(448) EMERGING TRENDS IN THE CHURCH TODAY – EVANGELICAL & ROMAN CATHOLIC SPIRITUALITY
Evangelical & Roman Catholic Spirituality
Looking at the issue of Evangelical spirituality and how it has progressed today, although regressed may be a better description, it is not uncommon to get blank stares when mentioning the influence of ancient Roman Catholic and Eastern Mysticism on Evangelical spirituality. As I continue to see Evangelicals increasingly including Roman Catholic & Eastern mysticism practices, it makes one wonder if Evangelicals have lost sight as to why they became Evangelicals in the first place. Stated plainly, there is an increasingly syncretic blending of Eastern Mysticism along with Roman Catholicism practices infusing its way into Evangelical practices – which may be the most disturbing aspect of these trends.
Evangelicals participating in ASH WEDNESDAY, STATIONS OF THE CROSS, SACRIFICIAL OBSERVANCE OF LENT….etc., seem to participate without considering the biblical basis for what they do. As I researched the history of Evangelical spirituality, I discovered several bits of wisdom that can better put things in perspective.
Some would say that previously, spirituality was a drastically neglected subject among scholars. Christian experience was treated as an optional dimension of Christian life. An additive that had its place in personal devotion and pastoral work but was marginal as a subject of serious reflection. The focus was on the Church’s theology but with minimal attention to what made up the Church’s shell and its various forms.
That has changed over the last several decades. Works have appeared in spiritual theology from every perspective: Catholic, Orthodox, Lutheran, Reformed, anabaptist, Wesleyan, evangelical, Jungian, liberationist, and even liberal. Spirituality is now discussed repeatedly with seminaries leading the way in developing new programs and classes on these issues. Christian authors include, to various degrees, some aspect of the latest buzz words to describe some type of new practices that one can participate in order to experience spirituality in new ways and seek to become more intimate with God.
(2) REFORMATION, EVANGELICALS & RICHARD FOSTER’S CELEBRATION OF DISCIPLINE
Over the last decade, Evangelicals have been greatly influenced by what many would consider a departure from Reformation practices to a merging of outside mystical influences originating from Roman Catholic and Eastern religions. There were always groups within Evangelical camps that were more mystical than others, but in 1978, author Richard Foster wrote, Celebration of Discipline. This book has had a massive influence on today’s Christianity. Unfortunately, the influence has helped to saturate the church with MYSTICAL CONTEMPLATIVE PRAYER and the NEW AGE.
Richard Foster, a Quaker and the founder of an organization called Renovare (meaning renewal) wrote this book having no idea the impact it would have. But, even today, many Christian leaders and organizations continue to promote the book. Christianity Today proclaimed it to be one of the ten best books of the 20th century. Foster is a Quaker. Quakers are known to have a spiritual life which is grounded in the subjective “inner light” presupposition of the Friends. Dr. Gary Giley summarizes Foster’s book –
“Foster is highly steeped in the Roman Catholic mystics, drawing from dozens of them for his theology. More than that, Eugene Peterson informs us that Foster has “‘found’ the spiritual disciplines [in the mystics] that the modern world stored away and forgot” (p. 206). Foster’s views are also formed by Quaker mystics and even secular thinking, most surprisingly Carl Jung….”
•The contemplative prayer movement which has taken many to the foothills of Eastern mysticism.
•Centering prayer in which one moves to the center of God or self—an Eastern mystical practice.
•An unbiblical use of imagination which leads to occultic visualization.
•Use of rosaries and prayer wheels.
•Propagation of the Roman Catholic view of confession, penitence and spiritual directives.
Foster said in the book, that we “should all without shame enroll as apprentices in the school of contemplative prayer” (p. 13, 1978 ed.). In other books and writings of Foster’s, he makes it very clear that this “contemplative prayer” is the eastern-style mantra meditation to which mystic monk THOMAS MERTON adhered. Foster is quoted as saying that “Thomas Merton tried to awaken God’s people”.
