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Emergent and the mystics

October 2006 | by Richard Bennett

The Vatican and the Emerging Church have something surprising in common — the promotion of mysticism. A well-known papal document reveals the heart of Roman Catholic policy in this area.

‘It [Vatican Council II] longs to set forth the way it understands the presence and function of the [Roman Catholic] Church in the world of today. Therefore, the world which the Council has in mind is the whole human family seen in the context of everything which envelops it … This is the reason why this sacred Synod, in proclaiming the noble destiny of man and affirming an element of the divine in him, offers to co-operate unreservedly with mankind in fostering a sense of brotherhood to correspond to this destiny of theirs’.1
Put simply, to promote her role in the world the Roman Catholic Church affirms specifically that there is ‘an element of the divine’ in all men.
This may sound like a version of the Bible’s statement that man is made in the image of God but in reality it is quite different. Such teaching attempts to do away with the transcendence of God and the total depravity of man in his natural or unregenerate state. In a word, it is pantheism.
The Bible proclaims, ‘In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.’2 This asserts the absolute distinction of God from all created things. The Lord God is revealed as unique and separate from his creation.
Yet this papal declaration of pantheism is now being accepted and marketed by the self-styled Evangelicals of the Emerging (or Emergent) church movement.

Mystic syncretism for youth

Tony Jones is the US National Coordinator of Emergent-US and minister to youth at Colonial Church of Edina, Minnesota. He is a regular speaker at Youth Specialties National Youth Workers’ Conventions.
Jones was also one of the featured seminar presenters for the Zondervan National Pastors’ Conference in February 2006. The back cover of his 2003 book, Soul shaper: Exploring spirituality and contemplative practices in youth ministry, claims that the book ‘is hands down the most comprehensive primer on the study and use of spiritual and contemplative practices for the benefit of your teenagers — and especially your own soul’.3
Yet Jones recommends Meister Eckhardt’s Collected works as ‘a mystical treatise … with an emphasis on God’s indwelling of humanity’4 (my emphasis). This should be enough to forewarn any true Christian of Jones’ latent pantheism.

Missing testimony

In neither of his two books, Soul shaper and The sacred way: Spiritual practices for everyday life (2005), does Jones present the gospel. Like so many leaders in the Emergent Church, he has no personal testimony of being convicted of his sin and coming to Christ as the only Saviour.
Rather, Jones’ opening chapter (‘The quest for God’) shows that in 2005 he was still fumbling in the darkness of unbelief. He writes of ‘this nagging feeling that God is following us around, nudging us to live justly, and expecting us to talk to him every once in a while … Yet having this sense of God’s company doesn’t necessarily translate to a meaningful spiritual life. I know this because despite my awareness of God’s presence, I have spent most of my life trying to figure out what to do about it’.5
This sad testimony is of a man who is not ‘in Christ’ — yet he is one of the leading lights of the Emergent Church movement.

Ancient ways

Of his upbringing in a Protestant church, he says, ‘I’d say there was one word that summed up my religious life: obligation.’6 Predictably, he fell away from his pattern of obligatory prayer, Bible reading, and ‘quiet time’, but felt guilt-ridden about it. His solution? ‘Something occurred to me: People have been trying to follow God for thousands of years … Maybe somewhere along the line some of them had come up with ways of connecting with God that could help people like me … I could think of no better way to spend [his three-month sabbatical] than to travel and read about different ancient ways of prayer and devotion’.7
His travels took him to Ireland, to Catholic priest Alan McGuickian and the staff at the Jesuit Communication Centre, Dublin. He ‘voraciously read’ Roman Catholic mystics and spoke with Protestants, Roman Catholics and Eastern Orthodox. Nowhere, however, does he mention any in-depth study of the Bible or speak of pondering the great truths of Scripture.
In fact his searching is reminiscent of Ignatius of Loyola8 and it is noteworthy that he recommends youths and youth pastors to practise the ‘disciplines’ of the founder of the Jesuits.
What is clear is that ‘obligation’ remains central to his understanding of what it means to be a Christian — but sadly, because Jones does not hold to the Bible alone as the source of the knowledge of God, God himself remains undefined. Thus Jones is free to define his own god and to fulfil his obligations to this god, mostly through­Roman Catholic mystical exercises.

