This past week we received an e-mail from a reader who brought to our attention a video online showing where popular Calvinist teacher John Piper is asked the question: “Is there such a thing as contemplative prayer or Christian meditation in the Reformed and Puritan tradition?” Piper answers by first attempting to define contemplative prayer:
[T]here is a spiritual seeing, or what we would call contemplation. This is where, when you read your Bible, you pause and you see in and through the words to the reality with your heart, and you apprehend spiritual reality. And this gives rise to a kind of praying that is spiritual and authentic and personal and warm and strong.
In the video, Piper says he is “ticked” with Christian seminary classes that turn “mainly” to the “mystical Catholic tradition in order to find this kind of depth and this kind of personal connection with the living God that is both rational and supra-rational and very mystical in its communion.” He adds, “You don’t have to embrace bad theology, namely Roman Catholic historic bad theology, in order to find amazing representatives of those who’ve known God at this level.”
The obvious question that was not answered in this snippet is who does Piper believe are some of these “amazing representatives” who can teach us about “good” contemplative prayer? Thanks to our keen-eyed reader, who sent us a link to Piper’s church’s bookstore, we found that answer, at least in part — none other than Richard Foster, whose book Prayer: Finding the Heart’s True Home is being sold on the Bethlehem Baptist Church’s bookstore website (source). Prayer: Finding the Heart’s True Home is one of Foster’s primers on contemplative prayer. In that book, Foster tells us: “You must bind the mind with one thought” (p. 124). Foster’s advice echoes mystics such as Anthony DeMello as Ray Yungen points out in A Time of Departing (p. 75). Yungen warns that this binding the mind (getting rid of distractions and thoughts) is no different than classic Hindu meditation.
Ironically, while John Piper rejects the “Catholic” contemplatives, Foster does not. In Prayer: Finding the Heart’s True Home, Foster quotes and references several including Thomas Merton, Henri Nouwen, and Madame Guyon. With this in mind, we must reject the notion that John Piper is adequately distinguishing between bad Catholic contemplative prayer and good Protestant contemplative prayer. As we have always affirmed, there is no good contemplative prayer. And important to note, Thomas Merton was one of the significant figures in bringing contemplative meditation to the forefront, and Richard Foster is nothing less than a Merton disciple. So once again we have an example of a Christian leader talking out of both sides of the mouth and no doubt bringing confusion to his followers.
When Piper publicly interviewed Rick Warren in 2011, he showed his support for the Purpose Driven pastor’s doctrine when he stated: “At root I think he is theological and doctrinal and sound.”(1) This caused much dismay for those who understand the underlying beliefs of “America’s pastor.” Rick Warren is a strong advocate and promoter for contemplative mystics (such as Henri Nouwen) and the spiritual formation movement (the vehicle through which contemplative is entering the Protestant church).(2) So with John Piper’s embrace of Warren coupled with his apparent acceptance of Richard Foster, Piper students should be asking some prudent questions of their teacher. They should also dismiss the notion that we can distinguish between good and bad contemplative prayer. There is no such thing.
The following 10 minute preview video (from the New Face of Mystical Spirituality lecture series) by Ray Yungen may help show our concerns about contemplative prayer: