January 23, 2021

Who and What are Forming You?

merton_icon.jpgEvery time I feel like I have lost my way in the Christian life, I find myself back looking at monasticism, and the lessons I learned in two decades of reading Thomas Merton.

I’m not attracted to Catholicism, but I am very much attracted to the tradition of self-conscious, disciplined spiritual formation into a disciple of Jesus Christ. This is a great failing of our side of the church.

As much as we Protestants talk about being shaped by the Bible alone, most evangelicals are thoroughly formed and shaped by the communities where the Bible is handled, taught and practiced according to a “rule” or accepted authority, and by the media that supports and communicates the values of that community.

It is, without a doubt, one of the most appealing and positive aspects of Catholicism that it is self-conscious about its “rules” and authorities for spiritual formation. (Rule as in “way,” as in The Rule of Benedict.) It surely must be humorous to knowledgeable catholics to look at the various sects, denominations and varieties of evangelicalism and fundamentalism, all claiming to “just read the Bible.”

For a large portion of my recent evangelical journey, I have found myself wandering between three varieties of evangelicalism:

1) Southern Baptist fundamentalism
2) Evangelical Calvinism
3) Generic contemporary evangelical revivalism

All of these communities could be characterized as shaping the spiritualities of believers according to largely unwritten rules and authorities.

The closest thing you get to self-conscious spiritual formation among most evangelicals: Jabez, PDL, or an evangelism course. Or a cruise.

It’s occurred to me that at least two of these streams have done much to shape me in the belief that pursuing polemic argument is a primary expression of discipleship. I have been affected by this kind of spiritual “rule,” and when I step away from it, the effects are very obvious.

Lots of time is taken up in finding error, pointing out error, justifying the seriousness of the error (even if it is in a non-essential area), and responding to the error with the proper arrangement of Biblical material.

It’s amazing how many Christians conceive of almost the entirety of discipleship in terms of argumentation. This is seen in the pastoral models they choose, the books/blogs they write and the spiritual activities they value most (debate and classroom lecture.)

These largely unarticulated forms of spiritual formation can be seen in what is not important. I note with interest that one simply cannot say enough bad about most kinds of contemplative prayer, and any sort of silence among many of the reformed particularly. Any kind of intentional approach to spiritual formation, and any kind of intentional approach to discipleship (Dallas Willard, for example) is undertaken amidst a barrage of criticism. If the imagination is mentioned, all fire alarms are pulled and a search for Oprah Winfrey ensues.

Me thinks the lady doth protest too much.

The “fully formed” Christian in these traditions is not a person of silence, but of much talking, talking and more talking. Worship is lecture, a rally, or an emotion-centered event. The primary encounter with the Bible is exposition and lecture. Correcting theological error, moral error and ecclesiastical error is the main business of the church.

In other forms of evangelicalism spiritual formation is done under the guise of church growth and using ones “gifts” to grow the church. Or perhaps in the cause of righteous, upright living in the culture war. Again, the kinds of prayer, worship, community life and worship that are generated by these priorities are obvious to most observers, but largely invisible to the participants.

In all the years I was reading Merton’s spiritual direction writings, I can’t recall anything I would call polemic of any kind. He simply didn’t waste his life arguing with others. He read scripture constantly, but as the stuff of prayer, liturgy and meditation, not as the raw material for debate. He went through the “political years” when he was critical of his church for not living up to his standards of peacemaking and justice, but in the end it was the ancient life, the deep life of monastic rhythms that sustained Merton and made him a man and a monk. He worked on himself for a lifetime. Some will say because he didn’t believe in the reformation doctrine of justification. Perhaps. Maybe, however, the path of personal spiritual formation isn’t as instant, passive or automatic as we’ve been told.

I’m not holding Merton up as an ideal. Far from it. I’m simply saying that when one’s spirituality is formed by the pronouncements of pastors who are constantly chasing church growth, the culture war or the latest challenge to Calvinism, you are going to get one result, and when you go back to the sources, find the value of the ancient paths of formation, value silence, read, meditate, contemplate and seek to grow in love, you will get another result.

I can’t help but think there is an “internet Christian” spirituality as well. Formed by reading blogs. Expressing itself in writing. Concerned with all the perceptions of reality that run rampant on the net. I’m sure this isn’t a good thing either.

Spiritual formation happens in the real world. It’s not just reading, but it’s discussion and asking questions of those further down the road. It’s having leaders who are humble before the Word, and not leaders who take the word and become the pictures of arrogance. It’s seeing your sin in the light of holiness, not excusing your sin in the light of the latest crisis.

Much evangelical spirituality has become like fantasy baseball. We have our own league, our own team, our own statistics, our own insulated world in which all of this matters. We can give great speeches and write long posts (and I am the chief of sinners here) on what doesn’t matter much at all. These days, we don’t all get our 15 minutes of fame, but we can all worship a pastor, go to a winning church, opine on a blog, imagine our arguments are significant in the world.

Meanwhile, we start to look and act more like a fantasy league junky, and fewer and fewer people have any idea what we are talking about.

Here’s where I have come out on this:

Get the devotional books out. The old ones.

Read Peterson, and Nouwen, and Groeshel, and Bonhoeffer and Whitney. With a group of others who care about the same things.

Turn it all off for a couple of hours every day.

Find the silence.

Chew up, meditate over, digest the scriptures.

Repent of living in the community of unaware evangelicals who devalue spirituality and overvalue polemic, argument and debate.

Look for the sins that grow in this mess, and root them up.


  1. Michael,

    I have a couple of thoughts banging around in my head and heart. One is this: Does our focus on the Bible and the Bible only result in a focus on knowledge and an intellectual pursuit of God? What I find missing in most contemporary Christianity is relationship, which, ultimately, is what Jesus came and died and rose again to restore. So, in all the argumentation and reading and increasing factual knowledge, are we missing out on the experiential knowledge, the intimacy, that God directs us toward in the Scripture – that of knowing God like Adam knew Eve. The knowledge that comes from truly living in the reality of the fact that God is Abba… Daddy. That of being able to curl up in Abba’s arms and simply relish Who He Is and listening to His gentle voice, through scripture, through creation, through the voice to our heart.

    I think those that teach that the Bible is the only source of God’s voice today unwittingly undermine the need for teaching, prayer, listening, meditation, and take away any two-way relationship with God. It also creates a religious system where the smartest, best memorizers, best speakers, most articulate, best “students,” appear to be the best Christians. It works great for intellectual seminary types, but for the 99% of society it makes no sense and isn’t consistent with the character of God.

  2. Michael,

    To your list of authors I would add Dallas Willard.

    Keep up the good work,


  3. So, what you’re saying is that you’re really sort of… attracted to Catholicism. 🙂

    So is Dallas Willard – his whole way of talking about salvation and transformation is deeply Catholic. He makes Protestant evangelicals nervous because he strays so far from their general idea of how salvation works in and through us. Now, I’m not saying he would say this. Neither, perhaps, would Richard Foster or Eugene Peterson – maybe not, but I would argue that they have connected to theology that’s very old indeed and which is very Catholic.

    Monastic theology and praxis is most definitely Catholic theology and praxis. You know Merton as well as me (nice icon there – ha) and you know for sure that if one were to follow his spiritual lead, where they would logically end up. I’m not saying you’ll end up becoming institutionally Roman Catholic – but I’m not sure that saying you’re “not attracted to Catholicism” would seem to be accurate. It’s OK for you to be attracted to the spirituality, formational ways, etc. of the Catholic Church – well, it’s OK with me. Some of your readers might get mighty nervous by a statement like that. I wouldn’t worry about it.

    One of these days I’m sure we’ll get together and talk about stuff like this. Peace to you.

  4. I am catholic, and I am attracted to aspects of catholicism (i.e. the Great tradition), but not to the RCC’s gospel or ecclesiology.

    I have a family member on the road to Rome, and a lot of critics who are on my back that I am, too. So I have to make it clear that I’m not planning to be RCC and I don’t negate the reformation.


  5. Histrion (Jay H) says

    Michael: I, too, am interested in the contemplative (and meditational) approach to spiritual formation, but I also feel prompted to ask: in a Christian America full of Fred Phelpses, Benny Hinns (with millions of followers), and Toronto Blessings, isn’t a certain amount of argument necessary? At least about the really important stuff? (Which, of course, means additional arguments about what’s important and what’s not.)

    I’m a math tutor for a living, and one of the things I discovered long ago (besides the fact that logic and critical thinking are sadly lacking amongst so many) is that students don’t just need to be told how to correctly approach a problem — they need to also be shown how and why the understandings they’ve come to and the methods they’re using are wrong. (When they’re wrong.) Otherwise, the inevitable result is that, come test time, they apply a mental shortcut (“Well, this is they way I understand it”), only to find out it doesn’t work right, at which point they either (1) blame the instruction they’ve received, or (2) say “Math is stupid and pointless.”

  6. mort_chien says

    I am puzzled over just what “intimacy with God” really consists. I see this phrase and other similar ones in the prayers in “Valley of Vision” and see them also used in more contemporary circles without being defined, much less evaluated. I’ve read Willard and Foster, Piper and a Kempis, John Owen and Don Whitney, Packer and Ryle, Calvin and about 40% of the Ante Nicene Fathers. Some are obviously better than others. I am certain that whatever intimacy or union with God is, academics (or polemics) is only a starting point, necessary if only to establish boundaries and to avoid hazards. If the essence of knowing God is more personnel than academic (as I believe it is) then I am woefully ignorant.

    I have no desire to revisit the pentacostalism that held me for 3 years during my relative youth. But some of these writers, Foster in particular (holy laughter and much more), are extremely uncritical in the experiences they accept as valid encounters with God. How does one avoid false mysticism and confusing “truth in ones head” with true truth? There seems to be an almost desparate need for many of us to grab on to anything that might support a belief that “this is God” and call it such.

    Tell me what Merton has to offer and why I should invest the time in reading him rather than someone else. Is there one work of his that stands out above the others? At age 53 I am in all likelihood past the 2/3rds point in my mortal life so time is increasingly precious to me. Point me to a few of your essays on that subject if you think the insights would help.

    Surely there must be some other choice then between a sterile academic approach to God or an uncritical, non-rational mysticism.


  7. >Surely there must be some other choice then between a sterile academic approach to God or an uncritical, non-rational mysticism.

    I hope so. The New Testament describes a robust subjective experience, complete with dreams, visions, leadings, etc. I am certainly more inclined to go with Edwards, Piper, Storms, etc than the rationalistic TRs that leave no indication that anything subjective is safe except their own subjective hermeneutic, which is flawless.

    The two extremes you’ve set up exclude a tremendous amount of critical engagement with a genuine subjective experience. For example, just to pick one person as an example: Take John Wesley. Or Martyn Lloyd-Jones.

    On to Merton: Catholic spirituality isn’t hung up on the extremes you mentioned, though it contains both in severely extreme examples. Merton believed that monasticism was the answer for him because of several things:

    1) Abandonment of the world (Which he later rethought and somewhat repudiated in the middle of his life, but early on he was sure that as a writer and as a man, he needed this step.)
    2) Community. Particularly for spiritual formation.
    3) The constant life of the liturgy and the eucharist.
    4) The sacramental view of all of life, particularly one’s own life (which is why his journals are so useful.) Merton wanted to see all of life in relation to God in Christ, and I think he achieved that in large part, though his own interests and focii changed.
    5) The experience of God in contemplative prayer and silence. Merton valued silence in a way that continues to challenge me on a number of levels.

    Some of what you write betrays a kind of suspicion of the existence of a valid subjective experience that isn’t ruined by our own sinfulness. Certainly religious experience is a great field of those kinds of weeds, but community, the collective guidance of the church, spiritual direction, etc. doesn’t leave us hopeless.

    Try Merton’s autobiography Seven Storey Mountain or his first book in the monastery, sign of Jonas for his early view of monasticism. Then New Seeds of Contemplation for the mature Merton. The Thomas Merton Reader might be for you.

    Try anything by Richard Lovelace on the spiritual life.

  8. >I’m simply saying that when one’s spirituality is formed by the pronouncements of pastors who are >constantly chasing church growth, the culture war or the latest challenge to Calvinism, you are going to get >one result, and when you go back to the sources, find the value of the ancient paths of formation, value >silence, read, meditate, contemplate and seek to grow >in love, you will get another result.

    Good article on spiritual formation. I’ve been pondering the same subject of T(t)radition lately.

    “Democracy of the Dead”, as Chesterton put it, allows for the greater Body of Christ to shout out what comes before us and after us. Protestants want to listen to a select few dead instead of the cloud of witnesses an organization of the C(c)hurch tells you are “in”.

    I am finding the better Protestant spiritual formation you propose at loose ends because it is still up to ME to decide who is worthy to read, follow, etc. Whereas a spiritual formation in a father/child or mother/child relationship between director and novice takes into account authority/submission within the safety of T(t)radition.

  9. But I’d say overall the bible emphasizes polemic over spirituality (OT and NT). Prophets condemning, arguing, rebuking, exhorting. Because of human depravity, I’d feel safer erring on the side of argument. How do you draw a balance?

  10. Michael,
    As a Catholic, I’ve been looking lately at what Balthasar has to say about Catholic neo-monasticism (secular institutes, ecclesial movements) – he notes that that these ways of life are rooted in the Evangelical Counsels of Christ (by the way, Francis of Assisi’s original rule was 3 passages from the Gospels).

    One comforting thought is that the call of Christ is ever-greater, so wherever one starts out one can respond to the call.

  11. Memphis Aggie says


    Is the reformation doctrine on justification interfering with the idea of Spiritual development/formation? Without that criticism, it seems to me Biblical rules can be put together easily enough as Fred noted. The idea of oneself as a perpetual spiritual project is standard to Catholicism and that might explain some resistance.

    Certainly Christs command to love God with all you heart and mind implies the use of all your faculties (I dispute the idea that mysticism is “non-rational”. It’s completely rational if key religious axioms are accepted, not a small “if” of course). Further taking up one cross implies continued effort and these notions transcend denominational concerns, so it should be possible to have a nondenominational Biblical spiritual development program. I’m not clear on what a Calvinist spiritual development program would look like or even if one makes doctrinal sense. Does justification/predestination trump or otherwise undermine spiritual development by demotivating the seeker? I can see how the arguments could be made.

  12. I have enjoyed Piper, Sproul, and others from the Reformed tradition, but I certainly am not well-versed in the depth and implications of Ref. Theology. I recently found the White Horse Inn and have enjoyed listening to it, but was mystified when the panel castigated John Ortberg’s (a Presby no less)teaching about spiritual formation (and by association, D. Willard). I so fear doctrinal error and self-deception (I guess I am a product of my fundy SBC background)I sometimes feel totally paralyzed. I am so drawn to the writing (and the heart) of teachers like Willard and Peterson but I just don’t understand why so many in the Ref. camp are so suspicious of them. Read Willard — he is not “weak” on total depravity, he teaches the opposite of self-help,he believes that God always initiates, and he goes out of his way to stress repeatedly that spiritual disciplines have no inherent value in and of themselves.

    I would really like help in understanding these things.

  13. Bob Sacamento says

    Amen. Although there are a few topics I will still willingly mix it up on, I have, as of about three years ago, come to the end of the “rule” of the polemical Evangelical. And it has left me exhausted, and wondering what to do next.

    Which is not to say polemic is necessarily bad, but when it becomes the central expression of one’s spirituality, it becomes … well, what Michael said.

    I don’t consider the emergement movement an option (but explaining why would get me back into polemics). So whatever path I find at this point will probably be a lonely one, traveled only by me, my wife, and who else I don’t know.

  14. Dear Mike and others,

    I find it very intersting what happens to me when I return from the monastery.
    I find it hard.
    I like the silence, the intentional listening, dinner without mindless chater, quietude, and solace.
    When did words become equaited with holiness or faithfulness?
    We all know that the deepest things in life cannot be joined together in words.
    Us good old evangelicals must hold on to Jesus Christ and the gospel, and we also must let Him do his healing work in us through meditation and silence.

  15. I want to share some personal insights and thoughts concerning Thomas Merton, monasticism and Catholicism and I hope the journey I have been through will possibly shed some light for others..
    First off I grew up Catholic so Ive been through the whole thing including my parents wanting me to become an alter boy for my oldest sisters wedding which didnt happen because I wasnt about to learn to speak latin for the Mass.
    I also have 2 uncles who became Maryknoll and Jesuit priests so this stuff was rooted deep in my family.
    I was sorta force fed Catholicism from my youth and started rejecting parts of it at a very young age but never rejecting God or Jesus.I somehow always believed Jesus was who He said.
    And after confession instead of repeating 5 hail Marys or whatever I would just sit quietly in the pew and talk to God as if He where my invisible friend…which He is.
    So in my mid teens I became very disollusioned with church,catechism and the like and really started tp spiritualy search.
    I had a friend who turned me on to Merton so from the time I was 17 in 1977 till my early 20s I read probably every book that Merton wrote and through Mertons writing I was introduced to Western & Eastern mysticism. And so I read Meister Eckhart,The Cloud of Unknowing and almost every book by Alan Watts, Krishnamurti and the like.
    Also Zen,Zen Buddhism and a whole host of other Christian and Eastern stuff also.
    At the same time I would see Gene Scott on TV,Billy Graham,Schuller,Hal Lindsey, Katheryn Kuhlman,Fulton Sheen and others on TBN.
    Quite a contrast,talk about mixed messages.I wanted to write a book entitled WILL THE REAL JESUS PLEASE STAND UP.Infact I use to joke that would make a great game show.
    So through all this I developed an interest in monasticism and a little later in the late 80s when I was in my late 20s I spent a few weeks at a Trappist monastery in Vina California and almost a year at the Camaldolese Hermitage in Big Sur.
    And I never forgot what the Abbot at Vina told me one day he said “we are monks even before we are Christians”.That always stuck in my head and I think that is pretty much true at both places I stayed.
    Back in the 50s when the Hermitage in Big Sur started the monks use to wear a real rough garmet that would make them bleed sometimes thinking that the suffering was somehow linking them to Christs suffering.
    Catholicism at times definetly has a real dark side with bleeding statues,statue veneration,a sometimes very false humility and the whole 9 yards.

    20 If ye died with Christ from the rudiments of the world, why, as though living in the world, do ye subject yourselves to ordinances,
    21 Handle not, nor taste, nor touch
    22 (all which things are to perish with the using), after the precepts and doctrines of men?
    23 Which things have indeed a show of wisdom in will-worship, and humility ((( and severity to the body; but are not of any value against the indulgence of the flesh.)))

    And I will tell you its alot different to live with people for a year than it is to spend a few days or weeks on a retreat you really get to know people inside out.
    I became close friends and worked with someone who had been there for many years who I thought was spiritually quite deep until one day while talking about the Quakers silent meditation which I had read much about he proceeded to tell me that quakers and protestants werent really true christians and that only Catholicim was truly Christian because it had the true traditions handed down.
    Kinda sounds familiar doesnt it.Kinda like the selfrighteous hypocritical Pharisees Jesus scolded so harshly because of their vain traditions of men.And the Jews who just couldnt accept that God was going to save the gentiles also.

    So that along with many many other experiences going on there opened my eyes.
    Like gay monks wanting to become my boyfriend or trying to find their true love.There where a number of openly gay monks in both places looking for love.
    I think alot of people who cant handle this crule world try to hide away in a place like that hoping they will find a community of people to care about and be cared for.
    Their motives arent necessarily bad but it can turn into escapism and you have to play by the rules of the place you stay which doesnt necessarilly have anything to do with the true gospel of our Lord.

    A few years ago Chuck Smiths son of Calvary Chapel started getting into Catholic mysticism and spent a few weeks at the same Big Sur monastery and caused quite a rift between he and his father.He also became close friends with the same person I did way back when.
    He came back and started putting ICONS on the wall in their church and this caused a big problem and Chuck Smith had to ask his son to leave Calvary Chapel.
    Im not sure exactly where they stand now but I believe his son is now part of the Emerging church movement.
    There is definetly a thirst for a deeper spiritual relationship with God that no congregation or denomination can seem to fullfill.
    Christ asked Peter who do ( YOU ) say that I am ?
    And Christ asked Peter 3 times “do ( YOU ) love me “.We are all Peter and Christ is asking us all individually the same thing.

    So as for Merton what can I say? I never shook his hand,broke bread,laughed or cried with him but he seemed like a very nice person.He was only human after all and limited by the cultural and mental prison he like all the rest of us are born in and put ourselves into and are surrounded with.
    Merton made the church millions of dollars through the sales of his books and thousands upon thousand of people romanticized monasticism because of Mertons writings and Im not sure how much this hurt or helped the TRUE gospel message I guess thats for God to decide.
    So much of what we put up on pedestals seems nothing more than a vain illusion as Solomon so eloquently put it in Vanity of vanities…..
    Protestantism Catholicism and all ism’s have alot of TRAPPings and so how appropriate at least for me the word TRAPPist becomes.
    All that I can say to anyone in the end about any denomination or Order of any kind is BUYER BEWARE…of what your buying into.
    I know there are lots of catholics who love and know God and in the end as the parable says the wheat grows with the tears and God knows everyones heart and whos really his.
    Jesus didnt come to start another religion he came to destroy false religion and fulfill the symbols of the past because as Paul says “they where only shadows of the good things to come”.Jesus came to repair the bond between the Father and man through fellowship and relationship with those who would become his Sons,Daughters,brothers,sisters and friends.
    And so “Whom the Son sets free is free indeed” and thats means as far as I am concerned,free from religion also.

  16. And if anyone is interested I would highly recommend listening to Greg Boyds recent talk it is absolutely excellent….PEACE 2 all


    8/17/2008 – THE EVIL OF RELIGION, Greg Boyd – sermon length is 43:01 minutes
    Religion or relationship? We need to be careful about which term best describes how we engage our faith. Through his actions and teaching, Jesus shows us clear distinctions between viewing Kingdom life as a religion or as a personal relationship. [Focus Scripture: Luke 13:10-17]

Speak Your Mind