The Futile, Powerless God of Henri Nouwen
© Marie Notcheva
“Today I personally believe that while Jesus came to open the door to God’s house, all human beings can walk through that door, whether they know about Jesus or not. Today I see it as my call to help every person claim his or her own way to God.” – Henri Nouwen
The parable of the Prodigal Son in Luke 15 used to be my favorite Bible passage. Until a contemplative mystic priest named Henri Nouwen ruined it for me.
Several years ago, I wrote about my brief encounter with “contemplative Christianity”, which I was introduced to through the works of Brennan Manning, Richard Foster, and Basil Pennington. Although I was a much younger Christian and could not discern that their practices of “inner seeing” and “hearing” God were not biblical (through trance-like meditation, extreme fasting, repetition of mantras, “breath prayers” and other mystical practices), I started to get the sense that something was just “off” about it all. Naturally, unbiblical practice and adding “spiritual disciplines” (that have more in common with paganism than Scripture) will shape one’s theology.
These men, and many more like them – Thomas Merton; Henri Nouwen; David G. Benner – claimed to be Christians at one time, (gradually transitioning to a theistic Buddhism – Merton converted entirely to Buddhism while still a Catholic monk) but in fact their theology has more in common with Eastern religions than Christianity. Christian mysticism is itself an oxymoron – see CARM (Christian Apologetics Research Ministry) or Gotquestions.org for more info about contemplative spirituality, and it’s connection with the New Age.
Contemplative prayer, by design, focuses on having a mystical experience with God. It was while reading one of Benner’s books, “The Gift of Being Yourself: The Sacred Call of Self-Discovery” that God gave me a wake-up call. I began what would become a 10-year journey, researching theistic philosophies such as pantheism, panentheism, universal salvation, trancendental meditation (which contemplatives call “the silence”), etc. Another four years of theological training to become a biblical counselor helped solidify my ability to “test all things”, and compare teachings to the Bible’s clear teaching.
Nevertheless, it was with some anticipation that I picked up Henri Nouwen’s “The Return of the Prodigal Son” recentlyon the recommendation of a friend. A meditation (in the Christian sense of the word!) on Rembrandt’s famous painting, I settled in to enjoy the sensitive priest’s insights into this beautiful picture of God’s love.
As I began reading, two things emerged by the end of the Introduction: Nouwen was a man who sincerely loved the Lord and His people. And, he was firmly in the contemplative/mystical camp (a fact I already knew), but the casual reader, unfamiliar with the New Age terminology used by contemplatives, might not pick that up. Words may be ascribed different meanings by different people, which makes doctrinal error so slippery. I began to take notes.
The Good, the Bad, and the Blasphemous
There was much that was very, very good in “Prodigal Son”. There was nothing mystical in his analysis and personal reflection on the painting per se, or in how he inserted himself into the parable – to identify with each of the three main characters. Many of his points about grace, accepting forgiveness, and the unconditional love of the Father were excellent, especially coming from a Catholic writer. “More than any other story in the Gospel, the parable of the Prodigal Son expresses the boundlessness of God’s compassionate love. And when I place myself in that story under the light of that divine love, it becomes painfully clear that leaving home is much closer to my spiritual experience than I might have thought.” Nouwen deeply sought fellowship with Christ. The problem, as evidenced by his faulty theology, is that he was seeking it in broken cisterns – not in the Word of God.
Before the end of the first section, a study on the younger son himself, Nouwen referred to “inner light”, “inner seeing”, and “inner healing”. All of these may sound like fairly benign terms to one unfamiliar with mysticism, but they all point towards the “going within to find enlightenment” theophostic philosophy taken from Eastern religions. (Christianity, by contrast, teaches us that we need a new spirit and a new heart – and to look to Jesus). In all of the ways Nouwen mentioned how he “heard from God” – most notably, “in the center of [his] being”, he never once mentioned the Bible. For even an immature believer, this should be a major red flag – the way God specifically reveals Himself to us is through His Word. Not through mystical means, which are condemned in Scripture (Deut. 18:9-12a).
The vast majority of what Nouwen wrote about our propensity to “flee to the wilderness”, away from God’s love, and the thought-patterns (insecurity; pride; comparison and jealousy) that harden our hearts was excellent. His insights into the human condition and how we relate to God rivaled those of any Reformed biblical counselor. I would just start to relax and enjoy the book when I would be blind-sided by a heretical statement such as “Judas sold the sword of his sonship” (and thus lost his salvation), or “I am touching here the mystery that Jesus himself became the prodigal son for our sake.”
A Powerless God?
According to Nouwen, God is “powerless” to prevent His children’s rebellion (p. 90); “naive” (p. 99); “both Father and Mother” (p. 94); “she” and “her” (p. 96); “needs me as much as I need Him” (p.99) and the real sin is “ignoring [our] ‘original goodness’ (p. 101). The final section of the book, on the Father, is where Nouwen’s faulty view of God became most apparent and the entire analysis fell apart.
Let’s compare Henri Nouwen’s god with the God of Scripture. Sovereignty means that God, as the ruler of the Universe, has the right to do whatever he wants. He is in complete control over everything that happens. (Psalm 115:3; Daniel 4:35; Romans 9:20.) He has no need of anything outside of Himself; and He is not standing like a beggar, hat in hand, needful of our love (as is the case with Nouwen’s god.)
Further, Nouwen’s idealistic view that ALL are children of God and have “original goodness” completely contradicts what Scripture states about unregenerate man: Abominable – Rev. 21:8 Sinners – Rev. 22:15 Fault finders – Job 41 Corrupt – Psalm 14:1,3; Rom. 3:10 Evil – 2 Tim 3:13 (just to name a few unsavory characteristics).
Perhaps most bizarre was Nouwen’s dogged insistence – straight out of Wiccan and New Age belief systems – that God is feminine as well as masculine; both Mother and Father. The Bible clearly teaches that God is Father; it’s not really open to debate or interpretation.
The Price of Error
False teaching is often hard to spot, precisely because it sounds so good. It’s usually mixed in with just enough Truth to be palatable. But to anyone with a strong grasp of Scripture, the problem with Nouwen’s doctrine – especially his view of salvation and the nature of God – should have been obvious. (I had deliberately NOT shared my personal opinion while pointing out the book’s shortcomings, but followed a clear-cut format: “Nouwen says: X. The Bible says:Y.”) Scripture speaks for itself.
How can Bible-believing Christians, when faced with such clear-cut instances of deviant theology, not spot the error? We should be horrified by Nouwen’s powerless God; rejection of original sin and depravity of man; universal salvation (many paths lead to God), and blasphemous statements that God is “Mother” and Christ “became the Prodigal Son”? It is willful deception that, when shown the clear words of Scripture, rejects them for the sake of defending the heretic. I will never be able to read Luke 15 again without the bitter taste of false teaching in my mouth.