Serious Concerns for Focus on the Family Marriage Conference

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Gary Thomas tells readers to repeat a word for 20 minutes and points them to a tantric sex advocate, but still Focus on the Family keeps Thomas for speaking and for his books.

On February 28, 2009, Focus on the Family will present to churches across North America the “Focus on Marriage” conference in a “LIVE simulcast.” Focus has invited Gary Thomas to help train married couples attending the event. Thomas, also strongly promoted by Rick Warren, has several popular books covering topics such as marriage, parenting, and spirituality. Unfortunately, he is a proponent of contemplative prayer.

In his book, Sacred Pathways, Thomas instructs readers:

It is particularly difficult to describe this type of prayer in writing, as it is best taught in person. In general however, centering prayer works like this: Choose a word (Jesus or Father, for example) as a focus for contemplative prayer. Repeat the word silently in your mind for a set amount of time (say, twenty minutes) until your heart seems to be repeating the word by itself, just as naturally and involuntarily as breathing. (p. 185)

(link to article on meditation) Thomas’ contemplative propensities take him (and readers) into an area that could have significant ramifications on countless families. In his book Sacred Marriage (a book that Focus on the Family stands by and sells on their website,, Thomas introduces readers to a woman named Mary Anne McPherson Oliver and to her book Conjugal Spirituality.Thomas favorably references Oliver several times throughout Sacred Marriage and also references Oliver on his website in a Sacred Marriage study guide (

Who is Mary Anne McPherson Oliver and why should Christians be concerned about Gary Thomas’ promotion of this woman’s book, Conjugal Spirituality?

On the back of Oliver’s book, it states that “[r]eligious practice as we know it today remains, in effect, ‘celibate.’ Mary Anne Oliver proposes an alternative … she examines the spiritual dynamics of long-term relationship.”

You may be wondering, “What does that all mean?” To put it simply, Oliver believes that sexuality and spirituality go together and that couples are missing out because they have not incorporated the two but rather have practiced what she calls a celibate spirituality. But she is not just talking about spirituality – she is talking about mystical spirituality!

Oliver received her doctorate in mystical theology at the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley, California, and her book permeates with her mystical persuasions. She describes her “discomfort” regarding present views on sexuality and religion and says she hunted for answers by talking to monks, going on retreats and even spending an entire (“liturgical”) year at Taize, an ecumenical, meditation-promoting community in France. Eventually, she came to identify what she termed “conjugal spirituality” (p. 1).

Oliver says that “negative attitudes” and “walls” toward sex have inhibited people and says: “Although the walls are coming down, the separation of sex and spirituality which has been operative since the 4th century has yet to be completely eliminated” (p. 16).

What exactly is Oliver proposing couples do to remove these “walls”? Very clearly, her message to couples is to turn to mysticism. In dismay, she says that “spiritual counsellors and writers” have not begun to teach the “Upanishads [Hindu scriptures] and Tantric writings as the basis for moral theology for couples” and that “[s]ome still refuse to grant that mystical experience can be associated with erotic love” (p. 18). Oliver says that changes in mainstream theology have prepared the way for “the emergence of conjugal spirituality.” She adds: “An upsurge of interest in the spiritual life and a renaissance in mystical studies have widened the domain of spirituality” (p. 27).

This mysticism that Oliver encourages is experienced through “bodily exercises” that the couple practice together, “creating one’s spiritual space.” Listen to some of her instructions in what she describes as “intercourse on all levels of consciousness”:

1. “Center ‘that whole human reality which some people are beginning to call bodymind'” (p.85).
2. “Two basic movements in which each can contact the core energy of the other and experience the enlarging of the oval inhabited by the divine presence” (p. 91).
3. Yin and Yang movements
4. “Concentrate in the stillness and silence” (p. 93).
5. “Center yourselves.”
6. “Meditate using the five senses. Experience the circuit of energy circling slowly through the joined bodies” (p. 93).
7. “Focus a few minutes on the breath as a sign of the Spirit’s activity within yourself” (p.102).
8. “Repeat name or “I love you” as a mantra” (p. 102).

In Conjugal Spirituality, Oliver talks favorably about mystic Teilhard de Chardin’s Omega Point and the “Indian Tantric Yoga tradition … spoken of as kundalini potential energy” (p. 97). She describes public sexual ceremonies in which couples practice “Taoist visualizations and meditations, accompanied by breathing exercises” and talks of “[i]nvoking the gods and goddesses.” Oliver says that society may frown on such public displays of sexual mysticism at this time and couples may have to improvise until restrictions are lifted. She says that “sexual union celebrated [is] an eschatological sign of God’s kingdom where all will be one” (p. 101).

It is important to realize here that when Gary Thomas read Oliver’s book, he resonated with it. This is not guilt by association, but rather guilt by promotion. For those who do not understand the significance of his promotion of Conjugal Spirituality, perhaps a brief lesson in tantric sexuality (an underlying theme in Oliver’s book) will help to illustrate it. Ray Yungen explains:

Tantra is the name of the ancient Hindu sacred texts that contain certain rituals and secrets. Some deal with taking the energies brought forth in meditation through the chakras and combining them with love-making to enhance sexual experiences.

Once completely off-limits to the masses of humanity, tantra, like all other New Age methodologies, is now starting to gain increasing popularity. A Google search on the Internet shows 6,600,000 entries for the word tantra! This union of sexuality and Eastern spirituality is a perfect example to illustrate just how much the New Age has permeated our society as it has affected even the most intimate areas of people’s lives.

