In this first installment of a two-part series, we will look at two of Ruth Haley Barton’s books, Invitation to Silence and Solitude (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press Books; 2nd ed, 2010) and Sacred Rhythms: Arranging Our Lives for Spiritual Transformation (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press Books, 2006). They are two key books in the burgeoning movement of contemplative practices in the church.
The extent of the issues in these two books is substantial, even for a two-part series. As a result, for the sake of time and space, almost as much will be left out as will be covered. The issues are addressed under four categories: Misuse of the Biblical Text, Reliance on Experience; Elitism; and Buddhist Influence. Many examples for the categories necessarily overlap. Quotes will be referenced by page number followed by the initials SR for Sacred Rhythms and SS for Invitation to Silence and Solitude. All Scripture is from the New American Standard 1995 unless otherwise stated.
Misuse of the Biblical Text
Invariably, the slide to false teaching begins with a misuse of the word of God. It also paves the way to introduce new, equally authoritative ways of knowing God.
Throughout Invitation to Silence and Solitude, Barton continuously cites the account of Elijah in First Kings chapter 19 as an illustration to support her points. In the preface, Barton writes that we are starved for quiet, to hear the sound of sheer silence that is the presence of God himself (19, SS).
The sheer silence is a reference to verse 12 in First Kings chapter 19, a phrase rendered in the New American Standard (1995) as a gentle blowing, in the KJV and NKJV as a still small voice, in the ESV a low whisper, while the CSB has a soft whisper.
In most languages, words have a range of meanings, and it is no different in Hebrew. Since there are different uses of this word, it cannot be established that Elijah heard an actual voice. A voice speaks words, and this does not appear to be a use of words. But immediately following this gentle blowing, there is a voice: a voice came to him and said, “What are you doing here, Elijah?” (verse 13b).
This event is the third in a series for Elijah after he flees Jezebel. He first goes to a Juniper tree, where he asks God to let him die (verse 14). But the angel of the Lord brings food and urges him to eat (many believe the angel of the Lord is the pre-incarnate Christ). He then travels forty days to Mt. Horeb, where Elijah again laments that Israel has abandoned God and God directs him to stand on the mountain. That is where Elijah witnesses a wind, earthquake, and a fire before the gentle blowing/stirring. When God speaks to Elijah, Elijah repeats that Israel has broken the covenant with God and killed God’s prophets. After this, God instructs Elijah to anoint two kings and a prophet, Elisha, who will be the successor to Elijah.
This is a narrative passage, not a prescriptive text. Although one learns about God in this passage and can draw important principles from it, it has nothing to do with, nor is it prescribing the practices Barton promotes.
Barton bases a number of her teachings on this account of Elijah, including entering a time of solitude (136, SS, and numerous other places) where Elijah acknowledged the truth about himself. Barton discusses Elijah as though he deliberately set out on a personal journey seeking silence and solitude as a way to hear from God, saying that he was hungry for an experience of divine Presence (87, SS), something found nowhere in the text. Elijah was a prophet and did not need to do anything to hear from God. God communicated with him often and directly, as God did with all his prophets. It appears that Barton was reading her own ideas into the text.
Barton has a section, “Moving from Head to Heart,” where she commits the logical fallacy of the false dilemma by making a distinction between head and heart. This distinction is a modern one, not a biblical one. She misuses Luke 10:27, where Jesus tells the lawyer to love God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind. That Jesus says heart before mind, according to Barton, means that the mind comes a little further down the road in Jesus’ list (52, SR).
There is no evidence that Jesus listed these things in order of priority. In fact, the use of these terms together indicates an emphasis on loving God with one’s whole being, not with separate parts of the self. One cannot divide one’s mind from one’s heart or one’s will. They interact, work together, and overlap. I cannot say now I will love God with my heart, and later I will love God with my soul and later with my mind. In order to love God, one must know God, and one must use the mind to know and understand who God is. Loving God is not an emotion; it is an act of will and mind resulting from recognition of who God is and knowing God’s love through faith in Jesus Christ.
