In this second installment of a two-part series, we continue looking 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.
As I mentioned in Part 1, 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 the 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.
Barton writes that contemplative practices take one into a deeper, more intimate knowledge of and relationship with God than what results from normative prayer and Bible study.
Barton disparages regular Bible reading and study as an information-gathering mindset that is analytical and may make us critical and even judgmental (SR, 49). She makes a false dilemma between viewing the Bible as a love letter or as a textbook. In truth, the Bible is neither (Barton sees it as the first one), and although one can learn about and know of God’s love through the Bible, to reduce it to a love letter is a drastic simplification of what the Bible is about and for. Stephen Altrogge points out in “Is The Bible A Love Letter From God?”:
The Bible is not a love letter.
Does the Bible tell us about God’s incredible love for us? Of course. But the Bible is not primarily about us, the Bible is primarily about God. The Bible is not primarily a subjective account of God’s feelings for us; it is an objective record of God’s magnificent, glorious plan of redemption. The Bible doesn’t exist in order to make us feel good about ourselves. The Bible exists in order to stir our affections for our glorious God.
Barton discusses prayer under the heading “Prayer Beyond Words” (67, SR). This is about seeking intimacy with God and knowing God experientially rather just knowing a lot about God (68, SR).
She cites Psalm 37:7 and 62:2 as supporting the view that one knows God deeper without words and in the stillness of waiting (68, SR). But reading the context of these two Psalms shows that this is not about knowing God without words or being in a state of stillness. Psalm 37 is about not being anxious or angry about evildoers but instead to trust the Lord and know that he will sustain the righteous (verse 17).
Psalm 62 is also about trusting God in light of those who lie and who bless with their mouth but inwardly curse (verse 4). The silence of the psalmist is in contrast to falsehoods and hypocritical blessings. Many passages like this using the term wait in silence are about trusting God, often as a contrast to the frantic machinations of evil men. Nothing in the contexts of passages like this are instructing one to literally be silent in order to know God, nor do they teach that silence is superior to being verbal.
A practice called Lectio Divina is described by Barton as a more life-giving way of approaching scripture as opposed to the deeply ingrained information-grasping patterns (i.e., normative Bible reading and study). Lectio Divina writes Barton, prepares one to listen for the word of God spoken to us in the present moment (54 SR). Scripture is already God’s word for the present moment, as well as for the original audience and everyone since and in the future. What Barton proposes is a way to generate an experience and a private meaning from Scripture. That is what this method is designed to do.
One must be in silence prior to reading a Bible passage in order to create a quiet inner space in which we can hear from God (56, SR). One reads the text (no more than six to eight verses), attentive to a word or phrase that causes a visceral reaction or brings about a deep sense of resonance or resistance (57, 60, SR). This is a word, contends Barton, that is meant for you (60, SR). The individual then reflects on this word and thinks about where they are in the text and ask what do I experience as I allow myself to be in this story? (57, 60, SR). Barton continues:
Rather than thinking about the passage (and we have to be very careful here), we keep coming back to the word that we have been given (57, SR).
Again, using the mind is given an inferior role. In actuality, one needs to think about the passage in order to understand and properly apply it. After this step of getting a special word, as described by Barton, comes a response and then a rest in God, which is also when:
we resolve to carry this word and listen to it throughout the day…you will be led deeper and deeper into its meaning until it begins to live in you and you enflesh this word to the world (58, 61, SR).
This is considered superior to reading the Bible the usual way, but instead, it is an entirely subjective way to read Scripture which is meant to evoke an experience with a word from the passage, viewing it as a special word given to the reader. Instead of reading the passage in context, comparing it to related passages, and possibly using Bible study tools to understand the point/s of the passage, one guides themself into an inner experience that is likely to be deceptive and spiritually damaging.
Another elitist idea is found in Barton’s advice on breath prayers which, she claims, are sometimes the only prayer that works. This prayer is not from the mind or from thinking, declares Barton, but from the depths of our desire and need, and is an expression of our heart’s deepest yearning (70, 71, SR). Barton astoundingly asserts that breath prayer is foundational to our whole prayer life because it allows one to pray without ceasing (70, SR). Like many other contemplatives, Barton misinterprets First Thessalonians 5:17, which is part of Paul’s general directives on Christian living. This verse means one should not be inconsistent or slack in one’s prayer life. There should be an attitude of prayer towards everything so that one is consistently praying for and thanking the Lord throughout the day. To turn this verse into a technique, not from the mind, is both anti-reason and sabotage of the text.
Further expounding on this, Barton writes that breath prayer is to spiritual life what oxygen is to the lungs, a way to breathe rhythmically…with the Spirit – the very breath of God (71, SR).
No one can breathe with the Spirit or with the very breath of God. Although it is stated that God breathed the breath of life into man (Genesis 2:7), this is a way to say that God is the one who gives life. God cannot actually breathe. He is not a physical being and does not have a body and has no breath nor a need to breathe. Whether Barton believes what she is writing about the breath is not clear, but it is misleading to those who may not have a proper understanding of God’s nature.
This elitism from Contemplatives that being silent is superior to verbal prayers and that deeper intimacy with and knowledge of God is gained through being still and silent is anti-reason, Gnostic, and subjective. Inner experiences are given higher status than knowledge or study. Contemplatives downgrade the study of Scripture and highlight contemplative practices. This is done by diminishing the mind and the use of words, as though the experiential is more spiritual and valid. This writer is familiar with these tactics from many years in the New Age and Eastern spirituality.
