In the mid 1970s interreligious efforts began within the monastic stream of the Catholic church with the hope that a mystical (East-West) spirituality could be absorbed into Christianity at large. Thomas Keating, Basil Pennington, and David Steindl-Rast were among those who shared this vision and effort, as was Swami Satchidananda, and eventually the Dalai Lama. Today, over thirty years later, the vision and hope of these monastics has become a reality. Mysticism (which has interspirituality at its very core) is now part of today’s Christian culture. A gathering that is going to take place on April 11th is further proof that this has come to fruition – Rob Bell (along with Doug Pagitt) will be joining the Dalai Lama at the Seeds of Compassion gathering in Seattle. For those who may not see the significance of this, Bell (creator of the Nooma films and author of Velvet Elvis) is a popular and influential figure among evangelical Christian youth, with his materials being used in countless Christian schools (junior high and high schools as well as colleges) and youth groups.
Backtrack: In 1977, the Monastic Interreligious Dialogue (MID) was formed for the purpose of bringing Eastern-style mysticism to the forefront of Catholicism and eventually traditional Christianity.1 The MID was sanctioned by and propagated by head authorities in the Catholic church as is stated in one report:
It should be brought to the attention of monastic communities that this effort of meeting and understanding Eastern religions is made at the express and repeated request of the Roman authorities. 2
Further, the objective of this dialogue effort was made very clear:
The methods of concentration [i.e., mantra meditation] used in other religious traditions can be useful for removing obstacles to a deep contact with God [i.e., contemplative]. They can give a better understanding of the oneness of Christ as expressed in the various traditions and contribute to the formation of a new world religious culture. They can also be helpful in the development of certain potencies in the individual, for there are some Zen-Hindu-Sufi-etc. dimensions in each heart.
Initiatives proposed included “infiltrat[ing] the media,” “East-West dialogue,” providing retreats in monasteries, and so forth. By offering the “proper environment for Christian meditation, alone or in a group, using Eastern methods … the Christian contemplative tradition [can be] accessible to all people.3
Buddhism and Christianity: MID recognizes the immeasurable contribution of Thomas Merton in this interreligious, mystical dialogue. Merton, who once said, “I see no contradiction between Buddhism and Christianity … I intend to become as good a Buddhist as I can,”4 did not live to see this Buddhist/Christian melding come to pass. He died in 1968. But ten years later, and just one year after the MID was formed, a man who has highly regarded Thomas Merton, wrote a book that has probably been more influential than any other in bringing the MID’s mystical dream into the evangelical church. In essence, Richard Foster’s Celebration of Discipline broke the barrier between mysticism and traditional Christianity. In the 1990s, Foster told research analyst Ray Yungen: “Thomas Merton tried to awaken God’s people.”5 For thirty years Foster has carried the mantle of Merton’s mysticism to the evangelical church, and that first book has sold over 2 million copies, half of which have sold since Rick Warren recognized Foster as a key player in the spiritual formation movement.6 With many Christian organizations rallying behind the work of Foster (such as Focus on the Family through H. B. London), it is no wonder such inroads have been established.
Another significant avenue through which this spirituality has entered the Christian church is through the writings of Henri Nouwen. Nouwen is also promoted by key Christian figures (Rick and Kay Warren, Willow Creek, etc.). And in fact, many Christian organizations and Christian colleges use Nouwen’s books to train Christians in spiritual formation. Nouwen, who was very much influenced by Merton, said near the end of his own life:
Today I personally believe that while Jesus came to open the door to God’s house, all human beings can walk through that door, whether they know about Jesus or not. Today I see it as my call to help every person claim his or her own way to God.7
Today – Rob Bell and the Dalai Lama: Now, here we are in 2008 with contemplative (i.e., East-West) spirituality immersed in evangelical Christianity, so much so that trusted organizations, like Awana and Moody Bible Institute, are promoting Richard Foster’s spiritual formation (and that means Merton’s) and blindly defending their promotion, while followers and adherents are being led in this dangerous direction. New Age sympathizer Rob Bell (to whom many Christians have no objection), tells Velvet Elvis readers to spend three months reading New Age mystic Ken Wilber (“a mind-blowing experience”). Bell will join with the Dalai Lama in April to further implement the MID dream.8
Ray Yungen articulates well the implications of this interspiritual mystical paradigm:
[Alice] Bailey eagerly foretold of what she termed “the regeneration of the churches.”9 Her rationale for this was obvious: “The Christian church in its many branches can serve as a St. John the Baptist, as a voice crying in the wilderness, and as a nucleus through which world illumination may be accomplished.”10
In other words, instead of opposing Christianity, the occult [i.e., mysticism] would capture and blend itself with Christianity and then use it as its primary vehicle for spreading and instilling New Age consciousness! The various churches would still have their outer trappings of Christianity and still use much of the same lingo. If asked certain questions about traditional Christian doctrine, the same answers would be given. But it would all be on the outside; on the inside a contemplative spirituality would be drawing in those open to it.
