Nouwen’s second reflection introduced compassion as movement toward the poor, the oppressed, and the ugly. Downward mobility is the compassionate call to become like children, disciples of a different kingdom. It is the complement to belovedness, a celebration of weakness. It is the catalyst for authentic compassion, God’s ongoing work to reconcile and heal the downtrodden. This is not a human prerogative. Compassion begins and ends with God.
For me to be among the downwardly mobile, the only requirement is that I perceive what God is compassionately doing and willingly enter into it. Identification with the poor reveals the symmetry of my fault lines and cracks, exposing my belovedness. Becoming the beloved does not happen through interiority or contemplation. The beloved engages others in transformative relationships.
I finished Nouwen’s second essay in disbelief. The reading was at once liberating and shattering. My attitude toward service went something like this: Compassion is the currency of spiritual commitment, something I spontaneously conjure in response to needs. I initiate compassionate acts. When I do this, I dance with idols as others celebrate my well-intentioned sacrifices.
For Nouwen, however, this compassion is empty foolishness. True compassion arises in the context of lived identity as the beloved of God. Belovedness is unmerited grace, an invitation to membership in a holy family. Full realization of this identity comes with the caveat of identification with the poor. Until I embrace my own brokenness, I am unable to perceive the extent of my belovedness. Downward mobility celebrates the brokenness of others and, consequently, of my own brokenness. With this discovery comes the deeper magic of identity as beloved. Before this moment, I might have pointed to a measured, calculated love in Christ’s penal restitution of the world from sin. I would never have imagined that befriending brokenness was a necessary step toward belovedness.I am not aware of Nouwen’s formal views on the atonement. Based on his writings, I suspect that he would be less inclined to embrace the penal substitution of Anselm in favor of the Christus victor model of the patristics. Christus victor emphasizes a view of Christ’s passion given not to divine retribution but full identification of the Trinity with the suffering of the world. See Gustaf Aulen, Christus Victor: An Historical Study of the Three Main Types of the Idea of Atonement (trans. A. Herber, New York: Wipf, 2003).
I was granted a full hour for Nouwen’s insights to steep. It wasn’t until my family exploded through the front door that I re-engaged my surroundings. I was consumed again by the buzz of movie replays and shopping exploits. Computers and phones were reactivated. I was surrounded by the clamor of daily living. Fortunately, I hadn’t lost the moment. During that precious time, several issues in my life came clearly into focus.
I was figuratively in pieces. Before my encounter with Nouwen, I was working through the ramifications of a major career change. After a brief sojourn into pastoral ministry, I had returned to graduate school with the goal of obtaining a doctorate in psychology. Unlike most of my peers, it was not my goal to become a clinician or counselor. Instead, I was returning to my passion for science and scholarship. Perhaps ironically, my primary area of study was human identity.
For much of my life I was fascinated by questions related to self-understanding and moral behavior. So engaging was the topic that I had spent months designing a new methodology to study moral identity using computational linguistics.This work continues through to the present. See Kevin Reimer and David Wade-Stein, “Moral Identity in Adolescence: Self and Other in Semantic Space,” Identity, 4 (2004): 229–249. Also, Kevin Reimer, “Natural Character: Psychological Realism for the Downwardly Mobile,” Theology & Science, 2 (2004): 35–54. The work was a creative and engaging respite from several years of difficult service in the parish. But this left me with internal conflict. I am an empathic person. I have pastoral tendencies. In leaving the ministry, I seemed to be walking away from meaningful opportunities to grow in belovedness and compassionate downward mobility. How would my new calling serve the poor? What is the meaning of belovedness in matrix algebra, cluster analysis, and social cognition? Nouwen’s spiritual direction raised questions without immediate answers.