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Modern Christian mysticism

July 2005 | by Gary Gilley

Classical mysticism was virtually  unknown in evangelical circles until 1978, when Quaker minister Richard J. Foster published Celebration of discipline, the path to spiritual growth. Hailed by Christianity Today as one of the ten best books of the twentieth century, and voted by the readers of that magazine as the third most influential book after the Bible, Celebration of discipline has blown the doors off an evangelical understanding of spirituality.

What Foster has done, in essence, is reintroduce to the church the so-called ‘masters of the interior life’, as he likes to call the Medieval mystics. He declares that they alone have discovered the key to true spiritual life. Over the last few years, he has convinced multitudes that he is right.

It seems to me that Foster’s recipe for Christian living has been simmering in the pot for over two decades but has now caught fire. Organisations such as Youth Specialties, numerous Bible colleges, and a rash of books and speakers, are all busy introducing mystical theology and practices to our young people and our young ministers.

Many of these, having grown up in churches that no longer teach Scripture and so lack biblical discernment, are easy prey for techniques that promise life-changing encounters with God. What, then, are Foster’s key teachings?

In general

Celebration of disciplineis an encyclopedia of theological error. These errors include faulty views on the subjective guidance from God; approval of New Age teachers; occultic use of imagination; open theism; misunderstanding of the will of God in prayer; promotion of visions, revelations and charismatic gifts; and the endorsement of rosary and prayer wheel use.

To these can be added misunderstanding of the Old Testament Law for today; mystical journaling; pop-psychology; Roman Catholic concepts such as ‘spiritual directors’, confession and penance; and aberrant charismatic practices.

Foster introduces dozens of mystics to the unsuspecting reader – some from the Christian tradition, some not. All, he assures us, have reached heights of spiritual experience that we moderns cannot even imagine.

They knew the secrets of an encounter with God. If we followed their pattern we too could enjoy what they enjoyed. But just who are these mystics? I will sketch three of Foster’s favorites.

Meister Eckhart

Eckhart, a Dominican monk, lived in the 13th and 14th centuries. He was charged with heresy (and found guilty after his death in 1327) for his mystical assertions which, the Catholic Church ruled, had crossed the line into pantheism.

Eckhart ‘believed that in every human soul there is something of the very nature of God. Here it is that the human soul meets God … [His] doctrine of the human soul has lasted to the present, and is reaffirmed whenever one speaks of a Divine Spark within each of us’. 1

He made statements such as these: ‘Henceforth I shall not speak about the soul, for she has lost her name yonder in the oneness of divine essence. There she is no more called soul: she is called infinite being’. Again, ‘She plunges into the bottomless well of the divine nature and becomes one with God that she herself would say that she is God’.

Such statements not only bothered the Medieval Church – modern researchers have found in Eckhart’s philosophy all the major elements of Hindu mysticism.2 Other scholars doubt Eckhart’s alleged pantheism but his statements certainly leave the door open for such interpretations.

Yet Eckhart is considered to be one of the most important Christian mystics of the Middle Ages and both ancient and modern mysticism reflect his views. Eckhart’s ‘Divine Spark’ corresponds closely to the teachings of Eastern Mysticism, with the difference that in Christian Mysticism it is defined as God residing in every human being.

Thomas Merton

Foster cites Merton on at least nine separate occasions in Celebration of discipline, yet Merton was not a Christian as far as we can tell. He was a twentieth-century Roman Catholic who had so immersed himself in Buddhism that he saw no contradiction between Buddhism and Christianity and intended to become as good a Buddhist as he could.3

Yet despite Merton’s doctrinal views and New Age leanings, Foster considers his Contemplative prayerto be ‘a must book’,4 and says, ‘[He] has perhaps done more than any other twentieth-century figure to make the life of prayer widely known and understood’.5

Merton wrote, ‘If only [people] could see themselves as they really are. If only we could see each other that way all the time. There would be no more war, no more hatred, no more cruelty, no more greed … I suppose the big problem would be that we would fall down and worship each other’.6

Ignatius Loyola

Loyola founded the Society of Jesus (the Jesuits) in 1534 to fight the battles of the church against infidels and heretics, in what is now termed the ‘Counter-Reformation’. But our specific interest lies in his Spiritual exerciseswhich set out specifications for spiritual self-examination and the mental and spiritual conditioning practised by the Jesuits. Foster’s disciplines seem to draw heavily on Ignatius.

