Gary: Welcome to Search the Scriptures 24/7, a radio ministry of The Berean Call with T.A. McMahon. I’m Gary Carmichael. We’re glad you could join us! In today’s program, Tom begins a two-part series with guest Larry DeBruyn as they address the question: Have You Contemplated Your Spirituality? Here’s TBC executive director, Tom McMahon.
Tom: Thanks, Gary. Here’s what’s up for this program and next week, the Lord willing: the topic is contemplative spirituality, and on the phone to discuss the subject with me is Larry DeBruyn. Larry is a former pastor, heads Guarding His Flock Ministries; he’s a graduate of Dallas Theological Seminary’s Masters Program, and the author of Unshackled: Breaking Away from Seductive Spirituality. He writes articles for a number of biblical discernment websites, including Herescope and The Alliance for Biblical Integrity. Larry, welcome to Search the Scriptures 24/7.
Larry: Well, Tom, it’s really good to be with you today, and may the Lord bless our time together and help us as we have this discussion about contemplative spirituality.
Tom: Amen, and amen! Larry, let’s start off with a basic definition of contemplative spirituality, lest there be some confusion among our listeners. But before you go there, let me preface your definition by saying that we’re presenting this subject because contemplative spirituality, as you’ll learn from our interview, and its teachings, have become…well, they’re practices that have become incredibly popular in Christendom, and we want to hold that up – what’s going on – up to the Scriptures to see if its teachings and practices are consistent – true…if they’re consistent or true to what the Bible teaches, and most of our listeners, Larry, as you probably know, most of our listeners are quite aware that that’s what we do as a ministry, and that’s the focus of all of our programs. But for new listeners, I think it’s helpful to let them know what we’re about.
So, contemplative spirituality: Give us a general definition and description.
Larry: Well, it really is the word “contemplate,” which means to think, but in the instance of contemplative spirituality, the idea is that you rid your mind of any kind of external stimuli that are within your environment, so that after you’ve rid your mind of those stimuli, that you can kind of create a tabula rasa, so to speak – that’s a blank slate in which God can speak to you. And in the process of God speaking – people can experience altered states of consciousness; that is, that they will experience transfer from one reality to another reality.
Now, contemplative spirituality is rooted in mysticism and the occult, but often it’s wrapped in Christian terminology and adopted by Christians and it’s given a spiritual spin so that it’s made out to be that people are very spiritual who are doing that.
Well, there’s no question about the spirituality involved in it. The only question is about the source of it. Foundational to contemplative spirituality is pantheism. That is the idea that God is all, or panentheism, that is that God is in all. Because the assumption is that either God is either all or in all, that you as a part of God can connect with God through contemplation. Now, what we have to understand is that contemplation is an exercise that is mystical in nature. In fact, it wasn’t until, oh, about the fifth century AD that the Latin changed the word “mysticism” to “contemplation.” So they’re twins that come together, and they’re very much, I would say, absorbed one with another. So when you’re contemplating, you’re a mystic; and when you’re a mystic, you’re contemplating.
So contemplative spirituality is an attempt to make contact with God or whoever or whatever is out there.
Tom: Now, Larry, in the things that we’re dealing with here, there are going to be some terms that maybe people aren’t familiar with…
Tom: Obviously we’re not going to cover everything in this interview this week and next week, but there are some things that are very basic, and I think you’ve given us a better understanding of mysticism, particularly Eastern mysticism – what’s behind that. But the thing that confuses some Christians is meditation. There’s biblical meditation and there’s Eastern meditation. Could you explain those two?
Larry: Well, the one is objective – that is biblical meditation. For example, Psalm 1 tells us that the blessed man is one who meditates in God’s Law day and night, 24/7. In other words, it’s a part of his consciousness. He goes over and over and over it again. In 1985, I was in the airport heading over to Israel, and I saw some Jewish men before the wall there at the airport at JFK with Torah in hand and moving toward the wall and moving away from the wall, reading Torah constantly. That was the Jewish idea of meditation. That’s the scriptural idea of meditation.
Eastern meditation is, however, different. It is subjective, not objective. The idea is that meditation will deliver certain feelings, a sense of belonging to the Universe. Where there was alienation, maybe there will occur harmony, and on and on and on. But there is nothing objective about it. It is totally subjective, and it is often based upon feelings or emotions. These things in Scripture are talked about as being adverse to true spirituality.
