Merton & Nouwen: Sacrificing Truth for Mystical Experiences
"From The Lighthouse" Newsletter - Ray Yungen (November 2, 2009)
Contemplative advocates propose that there has been something vital and important missing from the church for centuries. The insinuation is that Christians have been lacking something necessary for their spiritual vitality; but that would mean the Holy Spirit has not been fully effective for hundreds of years and only now the secret key has been found that unlocks God's full power to know Him. These proponents believe that Christianity has been seriously crippled without this extra ingredient. This kind of thinking leads one to believe that traditional, Biblical Christianity is merely a philosophy without the contemplative prayer element.
Contemplatives are making a distinction between studying and meditating on the Word of God versus experiencing Him, suggesting that we cannot hear Him or really know Him simply by studying His Word or even through normal prayer-we must be contemplative to accomplish this. But the Bible makes it clear that the Word of God is living and active, and has always been that way, and it is in filling our minds with it that we come to love Him, not through a mystical practice of stopping the flow of thought (the stillness) that is never once mentioned in the Bible, except in warnings against vain repetitions.
In chapter three [of A Time of Departing] I quoted Thomas Merton's statement that he saw various Eastern religions "come together in his life" (as a Christian mystic). On a rational, practical level Christianity and Eastern religions will not mix; but add the mystical element and they do blend together like adding soap to oil and water. I must clarify what I mean: Mysticism neutralizes doctrinal differences by sacrificing the truth of Scripture for a mystical experience. Mysticism offers a common ground, and supposedly that commonality is divinity in all. But we know from Scripture "there is one God; and there is none other but he" (Mark 12:32).
In a booklet put out by Saddleback Church on spiritual maturity, the following quote by Henri Nouwen is listed:
Solitude begins with a time and place for God, and Him alone. If we really believe not only that God exists, but that He is actively present in our lives-healing, teaching, and guiding-we need to set aside a time and space to give Him our undivided attention.1
When we understand what Nouwen really means by "time and space" given to God we can also see the emptiness and deception of his spirituality. In his biography of Nouwen, God's Beloved, Michael O' Laughlin says:
Some new elements began to emerge in Nouwen's thinking when he discovered Thomas Merton. Merton opened up for Henri an enticing vista of the world of contemplation and a way of seeing not only God but also the world through new eyes. . . . If ever there was a time when Henri Nouwen wished to enter the realm of the spiritual masters or dedicate himself to a higher spiritual path, it was when he fell under the spell of Cistercian monasticism and the writings of Thomas Merton.2
In his book, Thomas Merton: Contemplative Critic, Nouwen talks about these "new eyes" that Merton helped to formulate and said that Merton and his work "had such an impact" on his life and that he was the man who had "inspired" him greatly.3 But when we read Nouwen's very revealing account, something disturbing is unveiled. Nouwen lays out the path of Merton's spiritual pilgrimage into contemplative spirituality. Those who have studied Merton from a critical point of view, such as myself, have tried to understand what are the roots behind Merton's spiritual affinities. Nouwen explains that Merton was influenced by LSD mystic Aldous Huxley who "brought him to a deeper level of knowledge" and "was one of Merton's favorite novelists."4 It was through Huxley's book, Ends and Means, that first brought Merton "into contact with mysticism."5 Merton states:
He [Huxley] had read widely and deeply and intelligently in all kinds of Christian and Oriental mystical literature, and had come out with the astonishing truth that all this, far from being a mixture of dreams and magic and charlatanism, was very real and very serious.6
This is why, Nouwen revealed, Merton's mystical journey took him right into the arms of Buddhism:
Merton learned from him [Chuang Tzu-a Taoist] what Suzuki [a Zen master] had said about Zen: "Zen teaches nothing; it merely enables us to wake and become aware."7
Become aware of what? The Buddha nature. Divinity within all.
That is why Merton said if we knew what was in each one of us, we would bow down and worship one another. Merton's descent into contemplative led him to the belief that God is in all things and that God is all things. This is made clear by Merton when he said: "True solitude is a participation in the solitariness of God-Who is in all things.8
Nouwen adds: "[Chuang Tzu] awakened and led him [Merton] . . . to the deeper ground of his consciousness."9
This has been the ploy of Satan since the Garden of Eden when the serpent said to Eve, "ye shall be as gods" (Genesis 3:4). It is this very essence that is the foundation of contemplative prayer.
In Merton's efforts to become a mystic, he found guidance from a Hindu swami, whom Merton referred to as Dr. Bramachari. Bramachari played a pivotal role in Merton's future spiritual outlook. Nouwen divulged this when he said:
Thus he [Merton] was more impressed when this Hindu monk pointed him to the Christian mystical tradition. . . . It seems providential indeed that this Hindu monk relativized [sic] Merton's youthful curiosity for the East and made him sensitive to the richness of Western mysticism.10
Why would a Hindu monk advocate the Christian mystical tradition? The answer is simple: they are one in the same. Even though the repetitive words used may differ (e.g. Christian words: Abba, Father, etc. rather than Hindu words), the end result is the same. And the Hindu monk knew this to be true. Bramachari understood that Merton didn't need to switch to Hinduism to get the same enlightenment that he himself experienced through the Hindu mystical tradition. In essence, Bramachari backed up what I am trying to get across, that all the world's mystical traditions basically come from the same source and teach the same precepts . . . and that source is not the God of the Old and New Testaments. That biblical God is not interspiritual!
Evangelical Christianity is now being invited, perhaps even catapulted into seeing God with these new eyes of contemplative prayer. And so the question must be asked, is Thomas Merton's silence, Henri Nouwen's space, and Richard Foster's contemplative prayer the way in which we can know and be close to God? Or is this actually a spiritual belief system that is contrary to the true message that the Bible so absolutely defines-that there is only one way to God and that is through His only begotten Son, Jesus Christ, whose sacrifice on the Cross obtained our full salvation? If indeed my concerns for the future actually come to fruition, then we will truly enter a time of departing. (from chapter 9 of A Time of Departing - for more about Ray Yungen's work, visit: www.atimeofdeparting.com).
1.. Henri Nouwen, cited in Saddleback training book, Soul Construction: SolitudeTool (Lake Forest, CA: Saddleback Church, 2003), p. 12.
2. Michael O' Laughlin, God's Beloved (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2004), p. 178.
3. Henri J.M. Nouwen, Thomas Merton: Contemplative Critic (San Francisco, CA: Harper & Row Publishers, 1991, Triumph Books Edition), p. 3.
4. Ibid., pp. 19-20.
5. Ibid., p. 20.
7. Ibid., p. 71.
8. Ibid., pp. 46, 71.
9. Ibid., p. 71.
10 . Ibid., p. 29.