in Toronto that responded wholeheartedly to his message.” OBC's relationship with Nouwen was seen as scandalous by many evangelicals in the early 1990s, but Rennie justified the relationship by saying by aligning himself with “such prominent evangelicals as Alexander Whyte and A.W. Tozer who valued the great Catholic saints in their knowledge of Christ, however we might disagree with some of their Tridentine theological formulations.
One “open secret” is that Henri Nouwen struggled with homosexuality. In fact, evangelicals are now using this fact as evidence to buttress their case that it's possible for a gay Christian to live a deep fulfilling life without having to satisfy those desires. You can see Ravi Zacharias do that in the clip I've posted above. It appears that he's internalized the Henri Nouwen story as a way of responding to questions about sexuality and the church.
I now question the wisdom of this.
In Michael Ford's biography of Nouwen, The Wounded Prophet, Ford tells of the charismatic priest's close relationship to the former Catholic priest, Maurice Monette and his partner, Jeff Jackson. Ford writes:
He (had) talked humorously about what seemed like a set of impossible options, which he discussed regularly with Maurice and Jeff: The first was for him to stay a celibate priest and “come out” as a gay man; the second was for him to leave the priesthood and be open to a loving noncelibate relationship; the third was for him to remain a publicly closeted gay priest and be open to developing a relationship – not really an option, they thought, for a man of such integrity.
Ford implies here that Nouwen actually considered the second as a live option.
Ford goes on to describe Nouwen's relationship with another gay couple. Here he affirmed their commitment ceremony as being “solemn and holy.”
In Toronto, Henri Nouwen became a close friend of a gay Roman Catholic couple, Joseph Stellpflug and David Martin, who offered him their home as a sanctuary from the public demands of his priesthood. “He recognized our relationship as life-giving and we became a safe haven for him where he could just be himself,” said David. When the couple's relationship was formalized at a Metropolitan Community Church ceremony, Henri sent them a Van Gogh print with “an incredibly beautiful letter” affirming that they were making a very solemn and holy commitment. From 1994, Nouwen visited the couple once a month.
The author concludes with what is perhaps his clearest views on Nouwen's personal opinions:
Because of his wounds he was able to be a prophet in his priesthood, his writing, his teaching, … his clear support of faithful gay relationships, especially among Roman Catholics. He said gay men and women had a 'unique vocation in the Christian community.'
Of course this doesn't render Ravi's use of Nouwen's testimony illegitimate. After all, regardless of what Nouwen personally believed on the topic, by all accounts he took his vow to celibacy seriously. And yet, if Ford is right, evangelicals should seriously reconsider using Nouwen as their poster boy, his work on prayer and spirituality, notwithstanding.
So, what do you think about this? In light of this new info, should evangelicals keep recommending Nouwen's work?