Thomas Merton, who said he was “impregnated with Sufism” (Merton and Sufism, p. 69) and wanted to “BECOME AS GOOD A BUDDHIST” as he could be (David Steindl-Rast, “Recollection of Thomas Merton’s Last Days in the West”), believed that “God’s people” lacked one thing—MYSTICISM, and this is to what they needed “awakening.” Of Merton, Foster says: “Thomas Merton has perhaps done more than any other twentieth-century figure to make the life of prayer widely known and understood.” And yet, Thomas Merton once told New Age Episcopal priest MATTHEW FOX that he felt sorry for the hippies in the 60s who were dropping LSD because all they had to do was practice the mystical (contemplative) stream to achieve the same results. We couldn’t agree with him more. Both ALTERED STATES are the same, but we differ from Merton and Foster in conclusions outcome—we know neither leads to God.
Celebration of Discipline has helped to pave the way for Thomas Merton’s panentheistic belief system. It has opened the door for other Christian authors, speakers, and pastors to bring contemplative spirituality into the lives of millions of people.”
(3) REFORMATION SPIRITUALITY
What is interesting to me is how Evangelical theology has developed from its Reformation basis.
The following is written by a church historian – Richard Lovelace. Lovelace was a professor of Church history at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary in South Hamilton, Massachusetts. Back in 1988, he identified several items that struck me as being very important terms of a distinction between Roman Catholic and Evangelical practices. Yes, today, with the growth of groups such as the Emerging Church movements as well as other ecumenical movements, we are seeing a return of some of these distinctives back to Roman Catholicism as well as to Eastern Mysticism. With that, many today know very little of the history of their group’s spirituality as well as little consideration for what the Bible actually teaches about these issues. Lovelace states –
The spirituality of Luther and Calvin is a reaction against western Catholic spirituality. Let me first point out the features that aroused reaction.
The absence of justification as a theological category separate from sanctification is a dominant factor shaping pre-Reformation spirituality. Luther felt that the spiritual lives of all Catholics, from the monks and nuns to the most retiring layperson, were affected by this justification gap. He also believed that this missing spiritual dimension virtually determined the whole shape of the medieval Church: “Ah, if the article on justification hadn’t fallen, the brotherhoods, pilgrimages, masses, invocation of saints, etc., would have found no place in the church. If it falls again (which may God prevent!) these idols will return.”3
This is an interesting comment on the vital force of theology and spirituality in shaping structures. The core doctrines of spiritual theology determine the shape of spirituality. But spirituality then amplifies the force of these doctrines, and it energizes and projects their.shape on the whole of theology and Church structure.
How did the absence of justification lead to dysfunction in medieval spirituality? Catholics believed that they were justified in the process of being sanctified. Since sanctification is never perfect and always in peril during our lifetime, they were imperfectly assured of their salvation. Serious believers could cure this uneasiness by martyrdom, or by the bloodless martyrdom of ascetic spirituality.
Sanctification, bearing an unnatural weight because it was expected to pacify the believer’s conscience, was a subject of extraordinary concern. But the ascetic method of sanctification was by amputation, not by healing. If the believer is having trouble with sex, give up sexual relations. If he or she is having difficulty with covetousness, give up private property. If he or she is tempted by power, give up independence. The monastery and the nunnery are sanctification machines that guarantee the surest victory over the sinful use of money, sex and power.4
Monasteries are an EASTERN religious instrument, NOT a Biblical format. And the medieval view of sanctification was subject to other eastern intrusions. The desert fathers are typically Hellenistic, if not BUDDHIST, in their assumption that spirit and matter—and especially soul and body—are enemies. “The body kills me,” says Macarius, “so I will kill it!”5
The western mystical tradition, from Augustine through Bernard and the Rhineland mystics, moved beyond this spiritual masochism to see that mortifying sin was the goal of sanctification and that this was not usually helped by punishing the body. But ASCETIC MYSTICISM characteristically views spiritual growth as the result of hard work. A central image of this literature is the ladder. One starts at the bottom, and there are thirteen steps that must be climbed, for instance, to move from pride to humility.6
Or, at the very least, there are the three steps of the Triple Way: the purging of sin from one’s life, then the illumination of the Holy Spirit, and then union with God. There are important lessons for Protestants in this structure, but we must make two observations: (1) that first step (purgation of sin) is a big one; (2) faith in Jesus Christ, and even the mention of the Redeemer, are scarce commodities in this literature. It is overwhelmingly theocentric rather than Christocentric, and it is full of nervous instructions to believers trying to cross the gap between man and God on their own footpaths.
