IT IS EASIER, I HAVE DECIDED, TO WRITE AN ESSAY OF apology than to dread my e-mail every day. This proceeds, like most confessions in the first instance, more from attrition than contrition. Or to borrow Henri Nouwen's words from his beautiful book, The Return of the Prodigal Son, "It is a self-serving repentance that offers the possibility of survival."
For the half dozen of you who are not Nouwen aficionados and have not written to reprove me, the matter concerns a piece I wrote for the Aug. 2 issue in which I casually called the renowned Catholic cleric Henri J.M. Nouwen a "homosexual priest," without attestation and as if it were common knowledge. It wasn't.
In the days that followed I spent considerable time scrambling to justify myself, hoping to heaven that Nouwen was gay. It was like the little boy who, finding himself caught off guard before a pop geography quiz, offers up a desperate prayer: "God, please let Chicago be the capital of Illinois."
In the spirit of making lemonade from lemons, then, here is the first lesson to salvage: Young writer, beware the tendency to force the facts to fit your thesis. It's as ugly as Druzella trying to cram her clodhopper feet into Cinderella's tiny glass slipper. Moreover, the otherwise worthy points you made in your essay will be spoiled, as for one reader who complained to me that "the whole was lost." Remember the harsh law of disproportion taught in Ecclesiastes 10:1: "Dead flies make the perfumer's ointment give off a stench; so a little folly outweighs wisdom and honor."
Understand, I did not create my characterization of Nouwen out of whole cloth. There is a biography out there by BBC journalist Michael Ford, Wounded Prophet: Portrait of Henri J.M. Nouwen, in which he makes the case that Nouwen was gay. You read and decide. For my own part, I will now explain why I think that was not sufficient basis for my breezy allegation.
Issue one: Laws of evidence. What is the weight of a testimony? Anyone who's spent a semester in a seminary knows that the business of evaluating manuscripts is complicated. In assessing the relative worth of competing ancient manuscripts of the Bible, it is not a simple matter of counting the number of parchments that attest to one version. If you have 12 manuscripts all containing one reading of Romans and only two containing a variant reading, the 12 don't automatically beat out the two. It depends on which manuscripts are earlier. It depends on whether the 12 are actually 12 independent testimonies or are all derivative from one text. And so forth.
In the case of Mr. Ford's book, he has lots of close friends of Nouwen attesting that he was gay. Is that considered many testimonies (all those interviewees), or is that one testimony (Ford's)? How do you count it? And how does that stack up against the fact that Nouwen himself never "came out" publicly (though the author argues he was considering that option before he died)? We have the word of a few live men against the silence of a dead man.
The Old Testament gives criteria, which the New Testament upholds: "In your Law it is written that the testimony of two men is true" (John 8:17). I have contacted gay Christians to ask where they get the idea that Nouwen was gay, and when pressed it mostly comes down to Mr. Ford's book-which, again, is arguably only one witness. If I cannot cite two bona fide witnesses, then I fail to meet the biblical criteria.
Issue two: What does it mean to call a man a "homosexual priest" anyway? Does it mean "practicing homosexual" (no hard evidence in Mr. Ford's book), or can it be a private struggle with particular temptations? If the latter, isn't it a bit silly to define a whole man in terms of one of his spiritual battles? Would I have described a person who wrestles with laziness a "sloth priest" (we don't even have a noun for it)?
Now here is where I'm stuck: What does it mean that Nouwen's books are hawked on gay Christian websites? Well, it doesn't mean the man was gay. It does mean something though; I don't see ChristianLesbians.com recommending John Piper or R.C. Sproul. Why have gays found in Nouwen a hospitable climate for their own views? Something isn't sharp. Is it possible that though the man cherished and beautifully expounded on the love of God, he was less informed on the holiness and law of God? This is my hunch and my reading of him. The ball is in your court.