For example, in Galatians 5, it says, “Walk in the Spirit, and you will not fulfill the lusts of the flesh.” There’s this contrast that is drawn there by the Apostle Paul between walking in the Spirit and the lusts of the flesh. I place Eastern Contemplative Spirituality in the context of a fleshly experience. It is one that belongs to the world below with the hope that the meditator, or the mystic, will contact the world above.
Tom: Right, and I think that’s an important aspect. People who - as you mentioned earlier, speaking about mysticism, because it’s so related -they’re trying to have a blank slate, open themselves to whatever is out there. We’re going to talk about this in more detail. It’s an altered state of consciousness that opens their minds to whatever, whereas, as you’re pointing out, Larry, biblical meditation deals with the content of Scripture. It’s objective. This is what God’s saying. Now, how am I going to handle this? How am I going to understand it?
You know, I love Proverbs:4:7: “Wisdom is the principle thing; therefore, get wisdom. But in all thy getting, get understanding.” That is biblical meditation.
Larry: Right. And those that practice contemplation within the Christian sphere often look to Jesus as an example of being a Meditator. They have two words of “solitude” and “silence,” and while Jesus practiced solitude – we know that - He never practiced silence. He never promoted nor practiced what they call “silent prayer,” which is meditative prayer. Nevertheless, what is being sold to the church is that He did. But He didn’t!
Tom: No! And Him, getting away from the crowds, that was so that He could communicate with His Father! He wasn’t distracted by these…
Larry: There’s nothing wrong with that…
Tom: No, absolutely not!
Larry: We all need that…
Tom: Although we’re going to talk to an abuse of that idea a little later; some of the things I’ve read that you’ve written were really, really interesting, and we’ll talk about that. But, Larry, let’s go back to the overall goal. What would you say is the goal, or the objective, of contemplative teachings and practices?
Larry: Well, the goal, if we’re defining it in what has been considered a Christian way, is union with God.
Larry: That’s the ultimate goal. That is, to hear God speak to you. Perhaps take a journey to heaven, to see God. It can be any one of a number of experiences, but the ultimate goal is unification with God. And generally what is proposed is what they call a triple way, or a three-fold path, to that unification with God. And it begins with contemplation and perhaps prefatory to contemplation is something called purgation, where you might flagellate yourself or beat yourself – in other words, making the flesh diminish while the spirit increases.
But from contemplation, then you move on to illumination. That’s kind of the “light and power show” of the meditating experience, when people see visions and hear voices and perhaps even have divine visitations.
And then the third stage is unification, where they become “one” with God. This is a practice, or I would say the path, that has been embraced by many Christians for perhaps hundreds if not thousands of years – over a thousand – probably since about 300 AD, somewhere in that area, with St. Anthony. It began when he moved into the desert and had experiences – to be alone - and sought these experiences, and there are many reports about the experiences he had, but the ultimate goal is feel one with God. And we know that we are one with God through the baptism of the Holy Spirit, where the Spirit of God places us in union with Christ and also in union with one another. So we, as one body, are one with God. As Jesus prayed, we’re one with Him, we’re one with the Father, we’re all one. That, of course, is accomplished not through meditation but by faith.
Tom: Right, right. Larry, I want to underscore one other thing. I absolutely appreciate the way you’ve laid this out. But here’s my concern for the idea of union. Now, you’ve defined that, in my view, biblically. But here’s where I think it goes awry, because union, according to Eastern mysticism, is you basically not just become one with God, you become God - that the union is no different. It’s like, you know, as they say, “Just as a drop of water goes into the ocean, it becomes the ocean,” that’s not the idea of biblical union with Christ. And we’ve seen that within ministries that have promoted that idea of union with God. It takes it way beyond what the Scriptures teach.
Larry: That’s true, and the point is, I think, that people discuss within the area of alternative spirituality: What is the essence of the human mind?, for example. Is it light or is it chemical? Most are opting out for the idea that it’s light. Light is something that is inherent in all of nature, and because light is inherent in the brain and in nature, then that becomes the transfer point where one then can feel oneness with the universe.
The Bible, however, teaches not oneness, but twoness. Jesus said that He was from above. He told the Pharisees in John 8 that they were from below. He told them “Where I am going, you cannot come.” The whole idea of the Bible is not oneness, but twoness. “In the beginning, God created the heavens (space), the earth (matter),” and in the beginning, time. These were subsequent to God. God has pure spirit – eternal Father, eternal Son, and eternal Holy Spirit [who] existed before time, matter, and space. Contemplative spirituality does not believe that. It believes that God is a part of it all. He’s no longer holy. And that’s the difference.
