On Saturday I had a spirited on-air discussion with a Bethel University professor who acted as spokesman for the college regarding its recent interfaith symposium. As I wrote last week, Buddhism was featured and there was a suggestion that there just might be "common ground" with Buddhism and Christianity when it comes to "meditation." Hear the program at this link.
The potential "common ground" regarding meditation would be an eastern-style mystical meditation. I saw once again how the East has been seducing the West for nearly 50 years. When I came home from the radio studio I had more e-mails that brought the total to about 15 in two weeks on the issue of "spiritual formation." It is hitting Christian universities and churches like Hurricane Katrina. Bad metaphor, you say. Not really. It is causing real destruction. And since spiritual formation, too, deals heavily with the mystical, I thought I would take time to give a brief overview of this topic. I know many of you feel nothing unsound as this could walk in the door of your church, but don’t be so sure! Roger Oakland explains, "As the Word of God becomes less and less important, the rise in mystical experiences escalates, and these experiences are presented to convince the unsuspecting that Christianity is about feeling, touching, smelling, and seeing God. The postmodern mindset is the perfect environment for fostering spiritual formation.
"This term suggests that there are various ways and means to get closer to God and emulate Him. Thus, the idea is given that if you do certain practices, you can be more like Jesus. Proponents of spiritual formation erroneously teach that anyone can practice these mystical rituals and find God within. Some even say that having a relationship with Jesus Christ is not a prerequisite." Oakland continues, "The spiritual formation movement is widely promoted at colleges and seminaries as the latest and the greatest way to become a spiritual leader. It teaches people that this is how they can become more intimate with God and hear His voice. Even Christian leaders with long-standing reputations of teaching God’s Word seem to be succumbing. In so doing, many Christian leaders are frivolously playing with fire, and the result will be thousands, probably millions, getting burned." The proponents of the spiritual formation would tell you the Christian life is always a process of spiritual formation. We are always in transition, becoming more and more spiritual. But they seem to suggest that it would be helpful if we had some gimmicks to help us speed this up. In 2008, Christianity Today online gave the term of spiritual formation credibility by interviewing the man most prominent in this movement, Richard Foster. They said to Foster, "Evangelicals have been reading your book, A Celebration of Discipline, for 30 years. What is the discipline you think we need to be exploring more at this point?" Foster then promoted "solitude."
But over time we have learned that once again those in this movement are borrowing from Hinduism, Buddhism, and Catholic mystics to perfect a practice for the 21st century. Promoters of Emergent conversation say we are on the verge of an era that promises renewed spiritual awareness. "Spiritual disciplines" are being touted as the avenue to a spiritual reformation that will take Christianity to a new and higher level of spirituality, drawing all participants closer to God. The problem is that the means to attain this are not godly! Pastor Bob DeWaay writes in his Critical Issues Commentary, "I met a lady who attends a Christian college. As part of her study program, she was required to take a course on spiritual formation. Spiritual formation in her class also concerned the study of Roman Catholic mystics and the search for techniques to help those who implement them feel closer to God. This study also explored ‘spiritual disciplines’ which promised to make those who practiced them more Christlike. After she finished the class, she shared her text books with me." He continues, "To hear evangelicals like Dallas Willard and Richard Foster tell us that we need practices that were never spelled out in the Bible to become more like Christ or to get closer to God is astonishing. What is more astonishing is that evangelical colleges, seminaries, and church denominations are requiring their students and members to study practices that are relics of Medieval Rome, not found in the Bible, and closely akin to the practices of many pagan societies."
So while the term spiritual formation sounds like a good concept as we all want to grow spiritually, it comes with questionable baggage that is, once again, mystical and hardly sound. Ask questions of your church leadership or college staff. Challenge the issue by pointing out that much of this foundation has been laid by mystics and Catholicism – and throw in some Buddhism and Hinduism as well. You will then conclude that when the term spiritual formation comes up as it does more and more frequently, it should have a "buyer-beware" label on it. If you see your church bulletin announcing its arrival, don’t just sit there – do something. Confront your leadership! Such things as the Bethel University symposium on "meditation" and the spiritual formation movement are driven by what is known as "contemplative prayer."
Spiritual formation is just another "tickle the ears" effort drawing on experience rather than the Bible.
To help you better understand the dangers of this kind of prayer and the spiritual formation movement, check out the two items: Roger Oakland’s book Faith Undone and Ray Yungen’s DVD, The Face of Mystical Spirituality. Also visit the "Spiritual Deception" category at my Web site.
Awaiting His return,
Olive Tree Ministries, Inc.
Maple Grove, MN 55311