St John of the Cross and Teresa of Ávila were also mystics of note involved in the Counter-Reformation. They believed that through contemplation a union with God could be obtained which would eradicate sinful actions and tendencies.

Spiritual disciplines as means of grace

However, our greatest concern lies in the two main thrusts of Foster’s spiritual system. The first is his use of what he calls the ‘spiritual disciplines’. The second is the concept of ‘contemplative prayer’, which is rapidly becoming the rage throughout much of evangelicalism, especially among the youth.

Let me begin by citing an experience that Foster shares in Celebration of discipline. Having reached the conclusion that there must be ‘more spiritual resources than I was experiencing’, he prayed, ‘Lord, is there more you want to bring into my life? I want to be conquered and ruled by you. If there is anything blocking the flow of your power, reveal it to me’.7

He then received a growing impression that something in his past was impeding the flow of life. So he set aside blocks of time on three consecutive days to listen to God in absolute silence using ‘journaling’ – a process whereby God is supposed to reveal his mind to the silent participant, who lists the impressions he receives. Journaling is nowhere taught in the Bible but is common in the occultic world.

After the third day Foster took his lists to a friend, who volunteered to serve as his confessor and pray for healing of the sorrows and hurts of Foster’s past (as supposedly revealed by God).

As a result of this experience, Foster felt ‘released to explore what were for me new and uncharted regions of the Spirit. Following that event, I began to move into several of the Disciplines described in this book that I had never experienced before’.8

Subjective experiences

It is disturbing that Foster’s magnum opusstems from such a dubious ‘Divine encounter’. His system for spiritual growth is not drawn from Scripture but from subjective experiences involving unbiblical methodologies – reinforced by Roman Catholic mystical practices.

This should give pause to any seeker of truth. We must not automatically assume, as many seem to do, that Foster has rediscovered the missing jewels of spirituality.

In the 25th anniversary edition of Celebration of discipline, Eugene Peterson claims: ‘Like a child exploring the attic of an old house on a rainy day, discovering a trunk full of treasure and then calling all his brothers and sisters to share the find, Richard J. Foster has “found” the spiritual disciplines that the modern world stored away and forgot, and has excitedly called us to celebrate them. For they are, as he shows us, the instruments of joy, the way into mature Christian spirituality and abundant life’ (p.206).

The dust jacket of this edition even assures us ‘that it is onlyby and through these practices that the true path to spiritual growth can be found’ (emphasis mine). If spiritual growth depends on the spiritual disciplines described in Foster’s book, should we not find this truth in the Scriptures?

Why, then, did God reveal them not to the apostles but to apostate Roman Catholic mystics – and to Richard Foster through occultic meditation techniques?

We need to tread very carefully through this spiritual minefield. If this is in fact one of the ten best books of the twentieth century, I am not too anxious to read the other nine.

We shall consider more of Foster’s main teachings next month.

References

1. Georgia Harkness, Mysticism(Nashville, Tennessee: Abingdon Press, 1973), p.106.
2. See Winfried Corduan, Mysticism: an Evangelical Option? (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1991), pp.106-107.
3. See Ray Yungen, A Time of Departing(Silverton, Oregon: Lighthouse Trails Publishing Company, 2002), p.75.
4. Richard Foster and Emilie Griffen, Spiritual Classics(San Francisco: Harper, 2000), p.17.
5. As cited in Yungen p.75.
6. Thomas Merton, Conjectures of a guilty bystander, Image Edition of 1989(Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1966), pp.157, 158.
7. Richard Foster, Celebration of Discipline, Third Edition (San Francisco: Harper, 1978), p.149.
8. Ibid. p.150.