Tom: Yeah, and if that were true, then the God that we believe in – let’s say if their view was correct, He’d be evil. Look, we have sin – there’s nothing that He wouldn’t be a part of. But we know that God created everything ex nihilo – out of nothing – because He’s not a part of His creation, although Jesus did become a man, but He’ll never cease to be the infinite God and the perfect Man. So there’s a distinction that’s lost and, you know, we’ve got these swamis and gurus and so on, trying to mix all of this stuff up…
Tom: Go ahead…
Larry: Well, the idea is if God is in everything as panentheism teaches, then He actually controls nothing…
Tom: Right! He’s part of the problem!
Larry: Because He’s no longer sovereign. He is totally imminent and no longer transcendent. Therefore, when I go to Him, for example, in prayer, to ask Him to help me either to get through a situation, to get out of a situation, or whatever answer He might give me, He can’t help me, because He’s part of the process.
Tom: That’s right. Well, He’s part of the problem, as I said earlier, so…there’s no solution, yoga, or anything else.
Larry: No. Incarnation is really voided at that point. You don’t need an incarnation of the Lord Jesus Christ in order for redemption from sin because there really is no sin. Only ugliness and groaning and pain. But God is in that with us!
Tom: Larry, could you give us a chronology? I’ve so enjoyed reading some of your articles. Could you just give us a chronology of…if you could identify it…you mentioned St. [Anthony], the Desert Fathers. These are Catholic mystics and so on. But where does a chronology come from…Eastern mysticism…and you have to do this briefly, because we don’t have a lot of time, but a chronology, timeline, sort of, of how…
Tom: …that entered Christianity.
Larry: I think I can help you there. 1) It is age-old spirituality. It had a beginning, and I believe it began in the Garden of Eden in a beautiful place called the…and I would ask the question, and this is only a question: When Eve added to the word of God, “…neither touch it, lest you die,” God said, “You shall not eat of it lest you die,” she added “touch it.” Was she adding, then, tradition that she got somewhere to God’s command?
Now, we know also that Babel, was is in the vicinity of the Tigris and Euphrates River in what was ancient Babylon, modern-day Iran/Iraq area. Babylon is synonymous with spirituality that is opposite from Scripture. So that is the point at which I would bring the beginning of it all. It started, really, with Satan in the Garden. What happened then, it flowed out East, you know, to places like China and elsewhere to the East. God called Abraham to leave that kind of spirituality in Genesis 12, and He set Abraham apart as a special person through whom He was going to reveal Himself. This spirituality, then, was in competition not only with Judaism but, after Christ came and the church was established, with the church. The church began to drift in this, and we know this, for example, from Colossians 2, where the Apostle Paul warns the Colossians about this. And it later on came in through, as you mentioned, St. Anthony, who was a wealthy man who decided that the word of Jesus was to get rid of all your wealth. And he went out into the desert to “seek God.” That’s where the idea of “Desert Fathers” comes from. He created a movement – started a movement – and so many others moved to the desert to “find God.” Some of them even worshiped in pagan shrines and contemplated in pagan shrines in order to do business with evil spirits that would come, because they wanted a hand-to-hand combat with evil spirits, to have victory. So, it was a solicitation, really, of spirits.
This, then, moved on into what we call the “Monastic Movement,” which involved not only mysticism but asceticism – denying one’s body – which is a prelude, as we saw, purgation, to contemplation, and then illumination and deification. And so, it entered into the monastic movement and then was in Christianity but now has mainstreamed itself into what I would call the evangelical movement through the influence of certain authors and leaders who are encouraging the practice. That’s how I would trace it.
Tom: Yeah. And in that, do you see – you didn’t mention their names – but I will! You have Richard Foster, Dallas Willard; you have a very strong contemplative spirituality movement. We could go back to the influence of Catholics, the late Henri Nouwen – so, there’s this in the church. And, as you said, we’re not talking about just Catholic mystics. We’re talking about mysticism and contemplative practices within evangelical Christianity.
Now, my question here is, is that distinctly different from the desert fathers – from these guys – what you just described, from what they did?
