From Maslow’s Psychology to Mystical Experiences in the Emergent Church


When one looks at the psychological theories of personality and their out-workings in therapy, society, and the church, one can see how closely the church has been following the trends of the world. Worldliness not only shows itself in desires, possessions, and entertainment, but in various philosophies of life and psychological theories, that are no more than the wisdom of men devoid of God and His Word. Christians have become accustomed to the idea of adding various ideas and techniques to the Bible to deal with problems of living. Moreover, these same self-oriented psychological theories negatively influence the life of the church.

Adding psychological counseling theories to the Bible has both watered down Scripture and turned Christianity into a man-centered endeavor with churches organized to meet so-called "felt needs" and more recently to provide various means of enhancing spiritual experience. As we have watched churches move into a seeker sensitive way of doing church, e.g., Saddleback Church (Rick Warren) and Willow Creek (Bill Hybels), and more recently into what is called the emergent or emerging church (Brian McLaren, etc.), we could not help but think about how psychologist Abraham Maslow and his psychological theories have influenced the church.

Maslow’s development as a psychologist included all four streams of psychological theories and therapies, first the psychoanalytic, then the behavioristic, next the humanistic, and finally the transpersonal, which is the pagan stream of psychology (religious, but not Christian). One reason for his movement from the psychoanalytic to the transpersonal was that, while Maslow believed that each of his theories had something to offer, mankind needed something more. Thus he added his transpersonal, religious psychology.

As with the other major theorists, Maslow believed in the innate goodness of natural man. In fact, he taught that children develop better when they choose their own way without too much interference from adults. He rejected the Lord and His Word, which teaches otherwise, and even blamed Christianity, with its doctrines of the fall and sin, for preventing the natural development of humanity and for thus being a major source of evil. In spite of Maslow’s hostility to Christianity and his teachings being antithetical to the doctrines of Scripture, much of the church has followed this pied piper, first into a religion of felt needs and later into transpersonal religious experiences.

Need Psychology

Maslow is best known for his hierarchy of needs all centered around self. He believed that people are motivated by their needs in an hierarchical order so that when needs are fulfilled at a lower level one can then move to the next level and be motivated by needs at a higher level. Beginning at the lowest level, Maslow listed them as: (1) physiological (bodily) needs, such as the need for food; (2) safety needs (protection, security); (3) love needs (affection, friendship, belonging); (4) esteem needs (respect, approval); and then when all those needs are met at least to some degree, (5) the need to self-actualize (to develop to one’s highest potential). Doesn’t this sound familiar! How many churches over the past few decades have drawn people through their appeal to "felt needs"?

Here are a few quotes from Maslow that are both believed and taught by many Christians today:

Satisfaction of the self-esteem need leads to feelings of self-confidence, worth, strength, capability, and adequacy, of being useful and necessary in the world. But thwarting of these needs produces feelings of inferiority, of weakness, and of helplessness. These feelings in turn give rise to either basic discouragement or else compensatory or neurotic trends.1

So far as motivational status is concerned, healthy people have sufficiently gratified their basic needs for safety, belongingness, love, respect and self-esteem so that they are motivated primarily by trends to self-actualization (defined as ongoing actualization of potentials, capacities and talents, as fulfillment of mission [or call, fate, destiny, or vocation], as a fuller knowledge of, and acceptance of, the person’s own intrinsic nature, as an unceasing trend toward unity, integration or synergy within the person).2

Maslow believed that as individual needs would be met, we would have a perfect society, a utopia. This comes from a dominant psychological idea that man is intrinsically good, which denies the biblical truth of original sin and human depravity. Based on his belief that man’s essential goodness will come forth when his needs are met, Maslow declared:

The pursuit and the gratification of the higher needs have desirable civic and social consequences. . . . People who have enough basic satisfaction to look for love and respect (rather than just food and safety) tend to develop such qualities as loyalty, friendliness, and civic consciousness, and to become better parents, husbands, teachers, public servants, etc. (italics in original).3

Don’t these sound familiar! These very words could have been said by many "Christian psychologists," pastors, teachers, and others, in spite of the fact that these teachings conflict with Scripture as to the nature of man. They are simply Maslow’s psychological ideas and his unfulfilled utopian dream. We say "unfulfilled," because he eventually saw that his theory of self-actualization was not working as he had expected. One example is the flower children of the sixties, who followed Maslow’s dream of a people "fully growing and self-fulfilling," whose "potentialities" were "coming to full development" and "whose inner nature expresses itself freely, rather than being warped, suppressed, or denied."4

While Maslow had not envisioned the hippie culture as the fulfillment of his dream, his heavy focus on self and its so-called needs and his disdain for external standards led to a dangerous type of tolerance that led to exploitation and personal anarchy. Nevertheless, Maslow’s influence on the church has been enormous! And it has been tragic, because, rather than becoming Christ-centered, many church goers have become man-centered and self-centered through embracing and following those who have "Christianized" Maslow’s need-psychology and human-potential teachings.

