LTRP Note: This an update to our previous articles regarding Assemblies of God’s invitation of contemplative leader Ruth Haley Barton to their 2013 General Council conference. Please see the links at the bottom of this page for a chronological listing of articles relating to this matter.
“Will Assemblies of God Leaders Ignore Contemplative Evidence?”
By the Editors at Lighthouse Trails
In the course of attempting to provide evidence to the leaders of Assemblies of God as to the nature of Ruth Haley Barton’s spirituality, AG General Superintendent Dr. George Wood has issued both public and private statements. This past week we received an e-mail from an Assemblies of God pastor, which included an e-mail the pastor received from Dr. Wood about the Ruth Haley Barton controversy. We are posting Dr. Wood’s e-mail to the AG pastor for two reasons: first, the pastor gave us permission, saying he was very concerned about his denomination; and second, Dr. Wood’s e-mail to the AG pastor brings further clarification to his earlier public statements.
The following is Dr. Wood’s e-mail to an AG pastor. This is an extract that includes all parts pertaining to the issue at hand. We have removed a few personal comments:
The group of women who invited Ruth Barton is the Credentialed Women In Ministry, not the Women’s Ministry Department. The task force for our Credentialed Women in Ministry is led by a volunteer, Dr. Jodi Detrick. You have noted her prior response to Lighthouse Trails (LT). I gave direction to not respond to further LT posts.
I have looked at what LT has said. I have also read Ruth Barton’s book, Strengthening the Soul of Your Ministry. Quite honestly, it is one of the best books I’ve ever ready on breaking away from the busy-ness of ministry to seek the presence of God. She uses the life of Moses as a template for how we need to desire the Presence of the Lord above all else. I encourage you to read it and judge for yourself. I also note that Ruth Barton’s books are published by InterVarsity Press, a solid evangelical publisher. . . .
Barton talks about how Moses, despite the heavy responsibilities he bore, treasured most his fellowship with God, his taking time to listen to God. Near the end of her book, she talks about how we often think it unfair that for one rash act of striking the rock twice, Moses was told by God he could not enter the Promised Land. However, this is the same Moses who wanted to see God face to face, and instead God said, “You can only see the back of me.” In denying Moses entry into Canaan, Barton pointed out a fact I had not thought of – Moses’ great desire in his life was to see God face to face, so in denying him entry into the Promised Land God responded to a deeper yearning within Moses. Instead of giving him the Promised Land, God let Moses come into the Promised Presence. That one insight was so helpful to me in ministering to [a] dying friend. And, it helps me in my life with all the responsibilities of this office to make sure I keep my attention and focus on His Presence more than I do all the things that belong to my present duties.
As I read books, I find that usually I don’t agree 100% with everything an author has said; but I take the one or few things I don’t agree with and measure it against the vast amount of profit I gain from the insights of the author. If people are looking for something to pick at, they can always find it.
Basically it boils down to this: I trust the people I know and whose ministry I know. I don’t hold equal weight with people I don’t know. I don’t know LT. They are not in our Fellowship. But, I do know the women who serve on our task force for Credentialed Women in Ministry. They are women of God and have proven fruitfulness in ministry. They invited Ruth Barton and I trust their spiritual discernment and judgment.
Finally, the Credentialed Women in Ministry event at General Council is not a main session. It is their separate event. I believe the credentialed women in our Fellowship who attend also will have sufficient discernment as to whether the ministry of Ruth Barton is beneficial to them or not. If she ministers along the themes of the book I mentioned above, then there will be real profit for those who come. The event is not for lay women, but for credentialed women. Possibly some minister’s wives will attend as well.
The first thing we want to clarify is this: We understand Dr. Wood is a man who is in a position of high leadership. It is not our intention to put ourselves above Dr. Wood nor is it our intention to humiliate or embarrass anyone. We are attempting to present our material in an attitude of humility and godliness, and we do not mean for this to be a show of disrespect by any means.
That said, our hearts are greatly troubled by Dr. Wood’s apparent unwillingness to openly address the evidence we have presented. The fact is, in each of his statements so far, he has not brought up the issue at hand at all. He does not even try to refute it, almost as if he doesn’t believe it, or believes that it is completely irrelevant.
As to the suggestion that he made that he would not listen to Lighthouse Trails because he does not know us, this is not a valid argument. It would be like this scenario: a neighbor you have never met comes running over to your house, crying out that a nearby dam is reported to have been breached and you must evacuate. But you say to yourself, I don’t know that neighbor, and I don’t like the way he approached me. So you go back in your house, and you close your door. In other words, if someone has documentation, even though it may at first sound implausible, one has an obligation to check it out and see if it is valid.
In addition to the points of evidence we have presented on our previous statements about this situation (see links below), we have the following to add. We pray that Dr. Wood and other Assemblies of God pastors and leaders would consider these things.
As we pointed out earlier, by Ruth Barton’s own admission, her spirituality was shaped by Thomas Keating. To show why this is so significant, and where it can lead, another individual who was spiritually shaped by Thomas Keating was Catholic monk and interspiritual activist Wayne Teasdale. (Teasdale writes about it in his book, The Mystic Heart). Of Keating, he states:
I owe so much to so many people everywhere, particularly those who have influenced my spiritual growth [and then he names Thomas Keating – p. xxi].
