By: Rev. Clete Hux –
To varying degrees, all human beings seek their own autonomy or independence. This is especially true when it comes to a relationship with God our Creator. Suffice it to say that when we come into this world, we don’t come in running toward God. On the contrary, we come in running away from the God in whose image we are made. Shall we call it escape from reason? Frances Schaeffer did when he talked about a “natural theology” defined as man going his own independent way, not seeking the God of the Bible, nor taking the Bible as the only rule of faith and practice.
What Schaeffer meant by this “natural theology” and independence of man forsaking God is different from the revelation of God in nature. One is man driven. The other is God given. We have the general revelation of God’s existence through creation and conscience which Paul speaks of in the first chapter of Romans. All men are consciously aware of our Creator’s existence. Yet, man’s fallen nature wants to suppress this knowledge. For example, a pickpocket picks pockets, but resents his own pocket being picked. The same suppression goes for the knowledge of God salvifically through the special revelation of His word and His Son. Instead, man would rather seek God on his own terms, making himself the point of reference for life’s interpretation and application.
With this independent bent often being described as a thirst for spirituality, some people will gravitate to occult mysticism in hopes of having an experience with God. What He has provided in His word through a relationship with His Son and the guidance of His Holy Spirit seem never to be enough when confined only to what can be found within the scriptural context of the Bible.
The writer of Proverbs 3:5, “Trust in the Lord with all your heart…” knew that our tendency is to “lean to our own understanding.” Because of the subjective nature of individual spiritual experiences, we are encouraged to trust in the unchanging God and the objectivity of His word. Church history is replete with people going after experiences outside biblical parameters and our day is no exception.
It has been said that the various charismatic movements over the years are attempts to experience God, and it could be argued that there is both legitimacy and illegitimacy to such. However, we would admit that a relationship with God through His Son’s intervention for us is experiential, yet, grounded in the proper bounds of His word. After all, is not the reason why the Father sent the Son…to pay our sin dept so that we can have an experiential relationship with Him? Of course, it is!
The problem is that mankind is forever devising ways to experience God unsanctioned by the one and only rule of faith and practice, the Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments. Instead, the idea of experiencing God has led to many subjective ways of being spiritual, which oftentimes has led to mysticism.
I mentioned occult mysticism, which can be defined as the attempt to obtain power through secret wisdom. This is the point where mysticism and gnosticism meet. This so-called secret occult knowledge has been around a long time through various forms such as Alice Bailey’s Esoteric Astrology (involving the horoscope), Madame Helen Blavatsky’s Theosophical Society, many forms of parapsychology and other secret societies too numerous to count.
In our day we have the whole gamut of the contemplative prayer movement and lately, the Enneagram is spreading into the church. Years ago, while in seminary training, I became curious about Christian mysticism. So, I decided to ask one of my favorite professors, Frank M. Barker, Jr., one of the PCA’s founding fathers. He told me that in his opinion mysticism was nothing more than mythism. I will never forget his statement. With this in mind, let’s look briefly at the worldview of the two topics I mentioned: Contemplative Prayer and Richard Rohr’s version of The Enneagram.
One of the most popular names associated with the contemplative movement is Richard Foster. Although having Quaker roots, which is problematic because of Quakerism’s “inner light” leading some toward neo-orthodoxy believing the Bible becomes the word God when one has a spiritual experience, Foster’s contemplative practices are really indebted to Thomas Merton, a Catholic monk. Merton’s mysticism resources can be found in the Catholic Church, much of the Evangelical Church, the Emergent Church Movement, and the New Age Movement. Indeed, many interfaith dialogues not only are promoting religious pluralism, but using some contemplative practices to do so.
Beyond Foster and Merton, there is Henri Nouwen, a Dutch Catholic priest, touted by Tony Campolo as one of the great Christians of our time.1 Then there is Thomas Keating, another Catholic monk. And, while we’re at it, we need to mention Matthew Fox, former Catholic priest turned Episcopalian with his Creation Spirituality in which he teaches a panentheistic worldview. Panentheism is the belief that “all is in God/God is in all.” It is akin to what is known as Process Theology. A rudimentary illustration: God is in the world the way a soul is in the body and as the world processes, evolves and changes, so does God process, evolve and change. Obviously, this is not the God of Holy Scriptures who does not change regardless of what evolution-minded people might say.
The biggest danger to which one is exposed in the contemplative movement is a subtle erosion of the Creator/creature distinction toward a monistic or “synthesis of all things” understanding. This has much in common with Eastern mysticism that basically teaches all is one and all is divine by nature. Consider what Catholic monk Basil Penninton said in his book, Thomas Merton, My Brother: “The Spirit enlightened him [Merton] in the true synthesis [unity] of all and in the harmony of that huge chorus of living beings. In the midst of it he lived out a vision of the new world, where all divisions have fallen away and the divine goodness is perceived and enjoyed as present in all and through all.” 2
Merton, who is often quoted by Richard Foster, tells about a trip to Asia where he met Chatral [a Tibetan holy man] whom Merton regarded as the greatest Buddhist teacher he had met. In their conversations, Merton found that he agreed with this Buddhist regarding Dzogchen meditation, which promotes a non-dualistic worldview. This relates to the so-called “mindfulness meditation” curricula that exists in some public schools and other venues throughout the country. What I find interesting about Merton’s time with Chatral is that Merton records Chatral being surprised at getting on so well with a Christian, so much so, that Chatral said that something had to be wrong! Chatral was so surprised by their common meditation understanding that he called Merton a natural Buddha. In other words, there was harmonious agreement that their respective meditative practices were the same. Perhaps, this is the reason why Merton said that he would not be able to understand Christian teaching the way he did if it were not in the light of Buddhism.3
Another name is Brennan Manning, who in the past, endorsed Beatrice Bruteau as a “trustworthy guide to contemplative consciousness”. Bruteau founded two different schools of contemplative practices, both incorporating Hindu and Buddhist approaches to spirituality. This is understandable since Bruteau studied with the Ramakrishna order, named after famous Hindu swami Sri Ramakrishna.4