Brian McLaren’s newest book, Finding Our Way Again: The Return of the Ancient Practices, is the first in a series of eight books by Thomas Nelson publishers. The General Editor of the series, which is titled The Ancient Practices Series, is emerging church proponent Phyllis Tickle. Other authors in the series include Dan Allender, Scot McKnight, Diana Butler Bass and Joan Chittister.
In Finding Our Way Again, McLaren thanks several contemplatives like Richard Foster, Dallas Willard, and Joan Chittister. He also says he is “indebted” to Tony Campolo and Jim Wallis and recognizes Doug Pagitt and Tony Jones for teaching him contemplative practices. It is not surprising that McLaren thanks these listed teachers – McLaren has been in the emergent camp from the beginning of its inception, and where there is emerging, there is contemplative.
McLaren tells a story in which he met Buddhist sympathizer Peter Senge at a Christian conference for pastors. Senge asks the pastors: “[W]hy are books on Buddhism so popular, and not books on Christianity?” Senge then tells the pastors it is because “Buddhism presents itself as a way of life, and Christianity presents itself as a system of belief. So I would want to get Christian ministers thinking about how to rediscover their own faith as a way of life.” Translated, this emulates what a Hindu monk, Dr. Bramachari, told Thomas Merton once, that mysticism (ancient practices) could be found within the Christian tradition (the desert fathers).
What Senge meant was that a Christian did not have to become a Buddhist to enjoy the mystical experience but just “rediscover” that this mysticism is within the Christian faith (through contemplative spirituality). This is essentially the thesis of McLaren’s book, and with this mystical ideology, McLaren interjects the usual emerging church condemnation on Christians who adhere too closely to biblical doctrine and the return of Christ.
In regard to Christian doctrine, McLaren states: “[W]e need to move beyond our deadlock, our polarization, our binary, either/or thinking regarding faith and reason, religion and science, matter and spirit … We need a fusion of the sacred and the secular” (pp. 4-5). As do other emerging philosophers (such as Tony Campolo and Rick Warren), McLaren pairs fundamentalism with the adjectives: “fearful, manic, violent, apocalyptic” saying that its followers are “well armed, dangerous, and in the mood for an apocalypse.” (p. 5). This resonates with Rick Warren who said that Christian fundamentalists (he describes those as ones who adhere to the five fundamentals of the faith 1) are this new century’s enemy (and put them in the same category as Islamic terrorists.2
McLaren says there are three groups we must avoid: “militarist scientific secularism, pushy religious fundamentalism, and mushy amorphous spirituality” [which he calls “new age”]. He offers a fourth “creative” alternative, one that needs to “derive strength from the old religious traditions” (i.e., mysticism ), a “fresh alternative … [that] seeks to bring ancient spiritual practices to bear on the emerging world” (p. 6).
McLaren understands the outcome of mysticism, which is interspirituality and man awakening to his own divinity. Thus, he explains that these ancient practices (spiritual formation) are for people of different faiths and that these “practices are actions within our power that help us narrow the gap” (p. 14). They are “ways of becoming awake and staying awake to God” (p. 18).
McLaren twists Scripture by suggesting that the Old Testament priest Melchizedek was of a different religion than Abraham, and Abraham used a mystical practice to connect with Melchizedek. Thus McLaren draws this conclusion: “[W]e discover practices for our own faith in an encounter with someone of another faith” (p. 25). This is what occultists believe. Occultist Aldous Huxley said that mysticism is the “highest common factor” that “links the world’s religious traditions” and leads man to recognize the divinity within all things (see As Above, So Below, p. 2). Spiritual director Tilden Edwards backed up this comment by stating that this “mystical stream [contemplative] is the Western bridge to far eastern spirituality (see Spiritual Friend). Tony Campolo, in his book Speaking My Mind suggests that it is mysticism that unites Christianity with Islam (pp. 149-150).
The interfaith theme is threaded through Finding Our Way Again. In one section, McLaren says that even Christian communion is something to be shared with people of all faiths (in particularly with the Jewish faith and Islam); he states that this “sacred meal” is a celebration of “inclusion” and “reconciliation” (p. 26). This makes a mockery of the sacrifice of Jesus Christ, who told believers to do this in remembrance of Him, acknowledging His atonement for sin – a mockery because the beliefs of other religions reject Christ as being God and the slain Lamb who could take away sin.
As do other emerging/contemplative teachers, McLaren believes in a literal global kingdom of God on earth before Christ returns that will incorporate all the world’s religions and all creation, a “world yet to be born” that “desperately” needs “these spiritual practices.” He also relates: “[T]hese practices” have “enlivened the three Abrahamic faiths” (Christianity, Judaism, Islam) and should not be “allowed to go extinct” (p. 29).
