Section 10A .. The Contemporary Church/
Mysticism In The Church


003whiteSection 10A The Contemporary Church   > Doctrines of Demons   >    Mysticism In The Church   > Mysticism



by Gary E. Gilley, Pastor-Teacher

Please Note: Each coloured link within the article will lead you to a related topic on a different page of this site. However while the text is part of the original article, the links are not. The author of this article may or may not agree with the views expressed on those pages.


Mysticism - Part 1
Mysticism, a Way of the Past, the Wave of the Future
Mysticism Defined
The Road to Mysticism

Mysticism - Part 2
Modern Christian Mysticism
In General
A Few Mystic Heroes
Meister Eckhart
Thomas Merton
Ignatius Loyola
Main Teachings
Spiritual Disciplines as a Means of Grace
The Spiritual Disciplines

Mysticism - Part 3
Contemplative Prayer, the Heart of Mysticism
What is Contemplative Prayer?
The Techniques
But Is It Biblical?

Modern Promoters of Mysticism


Mysticism - Part 1

Mysticism, a Way of the Past, the Wave of the Future
I am often asked what I see as the next important challenge facing evangelical Christianity. Such questions are asked in the wake of major movements that have changed the face of evangelicalism in the last two decades, including the market-driven church and the closely related “Purpose Driven Life” (PDL) campaigns that have so greatly impacted God’s people. The legacy of both of these movements will not be that the church discovered new ways of worship, or new methodologies to replace the outdated. Instead, I fear that they will be remembered by future generations for their undermining of the authority of Scripture. To be sure these movements were not the genesis of the lack of confidence in God’s Word – there have been many forerunners. Actually they have capitalized upon this trend and have taken it to a new level. It is not that everything the church growth experts and PDL espouses is wrong; it is that the authority for what the church now believes has shifted. It has shifted from the infallible Scriptures to psychological and sociological experts, opinions of the masses, trends of the moment and the philosophy of pragmatism. This shift has been subtle, which has made it all the more dangerous. Few have bothered to deny the Bible itself, they just misquote it, abuse its meaning, force their opinion on it, and if necessary mistranslate it to give the appearance that the Scriptures are backing their claims. The affect of all of this scriptural manipulation is to erode both the authority of God’s Word and to give the appearance what Scripture has to say isn’t really important. It is only a short step from here to a Christian community that no longer has much use for the Bible. As a matter of fact, if the increased popularity of people coming to church services without their Bibles, sermons being reduced to PowerPoint presentations and sermon note taking digressed to fill-in-the-blank outlines, are any indication, we may be there now.

Such Christianity is devoid of the majesty of God and the wonder of His Word. It is only a matter of time until true believers grow tired of this insipid brand of evangelicalism with its 7-11 choruses (seven words sang eleven times); its dramatizations; its dumbed-down Bible teaching; its latest fad that promises to change lives but does not; and its “me-centered” orientation. When (and as) they do, they will turn in a number of directions. Happily, some will come back to the Word and to churches that faithfully proclaim it. Some will head to Roman Catholicism and Orthodox for more liturgical, traditional and authoritative expressions. Still others will write off the faith and declare that “it doesn’t work for me.” As we might expect, we are seeing these things now, and will increasingly in the future. But many thirsty believers, wanting something more, something deeper than has been their experience, are also becoming infatuated with two other overlapping fads. One of these is ancient, harkening back to premodern times (mysticism). The other is new and considers itself postmodern (the emerging church). They have in common disdain for modernity, a distortion of Scripture and a rejection of much that conservative Christians hold dear. Despite these flaws both are rapidly gaining popularity, especially among the young, which seems to be the targeted demographic.

Let me be very clear about what I am trying to communicate in these next few papers: There is only a superficial link between the market-driven church (including PDL) movement and mysticism and the emerging church movements. And while the market-driven church is not a direct conduit to mysticism and postmodernism, it certainly has opened the door. By hollowing out the core of biblical substance and replacing it with superficial theological fluff, the movement has created a hunger for true spirituality. One can only live so long on cotton candy before a steak, or at least a hamburger, is craved. As more and more Christians tire of their spiritual diet many are turning to even more unhealthy alternatives. It is these alternatives that we are describing.

