Association of Christian Schools International Adds Spiritual Formation and Promotes Contemplative Authors

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The Association of Christian Schools International (ACSI) is a major resource association for Christian schools around the world. According to its website, ACSI serves over 5,300 member schools in approximately 100 countries with an enrollment of nearly 1.2 million students. It claims to strive to “enable and equip Christian educators and schools worldwide to effectively educate children and young people with the mind of Christ.”

Unfortunately, ACSI may be heading into the troubled waters of contemplative spirituality. A letter sent out last month by ACSI stated the following:

Next month, each head of school of an ACSI member school will receive a complimentary copy of the book Letters by a Modern Mystic by Frank C. Laubach. This is being sent to you to encourage you to order copies for your teachers at a discounted rate. Dr. Ken Smitherman, ACSI President, is making this a priority because he believes that this book will lead you and your teachers to a deeper level of discipleship and thus impact students (Luke 6:40).

This letter was sent to Lighthouse Trails by a concerned principal from a Christian school in the United States.

The Laubach book is one of three books listed under (link removed by ACSI) the ACSI “Spiritual Formation” section: Laubach’s Letters by a Modern Mystic, Dallas Willard’s Renovation of the Heart, and Cultivating Christian Character by Michael Zigarelli. It is the third book (by Zigarelli) on which this article will focus.

In Zigarelli’s book, he gives a hearty promotion for contemplative spirituality in the chapter titled “Become More God-Centered by Practicing the Spiritual Disciplines” through a recommended list of books and authors that includes several contemplative proponents: Richard Foster (Celebration of Discipline), Dallas Willard, John Ortberg, Francis de Sales, St. John of the Cross, Brother Lawrence, and St.Ignatius of Loyola. Zigarelli also lists many of these same names at the back of the book under “Helpful Resources for Cultivating Christian Character” (the theme of the book). This extended list also includes centering prayer advocate Larry Crabb, panentheist Thomas Merton, and one particular name that many of our readers may not be familiar with – David Steindl Rast. Those who are familiar with this name will undoubtedly find this extremely disturbing to know that Christian school teachers and students may be introduced to Steindl Rast through Zigarelli’s book.

In Ray Yungen’s book, A Time of Departing, he discusses Steindl Rast:

In the summer of 1996, Buddhist and Catholic monks met together to dialogue in what was billed the “Gethsemane Encounter.” David Steindl-Rast, a Zen-Buddhist trained monk and close friend of Thomas Merton, facilitated this event.

During the encounter, presentations on Zen meditation and practice from the Theravedan Buddhist tradition were offered. One of the speakers discussed the “correlation of the Christian contemplative life with the lives of our Buddhist sisters and brothers. (Credence Communications Catalog)…

David Steindl-Rast once asked Thomas Merton what role Buddhism played in his going deeper into the spiritual life. Merton replied quite frankly: “I think I couldn’t understand Christian teaching the way I do if it were not in the light of Buddhism” (The Dawn of the Mystical Age, Tuoti, p. 127).

Did Merton mean that in order to understand what Christianity really is, you have to change your consciousness? I believe that is exactly what he meant. Once he personally did that through contemplative prayer, Buddhism provided him with the explanation of what he experienced. But again the catalyst was changing his consciousness….

You don’t have to change your consciousness to grab “aholt” of God. All you need is to be born-again. What Steindl-Rast and the other Gethsemane monks should have been telling the Buddhists is, “Behold! The Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!” (John 1:29). (ATOD, ch. 3)

Steindl Rast is described as “a successor to his mentor Thomas Merton, who shared with him the wonders of Eastern spiritual teachings.” 1In Steindl Rast’s book, The Ground We Share: Everyday Practice, Buddhist and Christian is an interspiritual dialogue promoting the idea that mysticism is the common ground in all religions. The basis of this idea is that the same “God” is reached during mystical experiences, no matter what religion the meditator is from. Of course, what this really means is that God is all things and all humans (i.e., man is divine).

Not only is ACSI pointing Christian schools to David Steindl Rast, but in an article (p. 5) written by ACSI president Smitherman, he speaks favorably of emerging leader 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 (click here for more information on Bell).

ACSI represents 5300 Christian schools internationally. We pray and hope they will realize that spiritual formation (contemplative spirituality) is not the way “to enable and equip Christian educators and schools worldwide to effectively educate children and young people with the mind of Christ.” David Steindl Rast, Thomas Merton, Ken Wilber, Rob Bell and other mystics cannot help with this, and in fact, following their teachings will do the opposite.

Sadly, the ACSI Early Education Conference on April 19, 2008 is telling attendees to read Henri Nouwen’s book, In the Name of Jesus for preparation for the conference.2 – p. 3 It is in this book Nouwen says: “Through the discipline of contemplative prayer, Christian leaders have to learn to listen to the voice of love … For Christian leadership to be truly fruitful in the future, a movement from the moral to the mystical is required.” Nouwen identifies “mystical” when he states: “The quiet repetition of a single word can help us to descend with the mind into the heart … This way of simple prayer … opens us to God is active presence” (The Way of the Heart). And he shows the “fruit” of contemplative when he states: “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.”
(Sabbatical Journey, page 51, 1998 Hardcover Edition)

When Zigarelli recommended David Steindl Rast, did he realize that Steindl Rast rejects the biblical gospel of atonement? Listen to what Steindl Rast states:

Unfortunately, over the course of the centuries, this [Christianity] has come to be presented in almost legal language, as if it were some sort of transaction, a deal with God; there was this gap between us and God, somebody had to make up for it–all that business. We can drop that. The legal metaphor seems to have helped other generations. Fine. Anything that helps is fine. But once it gets in the way, as it does today, we should drop it. (The Ground We Share, p. 45)

Is that really what ACSI wants for Christian schools – to drop the gospel of Jesus Christ?