The gospel of New Age spirituality
Many younger evangelicals do not feel at home in church. They gravitate to groups where they can be personally involved in honest sharing, caring for the poor, and ongoing relationships. They are more open, more vulnerable, and less inclined to follow the dictates of “organized religion.” Predictable formal worship services that follow a script often lack the vitality some of them are looking for. They are often more accepting of marginalized people who don’t meet the standards of decorum that some churches appear to demand. They would probably prefer meeting in a gym than a stately church. They are a “seeking” generation and uncomfortable with being told what to believe but are committed to finding a faith that is right for them. Despite many admirable qualities, this generation is open to seek spiritual experiences independently of Bible doctrine. Thus, in order to be more relevant, New Age spirituality, which is widely accepted in our culture, is often taught alongside biblical teaching in our evangelical churches and seminaries. We can be heartened that classes in spiritual formation are being offered in churches, seminaries, and Christian colleges. However, in many instances, the textbooks used contain New Age teachings based on mystical experiences of God rather than the Scriptures. For example, one author, whose book is sometimes used in spiritual formation classes, refers to what Jesus said about paying attention to the lilies of the field, and then makes this comment: “Whoever wrote this stuff believed that people could learn as much about the ways of God from paying attention to the world as they could from paying attention to scripture.” Such books and others like them are popular because they present God as more accessible, more easily experienced without much need for specific Bible doctrines. However, we need to teach our people that the only sure knowledge we have of God is based on Scripture, which must be believed whether we experience God or not. Martin Luther, the evening before his confrontation at the Diet of Worms, had no experience of God at all. He begged God to help him, but there was only silence. The next day with nothing to guide him except God’s bare Word, Luther refused to recant, and we still refer to that event as an important turning point in church history. My point: we might learn some things about God when we experience the world, but only in the Scriptures do we have a reliable guide to lead us to encounter God and salvation. Sometimes we have no experience of God at all but, “We walk by faith, not by sight” (2 Cor. 5:7). Teaching students how to study the Bible, walk in the Spirit, and grow in biblical faith would be a better option when teaching spiritual formation. Let’s move on to the subject of contemplative prayer. Like meditation, contemplation is a much-needed discipline in today’s stressful world. Yes, I believe in scriptural, contemplative prayer. But there is a unique twist that is often associated with contemplative prayer, namely to return to the mysticism of the “desert fathers,” a way of praying that relies heavily on Catholic teachers who tell us that we must learn the ancient art of centering prayer. This is attractive to Christians who want to “go deeper” in their relationship with God. They are convinced that, through “contemplation,” they can connect with God in the soul of their being. Some begin by centering, that is, focusing their minds on a word or phrase that helps them connect with the divine within them. Before they know it, they may be having a spiritual experience that is divorced from theology and encountering their mystical center, which they think is God. To no one’s surprise, soon they are imbibing the general tone and techniques of Eastern religions. Incredibly, Barna Research shows that practicing Christians find the lure of this New Spirituality enticing, “perhaps because it holds a positive view of religion, emphasizes the supernatural and simultaneously feeds into a growing dissatisfaction with institutions.” About 28 percent of practicing Christians strongly agree that “all people pray to the same god or spirit, no matter what name they use for that spiritual being.” Furthermore, the same number believe that “meaning and purpose come from becoming one with all that is.”20 No need for specific doctrine or biblical teaching; what matters is a technique to access the “god” within. New Age Christianity is an attractive haven for those who have been disappointed by the church for a variety of reasons. People want spirituality, but not religion. According to professor of religion Jerome P. Blaggett, people are saying, “Yes, I want to have a connection to the sacred, but I want to do it on my own terms—terms that honor who I am as a discerning, thoughtful agent and that affirm my day-to-day life.” Religion on my terms! Some of the leaders who are often mentioned as authorities in helping people find God on their own terms are teachers like Thomas Merton, a Catholic who was so greatly influenced by Eastern religion that some who knew him well said he was more Buddhist than Christian. Henry Nouwen in Pray to Live says that Merton was “able to uncover the stream where the wisdom of East and West merge and flow together beyond dogma, in the depths of inner experience … Merton embraced the spiritual philosophies of the East and integrated this wisdom into his own life by direct practice.” Merton himself writes that “at the center of our being is a point of nothingness which is untouched by sin and illusion, a point of pure truth…. This little point of nothingness … is the pure glory of God in us…. It is in everybody.” Is there truly a place within us that is untouched by sin and is the pure glory of God in us? In everybody? Merton also wrote that “it is a glorious destiny to be a member of the human race…. Now I realize what we all are. … if only [people] could see themselves as they really are. … I suppose the big problem would be that we would fall down and worship each other.” If we saw each other as we are, we would fall down and worship each other! Really? There are dozens of New Age teachers, but when several people told me that evangelicals are flocking to read the writings of Father Richard Rohr, I decided I would read his book The Divine Dance: The Trinity and Your Transformation, which is dedicated “to all the unsuspecting folks who do not know that they are already within the divine flow.” The forward was written by William Paul Young, author of The Shack, and it is endorsed by authors like Rob Bell of Love Wins fame. Surprisingly, Rohr was told by his publisher that his greatest reading demographic is young evangelicals who are helping make his books bestsellers. Rohr’s book is not about the Trinity, but rather Rohr imaginatively uses Trinitarian language in order to give a backdrop to his own eclectic spiritual teaching. The book uses the language of the Trinity as a pretext for describing the “divine flow” in which everyone participates. There is much to say, but space necessitates a brief response. First, this book, and others like it, exalts human nature, our “divineness,” and our ability to meet God without doctrine or the teachings of religion. There is no emphasis on repenting from sin or seeing who we are in the presence of a Holy God. By no means is Christ the only way to the Father. After all, no matter your religion or where you are on your spiritual journey, “you are already in the flow.” Second, all the themes of Eastern religion are in Rohr’s book: pantheism, God is “the flow” and all creation (not just humanity) is part of that flow, and “creation is thus ‘the fourth person of the Blessed Trinity.’” He promotes universalism and says there is no doctrinal or lifestyle test to enter “the flow,” you only have to realize that you’re already in it. No need to worry about accountability to God. Rohr writes, “To sum it all up, I do not believe there is any wrath in God whatsoever—it’s theologically impossible when God is Trinity.” No wonder the book ends with various prayers in which all faith traditions can participate. As you find God in the depths of your soul, your consciousness ends up being “god.” Everyone, yes, everyone has “god” already within them. Someone has said, “We don’t want a father in heaven. We want a grandfather in heaven, a grandfather who watches the kids play, and even if they are mischievous, he enjoys it all, and at the end of the day he says, ‘A good time was had by all.’” What is so attractive about New Age spirituality? At last people have a god who agrees with them about everything! They want a god who does not embarrass them; a god who thinks just like they do. They want a theology that diminishes the horrors of sin and magnifies how good we as human beings are! Self-salvation has many forms and is very attractive. We want a god who is as broadminded as we are. The apostle Paul has word for us: “For the time is coming when people will not endure sound teaching, but having itching ears they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own passions, and will turn away from listening to the truth and wander off into myths” (2 Tim. 4:3–4). That day is here.