The trend which I will address first is the one embracing mysticism which has its roots in Medieval Roman Catholic monks and hermits (the desert Fathers). This mysticism promises to bring us into contact with God in ways not experienced by most believers, and is especially appealing to those tired of fluffy Christianity. The other leaning is toward postmodernity. Many, including myself, have referred to the market-driven church as postmodern, and while they have some characteristics of this worldview, they would not consider themselves to be postmodern by the normal understanding of the term. As a matter of fact they would strongly deny that they were postmodern and would give evidence of their similar doctrinal beliefs to historical evangelicalism. But a truly postmodern “evangelical” movement has arisen, which boldly affirms its postmodern understanding of life in general and Christianity in particular. This movement, which for now calls itself the “emerging church,” is extremely popular on college campuses and among twenty-somethings, although its leaders are middle-aged. But before we tackle the emerging church we need to spend considerable time dealing with mysticism. Our starting point will be to grasp the meaning of mysticism in a Christian context, and then examine how it was practiced in ancient times. This will help us get a handle on why it is becoming all the rage today.

Mysticism Defined
The first obstacle encountered when discussing mysticism is trying to define it. When I once declared in print that Henry Blackaby is a Christian mystic, a young man wrote his master’s thesis challenging my claim and proving that Blackaby was more in line with Pietism than classical mysticism. His point was well taken when using, as he was, a formal definition of a mystic. I was using the term more loosely as represented by this quote from John MacArthur,

    “The mystic disdains rational understanding and seeks truth instead through the feelings, the imagination, personal visions, inner voices, private illumination, or other purely subjective means.” [1]

 By this rather loose definition Blackaby is indeed a mystic. This type of mysticism, which I believe to be a functional denial of sola scriptura, is running rampant throughout the Christian community with devastating consequences. But in the more technical, official sense MacArthur’s definition is inadequate. Classical mysticism, which is now making a strong return to Christianity, goes far deeper. Someone has said mysticism “begins with a mist and always ends in schism,” and that is not far from the truth. Mysticism is the search for unio mystica, personal union with God.[2] But what does this union encompass and how is it attained? Here things get sticky for as Georgia Harkness tells us in her book, Mysticism, there are at least twenty-six definitions of mysticism by those who have studied it carefully.[3] Winfried Corduan, in his Mysticism: an Evangelical Option? boils it down to the essentials when he writes, “The mystic believes that there is an absolute and that he or she can enjoy an unmediated link to this absolute in a superrational experience” (emphasis mine).[4] But even here there are at least three distinct categories of mysticism: panenthenic, in which, as Carl Jung thought, a segment of the collective unconscious intrudes on the conscious mind; monistic such as found in Hinduism and Buddhism whereby the individual is merged into the impersonal All, whatever that is called; and theistic in which the absolute is God, although not necessarily the true God.[5] The actual experience by these various types of mystics is very similar. But with whom the mystic believes they come into union is determined by the mystic’s belief system, as William James’ research demonstrated decades ago.[6]

The Road to Mysticism
The journey to mystical experience, almost universally, involves three stages: purgation, illumination and union.

Purgation is the cleansing stage which begins with self-examination and penitence and leads to a holy life. Sixteenth-century monk, St. John of the Cross, is best known for his description of this stage which he called the “dark night of the soul.” During the dark night the soul of an individual feels abandoned by God, spiritually dry and at the point of despair. John saw this as a way in which God purified the soul by suffering, for only when the soul has been purified is it in a position to experience a rapturous union with God. This purgation involved detachment from the things of the world including material and physical desires; and mortification, the building of new paths to replace the old ones now rejected.

At some point the purgation stage bleeds over into the illumination stage in which the mystic begins to experience inner voices and visions. The goal of illumination is to know genuine spiritual truth, but such truth cannot be found in conventional or even rational ways. This differs, at least in theory from the “mystical” Christian as defined earlier by MacArthur. These still believe that truth is primarily found through rational means, but they feel their thoughts and mental impressions can be explained as the inner voice of God. The true mystic has come to the conclusion that the secret and “deep” things of God cannot be understood rationally. They can only be understood through the experience of illumination. One of the earliest Christian mystics, who is known today as Pseudo-Dionysius, taught that to achieve the ultimate prize of union with God,

    “The soul must lose the inhibitions of the senses and of reason. God is beyond the intellect, beyond goodness itself, and it is through unknowing, and the discarding of human concepts, that the soul returns to God and is united with the ‘ray of divine darkness.’”[7]

The means by which mystics achieved illumination was through fasting, long seasons of specialized prayers known as contemplative prayers and by following various spiritual disciplines of which the best known today were designed by the Catholic monk and founder of the Jesuits, Ignatius Loyola. As we will see later, it is upon Ignatius’ “Spiritual Exercises” that Richard Foster patterns his famous book, The Celebration of Discipline.

