In the previous three blogs I have been setting the context for some concerns I have about Howard Peth’s book The Dangers of Contemplative Prayer (Nampa, ID: Pacific Press Publishing Association and Hart Research Center, 2012). The book has been used to justify attacks on the Theological Seminary at Andrews University for a program I described from personal experience in the first blog. As I noted in the second blog, Peth’s book has value for those unschooled in the intricacies of spiritual growth and development. It warns the novice against the danger of emptying one’s mind to either one’s interior voices or an external influence that can be diabolical as well as benign. This is a valid point and worth making. Nevertheless, I wonder if the book will not prove in the end to do as much harm as it does good. This is certainly not the author’s intention, nor that of those who published the book. But the possibility deserves at least brief consideration here.
There are two major concerns I have about the book. First, the positive points in the book could have been made even more powerfully in 3-5 pages than in the 90 pages offered. The length of the book leads to much repetition along with examples and illustrations that often weaken the point rather than strengthen it. There is material in the book for a very good article, but over 90 pages the point is lost in questionable assumptions and illustrations. I will go into those a bit more detail below.
Second, the main purpose of the book does not seem to be the positives I mention in the previous blog but more of an attack piece on Evangelical Protestantism and its supposed selling out to the Papacy, at least in matters related to prayer and meditation. The author does not name Seventh-day Adventist authors or institutions, so the reader is left to decide whether he feels that some such have already sold out as well or whether this is merely an early warning. But he certainly names some very popular writers and speakers who have influence among Seventh-day Adventists, so if there is guilt by association (and that is a major argument in the book), the book is a subtle indictment of the Seventh-day Adventist Church and many of its thought leaders (though this indictment is subtle enough that a church publishing house chose to put its name on the book). But maybe I am making too much of that point, so I’ll just leave it an open question. Perhaps the author will be willing to respond.
The primary argument in the author’s case appears to be guilt by association. If you are a Roman Catholic you practice negative forms of contemplative prayer (even though they have been condemned by the previous pope). If you have quoted a Catholic or know a Quaker you are guilty. If you know or have read Richard Foster, you are guilty. If a spiritualist likes something you have said, you are guilty. Terms like spiritual formation and contemplative prayer are used by so and so, therefore anyone who has used these terms is guilty. In careful scholarship, associations and influence are important in establishing what a person could know or believe. But by itself association is a very weak argument, assuming that a person cannot associate with another and still disagree or maintain their own integrity (as we saw in the previous blog, that argument could be made about Peth’s relationship with Oakland and Yungen as well).
What the book lacks is clear documentation that most of the people mentioned in the book actually teach and practice what the author is opposing. I, for one, read books by Foster and Willard some 20-25 years ago and never picked up the “empty your mind” concept of meditation from them. One can, perhaps, read between the lines of their books and see such a concept, but Peth’s book does not demonstrate that it is clearly taught there. Arguing guilt by association introduces suspicion toward other believers. One begins with the assumption that there is something wrong with somebody and then searches for hints and turns of phrase to demonstrate what would not be obvious in a normal reading of the text.
A good example is the comment about Beth Moore on page 26. In a 2002 comment, Beth Moore says that practicing God’s presence in her life is a number one goal. And she finds God in the “stillness.” Does this “stillness” mean a removal of distractions, or something much more sinister? That is not demonstrated in Peth’s book, it is merely alleged on the basis of the word chosen. We all struggle with distractions as we pray, so it would seem strategies that can help focus the mind on Scripture and God would be important and helpful. My wife has taken a number of classes with Beth Moore’s material and was shocked to hear that she would be accused of a negative form of prayer. When I shared Peth’s description of negative forms of contemplative prayer, she said, “I never heard anything like that from her, she is always grounded in the Bible.” For what it’s worth.
In the next blog I will address another major challenge I have in appreciating Peth’s book. Then I will draw some general reflections on the larger context of this debate.