Monday, June 17, 2019

The Dangers of Mysticism

In her address to the “Society of Vineyard Scholars,” Stanford anthropologist, Tanya Luhrmann, assured her listeners that there is something wrong if we fail to have face-to-face conversations with God as Moses had. How then can we learn to experience God in this intimate manner? We need to know that we can find the Word of God within, where it has been waiting for us to discover it. This requires us to learn how to scrutinize our thought life in order to encounter the voice of God. However, according, to Luhrmann, one need not be a Christian to receive the “Word of God” in this manner. In a paper entitled, The Absorption Hypothesis: Learning to Hear God in Evangelical Christianity, which she co-authored with Howard Nusbaum and Ronald Thisted, she asked:

·          How does God become real to people when God is understood to be invisible and immaterial, as God is within the Christian tradition?

For this team, it’s not only having a spiritual proclivity, but also a matter of learning certain skills:

·          And yet it may be the case that hearing God speak and having other vivid, unusual spiritual experiences that seem like unambiguous evidence of divine presence might be, in some respects, like becoming a skilled athlete…The larger project here is to emphasize the role of skilled learning in the experience of God.

Experiencing God is not based upon coming to faith in Jesus, or in repentance; nor is it a matter of confessing our sins or meditating on Scripture. Instead, it’s open to everyone through learning a skill that Luhrmann calls “absorption”:

·          We believe that “absorption” is best understood as the mental capacity common to trance, hypnosis, dissociation, and much other spiritual experience in which the individual becomes caught up in ideas or images or fascinations (see also Butler 2006; Roche and McConkey 1990). From this perspective, “absorption” is the name of the capacity to become focused on the mind’s object—what humans imagine or see around them—and to allow that focus to increase while diminishing attention to the myriad of everyday distractions that accompany the management of normal life…There are no specific physiological markers of trance or hypnosis or dissociation, but as those absorbed states grows deeper, the person becomes more difficult to distract, and his sense of time and agency begins to shift. Those who become more absorbed live more within their imaginations and their inner worlds, and they begin to feel that the events in their daydreams happen to them and feel more real, that they are bystanders to their own awareness, just as one is when a daydream is so compelling that one lets it unfold to see what happens rather than knowing that the dreamer commands the tale. And we believe that, as the absorption grows deeper, people often experience more imagery and more sensory phenomena, sometimes with hallucinatory vividness…Talent for and training in absorption may be important in other religious practices reported in the ethnographic corpus, particularly in those practices described as trance…And certainly the ethnographic work on shamanism, possession, glossolalia, and charismatic Christian healing suggests that practice makes a difference to the subjective experience of trance and that some people respond to this practice more than others…. Those who speak in tongues often experience themselves as in a dissociated state in which the speaking is involuntary, but in fact their glossolalia displays learning (Samarin 1972). Only some of those who become charismatic Catholics become known as experts in the group; they often have an apprenticeship in their craft; mental imagery is central and cultivated. “If there is any sense in which revelation might be said to be perception instead of imagination” begins a discussion by an anthropologist (Csordas 1994:108). It may be that of the many skills in which these different practitioners are trained, one of them is absorption. Religion and spirituality are enormously complex human phenomena. Here we suggest that we may be able to identify one kind of skill that can be cultivated, for which some may have more of a proclivity or talent than others. Absorption does not explain religion and far less does it explain it away. But to understand that some people may have developed their talent more than others may help us to understand why some people become gifted practitioners of their faith and others with the intention and desire to do so struggle and do not. And it reminds us, as Maurice Bloch (2008) remarks, that at the heart of the religious impulse lies the capacity to imagine a world beyond the one we have before us.

What does any of this have to do with the Christian faith? Many Christian mystics suggest that we can take the skills learned from spiritists, shamans, and pagans and simply apply them to our Christian faith, leaving behind their religious elements. After all, we borrow much from the surrounding secular culture – computers, air conditioners, toilets, sound systems. Why not also spiritualistic techniques and skills? Why can’t we, for instance, use our imaginations to conjure up our God as other religions have?