The ultimate goal of the mystic is unmediated union with God. This point, at which the soul attains oneness with God, “was the mystical ecstasy in which, for a brief indescribable moment, all barriers seemed to be swept away and new insight supernaturally imparted as one gave himself over fully to the Infinite One.”[8] The ancient mystics would frame this experience in romantic, even sensual terms. John of the Cross “describes the union in terms of spiritual betrothal, where the soul, conceived of as feminine, is married to Christ as the bridegroom. In other places he may say… ‘The centre of the soul is God.’”[9] Bernard of Clairvaux (12th-century), who managed to turn the Song of Solomon into an erotic love story between God and man, described this moment of union as the time when the believer is “kissed with the kisses of His mouth.”[10] Similar depictions are common in mystical literature.

Pseudo-Dionysius (so called because we don’t know his real name but he used Dionysius borrowed from a convert of Paul in Acts 17:34) set the table for the need for this type of mysticism with his belief that God can never be truly known through the intellect. Harkness describes it well,

The author’s position is that God is completely transcendent, beyond all human thought, reason, intellect, or any approaches of the mind. A term, which occurs repeatedly in this writing (Mystical Theology), is “the Divine Dark.” The human mind can only say what God is not, never what God is. There is nothing within the human self to give us a clue. But is there no way to penetrate this divine darkness? Yes, there is one. This is the via negativa by which the soul strips off its selfhood and, in ecstatic union with transcendent deity, both feels and knows its oneness with the Infinite. This has become the classic pattern of Christian mysticism…. To this there is often linked a disparagement of the human capacity to know God saves by the mystical vision, and to this end the need of rigorous disciplines of prayer, fasting, prolonged meditation, and ascetic living.[11]

In other words, the mystic has no confidence in human knowledge accessible through normal means such as the propositional revelation of God (Scripture). If we are to know God, it must come from a mystical union with Him that transcends the rational thought process or even normal sensory experience. This takes place through following the three stages of purgation, illumination and union; implementing the spiritual disciplines and most importantly, practicing contemplative prayer. Roman Catholic monk, William Johnston describes the mystical process this way, “In this mystical life one passes from one layer to the next in an inner or downward journey to the core of the personality where dwells the great mystery called God.”[12]

Other well-known mystics, holding to these or similar views, throughout church history include: Meister Eckhart, Juliana of Norwich, Thomas à Kempis, Tereas of Ávila, Evelyn Underhill, St. Francis of Assisi, Madam Guyon, George Fox, Thomas Merton and Agnes Sanford. Modern mystics of import include Dallas Willard, Brennan Manning and most importantly, Richard Foster. Of Foster, Eugene Peterson enthusiastically writes on the cover of the 25th anniversary edition of Celebration of Discipline, “Richard 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.”

What Foster “found” many others are discovering as well. As a result classical, Medieval Roman Catholic mysticism has been dusted off and offered as the newest and best thing in spirituality. But there is one little problem. If this is how God wanted His followers to connect with Him why didn’t He bother to say so in His Word? If contemplative prayer (We will further describe this in a future paper.) is the key that will unlock this greater dimension of spirituality, as we will see is being claimed, why did God not give us instructions on how to pray in this manner? Why did He leave it up to monks and nuns hundreds of years later to unveil this key to true godliness? Of course, the answer is that He did not. God’s Word is sufficient; all that we need for life and godliness is found there (I Peter 1:4; II Timothy 3:16,17). That brings us to a number of questions: What does the face of modern mysticism look like, where is it leading us and why is it so popular? We will look into these next time.

1] John MacArthur, Reckless Faith, (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 1994), p. 27.

[2] Brian Moynahan, The Faith, (New York: Doubleday, 2002), p. 269.

[3] Georgia Harkness, Mysticism, (Nashville, Tennessee: Abingdon Press, 1973), p. 19.

[4] Winfried Corduan, Mysticism: an Evangelical Option, (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1991), p. 32.

[5] See Corduan, pp. 45-46.

[6] William James, The Variety of Religious Experiences, (New York: Longmans, Green and Co. 1922), pp. 377-429.

[7] Moynahan, p. 270.

[8] Harkness, p. 32.

[9] Corduan, p. 35.

[10] Moynahan, p. 270 and Harkness p. 39 (Bernard also considered the “kisses of the feet” in The Song as picturing the purgative stage and the “kisses of the hand” as the illuminative p. 91).

