If there is one person who could be considered the “father” of the present evangelical “spiritual formation” movement, that person is Richard Foster. And in spite of the non-biblical, mystical-promoting foundation of the spiritual formation movement, Foster continues to be touted, promoted, and looked up to by evangelical leaders, pastors, and professors. This article hopes to reveal the underlying nature of Foster’s spirituality and to reject the recommendations of these Christian figures who rather than warning the body of Christ about Foster’s spiritual formation, they point to him as a credible source of spiritual nourishment.
Recently, Christianity Today featured an article written by Richard Foster titled “Spiritual Formation Agenda.” In the article, Foster discusses the progress (and the lack of progress) he feels the church has made in the last thirty years regarding spiritual formation. He says thirty years because that is when he officially began his efforts to bring spiritual formation to the evangelical church through his book, Celebration of Discipline, which has now sold over two million copies and where Foster stated: “[W]e should all without shame enroll as apprentices in the school of contemplative prayer.”1
Foster explains in the CT article:
Thirty years ago, when Celebration of Discipline was first penned, we were faced with two huge tasks: First, we needed to revive the great conversation about the formation of the soul; and second, we needed to incarnate this reality into the daily experience of individual, congregational, and cultural life. Frankly, we have had much greater success with the first task. Christians of all sorts now know about the need for spiritual formation, and look to saints Catholic, Orthodox, and Protestant for guidance. (emphasis added)
Foster couldn’t be more right on two accounts: first, Christians of nearly every denomination are embracing “spiritual formation” today, and Lighthouse Trails has been documenting that for several years; and secondly, “spiritual formation” IS indeed connected to “saints Catholic, Orthodox, and Protestant.”
But who are these “saints” that Foster refers to and what is their spirituality? This is a key and valid question. And Foster himself can answer it. All we have to do is look to his own writings–he has been revealing these saints to the church for over thirty years. And incredibly, the church has bought into it hook, line, and sinker, hands down, no questions asked. Prove of that is abundant and convincing as Lighthouse Trails has often shown.
Two of the best sources to turn to in order to understand Foster’s spirituality are his two books, Spiritual Classics (2000) and Devotional Classics (1990). In each book, Foster features writings from 52 “great devotional writers” or as he has often called them Devotional Masters. In Devotional Classics, Foster features: St. John of the Cross, St. Bernard of Clairvaux, St. Teresa of Avila (who levitated during mystical trances), St. Ignatius of Loyola, and Hildegard of Bingen (called a saint but not actually canonized). The one thing these five all have in common is they were practitioners of mysticism and held to panentheistic (God is in all) views.
In Foster’s two Classics books, he also features several other mystics of this same nature. Some of those include Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, Meister Eckhart, John Main, Karl Rahner, Thomas Merton, Evelyn Underhill, Julian of Norwich, Brother Lawrence, and Henri Nouwen. (For more information about these individuals, refer to our research site.)
One evening in 1994, Lighthouse Trails author Ray Yungen attended a seminar in Salem, Oregon, in which Richard Foster was speaking. Yungen had not heard much about Foster prior to that time but when a concerned youth pastor asked him to come listen to Foster, Yungen agreed. Prior to the seminar, Yungen read Celebration of Discipline. At that time, Yungen had been studying and researching New Age mysticism for ten years. Yungen describes a brief conversation he had with Foster that evening:
After the seminar ended . . . I approached Foster and politely asked him, “What do you think of the current Catholic contemplative prayer movement?” He appeared visibly uncomfortable with the question, and at first seemed evasive and vague. He then replied, “Well, I don’t know, some good, some bad (mentioning Matthew Fox as an example of the bad).” In defense, he said, “My critics don’t understand there is this tradition within Christianity that goes back centuries.” He then said something that has echoed in my mind ever since that day. He emphatically stated, “Well, Thomas Merton tried to awaken God’s people!” I realized then Foster had waded deep into Merton’s belief system.2
Yungen began to study Foster in depth after that, and in 1999, he wrote the first edition of A Time of Departing, an expose on the contemplative prayer movement.
In order to understand this mystical movement, one must understand the spirituality of Thomas Merton. Yungen continues:
[I]t is precisely this alignment with Merton that undermines Foster’s claim to being mystically attuned to the God of the Bible. Merton expressed views such as, “I see no contradiction between Buddhism and Christianity … I intend to become as good a Buddhist as I can.”
It is essential to really understand why Merton said things like this in order to understand why the contemplative prayer movement presents such a potential danger to evangelical Christian churches. Merton’s conversion was spiritual, not social or political, as clearly revealed in one of his biographies:
His [Merton’s] change of mind with regard to the higher religions was not the result of tedious comparison and contrast or even concerted analysis. It was an outgrowth of his experience with the Absolute [God].