Mystical Experience

While the need-centered church still thrives, many in the younger generation are seeking something more. They want something deeper than having their felt needs met. They desire something much more spiritually satisfying, where they can experience the divine. They are looking beyond themselves, without the essential doctrines of Scripture. Here again there is an ominous parallel with Maslow, who, after years of assiduously working with his hierarchy of needs with the hope of society reaching a utopia of self-actualized citizens, believed something else was necessary to reach that utopia and that was religious experience and expression. Perhaps one could consider this so-called need for peak experiences as the apex in his hierarchy of needs. Maslow wrote:

Without the transcendent and the transpersonal, we get sick, violent, and nihilistic, or else hopeless and apathetic. We need something "bigger than we are" to be awed by and to commit ourselves to in a new, naturalistic, empirical, nonchurchly sense (bold added).5

Instead of the God of the Bible and the biblical doctrines of man, Maslow offered his new psychological religion of peak experiences, which he also called the "core-religious experience" and the "transcendent experience." Just as William James had taught years earlier, Maslow believed that "to the extent that all mystical or peak-experiences are the same in their essence and have always been the same, all religions are the same in their essence and always have been the same."6

Maslow’s move towards religious experience without the restriction of such doctrines as original sin, which he abhorred, and the necessity of a blood atonement is reflected in the emergent church, where spiritual experience and freedom from doctrinal constraints can be found. Even Maslow’s prescription, "Do you want to find out what you ought to be? Then find out who you are!"7 may apply to the emergent church as it is finding its path but losing its way. The "all-truth-is-God’s-truth" mantra of "Christian psychology" has been ever so subtly extended to such an expansion that, with as many possibilities as persons, who can say what is true for anyone else? Because of the influence of Maslow and other psychological personality theorists, truth has become a very personal thing for many, not restricted by biblical doctrines or creeds.

In following some of Maslow’s ideas regarding personhood and truth, Carl Rogers wrote: "Neither the Bible nor the prophets—neither Freud nor research—neither revelations of God nor man—take precedence over my own direct experience."8 All becomes quite relative when "truth" is based on one’s personal experience. Biblical absolutes are being replaced by stories and images and by discussions where questions are more important than answers. Fellowship is based on conversation and shared mystical experience rather than on shared biblical beliefs.

Transpersonal psychology pushes for the peak experience—that spiritual high that Maslow thought was of such utmost importance for his scheme of self-improvement and a societal utopia. In writing about peak experiences, he included mysticism, Taoistic receptivity, transcending time and space, Eastern religious influences, and hypnosis.9 The emergent church also works towards mystical experiences through elements of mysticism, contemplative prayer, ritual, and sensory stimulation, with worship services appealing to the five senses—seeing, touching, tasting, hearing, and smelling:

Dark atmosphere with hypnotic strobe-type lighting behind the musicians.

Flickering candles.

Incense permeating the air and nostrils of the devotees.

Touching oneself in the shape of the cross.

Individual "communion" at will where one touches and tastes the wine and the bread.

Repetitive music and hypnotic drums.

Images on a screen (clips of scenes, etc).

Icons.

These are all powerful elements of imagery and imagination, where, in imagining the presence of Jesus, individuals my form images in their minds, which can become a form of mental idolatry and even lead one to receiving an occult spirit guide.10 In other words these sensory elements, though seemingly innocent in themselves, can very easily lead to altered states of consciousness and false worship—away from God Himself.

The emergent church is much about the self experiencing what feels like the presence of God. However God revealed Himself through His Word and His Son. "In the beginning was the Word…and the Word became flesh and dwelt among us." He also reveals aspects of Himself to all humanity through His creation, but He reveals Himself as Father, Savior, and Lord to His children through the written Word, not through stimulating the five senses. We know Him through His Word and through following what He has said. But when people are ready to add need psychology and peak experiences to God’s Word, they not only end up with unbiblical psychological ideas from Maslow, Carl Jung, William James, Carl Rogers, and others; they open themselves up to various forms of mysticism and Eastern religions.

Roger Oakland’s helpful book Faith Undone: the emerging church … a new reformation or an end-time deception clearly reveals the dangers of the emergent church with its various mystical, sensual, and hypnotic practices and shows how it is creeping into churches in seemingly innocent changes in format and styles of worship. In writing about his concern about adding traditions of early Catholic mystics and contemplative prayer techniques to what God has revealed in His Word, he says:

We know God’s Word is light. When we replace the Word of God with the words of man, which are considered to bring enlightenment, we have a perfect formula for returning to darkness. The early mystics added ideas to Christianity that cannot be found in the Bible—a recipe for spiritual detriment.11