[11] Harkness, pp. 26-27.

[12] William Johnston, The Inner Eye of Love: Mysticism and Religion, (Collins/Fount, 1981), p. 127.


Mysticism - Part 2

Modern Christian Mysticism
Medieval mysticism has managed to survive within small pockets of Roman Catholicism for centuries but has gone largely unnoticed by evangelicals. It is true that a few groups, such as the Quakers, have always kept some aspect of mysticism within range of evangelical awareness, and elements of mystical practices have actually thrived in charismatic circles right down to the ranks of Fundamentalism. But 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 evangelicals’ 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 and slowly, over the last few years, 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 as of late has caught fire. New forces and new players have popularized Foster’s ideas to a new set of Christians and it seems to be rapidly taking hold. This is due to the efforts of organizations such as Youth Specialties, numerous Bible colleges, and a rash of books and speakers, all introducing mystical practices and theology to our young people and our young ministers. Many of these, having grown up in churches that no longer major on the teaching of Scripture and are thus lacking biblical discernment, are easy prey for spiritual sounding techniques, especially those that promise such personal and life changing encounters with God. Before we look into the disciples of Foster, we should first get a good overview into Foster’s key teachings.

In General

Celebration of Discipline alone, not even referencing Foster’s other writings and teachings and ministries, is a virtual encyclopedia of theological error. We would be hard pressed to find in one so-called evangelical volume such a composite of false teaching. These include faulty views on the subjective leading of God (pp. 10, 16-17, 18, 50, 95, 98, 108-109, 128, 139-140, 149-150, 162, 167, 182); approval of New Age teachers (see Thomas Merton below); occultic use of imagination (pp. 25-26, 40-43, 163, 198); open theism (p. 35); misunderstanding of the will of God in prayer (p. 37); promotion of visions, revelations and charismatic gifts (pp. 108, 165, 168-169, 171, 193); endorsement of rosary and prayer wheel use (p. 64); misunderstanding of the Old Testament Law for today (pp. 82, 87); mystical journaling (p. 108); embracing pop-psychology (pp. 113-120); promoting Roman Catholic practices such as use of “spiritual directors,” confession and penance (pp. 146-150, 156, 185); and affirming of aberrant charismatic practices (pp. 158-174, 198).

However, all of these are minor in comparison to the two main thrusts of Foster’s book and ministry that we will get to in a moment, but first who are a few of Foster’s mystical champions?

A Few Mystic Heroes

Foster introduces to the unsuspecting reader literally dozens of mystics, some from the Christian tradition, some not. Many of these, he assures us, have traveled to depths of spiritual experience that we moderns cannot even imagine. Foster wants us to know that these individuals knew the secrets to an encounter with God. If only we would follow their pattern we too could enjoy what they enjoyed. Just who are these mystics? Let me give you a thumbnail sketch of three of Foster’s favorites.

Meister Eckhart

Eckhart, a Dominican monk who lived in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, ranks among the great Roman Catholic mystics such as Teresa of Ávila, John of the Cross, and Julian of Norwich. Toward the end of his life Eckhart was charged (and found guilty after his death in 1327), with heresy for his mystical assertions which the Catholic Church determined had bled over 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] Eckhart 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.” And, “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 but some more modern researchers have found agreements in Eckhart’s philosophy with all the major points of Hindu mystics.[2] Other scholars are not so certain about Eckhart’s 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 almost directly with the teachings of Eastern Mysticism, with the difference that the Divine Spark in Christian Mysticism is defined as God who resides in every human being.

(InPlainSite.org Note: The Gospel According to Zen quotes Meister Eckhart: "Who is Jesus? He has no name," and "Jesus" declares, "Split wood: I am there. Lift up the stone, and you will find me there." (Robert Sohl and Audrey Carr. pp. 92, 72). Also See Visualization

Thomas Merton
Foster cites and/or quotes 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 claimed he saw no contradiction between Buddhism and Christianity and intended to become as good a Buddhist as he could.[3] But despite his doctrinal views and New Age leanings Foster considers Merton’s Contemplative Prayer, “A must book,”[4] and says of Merton, “[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] More About Merton

Ignatius Loyola

We know Loyola today mainly due to his founding of the Society of Jesus, or the order of the Jesuits in 1534. One of the missions of the Jesuits was to fight the battles of the church against infidels and heretics, in what is now termed the “Counter-Reformation.” For our purposes Ignatius’ contribution lies in the creation of his Spiritual Exercises which provided specifications for spiritual self-examination and the mental and spiritual conditioning of the Jesuits. Foster’s disciplines seem to draw heavily upon Ignatius.

