Spiritual Disciplines and the Appearance of Wisdom

Writing to the Colossians in the First Century, the Apostle Paul warned about certain spiritual disciplines that had “the appearance of wisdom” (Colossians. 2:23) but, in fact, conflicted with sound biblical teaching and were very harmful to the Christian life. False teachers were in this case Gnostics, who crept into the church and claimed special “spiritual knowledge.” They gained influence in the church because what they were teaching felt “right” and “good” and oh so “spiritual” to the unwary, appealing as they did (and do) to the old fallen nature, which Christians still carry and must struggle against. False teachings of all types are guaranteed to appeal to our old sin nature. Gnosticism caused much damage to the early church, and quite a bit of the New Testament was written to dispel this egregious error.

Jude addresses a similar problem in his epistle as he writes of false teachers (Gnostics) who had “crept in unnoticed” (Jude 4). The Apostle John addresses the issue in his First Epistle as well at the beginning of his Gospel. The Apostle Paul had warned the Ephesian elders not only to be on the alert for false teachers (usually traveling teachers) who would sneak in from the outside but also to watch out for false teachers who would arise from within the congregation. (Acts 20:28-31) The problem didn’t fade out in the First Century. False teachings and false teachers have been with the church down through the ages and are, in fact, rampaging through the church today.

In recent years, there has been less sound biblical teaching in the church as a whole, and we have witnessed the introduction of and emphasis on mystical spiritual disciplines through “Contemplative Prayer.” Much of the Contemplative Prayer Movement goes back to and draws from Roman Catholic mystics (the Desert Fathers ) who were hermits and ascetics – the very practices Paul warned against in Colossians. One of the luminaries of this movement is Roman Catholic Trappist monk Thomas Merton, whose spiritual influences included Aldous Huxley (“Darwin’s Bulldog”). As Jackie Alnor points out in our Journal article, “Thomas Merton: The Contemplative Dark Thread” (beginning on page 8), his influences were varied:

Merton was a believer in all religions – he created his own syncretistic brand of religion while remaining under the authority of the Roman Catholic Church. He gave equal attention to the mystical traditions within Catholicism, Zen Buddhism, and Hinduism. But he was an equal-opportunity Mystic who was drawn to the common thread of “…Satan’s so-called deep secrets…” (Rev. 2:24) found in all the world’s false religions – including his own. He even delved into the mystical branch of Islam and corresponded for many years with a Muslim Sufi cleric by the name of Abdul Aziz.

Sadly, but not surprisingly, most of the movers and shakers in the Contemplative movement have similar backgrounds and guiding influences. For a more thorough treatment of this see our article by Marcia Montenegro, “Contemplating Contemplative Prayer: Is It Really Prayer?” (beginning on page 10) and/or watch our recent webcast with Marcia, “Contemplating Contemplative Prayer.”

A more recent arrival on the scene is the Enneagram. For the uninitiated, our friend and associate, Marcia Montenegro, produced an explanation and history on her CANA website titled, “The Enneagram GPS: Gnostic Path to Self.” As you might expect, it did not originate from sound biblical teaching. It came from George Gurdjieff, a mystic who claimed to have learned it from “the Sufis (a mystical spin-off sect of Islam).” In her article, Marcia introduces the original teachers:

–  George Gurdjieff, an Armenian teacher of esoteric spiritual philosophies, based his teaching on knowledge he allegedly garnered during travels and contacts with secret groups.

–  Peter D. Ouspensky, Gurdjieff’s pupil, presented Gurdjieff’s ideas as the Fourth Way.

–  Oscar Ichazo, heavily involved in psychedelic drugs and shamanism, asserted that he had “received instructions from a higher entity called Metatron” and that his group “was guided by an interior master.”

–  Psychiatrist Claudio Naranjo studied with Ichazo in Chile who also claimed to be using a Sufi method.

–  The Enneagram teachings were passed on to Jesuit Bob Ochs, who then brought it into Roman Catholic circles at the New Age Esalen Institute in Big Sur, California.

