Book Review: Henri Nouwen and Spiritual Polarities by Wil Hernandez

I read several of Henri Nouwen's books early in my experiences in ministry, and they forever shaped the course I would follow. It's obvious in his writings and his life story that he was thoroughly committed both to Christ and to ministry in the church, and I'll never forget his words, "Sometimes there is nothing so dangerous to our intimacy with Christ as our ministry for Christ" (may not be an exact quote). I may currently be on my longest Nouwen-less reading stretch to date, but I am eager to dig in again after reading the treatment of the tensions in Nouwen's theology and life in Henri Nouwen and Spiritual Polarities: A Life of Tension by my friend and spiritual director, Wil Hernandez.

From the moment that I read through the Table of Contents of the book, I was intrigued, because I could see that the aspects of Nouwen's life and thought that Wil would highlight were going to be a different twist on a theological characteristic that I've come to value deeply in my own Wesleyan heritage: the wisdom of finding a place for "both/and" where most people see "either/or". In Wesleyan categories, this surfaces on our emphases on both sides of apparent tensions such as faith/works, personal/social, scripture/sacrament, and others. (By the way, for a great book along the lines of understanding this aspect of Wesley's theology, see Paul Chilcote's Recapturing the Wesleys' Vision.)

Hernandez categorizes some of the tensions in Nouwen's life in three ways:

  • Inward/Psychological Tensions (True Self/False Self, Self-Owning and Self-Giving, and Woundedness/Healing)
  • Outward/Ministerial Tensions (Solitude/Community, Compassion/Confrontation, and Presence/Absence)
  • Upward/Theological Tensions (Suffering/Glory, Present/Future, and Life/Death)

The book provides a fascinating glimpse into the life and thought of one whom I, together with many others, have long regarded as one of the spiritual giants of our day. Hernandez shows that he was such a giant, but not- as I had assumed about him at some point- because God and the Christian life were much clearer to him than they are to most of us. Rather, his greatness and the lasting impact he has made on so many, is largely due to his courage to live within the polarities as they are presented to us in the life of faith, rather than taking what often appears to be an easier route and focus only on one side of a tension while ignoring or even dismissing the other.

The book is filled with wisdom and insight, both for those already well familiar with Nouwen and those who may be new to his writings. Dr. Hernandez is one of the most reliable guides we have for continuing to plumb the depths of Nouwen's life and teaching from the years since Nouwen's death and on into the future, and this book is a great example of how helpful doing so can be.

Disclosure Statement:

I received this book free as a gift from the author. I was not required to write a review, nor if I did so, for it to be positive.

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