The mind is not inferior to what Barton calls the heart, nor is the mind the enemy. But in contemplative, New Age, and Eastern spiritual teachings, the mind is a barrier or sometimes an enemy. Nothing in Scripture teaches that the mind needs to be silenced or put aside. Being vain about knowledge, and allowing the mind to follow worldly philosophies or false beliefs is condemned, but those are related to pride and truth issues, not with the mind itself.
Another misused scripture is Psalm 46:10, which Barton interprets this way:
there is a kind of knowing that comes in silence and not in words – but first we must be still (73, SS)
Barton writes that this means we let go of the grip of our own understanding and that one must be open to a whole new way of knowing (74, SS). This idea is not surprising, given that she believes that contemplative practices involve significant paradigm shifts (17, SS).
None of what Barton says about Psalm 46 is correct. Psalm 46:10 is not about being physically still; it is not about knowing things from silence instead of words; nor is it about letting go of some sort of understanding. Psalm 46 is God reminding his hearers that He is God and is in charge and that He will be exalted among the nations. Barton gives an entirely different meaning to this text by trying to shoehorn it into her contemplative worldview.
For contemplatives like Barton, silence and solitude are thought to be necessary for a deeper and closer relationship with God. Barton even declares that real transformation is produced by the silence of God (134, SS). Yet what one learns about God is through the words in the Bible. How is one to know when God is being silent, and what can one gain from that? Nothing in Scripture supports such a notion.
Contemplative teachers attempt in vain to support these ideas with Scripture, but no biblical text instructs anyone to seek solitude or silence as necessary or as disciplines. All texts used by the contemplatives for this practice are taken out of context.
Barton writes that in Psalm 139, David vomits up his hatred in prayer to God (103, SS). She is apparently referring to verses 19 to 22, where David expresses his agreement with God’s judgment on the wicked who speak against God and take his name in vain. David is not vomiting up anything, nor is he asking God to change those views. He is telling God to search him because he wants to be the opposite of the wicked; he does not want anything to do with the wicked who are against God. Barton presents this as though David is sorry for this view and wants it changed.
In Sacred Rhythms, Barton maintains that God’s words to Israel in Deuteronomy 30 are that wisdom to choose life is not beyond us but near to us, and is a visceral in-the-body experience (113-114, SR). However, in this passage, God is speaking of a commandment He has given and that it is not too difficult for his people because the word is very near you, in your mouth and in your heart, that you may observe it (verse 14). God follows this up with a stern warning that they should obey his commands and not worship or serve other gods, or they will perish (verses 17-18). Choosing life is, according to this passage, loving and obeying God and not serving pagan gods (verses 17-20).
Nothing about God’s command or warning in the passage is remotely suggesting what Barton writes. Instead, she uses this passage to promote her belief that we need to make choices that bring a sense of life and freedom (she also cites John 10:10 and 1 Corinthians 3:17 as her texts for this; 113, SR).
Not only does Barton misuse Bible passages, but she heavily quotes mystics and those who have embraced Eastern spiritual views, such as Thomas Merton, M. Basil Pennington (one of the three Trappist monks who founded the modern Centering/Contemplative Prayer Movement along with Thomas Keating and William Meninger), Henry Nouwen, Quaker mystic Thomas Kelly, Robert Mulholland, Teilhard de Chardin (one of Richard Rohr’s main inspirations) and, in the heading under chapter 3, even Richard Rohr (43, SS).
Reliance on Experience
Contemplative practices are experience-based and experience-driven. They do not rest on clear Scriptural teaching, but in Contemplative practices, they are given equal weight with the Scriptures.
Is it too much to expect that God might speak back to us, not only with expressions of love, but with guidance that is trustworthy and wise? (118 SS)
Barton teaches that one should expect this as part of the rhythm of speaking and listening we call communication. But this raises a question: Has God not already spoken in the canon of Scripture? As for expressions of love, did God not already express the highest form of love in giving His Son over to pay the penalty for sins on the cross? Should one expect more than this? Why is that not enough?