So here we are right back to Roman Catholic mysticism, which in turn is brought into the various other denominations/segments of the church as a new way to be “spiritual.” Jonathan Merritt posited the question, “What is the ‘Enneagram,’ and why are Christians suddenly so enamored by it?” He interviewed author Chris Heuertz, the latest hipster proponent of this mystical spirituality. The article is worth reading to be informed, but a one-paragraph response from Heuertz really identifies the heart of the issue:

I sort of wonder if the evolved evangelical is getting a little worn out from the same old literal Bible study interpretations of stuff. At least Catholicism can appeal to tradition and saints. I wonder if some evangelicals have gotten bored with what their tradition offers, and therefore, they find a deeper and more contemplative system like the Enneagram appealing.

The “evolved evangelical” would be one who embraces esoteric (Gnostic) mysticism. Why do they evolve in this way? Because, according to Heuertz, Scripture and the Faith once delivered to the saints isn’t sufficient or exciting – it is simply the tired “same old literal Bible study interpretations of stuff.” You know, the fuddy-duddy stuff like the nature of God, the nature of man, sin, salvation, the Trinity, the identity of Jesus and other boring old “stuff.” Where does Chris Heuertz point to for deeper stuff? Roman Catholicism! “At least Catholicism can appeal to tradition and saints.”

How strong is the contemplative spirituality movement, with its departure from Scripture alone, grace alone, faith alone, and so forth? Sarah Eekhoff Zylstra in Christianity Today’s article, “500 Years After Reformation, Many Protestants Closer to Catholics than Martin Luther” points out:

Today, half of American Protestants say that both good deeds and faith in God are needed to get into heaven (52%); the same number believe that in addition to the Bible, Christians need guidance from church teachings and traditions, according to two studies released today by the Pew Research Center.

The statistics are even more dismal than Christianity Today points out. John S. Dickerson shows on page 32 of his book, The Great Evangelical Recession: 6 Factors That Will Crash the American Church … and How to Prepare, that four independent researchers and research methods find that only between 7 and 8.9 percent of the U.S. population are evangelical Christians. The bandwagon of “church growth” (numerical at least), “spiritual disciplines,” and the near abandonment of sound biblical teaching as “old literal Bible study interpretations of stuff” in favor of mysticism, Gnosticism, and esoteric spirituality has resulted in a new and large group, the “evolved evangelical,” filling up leadership positions and church seats. What is to be said about pastors and elders who allow and even facilitate these “disciplines?” Perhaps Jude sums it up best:

These are hidden reefs at your love feasts, as they feast with you without fear, shepherds feeding themselves; waterless clouds, swept along by winds; fruitless trees in late autumn, twice dead, uprooted; wild waves of the sea, casting up the foam of their own shame; wandering stars, for whom the gloom of utter darkness has been reserved forever. (Jude 12-13)

Keep the faith, Saints. Keep the faith.Ω

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Comments

Spiritual Disciplines and the Appearance of Wisdom — 4 Comments

  1. Thank-you so much for that article. It reinforces my belief that the Spirituality book we are reading for the board is wrong. Mystic quotes all over it! No one questions. One says,” if you have such insight that this book is wrong, why don’t you share what God is saying to you”. I told them already , about the mystics reference all over the book! Why can’t she listen to what I just said.

  2. In general I find that Shane Clairborne and others in the Emergent/Progressive/Liberal camp rarely shape their ideas of living the faith out in conformance with sound biblical teaching. In their desire for deeper community connection and vague ideas of “social justice” they become out of balance in a different way than the churches they reject. I don’t think it is from ill motives but rather a myopic view of the life of faith. We wrote on the how this sort of spiritual myopia has impacted the church in various movements (not “New Monasticism specifically) in “An Indistinct Sound” in the Summer/Fall 2005 issue of the MCOI Journal (this is the pdf version)

  3. A small correction: It was Aldous’s grandfather, Thomas Huxley who was Darwin’s bulldog. Aldous, though, wouldn’t be the best spiritual influence, either though; he did write some strange books, though.

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