The Buddhist Influence
Some may be surprised to learn that Barton had a Buddhist teacher and mentor, Rosemary Dougherty, for contemplative practices. On Barton’s Transformation Center website (scroll down to Ruth Haley Barton), Barton states:
I gratefully acknowledge and incorporate the wisdom of my teachers/mentors Gerald May, Tilden Edwards, and Rosemary Dougherty, having been profoundly shaped by the ecumenical training environment they provided.
Tilden Edwards, the director of the interfaith Shalem Institute where Barton got her training, has said that contemplative practices are the Western bridge to Far Eastern spirituality (from Spiritual Friend, p. 18, as cited by Berean Research in “Revealing Quotes by Influential Contemplatives”). But issues with Edwards are overshadowed by the fact that Rosemary Dougherty (1939-2019) was a practitioner and teacher of Buddhism. Dougherty was a dharma holder in the lineage of the White Plum Asanga, becoming a dharma heir in 2006.1The Shalem Institute for Spiritual Formation site, IN MEMORIAM, Rose Mary Dougherty, SSND Shalem’s Senior Fellow for Spiritual Guidance There is also an homage given to Dougherty on the Buddhist site, One Heart Sangha Zen Meditation which has some of the same information as above.
Please note that Dougherty was not only Buddhist but a dharma holder. Dharma loosely refers to teachings; in Buddhism, there are lineages of teachings from different teachers and schools of Buddhism. Edo Shonin & William Van Gordon provide a definition of a dharma holder:
Being a Dharma lineage holder means that a person has realized and dwells within the truth of emptiness, unconditional compassion and steadfast awareness. As such, they are 100 % authorized to transmit the Dharma teachings. In fact, the presence of inner spiritual realization is the only credential that counts.2The Lineage of Mindfulness, Edo Shonin & William Van Gordon, August 5, 2014
Be aware that emptiness in Buddhism is not what people think of when hearing that word. It denotes formlessness, which in Buddhism is true reality because everything else (creation/the material world) is form and is, therefore, transient with no substantial reality.
The Buddhist worldview and the Christian worldview are incompatible. They are so far apart that there is no meeting place between them other than common humanity. Even Buddhist statements that seem in harmony with some Christian values are not actually so because the words have different meanings.
Buddhism teaches that this world is a false reality and all material matter is form, and form has no substantial existence. This includes the mind and the self. The only reality is formlessness (Buddha Mind or Buddha Nature); to reach the state of understanding, this is enlightenment. Since humanity is attached to this reality, one must cultivate detachment, mostly through meditation. When one is no longer attached, then one can avoid rebirth and attain Nirvana, the state where all desires (attachments) are extinguished (Nirvana means to blow out or extinguish).
Emptiness is the prerequisite for receiving, writes Barton, and then relays a Zen Buddhist tale, one which I read and heard numerous times when I was involved in Buddhism. The account is of a Buddhist monk pouring tea for a guest who is expounding on his accomplishments. The guest notices that the teacup is overflowing, although the monk continues to pour the tea, so the guest asks the monk what he is doing. The monk tells him that the teacup is full, like the guest’s mind, and can’t take in anything new because it is already full (69, SR).
Barton concludes that this means by being silent, the soul can rest in God (69, SR). She then has in italics: In turning and rest you will be saved, which is from Isiah 30:15, although Barton does not give the citation.
In repentance and rest you will be saved,
In quietness and trust is your strength.
But you were not willing.
These words are God speaking to Israel and admonishing them that he longs to be good to them but they have turned away from God (verses 18ff). This and a similar passage (Isiah 32:17) are about Israel’s need to obey and trust in God. The true rest comes only in trusting the Lord and points toward the rest in Christ, expounded on in Hebrews chapter four. Once again, Barton gives another meaning to a biblical text.
Another well-known Buddhist teaching is given that the finger that points to the moon is not the moon (75, SS). Barton writes that our words about God are not the Reality itself. They are only the finger pointing to the moon. Exhaustion comes, declares Barton, from trying to put everything into words and mental concepts; therefore, one must give one’s mind permission to stop and then give oneself over to the experience of the Reality itself. The resulting silence is where one finds the very breast of God and true rest.
The capitalized letter R for Reality raises the question of whether Barton means God. If so, then why did she not use the word, God? The word Reality for God makes God seem impersonal. Also, since the Bible is nothing but words, is Barton referring to the Bible when she disparages words in this little lesson?
The noisiness and busyness of the mind can be banished in stillness, declares Barton, so she advises to let anxieties and thoughts pass by like clouds in the sky (76, SS). The instruction on the thoughts as clouds is classic Buddhism that I was taught as well. The idea that the mind interferes with communication with God or with finding answers is typically Buddhist. Since the mind is part of the material world and, therefore, transient and not real, it must be set aside when doing any spiritual exercise.
Barton compares the soul to a river or jar of water that need stillness so that the waters of my soul are clear enough to discern (133, SS). This is also Buddhist teaching (via Taoism, but Zen Buddhism arose from Taoism mingled with Buddhism). However, people’s souls are not jars of water. There is no basis for this analogy; it is yet another idea Barton very likely got from her Buddhist teacher.
These ideas from Buddhism are anti-words, subjective, and based on a false worldview.
Barton’s books are evidence of reliance on feelings, experiences, misuse of Scripture, and at least some influence from Buddhism. There is no biblical evidence supporting the contemplative teachings and practices so passionately promoted in these two books.
The models for prayer in Scripture are always verbal (whether aloud or silent), and Jesus himself gave the template for prayer to his disciples (Matthew 6:9-13), which included praise, petition, confession, thanks, and submission to God’s rule. What prayer could be better than one given by the Savior and Son of God himself?
In adopting the belief that she has discovered a door to deeper spiritual transformation and intimacy with God, Barton has, in effect, closed the door on the truth given by God Himself.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 the 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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