By Ken Silva pastor-teacher on Jun 4, 2010 in Brian McLaren, Contemplative Spirituality/Mysticism, Current Issues, Dallas Willard, Emergence Christianity, Emergent Church, Features, Henri Nouwen, Leonard Sweet, New Spirituality, Richard Foster, Rob Bell, Shane Claiborne/New Monasticism, Shane Hipps, Spiritual Formation, Tony Campolo, Youth Ministry
Most evangelical Christians probably would not recognize themselves in the previous discussion of mysticism (as found in our last three papers), but there are subtle influences at work drawing believers in this direction even without their knowledge. While firmly denying any part in classical mysticism many are actually participating in time-honored mystical practices. It must be recognized that many are doing this unintentionally for new opportunities are turning up that seem to defy recognized categories. Some are innocently adopting ancient mystical practices because they are being endorsed by trusted Christian leaders, or even the medical community. The danger is that involvement in some of these things; no matter how pure the motive, may easily lead the participant away from a biblical faith and into the quagmire of subjectivism and mysticism, or at times even into the occult. I will only take time to identify and explain two experiences which are paving the way to mysticism.
I will deal most extensively with labyrinths because they have had a recent resurgence into evangelical circles without sounding many alarms. The Labyrinth Society is only 6 years old but boasts 800 members and wide ranging influence. A labyrinth is sort of a maze, some developed with bushes or other vegetation; others created with stones, tiles, wool or even canvas. Labyrinth lovers recoil from the word maze, however, pointing out that “Labyrinths are not mazes, although in the English language the words labyrinth and maze are frequently confused. Mazes contain cul-de-sacs and dead ends. They have more than one entrance and more than one exit and are designed to make us lose our way; they’re a game. Labyrinths have the exact opposite purpose: they are designed to help us find our way. They have only one path–from the outer edge into the center and back out again.” Labyrinth’s sometimes go by handles such as “Pneuma Labyrinths or simply “prayer walks.”
Labyrinths are by no means distinctively Christian. As a matter of fact according to The Rev. Dr. Lauren Artress, President and Founder of Veriditas™, The Voice of the Labyrinth Movement, “Labyrinth is an ancient pattern found in many cultures around the world. Labyrinth designs were found on pottery, tablets and tiles that date as far back as 4000 years. Many patterns are based on spirals from nature. In Native American culture it is called the Medicine Wheel and Man in the Maze. The Celts described it as the Never Ending Circle. It is also called the Kabala in mystical Judaism. One feature they all share is that they have one path which winds in a circuitous way to the center.” While the history of labyrinths is sketchy, their entry point into Christianity appears to be during the Middle Ages. Many Christians during that time attempted to make pilgrimage to the Holy City of Jerusalem at some point in their lives but the Crusades made the visits increasingly difficult, if not impossible. Labyrinths were constructed in and around many Catholic cathedrals as a substitute, allowing Christians to fulfill their obligations (some seemed to believe these pilgrimages were necessary for salvation) symbolically. One of the best known labyrinths was constructed in the early 13th century of tile and inlaid in the floor of the Cartres Cathedral in France. But walking the labyrinth fell out of favor during the 16th and 17th century as the Catholic Church moved away from mysticism and more into rationalism. Until very recently the labyrinth at Cartres was covered with chairs, having not been used for its original purpose for centuries. Rev. Lauren Artress, after a visit to Cartres, brought a replica of the 11-circuit labyrinth back to Grace Cathedral, an Episcopal church in San Francisco in 1992. Since then over a million people are reported to have walked that labyrinth alone, and the labyrinth movement has been given new life. As some walk a labyrinth they claim a feeling of coming home. Others say they recall “ancient memories,” tapping into a level of consciousness not experienced before.
The Purpose of Labyrinths
All are in agreement that labyrinths are archetypes of the divine which are found in all religious traditions throughout the world. To the leaders of the movement they have rediscovered a long-forgotten mystical tradition. Dr. Artress says that, “The labyrinth has only one path so there are no tricks to it and no dead ends. The path winds throughout and becomes a mirror for where we are in our lives. It touches our sorrows and releases our joys. Walk it with an open mind and an open heart.” Artress then describes the stages of the walk and the best method for experiencing it.
Three stages of the walk:
- Purgation (Releasing) ~ A releasing, a letting go of the details of your life. This is the act of shedding thoughts and distractions. A time to open the heart and quiet the mind.
- Illumination (Receiving) ~ When you reach the center, stay there as long as you like. It is a place of meditation and prayer. Receive what is there for you to receive.
- Union (Returning) ~ As you leave, following the same path out of the center as you came in, you enter the third stage, which is joining God, your Higher Power, or the healing forces at work in the world. Each time you walk the labyrinth you become more empowered to find and do the work you feel your soul reaching for.
Guidelines for the walk: Dr. Artress recommends that the walker, “quiet your mind and become aware of your breath. Allow yourself to find the pace your body wants to go. The path is two ways. Those going in will meet those coming out. You may “pass” people or let others step around you. Do what feels natural.”