For one thing, if the spiritists can call upon this spiritual entity at will through their various methods, we have to wonder about the identity of this entity and to what type of influence, however appealing, we are opening ourselves. In fact, spiritistic and contemplative prayer writings contain many warnings about evil entities encountered through their spiritual disciplines. However, can they be sure that the seemingly benign voices that they encounter are truly of God? After all, the Devil is able and willing to present Himself as a light-giver in order to deceive (2 Cor. 11:14-15).

The Bible makes reference to many forms of divination – the act of obtaining secret knowledge. Some Biblically condemned forms might resemble “absorption.” Divination is associated with a “delusion of their own minds” (Jer. 14:14), interpreting “dreams” (Jer. 29:8), and seeing “visions” (Zech. 10:2). These practices were uniformly condemned. Instead of going to mediums and spiritists, Israel was required to go,

·          To the law and to the testimony! If they do not speak according to this word, they have no light of dawn.(Isaiah 8:20)

Instead of learning contemplative techniques to cull God’s Word from their thought life, Israel was always directed to God through Scripture. The former seems to have been associated with the pagan nations and was strictly forbidden:
·          When you enter the land the Lord your God is giving you, do not learn to imitate the detestable ways of the nations there. Let no one be found among you who sacrifices his son or daughter in the fire, who practices divination or sorcery, interprets omens…Anyone who does these things is detestable to the Lord…The nations you will dispossess listen to those who practice sorcery or divination. But as for you, the Lord your God has not permitted you to do so. (Deut. 18:9-14)

Perhaps this prohibition doesn’t include “absorption.” However, if obtaining secret knowledge from diviners is forbidden, perhaps any forms of divination are also forbidden, including visualizations and meditative techniques. When we depart from the Biblically sanctioned means of encountering God’s Word, we leave behind His protection and might encounter spirits more intelligent than us. The various contemplative/mystical techniques are not to be found anywhere in the Bible. The Bible does refer to meditation, but this is a different type of meditation, one based upon meditating on the message of Scripture. Besides, in Scripture we have everything that we need for salvation and spiritual growth:

·          All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the man of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work. (2 Tim. 3:16-17)

This doesn’t mean that the Spirit is unable to work in any other way but through Scripture, but it does warn us against seeking His Word through any other source of revelation. There is not the slightest hint anywhere in Scripture that we also must find a guru or learn certain techniques in order to be “thoroughly equipped for every good work.” In fact, Scripture assures us that we have everything that we need in Christ:

·          For in Christ all the fullness of the Deity lives in bodily form, and you have been given fullness in Christ, who is the head over every power and authority. (Col. 2:9-10)

If Christ is everything of worth, and we have Christ, then we too have everything. It means that the Christian need not chase after the latest mystical techniques or therapies in order to find wholeness. We have it already. We merely need to grow into it.

The suggestion that we are missing out on something denies the omnipotence of God in making Himself know to us and guiding our paths into the works He has already ordained for us (Eph. 2:10). It also suggests that God is passive and not omnipotent, and that if we fail to tap into Him through the various skills and techniques, we’ve missed His spiritual boat.

Such a conclusion ignores the many accounts describing God infallibly leading even those who were non-believers and non-seekers. He brought the Assyrians and Babylonians against Israel. In order to rescue His people, He turned allied armies against one another (2 Chron. 20:1-24). These armies didn’t have to learn how to discern the “Word of God” within them in order to walk in obedience to His divine promptings. Our God is able to influence our thinking and decision-making even when we are unaware of His influence:

·          The king's heart is in the hand of the Lord; he directs it like a watercourse wherever he pleases. (Proverbs 21:1)

We need not worry about whether we are hearing the Lord or not. Instead, He hears us and has promised to guide us along the paths He has designated for us (Proverbs 20:24; Psalm 139:16; 37:23; Matthew 10:29-30). Nor should we allow Christian mystics like Richard Foster to undermine our faith when we haven’t received our prayer requests:

