Update Note: For some articles written about this issue that came out after the article below, click here.
This August, in Orlando, Florida, the Assemblies of God USA will be presenting their General Council Conference, which takes place every two years. The title of this year’s event is “BELIEVE.” Scheduled to speak to “women in ministry” on one of the nights is Ruth Haley Barton. This is a bold move that the Assemblies of God is making because Barton is a major player in bringing contemplative mystical (i.e., mantra-based) prayer into the evangelical church.
The mission statement for the conference is “Believe we are on the cusp of an unparalleled Spiritual awakening.”1 On the conference website, it states:
GENERAL COUNCIL is the Assemblies of God’s largest gathering. It takes place every two years bringing church leaders together from all around the world.2
It also says that the event will inspire encounters with God, shape the Assemblies of God movement, and enhance [AOG leaders] “skills and be inspired to advance the kingdom of God.”
While the Assemblies of God denomination has been going in the contemplative direction for some time, especially within the AOG theological seminary, to bring a major contemplative player in as a speaker to the movement’s main leadership conference illustrates how much AOG has absorbed contemplative spirituality over the last few years especially.
As a little background, in 2005, Lighthouse Trails addressed the issue of contemplative coming into AOG when we discussed Professor Earl Creps, director of the Doctor of Ministry at the Assemblies of God Theological Seminary. Creps is probably one of the earliest figures within the AOG movement to bring contemplative into AOG. In one document titled “Leading Others and Myself,” Creps lists a number of New Spirituality, emerging church and contemplative proponents as people he turns to.3 A 2006 LT article, “Assemblies of God: Committed to Spiritual Formation, Contemplative and Emerging,” stated:
If Assemblies of God Theological Seminary is any indication, then AOG is heading straight towards contemplative spirituality and the emerging church. Earl Creps . . . is a heavy proponent of both contemplative and emerging. In his course syllabi over the last five years, Creps has classes with titles such as “Leading the Emerging Church” and “Models of Ministry in the Emerging Church.” Syllabus reading materials include those from Henri Nouwen, Brian McLaren, Ken Blanchard, Dan Kimball, . . . and Leonard Sweet. A visit to Creps’ “Spiritual Adventures” blog gives a hearty helping of emergent discussion. In one blog, Creps tries to show how there might be a union between Pentecostalism and the emerging church [i.e. contemplative], saying the relationship is “gaining some traction.”
As in most cases now, contemplative starts coming into a denomination through seminaries, colleges, and universities, and in time reveals itself in the main body of that movement. That is now what is happening with AOG bringing in Ruth Haley Barton to the General Council event this year where AOG leaders from around the world will be participating.
For those who have followed Lighthouse Trails, you will know that Barton was trained at the Shalem Institute for Spiritual Formation in Washington, DC where she, according to her own words, was “under the guidance of Tilden Edwards, Rosemary Dougherty and Gerald May.” On Ruth Haley Barton’s Transforming Center website, she enthusiastically acknowledges being trained there, but the site gives a vague and almost oxymoronic disclaimer saying: “While she values all that she has gained from the teachers and institutions in which she has studied, this does not imply endorsement of everything taught in these environments.”4 (emphasis added)
We could talk about the beliefs of Tilden Edwards, Rosemary Dougherty, and Gerald May, but we have in other articles that can be looked up on our research site and read. Basically, these teachers are contemplative mystics who adhere to panentheism and universalism. It was Edwards who said that, “This mystical stream [contemplative prayer] is the Western bridge to Far Eastern spirituality (Spiritual Friend, p. 18). In other words, contemplative spirituality draws all religions together in unity under the common denominator of mysticism.
Who is Ruth Haley Barton?
After Barton finished her training at the Shalem Institute, she became the Associate Director of Spiritual Formation at Willow Creek Community Church and co-authored (with John Ortberg) a Spiritual Formation curriculum for Willow Creek. In time, Ortberg moved on to become pastor at Menlo Park Presbyterian in California, and Barton left to found the Transforming Center, which claims to train thousands of pastors and leaders in the contemplative way. She has written a number of books – virtually all having the core message that you gain intimacy with God through the silence (that is her predominant message). Some of these books are: Invitation to Solitude and Silence (foreword by Dallas Willard), Sacred Rhythms, Strengthening the Soul of Your Leadership, and one of her more recent ones Pursuing God’s Will Together: A Discernment Practice for Leadership Groups.