For those who are familiar with classical mysticism of any stripe, or have read our previous papers on the subject, you will immediately recognize that labyrinths are merely a tool to move the worshipper into a mystical union with God (as you understand Him). And “as a device, the labyrinth has been compared to, in terms of function, rosaries, Stations of the Cross, and the tao-te-ching, or the Chinese Book of the Way.” Yet, even with all of its obvious connections with various world religions and Medieval Roman Catholicism, some have tried to conjure up biblical support from Jeremiah 6:16, “Stand at the crossroads, and look, and ask for the ancient paths, where the good way lies; and walk in it, and find rest for your souls.”
All of this would be of little consequence if the labyrinth revival were confined to a few European cathedrals, and a liberal church in San Francisco. The fact is interest in labyrinths have caught fire both inside and out of the evangelical community. The Lighthouse Trails, one Christian watchdog organization which does research on such subjects, reports that a Google search (if you don’t know what that is, ask your kids) on labyrinths revealed 116,000 hits in March 2004. But less than a year later a Google search brings up 290,000 hits. But more alarming is that labyrinths are rapidly becoming a recognized form of worship in many evangelical organizations and churches. They are being promoted by Youth for Christ, Youth Specialties, Intervarsity Christian Fellowship, The Emergent Church Convention, Navpress, Rick Warren (through his recommendation of Navpress’ pro-contemplative magazine, Discipleship Journal and speaking at Youth Specialties conferences), Zondervan Publishing, National Pastors Convention, Leadership Magazine, Group Publishing and a host of others. At the 2004 National Pastors Convention, held in San Diego, the daily morning schedule included: opportunities to walk the labyrinth (from 7 a.m. – 10:30 p.m.); “Contemplative Morning Prayer Exercise” (8:30 a.m. – 9:15 a.m.); and “Sustainable Life Forum: Stretching and Yoga” (8:30 a.m. – 9:15 a.m.). Speakers at this convention included Rick Warren, Howard Hendricks, Dan Kimball and Brian McLaren (the latter two are Emergent Church leaders and the topic of an upcoming paper). Sadly I have heard of very conservative Bible Colleges offering labyrinth walks to their students, and can only hope that their leadership is ignorant of the true purpose behind the labyrinth (which is why we publish these papers).
A number of years ago Karen Mains pretty much torpedoed the ministry of Chapel of the Air, her own ministry, and that of David, her husband, when she wrote Lonely No More. In that book she chronicled her journey into Jungian psychology, visualization and the occult. She of course denied any involvement with the occult, but judge for yourself. Mains describes dreams about her “male-self,” a man she called Eddie Bishop. “He was tall … well formed and trim, somewhere in his early thirties … His fine, dark hair fell in a thick lock across his forehead … his blue-gray eyes looking earnestly into mine.” The details of his communication are specific: “‘You are everything I have ever wanted spiritually,’ he said before I [in the dream] started to drive away.” Mains claims that this experience has taken place “six or eight times a year for the last four or five years.” and has had a “positively profound effect” on her, compelling her to seek psychospiritual counsel. A later session with her “spiritual director” at Cenacle, a Catholic contemplative retreat center, Mains tells of a drastic change in the entity which has been appearing in her mind. She describes an “idiot-child sitting at a table with other people. Its head totally bald and lolled to one side. It was drooling and seemed to be six, seven or eight years of age…. It was so emaciated and malnourished…. He turned his sad, huge eyes on me and smiled sweetly…. This is my idiot-child, the idiot-self of my self.” Her “spiritual director” has her close her eyes and see the child again. She does so and begins to communicate with the image who surprises them both by revealing that it is the “Christ child.” Mrs. Mains ponders the thought that the young man and the idiot-child are both Jesus Christ who has “been attempting to woo me because an essential part of my identity in Him has been expelled from my adult development.” We find that this “Christ child,” whom she is instructed to always take with her, is her “spiritual authority” which she is “afraid of having” and has “rejected not only [as] a part of myself, but a part of myself that is Christ. While she admits that the psychological concept of the male-within-the-female (and visa versa) was developed by Carl Jung, she has always seen it as scriptural. In her self-analysis of her visualized experiences Mains writes, “Through my hardships I discover there’s a small part of myself that hasn’t grown whole along with the rest of me. It’s been maimed by neglect during years of married life. I call it my “idiot-self.” I’m discovering that this malnourished orphan needs to be nursed and nurtured. I must find the idiot-self creeping about in the infrastructure of my soul….Self of my self, this abandoned child is very much a part of me….I understand that in some way, I, the intuitive, introverted, feeling-proficient female, have become the substitute for [my husband] David’s own female self, his anima, to use the Jungian terminology. He…functions for me as my animus….I have abdicated to my husband my own maleness.”
The spiritual path that Karen Mains describes in Lonely No More can easily be found in most occult spiritual transformation books.
An uproar ensued following the publication of Lonely No More and it was immediately removed from the bookshelves and taken out of print, but not before irreparable damage was done. The people of God were just not ready for a heavy dose of visualization and occultic practices at the time. Fast forward a dozen years and the spiritual landscape is different today, and apparently more primed for such techniques. David Seamand, a frequent guest on such programs as “Focus on the Family” has written a number of books advocating “Christian” visualization including, Healing for Damaged Emotions and Healing of Memories.