·          Often we assume we are in contact when we are not…Often people will pray and pray with all the faith in the world, but nothing happens. Naturally, they are not contacting the channel. We begin praying for others by first centering down and listening to the quiet thunder of the Lord of hosts. Attuning ourselves to divine breathings is spiritual work, but without it our praying is vain repetition. Listening to the Lord is the first thing…(Celebration of Disciplines, 34)

I wonder whether Foster would apply this principle to Abraham who had to wait 25 years in order to receive the child of the Promise, Isaac. Perhaps Abraham had failed in “contacting the channel” for the first 24 years? The Christian life and relationship with God has nothing to do with learning mystical disciplines and everything to do with what the Bible has specified – faith, repentance, confession, prayer and obedience. It’s really very simple:

·          If God is for us, who can be against us? He who did not spare his own Son, but gave him up for us all--how will he not also, along with him, graciously give us all things? (Romans 8:31-32)

We therefore can rest assured that if we have Christ, we need not worry that we are missing something.

Sunday, June 16, 2019


Playwright Harold Pinter had put his finger on the spirit of this age:

·       “There are no hard distinctions between what is real and what is unreal, nor between what is true and what is false. A thing is not necessarily either true or false; it can be both true and false.”

This reflects the thinking of postmodernism, which denies truth claims. As a result, there is no truth or family worth dying for. According to many, there is no truth, or else, truth cannot be known. Consequently, postmodernism has condemned us to live in a foggy world lacking any certainty or clarity beyond what we are feeling, and lacking anything for which to stand.  

French sociologist, philosopher, and cultural theorist Jean Baudrillard argued in favor of the non-existence of any valid truth claims:

·       “Postmodernity is said to be a culture of fragmentary sensations, eclectic nostalgia, disposable simulacra, and promiscuous superficiality, in which the traditionally valued qualities of depth, coherence, meaning, originality, and authenticity are evacuated or dissolved amid the random swirl of empty signals.”

Postmodernism has taken captive the thinking of our culture. As a result, truth is merely a matter of what is “true for you.” It’s what you find in your own heart. Consequently, no one can tell you what is right for you, since you have your own “truth.”

As a result of this, history and psychology can tell you nothing that might be of use to you. For example, one postmodern thinker informed me that I only can speak for myself, when I told him that “Our human nature requires us to seek some form of approval.” He went on to tell me that I could only speak about my own feelings and experiences, and that he would not give me permission to speak about his own feelings or “reality.”

Consequently, there are no lessons that he could learn from me or I from him. There could be no real connection because there was no glue, no common reality, to hold us together. As a result, there is no common wisdom that we could share.

Once we are deprived of the possibility of wisdom and understanding, only our feelings and experiences remain, and we are reduced to an animalistic existence. Religion then becomes a matter of experiencing God and nothing else – certainly not growth in wisdom.

However, living for feelings is a well that quickly runs dry. King Solomon was a prime but unlikely example of this. He had been on a wisdom quest to plummet the depths in search for the meaning of life. However, he had leaned exclusively upon his great mental prowess, which had become so renowned that many traveled from far away to hear him speak. However, Solomon’s wisdom didn’t go beyond the here-and-now. It wasn’t able to penetrate through the curtain to perceive what might lie beyond in another world. He therefore lamented:

·       And I applied my heart to seek and to search out by wisdom all that is done under heaven. It is an unhappy business that God has given to the children of man to be busy with…For in much wisdom is much vexation, and he who increases knowledge increases sorrow. (Ecclesiastes 1:13, 18 ESV)

Seeking out the meaning of life became such an “unhappy business” that he hated his life, even though he had everything. This was because life didn’t make any sense to him:

