What is Contemplative Spirituality
and Why is It Dangerous?
A Review of Brennan Manning’s
The Signature of Jesus
The Never-Ending Review
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,2and 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 consciousness…on 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.
Thus Manning sets up a battle between two views of the Christian life. One he paints as traditional, cold, intellectual, ritualistic, unemotional, unloving, uncaring, insensitive, unattractive, and obsessive. The other he presents as new, warm, free, emotional, loving, caring, sensitive, attractive, and liberating. While he acknowledges that there is a place for Bible study and corporate worship, he argues that the key is “practicing the presence” through a special form of prayer we will discuss more fully later, centering prayer. Manning writes,
Herein lies the secret, I believe, of the inner life of Jesus. Christ’s communion with Abba in the inner sanctuary of His soul transformed His vision of reality, enabling Him to perceive God’s love and care behind the complexities of life. Practicing the presence helps us to discern the providence of God at work especially in those dark hours when the signature of Jesus is being traced in our flesh. (You may wish to try it right now. Lower the book, center down, and offer yourself to the indwelling God.)7
Daily devotions consisting of Bible study, meditation, memorization, and traditional prayers are of limited importance in the contemplative spirituality of Manning. A type of prayer derived from Eastern mysticism is what is really important. Practice the presence. Center down. What is really needed is freeing the mind and having an existential experience with God.
Contemplative spirituality is the teaching that spiritual growth and true spirituality occur by contemplation not of Scripture or even of scriptural themes, but contemplation of God through emptying your mind.
The Origins of Contemplative Spirituality
This movement began in the Roman Catholic Church, where there has been an important shift over the last thirty years. Devotional spirituality is a pejorative term coined by some within Roman Catholicism who reacted against the prewar, pre-Vatican II Church, with a devotion to saints, doctrine, frequent reception of the sacraments, and approved devotional practices.
Some Roman Catholics began to advocate the new theology8 which Francis Schaeffer warned of in his classic The God Who is There.9 Schaeffer pointed to Hans Küng and Karl Rahner (both influential in shaping Manning’s views) and Tielhard de Chardin as the leading progressive thinkers who were following in the path of Heidegger, the existentialist philosopher. To the new theology, language is always a matter of personal interpretation and therefore the language of the Bible can be used as a vehicle fo continuous existetial experiences. A given verse a thousands of different interpretations as each person has an encounter with God.
Schaeffer warned that if the “progressives” consolidated their position within the Roman Catholic Church, they would have both its organization and linguistic continuity at their disposal. They would then be in the position of supplying society with an endless series of religiously motivated “arbitrary absolutes” applying any sociological or psychological theory at their discretion.
Schaeffer predicted that the new theology would lead to mysticism. Karl Rahner showed the truth in Schaeffer’s prediction when he wrote “The Christian of the future will be a mystic or he or she will not exist at all…By mysticism we mean a genuine experience of God emerging from the very heart of our existence.”10 But Schaeffer had a different definition of mysticism than Rahner’s: “Mysticism is nothing more than a faith contrary to rationality, deprived of content and incapable of communication. You can bear witness to it but you cannot discuss it.”11
Since Schaeffer’s remarks thirty years ago, there has been a growing interest in contemplative spirituality. In an article titled “The Changing State of Spirituality” in the November 27, 1993 issue of America, a Roman Catholic Journal, some observations were made about the trend in books being published. In 1968, the top ten Roman Catholic books were predominantly from authors attempting to apply the new theology to spirituality. In 1993, the top ten were predominantly from authors attempting to apply Eastern religious teachings as well as psychology to spirituality. The new theology is free, as Schaeffer warned it would be, to draw upon any teaching in order to achieve its goals.
In The Signature of Jesus, Manning quotes Catholic saints, medieval mystics, and monks, including Charles deFoucauld, Francis DeSales, Meister Ekhart, Teresa of Avila, and Catherine of Siena. The most frequently cited sources are part of the community of Roman Catholic clergy who are instrumental in promoting modern contemplative spirituality: Thomas Merton, Anthony DeMello, William Shannon, Henri Nouwen, Peter Van Breemen, William Reiser, David Steindl-Rast, and Basil Pennington. Although the word contemplation brings to mind a monastic life dedicated to pence and cloistered within the walls of the monastery, not so with these New Monks.12
The New Monks critique the current state of Christianity by arguing that since God is holy and is a “wholly other,” He cannot be defined by systems of doctrine. They maintain that western rationalism has crushed the knowledge of God and that we must return to a more intuitively received knowledge. We must move beyond the intellect, beyond doctrine, and beyond words to a deeper union with God. Their writings contain rather complex discussions on the nature of being and share common themes of universality, mystical union with God through contemplation (wordless “prayer”), social justice, and non-violence.