Recently, popular author and theologian Gregory Boyd has written a similar book entitled Seeing Is Believing. Seeing Is Believing is a good example of how occultic visualization practices are creeping into evangelicalism. Boyd’s thesis is that “It’s not what we believe intellectually that impacts us; it’s what we experience as real”. Experience is the key word, used literally hundreds of times in this small volume (57 times in the 8 page introduction alone). How does one go about experiencing Jesus? Using 2 Corinthians 3:17-4:6 as his main text, Boyd tells us that imagination, when guided by the Holy Spirit and submitted to the authority of Scripture, is our main receptor to the spiritual world. The problem is that our Western mindset rejects imagination as make believe (pp. 72, 86, 95, 127-128, 134, 205). So it is necessary to reject this worldview and adopt an Eastern, mystical understanding. When this happens we begin to use our imagination to discover the real Jesus.
The most disturbing part of Boyd’s imaginative prayer methodology is that it evolves into New Age visualization. Boyd does not deny this; his caveat is that his program should not be condemned through guilt by association. By visualization what we mean is that at some point in this process the image imagined (the spirit-guide in New Age mysticism) actually comes alive and begins to act independently of the person (such as happened with Karen Mains). At that point contact has been made with the spirit world in ways clearly condemned by Scripture. For example Boyd gives numerous examples such as this one, “Sometimes as I rest with the Lord he will say something unexpected like, ‘Are you ready for more of my freedom?’” Then Jesus leads him to some memory from his past and reconstructs it. This is not wholesome imagination but the altering of reality and contact with the spirit world (he naively assumes the spirit speaking to him is really Jesus). Boyd maintains that only in this manner can a person grow in his knowledge of Christ and/or have his memories healed.
John Weldon and John Ankerberg tell us, “Visualization is the use of mental concentration and directed imagery in the attempt to secure particular goals, whether physical, psychological, vocational, educational, or spiritual. Visualization attempts to program the mind to discover inner power and guidance. It is often used as a means to, or in conjunction with, altered states of consciousness (e.g., as produced by meditation), and is frequently used to develop psychic abilities or make contact with spirits.”
Visualization is being used today not only in the occult but also in New Age medicine in an attempt to manipulate mystical life energies; education to tap the “higher self” and its powers; psychotherapy and the church, to bring about inner healing.
Visualization must be distinguished from imagination. Healthy imagination is a good and wonderful gift from God, but visualization is something very different. In visualization a person is attempting to either directly alter reality or make contact with the spirit world. Both of these practices are condemned in Scripture. David Hunt distinguishes visualization proper from the nonoccult use of the imagination. He observes:
The visualization we are concerned with is an ancient witchcraft technique that has been at the heart of shamanism for thousands of years, yet is gaining increasing acceptance in today’s secular world and now more and more within the church. It attempts to use vivid images held in the mind as a means of healing diseases, creating wealth, and otherwise manipulating reality. Strangely enough, a number of Christian leaders teach and practice these same techniques in the name of Christ, without recognizing them for what they are.
A practitioner of visualization describes it in this manner:
Programmed visualization…is the deliberate use of the power of your own mind to create your own reality….there is nothing too insignificant or too grand for you to visualize. Our lives are limited by what we see as possible….A basic rule of visualization is: you can use visualization to have whatever you want, but YOU MUST REALLY, REALLY WANT WHAT YOU VISUALIZE (emphases in original).
Visualization has gained popularity in the Western culture as Eastern mystical thought has invaded and been increasingly accepted. This is true because visualization fits best with a pantheistic worldview that sees humans as divine and creators of their own reality. Visualization is an important technique that supposedly taps the higher self and initiates contact with the ultimate cosmic reality.
By contrast, the Scriptures do not teach or encourage visualization for the healing of memories, healing of body or soul, or spiritual growth. Rather we are called to be renewed daily by the Holy Spirit, prayer and the Word of God.
 Steven Spearie, “A Spiritual Journey on Canvas,” “The State Journal-Register” January 16, 2005, p. 19.
 The Berean Call, July 2004, p 6.
 Karen Burton Mains, Lonely No More (Dallas: Word Publishing, 1993), Mains pp. 114-115.
 Ibid., p. 123.
 Ibid., p. 124.
 Ibid., p. 124.
 Ibid., p. 115.
 Ibid., p. 71.
 Gregory A. Boyd, Seeing Is Believing (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2004), p. 12.
 Ibid., p.196.
 Ibid., pp. 72, 86, 95, 127-128, 134, 205.
 Ibid., pp. 117-134.
 Ibid., p. 114.
 John Weldon and John Ankerberg, “Visualization: God-Given Power or New Age Danger” Part 1, p. 1.
 David Hunt and T. A. McMahon, The Seduction of Christianity (Eugene, Or: Harvest House, 1984), p. 124.
 Adelaide Bry, Visualization: Directing the Movies of Your Mind (New York: Barnes & Noble Books, 1979), p.1
The article (April 2005 – Volume 11, Issue 4) appears in its original form here.