So what is it exactly that Barton teaches? In a Christianity Today article titled “Drawing Closer to God,” Barton describes the practice of contemplative prayer, saying, “Ask for a simple prayer to express your willingness to meet God in the silence . . . a simple statement . . . such as ‘Here I am. . . . ’ Help yourself return to your original intent by repeating the prayer that you have chosen.”
In Barton’s popular book, Invitation to Solitude and Silence, she goes into more depth:
• Identify your sacred space and time. Explore all the possibilities for a time and physical space in which you can be alone on a regular basis (p. 40).
• Begin with a modest goal, especially if silence is a new practice for you. Ten, fifteen or twenty minutes of time spent in actual silence is realistic, depending on such factors as your personality, pace of life, reliance on words and activity (p. 41).
• Settle into a comfortable yet alert physical position (p. 41).
• Ask God to give you a simple prayer that expresses your openness and desire for God. Choose a prayer phrase that expresses your desire or need for God these days in the simplest terms possible. It is best if the prayer is not more than six to eight syllables so that it can be prayed very naturally in the rhythm of your breathing. Pray this prayer several times as an entry into silence and also as a way of dealing with distractions. Distractions are inevitable, so when they come, simply let them go by like clouds floating across the sky. Help yourself return to the prayerful intent by repeating the prayer you have chosen. Use your prayer phrase for as long as it captures what is most true about your heart’s desire for God, and link it with a body posture that also helps you express your spiritual desire (pp. 41-42).
In regard to Barton’s disclaimer on her website, she can say that she does not endorse everything she was taught at Shalem Institute, but the fact of the matter is what she just described above is the essence of what Shalem believes and teaches. Everything they teach stems from this mystical prayer. Perhaps she is implying that she does not adhere to their panentheistic (God in all) and universalist (all are saved) views, but that would be ironic because these are the things that are produced by practicing contemplative prayer. Ray Yungen calls them the “fruit” of contemplative prayer. In A Time of Departing, Yungen discusses Shalem and its role in Barton’s spiritual life. He includes a quote found on Shalem’s website to show the underlying roots of Shalem’s ultimate goal:
In Christianity and other traditions that understand God to be present everywhere, contemplation includes a reverence for the Divine Mystery, “finding God in all things,” [panentheism] or “being open to God’s presence, however it may appear. (5)
Yungen shares his concerns about Ruth Haley Barton:
“[Barton] echoes [goddess worshipper] Sue Monk Kidd in many ways, including the general malaise or condition of the human soul. Barton recounts:
A few years ago, I began to recognize an inner chaos in my soul . . . No matter how much I prayed, read the Bible, and listened to good teaching, I could not calm the internal roar created by questions with no answers. (“Beyond Words“)
“The following scenario Barton relates could be the wave of the future for the evangelical church if this movement continues to unfold in the manner it already has:
I sought out a spiritual director, someone well versed in the ways of the soul . . . eventually this wise woman said to me, . . . “What you need is stillness and silence so that the sediment can settle and the water can become clear.” . . . I decided to accept this invitation to move beyond my addiction to words (“Beyond Words”)
“By ‘addiction to words’ [Barton] means normal ways of praying. She still uses words, but only three of them, ‘Here I am.’ This is nothing more than the Cloud of Unknowing or [Henri Nouwen’s] prayer of the heart. Like Richard Foster, Barton argues that God cannot be reached adequately, if at all, without the silence. In referring to I Kings 19 when Elijah was hiding in a cave, Barton encourages:
“What Barton fails to mention here is that Elijah was a valiant defender of the belief in the one, unique God – Yahweh (as seen in his encounter with the 450 prophets of Baal), and he never went into an altered state of silence in his personal encounter with God.” (A Time of Departing, 2nd. ed., pp. 172-173)
Those reading this who are skeptical about what we are saying may be asking, “What’s so wrong about repeating a word or phrase and going into an altered state of silence?” To this we answer, this state of silence is the same state that occultists and Eastern meditation practitioners enter when practicing transcendental meditation (TM). We can prove this by the words of one of the men who trained Ruth Haley Barton – Gerald May (from Shalem Institute). May wrote the foreword to a book titled Zen for Christians. In that book, he says the following:
I began to explore Eastern religions . . . I was taking my spiritual business elsewhere. Or so I thought. What surprised me, eventually, was that my foray into Buddhism led me in a kind of circle, back to my Christian roots. Over time, Buddhist practices [meditation] somehow revealed to me the rich resources of Christian contemplative tradition that had been there all along . . . I was not alone in that experience. . . [Those on the contemplative road] in their searching, many turned toward the East and experienced exactly what I had – an eventual discovery of deep nourishment [Eastern enlightenment] within their own original traditions. The phenomenon happened so frequently that we gave it a name: “pilgrimage home.”
