Final Reflections on the Spiritual Formation Debate

Going beyond spiritual formation and the review of Peth’s book, let me briefly address what I consider a significant and perhaps dangerous misunderstanding in Adventist (and much evangelical) thinking. There is, rightly, a great concern about and fear of ecumenism. What is widely thought of as ecumenism is a process of unifying religious institutions for political advantage. When religion and politics get together bad things happen, especially to faithful believers who have captured the deeper spiritual heart of faith and rejected the political agendas of so many religious institutions. But there is another type of “ecumenism” and that is recognizing God’s call to many individuals in every religious institution on the globe (Rev 18:4). Among the Catholics, Muslims, Hindus, Jews, Buddhists, etc. are many people who are genuinely seeking truth and have experienced some acquaintance with God. Through the Holy Spirit, God has been in every place before the missionaries ever got there. I have found kindred spirits of genuine faith in many places that I would not have expected.

Peth has focused on the dangers of learning from others, and rightly so. I would wish that he had done so in a more reasoned and academic fashion, but I fully agree that there is a huge danger in opening oneself freely to the ideas of others without a strong grounding in the biblical world view. One can enter a slippery slope in which one gradually morphs from a biblical Jesus-follower to a self-focused eclectic. But there is an equal and opposite danger that Peth’s book does not address. And that is to allow ourselves to be so consumed with the dangers of ecumenism that we close ourselves off spiritually from neighbors, friends and family who think and live differently. God’s end-time remnant will be drawn from every nation, tribe, language and people, and yes, also religion (Rev 14:6; 18:1-4). My fear is that books like the one by Peth may cause us to see demons behind every bush and inspire suspicion of others that closes ourselves off from others at just the time when God is seeking to draw His faithful ones together.

There is an often unwritten thread in Adventist (and evangelical) thought that suggests that our religion has the truth and others are messed up. At the end of time people will abandon the mess-up religions and join ours, making up the end-time remnant (or whatever evangelicals may call it). What this thread does not take seriously is evidence that all religious institutions are messed-up, including our own, whichever that may be. All religious institutions are human attempts to bear witness to a perception of God’s action in the world. This is a good thing. We should honor the acts of God in our midst and call them to the attention of the world. But over time, religious institutions become more and more focused on self-preservation and less and less focused on the original mission. This is why reformations are needed in every faith. At the end of time all religious institutions will be split between those who want to preserve a human shell and those who have maintained or recaptured the original spirit and mission of the faith. The faithful remnant of every religion will in the end prove to have more in common with each other than with colleagues in their own religion. The final proclamations of the gospel and its counterfeit (Rev 14:6-12; 16:13-16– see the Armageddon Trilogy on the main page of the web site) will expose the human (and often satanic) side to institutional religion. God’s faithful ones will find each other in strange and surprising places. The final outcome is drawn in broad strokes in Revelation, but the details will probably surprise us all.

What I have outlined here is messier and will for many be less satisfying than a black and white treatise. But truth is often a tension between two poles (two examples: the divine and the human in Jesus Christ, and the role of faith and works in Christian experience). Finding a balance between the ditch of ecumenism and the ditch of self-important exclusivism is rarely easy. To be open and accepting of people at the same time one is discerning truth and error is challenging in practice. I hope that readers can learn the latter from Peth’s book without developing the mind and attitude of a Pharisee toward those who are sincerely seeking God in the only way they know how to seek Him. One thing Howard Peth and I certainly have in common, although we haven’t met, we both have a lot to learn.

4 thoughts on “Final Reflections on the Spiritual Formation Debate

  1. DOUGLAS LUPO

    caught your program this mornin. ……I think more people should study so they can open their eyes and see. Thank you for your teaching cause the devil is in jville seeking who he can devour !

    Reply
  2. Julia

    Is it possible that contemplative prayer is described in 1 Corinthians 14 as speaking in tongues as opposed to professying?

    Reply
  3. steven grabiner

    Jon,

    Thank you for a balanced and thoughtful review of Peth’s book. While I am clearly no supporter of mysticism masquerading as Christianity, I had many of the same concerns you pointed out while reading the book. Of greater concern to me than a false spirituality sweeping the church, is the lack of spirituality I encounter within myself and others.

    Steven

    Reply

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