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  • Writer's pictureKrista Bontrager

Are You Paying for Your College Student to Get On-Ramped into Progressive Christianity?

Published: 10/29/20

Updated: 6/5/21

I am receiving an increasing number of letters from Christian parents expressing concern and confusion about why their children are deconstructing their faith....after attending a Christian college. Now obviously, there is not one simple answer to this. People are complicated. But I have noticed a pattern. The practice of contemplative prayer, interaction with the mysticism of author and speaker Richard Rohr, and the positive implementation of the Enneagram are three very common on-ramps into the broader culture of Progressive Christianity. And it's often a short distance from Rohr to Progressive Theology, and even New Age ideas.

So when I see these trends coming into an increasing number of Christian colleges, it makes me wonder if there is a connection to the rise in Progressive Theology and deconstruction among the younger generation. For this reason, Christian parents will want to be aware of potential on–ramps to Progressive Theology that each college advocates, or at least tolerates. This article addresses a few of these gateways and provides some practical suggestions for your college research.

Do Your Homework

Here are some ways that you can research whether a Christian college is promoting ideas inspired by Progressive Christianity to its students.

  • Search the university's YouTube channel and web site for names or writers, teachers, and other leaders who are commonly associated with Progressive Christianity. These include Richard Rohr, Peter Enns, Brian Zahnd, Rob Bell, Sarah Bessey, Jen Hatmaker, and Rachel Held Evans.

  • Search the university's YouTube channel and web site for mentions of the Enneagram.

  • Ask whether the chapel staff or residential life staff are required to take the Enneagram assessment.

  • Check to see if the university or seminary offer degrees or certificates in spiritual formation.

If a Christian college or seminary is platforming these voices or ideas, that's a good indication that Progressive Christianity is embedded in at least some aspects of university life and culture.

A Test Case

As a test case, I ran through the steps above on the Biola University website. Now, my point here is not to single out Biola. Rather, it is to use Biola as an illustration of a larger trend in Christian higher ed. I also want to equip parents on how to spot these issues as they are engaging in their college search. (Why Biola? Because I am trying to sound an alarm that these practices can come into any Christian university, even ones that are historically conservative.)

Here is a brief summary of what I found.

1. Contemplative Prayer & Spiritual Formation

Contemplative prayer is a "spiritual" practice that continues to grow in popularity, especially at Christian colleges and seminaries. It often flies under the banner of "spiritual formation" and focuses on esoteric practices to "know," "hear from," or "be one with” God. Many seminaries now offer multiple courses, and even certification programs, on spiritual formation. Contemplative prayer practices are often part of these classes.

Biola offers a MA in Spiritual Formation and Soul Care, as well as a certificate. And contemplative prayer practices are part of this program. Now, to be fair, some versions of "contemplative prayer" do have a biblical foundation. That's not what this post is about. This post is calling attention to a particular stream of contemplative practices that often become a gateway to other practices that are more problematic, such as the theological mysticism of Richard Rohr and the Enneagram.

2. Names Associated with Progressive Christianity

I searched Biola’s web site for the name Richard Rohr, as Rohr’s work is among the most common gateways to Progressive Christian ideas. I found that Rohr is listed as a contributor to one of Biola's adjacent sites, Center for Christian Thought. This site features a two-part interview with Rohr from 2015 titled, "Immortal Diamonds." Rohr's view on the "cosmic Christ," discussed in this interview, clearly falls outside orthodox Christianity. Giving Biola the benefit of the doubt, it's possible that the interviewer didn't detect that error.

While Rohr has not been featured in a Biola chapel, I found that one of his disciples––Ruth Haley Barton––has.

Barton is the founder of the Transforming Center. Although the Center claims to be biblical in its approach to spiritual formation, Barton’s bio says that she received her education in spiritual direction through the Shalem Institute, which describes itself as a "Christian contemplative spirituality,” but one that “draws on the wisdom of many religious traditions." This kind of interspiritual approach is common among those who advocate contemplative prayer and spiritual formation. Barton's personal web site favorably quotes Rohr as an influence and advocates the Enneagram. Her books are endorsed by David Benner, who is a close associate of Rohr and is also in the Progressive stream.

That said, I was encouraged to find this off-site article speaking out against Rohr's heretical theology by one Biola prof, Dr. Fred Sanders.

3. Mentions of the Enneagram

I also found a number of mentions of the Enneagram on Biola’s web site. But the messaging was quite mixed, offering both cautions and endorsements. For example, one of the Bible professors wrote this critical review of the book, The Sacred Enneagram, by Chris and Phileena Heuertz which I found quite helpful. The same professor also had a blog post cautioning readers about using the Enneagram as a substitute for Scripture and the Holy Spirit. In both articles, I was glad to see a word of caution about this issue.