·       The wise person has his eyes in his head, but the fool walks in darkness. And yet I perceived that the same event [death] happens to all of them. Then I said in my heart, “What happens to the fool will happen to me also. Why then have I been so very wise?” And I said in my heart that this also is vanity [or “incomprehensible”]. For of the wise as of the fool there is no enduring remembrance, seeing that in the days to come all will have been long forgotten. How the wise dies just like the fool! So I hated life, because what is done under the sun was grievous to me, for all is vanity and a striving after wind. I hated all my toil in which I toil under the sun, seeing that I must leave it to the man who will come after me, and who knows whether he will be wise or a fool? Yet he will be master of all for which I toiled and used my wisdom under the sun. This also is vanity. So I turned about and gave my heart up to despair over all the toil of my labors under the sun…(Ecclesiastes 2:14-20)

From anyone else’s assessment, Solomon’s life wasn’t toilsome. He undertook many successful and creative building projects; he wrote proverbs. He had everything – wives beyond number, uncontestable power, wealth and influence, and the esteem of all. Yet, he hated his life. Why? It all seemed meaningless to him. From the perspective of his wisdom, he would die like everyone else, and that would be the end of him.

After he consecrated the Temple of God, which he had successfully completed, the Bible does not record any more of Solomon’s prayers. Why didn’t his wisdom lead him to seek God to resolve his confusion and pain? The Bible records that his many wives had turned his heart away from the Lord. As a result, Solomon, despite of his wisdom, never glimpsed the big picture – the blessedness that awaits us beyond this life, the knowledge that we all need to live a consistent and devoted life unto our God.

In contrast to postmodernism and other forms of anti-intellectualism, there are things we need to know. We need to know that life has a meaning and purpose and that we are walking in lock-step with that purpose. We need to know that we will experience eternal bliss. Therefore, Jesus informed His disciples that they are blessed to have this knowledge:

·       Then turning to the disciples he said privately, “Blessed are the eyes that see what you see! For I tell you that many prophets and kings desired to see what you see, and did not see it, and to hear what you hear, and did not hear it.” (Luke 10:23-24)

In our world, the value of knowledge has been debased. It is not regarded as essential. However, Solomon suffered greatly because he lacked this knowledge of the afterlife. It is only with this knowledge that we can stand against adversity and temptation and to not fear what everyone else fears. With this knowledge we can hold our ground against the threats of violence and even death, as Jesus had counseled:

·       “What I tell you in the dark, say in the light, and what you hear whispered, proclaim on the housetops. And do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather fear him [God] who can destroy both soul and body in hell. Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? And not one of them will fall to the ground apart from your Father. But even the hairs of your head are all numbered. Fear not, therefore; you are of more value than many sparrows.” (Matthew 10:27-31)

Since we know that God is for us, we are enabled to live a courageous and purposeful life. We can speak boldly and to even stare down the possibility of martyrdom.


It should be clear that this isn’t an either/or answer. Joseph reassured his brethren that an event can have many causes, having either evil and good motives:

  • But Joseph said to them, "Do not fear, for am I in the place of God? As for you, you meant evil against me [by selling me into slavery], but God meant it for good, to bring it about that many people should be kept alive, as they are today. So do not fear; I will provide for you and your little ones." Thus he comforted them and spoke kindly to them. (Genesis 50:19-21 ESV)

Both God and his brethren had been responsible for selling Joseph to the Egyptian slave-traders. Besides, many verses point to the fact that God uses suffering as training:

  • And have you forgotten the exhortation that addresses you as sons? "My son, do not regard lightly the discipline of the Lord, nor be weary when reproved by him. For the Lord disciplines the one he loves, and chastises every son whom he receives." It is for discipline that you have to endure. God is treating you as sons. For what son is there whom his father does not discipline? If you are left without discipline, in which all have participated, then you are illegitimate children and not sons. (Hebrews 12:5-8)

However, there are perplexing verses that indicate that God even uses Satan’s evil to bring about His loving results. Job is probably the most memorable example of this. God allowed Satan to afflict the most righteous man. Therefore, it would be wrong to conclude that Satan alone brings affliction. Instead, the Book of Job concludes by acknowledging God’s involvement:

