Celebration of Discipline (Book Review)

celebration-disciplineA book that has been around since 1978, with subsequent revised and updated editions, is a sign of a modern day classic.  The enduring popularity of Celebration of Discipline: The Path to Spiritual Growth, by Richard Foster is a testimony of its value to the church.  Foster’s one goal is to answer the age-old question, “How does one grow spiritually?”  According to the author, growth in the grace of God comes through the practice of time-tested, ancient, biblical disciplines in such a way that avoids various dangers by a solid grounding in the gospel.  These particular spiritual practices are proposed as the door to liberation.  Liberation from fear, pride, selfishness, shallowness, individualism, consumerism, superficiality, distraction, and any number of sins that have plagued people throughout history.

What are these spiritual disciplines?  Foster categorizes them as inward, outward, and corporate practices.  Inward referring to those that are private and personal.  Outward meaning those practices that flow from the inward disciplines to produce a life-style for God and others.  Corporate describing disciplines that by necessity we practice in community, together with others.  Into these three categories there are 12 disciplines, defined and explained in broad terms such that they may basically incorporate longer lists of spiritual disciplines.

According to Foster, the inward spiritual disciplines are meditation, prayer, fasting, and study.  He defines meditation as “very simply, the ability to hear God’s voice and obey his word” (p. 17).  By beginning with meditation and explaining it this way, Foster reveals his evangelical Quaker perspective on the Christian life.  Such a description will surely put traditional Christians on edge, since the ability to “hear God’s voice” has been a controversial claim throughout history.  False prophets and mystical fanatics have abused this terminology and led many into a labyrinth of spiritual confusion.  Foster attempts to address these concerns by discussing four misconceptions:

  1. Christian meditation is synonymous with eastern religious meditation.
  2. Meditation is too difficult and complicated.
  3. Meditative contemplation is too impractical and wholly out of touch with modern times.
  4. Meditation is nothing more than a religious form of psychological manipulation.

After arguing that these views are mistaken, Foster suggests we take an experiential attitude toward spiritual realities.  With this tact, it seems to me the author thinks of God (at least in terms of when he is meditated upon) as communicating with people on a specific spiritual wavelength, that we must tune into (much like a radio) to receive his signal.  This view of listening to God seems to me at odds with God as he is portrayed in the Bible, and how he has communicated with his servants as narrated in the Bible.  One wants to ask Foster, when God chooses to communicate with his creatures, is he frustrated in his purpose if they are not tuned in properly to listen?  Or is it normal that when God chooses to communicate with a person, his message is heard loud and clear?  Despite these reservations, I think Foster does provide some useful tips on how to meditate in a biblical manner.  Considering and setting aside a time and place are obviously needed to discipline oneself to meditate.  Since we are body-soul creatures, even our posture is a legitimate factor in properly meditating.  Perhaps Foster’s best advice on posture is to settle into a comfortable position to facilitate a lengthy time of meditation.  The forms of meditation he recommends are (1) internalizing and personalizing a Scriptural passage, (2) re-collection or what the Quakers call “centering down”, (3) contemplating creation as God’s handiwork, and (4) considering and reflecting upon the events of our time, seeking to understand their significance.  In sum, Foster sees meditation as a method of plumbing the “inner depths” as informed by the Bible and God’s Spirit.

For me, the chapter on meditation was perhaps the hardest to read and learn from.  Foster’s understanding of the spiritual discipline of meditation is of a mystical variety.  He is not afraid of learning from meditative “masters” from Christian and non-Christian religious traditions, although he seeks to filter other religious traditions through the Scripture.  His filter is more porous than mine.  But Foster’s explanation of the other spiritual disciplines is much more helpful and much less controversial.  Except for perhaps two more details (which is related to his understand of meditation): hearing from God and gauging results in the discipline of prayer.

In the chapter following meditation, Foster discusses prayer as a spiritual discipline.  Unfortunately, Foster abandons the traditional notion of prayer as a discipline whereby a person talks to God, and instead broadening the definition to include God talking to a person.  In other words, whereas traditionally prayer has been understood as a person’s words and thoughts communicated to God, the nontraditional notion of prayer is a two-way dialogue between God and a person.  Again, this is troublesome because no one (despite the multitude of vociferous objections) can objectively and conclusively distinguish the voice of God in prayer from their own inner voice (conscience), or even the voice of another sentient being.  God has not left us to subjectively make that judgment call.  That is why he has chosen to communicate to us objectively through the written word of God—the Bible—through his chosen prophets and apostles.  Moreover, Foster’s test for whether we are praying correctly betrays his presupposition that God is a little like The Force (when it comes to him personally answering prayer).  In Foster’s mind, if a person’s prayer is not answered (in the affirmative?) then the prayer must have been prayed incorrectly.  One imagines God as a Father teasing his child, refusing to grant a request because the child did not ask politely, or use the “magic word” please.  This is the only way I can understand Foster when he writes,