Larry: Not in my understanding! It’s not essentially different. It’s essentially the same. Now, there may be appearances on the outside that would perhaps give the impression to those who are enticed by this and perhaps even seduced by this that it’s not the same, but no, it is.
Tony Campolo, in one of his books, makes the statement that “Mysticism is a part of all religious traditions,” whether it be Judaism or Islam or Christianity or any of the Eastern religions. All of these experiences are common, and that is really an ecumenism of spirit, so to speak, where doctrinal distinctives, truth distinctives, are denied because everyone is worshiping at the shrine of the common experience.
Tom: Now, along that line – and you mentioned Tony Campolo ( I want to talk about him; we’ll probably get to that, the Lord willing, next week), but the idea of some of these practices, they’re taught by what’s been called Spiritual Directors. What’s…Larry, what is a spiritual director?
Larry: Well, in short, a spiritual director is someone who’s been there and done that, and that anyone who is novice in the area of contemplative spirituality would come alongside a spiritual director in order to receive counsel, advice, on how to meditate, how to approach this; perhaps there would be maturity there, where maybe things would happen in the course of meditation that would be upsetting that then this novice, or one who is new, could go to the director and receive comfort and so forth.
So, the whole process is called Spiritual Formation, and the idea is that the contemplative will attempt to form his life after someone or something. Now, we know in scripture that we’re to be conformed to the Lord Jesus Christ, and the Holy Spirit is active within us to bring that conformity to pass. It’s by grace and not by works. And I think that’s the big thing we have to understand here is the approach of contemplative spirituality is one of works: you have to practice certain spiritual disciplines, you have to do certain things, in order to attain the form of godliness, whereas in Christianity, it comes from above. And what is involved – yes, there’s Bible reading, there’s prayer, there’s fellowship with other believers, and those things that are involved in conforming one to the Lord Jesus Christ, but the ultimate confirmation, or conformation, comes from above, from the Lord himself – He brings it to us “down.” We don’t get there by going from below to above. He comes from above to below to bring it to us.
Tom: Larry, I can remember years ago dealing with this, and it became quite controversial. For example Karen Mains, very popular in Canada – she and her husband – they got into this big time, and they looked for spiritual directors, and they turned to …where’re you going to turn? You’re going to turn to Catholic nuns or priests! Not just the Thomas Merton influence, but you have Renovaré…
Tom: …you look at some of their board of directors: you have Catholic priests, practicing mystics…but then it also touches upon psychology. You have Jungian priests who introduce this stuff. It’s a combination of things, and out of that, we’re going to find – or we’re encouraged by some – to find somebody who’s going to lead us closer to God through these methods and techniques and so on? It’s outrageous from a biblical perspective, but here it is! We’re up to our eyebrows in this in many places within evangelical Christianity.
Larry: It’s all about seeking “the presence,” you see, of God, because the idea is that through meditation, it can come first through “experiencing the presence of God.” But we know that the Lord Jesus Christ has promised to be present with us always, even until the end of the age. The book of Hebrews tells us that the Lord will never leave us nor forsake us. So the question that I have for anyone who would think that they could contemplate themselves into the presence of God, why do you contemplate when He’s already present with us and in us?
Tom: Right. And as we’ve mentioned from the beginning: Larry, you laid it out for us that it started in the Garden of Eden. Actually, I would even say it started in heaven – Lucifer: “I will be as the Most High.” Because the objective here is to recognize that we’re gods, or that we’re becoming gods…
Tom: That lie runs throughout Scripture. However, we’re out of time for this session, but to encourage our listeners, you have presented some stuff. I want to go back to some of the things that you talked about in this country, isolationism through Quakers – there’s some fascinating stuff, folks! So my encouragement is to join us next week, and, Larry, thanks so much. This has been just a wonderful source of information for me and I’m sure for most of our listeners. So, thank you, Larry!
Larry: Yes, it’s been a blessing to me, Tom.
Gary: You’ve been listening to Search the Scriptures 24/7 featuring T.A. McMahon, a radio ministry of The Berean Call. We offer a wide variety of resources to help you in your study of God’s Word. For a complete list of materials and a free subscription to our monthly newsletter, contact us at PO Box 7019, Bend, Oregon 977098; call us at 800-937-6638; or visit our website at thebereancall.org. I’m Gary Carmichael. Thanks for joining us, and we hope you can be here again next week! Until then, we encourage you to search the Scriptures 24/7.