by Roger Oakland
The spiritual formation movement teaches that if people practice certain spiritual disciplines, they can become like Jesus and model their lives after Him. But being born again and having the indwelling of Christ is not a prerequisite. Neither is receiving Him as Lord and absolute Savior. What spiritual formation offers is an alternative to God’s plan of salvation revealed in Scripture.
Here is the problem: The spiritual seeker is looking for something to make him feel close to God. If he does not have the indwelling of the Lord, perhaps has never heard the message of repentance and rebirth, he will seek something to help him feel intimate with God. When he is introduced to meditation, which produces a feeling of euphoria and well-being, he mistakes this for the presence of God. And thus the foundation of his faith is not on Christ or the Word of God, but rather on this feeling. This would explain why so many teachers of contemplative and spiritual formation begin dropping the emphasis on biblical truth and distort the doctrines of the faith.
Tony Campolo, professor emeritus of sociology of Eastern University in St. David’s, Pennsylvania, is founder of the Evangelical Association for the Promotion of Education. His own testimony provides an example of someone who has not only embraced mysticism, but regards it as the avenue through which he considers himself born again.
In his book Letters to a Young Evangelical, Campolo shares his own personal testimony in a chapter called “The Gospel According to Us.” He begins the chapter the following way:
As you may know, most Evangelicals at some point make a decision to trust in Jesus for salvation and commit to becoming the kind of people he wants us to be.1
Campolo presents the details of his conversion experience. He begins by stating:
When I was a boy growing up in a lower-middle-class neighborhood in West Philadelphia, my mother, a convert to Evangelical Christianity from a Catholic Italian immigrant family, hoped I would have one of those dramatic “born-again” experiences. That was the way she had come into a personal relationship with Christ. She took me to hear one evangelist after another, praying that I would go to the altar and come away “converted.” But it never worked for me. I would go down the aisle as the people around me sang … “the invitation hymn,” but I just didn’t feel as if anything happened to me. For a while I despaired, wondering if I would ever get “saved.” It took me quite some time to realize that entering into a personal relationship with Christ does not always happen that way.2
Now, it is certainly true that not all conversions are experienced by coming to Christ at an evangelistic crusade. However, it’s important to carefully consider how Campolo describes in this same chapter his personal conversion experience in light of Scripture. He continues:
In my case intimacy with Christ has developed gradually over the years, primarily through what Catholic mystics call “centering prayer.” Each morning, as soon as I wake up, I take time–sometimes as much as a half hour–to center myself on Jesus. I say his name over and over again to drive back the 101 things that begin to clutter up my mind the minute I open my eyes. Jesus is my mantra, as some would say.3
The purpose of repeating a mantra or focusing on an object or the breath is to remove distractions with the hopeful outcome of hearing God’s voice. Buddhists and Hindus practice the repetition of a word or phrase in their attempts to empty their minds and reach higher states of consciousness that reveal their own divinity. But nowhere in Scripture is such a practice recommended or suggested. In fact, Jesus says in Matthew 6:7, “But when ye pray, use not vain repetitions, as the heathen do: for they think that they shall be heard for their much speaking.”
Mantra-style meditation is actually divination, where practitioners perform rituals or meditation exercises in order to go into trances and then receive information from spiritual entities. Campolo elaborates on the fruit of mysticism, an atmosphere he calls “the thin place”:
The constant repetition of his name clears my head of everything but the awareness of his presence. By driving back all other concerns, I am able to create what the ancient Celtic Christians called “the thin place.” The thin place is that spiritual condition wherein the separation between the self and God becomes so thin that God is able to break through and envelop the soul.4
This term “thin place” originated with Celtic spirituality (i.e., contemplative) and is in line with panentheism. Listen to one meditator:
I experienced a shift deep within me, a calmness I never knew possible. I was also graced with a sense of “oneness” with nature around me and with everyone else in the human family. It was strangely wonderful to experience God in silence, no-thingness.5
This “oneness” with all things is the essence of the ancient wisdom. Marcus Borg, a professor at Oregon State University and a pro-emergent author, also speaks of “thin places.” One commentator discusses Borgâ€™s ideas on this:
In The Heart of Christianity, Borg writes of “thin places,” places where, to use Eliade’s terminology, the division between the sacred and the profane becomes thin. Borg writes that he owes this metaphor of “thin places” to Celtic Christianity and the recent recovery of Celtic spirituality. As the following passage reveals, his understanding of “thin places” is deeply connected to his panentheism, his articulation of God as “the More,” and his–like Eliade–division of the world into layers of reality.6
