Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Contemplating Contemplation

I have been thinking through spiritual formation as I am currently taking a class on that right now in seminary. In a prior post I have compared the two views of Foster and Wesley regarding the spiritual disciplines and contemplative prayer. Here I hope to examine this mystical side of spiritual formation (SF) from a larger theological perspective.

Before I do that let me back up and define SF. Better yet let me let the main proponents define it. In a CT 2005 article that transcribed an interview with Dallas Willard and Richard Foster SF was defined as follows:
Spiritual formation is character formation. Everyone gets a spiritual formation. It's like education. Everyone gets an education; it's just a matter of which one you get.

Spiritual formation in a Christian tradition answers a specific human question: What kind of person am I going to be? It is the process of establishing the character of Christ in the person. That's all it is. You are taking on the character of Christ in a process of discipleship to him under the direction of the Holy Spirit and the Word of God. It isn't anything new, because Christians have been in this business forever. They haven't always called it spiritual formation, but the term itself goes way back.
I don't think many of us could disagree with the definition above. Certainly SF is the "the process of establishing the character of Christ in the person" and the Holy Spirit and the Word are instrumental. How these are involved and what that process looks like is a good question. One we all should be thinking through as we seek to please the Lord and make the most of the life He has given us. However my goal in this post is not to tackle whether Christ like character requires a process or not  - I think that Scripture makes it clear that sanctification is a synergistic process. My goal in this post is not to tackle what that process is either. My goal is to examine one of the disciplines - contemplative prayer - and look at the many areas of theology that are intersected.

Why? Because this discipline is stressed as one of the foundational disciplines and is the school that we should all enroll in according to Foster in CD. In the chapter on Contemplative Prayer in Foster's book Prayer: Finding the Heart's True Home (PFH) (161-163) we learn more about what this discipline is:
[this prayer is] traditionally called recollection. It means recollecting ourselves until we are unified or whole. Basil Penington uses the phrase centering prayer. Sue Monk Kidd calls it prayer of presence. The old Quakers uses the term centering down. They all refer to the same experience. The idea is to let go of all competing distractions until we are truly present where we are. ... [and] have made contact with that center which knows no distraction ... we experience an inward attentiveness to divine motions. ... Be silent and listen to God. Let your heart be in such a state of preparation that his Spirit may impress upon you such virtues as will please him. Let all within you listen to him. This silence of all outward and earthly affection and of human thoughts within us is essential if we are to hear his voice. (emphasis added)
Listening to God. That is certainly something every Christian should take serious. Jesus said if we were His friends we would obey Him (John 15:14). Jesus also said that My sheep know My voice and follow Me (John 10:4). Hearing God's voice. I have to admit this has always been a difficult area for me to get my head around. What does it mean that we shall "hear His still small voice"? What does that sound like? What types of things can we expect to be told and how? Can we be sure it is His voice and not our own desires, ideas, or worse? As I have wrestled through this again in view of contemplative prayer I thought of all the different theology that is involved with this concept.

Our view of Scripture as the inspired and inerrant Word of God is important. In this collection of books we have the promises, commands, and revelations of God as our objective truth. The Scriptures are the basis by which we are equipped for every good work (2 Tim 3:17) and the Spirit that indwells us empowers us to live in godliness (2 Pet 1:3; 1 Cor 6:19). Are we to seek subjective inner experiences in order to be equipped and empowered to live in godliness? As this discipline is pursued is Scripture to be used to  evaluate these experiences (1 John 4:1; Deut 18:21)?

Support for the Discipline is primarily supported by appealing to the "devotional masters". However there is no sound Scriptural support for the contemplative prayer described in CD or PFH. Certainly we can see Jesus seek out times of solitude to be alone, get rest, and pray. We are also told to "be still" in many Scriptures (Ps 4:4; Ps 46:10). However do any of these passages describe this practice? When Jesus taught us how to pray did He describe the discipline of listening silence? Should we accept a discipline that has no support in Scripture and was championed by Catholic mystics who come from a faith background that saw sacraments as part of salvation and grace (see Trent Session 7, Canon IV, VIII, IX)?

Our view of the Holy Spirit certainly affects how we come to contemplative prayer. As an aside I encourage you to stop reading this post and check this post out by Rey on the Holy Spirit. Tremble indeed.

When the Holy Spirit interacts with us, what does Scripture say we can expect (a non-exhaustive list - feel free to add more in the comment section):
  • Conviction of sin, righteousness, and judgment. (John 16:8-11)
  • Power to live in godliness (2 Pet 1:3-4)
  • Illumination & Understanding of what God has already revealed. (1 Cor 2:9-14)
  • Guidance & Wisdom. (James 1:5)
  • Assurance of Salvation. (Rom 8:16)
  • Help in prayer life. (Rom 8:26-27)
As the Holy Spirit works in these ways in our life how does He do it? Is contemplative prayer the means to these gracious promises?

Our definition of prophecy and continuation of the sign gifts certainly affects how we come to contemplative prayer as well. Is there a difference between convicting, guiding, illuminating, and revealing? Should we expect new information from God through imagination, feelings, and subjective experiences? Could this be a normal occurrence in the life of a believer?

I certainly believe that God speaks. I believe that this is primarily and normally by the Spirit through the Word  just as it says in Hebrews 3:7 (emphasis added):
Therefore, as the Holy Spirit says, "Today, if you hear his voice, ... "
The Holy Spirit speaks. One way is through the Scripture since this passage goes on to demonstrate the HS speaking by quoting Psalm 95:7. I believe that the Spirit primarily guides us into truth that has been revealed in the Scriptures and helps us understand and apply the Word in our lives. This does not preclude God from speaking through other means at various times. However I question whether this is a normative experience to be sought out through contemplative prayer.

How does your theology handle this very practical area of hearing God?

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