Tradition and Wisdom

This is from the Shalem Institute for Spiritual Formation website:


“Shalem is grounded in Christian contemplative spirituality and, at the same time, draws on the wisdom of many religious traditions.

We welcome you, wherever you are on the path of spiritual discovery.”


The language above uses terms commonly found in Perennial Wisdom (also called the Perennial Philosophy or Traditionalism) such as “wisdom” and “many religious traditions.” Perennial Wisdom, a belief embraced by Richard Rohr  is gaining ground through the contemplative movement. Perennial Wisdom teaches that all religions come from an original pure religion grounded in Divine Reality or Presence (God) who inhabits creation.


The Spiritual Path

Guiding principles  which Shalem Institute express include:



The concept of “sacred stillness” is Contemplative and Perennial. Perennial Wisdom holds that one must awaken to the unity of all in God through an inner journey of deep contemplation, which involves stillness and silence. The Shalem Insitute is being discussed here as one example of dozens of such spiritual formation/spiritual direction organizations that have increased in number in the past few years.



Also part of the Perennial view is that every “spiritual path” is honored and recognized as part of the one Truth since all spiritual paths originate in the one pure religion.



Note that Shalem does not claim it is grounded in Christianity, in the historic Christian faith, or even in the Christian confessional creeds, but rather in the “Christian contemplative tradition.” This is extremely significant because the “Christian contemplative tradition” always refers to the practices of the “Desert fathers,” to monastic practices, and to the practices of mystics. These practices are not based on Scripture but rather in mysticism.



Doctrine is irrelevant in mysticism since mysticism is rooted in fomenting experiences with a supposed divine being without a mediator. One definition of mysticism that I have read is “unmediated contact with God or a divine being.” Others are:


“the experience of mystical union or direct communion with ultimate reality” (Source)


“the practice of religious ecstasies (religious experiences during alternate states of consciousness), together with whatever ideologiesethics, rites, mythslegends, and magic may be related to them” (Source)


“Mysticism is the spiritual encounter with a sacred mystery that cannot be put into words, but may be embodied through feelings, conscious awareness, experience, or intuition — or even through darkness or unknowing.” (From Carl McColman, author of The Big Book of Christian Mysticism).


The divine being contacted in mysticism is not the living God of the Bible because conjuring God with techniques does not access the true God. A relationship with the true God is possible only through faith in the one and only Mediator, Jesus Christ, the Son of God.



Since the “diversity of contemplative traditions” is “celebrated” by Shalem Institute, this means that Buddhist, Hindu, Sufi, and other meditation methods are used and accepted as legitimate.This is borne out in several statements on their site, and the fact they have used Buddhist spiritual directors (more on that later).


“Lifting up voices beyond historically dominant ones,” refers to those beliefs outside Christianity. Such “voices” would include those of non-Christian beliefs.


“Belonging is the manifestation of God’s union with all things. When we are radically inclusive, we embrace the Loving Essence of each individual. A sense of belonging for each of us follows as we are part of something larger than ourselves while honoring who we are and who we want to be. (John 17:21-23)”


The statement above asserting “God’s union with all things” reveals not only an inclusive God who is part of all beliefs but a panenthestic God who is in creation. Both of these – the inclusive God and the God in creation – are part of Perennial beliefs.


Eastern Religions Equal to Christianity

The Shalem site also states here :


“People express their spirituality, their fundamental loves, in a variety of ways. For example, an ancient understanding in both western and eastern thought says that spirituality expresses itself in the three main ways of knowing, acting and feeling. Christian philosophy associates these ways with attributes of God. God is ultimate Truth, Goodness, and Beauty, and these qualities of the Divine draw people along the Way of the True, the Way of the Good, and the Way of the Beautiful. Each of the ways find some expression in everyone, but at any given time an individual is likely to be more attracted to one than to the others.”


Equal weight is given to Eastern religions outside of Christianity and a comparison is made as though these are equal streams of spirituality. Apparent conflicts in beliefs are dismissed by Perennial Wisdom followers because the view is that the outward (exoteric) differences are superficial since the hidden core (esoteric) truth of all religions stem from the one pure religion, which is equated with God (Divine Reality or Divine Wisdom).


The Founder of the Shalem Institute, Episcopal priest Tilden Edwards, made this rather famous statement:


“This mystical stream – Contemplative Prayer – is the Western bridge to Far Eastern Spirituality.” (From Spiritual Friend: Reclaiming the Gift of Spiritual Direction, by Tilden Edwards, p. 18)


Edwards is also quoted as saying:


For many years, I have kept in my office an ink drawing of two smiling figures with their arms around each other: Jesus Christ and Gautama Buddha, with the caption: “Jesus and Buddha must be very good friends.” They are not the same, but they are friends, not enemies, and they are not indifferent to one another.”


I think those quotes speak volumes. The Rev. Edwards is correct that Jesus is not indifferent to whoever Buddha was (there is no clear historical figure designated as Buddha). However, Jesus is not “friends” with Buddha because Buddha did not allegedly even acknowledge the existence of God and thought it irrelevant. The teachings of Buddhism are against the teachings of Christ and are not compatible or even similar.


Shalem even uses icons as is done in the Eastern Orthodox churches.


What is Contemplation?