Eastern meditation has inspired Christian forms of contemplation like Thomas Keating’s Centering Prayer (p. 32).
[M]onastics have carried the primary responsibility for this significant, mystical interfaith work. They have deeply assimilated Hinduism, Zen, Taoism and other forms of Buddhism, notably the Theravadan and Tibetan traditions. Thomas Merton and Thomas Keating, both Trappists, are two leading figures in this development (p. 39).
Few have contributed more to interspirituality in our time than Keating (p. 41).
The point here, which is really quite obvious, is that Teasdale saw contemplative Christianity as being aligned with Eastern meditation, and he recognized that Thomas Keating had the same goals. Teasdale also acknowledged Keating’s contribution to his own spiritual “growth.” And so does Ruth Haley Barton. This is absolutely a point that cannot be overlooked or ignored.
To emphasize the spiritual infrastructure of Teasdale’s (and Keating’s) spirituality, listen to what Teasdale has to say in The Mystic Heart:
* It was during my college years that my first mystical experiences occurred. . . . The divine completely took me over. . . . I couldn’t think, analyze, remember, imagine, or speak (p. 225).
* For many years I have been intensely aware of the divine as a breathing presence that surrounds me, is within me, and takes me into itself. . . . Whenever I am aware of it, there is no mistaking it for something else. I immediately know who it is (p. 226).
* I began to appreciate and value other traditions. I discovered that Hinduism, Buddhism, Taoism, Sufism, the Kabbalah, Hasidism did not take me away from my faith, but augmented my deep commitment to Christian contemplation. I became impassioned in my interest in these traditions (emphasis added, p. 236).
* Interspirituality, and the intermystical life it entails, recognizes the larger community of humankind in the mystical quest. . . . To leave out any spiritual experience is to impoverish humanity. Everything must be included (p. 236).
What Teasdale is describing here is the effect that happens to virtually every leader of the contemplative prayer movement (e.g., Thomas Merton, Henri Nouwen, Richard Rohr, etc.). You usually won’t hear such blatant statements by the contemplatives in the evangelical camp (e.g., Richard Foster, Dallas Willard, Brennan Manning, and Ruth Haley Barton), but they betray any sense of opposition by their sympathy, promotion, endorsement, and referencing of these panentheistic teachers.
On Ruth Barton’s website, she gives a disclaimer that she does not agree with everything her mysticism teachers taught her. So, what did she take from them? That is very clear – meditation. And like her evangelical kindred companions in the contemplative prayer movement (Foster, Willard, etc.) , they say contemplative meditation is different than Eastern or New Age meditation. We addressed this in our last report with overwhelming evidence that the realm entered during contemplative meditation is the same as the realm entered during New Age and Eastern meditation (i.e., an occultic presence is the result, not the presence of God).
Here is the controversy: These interspiritual mystics (Teasdale, Keating, Tilden Edwards, etc.) do not adhere to the biblical tenet that Jesus Christ is the only way to salvation. They believe that all religions can lead to God. So how can we take something from them that will improve or enhance our Christianity, give us more intimacy with God, or bring us into His presence when the very essence of Christianity (i.e., Jesus Christ is the only Savior of mankind and one must believe on Him to be saved) is rejected by these teachers? The Christ they worship is the cosmic Christ (i.e., the divine in all things). And this fundamentally negates the Gospel message of Jesus Christ.
In Sacred Rhythms, Ruth Barton says that “all of us are in God” (p. 409). Barton does not specify between all Christian believers who are in God and all humanity. If Barton means all of humanity is with God, she would be right in line with all of the leaders she quotes in the contemplative prayer movement. One of the things that causes us to believe this could be the case is that on that same page she says this, she has a quote by contemplative teacher Basil Pennington who believes that the soul of all humanity is the Holy Spirit (Centered Living, p. 104).
Based on her affinity with all these writers, at some point Barton began to embrace and absorb their views to the degree that she quotes from them and acknowledges that she has grown spiritually from them.
If we want to understand where contemplative spirituality will lead someone, all we have to do is look at Sue Monk Kidd. She was once a conservative Southern Baptist Sunday school teacher. She started reading Thomas Merton and doing what Barton refers to as “simple prayers.” After she had practiced contemplative prayer for a while, listen to what happened to Monk Kidd in her own words:
The minister was preaching. He was holding up a Bible. It was open, perched atop his raised hand as if a blackbird had landed there. He was saying that the Bible was the sole and ultimate authority of the Christian’s life. The sole and ultimate authority.
I remember a feeling rising up from a place about two inches below my navel. It was a passionate, determined feeling, and it spread out from the core of me like a current so that my skin vibrated with it. If feelings could be translated into English, this feeling would have roughly been the word no!
It was the purest inner knowing I had experienced, and it was shouting in me no, no, no! The ultimate authority of my life is not the Bible; it is not confined between the covers of a book. It is not something written by men and frozen in time. It is not from a source outside myself. My ultimate authority is the divine voice in my own soul. Period. (The Dance of the Dissident Daughter, p. 76).