The New Monks maintain that all religions should immerse themselves in the myths of their tradition because there is power in the “collective unconscious”13 of the tradition to shape the experience of its followers. So, for the New Monk, the use of biblical language has great power within the Christian tradition. For example, the call to salvation14 is actually a call to a transformation of consciousness to be psychologically awakened to the unity and oneness of all creation. For the New Monks all religions at their deepest mystical level use myth and symbol to say the same thing.
The New Monks believe we are born into a duality between self (the ego) and oneness (being). The ego is driven by fear of death and alienation, and is the source of all suffering and woundedness. The fall, a mythical story, has a deeper more “universal truth,” which is intended to shed light on present human experience. We have fallen from oneness and harmony of paradise into alienation and a sense of separation. We must simply realize that the gulf that appears to separate “sinful” humanity from a righteous God, has never existed, we are and always have been one with God. For the New Monks this is God’s unconditional love and grace.
Thomas Merton, who is frequently cited by Manning, is the forerunner of the New Monks. He became a Roman Catholic monk at age 26, just three days after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. Having accepted so much of the new theology, Merton remained involved in the Roman Catholic Church only by a thin affirmation of a God in Nature and a reverence for tradition. He popularized Jungian Psychotherapy in his writings about spiritual healing, agreeing with Jung’s mythic perspective of biblical doctrines.
Merton traveled to Asia on a quest to redefine what being a monk entailed and apparently found it in Buddhist and Hindu teachings. There he discovered great similarities between monastic contemplation and Eastern Meditation and determined that they were both in touch with the same mystical source. He felt that the emphasis on experience and inner transformation rather than doctrine would be the ecumenical meeting place between East and West.
Merton advocated moving the practice of contemplation from its marginal state of use by only the Catholic monks behind the cloistered walls to a broader use by the common man. Dedicated to civil rights, antiwar, and liberationist activism, he came to call his fellow activists “true monks.” Embraced by progressive Catholics, some say he was most influential in the shift from devotional spirituality to contemplative spirituality.
In The Signature of Jesus, Manning precisely echoes the themes of contemplative spirituality. It appears to be his intention to bring to Protestants what Thomas Merton brought to many Roman Catholics.
Contemplative Spirituality Promotes Universalism
Both the new theology and contemplative spirituality emphasize ecumenism. Hans Küng (whose book “On Being Christian,” Manning says is “the most powerful book other than Scripture that I have ever read,” p. 153) is the author of the document, Declaration of a Global Ethic, which personifies the push toward religious pluralism among progressives. The document, intended to be an agreement among the world’s religions, does not contain the word God, Küng explains “because including it would exclude all Buddhist and many faith groups with different views of God and the divine.”15 Most Evangelicals are familiar with ecumenism within Christendom only. However, those who hold to the new theology, and more explicitly those who hold to contemplative spirituality believe in an ecumenism which includes non Christian religions and all “faith groups.” This is a logical step for those who divorce themselves from the gospel of Scripture and who adopt the view that all are saved (universalism).
Since universalism is not appealing to many Evangelicals, and Manning is attempting to reach them, he does not make blatant statements advocating it. He shows, however, that he is indeed a Universalist in two ways.16
First, the people whom Manning approvingly cites believe in universalism. David Steindl-Rast is a Roman Catholic priest who promotes contemplative theology. In a 1992 article he said, “Envision the great religious traditions arranged on the circumference of a circle. At their mystical core they all say the same thing, but with different emphasis.”17 Manning cites him approvingly twice in The Signature of Jesus (pp. 210, 213-14).
The New Monks frequently use the phrase “unconditional love” to express universality. Their push to a beyond-words, beyond-thoughts meditation experience in order to fully experience a loving deity, misses entirely that apart from faith in Christ for eternal life, there can be no adequate discussion of experiencing God’s love.
Matthew Fox, cited approvingly in Manning’s books Lion and Lamb (p. 135) and A Stranger to Self Hatred (pp. 113, 124) is an excommunicated Catholic priest who is a contemplative. He gives us another example of the universalism of the contemplatives whom Manning cites:
Remember that 15 billion years of the universe loved you and brought you forward. And it loved you unconditionally…We were loved before the beginning…God is a great underground river, and there are many wells into that river. There’s a Taoist well, a Buddhist well, a Jewish well, a Muslim well, a Christian well, a Goddess well, the Native wells-many wells that humans have dug to get into that river, but friends, there’s only one river; the living waters of wisdom.18
Merton says one can work within the Christian traditions but view universalism as the broader truth: “[The contemplative] has a unified vision and experience of the one truth shining out in all its various manifestations. He does not set these partial views up in opposition to each other, but unites them in a dialectic or an insight of complementarity.”19
Second, Manning makes statements which imply universalism. In The Signature of Jesus, for example, he says that contemplative spirituality (which he calls paschal spirituality) “looks upon human nature as fallen but redeemed, flawed but in essence good” (p. 125, emphasis mine). For Manning the life, death, and resurrection of Christ mean that all are redeemed. There is nothing to be done to gain the life of God. Everyone already has it:
He has a single, relentless stance toward us: he loves us. He is the only God man has ever heard of who loves sinners. False gods-the gods of human understanding-despise sinners, but the Father of Jesus loves all, no matter what they do. But of course this is almost too incredible for us to accept. Nevertheless, the central affirmation of the Reformation stands: through no merit of ours, but by his mercy, we have been restored to a right relationship with God through the life, death, and resurrection of his beloved Son. This is the Good News, the gospel of Grace (The Ragamuffin Gospel, p. 18).20
Manning says that God loves “all.” He is not speaking here merely of the compassion God has for the world which moved Him to send His Son to die for us (John 3:16). He is saying that God has already restored all people to a right relationship with Him. Notice that he first says “he loves us” and then “he loves all.” Clearly us, the first person plural pronoun, in this context includes everyone. Then, in the same context Manning goes on to say that “we have been restored to a right relationship with God.” We there is the same group as the all mentioned earlier. All have been restored to a right relationship with God. Manning wants us to overcome our psychological fog so that we can realize it. The Good News is that everyone is already saved. The biblical view that all are lost and that only when a person trusts Jesus Christ as Savior he passes from death to life (John 5:24) is foreign to Manning and contemplatives.
The last chapter of The Signature of Jesus is all about a revelation which Manning supposedly received from God about final judgment. More will be said about this later. However, the illustration mentions by name some of the most vile men of all time, including Adolph Hitler, Joseph Stalin, Idi Amin, and Saddam Hussein, and implies that all of them, indeed all who have ever lived, will get into heaven.21
It should be noted, however, that there are statements in The Signature of Jesus and in the writings of other contemplatives which can be easily misconstrued to imply that there is salvation only for those who believe in Jesus. For example, Manning writes, “In any other great world religion it is unthinkable to address almighty God as Abba.” He then supports this point by approvingly quoting Peter Van Breemen,
Many devout Moslems, Buddhists, and Hinduists are generous and sincere in their search for God. Many have had profound mystical experiences. Yet in spite of their immeasurable spiritual depth, they seldom or never come to know God as their Father. Indeed, intimacy with Abba is one of the greatest treasures Jesus has brought us (p. 170). It is important to realize that when contemplatives speak of knowing God as your Father/Abba, they are not referring to regeneration. They are referring to achieving a level of intimacy with God, “intimacy with Abba.” They view all people as heaven bound. The issue for them is becoming a mystic whose experience of God transforms the life and hence the world. Their ultimate aim is to usher in a new world.22
There are statements in The Signature of Jesus which could be misconstrued as teaching Lordship Salvation as well. He denounces “cheap grace” (pp. 118, 128) and says,
In the last analysis, faith is not the sum of our beliefs or a way of speaking or a way of thinking; it is a way of living and can be articulated adequately only in a living practice. To acknowledge Jesus as Savior and Lord is meaningful insofar as we try to live as he lived and to order our lives according to his values. We do not need to theorize about Jesus; we need to make him present in our time, our culture, and our circumstances. Only a true practice of our Christian faith can verify what we believe (p. 33).
However, Manning is not talking about salvation from hell. He is speaking of deliverance from fear and shame. He is speaking here of coming into an intimate knowledge of God in one’s experience, not of how we gain eternal life. Manning does not believe in Lordship Salvation; he believes in Lordship liberation, liberation from our psychological hang-ups and fears.
As mentioned above, the key to spirituality, according to Manning, is a special type of prayer which he calls “contemplative prayer” or “centering prayer.”
For the uninitiated, this may not seem ominous. It may sound like what God calls us to do in His Word. It is not. It is ominous. It is a practice derived from Eastern mysticism.
In The Signature of Jesus, Manning writes, “The task of contemplative prayer is to help me achieve the conscious awareness of the unconditionally loving God dwelling within me” (p. 211). He also says, “What masters of the interior life recommend is the discipline of ‘centering down’ throughout the day” (p. 94).
Manning attempts to head off the charge that centering prayer comes from Eastern mysticism and the New Age movement by saying:
A simple method of contemplative prayer (often called “centering prayer” in our time and anchored in the Western Christian tradition of John Cassian and the desert fathers, and not, as some think, in Eastern mysticism or New age philosophy) has four steps… (p. 218).
He instructs the reader in the practice of centering prayer, which is a type of contemplative wordless “prayer” a technique that involves breathing exercises and the chanting of a sacred word or phrase. Manning begins “the first step in faith is to stop thinking about God at the time of prayer” (p. 212)! What biblical support is there for this idea?
The second step, according to Manning, is to “without moving your lips, repeat the sacred word [or phrase] inwardly, slowly, and often” (p. 218). Once again, where is the biblical support for this practice? None is cited, because none exists.
The third step concerns what to do when inevitable distractions come. The answer is to “simply return to listening to your sacred word…Gently return your mind to your sacred word” (p. 218).