But when I scrolled further down the search results, I noticed many positive endorsements of the Enneagram by students and staff alike. A prominent psychology professor, who is also the director of Biola's Center for Marriage and Relationships, has this video posted on Biola's official YouTube channel.

Another search result included a this article, located on the Center for Christian Thought microsite. It contains very positive words about—I would say a soft endorsement, of Rohr, the Enneagram and Phileena Heuertz's activist contemplation center. That’s several on-ramps to Progressive Christianity, all in one article! Although the article is from 2016, it's still located on this Biola-sponsored web site.

In fact, Phileena Heuertz was a featured chapel speaker back in 2013.

I think it's fair to say that Biola is sending students some mixed signals about these on-ramps to Progressive Christianity. Biola employs staff and faculty who promote the Enneagram and those who warn against it as a Neo-pagan concept.

Digging Deeper

Last fall, after doing my research above, I mentioned my concerns to key administrators at Biola. I was told that because the articles resided on an adjacent web site, they aren't necessarily endorsed by Biola as an entity.

To be honest, that answer seemed weak to me. And here's why:

  • These resources are easy to find. You can find all of these resources through a simple search on the main Biola web site. So the sites are obviously linked together, giving the appearance of the school's tacit endorsement.

  • Their ideas are not challenged. With the exception of the two articles I found cautioning against the Enneagram, I found nothing in these posts that challenged the troubling (heretical) theology of Rohr or Heuertz. There is no disclaimer on these posts or any kind of pushback to alert the reader about the aberrant theology. The result is an appearance of a soft endorsement.

  • These voices are not just on the website. Similar voices have been platformed in chapels.

When I checked the same links months later, I found that the articles are still there.

If I was researching Biola as a potential college for my child, this data would lead me to ask two questions:

  • Is the Enneagram being used by Biola's Residence Life or chapel services offices as a tool for discipling the students?

  • To what degree are students in the MA in Spiritual Formation and Soul Care program interacting with Rohr’s ideas, his contemplative practices, and the use of the Enneagram?

Again, I want to restate: my point here is not to single out Biola. My purpose is to equip Christian parents on how to spot these issues as they are engaging in their college search. Why? Because it is not uncommon for people who start interacting with Rohr's ideas, the Enneagram, or contemplative practices to begin to drift into Progressive Theology and even the New Age.

Additional Resources

It doesn't take too much digging to discover the relationship between Rohr and his followers, the Enneagram, and contemplative prayer. Here are a few additional resources to help you learn more about these issues:

1. Find out more about Progressive Christianity in Alisa Childers' book, Another Gospel.

2. Marcia Montenegro. Former astrologer and New Age advocate, my friend Marcia is now a Christian apologist and arguably the foremost expert on Rohr's theology, the problems with Rohr's version of contemplative prayer, and the Enneagram. Be sure to read her extended response to Biola's interview with Rohr. I appreciate that she specifically highlights Rohr's heretical view on the "cosmic Christ." When I discussed the Biola situation with Marcia, she told me that she had alerted Biola to the problems in Rohr's interview years ago.

3. Theology Mom and All The Things. At best, the Enneagram is pseudo-science; at worst, it potentially opens your soul to demonic deception. Check out my article on the occult origin of the Enneagram. We also did a podcast on the Ennegram’s lack of psychological validity with apologist and psychologist Jay Medenwaldt.

4. Alisa Childers. Alisa has a VERY helpful podcast about Richard Rohr's troubling theology. In addition, she has a compelling interview with Marcia Montenegro about both the Enneagram and Rohr.

Evaluating the Impact

Although Biola doesn't appear to be openly advocating Progressive Christianity, several Progressive-adjacent people and ideas are being introduced to students as part of the school's culture. What happens when students begin to follow these voices on social media or interact with their ideas in deeper ways? What is the long-term impact when impressionable Christian college students with low biblical literacy are shown these on-ramps to Progressive Christianity? Based on the patterns I've seen, many people who venture down this path usually drift into deeper error. In fact, there is even an unofficial club that is targeting Biola students and alumni, recommending the very resources documented in this post.

I have interviewed multiple long-term faculty members at prominent Christian universities who confirm a troubling pattern: they can see from the social media feeds of many of their former students that they are now fully Progressive. It is my hope that Christian colleges will reconsider their advocacy of contemplative prayer (or at least more sharply refine how they use it), the use of the Enneagram, and the theology of Richard Rohr, as these ideas and practices are among the most common gateways for students to explore Progressive Christianity.


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