ACSI (Association of Christian Schools) Recommends Brian McLaren and Defends Mysticism

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On January 28th, Lighthouse Trails reported that ACSI (Association of Christian Schools) has begun to promote contemplative spirituality through their Spiritual Formation program, in which contemplative books are being recommended and offered to ACSI members. In addition, ACSI is telling attendees of the Early Education Conference on April 19, 2008 to read Henri Nouwen’s book, In the Name of Jesus for preparation for the conference.1 (p. 3) Now, we are sorry to report that ACSI is recommending to its 5300 member schools Brian McLaren’s A New Kind of Christian. McLaren, who has made many public statements that attempt to derail biblical Christianity, is part of the emerging church movement.

In addition to the McLaren recommendation, ACSI president Ken Smitherman speaks favorably of emerging leader and mysticism proponent Rob Bell’s book, Velvet Elvis. Bell shows in that book his propensity toward the New Age by calling Ken Wilber’s book, A Brief History of Everything , “mindblowing,” telling readers to spend three months studying it. 2

In a March 2008 letter written by Smitherman to members, he defends his embracing of mystical spirituality. He explains:

Does the term mystic bring concern? There is much writing today about what a mystic does and about what mysticism is. Sadly, mysticism gets relegated to only addressing the realm of the paranormal or the occult. A little research, however, provides a rich and robust history of mysticism and its role in the Christian faith.

To substantiate this “robust history of mysticism,” Smitherman points to an article by Will Reaves titled “Reclaiming Mysticism for Christ.” In that article, Reaves talks about the “reinvigorating” of the church:

Mysticism has been a powerful force in shaping Christian spirituality, with people as diverse as the original desert fathers to Blaise Pascal seeking to know God in deeper ways than reason can provide. It has also provided the spark for reform movements, giving the church a prophetic voice in times of trial. The work of Richard Foster and others has helped kindle interest in how previous generations of Christians met God. In the area of mysticism, particularly, we have much to learn from them.

In Smitherman’s March letter, he tries to distinguish between what he calls “occult” mysticism and Christian mysticism. But by directing people to read Dallas Willard, Henri Nouwen, Michael Zigarelli 3, Rob Bell, and Brian McLaren, he is promoting the very thing he says is wrong. And if ACSI members (which represent nearly 1.2 million students worldwide) take Will Reaves advice, they will turn to Richard Foster, from whom Reaves says “we have much to learn.” But what people will learn from Richard Foster involves the spirituality of panentheist and eastern-style mystic Thomas Merton.

In Smitherman’s letter, in his efforts to convince readers that mysticism is a good thing and should be practiced, he quotes theologian Francis Schaeffer from his book True Spirituality:

Christian mysticism is communion with Christ. It is Christ bringing forth fruit through me, the Christian, with no loss of personality and without my being used as a stick or a stone. (True Spirituality, p. 49)

But Smitherman has misconstrued what Schaeffer was saying, and in actuality, Schaeffer’s comments about “Christian mysticism” condemn contemplative spirituality (that of Foster, Willard, Bell, Zigarelli, Merton, etc). In Schaeffer’s book, he uses the term Christian mysticism to explain the born-again experience. Taking his quote above in context puts a different light on Schaeffer’s comments:

Christ really lives in me if I have accepted Christ as my Savior… Christ lives in me. The Christ who was crucified – the Christ whose work is finished – the Christ who is glorified now has promised (John 15) to bring forth fruit in the Christian… Here is true Christian mysticism. [It is based] on propositional truth.

Schaeffer identifies the born-again experience (Jesus Christ coming into the heart of a sinner through faith) as a mystical experience. Ray Yungen elaborates on this. It is vital to understand what is being said here:

While certain instances in the Bible describe mystical experiences, I see no evidence anywhere of God sanctioning man-initiated mysticism. Legitimate mystical experiences were always initiated by God to certain individuals for certain revelations and was never based on a method for the altering of consciousness. In Acts 11:5, Peter fell into a trance while in prayer. But it was God, not Peter, who initiated the trance and facilitated it.