Finally, “after a twenty-minute period of prayer [which Manning recommends twice daily] conclude with the Lord’s Prayer, a favorite psalm, or some spontaneous words of praise and thanks” (p. 219). While he doesn’t say how long this concluding recitation or spontaneous words might last, it seems he only expects this to be a minute or two, since the Lord’s Prayer and most of the Psalms are short and easy to read in a minute or so. This concluding recitation seems to be an afterthought, something put in to make the “prayer” seem Christian. Yet even this fourth part is biblically suspect. Jesus said, “And when you pray, do not use vain repetitions as the heathen do” (Matt 6:7). Any routine prayer repeated each prayer session will soon fall into the category of “vain repetition,” even if it is Scripture. The Lord’s Prayer is a sample of the way we should pray, and not some prayer we should memorize and repeat back to God daily.
The instruction utilizes odd jargon such as the “false self” and “crucifixion of the ego” and a curious mix of spiritual and psychological terms. To understand his language one would need to have a more candid overview of centering prayer, which I found in an unusual-for me, not for New Agers-non Christian source called Gnosis Magazine. The following is a condensation of the article titled “From Woundedness to Union” (Gnosis, Winter 1995, pp. 41-45). The author is a Ph.D. who was tutored by the inventors of centering prayer:
Thomas Keating and Basil Pennington [who Manning credits for teaching him this prayer form] were exploring how to achieve a more concentrated experience on the general model of a Zen sesshin, having been quite experienced in sesshins. During these experiments they came upon a form of meditation from which tears, repressed memories, deep intuitions all came to the surface in a jumble, along with a sense of catharsis and bonding among the participants.
From his years as abbot, Keating recognized that this technique accelerated the sensitizing of the unconscious which is the goal of the contemplative life. He recalls, “I saw people going through in ten days what it might have taken twenty years to go through at a monastery.” He believes that this unloading of the unconscious is a purification process at work to which he attaches traditional Christian terminology as the struggle against sin. This is called “Divine Therapy.”
The main goal is to dismantle the “false self,” the needy, driven, unrecognized motivations behind untransformed human behavior. They suggest the false self as a modern equivalent for the traditional concept of original sin. The “true self” is buried beneath the accretions and defenses. A huge amount of healing has to take place before our deep and authentic quest for union with God is realized. This, in essence, constitutes the spiritual journey.
The most fruitful connection here [for the author of the article] is the linking of the “dark night” of the traditional apophatic path and the psychological process, the “darkness” of the psyche. If psychoanalysis represents “cataphatic therapy”-using words, concepts, and awareness to illuminate the darkness of our inner ground-centering prayer presents a kind of “apophatic psycho therapy” (“apophatic” meaning that which points one towards the ineffable, beyond all words, concepts, and forms).
Periods of psychological ferment and destabilization are signs that the journey is progressing, not failing. The results can often be horrifying to ourselves. As trust grows in God and practice becomes more stable, we penetrate deeper and deeper down to the bedrock of pain, the origin of our personal false self. In response to each significant descent into the ground of our woundedness, there is a parallel ascent in the form of inner freedom, the experience of the fruits of the spirit and beatitude.
By interweaving the contemporary language of psychological healing with the traditional language of Christianity a new synthesis is born.23
Chapter seven is entitled “Celebrate the Darkness” (a title that is decidedly not only unbiblical, but even antibiblical; darkness is always presented negatively in Scripture, see, for example, 2 Cor 6:14; Eph 5:8, 11; 1 Thess 5:4-5; 1 Pet 2:9; 1 John 1:5-10). Manning writes “the ego has to break; and this breaking is like entering into a great darkness. Without such a struggle and affliction, there can be no movement in love” (p. 145). He goes on,
With the ego purged and the heart purified through the trials of the dark night, the interior life of an authentic disciple is a hidden, invisible affair. Today it appears that God is calling many ordinary Christians into this rhythm of loss and gain. The hunger I encounter across the land for silence, solitude, and centering prayer is the Spirit of Christ calling us from the shallows to the deep (p. 149).
In centering prayer the word sin becomes a religious word attached to a method of psychological therapy, and the biblical presentation of true moral guilt is omitted.24 It is a system completely open to the manipulation of the inventors who feel the liberty to use the biblical language any way they see fit. Manning attempts to give it the validity of tradition by saying that it is has been rooted in Catholic monastic practices since the 5th century: “It is a comfort to know that this is a path that others have tracked before us” (p. 149).
The practice of centering prayer is expanding in many parishes and is now moving beyond Catholic boundaries as many are coming to it from the Recovery Movement. The Catholic Church does not have an official position on this form of prayer, but some Catholic scholars refute the mind-emptying techniques. They also call for psychological studies because of the reported occurrences of depression among practitioners of New Age type meditation.
