“Nuclear Man” Then and Now

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August 12, 2016 by jmw

Henri Nouwen was a Catholic priest, teacher, and author who spent the latter half of his life living with the L’Arche communities of France and Canada. Among his 40+ books on the spiritual life is one entitled The Wounded Healer in which Nouwen sets out to explore the conditions of modern life and what it might mean to be a minister in such conditions. Although written in 1972, I find Nouwen’s foresight into modern (and postmodern) experience to be both astute and prophetic.

Nouwen begins with the description of “nuclear man,” that is, the stereotypical person in the Western world in the 70’s and after. This person has lost a naive faith in progress and has witnessed the destructiveness of humankind like never before. The nuclear person sees the ecological impact and imbalance caused by economic interest.

Nouwen characterizes this experience in three ways:

1) Historical Dislocation – a break in connection with the past and future; a distancing from the unifying symbols of parents’ generation; a “non history” that focuses on the here and now.

“When we wonder why the traditional language of Christianity has lost its liberating power for nuclear man, we have to realize that most Christian preaching is still based on the presupposition that man sees himself meaningfully integrated in a history in which God came to us in the past, is living under us in the present, and will come to liberate us in the future. But when man’s historical consciousness is broken, the whole Christian message seems like a lecture about the great pioneers to a boy on an acid trip.”

2) Fragmented Ideology – “fast-shifting value system;” the mixing of value systems (less rigid boundaries); the exposure to many and various ideas; using whatever values/ideas work for now, while not committing to hold them as permanent fixtures.

3) A Search for a New Immortality – the attempt to find new ways to transcend the limitations of being human. Nuclear man no longer finds meaning in traditional Christian symbols like heaven, hell, kingdom of God, resurrection, etc.

Nouwen goes on to suggest that nuclear man searches for liberation in two major ways: mysticism and revolution.

(1) In mysticism people turn inward, searching for that great universal, that great connection with all that exists. Hence the ongoing trend with Zen and Yoga, or even psychodelic drugs. Through meditation and mindful practices the person may cut through the apathy and reach deep currents. In this place s/he touches the very real place of prayer, the “breath of human existence.”

(2) The revolutionary way is inspired by the observance that there is now only a choice between a new world or no world at all; thus the revolutionary way desires to change the world with the mindset that “revolution is better than suicide.” Characterisitic of this approach is the mindset that only a radical change of everything will save us.

Nouwen suggests that in Jesus the mystical and the revolutionary come together. He is increasingly convinced that the conversion of the individual is the equivalent of revolution. Further, “no mystic can prevent himself from becoming a social critic, since in self-reflection he will discover the roots of a sick society. Similarly, no revolutionary can avoid facing his own human condition, since in the midst of his struggle for a new world he will find that he is also fighting his own reactionary fear and false ambitions.”

Jesus was a revolutionary but did not offer an ideology but rather himself, his person, his presence, his compassion. He was also a mystic but did not avoid society but rather engaged it to the point of being executed.

In this simple analysis Nouwen captures both a diagnosis of the current milieu as well as a potential way of life within it. The delicate balance of mysticism and revolution offers us a holistic remedy for both our spiritual/existential angst and our social/ecological crisis.


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