by Brennan Manning
Brennan Manning is a very interesting character. Having lived in several places, sometimes homeless, in a cave, on a shrimp boat, in a Franciscan monk community, he has gathered stories and experiences most of us only read about. He would describe himself simply as a sinner saved by grace. His book, The Furious Longing of God, is shaped around two experiences: learning to pray in the midst of a terrible storm at sea and a silent retreat in 1978.
Though not distinctly divided, the book has two parts. The first offers stories to illustrate God’s desire to be with his children. Manning calls this a “furious” desire and is largely based on his experience with Song of Solomon 7:10, “I am my Beloved’s, and his desire is for me.” The second part offers encouragements to seek God through a mystical experience, your own furious desire to know God.
While I found a few points of agreement with Manning, most of the time his assessments are incomplete or erroneous. He gets God’s grace and love right most of the time. Manning is right in that, “His [God’s] love is never, never, never based on our performance, never conditioned by our moods – of elation or depression. The furious love of God knows no shadow of alteration or change. It is reliable.” He is wrong when he writes, “God’s love is always tender.” God’s love is not always tender. Sometimes God expresses love for His children through disciplining and pruning, which are not always pleasant experiences. Manning’s assessment of God’s love is incomplete in that he never specifies that God’s love is constant for those who are in Christ. He leaves out scripture’s testimony that those who reject Christ are under God’s wrath.
I found myself agreeing with Manning as he cautions against believing in a fictitious God. One who is moody, prejudiced, irritable, moralistic and pedantic does not exist. But Manning does not offer a full description of God as presented in the scripture. He does not even say, “Go to the scripture and know the One True God.” Instead, he offers stories and a shorter version of his book, Abba’s Child. There is absolutely nothing wrong with addressing God as Father; however, it is important that one know he has been given the spirit of sonship. If, when you pray, you do not feel the comfort and ease and blessing of addressing God as Father, then there is a reason for that and your soul would do well to find out why. The mindless repetition of, “Abba, I belong to you,” as Manning suggests, will not help.
The final point on which I agree with Manning is Christ’s command to love. Manning encourages the reader to pursue love, to love when you do not know what to do next. He writes about helping the hurting, the downcast, and the outcast. He is a strong proponent of being Jesus to the people around us. Love does not violate any law. This is true. However, Manning confuses the simplicity of “Love your neighbor as yourself,” when he borrows from Henri Nouwen and writes, “When the imitation of Christ does not mean to live a life like Christ, but to live your life as authentically as Christ lived his, then there are many ways and forms that a person can be a Christian.” This is not true. Many people live authentic lives and do not know Christ nor have any desire to know him. They do good and show love without any regard for Christ and His kingdom. Doing good deeds authentically does not a Christian make.
I strongly disagree with Manning’s opinion of how one can know that he knows God. He does not refer to the scriptures, specifically 1 John, that tell us how we can know that we belong to God. Objective truth holds no sway over Manning, who believes that too much theological study leads only to a theoretical knowledge of God. Manning goes on to explain that only a mystic, “one who has experienced God for real,” can pray with boldness and can endure severe persecution. He describes a mystical experience as one of being “plunged into mystery, or what Heschel called radical amazement. Self-consciousness and self-awareness disappear. We are in the presence of the ineffable Mystery above all creatures and beyond all telling. These are moments of truth. You are alone with The Alone. God’s tender feelings for you are no longer dry knowledge.” Sounding more like Eckhart Tolle, Oprah’s latest spiritual guru, Manning believes that one learns genuine prayer during a mystical experience.
You will not find any scripture to support Manning’s ideas. And that’s exactly how Manning would have it. Early in the book, he explains that he wants “to share of the God who has revealed himself in my personal history.” He discounts the biblical scholar and the theologian. He believes that if you spend too much time studying, dealing in principles and ideals, then you do not really know God at all. All your time dealing with the truth, lacking the elusive mystical experience, is only going to lead you to believe that nothing matters. Manning also believes that any attempts to gauge spiritual growth objectively will only lead to frustration and condemnation. He writes like a man who has no affectionate regard for the Church and God’s Word, even sounding mean-spirited at points.
Simply put, many of the ideas in this book are confusing and unbiblical. I might go so far as to say that they are dangerous, but had I not taken notes for writing this review, I would not recall anything from the book. Nothing stands out. Not one sentence has lodged itself in my mind. Not one story, and there are several, brings me pause. Don’t waste your time.