Religion: Not a Bad Word
There is a saying which goes something like this, “when you point a finger at someone or something there are three fingers pointing back at you.” When discussing the errors of Christian Mysticism, it is wise to remember that there are three fingers which point back to the church.
The church may make the claim while discussing Christian Mysticism that “something is rotten in the state of Denmark” but the church fails to recognize that while this claim speaks the truth on that front, its claim blatantly ignores something just as obvious in regard to the church. This dark secret which the church ignores is that the church has long taught and practiced the very things Christian Mysticism teaches; the church just did them poorly and called them by different names (works-based sanctification, religiosity, classes or levels of Christianity, legalism, quiet time, communion with God, etc). However, recently this facade of nomenclature has largely disappeared as the names for the processes and practices used in Christian Mysticism have been adopted by the church at large; words and practices like: silence, solitude, stillness, practicing the Presence, mantra, sacred word and space, spiritual formation and disciplines, contemplative and centering prayer, union, universal Christ, daily examen, desolation and consolation, and lectio divina to name but a few have all been embraced by the church.
The sad fact is that the church has only itself to blame because it has rejected the biblical view that there be watchmen on the wall who sound the alarm (Ezekiel 33:1-6). The biblical call for watchmen has been met with disdain; for example, those who seek to embrace this calling are labeled as dissenters by those in the pews and sowers of discord from the pulpit. The response of church leaders to their congregation about these watchmen is that every new move of God is met by those who resist or sound an alarm based out of fear or false righteousness and that those “watchmen on the wall” simply do not understand where God is taking the church.
The church has abandoned solid biblical hermeneutics, doctrine, and theology: it has moved from sin and consequence toward a seeker-friendly gospel, from atonement by the blood of Jesus toward a belief that sin is a relative or subjective thing and, therefore, no payment is demanded or even necessary: from ecumenical in the true sense to a belief that everyone worships the same God from narrow is the path toward an interfaith belief that all roads lead to God and from experience from God as an outflow of revelatory and personal relationship with God toward experience as a right which is demanded—something which can be coerced through processes and practices from God or the only means by which to validate the love of God (Experience Makes Me Closer to God).
By abandoning biblical truth and accepting as truth the doctrine of men the church opened the doorway and allowed Christian Mysticism to walk right through with its promise of new experience and easy access to God based on the tried, tested, and verifiable methods of Christian Mysticism: Spiritual Formation, Spiritual Direction, and Spiritual Disciplines; though in accepting them, the church failed to ask some important questions: are these practices and teaching based on a biblical model? What is the intent and why it matters (The Appeal to Intent: An Antidote)? And where might they lead?
When trying to discern the reasons for the mass exodus from a biblically based search for God’s direction in the Christian’s life and toward the mystical search for an experience of/from God, it must be acknowledged that there is a conflating of roles between church and Church. This stems from the misunderstanding of the term religion, what it truly means, and the connotation this word has not only to the unsaved world but to the Christian as well.
- The Church (big C): the body of Christ is made up of Christians.
- The church (little c): what people refer to as the organizational body is made up of the various denominations or belief systems.
When asked what the word religion means it is fair to say most people will list a litany of descriptions which, if honestly considered, are correct and would undoubtedly include what religion has come to mean colloquially to the average person.
This list could go on and on. Sadly, the church is all these things—in part because we are human and not yet perfect in Christ but also in part because the Western church has forgotten the meaning and practice of religion. Religion is not a bad word, but neither is it a denomination or organization; it is instead a description, a practice, an exhortation of what the members of the Church are called to do.
James 1:27, “Pure and undefiled religion in the sight of our God and Father is this: to visit orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world.”
Christians the world over but most notably in the Western church have relegated this religion James speaks of to the church, to the organizational structure. Christian’s, for the most part, give money to the church and then leave it to the church to fulfill this ministry of religion. They feel, or worse, they believe that this absolves them of the command to practice pure and undefiled religion.
This abandonment of religion becomes part and parcel the reason for the move toward Christian Mysticism. Christian Mysticism seeks something which they found lacking in the church and in doing so has moved toward something which promises experience regardless of process or practice. But what if the Church, the body of Christ were to practice the religion of James 1:27? What if the Church, each Christian member, were to practice this exhortation? Would experience follow? Would this change the perception of the word religion thus bringing it back in line with the biblical model? Exercising biblical religion would again become what the Church strives for if it were based on simple, biblical obedience: feed, visit, love, and be free of the stain of the world, not by process or ritual but by accepting that faith in Jesus is the simple act of a child obeying, casting our questions and demands aside; no longer abandoning the practice of religion to the church because we dropped money into the tithe plate but allowing this obedience to reveal to us who Christ is. To say this another way, experience from God when practicing the religion James spoke of is sure to follow as we see God operating in the lives of others through our obedience.
