Several news agencies have reported on the comments that Focus on the Family founder James Dobson made about presidential candidate Barack Obama.1 Dobson, who said that Obama is “deliberately distorting the traditional understanding of the Bible to justify his own world view,” has challenged statements made by Obama on his view of the Bible’s moral role in our society. Dobson, who has been at the forefront in fighting against partial birth abortion, stated that Obama believes societal issues, such as abortion, should not enter the legislative arena because too many people don’t believe it is wrong to commit abortion.
Lighthouse Trails believes that Dobson has been correct in challenging Obama regarding the defense of the unborn child. However, what is not scripturally based is Focus on the Family’s continued defense of contemplative prayer. This past week Lighthouse Trails received a letter, written by Focus on the Family to one of our readers, regarding our past reports that they are promoting contemplative authors Gary Thomas and Richard Foster. The letter from Focus on the Family states:
With all due respect to the folks who write and maintain the “Lighthouse Trails” Web site, we have to insist that they are seriously misrepresenting our ministry’s motives and purposes. Their assertion that Focus on the Family is “promoting” Contemplative Prayer and Spirituality is neither fair nor accurate. It is true that we have occasionally referenced speakers and authors who deal with subjects of this nature â€“ individuals such as Richard Foster, Gary Thomas, Larry Crabb, and Beth Moore. But this, in our opinion, is not the same thing as “promoting” contemplative prayer. The truth of the matter is that we have far too much else on our plate to become involved in any such activity. The heart of our outreach is practical family ministry.
With specific reference to the work of Gary Thomas, you need to understand that, after a careful review, our staff has found nothing within the pages of Mr. Thomas’s book, Sacred Parenting, that contradicts the Christian faith or Dr. Dobson’s philosophy of child-rearing in any way. As a matter of fact, we feel strongly that this book will be a tremendous help and a great inspiration to those moms and dads who choose to take advantage of its message. This does not mean that we can be held accountable for the contents of Mr. Thomas’s other writings. It should go without saying that Dr. Dobson does not necessarily endorse every opinion expressed by every author whose resources are distributed through our ministry.
On a more general level, we cannot go along with [the] unqualified assertion that “contemplative prayer” and “Eastern meditation” are necessarily one and the same. It is true that there is a form of “centering,” “self-emptying,” or “contemplation” specific to Hinduism and the other eastern religions which involves altered states of consciousness and which is essentially tantamount to a negation of the human personality. You are correct to insist that this is an unbiblical idea. You are seriously mistaken, however, in assuming that there cannot be other types of “contemplation” which are thoroughly consistent with the soul of Christian devotion and genuine communion with Christ. “Be still, and know that I am God,” says the Lord in Psalm 46:10. How can one “be still” and listen to God’s voice without first taking steps to eliminate inward “noises” and distractions? …
In closing, I can assure you that no one here at Focus on the Family is promoting the practice of “chanting” a “mantra,” after the fashion of the Zen masters. Nor are we necessarily advocating the teachings of any particular proponent of “contemplative prayer” (e.g., Thomas Merton, Teresa of Avila, or Henri Nouwen). All we are trying to say is that there is nothing unbiblical or anti-Christian about solitude, silence, and “meditative” prayer. Perhaps you can see the difference…. Tim Masters, Focus on the Family
This is the second letter we have seen from Tim Masters, who is in the Office of the Chairman of Focus on the Family.1 In the first letter (dated May 2006) written directly to Lighthouse Trails, Masters also defended their use of Gary Thomas’ books as well as the contemplative “tradition.” These letters are in response to our articles:
Focus on the Family Answers Lighthouse Trails – – May 2006
One Year Later – Focus on the Family Still Promoting Contemplative – May 2007
Serious Concerns for Focus on the Family’s Marriage Conference – June 2008
In these Lighthouse Trails articles, we have addressed the position that Focus on the Family holds with regard to contemplative. Please refer to those articles to gain a better understanding. We would like to comment now on certain aspects of this second letter from Tim Masters:
First, when Masters says that Lighthouse Trails is “seriously misrepresenting our ministry’s motives and purposes,” the implication is that since their motives (and intentions) in promoting contemplative are good, their actions should not be questioned (i.e., if intent is good, practice and means are irrelevant). Ray Yungen discusses the concept of “intent” with regard to the contemplative prayer controversy:
One of the most common objections made by the defenders and admirers of Foster and [Brennan] Manning is that they are not really teaching Eastern mysticism, because their focus and attention is on the God of Christianity; they argue that their focus is for people to walk more closely with Jesus, not Shiva or Buddha, thus the teachings are westernized even though the practices are identical to the East. On the surface this may seem like a valid defense, but listen to the founder of the top contemplative prayer school in America (Shalem Institute), and see why this defense is precarious at best: Tilden Edwards explains, “This mystical stream [contemplative prayer] is the Western bridge to Far Eastern spirituality.”