St. John of the Cross and Teresa of Ávila are also mystics of note, involved in the sixteenth century Counter-Reformation seeking to overturn the Reformation. These mystics believed that through contemplation a union with God could be obtained which would eradicate sinful actions and tendencies.

Main Teachings

As concerning as many of Richard Foster’s teachings and mentors are, far more disturbing are the two main thrusts of his spiritual formation system. The first is his use of what he calls the “Spiritual Disciplines.” The second is closely related, but deserves its own paper. I speak of what is called contemplative prayer, which is rapidly becoming the rage throughout much of evangelicalism, especially among the youth.

Spiritual Disciplines as a Means of Grace

It might be best to begin this section by relaying an experience that Foster shares in Celebration of Discipline. Having come to 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] God seemed to answer this prayer through 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, through the use of journaling, a process whereby God is supposed to reveal His mind to the silent participant. After the third day Foster took his lists to a friend, who volunteered to serve as his confessor, who prayed for healing for all the sorrows and hurts of Foster’s past as presumably revealed by God. It was following this experience of journaling, an experience not taught in the Bible but common in the occultic world, that it seemed to him that he

    “was 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]

It is most disturbing that Foster’s magnum opus stems from a questionable Divine encounter of a dubious nature. But it is also significant to realize that Foster’s system for spiritual formation is not drawn from the Scriptures but from subjective experiences involving unbiblical methodologies and reinforced by Roman Catholic mystical practices. At the very least this should give pause to any seeker of truth. It must not be automatically assumed, as many seem to do, that Foster has rediscovered the missing jewels of spirituality. Or as Eugene Peterson describes it in the twenty-fifth anniversary edition of Celebration of Discipline, “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).

Even more to the point, the dust jacket of this edition assures us “that it is only by and through these practices that the true path to spiritual growth can be found” (emphasis mine). If spiritual growth is dependent upon the spiritual disciplines described in Foster’s book, should not we have expected to find this truth in the Scriptures? Why did God reveal them, not to the apostles but to apostate Roman Catholic mystics, and then to Richard Foster as he studied the mystics and used occultic techniques of meditation? 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.

|The Spiritual Disciplines

But just what are the Spiritual Disciplines which are absolutely essential to our spiritual development? Foster breaks them into three categories: inward, outward and corporate. The first two inward disciplines both deal with prayer and will be the subject of our next paper. Fasting is the third and as might be expected his instructions on fasting are purely extra biblical. The purpose behind fasting, the value of it, and the methodology are interesting but purely subjective and unauthorative. The final inward discipline is study. The new reader of Foster might expect that he would direct us to the study of Scripture as the primary means of spiritual growth. But Foster has broader ideas. Actually there are two “books” to be studied: verbal and nonverbal. Verbal books include any literature and one of the important means of study is repetition. Here he sees the use of a rosary and/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, we think he will turn to the Word, and he does – for two paragraphs, before rushing off to recommend reading the Medieval mystical classics. The nonverbal 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, and while there is undoubted value in this, many have spent a lifetime studying nature, people and themselves and have no clue about God. Repeatedly we find in Foster that he is just not that interested in the study of Scripture except as it serves his purpose for contemplative meditation.

The outward disciplines begin with simplicity, starting with the simple life as modeled by the heretical cult known as the Shakers. Extreme mystic Thomas Kelly tells us that simplicity allows us to live out of “The Divine Center” (whatever that is) and existentialist Kierkegaard claimed it led to holiness. In attempting to find a biblical base for his view Foster makes the Old Testament civil laws a pattern for New Testament Christianity, and manages to misinterpret virtually every scriptural passage he uses, although he scores points on seeking the kingdom of God first. Next up is solitude. What follows is not a nice chapter on the importance of breaking free from the noise and distractions of our world and focusing on God and His Word. Instead we enter into the mystical world of Medieval Catholicism, Quakerism and Eastern mystics. Quotes flow from Merton, Teresa of Ávila, John Woolman, George Fox, and St. John of the Cross. Terms like “The Divine Center,” “The Divine Opening” and “the dark night of the soul” dominate. It is here that we are taught to keep a journal as we “listen to the thunder of God’s silence” (p.108).

