In part 1, I introduced some historical context behind Richard Foster’s Celebration of Discipline: The Path to Spiritual Growth. Foster’s book is foundational within the Spiritual Formation movement. In this article, I’ll go through the first chapter, which explains the spiritual discipline of meditation, a.k.a. contemplative prayer.
Foster’s thesis for the chapter is this: “Though it may sound strange to modern ears, we should without shame enroll as apprentices in the school of contemplative prayer.” It should be understood at this point that Foster is equating the term “contemplative prayer” with meditation. We learn more clearly later that “Christian meditation, very simply, is the ability to hear God’s voice and obey his word.”
Conflation of Scripture and Experience
In attempting to muster biblical support for his position, Foster conflates examples of meditation found in the Old Testament. He first cites the Hebrew words הָגָה and שׂיהַ, lists various possible meanings of the words, then cites scripture quotations in successive paragraphs. The first set of quotations comes from Psalm 119:97, 101, 102; Gen. 24:63; Psalm 63:6; Psalm 119:148; and Psalm 1:2. Most of these citations involve meditation specifically on written scripture. Gen. 24:63 and Psalm 63:6 involve meditation on God’s faithfulness and one’s circumstance, but they don’t involve a specific listening for God’s voice.
The paragraph immediately thereafter is where the greater conflation occurs. Foster cites Eli, Elijah, Isaiah, and Jeremiah as examples of men who listened to God. Worse, in the case of Elijah, Foster writes, “Elijah spent many a day and night in the wilderness learning to discern the ‘still small voice of Yahweh.’ (1 Kings 19:9–18).” The text, of course, indicates no such effort to learn to discern God’s voice. Elijah simply heard Yahweh speaking.
Foster’s stated purpose of meditation is to “create the emotional and spiritual space which allows Christ to construct an inner sanctuary in the heart.” In support of this, Foster cites that Revelation 3:20 was originally for believers rather than unbelievers. While this last bit is true, Christ in this passage is knocking on the door of a church (arguably one consisting entirely of professing Christians who were actually unbelievers), not an individual’s heart.
An Insufficient Clarification
In an effort to clear up “understandable misconceptions,” Foster writes:
Whenever the Christian idea of meditation is taken seriously, there are those who assume it is synonymous with the concept of meditation centered in Eastern religions. In reality, the two ideas stand worlds apart. Eastern meditation is an attempt to empty the mind; Christian meditation is an attempt to fill the mind. The two ideas are quite different.
Taken by itself, this statement is all well and good. This portion of the chapter goes on to clear up a few more minor misconception, the biggest of all being that Christian meditation is “a religious form of psychological manipulation.”
The question is with what we actually fill the mind. Foster here advocates mystical “divine-human encounter” and refers to several Roman Catholic mystics throughout to back this up. To sum up this portion on “understandable misconceptions,” Foster proposes the following, which is worth quoting at length:
How then do we come to believe in a world of the spirit? Is it by blind faith? Not at all. The inner reality of the spiritual world is available to all who are willing to search for it. Often I have discovered that those who freely debunk the spiritual world have never taken ten minutes to investigate whether or not such a world really exists.
Let me suggest we take an experiential attitude toward spiritual realities. Like any other scientific endeavor, we form a hypothesis and experiment with it to see if it is true or not. If our first experiment fails, we do not despair or label the whole business fraudulent. We reexamine our procedure, perhaps adjust our hypothesis, and try again. We should at least have the honesty to persevere in this work to the same degree we would in any field of science. The fact that so many are unwilling to do so betrays not their intelligence but their prejudice.
This perhaps goes without saying to the typical audience of Things Above Us, but it’s worth writing out for potential one-time visitors or those unfamiliar with pneumatology: the above quote is not biblical theology. Nowhere does the Bible encourage us to take an experimental attitude towards spiritual matters, especially the receiving of revelation or experience from God.
Underestimating the Scripture
Speaking about the typical aversion to seeking to hear the voice of God, Foster laments:
Human beings seem to have a perpetual tendency to have somebody else talk to God for them. We are content to have the message secondhand. One of Israel’s fatal mistakes was their insistence upon having a human king rather than resting in the theocratic rule of God over them.”
The analogy here is simply awful. It might have worked for people who only sit under anemic preaching or worship music without digging into the Scripture for themselves. To apply this to an unwillingness to hear the audible voice of God over a true belief in the sufficiency of Scripture betrays the latter and renders a false accusation upon all who believe it.
Foster argues, “We can descend with the mind into the heart most easily through the imagination” for two primary reasons. First, a “merely cerebral approach” ends up being “too abstract, too detached.” Secondly, “imagination helps to anchor our thoughts and center our attention.”
Responding to possible objections, Foster argues that “just as we can believe that God can take our reason (fallen as it is) and sanctify it and use it for his good purposes, so we believe he can sanctify the imagine and use it for his good purposes.” [emphasis original] Moreover, responding to the objection that imagination is susceptible to “human manipulation and even self-deception,” Foster proclaims that “it is so vitally important for us to be thrown in utter dependence upon God in these matters.”
