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Modern Christian mysticism

August 2005 | by Gary Gilley

Last month we looked at the dramatic rise in popularity of mysticism among Christians – the ‘rediscovery’ of mediaeval ‘disciplines’ that allegedly bring us closer to God. But just what are these spiritual disciplines which are (we are told) essential to our spiritual development?

According to Richard J. Foster, author of Celebration of discipline, the path to spiritual growth1,they fall into three categories: inward, outward and corporate.

Inward disciplines

The first two inward disciplines both deal with prayer and will be the subject of our next article.

‘Fasting’ is the third, but his instructions on fasting are wholly extra-biblical. His treatment of fasting – its purpose, value and methodology – is interesting but purely subjective and unauthoritative.

The final inward discipline is ‘study’. The new reader of Foster might expect him to direct us to the study of Scripture as the primary means of spiritual growth. But Foster has other ideas. Actually, he claims, there are two ‘books’ to be studied – verbal and non-verbal.

Verbal books include any literature and one of the important means of study is repetition. Here he sees the use of a rosary or Hindu type prayer-wheel as being effective (p.64). After a number of suggestions on reading books, Foster finally discusses the type of books to read to enhance spiritual growth.

At last, he turns to the Word – but only for two paragraphs, before rushing off to recommend reading the mediaeval mystical classics!

The non-verbal book is mainly the ‘reading’ of nature. Here with St Francis he encourages ‘making friends with the flowers and trees and the little creatures that creep upon the earth’ (p.74). We should also be students of people and of ourselves.

While there is undoubted value in these things, many have spent a lifetime studying nature, people and themselves yet have no clue about God. Repeatedly we find that Foster is only interested in studying Scripture as a basis for contemplative meditation.

Outward disciplines

The outward disciplines begin with ‘simplicity’, starting with the simple life as modelled by the heretical cult known as the Shakers. Extreme mystic Thomas Kelly tells us that simplicity allows us to live out of ‘The Divine Centre’ (whatever that is) while existentialist Kierkegaard claimed it led to holiness.

In seeking a biblical base for his views, Foster makes the Old Testament civil laws a pattern for New Testament Christianity – and manages to misinterpret virtually every scriptural passage he uses (though he does score points on seeking first the kingdom of God).

Next up is ‘solitude’. What follows is not, however, a helpful chapter on escaping the noise and distractions of our world and focusing on God and his Word. Instead, we enter the mystical world of Mediaeval Catholicism, Quakerism and Eastern mystics.

Quotes abound from Merton, Teresa of Ávila, John Woolman, George Fox and St John of the Cross. Terms like ‘The Divine Centre’, ‘The Divine Opening’ and ‘the dark night of the soul’ dominate. We are taught to keep a journal as we ‘listen to the thunder of God’s silence’ (p.108).


The next discipline is ‘submission’ – in reality a heavy dose of psycho-babble including ‘self-fulfilment’, ‘self-actualization’, ‘loving ourselves’ and ‘mutual submission’ within marriage. To be fair, he also explores accurately some Bible teaching on greatness and submission.

The final discipline is ‘service’ – again based more on the writings of the mystics than on Scripture. This is only to be expected because Foster accords mystical experiences far more importance than God’s Word.

For example he writes, ‘True service comes from a relationship with the divine other deep inside. We serve out of whispered promptings, divine urgings’ (p.128). But he does warn, ‘The fact that God speaks to us does not guarantee that we rightly understand the message. We often mix our word with God’s word’ (p.140).

Not only does Foster consistently elevate subjective experiences over the Scriptures, but also recommends an unbiblical self-abasement: ‘The strictest daily discipline is necessary to hold these passions in check. The flesh must learn the painful lesson that it has no rights of its own. It is the work of hidden service that will accomplish this self-abasement’ (p.131, cf. p.133). This is in direct contradiction to Paul’s teaching in Colossians 2:20-23, which tells us that self-abasement cannot control the passions of the flesh.

Corporate disciplines

The final category of disciplines is the corporate – and here Foster does no better. The first corporate discipline is that of ‘confession’; and we are not surprised to discover that Foster supports the position of the Roman Catholic Church – complete with penance and absolution (pp. 146-149).

And why not? for Dietrich Bonhoeffer assures us that ‘when I go to my brother to confess, I am going to God’ (p.146) and Foster wants us to know, ‘The assurance of forgiveness is sealed in the Spirit when it is spoken by our brother or sister in the name of Christ’ (p.148).

Since none of this is drawn from Scripture how can Foster be so sure? Well, not only do his favourite mystics back his view but so does ‘personal experience’. Once when receiving the confession of a lady, he claims that she ‘looked at me and “saw” superimposed upon my eyes the eyes of Another who conveyed to her a love and acceptance that released her to unburden her heart’ (p.155).

While nothing in the Bible remotely implies such an experience, we are left to assume that the eyes she saw were the eyes of God. I am not so certain.


As for the discipline of ‘worship’, we are told that worship ‘is a breaking into the Shekinah of God, or better yet, being invaded by the Shekinah of God … We have not worshiped the Lord until Spirit touches spirit … it all begins as we enter the Shekinah of the heart’ (pp. 158-162).

This mystical (and meaningless) view of worship is seasoned with a strong Charismatic flavour: ‘if Jesus is our Leader, miracles should be expected to occur in worship. Healing, both inward and outward, will be the rule, not the exception’ (p.165).

Such services, he continues, will have prophecies and words of knowledge (p.165) because, ‘The mightiest stirring of praise in the twentieth century has been the Charismatic movement. Through it God has breathed new life and vitality into millions’ (p.168).

But even more disturbing is the idea that in the worship of God, ‘Our rational faculties alone are inadequate …. That is one reason for the spiritual gift of tongues. It helps us to move beyond mere rational worship into a more inward communion with the Father. Our outward mind may not know what is being said, but our inward spirit understands. Spirit touches spirit’ (p.169).

Earlier, Foster says we have not worshiped until Spirit touches spirit – now we see the process. It is as we move beyond the rational and into mystical subjective experiences, that (says Foster) true worship takes place.


With all that Foster has already said, the discipline of ‘guidance’ is predictable. ‘Many’, he tells us, ‘are having a deep and profound experience of an Emmanuel of the Spirit – God with us; a knowledge that in the power of the Spirit Jesus has come to guide his people himself; an experience of his leading that is as definite and as immediate as the cloud by day and the pillar by night’ (p.175).

The model of this kind of guidance is the mystic. We are also introduced at this point to the Catholic concept of Spiritual Directors (pp.185-187) – something that Foster believes only Roman Catholic monastics know much about today.

Foster brings everything together with his last discipline, that of ‘celebration’. Here we are to express joy in all that we have learned thus far in the book – even participation in ‘holy laughter’ (p.198).

Robert Webber, professor of theology at Wheaton College, sums up Foster’s impact well: ‘Over the past two decades my own personal spiritual pilgrimage has taken me away from the propositional and rationalistic mind-set that proclaims an intellectualised proof-oriented faith, toward a Christianity of practice and experience’ (p.208).

Webber is of course constructing a straw-man. No one is calling for a purely intellectualised faith devoid of practice and inward experience. What Scripture advocates is a Christian faith, experience and practice that involves the whole man – affections, motivations and mind.

Unlike mysticism, it is rational – it makes sense, and is solidly grounded on the Word of God. Foster and company have led many far afield in pursuit of mystical experiences that lead to a pseudo-Christianity. It has the appearance of spirituality but not the substance (Colossians 2:23).