In other words, Merton found Buddhist enlightenment in contemplative prayer.3
Today, 30 years after Richard Foster started his campaign for contemplative formation, he is still aligning himself with Thomas Merton, who actually told New Ager Matthew Fox once that he felt sorry for the hippies who were taking LSD because they could get the same results practicing contemplative prayer.4 In Foster’s upcoming book (April 2009), Longing for God: Seven Paths of Christian Devotion, Foster devotes an entire six-page section of the book to Thomas Merton. He says that “Merton is captivated by God’s relentless love for the world” (p.81). He acknowledges that Merton, like Foster himself, was influenced by Meister Eckhart and other mystics, as well as occultist Aldous Huxley (Perennial Wisdom, as above, so below). Foster says that Merton “stands as one of the greatest twentieth-century embodiments of spiritual life as a journey” (p. 84). What Foster DOES not tell the reader though in his new book is that Merton believed that God dwelled in all people. He embraced the Sufi (Islamic mystic) as well as the Buddhist view of God, that man, in totality, shares the divine nature, and in essence IS the divine nature, of God. Leonard Sweet, another admirer of Merton, quotes Merton in the preface of his book, Quantum Spirituality:
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.5.
In spite of Richard Foster’s obvious embracing of Merton’s spirituality, evangelical leaders continue to stand by Foster. A case in point: At the upcoming Renovare international conference, The Jesus Way (June 21-24), popular Christian figure, Max Lucado, will be one of the featured speakers. Lucado will be joining Richard Foster, Dallas Willard, John Ortberg, and Eugene Peterson (all contemplatives) at the conference. Lucado’s presence at the event is not a total surprise to Lighthouse Trails. Three years ago, we reported that Lucado’s book, Cure for the Common Life, was promoting contemplative spirituality. 3 But most people don’t know that, and he is the very personification of the typical mainstream evangelical pastor, so his aligning with Foster is very significant.
In addition to Lucado’s embracing of Foster, Focus on the Family sells a series by H. B. London that features Richard Foster in a favorable interview. While this too is no surprise to Lighthouse Trails because Focus on the Family resonates with Gary Thomas, who resonates with contemplative spirituality in his books, FOF’s promotion of Richard Foster will influence many, many people.
Some may accuse us of guilt by association but this is clearly guilt by promotion. In other words, there is a tie in or connection between every one we’ve mentioned. The individuals we’ve discussed are basically kindred spirits. And this illustrates the ground that contemplative spirituality is gaining on an ongoing basis. Lighthouse Trails wants to emphasize that this is no passing fad but the wave of the future. Karl Rahner (one of Foster’s mystics) said that “The Christian of the future will be a mystic or he will not exist at all.”6
In Rick Warren’s first book, The Purpose Driven Church, Warren praised the spiritual formation movement and recognized Richard Foster’s key role in it. Warren said that spiritual formation was a “valid message for the church”7 and has “given the body of Christ a wake-up call.”8 Unfortunately, largely because of Rick Warren’s world-wide following, Richard Foster’s legacy continues to endure.
1. Richard Foster, Celebration of Discipline (San Francisco, CA: Harper & Row, 1978 edition), p. 13.
2. Ray Yungen, A Time of Departing (Silverton, OR: Lighthouse Trails Publishing, 2nd ed, 2006), pp. 76-77.
4. Interview with Matthew Fox: http://web.archive.org/web/20060425035122/nineoclockservice.tripod.com/mattiefx.htm.
5. Thomas Merton, Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander (Garden City, NY: Doubleday Publishers, 1989), pp. 157-158.
6. Karl Rahner, Theological Investigations, Concern for the Church, translated Edward Quinn (New York: Crossroad, 1981), p. 149.
7. Rick Warren, Purpose Driven Church, p. 127.
Christian Mystics of the Past
Hildegard of Bingen (1098-1179)
St. Catherine of Siena (1347-1380)
Meister Eckhart (1260-1327)
The Cloud of Unknowing (anonymous monk)
Richard Rolle (c. 1300-1349)
Julian of Norwich (1342-1423)
St. Ignatius Loyola (1491-1556)
St. Teresa of Avila (1515-1582)
St. John of the Cross (1542-1591)
Brother Lawrence (1611- 1691)
George Fox (1624-1691)
Madam Guyon (1647-1717)
William Law (1686-1761)
Evelyn Underhill (1875-1941)
Pierre Teilhard de Chardin (1881- 1955)
Thomas Merton (1915-1968)