I wouldn’t be here if I hadn’t gone through the university. I am very grateful for my own education as well as for my years of teaching at Notre Dame, Yale, and Harvard. I still believe that the university is a place where people can develop their minds and learn skills, but also they can develop their personalities and their spiritual life.
For me the university has always been an ideal context for spiritual formation. I always felt that if you want to offer spiritual formation at the university, you can. It is not that the university as such is against spiritual formation. It is just that often the university does not know how to integrate spiritual formation within its academic disciplines.
I must also say that the university is an enormously competitive place. It lives by an ethic of upward mobility. It says, “You have to make it in life. You have to be better. You have to be a doctor or a lawyer or whatever, and you have to show that you can do it.” That’s the world. The university has become a place that prepares you for the fights in the world.
But a university with a Christian or a spiritual side to it is good when it allows the people to realize that the deepest human values are beyond competition, that Jesus was into “downward mobility.” He took the descending way. He talked about humility, forgiveness, and healing.
A university education is very important. Here in our community, I work hard to get people into higher education, so that some of our people take degrees in theology or social work. I am not anti-intellectual. Just the opposite! I’m not saying, “Go to a nice little community and spend the rest of your life there.” When a young man comes to work with us, after a few years I say, “Why don’t you go and get a degree?” You have to be as prudent as snakes and gentle as doves.
Now some universities, more than others, are able to live with the tension between downward and upward mobility, the tension between ambition and humility, and so forth. Next fall I’ll be teaching at the university, and I feel very welcome there.
The people there are good and caring people who love Christ and the gospel. But also they have to raise scholarships, give grades, compete, and get students. It’s also a very worldly operation. I don’t think it’s so bad that the tension exists.
The great teachers are always those who can live the tension. They are not criticizing everybody, they’re not complaining. They give young people a vision. In my own family my father was always saying to me, “Be sure that you make a difference in the world. Be sure that I can be proud of you.” And my mother would say, “Be sure you stay close to Jesus.” (And my father agrees with my mother!) Yes, it’s a competitive world, but where is your heart?
an extract from Darryl Tippens’ interview with Henri Nouwen conducted at the L’Arche community called Daybreak near Toronto, Ontario, Canada on December 29, 1993.