The potential to impact a very great number of people, especially men, was brought out in an article by a sex worker who incorporates “Tantric Bodywork” into her services. She paints a very sad portrait of the dynamics of the “enormous sex industry” in which millions of stressed and unhappy men seek out “erotic release” from women who are just as unhappy and stressed as their clients. She observes that there is a “culturally rampant phenomenon that spouses are disconnected from each other.”

To remedy this tragic interplay of exploitation, she has turned to Tantric Union to give her clients what she feels is not just sex but “union with the divine.” After she read a book called Women of the Light: The New Sacred Prostitute, she turned her erotic business into a “temple.” Of this temple, she says it is:

…dedicated to being a haven of the sacred, a home for the embodiment of spirit, filled with altars, sacred objects, plants, art, dreamy sensual music, blissful scents. My space is home to Quan Yin [a Buddhist goddess], crystals blessed by the Entities of John of God [a Brazilian spirit channeler].

Now the “multitudes of men” who come to her get much more than they bargained for. In the past, wives and girlfriends needed only to worry about sexually transmitted diseases from cheating husbands and boyfriends, but now their men may instead bring home spiritual entities! (from For Many Shall Come in My Name, pp. 115-116)

If Christians begin to incorporate contemplative practices with their sexual lives (a Christian version of tantric sex), the results will be devastating to the church, and we predict sexual perversion will be more rampant than ever. Why? Because if the altered states of consciousness are truly demonic realms (as we believe they are) then tantric sex is another venue of the hidden darkness that Jesus spoke of.

These assertions may sound absurd and far-fetched to some readers, but evidence of the truth of this does exist. For instance, Henri Nouwen (who along with Thomas Merton, is one of the top icons of the contemplative prayer movement), in his last book ourney, candidly revealed how he listened to audio tapes on the seven chakras which is the basis for tantric sex (p. 20). Also in Nouwen’s book, he makes mention of his encounter with a mystic named Andrew Harvey, whom Nouwen referred to as his soul friend (spiritual mentor) and how much Harvey’s mysticism had touched him (p. 149). And yet Harvey’s mysticism includes this tantric element. In a 2007 conference (The International Conference on Sacred Sexuality), Harvey lead a workshop called “Sexual Liberation, Tantra, and Sacred Activism” in which Harvey did:

… show that sexual liberation and Tantra are vital parts of the Divine Mother’s plan for the birth of a new humanity, since they make possible a profound and ecstatic contact with what Andrew calls Divine Eros – a tender passionate dynamic love-connection. True Tantric sexuality gives its’ practitioners access to extraordinary and unified energies which will form the base of a commitment to Sacred Activism.

In view of Gary Thomas’ promotion of mantra meditation in his book Sacred Pathways, it makes perfect sense that he would be quoting from someone like Oliver. But is this really what Focus on the Family wants to give to married couples attending the “Focus on Marriage” conference next February?

It is worth noting here that Focus on the Family shares their affinity over Thomas with Rick Warren, who says of Thomas: “In his book, Sacred Pathways, Gary identified nine of the ways people draw near to God” ( Then Warren names contemplative as one of those. Of Sacred Pathways, Warren says:

Gary has spoken at Saddleback, and I think highly of his work. In this book, Gary encourages readers to understand the unique way in which they relate to God and then he tells them how they can make the most of their spiritual journeys. He places an emphasis on practical spiritual exercises (

Rick Warren also resonates deeply with Henri Nouwen, which would also make sense given his views of Thomas.

If you are concerned about Focus on the Family’s continued promotion of Gary Thomas, please contact them and ask them to reconsider their earlier response when they stated in a letter to us that:

“[T]here is and always has been a strong tradition of contemplative prayer in the Christian church that has nothing to do with mantras and Eastern meditation. To confuse the two, as you have done, is to jump to an unwarranted conclusion based on a misunderstanding of certain features they appear to have in common.”4

Those of you who have studied the contemplative issue know how faulty this response is. The contemplative tradition did not start with the biblical saints and apostles but rather a few centuries later with the desert fathers (who drew from those of Eastern religions), and when Focus on the Family says “features they appear to have in common,” just what are those features? Either the method or the results. And we know from Gary Thomas, Henri Nouwen, and Mary Oliver McPherson, that it is both.

For those who may have any doubt about what we are saying, please consider this: In Sacred Pathways, Thomas favorably turns to a man named Basil Pennington (pp. 99, 104, 192). Ray Yungen pinpointef Pennington’s views when he quoted him in A Time of Departing as saying:

We should not hesitate to take the fruit of the age-old wisdom of the East and capture it for Christ. Indeed, those of us who are in ministry should make the necessary effort to acquaint ourselves with as many of these Eastern techniques as possible … Many Christians who take their prayer life seriously have been greatly helped by Yoga, Zen, TM and similar practices. (ATOD, p. 64)

Pennington also states:

It is my sense, from having meditated with persons from many different [non-Christian] traditions, that in the silence we experience a deep unity. When we go beyond the portals of the rational mind into the experience, there is only one God to be experienced. – Basil Pennington (Centered Living, p. 192)

It appears that this is the direction Gary Thomas is heading. The question is, will Focus on the Family and thousands of Christian couples do likewise?

Focus on the Family Answers Lighthouse Trails – Defends Contemplative Author – May 2006 – Letter from Focus on the Family

One Comment

  1. CW

    I am flabbergasted. This comment stood out to me: “She describes her “discomfort” regarding present views on sexuality and religion and says she hunted for answers by talking to monks.” She looked for answers about marriage from monks who’ve never been married? This is definitely the blind leading the blind, even without the new age stuff being the center of it. Scary stuff. Believers need ears to hear more than ever before. Thank you for sounding the alarm about this and so many similar things which are being done in the Body of Christ today. I don’t know anyone else who is doing this.

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