Thursday, June 07, 2007

Interview with Danish Scholar Ole Skjerbaek Madsen

Ole Skjerbaek Madsen is a Luthern pastor and scholar serving in Denmark. He is the author of a chapter titled "Theology in Dialogue with New Age or the Neospiritual Milieu," in Theology and the Religions: A Dialogue, edited by Viggo Mortensen (Grand Rapids/Cambridge: William B. Eerdmans, 2003). Since the late 1980s he has developed a booth ministry with New Spirituality seekers, and he is a facilitator for the Lausanne Committee for World Evangelization's issue group on Religious and Non-Religious Spirituality in the Western world.

Morehead's Musings: Ole, thank you for your part in this inteview. I am pleased to share your international experience and perspective with my readers. Can you share some of your background, training, and denominational perspective that has shaped your views and responses on missions, new religions, and new spiritualities?

Ole Skjerbaek Madsen: I was born I Copenhagen, Denmark in 1947 and have grown up in a Christian home. My father was an organist and music director in a Lutheran state church congregation in Copenhagen. I sucked in the Lutheran worship from my childhood. Yet it was only at high school I consciously committed my self and decided to study theology. I have my theological degree from the University of Copenhagen. As a theological student I got the chance of studying Coptic language, and my thesis was on the Coptic Eucharistic prayers. I was deeply influenced by the spiritual life of the Coptic Christians with their rich liturgy and yet many charismatic dimensions in the life of the Church. This created in me a longing for the renewal of the Danish Lutheran Church, and this longing was met as I engaged in the Charismatic Renewal.

The openness to the Spirit made me sensible to other spiritual realities, and people experimenting with different occult practices contacted me as they were overwhelmed by demons or psychological disturbances. This coloured my understanding of new religions and new spiritualities. I was in the media considered one of few exorcists in the Lutheran Church – even though I have never seen this as my specific charisma; I was just driven by necessity in the care afflicted persons.

My attitude towards the adherents of new religions and spiritualities has however changed during the years. In the mid-1990s I had a spiritual crisis because of my failure in soul care or pastoral counselling towards new agers to help them into a true relationship with Jesus due to my own dogmatic prejudices and their misunderstanding of central Christian doctrines as presented by me or other clergy. As I asked Jesus for help, he opened a new ministry to me by the name “In the Master’s Light” (IML) – building bridges of friendship and understanding and trying to build disciple fellowships in the neo-spiritual milieus. After 24 years as parish pastor, I since January 2000 am a mission pastor in the organisation Areopagos.

MM: Tell us about the types of new religions and alternative spiritualities that are present in your country.

Ole Madsen: In the 1970s and 1980s the scene was dominated by New Religious Movements such as Transcendental Meditation, Hare Krishna, Tibetan Buddhism, Neo Theosophical groups, Scientology, Unification Church, Children of God and the like. In 1984 New Age had its breakthrough as movement with the first Body Mind Spirit fair. With New Age came many different kinds of alternative medicine, healing, and spiritual practices. Also nature related groups, shamans, neo pagans/Asatru has grown. Self-realisation and methods of spiritual growth and transformation is in the forefront. Astrology, palmistry and tarot readings are part of this. Channelling, and not the least clairvoyance broadly understood is wide spread. Tantra is quite attractive to many people. Shamanism is the most popular trend at fairs and festivals this year. The fairs and festivals are the main expressions and means of spreading the new spiritualities and holistic practices. Today the search for well being is an important trend with soft spiritual overtones; new spiritualities will probably recruits practitioners from the well-being culture.

MM: The situation in your country in terms of a Christian response to the New Spirituality is different than that of the United States. In the U.S. an apologetic aproach that tends to contrast and refute the doctrine of new religions as compared to Christianity is popular. What is the situation like in Denmark?

Ole Madsen: We still have churches and organisations that have an apologetic and heresy hunting attitude towards new religions and new spiritualities. Yet IML and other organisations/groups have engaged in dialogue with New Age, the holistic movement or the new spiritualities (what ever name you prefer) and have created an atmosphere of understanding and even friendship between leading figures of the neo-spiritual milieu and church leaders. The presence of IML at fairs and festivals has broken down barriers.

MM: Tell us a little about your scholarly work in theology as it has engaged the "New Age" or the Neospiritual Milieu.

Ole Madsen: All through my contact with new religions and new spiritualities – even in the more confronting period – has provoked me to think of how to respond positively to their concerns and how to make Christian spiritual practices open to the needs of seekers as well as seeing the new spiritualities as mirrors of the Church showing us our short comings and reminding us of lost insights and treasures. This has lead me to the church fathers and the early Church. First of all I have tried to describe a Church which is both charismatic and sacramental as an answer to the questions raised. I have tried to define areas of concern for a Christian doctrine which will address the questions of those parts of the new spiritualities which are rooted in Western esotericism, and I have tried to ask if we might Christianize the energetic worldview of alternative healing practices in a way similar to St. John’s turning the Greek philosophical understanding of the universal logos into personal understanding of God who in God’s Son reveals God self in the process of creation and salvation. My thought have been published in papers and articles – alas mostly in Danish.

MM: You have also been involved in some interesting engagement at New Spiritual festivals in Denmark. Can you tell us something about this?

