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Thursday, March 08, 2007

Meditation and Mysticism

What is the role of mystical or so-called "New Age" meditation techniques? Such is the subject of an article, "Doorways to Deception?" by my college buddy, Kary Oberbrunner (who is now an author, speaker, pastor, etc.). He explores various "postmodern" ways of worship that all center on various forms of meditation. He presents pros and cons for three different meditative techniques and then wraps up with a conclusion. In this post I just want to explore a bit the role of meditation and mystic techniques for the Christian faith. (In a future post I will take issue with what I believe is Kary's "cop-out" conclusion!)

Criticisms of meditative/New Age worship techniques

Let's start with the negative. Here are some of the thoughts of those within Christian circles who are suspicious of these mystical approaches to worship:

"Far from simple or sacred, contemplative prayer is a codified technique which constructs a psychological and spiritual state of awareness designed to unleash unconscious forces and which typically encourages a narcissistic turning-inward and preoccupation with self-awareness, consciousness-raising and the achieving of preternatural experiences."

"Participants are being groomed so as to make future instruction on mystical meditation more palatable," argues Brian Flynn, a New Age expert, author of Running Against the Wind and founder of One Truth Ministries (onetruthministries.com). "A form of occult mysticism is practiced with the hope and intention of gaining a mystical experience. It is a form of mantra-style meditation."

"In spite of using such terms as Christian yoga, Tibetan, Buddhist or Taoist, yoga remains yoga and means inner, mystery teachings, and practices of each of these religions. The separatist sectarianism arises because of hatred and fanaticism the members of religious communities [i.e. evangelicals] have not got rid of."
[Above quotations taken from

Can a Christian learn from other religious perspectives?

This, I think, is the question I would like to first raise. There are other questions related to this: Is it bad to learn from other religions? Is it wrong for a Christian to take a lesson from another religious viewpoint? Or to "borrow" a meditative practice?

Let's try to get at what is at stake here. For some believers it is simply a matter of "all truth is God's truth", so if a Christian finds something good in another viewpoint s/he should take it and "make it captive for Christ." But others have a difficult time being so casual. The thought of "learning" from another religion makes us very uneasy. What is is that makes us uncomfortable with this? I believe it is a perceived threat to the exclusivity of Christianity. Let me explain.

There are many who study religion from a secular perspective. These folks have traditionally appreciated the positive benefits that religion provides and look to the common good and truths in various belief systems and believing communities. They have tended to come to the conclusion that all religions have certain commonalities and that such common ground is reason to put them all on more or less equal ground. That is, no one religion should be given exclusive privilege, but all should be appreciated for their positive contribution to humanity.

I believe that such a viewpoint has now been canonized in pop culture through the Oprah-ization of western culture. The pop-analogy is that all roads lead to the same place, they just have different paths and roads to get to that common place. The point is to find the religion that "works for you". I've read suggestions that one should have a "meditation room" complete with Scriptures from various religious traditions that might speak to you at any given time.

I think that many Christians are rightly disturbed and feel threatened by our western pop-culture of religious relativism. Hence, they feel that if we were to ever "learn" from another religion it would jeapordize the exclusive claims of Christianity. In John 14:6, for example, Jesus states, "I am the way, the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father but by me." In other words, only one road leads to God.

A Culture of Consumerism

But before we wrap this up with a neat and tidy answer I would like to raise another issue. We live in a consumer-oriented culture. This consumer culture drives us. Our lifestyles do not allow for our minds to relax and concentrate or meditate. We are a society geared towards the task-driven. We can accomplish more in a day than other cultures can accomplish in a week or a month. We use our PDA's to schedule our days down to the minute. We push ourselves to accomplish more and more. We work 60 or 80 hours week to complete a major project, only to have another crop up to take its place. We lead the world in our production capacities, and this is the upside.

The downside is insomnia, broken relationships, and more to the point of this post we find that our minds are full and unable to relax and meditate.

