Henri Nouwen’s Affinity Toward Eastern Mysticism – A Valid Reason Why Christian Teachers and Leaders Should Not Promote Him

At the end of his life, in the last book he ever wrote (Sabbatical Journey), Henri Nouwen said the following:

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.1

Even though such a statement does not at all fit within biblical Christianity, and in essence denies the very foundation of Christ’s work on the Cross, Henri Nouwen is touted as a great spiritual figure by countless Christian leaders, pastors, seminary professors, etc.

Even “America’s pastor” Rick Warren and his wife Kay have highly recommended the works of Henri Nouwen. And it is a rare Christian college or university that does not have at least one professor who uses books by Nouwen to teach his or her students (see our recent article on Multnomah University where professors acknowledge their affinity toward Nouwen). Some of the most respected Christian leaders (e.g., Chuck Swindoll, David Jeremiah) view Nouwen as someone who can be looked up to and admired greatly. Regarding Nouwen’s popularity, Ray Yungen says:

Many pastors and professors are greatly attracted to his [Nouwen’s]deep thinking. In fact, one of his biographers revealed that in a 1994 survey of 3,400 U.S. Protestant church leaders, Nouwen ranked second only to Billy Graham in influence among them.2

Why this appeal for Nouwen? Yungen explains:

Nouwen combines a strong devotion to God with a poetic, comforting, yet distinctly intellectual style that strikes a strong and sympathetic chord with what could be called Christian intelligentsia…. One person told me that Nouwen’s appeal could be compared to that of motherhood–a warm comforting embrace that leaves you feeling good.3

Let us examine what led Nouwen to come to his interspiritual, panentheistic sympathies.

In Nouwen’s book, Sabbatical Journey (which was a diary or journal of what turned out to the be the last year of his life), Nouwen admitted he was listening to tapes on the chakras (which Reiki is based on) during that final year,4 and in that same book he discusses meeting a man named Andrew Harvey at a talk Harvey was giving. Nouwen said he was particularly attracted to this homosexual New Ager’s mystical affinities.5 It is Harvey who stated: “we are all essentially children of the Divine and can realize that identity with our Source here on earth and in a body.”6 Without a doubt, it is clear to see that Henri Nouwen concluded his life as one who had been affected by mysticism to the point it altered his spiritual outlook and gave him panentheistic propensities.

The fact is, Nouwen embraced this New Age spirituality after many years of drawing from the wells of mysticism. From his earliest writings, Nouwen was interested in Thomas Merton (whom he met once at the Gethsemani monastery in Kentucky), the Catholic monk who helped to bring contemplative spirituality out of the monasteries and into Christianity at large. After turning to mysticism himself, Merton came to believe that Divinity (God) dwells in all human beings.

In Nouwen’s earliest books, Intimacy (1969) and Creative Ministry (1971), he was already talking about Thomas Merton. In 1972, Nouwen wrote a book titled: Pray to Live: Thomas Merton – Contemplative Critic. Clearly, this little-known testament of praise for Merton shows Nouwen’s affinity to Merton’s mysticism. In the introduction of the book, Nouwen admits the “impact” Merton had on his life. In that book, Nouwen discusses a major turning point in Merton’s life when Merton crossed paths with a Hindu monk called Dr. Bramachari. “Merton wrote about him with much humor, great respect and deep reverence,” Nouwen states.7 Merton, who was seeking to be a mystic and at the time was studying many of the “great” eastern mystics, was told by Bramachari that he did not have to leave the Christian faith to become a mystic; it could be found, he said, within the walls of “the Christian mystical tradition”8 – that is “Christian” mysticism. Merton took Bramachari’s advice and became a pioneer in bringing mysticism to Christianity. Later, Richard Foster became Merton’s voice in the evangelical church.