There is a piece of the puzzle in the book as to where the emerging church is really heading. In view of the fact that prominent Christian figures like Rick Warren and Bill Hybels continue to promote emerging church leaders (e.g. Leonard Sweet was a recent speaker at Saddleback and McLaren himself recently at Willow Creek) with millions of people around the world being significantly influenced by them, it is essential that we know where the emerging church is going. In chapter four of Finding Our Way Again, McLaren, in referring to his “spiritual formation,” admits he has gleaned from various religious traditions (e.g., Hinduism, Buddhism, Islam, etc). Then he makes reference to a woman named Anne Lamott when she says, “I am at heart a Jesus-y person” (p. 31). Lamott is a perfect example of someone who “likes Jesus” but rejects biblical Christianity. Lamott illustrates this by her recent back cover endorsement of the best-selling book, Eat, Pray, Love by Elizabeth Gilbert. Gilbert’s book is heavily promoted by Oprah and has been at the top of the New York Times best-seller list for over a year. Gilbert was a disillusioned young woman who traveled to an India ashram where she learned to meditate and find oneness with God. During her time at the ashram, Gilbert had a meditative experience where she says “the scales fell from my eyes and the openings of the universe were shown to me.”
Her book is a virtual primer on New Age thinking. Of the book, Lamott says: “This is a wonderful book, brilliant and personal, rich in spiritual insight.” The reason McLaren resonates with Lamott is because the New Age and the emerging church (or what we call the merging church) are going in the same direction – to help man awaken to his inner divinity through mysticism. When McLaren states in this chapter that he learned from Hinduism, what else could he have learned than this?
Like so many others in the emerging camp, McLaren shows a distain for Christianity, saying that “a person can be a follower of the way of Jesus without affiliating with the Christian religion (p. 33) (please see our report “Christian or Christ-follower”. One emerging leader says that Christianity actually hijacked truth (An Emergent Manifesto of Hope, p. 194). McLaren takes this reasoning a step further and says, “Jesus wasn’t a Christian” (p. 34). But McLaren certainly isn’t the only one in the merging church that talks like this. Erwin McManus (unfortunately promoted by David Jeremiah) says it is his “goal to destroy Christianity as a world religion” and also: “Some people are upset with me because it sounds like I’m anti-Christian. I think they might be right.”
Finding Our Way Again emulates McLaren’s previous writings on atonement, on Jesus being the only way to God and salvation, on the return of Christ and on the last days. The difference with this book is that the emphasis is on how we can attain to this awakened state – through mystical practices. One chapter is devoted primarily to these contemplative exercises, but the entire book is seeping with its core message – “reconciliation with God, one another, and all creation in a global community” (p. 42).
While we at Lighthouse Trails read this entire book, it would be repetitive to write about each chapter. The theme is as we have described above, and McLaren spends page after page trying to prove his points. He condemns traditional Christianity to dangerous and fearful, he applauds efforts to reconcile all religions together, he rejects any thoughts that Christ’s kingdom is only for the born-again, and he upholds a New Age kingdom in which man is in union with God (regardless of beliefs). He embraces mysticism wholeheartedly and in fact believes the world cannot be healed without it.
But something in McLaren’s book has given this writer a motivation to continue with the work we do at Lighthouse Trails as long as we have breath. In McLaren’s chapter titled “Moving On,” he gives a detailed analysis of how the emerging church is God’s answer to a stifled, fearful Christian church. He explains that this merging church must infiltrate the “institutions that rejected it,” adding that “conservative Protestants have repeated their Catholic sibling’s earlier mistakes (referring to the Catholic church’s one time rejection of Galileo). Then he says: “But over time, what they reject will find or create safe space outside their borders and become a resource so that many if not most of the grandchildren of today’s fundamentalists will learn and grow and move on from the misguided battles of their forebears [biblical believers]” (p. 133). You see, McLaren and his emerging church fellows (Pagitt, Sweet, Warren, et.al) want to change the minds of our children and grandchildren. That is why Rick Warren once said that the older traditional ones will have to leave or die because they won’t change, thus the emphasis in the emerging church on the youth.
What’s alarming is that McLaren’s vision of infiltration is working. And he knows it. Listen: “At the center, safe space happens. A learning community forms. New possibilities emerge. A new day dawns. If the guardians of our fragmented religious institutions forbid their members to meet in the center, the members will not be able to comply. They will simply go undercover and arrange secret liaisons … Eventually, the shared resources, vitality, and new possibilities that unfold … will penetrate and reinvigorate … Trying to stop [this] … is a losing game … against the plotline of God’s universe.”
In the last chapter of McLaren’s book, “Theosis (via Unitiva),” he sums up his calling by stating that “The purpose of the via purgativa [the practices] is to prepare us for the via illuminativa [the awakening], and the purpose of the via illuminativa is to prepare us for the via unitiva [all is one], the union of our nature with the nature of God” (pp. 171-172). He calls God “fire” and says, “We join God in being fire … Before the beginning … God was All, and All was God” (p. 175). This is the exact same message that Eckhart Tolle and Oprah are propagating. But while many Christians are now condemning Tolle’s message, they don’t realize that the very same message is permeating their very own churches. For those readers who care about the spiritual future of their children and grandchildren, it is vital they understand the meaning of McLaren’s spirituality in particular and the emerging/contemplative movement in general. We believe this is an extremely compelling motivation and should prompt us as believers to defend the faith and the gospel message of Jesus Christ.