Wisdom Chaser


Nathan Foster, Wisdom Chaser: Finding My Father at 14,000 Feet (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Books, 2010). $16.00, 185 pages.

The father Nathan Foster finds at 14,000 feet is none other than Richard J. Foster, author of The Celebration of Discipline and other titles on spiritual formation. It turns out that Richard wasn’t much of a father in Nathan’s early years, at least not from his son’s point of view. He was “a serious, silent ghost.” In rebellion, Nathan started smoking, dabbled in drugs and alcohol, dropped out of school, and otherwise made bad decisions. But when, in his early 20s, Nathan challenged Richard to climb Colorado’s fourteeners with him (i.e., mountains of 14,000 feet elevation or more), they healed old wounds and forged new ties. It’s unclear from the narrative whether Richard changed or whether Nathan gained a new perspective on his dad or both. Whatever the case, this is a powerful story of a son making peace with his father and becoming a better man himself in the process. It was so engrossing a read that I read it in one sitting. I recommend this book highly, especially to fathers and sons who don’t know what to do with one another.

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35 thoughts on “Wisdom Chaser

  1. His son expects us to believe that contemplative Quaker mystic Roshi Foster was a “serious, silent ghost”? Get outta town! 🙂

  2. Derek:

    I would suggest you read Foster and then go back and see whether his critics have fairly and rightly criticized him.

    As for Foster’s critics: I’ve perused the Light Trails Research website and am not impressed. In general, I find their arguments riddled with ad hominem, guilt by association, and begging the question.

    I’ve read the links to DeWaal and other Reformed critics you’ve sent me. I find their critiques more substantive than LTR’s, but I still don’t recognize the Foster of the books I’ve read.

    Finally, I’ve read Donald Bloesch’s Spirituality Old and New. Of the criticism’s of spiritual formation, I find his to be the most theologically substantive, fairminded, and historically informed. I still think he’s wrong, however, for the simple reason that many of his criticisms also apply to Pentecostal spirituality.

    George

  3. Thank you for your suggestions. Have you read Faith Undone by Roger Oakland? That is also a good book that goes into quite a bit of detail on Foster.

    Just so I understand you, are you saying that Foster does not significantly resonate with the writings and practices of mystics and contemplative spiritualists such as Teresa of Avila, Julian of Norwich, George Fox, Thomas Merton or Henry Nouwen? Or that he does, but neither that nor his Quaker background causes him to be unorthodox or heretical in his teachings?

  4. He’s not unorthodox or heretical. Quakers can be, but are not necessarily unorthodox. Read his books for yourself, though, and draw your own conclusions.

    1. George,

      Per your suggestion, I read Celebration of Discipline in its entirety over the weekend. My conclusion is that I would not recommend this book to anyone. As is well-documented, there are many statements on meditation and solitude that are simply not biblical. For example, on page 20 Foster strains to use Revelation 3:20 to suggest that “what happens in meditation is that we create the emotional and spiritual space which allows Christ to construct an inner sanctuary in the heart”.

      Less significantly, there are the vomit-inducing passages like this one on page 74: “The next step is to make friends with the flowers and the trees and the little creatures that creep upon the earth. Like the fabled Dr. Doolittle, talk with the animals. Of course, you can’t really talk to each other… or can you?” Or this one on page 108, “Perhaps as you enter into a listening silence the joyful impression to learn how to weave or how to make pottery emerges. Does that sound too earthy, too unspiritual a goal? God is intently interested in such matters. Are you?”

      Foster explains on page 7 that “God has given us the Disciplines of the spiritual life as a means of receiving his grace.” Since it is clear that Foster is quite enamored with Catholic monasticism, one wonders if in his view the Disciplines offer somewhat of a compromise between Catholicism, with its litany of “grace-conferring” sacraments, and Protestanism. As the chapter title suggests, he also views the Disciplines as a “Door to Liberation”. No, Jesus is the door (John 10:7) but there is scant attention paid to Christ’s death, burial and resurrection in this book. In fact, when he does talk about Jesus, he’s much more interested in his cross-life than his cross-death (chapter 8). And perhaps I missed it but I also did not see any mention of the processes of reckoning oneself dead to sin and alive in the spirit or crucifying the flesh daily. In fact, the Holy Spirit apparently plays a rather insignificant role in the area of sanctification. I’m of course assuming that with the Disciplines we are in fact talking about the process of sanctification, because neither justification nor the concept of being born again are topics which are discussed. Rather, this book seems to be saying do A, B and C and you will have some spiritual experience, D.

      Perhaps the biggest letdown, however, was the final chapter on Celebration. It wasn’t just Foster’s insipid suggestions. (Evidently the way we can celebrate is for example by “learn(ing) the folk dances of various curltures and enjoy(ing) them together” or “pick(ing) flowers and deliver(ing) them to your friends.”) But mainly it was what we were celebrating, and frankly, I’m still not sure. I would think it would be redemption, the forgiveness of sins, the blessed hope, the conquering of death, sin and the grave, spending eternity with Christ. No, apparently it is a nirvana-like “deliverance from those things that have made our lives miserable for years, which, in turn, evokes increased celebration. Thus, an unbroken circle of life and power is formed.” Those, believe it or not, were the last lines the book. (Yawn)

      I don’t mean to come across as though I have a chip on my shoulder. I guess I am just truly astonished that so many Christians consider this book a classic.

      Derek

  5. Derek:

    I’m sorry that you didn’t like the book. In my opinion, you’ve missed the forrest for the trees, but whatever. Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, and our evaluations of Foster obviously differ.

    George

    1. George,
      That is fair enough. We can agree to disagree.
      If you don’t mind me asking, though, do you personally participate in Taize services, prayer labyrinths, Lectio Divina, Compline or contemplative meditation?

      Derek

    2. I’m going to go out on a limb and say that you don’t. Why? Because I’m presuming that deep down you know that none of these things are from the Bible but rather from the fertile imagination of a bunch of New Age weirdos. Yet I got this list off of the schedule of activities from the 2010 Renovare Covenant Retreat starring none other than Richard Foster himself.

  6. Derek:

    I have no idea who you are. And you don’t know me. Please don’t presume to read my mind.

    If you want to engage in ad hominem against authors I respect, or anyone for that matter, please do so on someone else’s blog.

    George

    1. You’re right, George. I took the liberty of phrasing my posts too aggressively and crossed the line. I humbly apologize. Sorry about that.

      Derek

  7. Derek:

    Look, I don’t want to lose my blog’s most faithful reader and commenter. At the same time, I want our conversations to be on point.

    For example, I found your comments on the immigration thread to be insightful, even if I disagreed with them.

    The reason I’m having a hard time interacting with you on the topic of spiritual formation is that — in my opinion — you made up your mind by reading Foster’s, Willard’s, and Ortberg’s critics without reading them first. Then, when you read Foster, you found exactly the deviancies you were looking for and cited those, all the while missing — in my opinion — the basic thrust of the book.

    No author is perfect. Every author — me included — can be critiqued. But I simply don’t recognize the authors I respect in most of your critiques, and when you do cite specific points of critique (by page, no less), your critiques are nitpicky.

    Again, this is all my opinion, but that’s why I’m tired of interacting with you on the topic of spiritual formation, as you’re no doubt tired of interacting with me on the same topic. 🙂

    George

    1. George,
      I know you’re tired of this topic but why can’t you just tell me what is your take on contemplative spirituality/mysticism? That’s what I’ve been trying to find out from you all along. Are you for it or are you against it? Are you not crazy about it but don’t think it is a big deal? Are you ambivalent about it? Apathetic? Or would you go to one of these retreats yourself?

      http://www.renovare.us/WHATWEDO/EventsConferences/UpcomingEvents/2010Renovar%C3%A9CovenantRetreat/tabid/2747/Default.aspx

      Can you answer this for me?

      Derek

  8. Derek:

    I don’t identify with the words “contemplative spirituality” or “mysticism.” I prefer the term “discipleship,” “spiritual formation,” and “spiritual discipline.”

    I don’t know why you’re so persistent in using those other terms, when as far as I know, Foster, Willard, and Ortberg prefer the same terms I do.

    If you don’t know how I feel about Foster, Willard, and Ortberg, you haven’t been paying attention.

    I wouldn’t go on a Renovare retreat because in general I don’t like retreats.

    George

    1. OK, I’m running out of ways to ask this question but I’ll try one more time:

      Do you have any concerns about the activities planned at the Renovare retreat (i.e. Lectio Divina, Meditation, Prayer Labyrinths, etc.)? Or do you have no problems with these practices?

  9. OK, I’m running out of ways to ask this question but I’ll try one more time:

    Do you have any concerns about the activities planned at the Renovare retreat (i.e. Lectio Divina, Meditation, Prayer Labyrinths, etc.)? Or do you have no problems with these practices?

    1. Any opinion on these practices in general?

      If not, are you sure you are up-to-speed enough on the subject to so easily dismiss the concerns?

  10. Derek:

    it’s ironic that you ask me whether I’m up to speed on certain practices given that you have only just recently read Foster’s first book. I’m up to speed on Foster, not his critics. The critics you have introduced me to don’t strike me as particularly persuasive, but our judgments differ in this.

    I don’t have a problem with lectio divina. Perhaps you can explain your concerns.

    In Celebration, Foster distinguishes between Christian meditation and Eastern meditation, which should allay any concerns that his practice is New Age.

    Regarding prayer labrynths, I don’t recall any discussion of this in his books, so I don’t have an opinion of Foster’s practice of it.

    George

    1. George,
      Here is some how-to instruction on lectio divina I found online.

      “Preliminaries: Get in a comfortable position and allow yourself to become attentive. Some Christians focus for a few moments on their breathing; others have a “prayer word” or ” phrase” they slowly recite to become centered.

      Reading: Turn to the text and read it slowly, gently, out loud. Savor the reading, feel the words in your mouth, listening for the “still, small voice” of a particular word or phrase that says, “I am for you today.”

      Meditation: Take the word or phrase into yourself. Slowly repeat it to yourself, allowing it to interact with your inner world of concerns, memories, and ideas. Let your imagination engage the text. Images are not necessarily but invitations into dialogue with God.

      Prayer: Speak to God. Interact with God as you would with one who you know loves and accepts you. Experience this God-breathed word or phrase as a means to bless and transform the thoughts and images that God’s Word has awakened in you. Give to God what you have found in your heart.

      Contemplation: Finally, rest in God’s embrace. Let go of words and images. Rejoice that God is with you in silence, spiritual rest, and inner receptivity.”

      The focus on breathing techniques, phrase repetition and the emphasis on imagination and “let(ting) go” would be concerns to me. For one thing, Jesus did not teach these principles in his discourse on prayer. Secondly, it does sound like someone who practices lectio divina could be in danger of entering a spiritual realm that the Bible expressly forbids.

      Derek

  11. Derek:

    I understand your concerns but do not share them for several reasons:

    First, “Jesus did not address these principles in his discourse on prayer.” I’m not sure what this is supposed to prove, since Jesus did not address every aspect of prayer in that discourse. Would you be wary of praying in tongues, for example, because Jesus did not address the topic in his discourse on prayer?

    Second, it seems to me that when evaluating a spiritual practice, we should ask three questions: Is it commanded? Is it prohibited? Is its use left up to the judgment of the individual believer? We are commanded to read the Bible, as well as commended for reading it. We are prohibited from engaging in seances. Does the Bible command us to breathe us a certain way when we read or pray? No. Does it prohibit it? No. For me, this means that the individual believer can use his best judgment to determine whether to practice breathing exercises. At the pragmatic level, I’ve found it hard to study, read, or pray when I’m out of breath. So, if I come in from a walk or have just stopped doing some strenuous activity, I sit down, relax and breathe deeply until I’m in a frame of mind to do those things. Is this wrong? To me, it falls within the category of adiaphora: neither commanded nor prohibited but left to the individual judgment of the believer.

    Third, it seems to me that your basic concern is with “imagination and ‘let(ting) go.'” A professor once led my class through a lectio divina of John 13, where Jesus washed the disciples feet. He asked us to imagine ourselves in the disciples place. How would we respond to Jesus’ asking to wash our feet? I don’t see what’s harmful about this kind of reading. Preachers routinely ask their congregations to imagine themselves in the text, or to imagine how biblical personalities felt when they encountered this or that. Indeed, when an evangelist quotes John 3:16 and asks his hearers to replace “the world” with their own names, this is an act of imagination. Is there something wrong with this?

    What the Bible prohibits is imagining our own ideas of God that contradict biblical teaching. That doesn’t prohibit imagination per se, only the use of imagination in pursuit of certain autonomous spiritual ends.

    Fourth, the author of the post you quote writes, “Let go of words and images.” This is what, to my ear anyway, sounds most like Eastern meditation. A few things mitigate this danger, however, at least in my opinion.

    (a) The Bible says we will see God face to face in the eschaton. Some — Jesus at the Transfiguration, Paul and John in their visions of heaven — saw God. This beatific vision is unmediated by words or images, but so are all visual perceptions. If my eyes are open and seeing, I’m taking in a lot of visual data that I don’t use words or other images to process. The reason we need words, images, and faith itself to understand God in the present age is precisely because we do not see him face to face. If lectio divina should be criticized for anything, it should be criticized for an overrealized eschatology, that is, the promise of an experience in the present age that really belongs to the future age.

    (b) Contemplation or “letting go” takes place at the end of the process, when one’s mind and imagination have been prayerfully saturated with the reading of Scripture. In lectio divina, Scripture sets the agenda for experience.

    (c) In Eastern meditation, the goal is the experience of nirvana or “nothingness.” But in Christian meditation, the goal is the contemplation or direct experience of God. Again, such an experience can be criticized for its overrealized eschatology, but it’s not like Eastern meditation.

    Fifth, “it does sound like someone who practices lectio divina could be in danger of entering a spiritual realm that the Bible expressly forbids.” I don’t think this follows at all. If one begins with reading and meditation on Scripture, then praying its words, one will be led into the reality that Scripture describes. At least that’s the goal of lectio divina. The goal is not merely to talk about God or to think about God but to experience God.

    I hope these remarks allay your concerns and answer your questions.

    George

    1. Thanks, George, for taking the time to write this response. I have read it carefully and thought about it. Your examples admittedly don’t really seem all that objectionable, but I have to say they do sound “sugarcoated” to some extent based on what I’ve heard and read. I think in reality these practices resemble New Age much more and Christianity much less than you describe. I listened to an interview of a former New Age practitioner who at the time had considered herself a Christian. Here’s the link: http://solasisters.blogspot.com/2010/01/fighting-for-faith-interview.html

      I would love it if you could listen to this at some point and let me know what you think. Thanks again for this conversation.

      Derek

    1. Well, thanks for listening anyway. I’m surprised at your dismissive response because I thought Ms. Pack’s personal testimony was pretty compelling. She also makes a very good point that if one could attain union with God through meditation then the Cross becomes non-essential; yet biblically speaking, when we come to the Lord we can only come to him through the blood of Christ alone. This seems contradictory. In other words, if the purpose of meditation, as Foster says, is union with God. And if, as he also says, that even people who have yet to turn their lives over to Jesus Christ should practice this discipline, then is the Cross really that relevant? I also thought this helped to explain why Foster’s forerunners Thomas Merton and Henri Nouwen subscribed to universalism, as did Pack as a result of her involvement in contemplation. At any rate, it seems there are many legitimate concerns regarding contemplative spirituality, and this interview, in my opinion, was effective in demonstrating that.

  12. Derek:

    You asked me for my opinion of the interview, and I gave it.

    The expanded version is that Ms. Pack is ignorant of the history of Christian spirituality, in which monastic movements and their contemplative spirituality often led the renewal of the Christian church.

    Additionally, these movements were often evangelical, in the sense of promoting salvation by faith rather than works. Volume 1 of The Philokalia, greatly beloved among Orthodox Christians and contemplatives, devotes an entire section to St Mark the Ascetic’s “On Those Who Think They Are Made Righteous by Works.” It is a refutation of that attitude. Paragraph 2 states: “the kingdom of heaven is not a reward for works, but a gift of grace prepared by the Master for his faithful servants.” St. Mark lived in the early fifth century.