The next discipline is “submission” and it is in this chapter that we receive our heaviest dose of psychobabble including: “self-fulfillment,” “self-actualization,” “loving ourselves,” and mutual submission within marriage. To be fair he also explores accurately some of what the Bible teaches on greatness and submission. The final discipline is service, and as with the others this one too is based more on writings of the mystics than on the Scriptures. This is only expected from Foster because he places far more importance on mystical experiences than he does on the 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” (emphasis his) (p. 140). Not only does Foster consistently elevate these subjective experiences over the Scriptures, but in this chapter on service Foster recommends 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 has no affect on the passions of the flesh.

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 favorite mystics back his view but so does personal experience. Once when receiving the confession of a lady 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 find 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…. [And] it all begins as we enter the Shekinah of the heart” (pp. 158-162). This convoluted understanding of worship is augmented with a strong charismatic flavor. As a matter of fact “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 will have prophecies and words of knowledge (p. 165) and that is 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).

Remember above how we have not worshiped until Spirit touches spirit -- now we see the process. It is as we move beyond the mind and into mystical, subjective experiences, that true worship takes place.

With all that Foster has already communicated, 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 course, 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” on occasion (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 intellectualized proof-oriented faith toward a Christianity of practice and experience” (p. 208).

Webber is of course erecting a strawman. No one is calling for a purely intellectualized faith devoid of practice and experience. What those who draw their cue from Scripture and not mystics are calling for is a Christian faith, experience and practice that is rational, intellectual, makes sense, and most importantly is solidly grounded on the Word of God. Foster and company have taken many far afield in pursuit of mystical experiences that lead to a pseudo-Christianity that has the appearance of spirituality but not the substance.

[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.


Mysticism - Part 3

Contemplative Prayer, the Heart of Mysticism
The heart and soul of mysticism, any type of mysticism, Christian or otherwise, is the art of meditation or contemplation. Georgia Harkness informs us that “among the church fathers, ‘contemplation’ was the usual term to designate what was later to be called mystical experience.”[1] Contemplative prayer, also known as centering prayer and breath prayer, is rapidly gaining popularity and acceptance in evangelical circles, so it is vital that we understand exactly what is being promoted and why we are concerned.
See Section on Contemplative Prayer

What is Contemplative Prayer?
First we must distinguish between normal prayer, which is found, recommended, and demanded throughout Scripture and contemplative prayer, which is not. Prayer is our communication with God. If the Lord speaks to us through His Word, we speak to Him in prayer. Such prayers are rational, intelligent and flow from our minds. Paul said that he would pray with his spirit and he would pray with his mind also (1 Corinthians 14:15), not either/or. We are to pray without ceasing (1 Thessalonians 5:17) and in those prayers we are to make our requests known (Philippians 4:6). In prayer we praise God for His known attributes. In prayer we confess specific sins (1 John 1:9). Gibberish, mindless or wordless prayers are not found in the Word, contrary to the charismatics’ assertion to the contrary. Similarly contemplative prayer is not of the Scriptural variety; its origin is not the Bible but Eastern and Christian mystics. It should be mentioned that contemplative prayer (often simply called meditation) is the essence of Hinduism and Buddhism and is practiced virtually identically to the Christianized form. [See Section on Prayer]

So exactly what is it? It begins with detachment. Richard Foster, in his original 1978 edition of Celebration of Discipline wrote, “Christian meditation is an attempt to empty the mind in order to fill it” (p. 15). Fill it with what? In Eastern religions a person empties his mind in order to become one with the universe (or the Cosmic Mind). In Christian mysticism one empties the mind in order to become one with God, who is found by the way, in ourselves (it is important to keep in mind Meister Eckhart’s divine spark found within the soul of each human being). Foster quotes a number of mystics to describe this experience. For example there is Russian mystic Theophan the Recluse who said, “To pray is to descend with the mind into the heart, and there to stand before the face of the Lord, ever-present, all seeing, within you.”[2]

The constant theme of the mystic is that union with God is possible through contemplative prayer, and that union with God is found within us. St. Teresa of Ávila states, “As I could not make refection with my understanding I contrived to picture Christ within me.” [3] She is quoted as also saying, “Settle yourself in solitude and you will come upon Him in yourself.”[4] Such statements show why the mystics were accused of pantheism. Silence is a noted feature of contemplation. Catherine de Haeck Doherty writes, “All in me is silent and… I am immersed in the silence of God.”[5] Francis de Dales notes, “by means of imagination we confine our mind within the mystery on which we meditate.” [6] Imagination is highly important to the mystics. As Teresa informs us, this is not an endeavor that comes from their understanding. Mystics are hung out in thin air, so to speak, and must make contact with God through imagination rather than through the rational use of their minds. The power of such experience becomes evident as Foster tells us, “We are to live in a perpetual, inward, listening silence so that God is the source of our words and actions.”[7]

So, through contemplative prayer the person is to empty his mind (detach) then fill it with imaginative experiences with Christ (attach) who we will find in the silence of our souls, resulting in God becoming the source of our words and actions. Sounds attractive to many, even if no such teaching is found in Scripture. But how is it actually practiced?

