Is Contemplative Prayer A Legitimate Approach To God?

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By Mike Shreve| There is an undeniable link between far eastern religions and the contemplative prayer movement. One of its main proponents for many years was the Catholic monk, Thomas Merton, who was very pluralistic in his worldview. For instance, he asserted, “I see no contradiction between Buddhism and Christianity…I intend to become as good a Buddhist as I can.”*1 

The truth is there are irreconcilable differences between Buddhism and Christianity. Buddha was basically atheistic in his worldview. He also taught that two beliefs that must be forsaken to achieve nirvana are: (1) the belief that we each have an individual soul; (2) the belief that our souls can have a personal existence in a heavenly state. Jesus strongly promoted the opposite. So how can these two worldviews be merged in any way?

William Shannon, Thomas Merton’s biographer, shed some strong light on Merton’s belief system with the following statement: During a conference on contemplative prayer, the question was put to Thomas Merton: “How can we best help people to attain union with God?” His answer was very clear: “We must tell them that they are already united with God.” Contemplative prayer is nothing other than coming into consciousness of what is already there (emphasis by author). *2

This idea—that God is already there within every human being—is exactly what I promoted as a yoga teacher in 1970. Then I experienced true salvation when the Spirit of God entered from without. If the New Age/Far Eastern/Contemplative view is correct—that a spark of divinity exists within every heart and needs only to be awakened—then Jesus died in vain. However, the true biblical stance is that God exists apart from physical creation and outside of man. To enter a relationship with Him, He must enter a person’s heart from without—something only possible after the heart is cleansed by the washing of the blood of Jesus.

Apparently, many contemplatives feel the spiritual, ecstatic state attained through their methods is no different than the supposed higher states of consciousness that Hindu, Buddhist, New Age and yoga advocates claim to reach. I contend that there is an enormous difference between the true experience of Jesus Christ as opposed to the paranormal experiences offered through these other groups. A few meditation and prayer methods promoted in the contemplative movement may be legitimate (like slowly and quietly pondering the meaning of God’s Word), while most are quite illegitimate.

Most New Agers wrongly differentiate between Jesus and the Christ. To them, Jesus was just another human being who successfully accessed the ‘Christ nature’—an innate potential, they say, that all men and women possess, regardless of religious persuasion. I must insist that believing such a doctrine robs Jesus of His uniqueness and exclusive divinity.

Yet modern contemplatives often join hands with those who hold such views and see nothing wrong with it. Let me give you a blatant example by focusing on an explanation of “centering” (a term often used by many who embrace a New Age worldview). I prefer not to name or identify the source because the person making this statement has been a blessing to the body of Christ in other areas; I am just showing an important contrast:

“Although used extensively by the Quakers, this term is not exclusive to Quaker theology and practice. It means simply to let go of all competing distractions until we are truly present with Him. Centering is the meditative art of quieting ourselves and focusing on the Lord, who is the center of all life.”*3

On the surface, once again, this statement seems harmless and helpful. There is nothing wrong with “centering” our attention on the Lord. However, let me point out two areas of great concern. First, describing something as being part of Quaker theology and practice is not a sufficient endorsement. On page 114 of his book, A Time of Departing, Ray Yungen quotes contemplative author John R. Yungblut, former Dean of Studies at the Quaker Meditation Center at Pendle Hill in Pennsylvania, who said:

“But we cannot confine the existence of the divine to this one man [Jesus] among men. Therefore, we are not to worship the man Jesus, though we cannot refrain from worshiping the source of this Holy Spirit or Christ-life, which for many of us has been revealed primarily in this historical figure.”*4

It matters little to me if this man was a Quaker, a Baptist, a Charismatic or a Pentecostal—such theology is blasphemous and heretical. Also notice that “centering” is described as being the “meditative art of quieting ourselves.” The methods promoted in contemplative prayer to achieve this inward quietness quite often include the same methods I used in Kundalini Yoga—breath control and the repetition of mantras—to achieve inward stillness of mind, which was touted as being necessary for enlightenment to take place.