The faulty premise of Christian Mysticism is that an experience of or from God is a primarily self-centered experience. It is the move from service to the view that service, feeding and visiting the widow and the orphan, is secondary to a personal experience of God and that this experience of God and later union with God is the end-game for the Christian. However, experience is not and should not be viewed from one lens or pigeonholed into only one kind of true experience. Could it be said that when we see God move in another’s life that this is not an experience of God? Ought it be said that when we help or serve the needy or the widow and then see a life turned from death to life that this is not an experience of God? Of course not. So then why must experiencing God in Christian Mysticism be viewed as something which occurs primarily in self—to us or for us—when the evidence seems to indicate that our act of practicing religion is primarily for others: for them to experience God’s love in their life.
Instead of offering something new, something free of bonds, Christian Mysticism is a series of processes and practices; this is not unlike what has happened to the very churches from which they run. Christian Mysticism fell prey from its origin to the same problems the church has been overcome by and overwhelmed with—false religion—works, legalism, and ritual; in other words, the wearying works-based sanctification of law. Experience, in Christian Mysticism, is not something freely given but is accomplished by completing a checklist of practices before moving to the next level of enlightenment. How is this different from the legalism and sin management we see taught and practiced in the church? While different in focus it is not different in outcome; neither in the end lead to God based on salvation by grace alone through faith alone which is freely given though not without cost. The only conclusion which can be reached is that both the church and Christian Mysticism have gotten something horribly wrong.
A second finger points back to the church and stems from our effort to become seeker-friendly, (a topic covered in more detail in the article, Who Is Church For). But to summarize, there is a move underway in the church to eradicate the view that, “narrow is the gate and difficult is the way which leads to life, and there are few who find it,” (Matthew 7:14) and “I am the way, the truth, and the life, no one comes to the Father except through Me” (John 14:6) and replace it with the seeker-friendly view is that God is accessible in many ways and none of these ways are necessarily wrong or even better than any other way. Though Christian Mysticism is different from seeker-friendly in practice and process some of the beliefs are the same. Christian Mysticism claims access to God or a deity, or the Father, or the Divine Spark is available by and through a myriad of practices or religions. Thankfully, the church, in most cases, has not yet gone to this extreme but what the church has moved toward is:
- Though Jesus is still a component of this relationship with God, the act is the atonement wasn’t necessary, is too violent an act, or is a kind of cosmic child abuse. (link, link, link)
- Salvation is no longer by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone, but is instead taught as a works-based sanctification by practicing silence and solitude, contemplation and meditation. (St. John of the Cross , St. Teresa of Avila)
- Many churches have begun to teach universalism in some form or another, which is the belief that eventually everyone gets to heaven whether or not they accept Jesus because love wins. (link, link, link)
In short, access by other means, any means, or perhaps every means. As stated above, these unbiblical beliefs are no different than that of Christian Mysticism, and though how this has been accomplished can be distinct there are similarities as well.
The how (of how the church and Christian Mysticism got to this point) is simple: the last finger, the third finger, points to the church because the church is now limiting or completely ignoring the scope and authority of the Bible. The historicity, veracity, and inerrancy of the Bible is not only called into question by only those outside the Christian faith but also by the leaders of the church as well (Andy Stanley, Brian McLaren, Brian Zahnd, Rob Bell). Once upon a time it was the unsaved, the academic, or the new Christian who might question these things about the Bible and then an elder Christian, a theologian, or a pastor would attempt to correct this viewpoint with evidences—logical, historical, and from within the Bible itself: from the congruence within the sixty-six books of the Bible, the agreement of doctrine in the Bible throughout its sixty-six books, and the evidentiary accounts from the Gospels of Jesus teaching, miracles, death and resurrection.
This approach of the leader protecting the church and defending the Bible has been turned on its ear by new leaders of the church and now attempts to dismantle the Bible. It is now common for pastors and leaders within the theological community to teach from the pulpit, in books, or at speaking engagements that the Bible is just a good book which has many errors, a book which borrowed from other myths, cultures, and religions, a book which cannot be taken as literal or factual, and a book which needs to be reinterpreted and reimagined for a modern world (Progressive Christianity: Fools Gold).
In light of this, it is not hard to imagine why the church has begun to look elsewhere in its search for truth; however, in order to justify this, the validity of the truth claim must be examined. This is to say that in order for something to be truth it must necessarily be objectively true in its claim, elsewise it is by definition a lie. Herein lies both the appeal and the danger—the allure of the half-truth.