The Techniques

Just how does one go about practicing contemplative prayer? The techniques are identical to those of Eastern religions and so are familiar to most of us through media presentations of TM and yoga. Gary Thomas gives these typical instructions: “Choose a word (Jesus or Father, for example) as a focus for contemplative prayer. Repeat the word silently in your mind for a set amount of time (say, twenty minutes) until your heart seems to be repeating the word by itself, just as naturally and involuntarily as breathing. But centering prayer is a contemplative act in which you don’t do anything; you’re simply resting in the presence of God.”[8] So, the repetition of words or short phrases, a mantra, is key to this experience. What else? While Richard Foster suggests a number of methodologies he says, “He finds it best to sit in a straight chair, with my back correctly positioned in the chair and both feet flat on the floor…. Place the hands on the knees, palms up in a gesture of receptivity. Sometimes it is good to close the eyes to remove distractions and center the attention on Christ. At other times it is helpful to ponder a picture of the Lord or to look out at some lovely trees and plants for the same purpose.”[9] Brennan Manning gives these instructions in his book, The Signature of Jesus

    “The first step in faith is to stop thinking about God in prayer…. Contemplative spirituality tends to emphasize the need for a change in consciousness… we must come to see reality differently…. Choose a single, sacred word… repeat the sacred word inwardly, slowly and often…. Enter into the great silence of God. Alone in that silence, the noise within will subside and the Voice of Love will be heard.”[10]

It is apparently the repetition of the mantra that triggers the blank mind. With the mind blank and the heart open to whatever voices or visions that it encounters, accompanied with a vivid imagination, the individual enters into the mystical state. This is the state so prized in mysticism and it is made possible through contemplative prayer. Concerning all of this Foster encourages,

    “Though it may sound strange to modern ears, we should without shame enroll as apprentices in the school of contemplative prayer.”[11]

By contrast, we search in vain to find any such encouragement or instruction in the Scriptures. We do however find this type of contemplation at the heart of Eastern religions. That is why I find it both bold and revealing that Foster, in his recommendation of Catherine de Haeck Doherty’s ministry, actually admit that the title of her book is, Poustinia: Christian Spirituality of the East for Western Man.[12] This leaves little doubt as to the source for this type of prayer.

But Is It Biblical?
No experience or methodology promoting spirituality can be dismissed or accepted out of hand. Scripture is the final arbitrator and as we have seen Scripture in no way promotes the mysticism that we have been examining. I found the following admission in Winfried Corduan’s book, Mysticism, an Evangelical Option? to be most interesting. Corduan would not take as strong a stand on the Scriptures as we would and would even see a mild form of mysticism valid for the Christian. But toward the end of his book he raises some important questions and points.

    Set into the context of the New Testament, this aspect of the mystical experience becomes problematic. For it would entail that mystical experience becomes a source of revelation, a private avenue of insight into God and his workings. If so, as Arthur L. Johnson points out, the evangelical commitment to Scripture as the sole source of revelation becomes undermined. “The Scriptures nowhere teach that God gives us any knowledge through ‘spiritual experience.’ Knowledge of spiritual matters is always linked to God’s propositional revelation, the written Word.”[13]

Corduan sounds an important alarm. Mysticism, both ancient and modern is chocked full of supposed revelations from God. As a matter of fact, this is the draw – God will personally meet you in the center of your soul and communicate to you matters far beyond anything found in Scripture. “Christian meditation, very simply is the ability to hear God’s voice and obey his word,” Foster tells us.[14] This is no slip of the pen. Foster is not advocating listening to the voice of God in the written revelation of God. He is not even equating “his word” with the Bible. He is speaking of hearing God’s voice outside of the Scriptures, and obeying that revelation. This is one of the greatest dangers of mysticism. Corduan continues.