Many contemplatives would not necessarily use the word “mantra” in explaining their methods. They may call it a prayer word or a sacred word, but it is the same methodology regardless. For instance, contemplative prayer teacher, Willigis Jager, encouraged potential contemplatives to use this method, saying:

“Do not reflect on the meaning of the word; thinking and reflecting must cease, as all mystical writers insist. Simply ‘sound’ the word silently, letting go of all feelings and thoughts.”*5

The goal is achieving a state of non-thought: the same thing Buddhists and mystics of other Far Eastern religions reach for—in order to be lifted to a some so-called superior sphere of consciousness. In refuting methods like this, that are aimed to reach higher levels of spirituality, Ray Yungen offers the following observations:

“Legitimate mysticism was always initiated by God to certain individuals for certain revelations and was never based on a method for the changing of consciousness. In Acts, Peter fell into a trance while in prayer (Acts 11:5). But it was God, not Peter, who initiated the trance and facilitated it.”*6

Yungen also concludes that this extreme of the contemplative method is not to be accepted because:

• It is not found in the Bible
• It correlates with occult methods (i.e., mantra, vain repetition)
• It is sympathetic with Eastern mystical perceptions (God in everything; all is One—Panentheism)*7

Many years ago, I visited a popular Christian “contemplative” website (no longer available in the previous format). As I examined the various groups mentioned on the site, I found many references to the Far Eastern techniques being used.  For instance, I found “Christian Zen Retreats” and classes on “Vipassana Meditation.” “Vipassana” means to see things as they really are.  It is an ancient Buddhist meditative technique. 

The end of “seeing things as they really are,” however, would be to embrace Buddha’s belief system, which includes many tenets totally incompatible with Christianity–like Buddha’s insistence that there is nothing permanent, not even our personal existence. So, how could there be such a blatant mixture of Christianity and eastern religions on this website? Because the same mixture is happening at an alarming in our culture and our world, and it needs to be addressed.

Let me end by saying this. A lot of our challenge theologically in this area boils down to semantics. When I pray, unquestionably, I contemplate the greatness of God and the love He has toward me. I contemplate the wonder of salvation and the horrible place my life would be if he had not intervened. But I would never call my times of seeking God “contemplative prayer,” because of the association that phrase has with non-biblical doctrines and methods.

In like manner, when I pray, I seek to “transcend” the natural realm and when I read the Bible I “meditate” on its meaning—but I would never call it “Transcendental Meditation.” Why? The same logic. Because that phrase, “Transcendental Meditation,” is automatically associated in people’s minds with the yoga discipline that bears that title (something that will never carry anyone into a relationship with God). Quite the opposite, it will carry them away. So, words and methods are important!

[1] Ray Yungen, A Time of Departing (Lighthouse Trails Publishing Company: Silverton, Ohio, 2006) p. 75
[2] Ibid., p. 83
[3] Intentionally withheld
[4] Ibid., p. 121
[5] Ibid., p. 33
[6] Ibid., p. 34
[7] Ibid., p. 122

This article was originally featured on The True Light and was republished with permission.

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Mike Shreve was a teacher of Kundalini Yoga at four Florida universities (University of South Florida, University of Tampa, New College, and Florida Presbyterian). He also ran a yoga ashram in Tampa. About 300 students were following his teachings. Then in 1970, an encounter with the Lord Jesus Christ changed his heart, his life, and his worldview. The next year, along with another brother in the Lord, he began hitchhiking across America (during the Jesus Movement Era) preaching on college campuses and in downtown areas. Eventually he began ministering in churches, Bible schools, and open air gatherings overseas as well. He has written 15 books (3 of which have been #1 on Amazon in their genre). One of his greatest joys is helping other Christian writers become published authors through the publishing company he runs called Deeper Revelation Books. He has an earned Bachelor of Theology degree and an honorary doctorate, given to him by Faith Theological Seminary because of his extensive work in the area of comparative religion. His website is www.thetruelight.net