Emergent Utopia

A further connection between Maslow and the emergent church was his unfulfilled dream of a utopia consisting of self-actualized persons. As the emergents undefine the Gospel and do a spin on the Bible, they are also aiming for a utopia made up of people who are not hemmed in by biblical theology. Bob DeWaay gives an incisive analysis of the movement in his book The Emergent Church: Undefining Christianity, where he carefully explores their emerging "missional" theology. He says:

The Emergent mission does not begin with any theological idea. It is not gleaned from biblical texts…. In fact the Emergent mission does not even start from a set of theological beliefs. I say this because their use of "missional" describes the idea that any works that make the world a better place bring us toward the ideal future.12

DeWaay further demonstrates that the emergents "believe God to be bringing everything along toward an ideal future without judgment," and says:

In their view the only thing that doesn’t make sense is preaching repentance for the forgiveness of sins so people can avoid a literal, future judgment…. Ironically, the one approach to missions that Emergent leaders reject routinely is the one based on Jesus’ own words to His church (emphasis in original).13

Emergent leader Brian McLaren claims to know "The Secret Message of Jesus" as being Jesus’ "Surprising and Largely Untried Plan for a Political, Social, Religious, Artistic, Economic, Intellectual, and Spiritual Revolution."14 McLaren talks about how those who follow the emergent way will help God bring about a better world. He says:

Like a mother dreaming of a good future for the baby at her breast, like a father standing at the crib watching his newborn sleep peacefully, God will see God’s own primal dream for creation finally coming true—and that dream won’t be imposed by God from outside by domination against creation’s will, but will emerge from within creation itself, so that God’s dream and creation’s groaning for fulfillment are one.15

Unlike Maslow’s unfulfilled dream of a utopia through a community of self-actualized persons, the emergent’s want to include God so it becomes God’s so-called "dream" being fulfilled by those who have replaced God’s clear rational Word with personal mystical experience so that they will end up being like the Israelites in the time of Judges when "every man did that which was right in his own eyes" (Judges 21:25). DeWaay provides much evidence that "Emergent leaders have embraced mysticism—where truth is experienced rather than understood" (italics in original).16

In attempting to know God better, experience His presence, and grow spiritually, many are being deceived. In seeking to escape from many of the obvious errors in the church today, emergent leaders are embracing even more dangerous errors. Leaving the solid foundation of the Word of God and fossicking about in the religions of psychology and paganism, many seekers will lose their way. We would urge believers to seriously reflect on Colossians 2:6-10 and "Beware lest any man spoil you through philosophy and vain deceit, after the tradition of men, after the rudiments of the world, and not after Christ" (v. 8). Experience is to be based on the truth of God’s Word. Christians who want to know God better, experience His presence, and grow spiritually will do so by God’s grace as they become well grounded in Scripture and walk by faith in Christ and in the sure Word of God.

(Endnotes)

1 Abraham H. Maslow. Motivation and Personality, Second Edition. New York: Harper & Row, Publishers, 1970, p. 91.

2 Abraham H. Maslow. Toward a Psychology of Being, Second Edition. Princeton, NJ: D. Van Nostrand Company, Inc., 1962, 1968, p. 25.

3 Maslow, Motivation and Personality, op. cit., p. 149.

4 Maslow. Toward a Psychology of Being, op. cit., p. 5.

5 Ibid., p. iv.

6 Abraham H. Maslow. Religions, Values, and Peak-Experiences. New York: The Viking Press, 1964, 1970, p. 20.

7 Adrianne Aron, "Maslow’s Other Child" in Politics and Innocence, Rollo May, Carl Rogers, Abraham Maslow et al., eds. Dallas: Saybrook Publishers, 1986, p. 107.

8 Carl Rogers. On Becoming a Person. Quoted by Joyce Milton. The Road to Malpsychia. San Francisco: Encounter Books, 2002, p. 135.

9 Abraham H. Maslow, The Farther Reaches of Human Nature. New York: The Viking Press, 1971; Abraham H. Maslow, Religions, Values, and Peak-Experiences. New York: The Viking Press, 1964, 1970.

10 See "Psychoheresy & Inner Healing, Part three" PsychoHeresy Awareness Letter, Vol. 15, No. 3, http://www.psychoheresy-aware.org/psy-innerhealing3.html.

11 Roger Oakland. Faith Undone: the emerging church … a new reformation or an end-time deception. Silverton, OR: Lighthouse Trails Publishing, 2007, p. 79.

12 Bob DeWaay. The Emergent Church: Undefining Christianity. Bob DeWaay, 2620 Xenwood Ave S., St Louis Park, MN 55416, 2009, p. 33.

13 Ibid., p. 34.

14 Brian McLaren. The Secret Message of Jesus—Uncovering the Truth That Could Change Everything. Nashville: W Publishing Group, 2006, p. 229, n. 1.

15 Ibid., pp. 202-203.

16 DeWaay, op. cit., p. 51.

(PsychoHeresy Awareness Letter, July-August 2010, Vol. 18, No. 4)


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