Ole Madsen: Christian presence in the neo-spiritual milieus is essential to the inculturation of the fellowship of Jesus’ disciples in the same. Therefore it is a main activity of IML to participate in fairs and festivals. We are part of 4-6 fairs every year. We invite the guests and co-exhibitioners to receive a blessing, a prayer of healing of the heart or intercession for whatever is their concern. Last year we prayed with about 1.500 persons. Many persons have through prayer received a personal understanding of God seeing God with the face of Jesus, in stead of an impersonal energetic concept of God. Thus prayer is an experiential way of explaining who God is and who the human person is without entering into a polemic discourse. IML is accepted as a part of the milieu at these fairs, but our specific Christian character is recognized. We follow the same co-exhibitioners from fair to fair and are able to offer a true soul care. We conduct workshops and Christian worship gatherings thus inviting the individual seeker to be a party of the body of Christ through the Christian presence in the milieu. We have successfully guided meditation and taught biblical truths by means of the symbols of the Tarot Deck and the Cabbalistic Tree of Life.

MM: What types of things can the church learn in terms of theology and praxis from dialogue with the New Spirituality?

Ole Madsen: We are challenged to rediscover and sometimes reinvent our Christian spiritual past. Channelling, healing and meditation are essential parts of the spirituality in these milieus; they have their counterpart in revelatory charismas and healing gifts which give the same sense of wonder to the seekers as well as an ongoing experience of the presence of God. Meditation has a long history in the life of the Church, but most people think of it as something Eastern. The great variety of meditation practices will meet almost every kind of spiritual temperament among seekers. I have found guided meditations on the life of Jesus as good ways of communicating the gospel in a experiential way which does not taste of dogmatism even if sound doctrine is presented this way (e.g., meditation on the healing of the lame man in Capernaum has lead participant to conviction of sin and their need of forgiveness and spiritual transformation).

MM: You have been involved as one of the facilitators for the Lausanne issue group on postmodern and alternative spiritualities. What has your experience been like with this group as it met in Thailand in 2004 and Hong Kong in 2006?

Ole Madsen: The most important thing has been to meet other scholars and practitioners working with the same issues. It has been good to develop a new paradigm for the Christian encounter with new religions and spiritualities. And I hope that this will develop into a strong network. The evangelical para-church movements are fore the time being opening themselves to the same new paradigm of contextual and dialogical mission.

MM: You have written a few papers for the issue group that touch on liturgy and sacramental theology as it relates to engagement with esotericism. Can you summarize some of this for us?

Ole Madsen: I have hinted at some of the issues earlier. One of my main concerns is that a sacramental theology and practice will be the best starting point for building up a Christian nature related spirituality and world view. Through “sacramental eyes” we see the imprint of the Logos of God in the created order (logos) of nature; we also recognize what sin has done to creation, nature, and humankind, and we see how the Logos incarnate restores creation and reinstalls humans in their proper ministry in the world. Sacrament sanctifies the element of nature that creation is freed to proclaim the glory or presence of God; sacraments, especially the Eucharist celebrates creation through the saving work of Jesus Christ as a revelation of the kingdom and presence of God.

MM: What types of things would you like the average layperson to learn in American churches from engagement with the New Spirituality?

Ole Madsen: To witness in an experiential way about their relationship to God and about the saving work of Jesus and to open themselves to the leading of the Holy Spirit, finding points of contact and common concern with spiritual seekers and naming the often hidden longing of their quest.

MM: What would you say to American academic theologians and missiologists as informed by your studies and experience?

Ole Madsen: Theology will only be fruitful in mission and pastoral care/soul care and in the transformation of society and environment, if it is theology in its proper meaning – experiential knowing God. Theology is a fruit of prayer and silence with God and is foremost expressed in worship. Theology will never be authentic to people without this dimension of believing.

MM: What words of wisdom and counsel would you have for Americans involved in counter-cult types of approaches?

Ole Madsen: I only helped a few persons to a new life in Jesus Christ as long as I was engaged in proving the falsity of New Age, but as Jesus showed me his concern for these spiritual seekers and his acknowledgement of the sincerity and dedication of their quest and I started meeting the practitioners and seekers in the neo-spiritual milieus as potential disciples of Jesus and as friends, I now enjoy the fellowship of many new disciples – both among those who commit themselves to a life in the Church and those who are still disciples following their personal and often private way with Jesus.

MM: Ole, thank you for your leadership in the Lausanne issue group, and for what you have shared with us here.


Anonymous said...

Ole, love your stuff. I find I am increasingly focusing on the discipleship potential of Christian ritual myself these days and recently started a new blog thread on "ritual crafting" to explore this more publically. I've launched a post on this interview at

Pastor Phil said...

John, great interview!

Ole, This rocks! We need to meet, and serve together sometime my friend. You always have an open door in Salem, MA, USA.

Unknown said...

Gary Vollbracht (

I was led to Ole by Christian Schwarz and his Three Color Book on spirituality in which Ole represents the mystical color. I myself come out of a strong conservative Lutheran background but for 10 years have been drawn intensely toward Pathwork -- a New Age spiritual path that has a strong Christ-centered cosmology. Would like to explore bridging between such material and Lutheranism if anyone is interested in dialogue.