This means that, regardless of intent, Western mysticism, due to its common practices with the East, produces a passage into the understanding of Eastern spiritual concepts. Thus, if you practice Western yoga or pray the mantra, you go into the same trance as the East; if you open yourself, through this trance, to the Western spirit world, you end up in the same demonic realm or with gods of the East; then, if you open yourself to the demonic realm, you enter into the same realm of consciousness as the East where all is One and everyone and everything is seen as Godâ€”hence panentheism; finally, if you embrace panentheism, the Gospel loses its significance, and each individual feels persuaded to find his or her own way to God. What begins as a seemingly innocent “Jesus Prayer” [a contemplative practice] becomes a rejection of the Gospel. In other words, you can call a practice by any other name, but it is the same practice, hence the same results. For example, if you were to jump off a cliff with the intent to fly saying the word “fly, fly, fly” as you jump off and someone else jumped off the same cliff with the intent to hit the bottom saying “fall, fall, fall” as he jumps off, in either case both will hit the bottom. Unfortunately, this is exactly what is happening in contemplative prayer, although the intent may be to honor Christ. (A Time of Departing, p. 86)
Secondly, Tim Masters has erroneously stated in his letter that Focus on the Family has “occasionally referenced speakers and authors who deal with subjects of this nature–individuals such as Richard Foster, Gary Thomas, Larry Crabb, and Beth Moore.” However, every day on their website, they are promoting Foster, Crabb, John Ortberg (also contemplative) and Thomas by selling books by Thomas and an H.B. London interview series on Spiritual Formation that includes Richard Foster, Larry Crabb, and John Ortberg. Even if they only mention these contemplative authors now and then, which is questionable, they promote these authors each and every day by selling them.
Thirdly, Masters makes the argument that pointing people to one book of an author (that may not have objectionable material) is ok and Focus on the Family cannot “be held accountable for the contents of Mr. Thomas’s other writings.” We have a case in point that shows why this line of reasoning is flawed: Just this past week, a woman who called Lighthouse Trails told us two family members had read one of Gary Thomas’ books (one without contemplative content) and because of that reading (which their pastor had recommended to them), they picked up a copy of Thomas’ book, Sacred Pathways. This gave them an interest in practicing mantra meditation as prescribed by Thomas in his book (repeat a word for 20 minutes to enter the silence). In addition to this timely call we received, think about this: in the back of Sacred Parenting are several full page advertisements for Thomas’ other books. Two of them are Sacred Pathways and Sacred Marriage. And as we have stated numerous times previously, in Sacred Marriage Thomas points to a woman named Mary Anne McPherson Oliver and her book, Conjugal Spirituality, a book in which McPherson openly promotes and instructs on several types of mystical practices, including tantric sex (the mixture of mysticism and sexual activity). Sacred Marriage is carried on the Focus on the Family store. It is nearly horrendous to think that Focus on the Family is promoting a man (Thomas) who is leading Christian couples to Oliver McPherson! And for Focus on the Family to suggest they cannot be held accountable–that is preposterous–they are popular figures in the Christian church, highly trusted by families everywhere–they are accountable, whether they acknowledge it or not. There are those who may say that Lighthouse Trails is using guilt by association here regarding Thomas and Oliver McPherson, but that would be an inaccurate deduction–this case is guilt by promotion. In other words, Thomas read her book and found it useful enough (and nothing objectionable to warn against) to quote her a number of times in his book as well as quote her on his website.
Finally, when Masters makes reference to Psalm 46:10: “Be still and know that I am God” (a classic Scripture used by contemplatives), he is erroneous in his conclusion that this is instruction from God on engaging in the contemplative silence. A study of the context of that passage shows that it is actually an exhortation to God’s people to trust in the Lord and not become overly distraught. In no way does it indicate we are to practice the kind of prayer that contemplatives tell us to practice. Furthermore, when Masters says that “steps” must be taken “to eliminate inward ‘noises’ and distractions,” he has really hit the heart of contemplative spirituality: this is referring not to an outer quietness (turning off television, radio, etc.); this is referring to an inner stilling of the mind. This is classic instruction by contemplatives. The “steps” are a mantric-type method (centering, contemplative, breath prayers, etc). Interestingly, Masters says they are not “necessarily advocating” the teachings of Thomas Merton and Henri Nouwen, but by promoting Foster and Thomas, they are indirectly advocating the teachings of Merton and Nouwen.
Gary Thomas is a contemplative. To further illustrate this, he draws on the teachings of Basil Pennington. In fact, Pennington (along with Thomas Keating) is the one who coined the term centering prayer, a term which Thomas uses in Sacred Pathways: on one page alone in Sacred Pathways, he quotes Pennington a number of times. Pennington believes that Christians should use the wisdom of Eastern religions to deepen their spiritual lives and believes also that the Holy Spirit is the soul of humanity (see A Time of Departing). To support what we are saying, Lighthouse Trails received a call from woman who attends a large Nazarene church (Dobson’s denomination) in Oregon. The woman informed us that they were doing mantra style meditation which they were drawing from Sacred Pathways by Thomas.
While James Dobson’s challenge to Obama and his defense of the unborn child is good, Focus on the Family’s insistence on defending contemplative is alarming. And as we have said before, this will have considerable spiritual and long term impact on many. And this is why we say, “Please, Dr. Dobson, read this.”