This is not to agree with the common Protestant prejudice that nothing deeply spiritual can be going on among MYSTICS and in MONASTERIES. The problem is somewhat different: Spiritual experiences which for the Catholic doctors seem rare and hard to come by—the awesome summits of acquired or infused contemplation—appear to evangelical Protestants as common and routine possessions found among the laity, part of the birthright acquired by faith in Christ.
And this is the genius of Reformation spirituality. It assumes that the simplest believer leaps to the top of the spiritual ladder simply by realistic faith in Jesus Christ. Consistent Protestants start every day at the top of the ladder, receiving by faith what only God can give and what cannot be achieved by human efforts: assurance of salvation, and the guiding presence of the Holy Spirit. They may slip down a few rungs during the course of the day, but the way up again is not by climbing. It is by the vault of faith.
Similarly Luther stands the via triplex on its head. Union with Christ, received by faith, is the foundation of evangelical spirituality, not the final achievement. The illumination of the Holy Spirit then comes in to break up our darkness and show us our sins. Purgation of sin, finally, is a sanctification process in which we are led by the Spirit to recognize, confess and put to death the particular patterns of sin that are present in our characteristic fallen nature.
It seems obvious to evangelicals that this is a Biblical way to look at spiritual growth. The disciples, after all, were not Essene monks any more than Jesus was. They did not wear animal skins and eat locusts, like John. They were clumsy learners and listeners on the track of faith, NOT CHANTING MONKS pursuing SOLITUDE. They were annoyingly dense in their spiritual response throughout the gospels. They were cured, however, NOT by keeping SPIRITUAL DISCIPLINES but by an infusion of the Holy Spirit, a whirlwind restructuring their minds, imparting a spirituality that they could never have achieved. As Paul puts it:
“Did you receive the Spirit by observing the law, or by believing what you heard? Are you so foolish? After beginning with the Spirit, are you now trying to attain your goal by human effort?… Does God give you his Spirit and work miracles among you because you observe the law, or because you believe what you heard?” (Gal 3:2–5).
Luther’s teaching cut through the Roman Catholic spirituality of achievement by stressing the thing that was most important to Jesus: CHRIST-CENTERED FAITH. Evangelical piety is first of all a spirituality of faith as opposed to one of achievement. Responding to an ascetic model of Christian experience, Protestantism adopted an essentially pentecostal or charismatic model. Spirituality comes not through laborious cultivation of the human spirit but through the gracious gift of the Holy Spirit. It is a spirituality that flourishes in the atmosphere of faith. It is NOT WORKED UP through ASCETIC EXERCISES but infused directly, as at Pentecost. In Roman Catholic terms, infused contemplation is thus the common inheritance of all laity and clergy and not the private prerogative of those with ascetic vocations.7
P. T. Forsyth summarized Luther’s approach:
Perfection is not sanctity but faith … It is a perfection of attitude rather than of achievement, of relation more than of realization, of truth more than of behaviour … It is not a matter of our behaviour before God the Judge, but of our relation to God the Saviour … It is a fatal mistake to think of holiness as a possession which we have distinct from our faith … Every Christian experience is an experience of faith; that is, it is an experience of what we have not … Faith is always in opposition to seeing, possessing, experiencing. A faith wholly experimental has its perils. It varies too much with our subjectivity. It is not our experience of holiness that makes as believe in the Holy Ghost. It is a matter of faith that we are God’s children; there is plenty of experience in us against it … We are not saved by the love we exercise, but by the Love we trust.8
Luther believed that Catholic spirituality imposed a barrier between the believer and God. Because it leaves the believer in partial darkness, unaware of the imputed righteousness of Christ, the theology of Trent leaves weak Christians feeling distant from the Holy Spirit. It discourages the laity, and wherever it prevails in modern Catholicism the result is spiritual deadness, as Henri Nouwen has stated.9
The Reformers shied away from spiritual exercises as a road to growth, though they did stress the need to hear and read Scripture in order to nourish faith and the need to pray in order to express faith. John Calvin also balanced Luther’s emphasis on justification by an intensive treatment of sanctification. Out of the material in the application sections of Paul’s letters, Calvin carefully drew an understanding of spiritual growth through mortification of sin and vivification of every aspect of the personality by the Spirit’s releasing work.