    On top of her historical ignorance, which is characteristic of most American evangelicals, Ms. Pack pays little attention to the efforts of Foster and others to situate their spiritual practices in an explicitly Christian worldview that they go on to explicitly differentiate from a New Age or Eastern worldview. And it should go without saying that it is anachronistic to describe spiritual practices developed by monks in the 3rd–5the centuries as “new Age” in the first place.

    I don’t find the argument about Christ’s cross invalidating Christian meditation to be all that persuasive. For one thing, Foster doesn’t deny the efficacy and necessity of the cross as the ground of salvation, at least not that I know of. To the extent that he encourages unbelievers to practice Christian meditation, it is because he probably believes it will help them draw nearer to Christ. It is the same reason why you and I might invite an unbeliever to attend Sunday worship or a weeknight small group, isn’t it?

    For another thing, if the cross is so all sufficient for salvation, why practice any spiritual discipline whatsoever? If united with God through the cross alone, why pray or read Scripture or worship at church or take communion? If your answer is, because Scripture commands them, then let me suggest it commands them because they are useful? Christ’s death is the foundation or ground of our union with God, but spiritual disciplines are the means God gives us to appropriate or apply that grace to our lives. Doesn’t James say, “Draw near to God and he will draw near to you.” If your interpretation of Ms. Pack’s argument is correct, what can this possibly mean? Can we draw closer to God through spiritual disciplines than he has already drawn us through Christ? James’s answer seems to be yes. If I’m correct about James, though, something is very wrong with Ms. Pack’s point of view.

    I hop these extended remarks help explain why I was unimpressed with the interview.

    George

    1. George,
      The reason for our disconnect may be found in your statement that “Christ’s death is the foundation or ground of our union with God, but spiritual disciplines are the means God gives us to appropriate or apply that grace to our lives.” If you replace the phrase “spiritual disciplines” with “sacraments”, haven’t you just described Roman Catholicism?

      I would reject both versions and assert that the cross is in fact so all sufficient for salvation (Hebrews 10:14).

      Derek

  13. Derek:

    Replace “spiritual disciplines” with “sinner’s prayer” or with “faith.” Is your argument that Christ’s death is sufficient for salvation so that we need not do these things? If not, why are you sweating me? Isn’t prayer–by means of which we confess Christ as Lord–a spiritual discipline?

    You don’t like my ground/application distinction, so I’ll use another. The cross of Christ is the necessary but not sufficient condition of salvation. Necessary, because there is no salvation. Not sufficient, because the gospel demands repentance and faith on our part in response to gospel preaching. If you believe Christ’s death is both the necessary and solely sufficient condition of salvation, then logically, you should be a universalist, right?

    George

    P.S. I’m using “sufficient” in the logical sense of the term, not the theological sense. I believe the ground/application distinction is better, but offer the necessary/sufficient distinction as an alternative.

  14. Correction: “Necessary, because there is no salvation apart from the death and resurrection of Christ.” As originally written, my statement made no sense.

    1. Wouldn’t John 6:44 suggest that even God’s drawing of us to him is an act of grace as well? So I don’t know if you would call the “sinner’s prayer” a spiritual discipline.

      But again, if you replace the phrase “spiritual disciplines” with “sacraments”, isn’t it essentially Roman Catholicism?

  15. Of course! For Christians–whether Calvinist or Wesleyan–all of salvation, including faith, is a gift of grace. You do realize, however, that that is also the teaching of Catholicism, don’t you? St Mark the Ascetic, whom I quoted above, went on to argue that even if we lived perfectly, our works would not be meritorious, since we would only be doing our duty.

  16. Derek:

    Here are the relevant passages in the Catholic Catechism regarding justification, grace, merit, and holiness.

    http://www.scborromeo.org/ccc/p3s1c3a2.htm

    Obviously, as a Protestant, I believe there are a number of errors here, among others, sacramentalism and an overemphasis on merit. By the same token, the Catholic church believes that all human meritis the result of God’s grace, mediated to us by Christ through the Holy Spirit.

    If we’re going to critique Catholics for works righteousness, let us at least admit that Catholics do not see themselves in the critique.

    George

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