The result of this mystical practice is that the practitioner becomes less interested in objective spiritual knowledge found in the Bible and more interested in the subjective experience which is found through centering prayer. This may account for the antagonistic attitude toward traditional forms of faith. Manning speaks of “several local churches I have visited, [in which] religiosity has pushed Jesus to the margins of real life and plunged people into preoccupation with their own personal salvation” (p. 193). Of course, centering prayer requires no interest whatsoever in one’s own personal salvation since it presupposes that all are already saved. That is what we discover when we “center down.” Manning’s attitude toward the Bible seems to be markedly different from that of Calvin and Luther, for example, or of anyone who has a high regard for it as the very Word of God:
I am deeply distressed by what I only can call in our Christian culture the idolatry of the Scriptures. For many Christians, the Bible is not a pointer to God but God himself. In a word-bibliolatry. God cannot be confined within the covers of a leather-bound book. I develop a nasty rash around people who speak as if mere scrutiny of its pages will reveal precisely how God thinks and precisely what God wants (pp. 188-89).
In The Signature of Jesus Manning rarely cites Scripture. Why should he, when the truly important knowledge of God comes from his experience of centering down and not from the Bible? Remember “God cannot be confined within the covers of a leather-bound book.” While Manning would acknowledge that some elementary truths of God can be found by reading the Bible, intimate knowledge of God only comes through centering prayer.25
A Parable of Contemplation
It seems appropriate to mention Manning’s latest book, The Boy Who Cried Abba: A Parable of Trust and Acceptance.26 It is a small book that appears to be written to the young as well as to adults. Although he does not announce his intentions, it is most emphatically a parable about contemplative spirituality. The book jacket has endorsements by Amy Grant27 and Max Lucado which is sure to help it sell to evangelicals.28
The parable takes place in a town near the Rio Grande. It is the story of a boy who is rejected by other children. He is scared and unloved. He finds kindness from a Medicine Man, El Shaddai [which is a Hebrew name for God, meaning God Almighty, see Gen 17:1; 28:3; 35:11], who gives him medicine to take daily. The medicine for self acceptance–oil which he rubs on his heart–becomes too difficult for him to take. His grandmother, who is named Calm Sunset, urges him to go to the cave of Bright Darkness where he will be alone and will face great difficulty. While in the cave, he continues to take the medicine as hurtful memories begin to come to the surface. In the end El Shaddai appears to him and asks the boy to accept acceptance. When he does he is healed of his scars.
Psychological salvation comes by centering down, getting away with “God” in a cave or closet. Unfortunately, it is not God that people meet in the darkness, “God is light and in Him there is no darkness at all” (1 John 1:5).
The Bridge of Faith?
Manning believes that there is a chasm between belief and experience. Belief is one type of knowledge; experience is another. This is the old two-story approach to knowledge. This chasm is crossed through the contemplative experience: “Contemplative prayer bridges the gap between belief and experience because it is the bridge of faith” (p. 212).
The early mystics were revered because of their visions. Throughout the book Manning recounts some of his own peak experiences which come as a result of persevering in contemplation. He recounts that Jesus appeared to him and said “Look carefully at what you most despise in yourself and then look through it. At your center you will discover a love for Me beyond words, images, and concepts, a love you are unable to understand or contain. Your love for me is fragile but real. Trust it” (p. 181).
Manning devotes four pages (pp. 239-42) to recounting a dream about judgment day. In the dream he sees people going before the Lord Jesus to be judged. The people come in by twos. Each pair has one person most would say is good, and one whom most would say is bad. “I see Sandi Patti step forward followed by Madonna. I see Saddam Hussein and Mother Teresa. Next came Adolph Hitler and Mohandas Gandhi. Idi Amin and Billy Graham…The prophet Amos and Hugh Hefner…and Stalin, Churchill, and Roosevelt” (p. 241). Finally Manning comes before the Lord, trembling and fearful, but God does not judge.29 The result? “He takes my hand and we go home” (p. 242). Implied, of course, is that Saddam Hussein, Idi Amin, Hugh Hefner, Stalin, and Hitler all went to heaven as well. Manning’s universalism is evident in this dream.
This dream is not an educated guess by Manning. It is a revelation from God which is on par with Scripture! After describing the dream he says, “The content of this dream is more real than the book you are holding in your hand…The dream is neither the product of a vivid imagination nor a comatose religious fantasy…” (pp. 242-43). Manning’s dream is loosely based on the Bible’s account of the Great White Throne Judgment (Rev 20:11-15), but misses very important details. For example, everyone at the Great White Throne Judgment will be condemned to the Lake of Fire. There won’t be any believers there. The remarkable thing here is that Manning bases his understanding of judgment day not on the Bible, but on a vision he had. And he expects the reader to do so as well, delivering his dream with a sense of prophetic authority.
Although Manning does make occasional use of the Scripture, it is impossible to miss that Scripture has been attached to devotional spirituality but not to contemplative spirituality. In this way the authority of Scripture is diminished.
Contemplative Spirituality and Postmodernism
Although Manning has, for the most part, adopted the language of evangelicalism, his presuppositions are clearly from contemplative spirituality, which denies that there can even be a set of true propositions from the Bible which could be proved literally, objectively, and historically.30 It has been noted here that several modernist philosophies have come into alignment in Contemplative Spirituality. For example consider this clear statement of Existentialism from William H. Shannon, a contemplative whom Manning cites approvingly in The Signature of Jesus (pp. 211, 216):
To call God mystery is to remind ourselves that all the knowledge of God comes from some human experience of God. The heart of the mystery is this: the words we possess are able to express only the human experience, not the divine reality experienced.”31
This language is far away from a biblical understanding of truth and how we can know about truth. In addition to expressing familiar modernist philosophies, Contemplative Spirituality is also parallel in many respects with what is called Postmodernism. According to postmodern theory, truth is not objective or absolute, it is socially constructed, plural, and inaccessible to universal reason. Yet its most ominous concept is that language itself must be “deconstructed.” This is echoed by contemplative spirituality in the assertion that ultimate truth is “beyond words,” “beyond doctrine,” it is “ineffable” and can only be known experientially through “wordless prayer.” They say this is a renewal of the path of the Catholic mystic.
The article by Zane Hodges in this journal titled “Post-Evangelicalism Confronts the Postmodern Age” (JOTGES, Spring 1996, pp. 3-14) makes this relevant observation:
Postmodernism has taken the final step and has dismissed language itself as a legitimate conveyor of truth. To the postmodernist, all communication is theory-laden and can never point to ultimate reality of any kind.
Discussing the deconstruction of truth he goes on to note:
It is plain that such an approach to the Scriptures robs them of any inherent authority and places the interpreter above the text rather than under it. What the interpreter will hear is not the voice of the Lord, but his own voice. And in postmodernism that is all the interpreter really wants to hear! From one point of view postmodernism is the ultimate attempt to place man in authority over the Scriptures rather than place the Scriptures in authority over man.
As mentioned earlier, Manning claims that his book is about radical discipleship. And what is a radical disciple? It is one who is the “fully integrated person” (a contemplative term which has something to do with being integrated psychologically). This is important because the New Monks are seeking to usher in a non-violent, environmentally-conscious (healing the earth’s woundedness) society. Ultimately Manning expects to usher in the new heavens and the new earth (pp. 18, 194).
The theme of nonviolence has the genius of framing broad indictments of society. Not only does non-violence cover pacifism (“The pragmatic wisdom of ‘self defense’ and ‘national security’ masks our childish fantasies of revenge…”p. 83), but even job stress comes under its umbrella.
Throughout his other books Manning gives examples of individuals that he specifically refers to as “radical disciples,” including Jim Wallis, editor of Sojourners, a leftist Christian magazine. (Wallis must have startled even the secular left with his assertion that the Vietnamese boat people set sail because of their addiction to western goods.) Another example is Walter Burghardt. Manning approvingly cites David H. C. Read who says, “In my opinion, no one today can equal Walter Burghardt in expounding the Gospel…”32 And who is Burghardt? He is coordinator of “Preach the Just Word,” a program sponsored by the Woodstock Theological Center to assist priests in being more effective in preaching social justice. Evidently for Manning, like liberation theologians,33“expounding the gospel” is preaching social justice.
Another example of radical disciples according to Manning is the Berrigan brothers, well-known during the Vietnam War period, but more recently active in Plowshares, an organization committed to anti-military activism.
Manning speaks much of God’s grace and love but these precious biblical concepts are actually replaced by vague notions of wholeness through an eastern religious meditation technique, Centering Prayer. Many of the contemplatives assert that this constitutes the spiritual journey and is the same process as integrating the conscious with the unconscious as described by Jungian psychotherapy. Throughout the course of this book some of the most crucial biblical truths, such as sin and forgiveness, are reinterpreted in the light of therapy. The irony is that a clear biblical gospel, if believed to be true, will produce assurance that has truly profound psychological benefits.34 There is no place for centering prayer in discipleship. Meditation is to be on God’s Word, not on nothingness.
Contemplative spirituality is dangerous. Christian leaders should warn their people about it. Those who are interested in a comprehensive biblical understanding of true biblical spirituality and of the gospel of Jesus Christ should be warned that Manning is traveling on a wholly other path.
3One of the keys to this spirituality is a meditation technique called centering prayer, which isn’t really prayer at all. It is an emptying of the mind and a chanting of a sacred word or phrase over and over again. More on this shortly.
8Schaeffer seems to have used the phrase broadly to avoid clumsiness in his discussion of how modern shifts in philosophies have effected theology. The expression new theology as Schaeffer uses it, encompasses neo-orthodoxy, strongly rationalistic liberal theology, theologies following Kierkegaard’s leap of faith, and theologies following in the footsteps of the religious existentialism of Heidegger. Since Manning and the contemplatives drink from all of these fountains, I have used this expression a number of times in relation to Manning and the contemplatives.
12I coined this term since these priests promote mysticism for the common man through the use of their interpretation of monastic ideas and meditation. For them every man should be a mystic and every man should be a true monk. A “true monk” is a social activist. There are even self help books on how to be a mystic, for example, Why Not Be a Mystic?, by Frank X. Tuoti, New York: Crossroads Publishing, 1995.
13This phrase is from Carl Jung, whose teaching is highly influential to the New Monks. Manning also favorably cites him in The Ragamuffin Gospel, p. 153 and Abba’s Child, p. 41. Jung, a psychologist who was a disciple of Freud, believed one could become whole by integrating the unconscious with the conscious, however, this process requires embracing the darkness of the unconscious. Jung was known to even use occultic techniques to facilitate this. Jung interpreted Christian doctrine from a mythic perspective. He maintained that religious myth and symbol was an expression of the “collective unconscious” of the human race. Jung defined God as “whatever cuts across my will outside of myself, or whatever wells up from the collective unconscious from within myself.”
14A further example of how biblical language and themes are distorted by the New Monks is found in the writings of Alan Jones, favorably cited by Manning in The Signature of Jesus, pp. 11, 148, 198, 207 and in Abba’s Child, p. 55.
In his book Journey into Christ (Trinity Press Intl., 1992) Jones writes about the meaning of the cross on p. 114: “The Christian Life is one of sacrificial love. At the heart of our story is a tree, or rather two trees; one of Adam and the other of the new Adam, Christ. The cross is the tree under which Adam is buried. Both trees are double-sided. They are bearers of life and death. In other mythologies too, there is a double-sided tree; one side green and alive, the other side dead and dry. There comes a time when ‘it is the dry branches and not the green, of the universal tree, that must be grasped and painfully climbed’ [quote from Joseph Campbell, author of The Power of Myth]. It is the same tree but there are moments on the journey when our climbing has to be on the dry and dead side. So also with the dreadful and yet life-giving mother-goddess Kali [of Hinduism]: the blood from her left side brought death and that from her right side, life.”
16Manning doesn’t like being called a Universalist, and when charged with being one in some of his speaking engagements, he denies it. He does so by quibbling over the definition of universalism, not by saying that only those who believe in Jesus Christ have eternal life. This type of response is unconvincing and suggests that he dislikes the label because if it were widely known that he was a Universalist, his outreach to Evangelicals would be greatly damaged, if not destroyed.
18Fox, highly influenced by Merton, is the author of Original Blessing (the title is intended to be set in contrast to the phrase, “original sin”) and The Cosmic Christ. (Fox believes that the “second coming” of the Cosmic Christ, an awakening to mysticism, will usher in a global renaissance that can heal Mother Earth and save her by changing human hearts and ways.) Fox is founder of Creation Spirituality.
It may appear that I am selecting the most extreme of the contemplatives to serve as an example, but it should be noted that Fox is admired by other contemplatives. For example, Steindl-Rast says of Fox, “He’s right in pointing out that we have spent too much time and energy on redemption centered spirituality and we have to look into a creation centered spirituality” (“Heroic Virtue,” Gnosis Magazine, Summer 1992, p. 42). Steindl-Rast is also favorably cited by Manning in The Signature of Jesus, pp. 211, 214. Steindl-Rast is currently Scholar-in-Residence at the Esalen Institute in Bug Sur, CA.
20See also his approving citation on the previous page of Fyodor Dostoevsky’s suggestion that God will accept into heaven sinners of every stripe (drunkards, weaklings, vile beings), including those who have taken the mark of the beast. The latter is a direct contradiction of Rev 14:9-11. The former is only true of those who have been washed in the blood of Christ by faith. Yet Dostoevsky and Manning put no qualifier on which sinners get into heaven. All go to heaven.
21In a 1995 sermon given at Greenbelt Seminars in Sheffield, England, entitled “In Bed with God” (what kind of title is this!), Manning says, “Do you see why the revelation of Jesus on the nature of God is so revolutionary? [Do you see] why no Christian can ever say one form of prayer is not as good as another or one religion is not as good as another?” If all religions are equally good, then universalism must be true.
22Manning twice indicates we are “involve[d] in building the new heavens and the new earth” (p. 18) and that our “mission” is “building the new heavens and the new earth under the signature of Jesus” (p. 194). While this is a startling claim for those who know the biblical promise that it is God who will introduce the new heavens and the new earth (e.g., Rev 21:1ff.), it is consistent with the emphasis of contemplatives.
24Manning gives us better insight into the contemplatives’ view of sin in his book Abba’s Child (Colorado Springs: NavPress, 1994, p. 163). He writes, “As Julian of Norwich [a Catholic mystic] said, ‘Sin will be no shame, but honor.’ The dualism between good and evil is overcome by the crucified Rabbi who has reconciled all things in himself. We need not be eaten alive by guilt. We can stop lying to ourselves. The reconciled heart says that everything that has happened to me had to happen to make me who I am—without exception.”