Tim Davis, Professor, Department of Computer Science and Engineering, Texas A&M University did a study of the words used by Satan in Genesis, Job, and two of the gospels (the places Satan is actually quoted in the Bible). He split his discourse into phrases and then categorized them as either good/true, or bad/false/inciteful/accusation. He writes, “I was stunned by the results. In these 4 sources, it is something like 46, 48, 46, and 44 percent true. It’s crazily consistent, and uniformly just under half. I did this without any preconceived notion of what the result would be. So, Satan is literally the master of the half-truth, or the 46% truth to be precise.”
Is a poor substitute for truth still truth? Does a piece of truth in a statement or belief make that statement or belief true? This, of course, is absurd. Anything—any teaching, belief, doctrine, philosophy, religion, or theology—which does line up with the Bible is false, and if anything which does not line up with the Word is false it therefore must be cast aside regardless of personal belief, or personal value, or personal preference. This tests the Christian’s obedience and commitment but is not to say that Christians should not listen to or even entertain ideas. Quite to the contrary as Aristotle said in Metaphysics, “It is the mark of an educated mind to be able to entertain a thought without accepting it;” however, in doing so, the Christian must make the Word of God the final authority as to whether or not they hold to what is being taught. The Bible is the only truth which matters and must be what all suppositions are judged by and against.
At this point, it is important to return to the differences between the big [C]hurch and the little [c]hurch and the biblical reasons which show that they are separate and distinct from one another. One has to look no further than Revelation chapter two to see this. Seven churches are listed, each with various admonitions and praises heaped upon them, yet none of are called the Church. The church, the organizational structures and denominations, can and will go where it pleases, but the Church, the body of Christ, will not. As frustrating and heartbreaking as it may be in some cases, the Church will have to let the church go where it may, but not to be lost in this is that the Church must always strive to protect members of the Body of Christ. The distinction between the two, church and Church, is made clear below and what should be noted in this distinction is that no organizational structure or denominational facet is present in the Church other than Christ is the head:
- Members of the Body of Christ are joined to Christ in salvation (Ephesians 4:15-16).
- Members of the Body of Christ follow Christ as their Head (Ephesians 1:22-23).
- Members of the Body of Christ are indwelt by the Holy Spirit of Christ (Romans 8:9).
- Members of the Body of Christ possess a diversity of gifts suited to particular functions (1 Corinthians 12:4-31). “The body is a unit, though it is made up of many parts; and though all its parts are many, they form one body. So it is with Christ” (verse 12).
- Members of the Body of Christ share a common bond with all other Christians, regardless of background, race, or ministry. “There should be no division in the body, but . . . its parts should have equal concern for each other” (1 Corinthians 12:25).
- Members of the Body of Christ partake of Christ’s death and resurrection (Colossians 2:12).
- Members of the Body of Christ share Christ’s inheritance (Romans 8:17).
- Members of the Body of Christ receive the gift of Christ’s righteousness (Romans 5:17).
The church (the organization or denomination) shares none of the characteristics which the Body of Christ, the Church, has. The belief held in Christian Mysticism and increasingly by the church is that the Bible has failed to live up to its end of the bargain and so a search for something better is a must for true Christian growth, maturity, and enlightenment. In essence, this is the belief that the Church has been misled in its presuppositions about the Bible: what it promises, what is tells the Church to do, and what the body of Christ looks like; as such Christian Mysticism offers itself, with its practices and processes, as the new guide for the Church and how the Church interacts with the world.
What is surprising about this belief is it fails to recognize that both Christian Mysticism and the church have accepted and promoted beliefs and systems which are either pagan or the doctrine of men and so necessarily leave the participant wanting, but instead posits that it is the Bible which has not lived up to its end of the bargain.
The answer to whether or not the Bible has failed depends on several things:
- What is expected from the Bible?
- What is thought to be in the Bible?
- What is actually in the Bible?
- What is promised by the Bible?
Each of these premises need to be considered before the validity of an accusation can be affirmed—regardless of and apart from personal bias. The only way the proffered premise that “the Bible failed the church,” is correct is when the church fails to understand what the Bible expects of it. If the church fails to change its thoughts and desires, if the church adds to the Bible ideas or doctrine, adopts or accepts as ideology that which is not present in the text, or if the church oversteps what the Bible promises then it may say, “The Bible failed the church.” However, only severely misunderstanding the Bible either by willful ignorance or by complicit deception could the church or Christian Mysticism make this claim; the reality is that if the church or Contemplative Mysticism do not accept the Bible, roots and branch, then they fail the Bible not the other way round.