In the February issue of Christianity Today, the cover article titled “The Future Lies in the Past” proclaims that the “ancient future” church is now a reality. The cover photo shows a young man kneeling in a pile of sand (shovel sitting next to him), and he has just dug up a medieval looking Christian cross. The caption reads “Lost Secrets of the Ancient Church: How evangelicals started looking back to move forward.”
The article begins:
Last spring, something was stirring under the white steeple of the Billy Graham Center at Wheaton College. A motley group of young and clean-cut, goateed and pierced, white-haired and bespectacled filled the center’s Barrows Auditorium. They joined their voices to sing of “the saints who nobly fought of old” and “mystic communion with those whose rest is won.” … [One speaker] gleefully passed on the news that Liberty University had observed the liturgical season of Lent…. Just what was going on in this veritable shrine to pragmatic evangelistic methods and no-nonsense, back-to-to-Bible Protestant conservatism? Had Catholics taken over?
The theme of this particular event held at Wheaton was called “The Ancient Faith for the Church’s Future.” Quoting CT senior editor Thomas Oden, the article says that this new generation is “rediscovering the neglected beauty of classical Christian teaching.” Baylor University’s D. H. Williams was also present at the ancient future conference and gave his support by saying: “Who would have thought, a decade ago, that one of the most vibrant and serious fields of Christian study at the beginning of the 21st century would be the ancient church fathers?”
Calling the conference a kind of “coming of age” mile marker, the article acknowledges that this “worship renewal movement” began about 30 years ago and has caused evangelicals to enter “the new millennium by surging into the past … All signs point to the maturing of the ancient-future church.”
Rightfully, the article credits Richard Foster (whose Celebration of Discipline came on the scene 30 years ago (1978)) with the “birth of the ancient-future movement.” Others mentioned that helped fuel the new movement were the late Robert Webber (author of Ancient-Future Worship) and Thomas Oden (CT editor and professor at Drew University). It was the hope of Foster, the article states, to bring the church’s “historical resources to bear on Christians’ spiritual lives.”
The article points out that many “20- and 30-something evangelicals” are unhappy with both traditional Christianity (defined in the article as that which focuses on doctrine) as well as the seeker friendly, church-growth type churches.
Traditionals focus on doctrine–or as Webber grumps, on “being right.” They pour their resources into Bible studies, Sunday school curricula, and apologetics materials … For the younger evangelicals [emerging or emergent evangelicals, according to Webber] traditional churches are too centered on words and propositions [doctrine].
The article says these young emerging evangelicals are looking for a “renewed encounter with a God” that goes beyond “doctrinal definitions.” The question is then asked,
So what to do? Easy says this young movement: Stop endlessly debating and advertising Christianity, and just embody it … embrace symbols and sacraments. Dialogue with the “other two” historic confessions: Catholicism and Orthodoxy. Recognize that “the road to the church’s future is through its past.” And break out the candles and incense. Pray using the lectio divina. Tap all the riches of Christian tradition you can find.
The article points out that prior to now, evangelicals that wanted to “tap” all these ancient riches felt they needed to stop being Protestant and convert to Catholicism; “to read deeply in history is to cease being Protestant.” But that has all changed, the article says. Scholars are now saying that “to read history is not to cease being Protestant … and does not necessarily lead to conversion [to Catholicism].”
In short, the search for historic roots can and should lead not to conversion, but to a deepening ecumenical conversation, and a recognition by evangelicals that the Roman Catholics and Eastern Orthodox are fellow Christians with much to teach us.
The article states that the new evangelicalism must learn the “ascetic disciplines” from “Dallas Willard, Richard Foster, and living, practicing monks and nuns.”
For those who understand the spirituality of Richard Foster, and those who resonate with him like Dallas Willard and Brennan Manning, this article confirms all that Ray Yungen and Roger Oakland have been trying to warn fellow believers about. One, that the evangelical church is embracing contemplative spirituality, and two, it is an ecumenical drift toward Catholicism (and eventually a broader one world body of all religions). That is not a sweeping and exaggerated statement. It is happening before our very eyes, and Christianity Today has just acknowledged it.
Let’s look for a moment at the spirituality of Richard Foster. In the mid-nineties, Ray Yungen had already been researching the New Age for many years. This included studying Thomas Merton, whom Yungen had come to realize was panentheistic (God is in all) and interspiritual in his views and that Merton was a proponent of eastern-style meditation. It was at this time that Ray attended a weekend seminar at a local church featuring Richard Foster. At the request of the youth pastor of the church, Yungen did some preliminary research on the writings of Foster. Surprisingly, he saw a link between Foster and Merton. After Foster had spoken at the seminar, Yungen approached him and asked him what he thought of the current Catholic contemplative prayer movement. After noticeable uneasiness, Foster answered: “Thomas Merton tried to awaken God’s people.” Yungen knew what Foster meant. There was only one area in spirituality that Merton believed was lacking in Christianity, and that was the mystical element.
In Celebration of Discipline Foster says “we should all without shame enroll in the school of contemplative prayer” (COG, p. 13, 1978 ed.). And he has echoed this belief in many of his other books and writings over the last thirty years. Understand these writings, and you will understand the seriousness of the Christianity Today article.
