Meditation in the Church
Unfortunately, Eastern and
other questionable forms of meditation are practiced by many church
members. The modern interest in Christian mysticism (Catholic,
Protestant, or Eastern Orthodox) has sparked a renewed interest in
meditation among Christians. But the practices recommended often involve
more than simple biblical meditation, which is conscious meditation on
the content and application of Scripture. Unfortunately, Christians
often draw upon forms of meditation that are Eastern or similar to
Eastern varieties. Because most Christians are insufficiently instructed
in these areas, we think this presents a potential problem.
Richard Foster is the
evangelical author of Celebration of Discipline, a long-time
Christian bestseller. His chapter on meditation stresses discovering
"the inner reality of the spiritual world [which] is available to all
who are willing to search for it."1 Foster is careful to distinguish
between Eastern meditation and Christian forms, noting they are "worlds
apart".2 His commitment to Christian faith also modifies his basic
approach. Unfortunately, his methods are sometimes similar to New Age or
Eastern techniques, such as his suggested use of the imagination and
dream work. He asserts:
The inner world of
meditation is most easily entered through the door of the imagination.
We fail today to appreciate its tremendous power. The imagination is
stronger than conceptual thought and stronger than the will....
Some rare individuals may
be able to contemplate in an imageless void, but most of us need to be
more deeply rooted in the senses. Jesus taught this way, making
constant appeal to the imagination and the senses.3
In learning to meditate,
one good place to begin is with our dreams, since it involves little
more than paying attention to something we are already doing. For
fifteen centuries Christians overwhelmingly considered dreams as a
natural way in which the spiritual world broke into our lives. Kelsey,
who has authored the book Dreams: The Dark Speech of the Spirit,
notes, "... every major Father of the early Church, from Justin Martyr
to Irenaeus, from Clement and Tertullian to Origen and Cyprian,
believed that dreams were a means of revelation."
... If we are convinced
that dreams can be a key to unlocking the door to the inner world, we
can do three practical things. First, we can specifically pray,
inviting God to inform us through our dreams. We should tell Him of
our willingness to allow Him to speak to us in this way. At the same
time, it is wise to pray a prayer of protection, since to open
ourselves to spiritual influence can be dangerous as well as
profitable. We simply ask God to surround us with the light of His
protection as He ministers to our spirit.
... That leads to the third
consideration—how to interpret dreams. The best way to discover the
meaning of dreams is to ask. "You do not have, because you do
not ask" (Jas. 4:2). We can trust God to bring discernment if and when
it is needed. Sometimes it is helpful to seek out those who are
especially skilled in these matters.4
(The chapters on New Age
Inner Work, Intuition, and Dream Work in our Encyclopedia of New Age
Beliefs illustrate the potential dangers of such an approach.)
Foster also encourages "centering" exercises and concentrating on one’s
breath, also a common Eastern technique:
Another meditation aimed at
centering oneself begins by concentrating on breathing. Having seated
yourself comfortably, slowly become conscious of your breathing. This
will help you to get in touch with your body and indicate to you the
level of tension within. Inhale deeply, slowly tilting your head back
as far as it will go. Then exhale, allowing your head slowly to come
forward until your chin nearly rests on your chest Do this for several
moments, praying inwardly something like this: "Lord, I exhale my fear
over my geometry exam, I inhale Your peace. I exhale my spiritual
apathy, I inhale Your light and life." Then, as before, become silent
outwardly and inwardly. Be attentive to the inward living Christ.5
Dr. Foster is convinced the
above methods may be used by Christians, especially as part of a program
of spiritual growth. He cites their use in church history (including
Christian mystical traditions) as an affirmation of how believers have
used them in the past. "Nor should we forget the great body of
literature by men and women from many disciplines. Many of these
thinkers have unusual perception into the human predicament. [For
example,] Eastern writers like Lao-Tse of China and Zarathustra of
Thankfully, Dr. Foster does
warn that practicers are engaging in a "serious and even dangerous
business."7 But we don’t think his approach answers all the questions
that may be raised over such practices. The reason for our concern is
twofold: 1) because Christians are usually insufficiently instructed in
these areas, they may slip into more Eastern and occult forms of
meditation; 2) our conviction that these methods are questionable to
begin with.8 We do not doubt Dr. Foster’s Christian commitment or
sincerity. We appreciate his desire that Christians be more committed to
Christ. We simply disagree with his basic approach to meditation and
Secular psychotherapy in the
church has also encouraged the use of "novel" spiritual practices.9 For
example, clinical psychologist E. S. Gallegos works at the Lutheran
Family Service in Klamath Falls, Oregon, and he is coauthor of Inner
Journeys: Visualization in Growth and Therapy.10 In "Animal Imagery,
the Chakra System and Psychotherapy," he offers a psychotherapeutic
approach that uses occult theory and technique plus imagery or
visualization for attaining an "assessment" of the chakras (according to
Hindu theory, chakras are psychic centers in the body).
By a common technique of
occult meditation, each chakra is "contacted" and then permitted to
"represent itself" in animal form within the counselee’s imagination.
The function of the animal is to guide and counsel the person. This is
similar to the shaman’s "power" animal—a spirit guide who assumes the
form of an animal to help, guide, protect, and instruct the shaman in
his occult quest.
