On its website promoting yet another retreat to a monastery, Treveccca Nazarene University states the following:
“In order to help students strengthen their Christian faith and establish spiritual disciplines, the school year at Trevecca includes times and events that focus on spiritual formation.” (Trevecca website)
Sounds good. You might think it’s just another way of expressing how we ought to grow as Christians, and for me when I first heard of it, things came to mind such as regular prayer, Bible study, worship, and fasting, as ways to grow as a Christian, as prescribed to us in the Bible. But beware, this is not what it means now in many Nazarene universities, or many other Christian schools for that matter.
Alarm bells should go off when you hear the term spiritual formation. If you hear “spiritual formation” mentioned by your pastor, a preacher, or a professor, it would be advisable to ask them to explain what they mean, and to explain it completely and honestly. However, it is clear to me that spiritual formation as practiced at Trevecca is not coming from a healthy biblical foundation. In fact, this university seems to be the one that is most outrageous in its display of the “new spirituality” that is being promoted and touted as a must-have part of our lives if we are to grow as Christians and get closer to God. Yet, is it helping students get closer to God, or it is helping them stray further away from the Bible as sole authority for our Christian faith and practice?
You see, Trevecca has a prayer labyrinth right on campus. There is absolutely nothing scripturally warranted in the use of this clearly pagan practice, so why does a Nazarene university use this tool? Thinking of sending your kids there? You may want to write to President Dan Boone, or the theology department, and ask them if they can justify the use of labyrinths, and ask them to make sure that they can justify it according to scripture. Otherwise, why is this being used on a Nazarene campus?
But let’s get to the upcoming issue at hand. Yet again, Trevecca has scheduled another Spiritual Formation Retreat at the Abbey of Gethsemani in Trappist, Kentucky. It’s called “Silence and Listening For the Voice of God”. One of their comments regarding this retreat is the following:
“Union with God in prayer requires us to learn to quiet ourselves–yes, from the noises which surround us, but also from inward noises (restlessness, fears, our agenda’s, etc.) It is this stillness and emptiness which allows us to be open to hearing the voice of God.” (Emphasis in red mine)
This stuff, if you are a discerning Christian, is right out of contemplative mysticism. It is often justified by the misuse of Psalm 46:10, a sorry out of context reading of what is a passage that clearly teaches us not to go into any silence, but to relax and stop worrying so much about the turmoil in our life, because God is in control).
It is the seeking of silence, and worst still, of emptiness, that warning bells should be ringing for every Christian who reads this. It is nothing more than a call to empty your mind, albeit masquerading as Christian spirituality. Emptying the mind is the exact goal of transcendental meditation, and this is the very thing that spiritual formation subtly tries to promote. Friends, if you empty your mind in some type of altered state of consciousness, can you guarantee that it is God’s voice you are hearing? And where in the Bible are we ever directed to get into a state of “emptiness” and “silence” in the manner directed by mystics? This is really just a resurrection of traditions created by the Desert Fathers. However, tradition, as we should understand, does not necessarily equate to being biblically grounded.
They also categorize silence as one of the spiritual disciplines. Really, where does the Bible teach us that? This is nothing but adding to the word of God, which we are forbidden to do. This is nothing more than Oprah Winfrey spirituality!
Sure, prayer and fasting, studying the scriptures, those can be called spiritual disciplines. But not silence. And certainly not labyrinths and prayer stations (a form of Stations of the Cross). And not even things like journaling, which has become popular and often suggested as necessary for Christian growth. When did we begin to forget that all that is sufficient for our daily Christian growth is faith in Christ, and trusting in His word which he has given to us? Anything else, and you are dangerously adding to the word of God, which according to scripture is a very serious offense! And what about listening to God’s voice? If I told you the voice of God spoke to me last night (other than through His Word), how would I convince you that it was God’s voice, and not the voice of some other spirit that was not of God?
You also need to know that the Abbey of Gethsemani is a Roman Catholic monastery that is dedicated to Mary. It is famously known as the spiritual home of Thomas Merton. Their website has a page dedicated to him. Remember this name, because it is becoming very popular amongst Nazarenes, along with such other monks as Henri Nouwen, who learned much from Merton and who believed that there are many paths to God, not just Jesus! Spiritual formation programs and books rarely omit Thomas Merton as a resource, but instead he is looked at as a great spiritual source of wisdom for Christians. There is no avoiding the influence of his teachings if you are going to a retreat at this monastery.
Merton was a Roman Catholic monk who was a mystic, and he experimented with Eastern religions mixed with Christianity, as many other monks such as Henri Nouwen did. (Henri Nouwen has also become popular with Nazarene pastors as a “Christian” resource, which is unbelievably irresponsible and reckless). But as a professed Christian, Merton was a serious promoter of interspirituality. He saw no problem between Christianity and Buddhism:
“I see no contradiction between Buddhism and Christianity … I intend to become as good a Buddhist as I can.” (David Steindl-Rast, “Recollection of Thomas Merton’s Last Days in the West” (Monastic Studies, 7:10, 1969)
In the final year of his life, he spent time in various Eastern countries in search of the answers to spirituality (he could have searched the Bible). He later visited a Buddhist shrine in Sri Lanka, and described his visit as an experience of great illumination, a vision of “inner clearness.”
Six days later, he was accidentally electrocuted in a cottage in Bangkok by a faulty fan switch. (Contemplative Mysticism, David Cloud, p.315).
This kind of relationship Trevecca has with the teachings of folks such as Merton is unbiblical. Will the prayer by Father Damien on opening night at the retreat involve praying to Mary or other saints as they normally do? Do Trevecca’s leaders realize that praying to Mary, and participating in the Catholic Mass, is unbiblical and equates to idolatry? Or do they think this is typical reflection of Nazarene doctrine and practice?
We are called to “have nothing to do with the fruitless deeds of darkness, but rather expose them” (Eph. 5:11). It would seem to me that associations with folks who adhere to Merton’s philosophy qualifies for the category of fruitless deeds of darkness! Or am I missing something here? If someone could correct me with the scriptures, I will apologize for my error. I doubt if that will happen, because this is not the first time I have asked these folks in leadership to correct me or those who are questioning these practices. By the way, their recommended resources for spiritual formation reads like a who’s who of teachers such as Henri Nouwen, Richard Foster, Ruth Haley Barton, and several other usual suspects of the spiritual formation movement.
So Trevecca Nazarene University needs to openly explain clearly to all prospective students, and their parents, what is the biblical authority for participating in retreats such as this, and for participating in pagan rituals such as prayer labyrinths. If not, perhaps feeling the pinch of the pocketbook, from less enrollments, and less donations, will draw their attention. Just follow the money, it seems to be the order of the day, and if that is what will get some answers, perhaps we should do it.
(Mike Oppenheimer of Let Us Reason Ministries explains prayer labyrinths and yoga)
Additional Resources on Trevecca’s plunge into Contemplative Spirituality: