Spirituality in a Pluralistic Age: Responding to Richard Foster’s Sanctuary of the Soul

By Bruce Epperly

{This post is part of a conversation on the new book Sanctuary of the Soul by Richard Foster, hosted at the Patheos Book Club.}

Forty one years ago, in October 1970, a long-haired first year college student opened the doors of the Students International Meditation Society ashram in Berkeley, California, and an amazing spiritual adventure began.  A refugee from the spiritual claustrophobia of conservative Christianity, I had spent the previous three years seeking God through psychedelics, American transcendentalism, and Hindu philosophy.  Despite my spiritual quest, I was worn out from my psychedelic adventures and knew that I needed to find another pathway to divinity.  I had heard about the Beatles and Maharishi Yogi, and believed, in the spirit of Carlos Castaneda’s Don Juan, that transcendental meditation (TM) might be a path with heart.

That October Saturday afternoon, I was spiritually born anew.  I received my mantra and learned transcendental meditation.  I made a commitment to refrain from drugs, alcohol, and meat.  The simple meditative technique, characteristic of TM, felt right to me and became the heart of my spiritual life for many years.  But, something just as amazing happened.  I returned to church!  Not the conservative Christianity of my childhood, but a liberal, socially-active, anti-war Baptist church – Grace Baptist Church in San Jose, California.  As the name suggests, it was in this free-thinking, open-minded church that I experienced grace and took the first steps toward my vocation as a theologian, spiritual leader, healing partner, writer, and pastor.  I discovered that I could be a Christian without letting go of science, spiritual openness, and intellectual curiosity.

Over the years, when I share my faith journey, many of my Christian listeners have found it surprising that I still affirm the importance of transcendental meditation in my spiritual journey and confess that, apart from TM, I might never have embraced Christianity as a young adult.  For forty years, my spiritual path as a Christian has involved centering prayer, biblical study, lectio divina, and theological reflection; but it has also involved transcendental meditation.

A decade later in the early 1980’s when I discovered the healings of Jesus, and made a commitment to articulate a progressive vision and practice of healing for today’s church, I was inspired to embark on a healing pathway, first of all, by global complementary medicine and Jerry Jampolsky’s “attitudinal healing,” rather than the faith healers of my childhood.  I rediscovered the healing stories of the gospels as a result of encountering non-Christian approaches to healing and wholeness.  For twenty years, I have integrated liturgical laying on of hands and healing prayer with reiki healing touch, a form of healing energy work based on the practices of Japanese Buddhist (and possibly Christian) teacher Mikao Usui.  I write about the integration of Christianity and reiki healing touch in Reiki Healing Touch and the Way of Jesus (co-written with Katherine Gould Epperly) and my God’s Touch: Faith, Wholeness, and the Healing Miracles of Jesus.

I believe that God’s truth is present in every spiritual tradition.  Wherever truth and healing are found, God is its source, whether or not the name of Jesus is invoked.  Accordingly, I believe that Christians can be faithful to Jesus’ teachings while integrating Christian and non-Christian spiritual practices in their spiritual disciplines.  Nevertheless, many pastors and laypeople are still “in the closet” when it comes to sharing their creative synthesis of yoga, Tai Chi, reiki, Zen meditation, or TM, with their faith as followers of Jesus.  They are afraid they will be seen as heretical, having discovered truth beyond traditional Christian pathways.

It is from the perspective of a global, open-spirited Christianity that I respond to Richard Foster’s Sanctuary of the Soul. Foster has been a leader in introducing Christians to the long-forgotten  Christian traditions of prayer, meditation, fasting, and lectio divina.  His writing has not only shaped the spiritual practices of evangelicals like himself but also mainstream and progressive Christians.  Foster proclaims that “Jesus has not stopped acting and speaking.  He is resurrected and at work in our world.”  As my own denomination, the United Church of Christ, proclaims: “God is still speaking.”

Accordingly, I was somewhat surprised when Foster notes that obedience, which he affirms as central to the biblical view of meditation, is in “marked contrast to the various forms of meditation in many religions around the world.”  As if to say that other traditions lack an ethical vision, Foster continues: “the biblical stress is always on ethical change, character transformation, obedience to the Word of the Lord.”  This is a typical evangelical distinction between Christianity and other faiths, characteristic of Karl Barth’s assertion that there is no “point of contact” between Christ’s message and the human quest for wholeness.

In contrast to Foster, I believe that other faiths also join spirituality and ethics.  They may not have a hierarchical sense of obedience characteristic of certain forms of evangelical Christianity, but they nevertheless assert that humans can find spiritual fulfillment through alignment with God’s vision for the world and human life or identifying the individual spirit with the soul of the universe.   While this vision may differ from traditional Christianity, it is still transformational and value-oriented.

I do not fault Foster for his approach to the spiritual paths of other faiths.  The creative synthesis of Christian and non-Christian spiritual practices that has been so meaningful to me may be far too adventurous for many Christians.  It takes solid theological reflection and a commitment to active spiritual discernment to distinguish between the “wheat and the tares” in non-Christian as well as Christian spiritual paths.  Still, I believe that growing in wisdom and stature as Christians requires a healthy appreciation of the spiritual practices and belief systems of other faith traditions.  In a universe of at least one hundred billion galaxies, there is plenty of truth to go around.  Religious diversity is not a fall from grace, but a manifestation of God’s abundant and creative wisdom, which addresses people and cultures in unique ways.  Further, if Christ is still acting and speaking, as Foster affirms, Christ may be the inspiring people to embrace the wisdom of other faiths.  I believe that Christ led me to learn transcendental meditation, to enter the sanctuary of Grace Baptist Church, to find wisdom in attitudinal healing and global healing, and to rediscover the healings of Jesus.   I believe that Christ continues to lead me toward new adventure in faithfulness and healing.

Finding a path with a heart may lead people to Christian practices such as silent prayer, centering prayer, lectio divina, and Quaker silence; it may also lead people to practicing yoga, Zen meditation, TM, and reiki healing touch.  This isn’t religious relativism, nor are all these paths alike in practice and results; rather it is openness to follow God’s guidance wherever it leads us.

Richard Foster has done a great service to Christians of all kinds by his integration of Quaker spirituality, evangelical theology and experience, and Christian spiritual disciplines.  Taking Foster seriously in a pluralistic age may take us beyond Christianity as the living Christ lures us toward a truly hospitable, spirit-centered, and global Christianity.

Bruce Epperly is a theologian, writer, and spiritual guide.  He is the author of twenty-one books, includingHoly Adventure: 41 Days of Audacious Living, Process Theology: A Guide for the Perplexed, Philippians: An Interactive Adult Study,and The Center is Everywhere: Celtic Spirituality for the Postmodern Age.

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