Criticism of Contemplative Christianity

For some Christians, words like "contemplative," "meditation," and "spiritual formation" are considered dangerous New Age ideas. To the extent they are used in Christian environments, they are understood to represent the incursion of cultic non-Christian ideas into the Church and Christian theology.

For the unity of the Church, and the edification of all Christians, it is important to take the positions of both the emerging contemplative Christianity and its critics seriously, and to be humble in articulating our own conclusions. This page addresses some of the common concerns voiced about contemplative Christian practice, and seeks to provide a way forward by locating the test of true Christianity in the Jesus Christ alone.

Common Criticisms of Contemplative Christianity

Note: This list is not complete. If you know of or have other criticisms of Christian contemplative practice, please email me or leave a comment.

Contemplative Practice is Unbiblical

The inventory of religious practices used in the Bible is limited. Words like "contemplation" don't appear at all. In deference to the Scriptures, should we as Christians limit our spiritual practices to those we can find in the pages of the Bible?

Let us keep in mind that we are defining "Christian contemplative practice" as those things we do to keep our hearts and minds centered on Jesus Christ. Every Christian community, and perhaps every individual Christian, has had a slightly different way of doing this.

By definition, these tools cannot come from the Bible, as they are the tools that help us to process and internalize the Bible. This does not happen "automatically" when we sit down and read Scripture. We are using skills we have learned from our culture, from our family, and from our community, hopefully with the guidance of the Holy Spirit.

Contemplative practices are a different type of skill then, say, analytical reading. Like analytical reading, these are skills learned from a teacher, a community, a culture. Christians should use them with the guidance of the Holy Spirit, and avoid carelessly misusing them.

But if a practice deepens our love for Jesus, and produces the fruit of the Spirit, can we really call it bad? Didn't Jesus say that we will know them by their fruits?

The variety of practices that exist is quite diverse, and not all of them work for all people. And, often, a group of people who have one particular practice may feel confused or even threatened by a group that has a different way of loving Jesus. This is part of the uncomfortable reality of being human.

It is important that we, as Christians, restrain ourselves from using the Bible to bludgeon one another into conformity, but instead recognize and encourage in one another motions of our hearts, minds, and souls toward our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, and trust the Holy Spirit to bring us into unity where we do not understand or agree with one another. This does not minimize the importance of Scripture. It simply maximizes our humility, and confesses our inability to perfectly understand and anticipate every possible cultural and spiritual outworking of the Word of God.

Contemplative Practice is "Dead Works"

If we are saved "by grace through faith" in Jesus Christ, what is the need for contemplative practice?

For Christians, the purpose of contemplative practice is not earning salvation, but responding to the love offered to us through Jesus Christ, and growing mature in our faith. Our contemplative practice maintains and strengthens our fellowship with our Savior. It keeps the value of what we have gained through Christ near to our hearts. It is what St. Paul described as "working out [our] faith with fear and trembling." (Phil. 2:12)

Contemplative Practice Borrows too Freely from Other Religious Traditions

Most elements of contemplative Christian practice are rooted in some element of historical Christian tradition. Some of these elements have been revived through interreligious conversation. And a few have been drawn explicitly from other religions. What is fair use, and how much is too much?

For some Christians, anything that isn't explicitly listed in the Bible is anathema. But the Bible itself contains Jewish elements, elements of Greco-Roman religion and philosophy, and perhaps even ideas from the far east. Some of our inherited religious forms contain Catholic ideas and Enlightenment thought patterns.

It is indeed important to take care in learning from other religious and intellectual traditions. In some cases, those involved in contemplative Christianity may have gone too far. (For instance, the interfaith movement.) It is important that the communication between these more conservative voices and the emerging, more liberal voices remain strong, so that these criticisms can be shared and appreciated by both sides.

The Real Issues in the Contemplative Practice Debate

In some ways, the debate over the acceptability of contemplative Christian practice is another incarnation of familiar divisions in the Body of Christ. Like all such divisions, we should encounter them with a spirit humility and a desire to include and listen to and learn from the diversity of Christian voices.

Here are some of the divides that over which debates about contemplative practice are held.

The Biblical-Liturgical Divide

There is a long standing division in the Church between the episcopal-liturgical forms of Christianity and the congregational-biblical forms of Christianity. Most people seriously searching out Christian contemplative practice are either from the episcopal-liturgical tradition, or the emerging church.

The relationship between congregational-biblical and episcopal-liturgical traditions has never been fantastic. The Emerging Church movement is made up primarily of of congregational-biblical types who "emerge" from mold of Evangelical America, which is largely congregational-biblical. This creates further strain and suspicion from the bulk of the congregational-biblical community.

The Liberal-Conservative Divide

Today's church is also in the messy and unfortunate process of realigning itself according to the liberal-conservative political division in American culture. "Contemplative practice" is most commonly a subject of interest to the liberal types, and so is in danger of becoming the exclusive vocabulary of liberal Christians.

A Way Forward: Jesus as the Center of Christian Contemplative Practice

For Christians, embracing contemplative practice must mean rekindling our passion for Jesus Christ, focusing all of our spiritual practice and energy on enhancing our relationship with him.

While remaining firmly and fiercely committed to Jesus Christ, we should rediscover and reintroduce programs of personal and small group contemplative practice into our lives and communities. Ideally, these come from a stock of familiar practices. But because of the general loss of contemplative space in our culture and the rapidly changing needs of our world, it may be necessary to introduce new practices from the broader faith, and perhaps even Christianized elements of other religions.

In this process of growth and learning, it is our commitment to Jesus Christ, the Christian stories, and the Church (that is, the invisible church through the visible organ we are associate with) that will maintain the integrity of our Christian faith.

We must recognize and respect the fact that not all Christians are called to change or expand their contemplative practice, and we should allow for diversity in the practice of the faith.

Websites Critical of Contemplative Christian Practice

  • Lighthouse Trails Research - This website is well organized, easy to use, and has a large collection of materials that are worth considering.
  • The Berean Call - Essays challenging the emerging church and contemplative Christianity from a "biblical Christian" perspective.
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