In wide segments of Christendom this has indeed already occurred…. Could this possibly be the falling away Paul speaks of in II Thessalonians 2:3?…
Could this revitalization of Christendom fit in with Bailey’s “new and vital world religion”11–a religion that would be the cornerstone of the New Age? Such a religion would be the spiritual platform for the New Age “coming one.” This unity of spiritual thought would not be a single one-world denomination but would have a unity-in-diversity, multicultural, interfaith, ecumenical agenda. Thomas Merton made a direct reference to this at a spiritual summit conference in Calcutta, India when he told Hindus and Buddhists, “We are already one, but we imagine, we are not. What we have to recover is our original unity.”12
One can easily find numerous such appeals like Merton’s in contemplative writings. Examine the following:
The Christian is not to become a Hindu or a Buddhist, nor a Hindu or Buddhist to become a Christian. But each must assimilate the spirit of the others.13 –Vivekananda
It is my sense, from having meditated with persons from many different [non-Christian] traditions, that in the silence we experience a deep unity. When we go beyond the portals of the rational mind into the experience, there is only one God to be experienced.14–Basil Pennington
The new ecumenism involved here is not between Christian and Christian, but between Christians and the grace of other intuitively deep religious traditions.15-Tilden Edwards (Shalem)…
Some day, and it could be soon, the Lord will allow the man of lawlessness to emerge. In the mean time, the world is opening its arms to wholly embrace a spirituality that will exist under the umbrella of mysticism. The correlating theme will be–we are all One. When the man of lawlessness does rise to power with a one–world economy and political base, he will seduce many into searching for their own Christ consciousness rather than the Messiah, Jesus Christ. (from chapter six, A Time of Departing)
One of the other speakers to appear at the Seeds of Compassion in April is Joan Chittister. Chittister, a Catholic nun and writer says this: “To be contemplative we must become converted to the consciousness that makes us one with the universe, in tune with the cosmic voice of God.17” This identifies the contemplative prayer movement perfectly. And for those who view this cosmic oneness as the goal for humanity, the coming together of the Dalai Lama and Rob Bell (East meets West) is a dream come true. It is not the topic of compassion for the needy that Lighthouse Trails objects to, but rather it is this interspiritual, mystical dream that excludes the gospel message of Jesus Christ.
Notes: (Only non-linked endnotes listed)
4. David Steindl-Rast, “Recollection of Thomas Merton’s Last Days in the West” (Monastic Studies, 7:10, 1969).
5. At a church meeting in Salem, Oregon.
6. See Rick Warren, Purpose Driven Church, pp. 126-127.
7. Henri Nouwen, Sabbatical Journey (New York, NY: Crossroad Publishing, 1998), p. 51.
8. Read Faith Undone for an analysis of Rob Bell and Velvet Elvis.
9. Alice Bailey, Problems of Humanity (New York, NY: Lucis Publishing, 1993), p. 152.
10. Alice Bailey, The Externalization of the Hierarchy (New York, NY: Lucis Publisihing, 1976), p. 510.
11. Alice Bailey, Problems of Humanity (New York, NY: Lucis Publishing, 1993), p. 152.
12. Joel Beversluis, Project Editor, A Source Book for Earth’s Community of Religions (Grand Rapids, MI: CoNexus Press, 1995, Revised Edition), p. 151.
13. Swami Vivekananda’s “Addresses at the Parliament of Religions” (Chicago, September 27, 1893, hhttp://www.ascension-research.org/Parliament-of-Religions-1893.html).
14. M. Basil Pennington, Centered Living (New York, NY: Image Books, 1988), p. 192.
15. Tilden Edwards, Spiritual Friend (New York, NY: Paulist Press, 1980), p. 172.
16. “Catholics Urged To Appreciate Other Faiths” (The Catholic Sentinel, May 24, 2002), p. 3.
17. Joan Chittister, Illuminated Life, p. 81.