LTRP Note: We received an e-mail today from a LT reader who was concerned about things he was reading on the CCEL website. Thus the reposting of this 2008 article. Today, on the recommended reading list, CCEL recommends St. John of the Cross (Dark Night of the Soul), the Spiritual (mystical) Exercises of Jesuit founder St. Ignatius of Loyola, and Practicing the Presence of God by Brother Lawrence.
On October 2nd, Christian Classics Ethereal Library (CCEL) director Harry Plantinga posted a statement about contemplative prayer.1 The statement points readers to The Cloud of Unknowning, a primer on contemplative prayer and contemplative pioneer Thomas Keating. Because of the continued endorsement of contemplative by CCEL, we are reposting the following article:
The Christian Classics Ethereal Library (CCEL) is a digital (online) library of hundreds of Christian books, most of which are older (classic) publications in the public domain (non-copyrighted). The CCEL is an outreach of Calvin College and is highly popular, used by thousands of people a year.
In July 2007, Lighthouse Trails reported that CCEL was promoting mystic Madame Guyon. It was Guyon who said: “Here [the contemplative state] everything is God. God is everywhere and in all things.” The Christian History Institute said this of Guyon: “Modern critics say that Jeanne-Marie used self-hypnosis to achieve her ‘spiritual’ states and trances and point out that she used ‘automatic writing’ which suggests spiritualist practice. They wonder that she had so little to say about Christ (in proportion to the total number of words she wrote).” 1CCEL newsletter, Harry Plantinga, director of CCEL, stated that when he was growing up, there was more focus on “correct belief” (doctrine) than about “loving God” and that he found this to leave him wanting to know God, not just know about Him. He came to believe that the answer to this dilemma was in mysticism, stating that “Christian mysticism addresses that longing of the heart.”
On April 1, 2008, in the
Plantinga quotes Webster’s dictionary as saying that in mysticism it is “possible to achieve communion with God through contemplation and love without the medium of human reason.” This definition is actually quite accurate in describing mysticism. “Without the medium of human reason” means without considering doctrine or theology. This is the conclusion that mystic Thomas Merton arrived at. Ray Yungen documents correspondence Merton had with a Sufi master. The two were discussing fana (eastern mysticism). Merton asked the Sufi leader what the Muslim view of salvation was. The Sufi answered that Islam “does not subscribe to the doctrine of atonement or the theory of redemption.”2 Merton replied:
Personally, in matters where dogmatic beliefs differ, I think that controversy is of little value because it takes us away from the spiritual realities into the realm of words and ideas … in words there are apt to be infinite complexities and subtleties which are beyond resolution…. But much more important is the sharing of the experience of divine light, … It is here that the area of fruitful dialogue exists between Christianity and Islam.3
Those who study contemplative spirituality from a critical point of view come to understand this is pure contemplative spirituality – doctrine stands in the way of unity and oneness; mysticism eradicates that problem.
In the April 1st, CCEL newsletter Harry Plantinga points readers to an online study group calling it an “interesting” and “compelling” introduction to mysticism. The group is using a book by mystic Evelyn Underhill – Practical Mysticism. In mysticism proponent Richard Kirby’s book, The Mission of Mysticism, Kirby identifies Underhill as someone who can be looked to as a mystic, calling her “prominent among those charting the geography of spiritual development (p. 50). But Kirby admits that this mystical spirituality is no different than occultism:
The meditation of advanced occultists is identical with the prayer of advanced mystics; it is no accident that both traditions use the same word for the highest reaches of their respective activities: contemplation (samadhi in yoga). (emphasis in original)4
This presents quite a dilemma for CCEL. Plantinga, whether he knows it or not, is pointing readers to someone who, for all practical purposes, was an occultist. Ray Yungen explains why we would say this about Underhill:
Many Christian writers use terms such as pantheism or monism in an attempt to explain what New Agers believe; however, these words alone are rather limiting in conveying the big picture. The best explanation I have come across is from a book titled The Mission of Mysticism, which states:
[O]ccultism [New Ageism] is defined as the science of mystical evolution; it is the employment of the hidden (i.e., occult) mystical faculties of man to discern the hidden reality of nature; i.e., to see God as the all in all.(p. 6)”
These mystical faculties are the distinguishing mark of this movement–a mystical perception rather than simple belief or faith. A Christian writer once described this movement as a system of thought when, in fact, it is more aptly defined as a system of non-thought. Meditation teacher Ann Wise explained this by stating:
A man came to see me once saying that he had meditated for an hour a day every day for twelve years. Although he enjoyed the time he spent sitting, he felt he was missing something. From talking to other meditators, he felt that he must have been doing something wrong because he had none of the experiences that he had heard others describe. I measured his brainwaves while he was “meditating” and discovered that he had spent those twelve years simply thinking!5
This is why this particular style of meditation is commonly referred to as the silence. This is not silence as being in a quiet environment but inner silence as in an empty mind that opens up the mystical faculties. “The enemy of meditation is the mind,”6 wrote one New Age teacher. … I challenge the Christian community to look at the facts surrounding the contemplative prayer movement and see its connection to New Age occultism and Eastern mysticism. Just because a writer is emotionally stirring, sincere, and uses biblical language does not necessarily mean he or she advocates sound, biblical truths.(A Time of Departing, pp. 14,16, 89)
Yungen is absolutely right! And Lighthouse Trails beseeches CCEL to consider this. Just because Underhill and other mystics are emotionally stirring, often sincere, and coat their teachings with biblical language does NOT mean they are biblical!
IN a CCEL newsletter last December, Plantinga listed several contemplative authors including Thomas Merton and Brother Lawrence and said these books “make a difference in people’s lives, through the action of the Holy Spirit.” 7 We would propose that the spirituality that made Brother Lawrence “dance violently like a mad man”8 and made Thomas Merton liken the presence of God to an LSD trip(9) is not the “action of the Holy Spirit” but is rather the action of familiar spirits of which the Bible so carefully and thoroughly warns against. On the contrary, it is the Holy Spirit that bears witness to the message of the Cross (see 1 John 5:7 ff), but Thomas Merton was willing to toss aside this essential doctrine as a result of the enlightenment he received through practicing contemplative meditation.
“There is a way which seemeth right unto a man, but the end thereof are the ways of death.” Proverbs 14:12
2. Ray Yungen, A Time of Departing, 2nd Ed. (Silverton: OR, Lighthouse Trails Publishing, 2002, 2006) quoting Thomas Merton from Rob Baker and Gray Henry, Editors, Merton and Sufism (Louisville, KY: Fons Vitae, 1999), p. 109.
4. Richard Kirby, The Mission of Mysticism (London, UK: SPCK, 1979), p. 7.
5. Ann Wise, The High Performance Mind (Los Angeles, CA: Tarcher/Putnam,1995), p. 57.
6. Barry Long, Meditation, a Foundation Course (Barry Long Books, 1995), p. 13.
8. Brother Lawrence, The Practice of the Presence of God, translated by John Delaney, Image Books edition, 1977, p. 34.
9. Said by Thomas Merton to Matthew Fox, quoted in an online interview that is no longer posted on the web.