Fr. Thomas Keating on NPR: Heresy as Mysticism

Saturday, December 24. I went to Keene, N.H. to run errands. On the way, I said a chaplet of the Rosary. While carrying out my errands and on the trip back, I clicked on the local NPR affiliate to see if there was any news worth hearing. It would have been better had I prayed more chaplets of the Rosary.

What I ended up hearing was a series of interviews on the very original theme of — hold your breath — science and religion. I’m not sure if the interviews were all carried out for the purpose of this show, or if the producers at NPR repurposed older material for it. The show featured interviews with various experts first on whether Albert Einstein actually believed in God, then on whether the Indian mathematician Srinivasa Ramanujan really learned his brilliant mathematical formulae when a goddess wrote them on his tongue during dreams. There was a bit on Karl Jung’s theories of archetypes, as they applied to another scientific genius Jung was treating for depression. The whole show was itself quite depressing, featuring as it did a panorama of atheists, scientists, and scholars of religion giving their disparate and muddleheaded ideas on the divide between science and religion. (For Indians, like Ramanujan, we learned, science and religion are seen as harmonious, not opposed to one another. This was presented as profound and awe-inspiring, as if the same could not be said of all the great thinkers of Christendom. It was the Reformation and the Enlightenment that divided Western man’s mind, putting asunder what God joined together, namely, faith and reason.)

Toward the end, and out of character with the rest of the show, there was an interview with Father Thomas Keating, the 85-year-old Trappist who helped to create “centering prayer.” This is not an exact quote (I’m going from memory — and I was driving at the time), but he clearly said something very close to this: God is so immense that no one religion suffices to explain him. The comment was made in response to the interviewer’s question about whether or not Father Keating’s Christian notion of contemplative prayer is essentially the same as what Buddhists and others do. The response was, not surprisingly, in the affirmative. After all, the Trappist affirmed, it’s the “same God” that we are all trying to get to know by the contemplative experience — the same God, mind you, that Trinitarians and non-Trinitarians, theists and pantheists are all trying to know.

Of course, this is rank indifferentism.

Hearing Father Keating’s mystical heresies the day before Christmas made it all the more surreal. Buddhists don’t worship the Trinity, and Hindus don’t believe that God was born in Bethlehem, having become Man in the womb of the Virgin Mary nine months before. Whatever pantheism may claim to offer by way of man becoming “deified,” it differs in kind from the Christian notion of sanctity, even at the merely theoretical level. This is aside from the fact that false religion cannot actually effect the union of God and man. Just as several commentators noted in the earlier segment concerning Einstein’s analogous usage of the word god, we must state that Buddhism and Hinduism do not posit belief in God at all.

Father Keating went on to explain how limited we are in approaching the ineffable mystery of God. Had he left it at that, he would have made a valid point that all sound theology acknowledges. But instead, he left out the inerrancy of Christian revelation, its truth and definitive character, and ended up putting Christianity on the same level with all other efforts to attain to union with the transcendent.

It should come as no surprise to learn that Father Keating participates in “Monastic Interreligious Dialogue,”  an effort that brings together Benedictine and Trappist religious with “contemplative practitioners of diverse religious traditions,” including non-Christian ascetics like the Dalai Lama and various Hindu gurus.

Such a “dialogue” is what brought “centering prayer” into existence in the first place.1

The next morning, as I was meditating on the liturgical propers for the Mass at Dawn, I could not help but note how authentic Christian mysticism comes from those revealed truths that we have “seen and heard” — those same mysteries we encounter in the Mass, and that the Most Holy Virgin pondered in Her Immaculate Heart. The religion of Father Keating has gotten away from this beautifully incarnate reality narrated to us by Saint Luke:

At that time the shepherds said to one another: Let us go over to Bethlehem, and let us see this word that is come to pass, which the Lord hath showed to us. And they came with haste and they found Mary and Joseph, and the Infant lying in the manger. And seeing they understood of the word that had been spoken to them concerning this Child. And all that heard wondered: and at those things that were told them by the shepherds. But Mary kept all these words, pondering them in her heart. And the shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all the things they had heard and seen, as it was told unto them.

  1. In the mid-seventies, Trappist Abbot Thomas Keating asked the monks, “Could we put the Christian tradition into a form that would be accessible to people . . . who have been instructed in an Eastern technique and might be inspired to return to their Christian roots if they knew there was something similar in the Christian tradition?” (Intimacy with God, 15). Frs. William Menniger and M. Basil Pennington took up the challenge, and centering prayer is the result. In a few short years it has spread all over the world.

    Centering prayer originated in St. Joseph’s Abbey, a Trappist monastery in Spencer, Massachusetts. During the twenty years (1961–1981) when Keating was abbot, St. Joseph’s held dialogues with Buddhist and Hindu representatives, and a Zen master gave a week-long retreat to the monks. A former Trappist monk who had become a Transcendental Meditation teacher also gave a session to the monks. (From “The Danger of Centering Prayer” by John Dreher)