In 1992, Foster wrote Prayer: Finding the Heart’s True Home, in which he openly quotes Merton on the virtues and benefits of contemplative prayer putting forth the view that through it God “offers you an understanding and light, which are like nothing you ever found in books or heard in sermons.”
Ray Yungen explains the significance of this. To ignore the following is to miss the key to Foster’s spirituality:
But when one digs deeper and finds what exactly this “understanding” is, it casts a very dubious light on Foster’s judgment. Listen to a few statements from some of the mystics whom Foster sees as examples of contemplative spirituality:
* [T]he soul of the human family is the Holy Spirit.–Basil Pennington
* I saw that God is in all things.–Julian of Norwich
* My beloved [God] is the high mountains, and the lovely valley forests, unexplored islands, rushing rivers.–John of the Cross
* Here [the contemplative state] everything is God. God is everywhere and in all things.–Madam Guyon
The point is this–their silence and Foster’s silence are identical, as he makes notably clear. By using them as models, Foster tells us to follow them because they have experienced deep union with God–and if you also want this, you must go into their silence.
But if this is the case, then Foster’s promotion of these mystics brings into play a difficult problem for him. Panentheism was the fruit of their mysticism. This mysticism led them to believe as they did, and Foster cannot distance himself from this fact. Consequently, to promote them as the champions of contemplative prayer, he is also, wittingly or not, endorsing their panentheism. What he endorses is a bundled package. You can accept both or reject both, but you cannot have one without the other.
To absolve these mystics of fundamental theological error, Foster has to also defend panentheism. Therefore, the evangelical church must come to a firm consensus on panentheistic mysticism. Contemplative prayer and panentheism go together like a hand in a glove–to promote one is to promote both. They are inseparable! Further, when one looks at Foster’s method of entering this silence, it casts his teachings in a very questionable light.
When Foster speaks of the silence, he does not mean external silence. In his book, Prayer: Finding the Heart’s True Home, Foster recommends the practice of breath prayer–picking a single word or short phrase and repeating it in conjunction with the breath. This is classic contemplative mysticism. In the original 1978 edition of Celebration of Discipline, he makes his objective clear when he states, “Christian meditation is an attempt to empty the mind in order to fill it.” In Prayer: Finding the Heart’s True Home, he ties in a quote by one mystic who advised, “You must bind the mind with one thought.” (A Time of Departing, 2nd ed., ch. 4)
While the Christianity Today article hits the target straight center in identifying Richard Foster as one of the leading pioneers of the contemplative movement, the article is misleading in one important aspect, however. In reading the article, one is left with the impression that by and large the ancient future (contemplative) movement is primarily attracting the younger generation. But this just isn’t true. Countless men and women, Christian organizations, locals churches, colleges and seminaries, and most denominations (to varying degrees) are embracing spiritual formation (i.e., contemplative). Even Rick Warren, in his first book, The Purpose Driven Church, honored the movement and its founder, Richard Foster (pp. 126, 127) when he acknowledged that the spiritual formation movement would help bring the church into “full maturity” and connected Richard Foster to the movement. Warren said the movement “has had a valid message for the church” and “has given the body of Christ a wake-up call.” Since that 1995 recognition by Warren, sales of Celebration of Discipline have soared. There is no doubt that this movement has been accepted by the older generation as well.
The ancient future movement to go back to the past (the desert fathers, monks, mystics, etc.) in order to go forward means that leaders in the movement (Foster, Webber, Willard, Merton, etc.) recognize that before an ecumenical all-inclusive spiritual body (as Foster puts it) can be realized, mysticism has got to be brought in. For it is in the mystical state that one thinks he has come into ultimate union with God and with all creation. But in this meditative state, the exclusivity of Jesus Christ’s message (“I am the way, the truth, and the life: no man cometh unto the Father, but by me.” John 14:6) has been invalidated and compromised. And for this reason, contemplative spirituality (i.e., the ancient future faith) cannot be considered biblical Christianity.
Nothing makes the point clearer than when you look at the chapter on contemplative prayer in Foster’s book Prayer: Finding the Heart’s True Home where he makes positive reference to Basil Pennington saying that Pennington calls this type of prayer “centering prayer.” But listen to the following account given by Pennington in his own book appropriately titled Centering Prayer:
I presented the Centering Prayer in my usual way, wondering what chords of response this call to faith and love might be striking in the Hindu monk. We soon entered into the prayer and enjoyed that beautiful fullness of silence. As we came out of the experience I shot a concerned glance in the direction of our Eastern friend. He had–or, I could almost say, was–a most beautiful smile, a deep, radiant expression of peaceful joy. Gently he gave his witness: “This has been the most beautiful experience I have ever had.” This was for me on many levels a very affirming experience.
Now ponder this account in light of how the Christianity Today article ends:
This is the road to maturity. That more and more evangelicals have set out upon it is reason for hope for the future of gospel Christianity. That they are receiving good guidance on this road from wise teachers is reason to believe that Christ is guiding the process. And that they are meeting and learning from fellow Christians in the other two great confessions, Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox, is reason to rejoice in the power of love.
If some think this is gospel Christianity, consider that Pennington did not give the gospel to the Hindu monk but rather was a co-mystic with him. And if this is ancient future Christianity, then it is not Christianity at all.
For a clear and concise understanding of contemplative spirituality and the emerging church, we hope you will read A Time of Departing and Faith Undone.