"This therapeutic process was
initially developed when the author observed similarities between the
chakra system and the totem poles of the Northwest Coast American
Indians. This therapeutic process also acknowledges a relationship
between those tribal [shamanistic] Indian transformation rituals and
modern psychological transformation."11 Here we have a licensed
psychologist, working in a Lutheran Family Service Center, who has
combined elements of occult yoga/meditation theory and shamanism in his
But what if the therapist
happens to be an occultist who transfers occult power into his clients
(like a true shaman can)? Or what if he brings his spirit guide into the
therapy session (knowingly or not)? Or what if the person seeking help
pursues shamanism as a result? Such "therapy" has then become a vehicle
for introducing people to the occult, with all that implies in terms of
While such "therapy" is not
common in the church, neither is it rare. We have no idea of how
widespread such practices are in the mainline churches, but we are
convinced that hundreds of illustrations could be cited, and that the
evangelical church itself is being impacted, for several reasons: 1) the
pragmatic orientation of modern evangelicalism; 2) the current state of
occult revival and naïveté in our culture; 3) the church’s partial
accommodation to surrounding pagan culture; 4) occultism (in modified
and "mild" forms) entering the field of psychotherapy, which itself has
infused Christianity;13 5) the rejection of biblical authority in some
quarters of evangelicalism.
To cite an illustration, the
occult-oriented Yoga Journal ran an article by two evangelicals
titled "Christians Meditate Too!" These evangelicals teach courses on
"Christian" meditation at their evangelical church, and they run
seminars on "Christian" meditation at other evangelical churches:
Last year the two of us
taught an eight-week seminar on meditation—a fairly bold offering at
our conservative evangelical church. The course was an enthusiastic
success, and we’d like to share its highlights with Yoga Journal
readers.... Our own background includes practicing yoga, t’ai chi
and aikido, and studying the Bhagavad Gita, the Upanishads,
Lao Tzu, and the teachings of Buddha and Confucius.14
They observe correctly that
"in both East and West, meditation is introspective: we learn to look
within to discover spiritual realities."15 Thus, not surprisingly, "We
of the West stand to gain by learning discipline and spiritual awareness
from the East.... The new age movement in this country is already moving
toward a personalizing of Eastern disciplines."16
Yet there was no critique of
New Age philosophy or practice and no mention of the dangers or occult
nature of most meditation. There was no warning about the hazards or
implications of yoga practice. There was no awareness of the
anti-Christian philosophy underlying Eastern systems or the reality of
spiritual deception and warfare that operates in pagan religion. The
article only presented the "benefits" of Eastern spirituality and an
endorsement of "Christian" meditation involving, among other things,
questionable exegesis and an uncritical acceptance of Christian
mysticism, such as the mindless repetition of certain phrases found in
many Christian mystical traditions. They told readers of the Yoga
Journal, "Christians meditate, too. When they do, they are falling
behind Isaac and David, Ignatius and Francis and Christ himself."17
Yet, we do not see Jesus in
the New Testament sitting in yoga positions, or encouraging people to
"practice yoga, t’ai chi, and aikido" or to study the pagan Bhagavad
Gita, the Upanishads, Lao Tzu, or the teachings of Confucius
and Buddha. These evangelicals may have been attempting to "reach"
readers of the Yoga Journal with some kind of Christian
influence. While that motive would be noble, we question the efficacy.
The authors of the previous
article recommended three books. The first was Thomas Merton’s New
Seeds of Contemplation. Merton (1915-68) was an influential ascetic
Catholic monk who incorporated Eastern beliefs and practices into his
Catholicism and led many Catholics into contemplative Eastern
traditions. He believed he had found genuine spiritual truth in many
Eastern scriptures and practices, including Hindu, Buddhist, Sufi, and
Zen traditions. The second book recommended was Evelyn Underhill’s
Mysticism, which supports a variety of mystical practices and
encourages belief in pantheism.18 The authors also recommend Richard
Foster’s Celebration of Discipline, which is described as being
"prominent in the revival of interest in Christian meditation."19
1 Richard Foster,
Celebration of Discipline (New York: Harper & Row, 1978), p. 18.
2 Ibid., p. 15.
3 Ibid., p. 22.
4 Ibid., pp. 23-24.
5 Ibid., p. 25.
6 Ibid., p. 62.
7 Ibid., p. 62.
8 Ibid., p. 16.
9 Cf. John Ankerberg, John
Weldon, The Facts on Self-Esteem, Psychology and the Recovery
Movement (Eugene, OR: Harvest House Publishers, 1995).
10 Eligio Stephen Gallegos,
Teresa Rennick, Inner Journeys: Visualization in Growth and Therapy
(Wellingborough, Northamptonshire, England: Turnstone Press, Ltd.,
11 E. S. Gallegos, "Animal
Imagery, The Chakra System and Psychotherapy," The Journal of
Transpersonal Psychology, vol. 15, no. 2, 1983, p. 136.
12 John Ankerberg, John
Weldon, The Coming Darkness: Confronting Occult Deception
(Eugene, OR: Harvest House Publishers, 1993).
13 Ankerberg, Weldon,
The Facts on Self-Esteem, Psychology and the Recovery Movement.
14 Kirk Bottomly, Jim
French, "Christians Meditate Too!" Yoga Journal, May/June 1984,
15 Ibid., p. 27.
16 Ibid., p. 28.
17 Ibid., p. 45.
18 Evelyn Underhill,
Mysticism: A Study in the Nature and Development of Man’s Spiritual
Consciousness (New York: E. P. Dutton, 1961), pp. XIV,XV.
19 Bottomly, French,
Yoga Journal, p. 45.