This is not the presence of God giving Sue Monk Kidd a “current” that her skin “vibrated with.” With the Holy Spirit, the result would be the opposite of what happened to her. The Holy Spirit would lead someone to cling to God’s Word, not repel it. Even still, Richard Foster used Monk Kidd as a favorable example in his book Prayer: Finding the Heart’s True Home as someone who uses contemplative prayer (along with Thomas Merton and Basil Pennington).
What we are trying to get across here is that the entire contemplative movement is spiritually corrupt – its roots and its adherents. When you examine this, you have to come to the conclusion that this is not a Christian movement. Some contemplative proponents say they are merely taking back what was hijacked by the New Age or Eastern religion, but that is preposterous, and there is no evidence in Scripture to back up the idea that a mantra-type meditation is either needed or required in order to be in the presence of God. When we are born again, we are inhabited by God’s Spirit. Being born again through faith in Jesus Christ is both a prerequisite and a guarantee that we are in His presence and have fellowship with God. There is no esoteric path into the presence of God! When Jesus taught His disciples to pray, He warned against praying “vain repetitions as the heathen do” (Matthew 6:7), but the contemplatives teach the opposite of Jesus’ warnings to their own hurt and the hurt of the many who follow them.
Ray Yungen, the author of A Time of Departing, has been examining this issue for nearly thirty years now. It was he who brought this to the attention of Lighthouse Trails 11 years ago. Yungen began to see the connection between contemplative spirituality and Eastern mysticism when he was introduced to the teachings of Richard Foster and learned that Foster was a disciple of Thomas Merton. It was Merton who said he was “deeply impregnated with Sufism”* (Islamic mysticism). Is it possible that a good Christian can be indwelled by the same spirit as Muslim mystics who reject the Gospel, which is the foundation for biblical Christianity.
In order for the Assemblies of God leadership to neutralize our objections, they would have to explain a way our evidence. Keep in mind that basically all of our evidence springs from people who are promoters and practitioners of contemplative prayer. None of the evidence comes from those who are hostile toward it. So we are presenting first-hand documentation that is not taken out of the context in which the writers say it.
If this warning is ignored and Ruth Haley Barton is allowed to speak at the upcoming General Council conference of the Assemblies of God, we would suggest that people ask her what she thinks of Thomas Merton. Most likely, she will say she doesn’t agree with everything he wrote, but generally he has a lot to teach us (like Richard Foster, who once told Ray Yungen that Merton was trying to awaken God’s people). But the very thing that Merton has to teach us (or awaken us to) is the very thing that caused him to be heretical. What he has to teach us is how to enter the silence, but it is an ungodly silence.
In this latest response from Dr. George Wood, he says that Ruth Barton’s book, Strengthening the Soul of Your Ministry, is the best book he has ever read on entering the presence of God. And yet, the majority of people Barton quotes or references in the book have the theological perspective that dovetails with Eastern religion -Teresa of Avila, Gerald May, Parker Palmer, Buddhist sympathizer Peter Senge, Richard Rohr – quoted twice, atonement rejector Alan Jones, Elizabeth Dryer, Tilden Edwards, Wayne Muller, Thomas Merton, Rosemary Dougherty, and Henri Nouwen. This book that Dr. Wood speaks so highly of is a who’s who of outright mystics.
There may have been a time in some of these people’s lives when they would have rejected or ignored Eastern religious thought and meditation, but at some point, they allowed themselves to be lured into meditative practices and the “presence” those practices bring with them rather than relying on a relationship with Jesus Christ that is genuine through the Word of God and sanctified by the Holy Spirit.
In 1992, Newsweek magazine did a cover story called “Talking to God,” which made a clear reference to contemplative prayer:
[S]ilence, appropriate body posture and, above all, emptying the mind through repetition of prayer—have been the practices of mystics in all the great world religions. And they form the basis on which most modern spiritual directors guide those who want to draw closer to God.
Ruth Haley Barton has often talked about a time in her life a number of years ago when she was feeling empty and far from God. She said she had exhausted all her Protestant avenues of help and turned to a non-Protestant spiritual director (suggesting that she probably turned to someone in the Catholic church). This is what led Barton to embrace the kind of drawing closer to God of which the Newsweek article speaks.
It is worth noting that the Newsweek article said that most mainstream denominations (e.g., United Methodist, Episcopal, Lutheran) and Catholic groups had now embraced mystical prayer. But today, it is becoming widespread in the traditional evangelical camp as well.
Ray Yungen makes this observation:
It is amazing to me how Newsweek clearly observed this shift in the spiritual paradigm over [twenty] years ago, while many Christians (including most prominent leaders) still live in abject ignorance of this change. Are the teachings of the practical Christian mystic actually being assimilated so well that even our pastors are not discerning this shift?
Dr. Wood, for the sake of the 65 million members worldwide in the Assemblies of God, it is not good to ignore the evidence if you think you can refute it.
* As quoted in Merton and Sufism by Baker and Henry, p. 69, citing Merton speaking at a women’s retreat at the Gethsemani monastery in Kentucky in 1968 (the year of his death).