Put more into concrete terms, Foster states that the “common experience” of those who meditate in such a way is that God gives images rather than people coming up with them. For example, Foster claims to have been given a picture of a person’s condition while in prayer. He later conveys the picture to the person being prayed for, and the person later asks, “How did you know?”
Troublingly, Foster offers no specific scripture to back this up. Besides quoting Alexander Whyte, Teresa of Avila, and Francis de Sales (again with the six degrees of veggie bacon), he emptily asserts that “Jesus himself taught in this manner, making constant appeal to the imagination, and many of the devotional masters likewise encourage us in this way.”
Summing up this section, Foster argues that “to believe that God can sanctify and utilize the imagination is simply to take seriously the Christian idea of incarnation.”
I find this difficult to refute while maintaining a charitable tone. For one, Foster appears to intentionally conflate this modern-day concept of “incarnation,” in the sense of contemplative prayer, with the incarnation of Christ, which is what we usually think of with the word. Doing this appears to have at least a couple of significant negative effects. First, it obviously drags down the significance of Christ’s literal incarnation, which — by the way — literally persists to this day. Secondly, it drags down the actual ministry of the Holy Spirit, who literally lives in every regenerated believer, and the ministry of the church, by which God continues to work in the spiritual and physical realms.
Forms of Meditation
Foster lists several forms of meditation for the reader to consider: meditation on Scripture, “re-collection” or “centering down,” meditation upon the creation, and meditation upon current events. I won’t be going into all four here in this review. While the first item in this list sounds promising, prepare to be disappointed.
For all the devotional masters the meditatio Scripturarum, the meditation upon Scripture, is the central reference point by which all other forms of meditation are kept in proper perspective. Whereas the study of Scripture centers on exegesis, the meditation of Scripture centers on internalizing and personalizing the passage. The written Word becomes a living word addressed to you. This is not a time for technical studies, or analysis, or even the gathering of material to share with others. Set aside all tendencies toward arrogance and with a humble heart receive the word addressed to you.
None of us at Things Above Us would ever argue against meditating upon Scripture, as the Bible clearly endorses it. Much can be learned simply by meditating upon a short Scripture passage for a long period of time simply by observing everything that is going with in (yes, even in English!). I personally recall my very first seminary class asking us to list fifty observations about Acts 1:8. Yes, just in English, and NASB-only. It was intense! The receiving of power is in the future. The location names progressively increase in distance. “But” indicates a contrast with the previous verse. As we learn shortly hereafter, this isn’t that.
Suppose we want to meditate on Jesus’ staggering statement, “My peace I give to you” (John 14:27). Our task is not so much to study the passage as it is to be initiated into the reality of which the passage speaks. We brood on the truth that is now filling us with his peace. The heart, the mind, and the spirit are awakened to his inflowing peace. We sense all motions of fear stilled and overcome by “power and love and self-control” (2 Tim 1:7). Rather than dissecting peace we are entering into it. We are enveloped absorbed, gathered into his peace.
Even a cursory look at the context of John 14:27 would reveal to the reader that there is a particular peace about which Jesus is speaking, but here Foster is more interested in an empty meditative notion thereof.
Speaking of empty, the form of meditation called “re-collection” or “centering down” appears to be in conflict with Foster’s earlier statement about how Christian meditation is about filling the mind rather than emptying it. As one particular example of how this can be done, Foster offers the following:
Begin by placing your palms down as a symbolic indication of your desire to turn over any concerns you may have to God. Inwardly you may pray, “Lord, I give you my anger toward John. I release my fear of my dentist appointment this morning. I surrender my anxiety over not having enough money to pay the bills this month. I release my frustration over trying to find a baby-sitter for tonight.” Whatever it is that weighs on your mind or is a concern to you, just say, “palms down.” Release it. You may even feel a certain sense of release in your hands. After several moments os surrender, turn your palms up as a symbol of your desire to receive from the Lord. Perhaps you will pray silently: “Lord, I would like to receive your divine love for John, your peace about the dentist appointment, your patience, your joy.” Whatever you need, you say “palms up.” Having centered down, spend the remaining moments in complete silence. Do not ask for anything. Allow the Lord to commune with you, to love you. If impressions or directions come, fine; if not, fine.
There is so much potential for good within this. It’s good to give the Lord the anxiety over unpaid bills, unfound baby-sitters, and dentist appointments. It’s even good to seek revelation from the Lord about such things, but we’re supposed to find such revelation in the all-sufficient Scripture.
Just this chapter alone in Celebration of Discipline should lead the discerning Christian either simply to put the book down or to continue reading with an attitude of polemical discernment. In the next portion of this review, we’ll look at the next chapter, which concerns the spiritual discipline of prayer.