May was correct in stating that so-called “Christian” contemplative prayer is the same as Buddhist meditation. As one adherent admitted, “The meditation of advanced occultists is identical with the prayer of advanced mystics” (Kirby, Mission of Mysticism, p. 7). Who are the “advanced mystics”? There are plenty of them, names you probably know: Henri Nouwen, Richard Foster, Thomas Merton, Richard Rohr, and to that list we add Ruth Haley Barton.
Consider this: On Barton’s website, she sells books by Catholic priest and contemplative activist Richard Rohr. In addition, she quotes him (in a prominent spot) in her recent book Pursuing God’s Will Together from his book, Everything Belongs. Typical of other contemplatives, such as Thomas Merton, Rohr believes that everything is connected together and that all is divine (thus, everybody belongs to the kingdom of God). In his 2011 book, Falling Upward, Rohr implies that we all are “immaculate conception[s]” (p. ix). If these things are true, then there was no need for Jesus Christ to die on the Cross for the sins of mankind. We would not need a Savior because we would already be divine ourselves. In truth, contemplative spirituality is the antithesis of the Gospel. That is why there are countless mystics who claim to know God (or Jesus) but will have nothing to do with the Cross.
In a YouTube teaching video by Barton, she tells viewers, “You have nothing to lose and a whole lot to gain [if you follow her instructions],” but we say you have everything to lose and nothing to gain if you go down the contemplative path. Sadly, instead of being on the “cusp of an unparalleled Spiritual Awakening,” it appears that the Assemblies of God is going to be losing “a whole lot” in the days to come as they further open themselves to the contemplative “silence” and the spiritual deception that accompanies it. Our warning here is to be taken seriously. William Shannon, Thomas Merton’s biographer, validated our concern when he made the following observation:
If one wants to understand Merton’s going to the East it is important to understand that it was his rootedness in his own faith tradition [Catholicism] that gave him the spiritual equipment [contemplative prayer] he needed to grasp the way of wisdom that is proper to the East. (Silent Lamp, p. 281)
This is what Tilden Edwards meant by the bridge to Far Eastern spirituality. Merton didn’t become a Buddhist; rather he grasped the way that “is proper to the East.” That is how Merton, as a Catholic monk, could say, “I intend to become as good a Buddhist as I can.”* In other words, while you don’t become a Buddhist, you absorb the Buddhist view into your Christianity. This is the underlying herald cry of the contemplative prayer movement, and it is something that can never be reconciled with the message of the Cross.
The ironic thing is that the Assemblies of God has traditionally held to the biblical view of the end times whereas contemplative spirituality lines up with a universal world religion, which will encompass all humanity and unite under the man of sin. There has never been anything on the scene before that would allow a universal religion that appeals to people on a broad scale. But first people have to hook up to the common factor and binding agent of this one-world religion, and that is contemplative prayer!
*David Steindl-Rast, “Recollection of Thomas Merton’s Last Days in the West” (Monastic Studies, 7:10, 1969).