This is very typical of Manning, to edge up to the contemplative view, but not to complete the thought. Gerald May, whom Manning cites, gives us the complete thought, “We have proposed that all polarities, including the problems of good and evil, exist only as a direct consequence of dualistic thinking. During unitive experiences no dichotomies are made between good and evil, light and dark, creation and destruction…the world and all within it, are One” (Will and Spirit: A Contemplative Psychology, Harper: San Francisco, 1982, p. 249). By dualism Manning and May seem to be focusing on what they feel is a problem of characterizing the world as a warfare between good and evil. For them “good and evil…are One.” This certainly seems to suggest, in keeping with Eastern Religious thought, that God is both good and evil. The unitive experience appears to be their solution: give up thinking that good and evil, light and darkness, creation and destruction, are opposites. View them instead as a unity.
Such a view cannot be harmonized with the Word of God which says “God is light, and in Him is no darkness at all” (1 John 1:5).
25In his first chapters of an earlier book, Gentle Revolutionaries (Denville, NJ: Dimension Books, 1975), Manning indicates that we all have seven “centers,” three bad (security, sensation, and power) and four good (love, acceptance, self awareness, and unitive). The unitive center is the “highest level of consciousness” (p. 104). None of this, of course, is found in the Bible. It is all consistent with centering prayer and contemplative spirituality, neither of which depends on being anchored
27Amy Grant appears to have been influenced by contemplative spirituality and by Manning. In an interview in the August-September 1997 issue of a magazine called Aspire, she refers three times to developing a “rich interior life” and once to “one of the richest interior experiences I had” (p. 25). These terms are not found in the Bible or in normal Christian literature; however, they are common in Manning and in contemplative writings. Perhaps she is unaware of exactly what Manning is teaching. On p. 65 of that issue of Aspire under the heading “Amazing Grace,” a glowing review is given of The Boy Who Cried Abba, indicative of the notoriety Manning is receiving.
28I was even more surprised to see that Dr. Larry Crabb, a Free Grace advocate, endorsed Manning’s 1994 book, Abba’s Child. It would be hard to be much more laudatory than this: “Brennan is my friend, walking ahead of me on the path toward home. As I watch him from behind, I am drawn to more closely follow on the path, to more deeply enjoy Abba’s love. Thanks, Brennan.” It is not clear whether he is referring to Manning being older or more spiritually mature. However, what is clear is that he considers Manning to be not only a believer, but one who is well grounded and orthodox in the faith.
29Manning frequently recycles his material throughout his writing. This revelation was also recounted in his book Gentle Revolutionaries (Denville, NJ: Dimension Books, 1975) p. 138. In this telling of his revelation, he stands before God awaiting his judgment. God says “I am not your judge.” This quote is left out of his 1996 version. Other details are also different. For example, Madonna and George and Barbara Bush appear in the 1996 version, but not in the 1975 version. Nelson Rockefeller, Howard Hughes, Dorothy Day, and Mr. and Mrs. Richard Burton appeared in the 1975 version but were omitted in the 1996 edition. Either he has had the revelation twice or the story is changing with the times.
30As a further example of Manning’s embrace of the existential method of evaluating historical truth, he favorably cites Walter Wink (The Signature of Jesus, p. 72) and Marcus Borg (The Ragamuffin Gospel, p. 25). Both of these men are liberal scholars, among the 74 Fellows that comprise The Jesus Seminar, founded in 1985 to identify the “historical” or “true” Jesus. They also claim to be evaluating whether any of the traditional books of the canon or parts of those books should be dropped. To date they have determined that the entire Gospel of John should be excluded because it differs too much from the Synoptics and portrays Jesus as the world’s only Savior. They also contend that only 18% of the sayings of Jesus recorded in the Synoptic Gospels should be retained as authentic (SCP Journal, Vol 21 : 1-2). (Be aware that the SCP Journal does not seem to be particularly friendly to the Free Grace view.)
33Manning favorably cites Jürgen Moltmann who has been credited for helping to provide the theological roots used by Latin American liberation theology. In addition, Manning himself bluntly advocated liberation theology in an earlier book, “The Church as the visible body of the Lord is committed to global freedom, to active participation in the construction of a just social order, and to stimulating and radicalizing the dedication of Christians. The holy alliance [!] between charismatic spirituality [which he later came to call paschal or contemplative spirituality] and liberation theology serves to vitalize the Church’s action in the world and to make its commitment to the Lordship of Jesus deeper and more radical” (Gentle Revolutionaries, p. 112, italics added). In this book Manning cites Gustavo Gutierrez, author of A Theology of Liberation. He also cites Enrique Dussel, author of Philosophy of Liberation and History and the Theology of Liberation.