Is there a specific state of mind that is more conducive to commune with God? If our lives and minds are full, is it possible that there is little room for the Spirit of God? Is it too bold to say that it is impossible to connect with God on the deepest levels if we do not take prolonged periods of silence and meditation to clear our minds?

This is not simply a mystical point, but we can take an example from everyday relationships. Can a man develop a deep relationship with a woman if he does not take time to concentrate on her? Freeing his mind of other concerns like the reports due the next day at work or Sports Center and Barry Bonds on the television? Our personal relationships require a prolonged concentration on the individual to the exclusion of all other concerns. To fail to reach deeper and deeper into the heart of your Significant Other risks allowing the relationship to become a relationship that is almost exclusively functional and pragmatic.

Let's translate this analogy back into our discussion of Christian mysticism...I would suggest that the vast majority of believers in our conservative circles (myself included) "lose their first love" because their God becomes a god of functionality. This is particularly true of our leaders. The true God becomes a god-of-the-gaps who exists to function as a prayer-answerer or moral compass or a theological/philosophical foundation. But in the process of translating God into a god of functionality most of us have lost the personal encounter. A god of functionality is great for movements, building churches, preaching sermons, and teaching in Christian colleges and universities, but one can gain the world and still lose one's soul if there is no personal encounter.

For this reason I would suggest that meditative practices absolutely must be a vibrant part of the personal and community life of Christians. I believe that our current culture of consumer-driven careers/relationships/entertainment/eating/shopping/etc. demands an emptying-of-the-mind process. I'm not suggesting that one casually accept any technique, however, something must be done to bridge the gap between the god of functionality and the Living, Consuming Fire.


Melody said...


Lots of people take time to be alone with God, sometimes for prolonged periods, and to pray or read the Bible.

Are you saying that's not enough? And if so what exactly would meditation (quite honestly I know little to nothing about it) offer that prayer doesn't?

Jonathan Erdman said...

Um....good question....and I was just thinking about this same thing a bit yesterday after I posted...

I would say that for some people prayer/bible reading is not enough. The reason is that for some Christians the "do your devotions" thing is just another to-do in a life that is dominated by pursuits of doing, doing, doing. For this person their mind is very clouded. They are living such active and hectic lives that more doing, no matter how good it is, fails to really and truly connect with God.

I'm questioning whether, in our culture, it is ok to just do the Bible reading/prayer thing. I am wondering if we don't need to take more "radical" steps to clear our minds of activity and busyness.

Melody said...

Ok, but how is meditation going to be more radical than just talking to God? Explain.

Jonathan Erdman said...

You have a gift of getting to the heart of an issue....let me think about this.......Ok, you might think this is an exaggerated example but hang with me...If I start to pray I can just start to rattle off my grocery list of prayer requests: "Bless so-and-so, and please do such-and-such and help me be a nicer person when people pester me, etc., etc." I'm not saying that such prayers are wrong, but if the vast majority of a Christian's prayer life consists in asking God for stuff, then I wonder whether or not that Christian is really connecting with God - God the person and God the being. That's why I'm wondering if we conservatives should be so suspicious of meditative techniques. Perhaps we need to clear our minds of stuff (including prayer requests?!?) to make room for God.

Perhaps the question(s) is this: Is there a sense in which we need to encounter God on a non-cognitive level? A level that is beyond conscious thought? A personal, one-to-one thing that might be similar to how two people in love connect with each other?

Melody said...

Ok, well then my question becomes:
Where do you see evidence of such encounters Biblically?

And, how does emptying our minds help us connect with God?
There's getting away from distractions, which is usually agreed to be well and good, but isn't an encounter with God where nothing is going on in your head a bit like talking to someone while they're asleep?

Jonathan Erdman said...

Well, I started to post a comment to respond to your question, but I found there was quite a bit of interesting Scriptures that address the issue of meditation and reflection....So, I just started a whole new post!