    We have claimed that mysticism is a very important aspect of New Testament theology [he defines mysticism somewhat differently than in this paper]. And yet there is no mystical experience to be sought. There is no truth to be learned through New Testament mysticism. There is no plan of asceticism or meditation to actualize this mystical reality. Rather, there are two important imperatives. The first is, “Believe on the Lord Jesus!” (Acts 16:31). Immediately the realities discussed above are actualized. The second is, “Live…. according to the Spirit!” (Rom. 8:5). The point now is to live a life in the light of the fact that those realities are given by God’s grace. Christians do not need to seek present realities, but to enjoy them. As they yield to the work of God, the Holy Spirit produces a new supernatural life in them.[15] See Born Again

This is New Testament spirituality: regeneration and the indwelling, enabling power of the Holy Spirit, all based on the propositional revelation of Scripture. If God had wanted us to encounter Him through mystical practices such as contemplative prayer, why did He not say so? Why did He not give examples and instructions? How could the Holy Spirit inspire the writing of the Scriptures yet forget to include a chapter or two on mysticism, spiritual exercises and mediation of the Eastern variety? Are we to believe that all of this is a great oversight, a huge “oops” on God’s part to have left out such vital instructions on an indispensable experience that is absolutely essential to Christian spirituality? Then, having realized what He had done, are we to believe God, centuries later, revealed this missing ingredient of Christian living to Roman Catholic monks, where it was rejected by the Reformers, only to have Richard Foster reintroduce it all to the twentieth century. This is a bit hard to swallow, but apparently is being accepted by many today.

Modern Promoters of Mysticism
If the mystical practices that we have been describing were contained in some little corner of the Christian subculture we have spent far too much time addressing them. But unfortunately what was once in a corner has moved mainstream. More and more organizations, colleges, seminaries and authors are proclaiming the superiority of mystical Christianity. And the focus of all this attention seems to be directed toward the young. For example, in the late 1990s Youth Specialties, the highly influential youth ministry organization, and the San Francisco Theological Seminary teamed up to do a three-year test project to develop an approach to youth ministry which incorporates contemplative practices. The project was funded by the Lilly Endowment Fund. Mike Yaconelli, co-founder of Youth Specialties, grew interested in contemplative prayer during a spiritually dry time of his life after reading a book by Henri Nouwen on the subject. Yaconelli and Youth Specialties have now incorporated contemplative prayer and mysticism in their annual pastor’s conferences and national youth conventions that reach over 100,000 youth workers each year.[16] Each conference now offers courses on how to develop a contemplative youth ministry, pray the Lectio Divina (an ancient four-step form of contemplative prayer) and walk the prayer labyrinths.

Christianity Today’s sister publication Christian Parenting recently published an article (Fall 2004) promoting the Lectio Divina for young people. “Christian” singers such as John Michael Talbot boldly endorse contemplative prayer as well as Eastern practices such as Tai Chi and yoga. Without question former Catholic priest Brennan Manning is steeped in mysticism yet Michael W. Smith gives away his books, Michael Card turns to him for advice and named his son after him, Larry Crabb seeks his counsel, Eugene Peterson loves his work, Max Lucado endorses his books, Philip Yancey considers him a good friend, [17] and Multnomah and NavPress, evangelical publishers, publish his books. Mysticism and contemplative prayer is seeping into evangelicalism from many sources and a deluge could very well be in the offing. We need to be prepared to defend the faith against this highly dangerous perversion of biblical Christianity.

[1] Georgia Harkness, Mysticism, (Nashville, Tennessee: Abingdon Press, 1973), p. 25.

[2] Richard Foster, Celebration of Discipline, (New York: HarperCollins, 1998), p. 19.

[3] Ibid., p. 25.

[4] Ibid., p. 96.

[5] Ibid., p. 102.

[6] Ibid., p. 25.

[7] Ibid., p. 166.

[8] Cited in James Sundquist, Who’s Driving the Purpose Driven Church?, (Bethany, OK: Rock Salt Publishing, 2004), p. 93.

[9] Richard Foster, p. 28.

[10] Cited in Ray Yunger, A Time of Departing, (Silverton, Oregon: Lighthouse Trails, 2002), p. 84.

[11] Richard Foster, p. 15.

[12] Ibid., p. 107.

[13] Winfried Corduan, Mysticism, an Evangelical Option?, (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan, 1991), p. 120.

[14] Richard Foster, p. 17.

[15] Winfried Corduan, p. 138.

[16] Yungen, pp. 133-134.

[17]Agnieszka Tennant, “The Patched Up Life and Message of Brennan Manning,” Christianity Today, June 2004, p. 42.


Mysticism In The Church