Defining a Christian

Jones’s definition of ‘Christian’ needs careful attention. In The sacred way, he states,
‘For years I’d been told that to be a Christian meant I had to do three things: (1) read the Bible, (2) pray, and (3) go to church. But I had come to the realisation that there must be something more. And indeed there is.
‘There is a long tradition of searching among the followers of Jesus — it’s a quest, really, for ways to connect with God … The quest is to know Jesus better, to follow him more closely, to become — in some mysterious way — wrapped into his presence. And I thank God that some of these brilliant and spiritual persons wrote down what they learned’ (pp. 16-17).
What is missing in Jones’s definition is any conviction of sin and therefore any understanding of the need for a Saviour. The Lord declared that the Holy Spirit ‘will reprove the world of sin, and of righteousness, and of judgment’.9 Conviction is the Spirit’s work, and only he can open the mind and heart of a sinner to saving faith.
Jones appears to be totally unaware of this, for he says nothing about the Lord Jesus Christ as Saviour, or about the Holy Spirit’s role of conviction and regeneration. Jones is not a ‘follower of Jesus’ in any biblical sense, since his god is not the all-holy God of the Bible nor is his ‘Jesus’ the Lord Jesus Christ of the Bible.

Not according to knowledge

Jones does state, however, that he feels ‘that the road to inner peace and connection with our Creator is through Jesus’.10 But adds, ‘the point of these [mystical] practices is to draw me into a deeper relationship with the Christian God’. However, while recommending mystical practices he cannot say why he has found them so helpful or why they work.
He states, ‘I think they work because of Jesus. I’m afraid you’re not going to get much more explanation from me than that. Still, I think that something about Jesus … inspired the people who developed these disciplines centuries ago.
‘He led them on this quest, which really is unique to Christianity. For only in Christianity is there the belief that the one, true God came to earth as a human being, and that, to this day, we can know him in as personal a way as the disciples who shared lunch with him 2,000 years ago.
‘That is, Christians engage in these spiritual practices not out of duty or obligation but because there is a promise attached: God will personally meet us in the midst of these disciplines’.11
For Jones, as with Catholic and other mystics, instruction by the Holy Spirit through the written Word has become irrelevant because they do not believe that God has revealed true propositional knowledge about himself through the Scripture alone. ‘They have a zeal for God but not according to knowledge’.12

Bypassing Christ

They have neglected God’s call, ‘Come now, and let us reason together, says the Lord; though your sins be as scarlet they shall be as white as snow’.13 Rather than engaging their minds over the issues of sin and righteousness, they seek a subjective meeting with God through spiritual exercises — practices that do not engage the mind with biblical truth.
When this so-called union is experienced, a sense of ‘spiritual fulfilment’ is felt. This so-called ‘enlightenment’ completely bypasses Christ as the only way to come to God.
Yet fallen man cannot communicate with God other than through Christ, who is the only Mediator — Jesus said, ‘I am the way, the truth, and the life: no man comes to the Father but by me’.14 This declaration excludes all subjective mystical experiences as means of reaching the Father.
Historically, the spiritual disciplines which Jones advocates arose and flourished under the monastic system. These mystical practices went hand in hand with the asceticism that prevailed especially in Egypt and the Middle East.
The fundamental principle behind them was the Gnostic idea that human flesh is the seat of evil, and that to find and meet with God one must first mortify the body and engage in spiritual rituals or disciplines.
The present-day Emerging Church movement is full of spurious ‘contemplative practices’. The danger of the Emerging Church’s type of spirituality is that it replaces the certainty of the written Word by subjective experiences. Only by taking heed to the counsel of the Lord can his followers enjoy genuine fellowship with God.
Jones and other leaders of the movement teach ‘spiritual disciplines’ which bypass Jesus Christ and his indwelling Spirit and make no mention of sin, morality and the commandments of God.
The only true approach to God is by trusting in the perfect life and sacrifice of Christ — which includes repenting of and forsaking sin.  In that there is true peace and salvation.
 
Richard Bennett’s book, Catholicism: East of Eden is distributed in UK and Europe by Evangelical Press. Details may be found on: www.evangelicalpress.org/esales/  His ownWebPage is www.bereanbeacon.org

Footnotes

1. Vatican II Document No.64, Gaudium et Spes.
2. Genesis 1:1.
3. Tony Jones, Soul shaper: exploring spirituality and contemplative practices in youth ministry (Zondervan, 2003).
4. Ibid, p.252.
5. Tony Jones, The sacred way: spiritual practices for everyday life (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2005) p.15.
6. The sacred way, p.15.
7. Ibid, p.16.
8. Ignatius’ search began by reading stories of the Catholic saints, and attending to images, all of which fed his wild imagination with mystical fervour. None of these things brought salvation.
9. John 16:8.
10. The sacred way, p.17.
11. The sacred way, pp. 18-19.
12. Romans 10:2.
13. Isaiah 1:18.
14. John 14:6.

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