There is much more to say about the history of spirituality from both a Roman Catholic and Evangelical perspective – this just touched the surface. In future blogs, we can look at additional stages. The important now is to realize that there was a clear difference in the Reformers approach to spirituality compared to Roman Catholicism.
=> With that, Roman Catholicism has at least some influence from Eastern Mysticism/religions including in groups such as the DESERT FATHERS, MONKS, MONASTERIES, along with monks/authors such as THOMAS MERTON. A key aspect of Protestant spirituality is based on reading and meditating on God’s word along with prayer.
As with the theological differences between Roman Catholicism and Protestants / Evangelicals, the practices promoted by Roman Catholicism seemingly stray very close to if not entirely within the camp of a works-based practice – i.e. there is something that you need to do in order to obtain unification with God. But, Protestants believe there is nothing we can do to earn favor from God but rather God provides us with what we need in our walk because of Grace. We can accept that by faith. These two spirituality spectrums approach each other from opposite directions.
So, when I hear Evangelicals all to quick to participate in or start a practice in their church (e.g. during Lent – Ash Wednesday, Stations of the Cross) that they borrow from Roman Catholicism, I have to ask if they realize that some will come under bondage in their efforts to please God.
Evangelical Spirituality: A Church Historian’s Perspective — By: Richard F. Lovelace
1 I have reflected more extensively on this problem in the preface to Dynamics of Spiritual Life (Downers Grove: InterVarsity, 1979).
2 This is not to minimize the solid contributions of P. Pourrat, L. Bouyer and a few others who have explored the history of Christian spirituality from a Roman Catholic perspective. But in 1980 when I surveyed Roman Catholic educational institutions, most seemed unaware of spiritual theology, and few even had functioning analogues in the disciplines of pastoral theology, evangelism and spiritual formation. It appears that Thomas Merton was able to make the transition from a kind of ascetic, pietistic, Catholic chauvinism to the keen observation of world events through the lens of a well-developed ecumenical sensibility, which we see in works like Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander, without losing his spiritual rootage in the Augustinian contemplative tradition. But a whole generation of Catholics seems to have attempted to dive into the world without maintaining any transcendental airhose. Perhaps one of their motivations in exploring the world has been their annoyance with asceticism and other toxic residua in the received tradition. Mainline Protestants and evangelicals after 1960 have had much the same experience in reacting to weaknesses in their own spiritualities.
3 Martin Luther, Table Talk (ed. T. G. Tappert; Philadelphia: Fortress, 1967) 340.
4 My favorite analysis of the problems and provisional advantages of asceticism is still H. B. Workman, The Evolution of the Monastic Ideal (Boston: Beacon, 1962).
5 Palladius: The Lausiac History (Westminster: Newman, 1965) 58-67.
6 The reference here is to Bernard’s Thirteen Steps.
7 Sister M. Murphy, a Catholic charismatic who has worked closely with George Gallup in recent years, comments that charismatic renewal is simply infused contemplation made available to everybody in the Church. Note that Leo Cardinal Suenens, early in the sessions of the Second Vatican Council, stood up against the traditional teaching that the charismatic gifts had ended with the apostolic era on the grounds that without spiritual charisms broadly available among the laity the priesthood of believers could not be achieved.
8 P. T. Forsyth, Christian Perfection (London, 1899) 56, 7–9, 73.
9 H. J. M. Nouwen, Gracias (San Francisco: Harper, 1983).