After writing Pray to Live: Thomas Merton – Contemplative Critic, Nouwen went on to write several other books with the continued theme of contemplative spirituality. Two of the most popular ones today are The Way of the Heart (1981) and In the Name of Jesus (1989). It is this latter book that Rick and Kay Warren so highly recommend. In that book, Nouwen states that Christian leaders must move “from the moral to the mystical.”9 Rick and Kay may have learned about Nouwen from New Age sympathizer Robert Schuller who resonates with Nouwen as well, saying the students at Robert H. Schuller Institute for Successful Church Leadership (of which Warren was one) had to “watch and listen to” Nouwen.10

In The Way of the Heart, Nouwen speaks of eastern-style meditation:

The quiet repetition of a single word can help us to descend with the mind into the heart … This way of simple prayer … opens us to God’s active presence.11

In A Time of Departing, Ray Yungen discusses this “active presence” that Nouwen was referring to:

But what God’s “active presence” taught him, unfortunately, stood more in line with classic Hinduism than classic evangelical Christianity. He wrote:

Prayer is “soul work” because our souls are those sacred centers where all is one, … It is in the heart of God that we can come to the full realization of the unity of all that is.12

It is critical to note here that Nouwen did not say all Christians are one; he said “all is one,” which is the fundamental panentheistic concept of God–the God in everything unites everything. Like Thomas Merton, it was Nouwen’s intent to make mystical prayer a pervasive paradigm within all traditions of Christianity. He felt the evangelical church had many admirable qualities but lacked one vital one: mysticism. He sought to remedy this by imploring,

It is to this silence [contemplative prayer] that we all are called….13

The doctrines (instructions) of demons (no matter how nice, how charming, how devoted to God they sound) convey that everything has Divine Presence (all is One). This is clear heresy, for that would be saying Satan and God are one also. If what Henri Nouwen proclaimed is true when he said, “We can come to the full realization of the unity of all that is,” then Jesus Christ and Satan are also united. That, my friend, is something only a demonic spirit would teach!14

For skeptics in Christian circles (professors, pastors, teachers, etc) who are touting and promoting the writings of Henri Nouwen, let it be known that you are promoting the writings of Thomas Merton–they are one in the same. They both believed in the importance of eastern-style meditation, and they both came to believe there were many paths to God and divinity dwelt in all things and people. Not only are Nouwen’s books evidence of this, but there is record of nearly thirty years of journals, articles, forewords to others books, talks, and interviews where Nouwen espouses the path of mysticism.15

In one of those forewords, a book that mixes Christianity with Hindu spirituality, Nouwen stated:

[T]he author shows a wonderful openness to the gifts of Buddhism, Hinduism and Moslem religion. He discovers their great wisdom for the spiritual life of the Christian … Ryan [the author] went to India to learn from spiritual traditions other than his own. He brought home many treasures and offers them to us in the book.16

On the back cover of another book, Meditation, by Eknath Easwaran, a Hindu guru, Nouwen said: “This book has helped me a great deal.”

In spite of all this, many, many Christian figures and leaders point their followers, readers, students, and congregants to Henri Nouwen. Whether these leaders understand the true spirituality of Henri Nouwen or not, they are leading people to something that could ultimately develop within them great spiritual deception and for some, detrimental eternal loss.

1. Nouwen, Sabbatical Journey, p. 51.
2. Yungen, A Time of Departing, p. 61.
3. Ibid.
4. Nouwen, Sabbatical Journey, p. 20.
5. Ibid., p. 149.
6. Harvey, The Direct Path, p. 34.
7. Nouwen, Pray to Live: Thomas Merton – Contemplative Critic, p. 28, (later called Thomas Merton: Contemplative Critic – 1981).
8. Ibid., p. 29.
9. Nouwen, In the Name of Jesus, pp 31-32.
10. Ford, Wounded Prophet, p. 35.
11. Nouwen, The Way of the Heart, p. 81, 1991 ed.
12. Nouwen, Bread for the Journey, 1997, 1/15 & 11/16 readings
13. Nouwen, The Way of the Heart, p. 66.
14. Yungen, from chapters 3 and 7 of A Time of Departing.
15. Complete list of Nouwen’s published works.
16. Ryan, Disciplines for Christian Living, pp. 2-3.

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