Channeling Henri Nouwen

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Writing almost two decades ago, Henri Nouwen described an essential movement of faith: from hostility to hospitality. Our vocation, he wrote, is “to convert the hostis into a hospes, the enemy into a guest and to create the free and fearless space where [community] can be formed and fully experienced.”

Admittedly, Nouwen’s language feels lofty, even utopian, in our increasingly messy world replete with terrorism, hatred and internet shaming. But for all Nouwen’s idealism, he presents a very practical approach. Hospitality, according to Nouwen’s understanding of several biblical texts, is not merely “soft sweet kindness, tea parties, bland conversations and a general atmosphere of coziness,” but rather a muscular virtue with the capability of disarming enemies and overcoming violence. In essence, hospitality creates space where a stranger can enter and become a friend instead of an enemy. Hospitality shouldn’t be reserved only for the stranger but should be offered in any relationship, or potential relationship, where both the host and guest can experience transforming change, the kind of change that produces genuine friendship.

Hospitality is hard work, however, because it requires us to create space for one another. According to Nouwen, we must pursue a kind of “poverty of the mind,” a setting aside of opinions, assumptions, preconceived notions, and judgments in order to understand another’s perspective. Hospitality also requires a “poverty of the heart,” a setting aside of worries, jealousies, and prejudices.

When I lived in West Africa, I often discussed faith with Muslim friends. I spent a good deal of that time understanding their story, their beliefs, and their dreams. I listened a lot, seeking to understand their way of life. Through these experiences I discovered that a genuine understanding of another’s perspective can lead to personal change even if both of us remain committed to our own convictions. For the most part my convictions deepened through these experiences; they didn’t substantially shift. But sometimes my convictions needed to change. Bringing preconceived notions to a conversation can make it impossible to genuinely consider the other person, let alone that person’s perspective.

Throughout history major changes often began when events forced people to reconsider what they had assumed to be true. Even in relatively recent times, we have witnessed what happens when whole swaths of God-fearing people defend racism, slavery, or misogyny. Those perspectives had to be confronted, and that may have brought fear or uncertainty to those with deeply held convictions even though they were wrong. Slavery in the British empire and apartheid in South Africa are but two examples. The resulting turmoil ushered in changes of perspective, not to mention needed repentance and restitution.

But there is also a more basic question to consider. What are we afraid of, really afraid of? If our convictions—whether theological or practical—are true, will they not stand the test of time and remain unchanged regardless of our personal ability to defend them? God is not afraid; we don’t need to be afraid either. God will often dislodge some unquestioned conviction in us in order to humble us, and reawaken us to love. Pride, especially spiritual pride, which is often disguised as theological correctness, dexterity at apologetics, or biblical expertise can be the greatest barrier to loving God and others.

Originally published in Break Open the Sky: Saving Our Faith from a Culture of Fear. The Crown Publishing Group. 2017.