Borg says these thin places (reached through meditation) are “[d]eeply rooted in the Bible and the Christian tradition,”7 but he, like others, is unable to show biblical evidence that God mandates meditation. In a later chapter [in Faith Undone] we will see, however, that Borg does deny such basic biblical essentials as the virgin birth and Jesus being the Son of God. Thin places imply that God is in all things, and the gap between God, evil, man, everything thins out and ultimately disappears in meditation:
God is a nonmaterial layer of reality all around us, “right here” as well as “more than right here.” This way of thinking thus affirms that there are minimally two layers or dimensions of reality, the visible world of our ordinary experience and God, the sacred, Spirit.8
Mike Perschon [of Youth Specialties] also found these thin places as he went into the silence:
We held “thin place” services in reference to a belief that in prayer, the veil between us and God becomes thinner. Entire nights were devoted to guided meditations, drum circles, and “soul labs.”9
I believe that Campolo, Borg, and Perschon each experienced the same realm in their thin places, but the question is, what is that realm? In another letter in his book Letters to a Young Evangelical, Campolo gives further instructions regarding how to have a “born-again experience”:
I learned about this way of having a born-again experience from reading the Catholic mystics, especially The Spiritual Exercises of Ignatius of Loyola…. Like most Catholic mystics, he developed an intense desire to experience a “oneness” with God.10
Campolo’s belief that you can be born again by experiencing a “‘oneness’ with God” while embracing the teachings of Ignatius of Loyola is preposterous. Ignatius founded the Jesuits with a goal of bringing the separated brethren back to the Catholic Church.11 He and his band of ruthless men would do everything possible to accomplish this goal. Several centuries have passed. Now that we are in the twenty-first century, his plan is becoming a reality.
Campolo calls Henri Nouwen “one of the great Christians of our time.”12 He obviously is very moved by mysticism, as was Nouwen, and he attributes this treasure to the Catholic Church. He explains:
After the Reformation, we Protestants left behind much that was troubling about Roman Catholicism of the fifteenth century. I am convinced that we left too much behind. The methods of praying employed by the likes of Ignatius have become precious to me. With the help of some Catholic saints, my prayer life has deepened.13…
It is interesting, yet very sad, that so many people today, like Tony Campolo, have spiritual lives grounded in mysticism. When a true relationship with Jesus Christ is non-existent in a personâ€™s life, mystical experiences appear to fill that spiritual void. The euphoria and bliss that meditation creates is thought to be the voice and presence of God. But in reality, these practices are tied to Buddhism, Hinduism, and Catholicism rather than to biblical Christianity. The Bible makes it clear that the only way to be born again is through receiving Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior by faith. While being called Christian, these doctrines of ancient wisdom are anything but Christian. Let us remember Paulâ€™s stern exhortation and not exchange a true and wonderful relationship with Jesus Christ for one that can only lead to darkness:
Ye are all the children of light, and the children of the day: we are not of the night, nor of darkness. Therefore let us not sleep, as do others; but let us watch and be sober. For they that sleep sleep in the night; and they that be drunken are drunken in the night. But let us, who are of the day, be sober, putting on the breastplate of faith and love; and for an helmet, the hope of salvation. For God hath not appointed us to wrath, but to obtain salvation by our Lord Jesus Christ, Who died for us, that, whether we wake or sleep, we should live together with him. (I Thessalonians 5:5-10)
This is an excerpt from Faith Undone, chapter 7, “Monks, Mystics, and the Ancient Wisdom.”
1. Tony Campolo, Letters to a Young Evangelical (New York, NY: Perseus Books Group (Basic Books), 2006), p. 20.
2. Ibid., p. 25.
3. Ibid., p. 26.
5. Carol and Rick Weber, “Journeying Together” (Thin Places, April/May 2007, Year Eight, Issue Four, Number 46), p. 1.
6. Chris Baker, “A Positive Articulation of Marcus Borg’s Theology” (Sandlestraps Sanctuary blog, April 5, 2007, click here.
7. Marcus Borg, The Heart of Christianity (New York, NY: HarperCollins, First HarperCollins Paperback Edition, 2004), p. 155.
9. Mike Perschon, “Desert Youth Worker: Disciplines, Mystics and the Contemplative Life”(Youth Specialties, click here).
10. Tony Campolo, Letters to a Young Evangelical, op. cit., p. 30.
11. Ignatius of Loyola (1491-1556), founder of the Society of Jesus (Jesuits), known also for his mystical experiences, now called The Spiritual Exercises of Ignatius of Loyola. These are becoming increasingly popular within the evangelical spiritual formation movement.
12. Tony Campolo, Speaking My Mind, op. cit., p. 72.
13. Tony Campolo, Letters to a Young Evangelical, op. cit., p. 31.