Regarding our recent article on Obama spiritual advisor Jim Wallis, the following response was posted on Rose Marie Berger’s blog as she was mentioned in our article. This is really the heart of the matter – is contemplative spirituality an acceptable spiritual outlook, or is it a path to a panentheistic, interspiritual New Age/New Spirituality that rejects the atonement of Jesus Christ as our means of salvation?
from Berger’s blog:
A group in Eureka, Montana, called Lighthouse Trails, recently warned people against me, Jim Wallis, and Sojourners because of our association with Henri Nouwen, Thomas Merton, and contemplative Christian spirituality.
The folks at Lighthouse Trails describes their mission thusly: “In the year 2000, we learned that a mantra-style meditation coupled with a mystical spirituality had been introduced to the evangelical, Christian church and was infiltrating youth groups, churches, seminaries, and Bible studies at an alarming rate. Thus, in the spring of 2002, we began Lighthouse Trails Publishing with the hope of exposing this dangerous and pervasive mystical paradigm.”
At the same time I was reading the reports from Lighthouse Trails, I was also re-reading parts of Merton’s book Life and Holiness in which he lays out a few basic ideas in Christian spirituality.
Henri Nouwen writes in the book’s introduction, “It is not a book about doctrines or dogmas, but about the life of Christ. … In its great simplicity, this is a radical book. It calls for total dedication and a total commitment [to Christ].” Click here to continue reading.
From Lighthouse Trails perspective, the principle reason we are critical of people like Thomas Merton and Henri Nouwen is that their contemplative prayer practices led them to embrace a spiritual understanding known as interspirituality (all religions lead to God) and panentheism (God is in all things and people), which support each other. This runs counter to the basic mission of biblical Christianity, which is commonly referred to as the “great commission” that Jesus put forth in Scripture. (Go into all the world and preach the Gospel to every creature.) From Sojourners perspective, that gospel is known as the social gospel, which contrasts what we are saying – the preaching of the Cross. Although the great commission has social aspects to it, the primary element is the blood of Christ (the atonement), which justifies us before God. These other world religions lack this, and therefore we cannot embrace them as legitimate. I think these two quotes, one by Merton and one by Nouwen illustrate our concerns:
“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.”—From Sabbatical Journey, Henri Nouwen’s last book, page 51, 1998 Hardcover Edition
“It is a glorious destiny to be a member of the human race, … now I realize what we all are …. If only they [people] could all see themselves as they really are …I suppose the big problem would be that we would fall down and worship each other … At the center of our being is a point of nothingness which is untouched by sin and by illusions, a point of pure truth … This little point …is the pure glory of God in us. It is in everybody.” (from A Time of Departing, quoting Thomas Merton, Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander -1989 edition, 157-158)
Finally, Ray Yungen, one of Lighthouse Trails, authors, 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.” Merton replied:
“Personally, in matters where dogmatic beliefs [doctrines] 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.” (Rob Baker and Gray Henry, Editors, Merton and Sufism (Louisville, KY: Fons Vitae, 1999), p. 110.
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.
That’s the heart of the matter.