Shalem defines contemplation as a “gift” and


“A simple definition of contemplation is ‘loving presence to what is.’ In a Christian context, because we “live and move and have our being” in God (Acts 17:28), being present to things as they are involves encountering the Christ who ‘fills the whole creation’ (Eph. 1:23). In other words, Christian contemplation means finding God in all things and all things in God. Brother Lawrence, the 17th century Carmelite friar, called it ‘the loving gaze that finds God everywhere.'” (Brother Lawrence of the Resurrection, The Practice of the Presence of God. Spiritual Maxims, Chapter 6, para 31.)


There is nothing Christian about finding “God in all things and all things in God.” The texts from Acts 17 and Ephesians 1 are taken out of context and another meaning is inserted. It is true that God is omnipresent; however, he is distinct from creation. While creation reflects the Creator so that man is without excuse for acknowledging a Creator God, God is not part of creation.


The passage from Acts 17 indicates man’s dependence for life on God and that God is not found in manmade temples but is omnipresent. The Ephesians 1 passage should be read in context:


And He put all things in subjection under His feet, and gave Him as head over all things to the church, which is His body, the fullness of Him who fills all in all.


The verses refer to Christ as head of the church and the church as his body. Christ has complete rule over the church and there is no place where he is not. This passage is an extension of the previous verses showing Christ’s heavenly reign and power over all powers and principalities. Just as Christ has power over creation, so he has reign over the church. All believers in Christ are part of the church and of Christ, united in the Holy Spirit. As one commentator on Bible Hub states:


“The preceding sentence carries the idea of the Church far beyond the limited conception of a concrete institution or outward, visible organisation, and lifts us to the grander conception of a great spiritual fellowship, which is one under all varieties of external form and constitution in virtue of the presence of Christ’s Spirit in it.”


The Contemplative Life

It is not just contemplation as a practice that Shalem teaches, but the contemplative life.” It is, more specifically, a journey :


The contemplative life, then, may not be a journey in which one actually gets closer to God, but rather a gradual realization of the incomprehensible union that has always existed. (John of the Cross. Ascent of Mt. Carmel, Book 2, Chapter 5: “…know that God is present in substance in each soul, even that of the greatest sinner in the world. And this kind of union with God always exists, in all creatures.”)…This divine presence in and with us is not static or inactive. Instead, it is a dynamic, continually moving flow that continually seeks goodness, truth, beauty, peace and justice. God is willing for and desiring of our co-participation in this movement, and stands ready at all times to guide us, to lead us in the dance of life. This co-participation is an endless invitation.


As Perennialist Richard Rohr has stated, the journey is an “awakening”  to what already is – that union with God has always been a reality.  This union with God applies to not only all people, but to all creation.


Shalem insists that “this kind of union with God always exists, in all creatures.” The only explanation for this view is that it expresses the panentheism and God of Perennial Wisdom. There is no acknowledgement by Shalem Institute that faith in Christ is needed. In fact, the statements quoted in this article are contrary to that.


Contemplative Teachings as Infectious Agents

Since the Shalem Institute recommends books that include non-Christian spirituality , including one by panentheist John Philip Newell  (who teaches “Celtic Christianity,” and whom I strongly suspect is a follower of Perennial Wisdom). Another recommended book is by James Finley (Turning to the Mystics). Finley, a former Trappist monk whose spiritual director was Thomas Merton, is a longtime faculty member of Rohr’s Center for Action and Contemplation as well as being an adherent of Perennial Wisdom. It is only reasonable to conclude that Shalem may follow the Perennial Wisdom tradition.


Ruth Haley Barton, one of the most influential Spiritual Directors, graduated from the Shalem Institute and had a Buddhist mentor/teacher, Rosemary Dougherty (d. 2019), at Shalem. 


Richard Rohr, a follower of Perennial Wisdom, as already mentioned, has been influencing the church via the Enneagram as well as his contemplative teachings.


David G. Benner’s name is often seen on contemplative websites because of the popularity of his books such as The Gift of Being Yourself , and is perceived as a Christian. However, he is an adherent of Perennial Wisdom, is a friend and associate of Richard Rohr, and teaches at Richard Rohr’s Center.


The concern cannot end with the Shalem Institute since so many spiritual direction programs and schools for evangelicals have mushroomed in recent years. Spiritual direction is essential to the Contemplative movement, also known under the rubrics of the Spiritual Disciplines, Lectio Divina, Guided Prayers, Imaginative Prayers, Spiritual Formation, Listening Prayer, Visio Divina, and others. Since the door opened to these practices, first rather quietly via Richard Foster a few decades ago, the role of Spiritual Director is now appearing in evangelical churches for the first time. The Perennial infection is inherent in these contemplative teachings and, if hidden now, will surely surface later.


From statements I have read by other Contemplatives, I think there is good reason to think they are Perennial in their views, even if they do not know or use the term. Since Perennial Wisdom is incompatible with Christianity, allowing it in the church through contemplative teachings will only result in spiritual damage: a shipwrecked faith for many, false teachings, downgrading and misuse of Scripture, and a false gospel.


“Beloved, while I was making every effort to write you about our common salvation, I felt the necessity to write to you appealing that you contend earnestly for the faith which was once for all handed down to the saints. For certain persons have crept in unnoticed…” Jude 3, 4a