by John Caddock
from 1997 (source)
One of the best articles we have ever read on Contemplative Spirituality
Little did I know when I began to read The Signature of Jesus the time and effort that would be involved in understanding it. I am not a theologian by training. My background is in technical management in electronic component manufacturing. However, I stumbled onto something that I became convinced was very dangerous and little understood.
One reading was not enough for me to understand The Signature of Jesus. I found that it was like reading a book in a foreign language. I read many new expressions like contemplative prayer, centering prayer, centering down, paschal spirituality, the discipline of the secret, contemplative spirituality, celebrating the darkness, mineralization, the Mineral Man, practicing the presence, the interior life, intimacy with Abba, the uncloistered contemplative life, inner integration, yielding to the Center, the bridge of faith, notional knowledge, contemporary spiritual masters, masters of the interior life, shadow self, false self, mysterium tremendum, existential experience, and the Abba experience.1
I also encountered many writers I have never read before, including Kasemann, Burghardt, Merton, Van Breeman, Brueggemann, Moltmann, Nouwen, Küng, Steindl-Rast, Rahner, Bonhoeffer, Kierkegaard, and Camus.
I had to read the book three separate times before I was confident that I understood what Manning was saying. I even read it a fourth time for good measure.
Reading this book led me to read a number of other books and articles by and about leading mystics/contemplatives. I learned about the heart of Manning’s message, centering prayer.
Ultimately I felt I had to meet the man. I attended one conference he conducted. In addition, I purchased the tapes of another conference he conducted and pored over them.
Altogether I spent hundreds of hours trying to understand what Manning is saying. Why did I do this? Well, I began this study because three Free Grace Christian leaders whom I know endorsed Brennan Manning in his earlier book, The Ragamuffin Gospel. These men are bright, well educated, experienced in ministry, and heads of major works. Yet I had read a cautionary review of that book,2 and I wanted to read Manning for myself.
I continued the study because what I found frightened me and because I felt others needed to be warned. The teachings of Manning are very dangerous.
There is a seductive quality to his writings. He reports grappling with and overcoming fear, guilt, and psychological hang-ups and difficulties, including alcoholism. He gives the impression that he has a very intimate relationship with God and that he has insight to a superspirituality. He regularly meditates and reports having many visions and encounters with God. He is an extremely gifted writer who is able to tug at the emotions of the reader while at the same time introducing ideas that the reader would immediately reject if they were not cloaked under this emotional blanket.
He promises readers that if they apply his teaching they too will gain this same intimacy with God as well as freedom from fear, guilt, and psychological hang-ups and difficulties. This is very attractive. Manning’s prescription to achieve this is not by traditional prayer and by the reading and application of the Bible. Rather, the means to this end is a mixture of Eastern mysticism, psychology, the New Age Movement, liberation theology, Catholicism, and Protestantism.3 This mixture will not deliver intimacy with God. It no doubt will lead to special feelings and experiences. Those practicing Manning’s methods will likely feel closer to God. However, in the process they will actually move away from Him as a result of a counterfeit spirituality.
The Ragamuffin Mystic Monk
Speaking at a conference, Brennan Manning summed up his view of the essence of his ministry and the core of the good news: “In healing our image of God, Jesus frees us of fear of the Father and dislike of ourselves.” This is a radical departure from the good news of Jesus Christ. Eternal life and the forgiveness of sins is replaced with psychological healing.
Ordained a Franciscan priest, Manning earned degrees in philosophy and theology. He had training with a monastic order which included seven months of isolation in a desert cave. Years later, after a collapse into alcoholism, he shifted direction and focused on writing and speaking. He became persona non grata among the Roman Catholic hierarchy as a result of his marriage in 1982. He now writes and speaks mainly to Protestant audiences. It is important to note that Manning is well received, even by some Free Grace people.
The Signature of Jesus was first published in 1988. The current revised edition was published in 1996 by Multnomah Books.4
Manning is more widely known for his bestseller published in 1990, The Ragamuffin Gospel.5 Its first few chapters are emotionally gripping as he writes about God’s forgiving nature and His love for the unworthy. The book promotes the freeness of God’s love, but falls short because it does not present a clear gospel. It also leaves many open questions about his views. Manning’s book, The Signature of Jesus, answers many of those questions, and raises a number of additional ones.
What Is Contemplative Spirituality?
The Signature of Jesus is actually a primer on what Manning calls paschal spirituality, which is supposedly, but not actually, spirituality centered on the life, death, and resurrection of Christ. (Chapter 6 is entitled “Paschal Spirituality.”) Another name for this, a more accurate one, is contemplative spirituality. Indeed, one entire chapter is a call to “Celebrate the Darkness” (pp. 137-58)6 and another teaches about centering prayer, an Eastern Religion mind-emptying meditation technique (pp. 209-227). The book has a number of personal stories from Manning where he claims that Jesus or God the Father appeared to him, touched him, and spoke to him.
Manning indicates that The Signature of Jesus is about radical discipleship and authentic faith. Radical discipleship sounds good. So does authentic faith. Unfortunately, the book isn’t about following Jesus Christ or having faith in Him. It is about following “the masters of the interior life” (pp. 94, 219).
In Manning’s view many Christians have been raised in a devotional spirituality which focuses “more on behavior than on consciousnesson doing God’s will and performing the devotional acts that please him than on experiencing God as God truly is” (p. 216). Contemplative spirituality, on the other hand, “emphasize[s] the need for a change in consciousness, a new way of seeing God, others, self, and the world” (p. 216) which leads to a deeper knowledge of God. To continue reading and for footnotes, click here.