If we turn on our television set and it does not work, we do not declare that there are no such things as electronic frequencies in the air or on the cable.  We assume something is wrong, something we can find and correct.  We check the plug, switch, circuitry until we discover what is blocking the flow of this mysterious energy that transmits pictures.  We know the problem has been found and fixed by seeing whether or not the TV works.  It is the same with prayer.  We can determine if we are praying correctly if the requests come to pass.  If not, we look for the “block”; perhaps we are praying wrongly, perhaps something within us needs changing, perhaps there are new principles of prayer to be learned, perhaps patience and persistence are needed.  We listen, make the necessary adjustments, and try again.  We can know that our prayers are being answered as surely as we can know that the television set is working. [p. 38]

If the biblical God something like a machine or a Force, then the illustration is apt.  But Foster believes God is a person, so this illustration is fundamentally inappropriate.  At best, it is misleading.  But I fear at worst, it is destructive to the sad person whose prayers are not being answered according to his desires.  The counsel such a man needs is not try a different technique or method of asking, but rather to view God as a person (which he is, three persons in fact!) who we interact with in relationship, not manipulation for our wishes to come true.

If Foster is somewhat unhelpful and unorthodox in meditation and prayer, he is generally a helpful guide in the other 10 spiritual disciplines.  He gives some very practical advice for doing a fast, and is convincing that the fast is a neglected but necessary discipline for the Christian.  He does not limit the discipline of study to merely studying the Bible and other Christian books.  Study for Foster includes the observation of reality in things, events, and actions.  In other words, the most basic practice of the scientific endeavor—observing nature as God’s creation and then thinking God’s thoughts after him—all for his glory.  These are labeled “nonverbal books”: nature, human beings in isolation and in relationship, ourselves, and societal institutions and cultures.

As for the outward disciplines, Foster lists these as the four S’s: simplicity, solitude, submission, and service.  He gives a stirring appeal to practice a life of simplicity, a message sorely needed in a world that is fast becoming overwhelming in its distractions, complexity, and technological sophistication.  In the information and digital age, the onslaught of media and the interconnectivity of society, a life of simplicity would go a long way to cultivate spiritual sanity.  Related to simplicity is the discipline of solitude.  They are interconnected such that one naturally follows the other in a cycle of mutual support.  God created us a relational beings, but if we don’t take the time to step away from relationship to the world (people, community, things), then we will suffer for lack of relationship with our Creator and Lord.  Thus solitude is the discipline of investing focused alone-time with God.  And since God being God is all-sufficient and we as his creatures were created to find our sufficiency in him, this should lead to a life of disciplined simplicity.  Furthermore, relationship with God nurtured in periods of solitude lead to submission to his will.  This submission is practiced not only in God’s presence as we practice solitude, but also as we live life coram Deo (before the face of God).  Therefore we practice the discipline of submission in obedience to God in all our relationships—to our superiors, inferiors, and equals.  This submission then leads us into the practice of service—giving of ourselves to others for the sake of God our Savior.  Thus the four S’s are intertwined.  As outward disciplines, they stand in close relation to each other much like the inward disciplines of meditation, prayer, fasting, and study are interrelated.

The corporate disciplines (confession, worship, guidance, and celebration) are also connected to each other through the bond of community and friendship.  Protestants do not normally emphasize the discipline of confessing our sins to one another.  They see confession as a legalistic Roman Catholic accretion.  While is it true that confession as a Roman Catholic sacrament has been abused, there is biblical truth associated with the practice.  We are to confess our sins one to another (Jas 5:16).  Doing so is right and healthy.  It is a spiritual discipline that all Christians need to value and practice.  Even so, confession is not limited to human-to-human dialogue.  The heart of confession is admitting to the offended party our sin, repenting, and seeking forgiveness and reconciliation.  Because all sin is first against God, confession is a discipline that chiefly involves privately talking to God about our sins.  Yet if the sin is against another person, confession must involve the person against whom sin has been committed.  The discipline of guidance is another way of talking about seeking and providing counsel.  People seek guidance from God through the spiritual disciplines of prayer, meditation, and study, but also through the practice of asking mature spiritual friends for wise counsel.  Foster’s point is that both God and people should be sought in matters where guidance is wanted.  Worship and celebration are related disciplines.  While worship is celebration of God in bowing our whole being to him, celebration as a discipline is the opposite of corporate fasting.  Celebration is a party, a feast!  Christians would do well to remember that God appointed several communal feast days in the Old Testament.  The Church has incorporated this idea into the traditional church year calendar to commemorate and celebrate new covenant redemptive history.  Foster argues that Christians have more or less lost the spiritual discipline of celebration.  We don’t hesitate to observe secular cultural holidays, but we feel funny with a church party, as if it’s time wasted and better devoted to other spiritual disciplines.  At this point, a thought crystallized for me as I worked my way to the end of the book.  The spiritual disciplines are a balance, holistic, biblical way of life.  To neglect one practice in order to focus on another is to live out of balance.  Life is in one way or another impoverished when we neglect any one of the spiritual disciplines.  For this thought I am thankful to Foster.

For all the problems and disagreements I have with certain aspects of Celebration of Discipline, the book is indisputably helpful and well deserves its reputation as a classic.

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