  • Then came to him all his brothers and sisters and all who had known him before, and ate bread with him in his house. And they showed him sympathy and comforted him for all the evil that the LORD had brought upon him. And each of them gave him a piece of money and a ring of gold. (Job 42:11)

It wasn’t simply a matter of Satan bringing affliction but also the Lord. Paul had been afflicted with a “messenger of Satan.” However, this affliction was also the doing of God so that Paul wouldn’t become conceited:

  • So to keep me from becoming conceited because of the surpassing greatness of the revelations, a thorn was given me in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to harass me, to keep me from becoming conceited. (2 Corinthians 12:7)

While Satan’s purpose is to destroy, God intended this affliction to keep Paul humble.

It is important for us to bear in mind that God uses all things for our good (Romans 8:28), even Satanic attacks. If we forget this, we will think, “Satan has gotten the best of me,” whenever we suffer or succumb to a temptation. Instead, it is our Savior who is in control!

Saturday, June 15, 2019


Although we have the worship impulse, many find the idea of a punitive God of justice and righteousness deeply unsettling. We tend to regard Him as a cosmic watchdog, who interferes with our autonomy with threats of punishment, and we are right. If you don’t see God this way, just read the prophets of Israel:

·       [Israel’s] princes in her midst are like wolves tearing the prey, shedding blood, destroying lives to get dishonest gain. And her prophets have smeared whitewash for them, seeing false visions and divining lies for them, saying, “Thus says the Lord GOD,” when the LORD has not spoken. The people of the land have practiced extortion and committed robbery. They have oppressed the poor and needy, and have extorted from the sojourner without justice. (Ezekiel 22:27-29 ESV)

The Hebrew Scriptures are filled with these denunciations, even of God’s own people. These are such an offense that it should be no surprise that Israel persecuted all of her prophets, even though they continued to inquire of them and regarded their books as the very Words of God. What an anomaly among the religions of the world!

However, if we are His family and are confident of His mercy, we see Him in an entirely different way. For one thing, we are grateful for His stern judgments. Why? We know how easy it is to embrace sin. Its temptations are so alluring and seem, at the time, so innocuous, that it’s all too easy to succumb, even when it is to our detriment. However, His Word clearly alerts us to what is unacceptable. Consequently, we discern that revenge or an affair, which might feel so right, is actually a deadly poison.

Our God will eventually bring justice. I like this because it means that we don’t have to worry about taking revenge. Instead, we can leave it to God to avenge. This enables us to attend to what is far more agreeable – love – while we leave the dirty-work to God.

Hatred and thoughts of revenge can be life-controlling. How then can we resist such impulses unless our minds have been fortified with the objective truths of God! In contrast, Western intellectuals have rejected the idea of objective moral laws because these require a law-Giver. As much as they might want to live a virtuous life, they are convinced that the idea of virtue is simply something we have created. Consequently, it is relative to our society and is evolving.

Can such a flimsy, relative, and changeable moral standard have the guts and substance to stand against our lusts and fears? Hardly! Let me try to illustrate. During the Holocaust one man decided to do the “right” thing and to shelter Jews from the Nazis. However, his wife protested that he was placing their entire family in great jeopardy with his personal, subjective, morally-relative concept of virtue, and she was right. How was he to justify the danger into which he was placing his family? He couldn’t say, “Well this just feels right to me.” The wife could understandably retort, “Well, your self-serving pursuit of virtue feels horrible to the rest of your family.”

Virtue requires more than a subjective need to do good. It requires the authority of God, the Creator, Sustainer, and truth-Giver, to stand behind it. Without the love, truth, and substance, which my Savior provides, I would be no more than a cork bobbing in the waves. Life would be a cruel joke, making promises among a meaningless cacophony of sounds and passing feelings, all claiming to say something of substance.