How does one know that what they are hearing is God’s voice and not their own thoughts or imagination? Barton answers this question by stating that one recognizes the voice of God through
…a friendship with God sustained through prayer, silent listening and attentiveness to all that is going on outside us, inside us, and between us and God. Through practice and experience we become familiar with the tone of God’s voice, the content of his communications with us and his unique way of addressing us. (119 SS)
Listening to what is going on within us is a way to be deceived. I am not clear what Barton means about what is outside us, inside us, and between us and God. It is not a logical statement. If one is testing if it is God’s voice, one cannot use listening to what is between us and God as a way to do that because one has already decided there is something from God there. Interestingly, Dallas Willard wrote the Foreword to this book and also taught the same thing about knowing God’s voice by the tone and other ways to test whether it is God’s voice.
Barton suggests that one should pay attention to the body, and invite God to speak to you through your body (89, SR). This is a bizarre idea coming from a Christian. The New Age holds that the body possesses a divine intelligence; therefore, one can get information via various methods using the body (such as in Applied Kinesiology or Muscle Testing). Barton’s suggestion is reminiscent of that belief and shows how far afield human thinking can go when relying on personal experiences.
Barton even contends that one can
develop an intuitive sense of God’s heart and purpose at any given moment. (111, SR)
This is a jaw-dropping assertion and contrary to Scripture, which states:
For who knows a person’s thoughts except his spirit within him? In the same way, no one knows the thoughts of God except the Spirit of God. (1 Corinthians 2: 11 CSB)
“For My thoughts are not your thoughts, Nor are your ways My ways,” declares the Lord. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, So are My ways higher than your ways And My thoughts than your thoughts.” (Isaiah 55:8-9)
Barnes comments on the First Corinthians verse:
The essential idea is, that no man can know another; that his thoughts and designs can only be known by himself, or by his own spirit; and that unless he chooses to reveal them to others, they cannot ascertain them. So of God. No man can penetrate his designs; and unless he chooses to make them known by his Spirit, they must forever remain inscrutable to human view. (Barnes’ Notes – Bible Hub Commentaries)
Both passages highlight how far man is from being able to penetrate the mind and thoughts of God, other than what the Lord chooses to reveal. Yet Barton declares that not only are we able, through contemplative practices, to have an intuitive sense of God’s heart and purpose, but we can do so at any given moment! Would not this be false as well as a seemingly prideful claim?
Both books, especially Spiritual Rhythms, are full of references to the interior life, inner dynamics, our most authentic self, the Light Within, the True Self, and others. Astonishingly, Barton goes so far as to assert that
Deep within us all there is an amazing inner sanctuary of the soul, a Divine Center, a Speaking Voice to which we may continually return. (121-122, SR)
Although the Holy Spirit indwells believers in Christ, nothing in God’s word teaches that within is a Divine Center or a Speaking Voice. The Holy Spirit is not comingled with the believer’s nature but is distinct from it. God’s voice is found in the Bible, a precious source of truth for all who seek guidance from it. Barton’s view is more akin to a Gnostic or New Age outlook, which seeks and values what arises during an inner experience. Does this fan the flames of spiritual elitism? Stayed tuned for Part 2!Ω
Before trusting Christ, Marcia Montenegro was a professional astrologer and was involved in Eastern and New Age practices for many years. Through her ministry, Christian Answers for the New Age, Marcia speaks around the country and on radio, and writes on New Age and occult topics. She has a Masters in Religion from Southern Evangelical Seminary, Charlotte, NC, and serves as a missionary with Fellowship International Mission, Allentown, PA. Based in Arlington, VA, she is the mother of an adult son and author of SpellBound: The Paranormal Seduction of Today’s Kids, (Cook, 2006). She is also co-author of Richard Rohr and the Enneagram Secret (MCOI Publishing, 2020) with Don and Joy Veinot You can find her online at: CANA or on Facebook at Christian Answers for the New Age
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