By definition, a mystic, on the other hand, is someone who uses rote methods in an attempt to tap into their inner divinity. Those who use these methods put themselves into a trance state outside of God’s sanction or protection and thus engage in an extremely dangerous approach. Besides, nowhere in the Bible are such mystical practices prescribed. For instance, the Lord, for the purpose of teaching people a respect for His holiness and His plans, instated certain ceremonies for His people (especially in the Old Testament). Nonetheless, Scripture contains no reference in which God promoted mystical practices. The gifts of the Spirit spoken of in the New Testament were supernatural in nature but did not fall within the confines of mysticism. God bestowed spiritual gifts without the Christian practicing a method beforehand to get God’s response.

Proponents of contemplative prayer would respond with, What about Psalms 46:10? “Be still and know that I am God.” This verse is often used by those promoting contemplative prayer. On the surface, this argument can seem valid, but once the meaning of “still” is examined, any contemplative connection is expelled. The Hebrew meaning of the word is to slacken, cease, or abate. In other words, the context is to slow down and trust God rather than get in a dither over things. Relax and watch God work….

It should also be pointed out that being born again, in and of itself, is mystical. But it is a direct act of God, initiated by Him–the Holy Spirit has regenerated the once-dead spirit of man into a living spirit through Christ. Yet, we notice that even in this most significant of experiences when one is “passed from death into life” (John 5:24), God accomplishes this without placing the individual in an altered state of consciousness.

We can take this a step further by looking at the day of Pentecost recorded in Acts, chapter 2 where those present were “all filled with the Holy Spirit” (vs. 4). Notice that they were “all with one accord in one place” (vs. 1) when the Holy Spirit descended on them. From the context of the chapter, it is safe to assume this was a lively gathering of believers engaged in intelligent conversation. Then, when those present began to speak in other tongues, it was not an episode of mindless babbling or vain repetition as in a mantra. Rather it was an event of coherent speech significant enough to draw a crowd who exclaimed, “we hear them speaking in our own tongues the wonderful works of God” (vs. 11). Other observers who suspected they were in an altered state of consciousness said, “They are full of new wine” (vs. 13). Notice that Peter was quick to correct this group in asserting that they were all fully conscious. Would it not then stand to reason that their minds were not in any kind of altered state? Next, Peter delivered one of the most carefully articulated speeches recorded in Scripture. This was certainly not a group of men in a trance.
So, through the lens of perhaps the two most meaningful mystical experiences recorded in the New Testament (i.e., being born again and the outpouring of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost), an altered state of consciousness was never sought after nor was it achieved. In fact, a complete search of both Old and New Testaments reveals there were only two types of experiences sanctioned by God where the recipient is not fully awake–namely dreams and visions–and in each case the experience is initiated by God. Conversely, every instance of a self-induced trance recorded in Scripture is adamantly condemned by God as we see summarized in the following verses:

When you come into the land which the LORD your God is giving you, you shall not learn to follow the abominations of those nations. There shall not be found among you anyone who makes his son or his daughter pass through the fire, or one who practices witchcraft, or a soothsayer, or one who interprets omens, or a sorcerer, or one who conjures spells, or a medium, or a spiritist, or one who calls up the dead. (Deuteronomy 18:9-11)…

[N]owhere in the Bible is the silence [such as taught by Richard Foster] equated with the “power of God,” but the “message of the cross” (1 Corinthians 1:18) most certainly is! (from A Time of Departing, ch. 2)

The very fact that Francis Schaeffer said what he was referring to was based on “propositional truth,” proves he was NOT talking about contemplative spirituality. In the contemplative/emerging camp, there is an all out effort to dispel “propositional truth.” That can be seen ever so clear, for instance, in Tony Jones’ new book, The New Christians, where he says that biblical truth cannot be pinned down and defined; he says it “simply can’t be done.” That’s the opposite of what Schaeffer says.

As ACSI seems to be heading further into the contemplative/emerging camp, we ask the same question we asked in January, Is that really what ACSI wants for Christian schools and over 1 million school children? We pray and hope not.