Either/Or Thinking

Another challenge I find in Howard Peth’s book on comtemplative prayer is either/or thinking, which is inadequate to the depth of a subject like this. On pages ix and x (see also pages 54 and 55) this is reflected in three either/or dilemmas. 1) Pastors can “try anything once” or they can uphold the Word of God. But can we not learn from experience at the same time we are learning from the Word? 2) You can have a “seeker-friendly” church or you can have a church built on biblical principles. Wouldn’t it be good to do both as far as possible? 3) You can give people what they want or you can follow the Bible. But are these always mutually exclusive? Doesn’t the gospel strike with the most power when it meets people at points of felt need and common associations (1 Cor 9:19-23)? Perhaps Professor Peth would agree with me on the above once I have worded things in this way, but the book itself often fails to nuance things like this in a helpful way. When a case is weak one tends to overstate it.

On page 17 and other places the author laments that eastern mysticism is “infiltrating” the western Christian church. I don’t doubt that this is the case, and some or much of that deserves concern. But I see little recognition of the fact that the Bible itself is an eastern book and that Western Christianity has often distorted the biblical message by reading it through the filter of western culture and philosophy. We don’t even notice that we are doing this, because that culture and philosophy is ingrained in who we are. To make this an “either/or” is not helpful. To read the Bible with western eyes inevitably distorts some things and some aspects of eastern thinking do bring us back a little closer to the biblical world view.

In discussing specific individuals a major method of Peth’s book is the ad hominem (“against the man”) argument. This involves the use of emotive words and pejorative language (such as “brainwash,” “proclamation of another gospel,” “liberal, loose and free-thinking pastors” “not Bible doctrine but babbling dialogue,” “watered-down gospel”) to create a sense in the reader that the people being described are not trustworthy or even dangerous. This is a tactic often used when a person realizes that an argument is weak. I once teased a friend that his arguments were 50% logic and 50% ridicule. The weaker the logic, the greater the tendency to use emotive and pejorative language to carry an audience that would not otherwise buy the argument. But such methods actually signal the weakness rather than the strength of an argument.

The key figure under attack in Peth’s book is Richard Foster. The arguments against Foster are as follows. First, the title and contents of his book Celebration of Discipline are modeled on Ignatius Loyola’s Spiritual Exercises. Second, Foster is a Quaker, Quakers believe such and such, therefore, Foster teaches such and such. Noting this connection can be academically useful. But when I see how Adventists are often viewed in the light of David Koresh, I am cautious in applying this insight with finality. What I missed in Peth’s book was much analysis of what Foster actually wrote in his book. The closest Peth comes to an analysis of Foster’s actual work is on page 75 where two short and very general quotes (one sentence each) are then expanded and interpreted to support Peth’s viewpoint. Third, Foster seldom quotes the Bible in his book, getting his teachings from non-Christian or non-protestant sources. This too is helpful to observe. But there is a reason for Foster’s approach. The Bible strongly encourages prayer, yet rarely says much about how to actually do it in practice. Thus a book like Foster’s inevitably will take a more scientific approach of seeing what various people have tried and evaluating what works or does not work. How well Foster does this is worthy of examination, but I don’t find it surprising that a book on the practics of spiritual life might range far afield in search of options that could be useful to Christians. Adventists, certainly, got interested in Foster’s book and others because of the sense that other Christian communities knew more about caring for spiritual life and growth than we did. Interestingly, Peth notes that Foster himself warns readers in a later book of the dangers of demonic activity (page 69), so one can wonder if Peth is drawing the distinctions between him and Foster a bit too fine.

Given the mystical sources of Foster’s book in the eastern and Catholic religions, it is well that we read with caution. But reading Peth’s book has actually encouraged me to pick up Foster’s book again and see what I may have missed the first time around. If I get the time to do that I will report what I find in this blog.

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