Sunday, May 29, 2005

Repentant Ragamuffins

Wow...several posts from yesterday evening to this morning: couldn't sleep this AM, though, so this loooong post is the result. Sorry, but I'd appreciate your comments:

I remembered last night that Luke Seraphim posted a while back about Brennan Manning's The Ragamuffin Gospel. Been re-reading RG the past couple of days and read LS's review again this morning. I think he's got it right.

From his review:
"...despite how much I like the book, I would guess that the tendency for many would be to lean towards the "cheap grace" view of God and the Church after reading it. Grace certainly is not cheap, and I don't in any way believe that Manning implies so. Any leaning toward this idea would most likely be from our own agendas rather than his...I think Manning does a wonderful job capturing the heart of God, as Abba, and portraying in words the overwhelming love and grace that He pours out on us, his children."
This quote sums up my take on what I have read so far. To begin with, Manning (unfortunately) sounds like he is doing what so many Christian confessions do: confusing the acceptance of God with the salvation of God. This, I know, was not his intent--though indeed, the two seem to be interchangeable in western Christian thought, as it is ultimately God's acceptance of us (as opposed to His opposition and enmity with us) that will save us--but certain statements leave out the very real issue of repentance on the part of the ragamuffin.

From the book:
"Jesus was accused of being a drunkard and a glutton [with] donkey-peddlers, prostitutes, herdsmen, sloumlords, and gamblers...[and these] ragamuffins discovered that sharing a meal with him was a liberationg experience of sheer joy. He freed them from self-hatred, exhorted them not to confuse their perception of themselves with the mystery they really were, gave them what they needed more than anything else--encouragement for their lives--and dilevered reassuring words such as 'Do not live in fear, little flock; don't be afraid; fear is useless, what is needed is trust; stop worrying; cheer up--your sins are all forgiven.'"
Yes, these words were given out, and they are reassuring, no doubt about it. But what were the first words we heard from Christ in His public ministry? "Repent, for the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand!" Do they really need "encouragement for their lives" more than actual holiness? Indeed, Zacchaeus, the woman caught in adultery, the prostitute who anointed His feet--all of these figures are significant not only for their being human and sinful and yet allowed in the presence of God, but also for their being repentant and therefore being able to stomach the presence of the holy God-Man. Figures like these are propped up, sans mention of repentance, against self-righteous figures like the rich young ruler who, because of their confidence in keeping the commandments, left Christ with gloom, as opposed to the "ragamuffins," who were moral degenerates who knew they had nothing on God and who were joyously responsive to His grace. This is nice, but the two traits--being morally bankrupt and ALSO repentant--do not necessarily walk hand in hand, and this is what Manning misses, I think. What of the ragamuffins who want nothing to do with repentance? What of their meals with the Master? (of which we never read, but still).

Manning has already twice mentioned (I'm only in Chapter Four) that one of the hallmarks of those who can't deal with the gospel of grace (as he puts it) is the inevitable mentioning of the "heresy of universalism," as though it were some cheap cop-out to dealing with God's amazing grace instead of a very real heresy and the reality of "the way to life is narrow" a very real threat to those who do not repent. I do wonder why Manning is so quick to dismiss this with almost a literary "roll of the eyes."

Now--lest you, gentle reader, think me a hopeless stick-in-the-mud who plans to work his own way to heaven, let me tell you why I absolutely love this very imperfect book, and what this reason has to do with Pascha. LS wrote that "Manning does a wonderful job capturing the heart of God, as Abba, and portraying in words the overwhelming love and grace that He pours out on us, his children." This is very true, and essential to the gospel. I may harp on the necessity of repentance, but it is a repentance that is available, without the slightest stinginess or hesitation on the Lord's part, as much to the devout, rich young rulers whose ragamuffinness extends to missing Sunday School as it does to the prostitute who turns tricks for crack. He will let all come--and, indeed, begs us all, from all eternity, to do just that--regardless of who we are, as long as we come with the knowledge that we have absolutely no claim to this banquet.

This is the season of Pascha--the Passover, or Resurrection--in Orthodoxy, and one of the characteristics of that feast (and the weeks that follow it) is a flinging open of all the doors to the altar in an unmistakeable statement that God is for us, that we are now, always have been, and always will be loved unconditionally by God, that we are accepted by Him simply because we are human beings created in His image and that He will accept us all--He already has!--and that we will receive this acceptance if we will only come home. Yet we must come home with a proper understanding of Who our Father, our Daddy, our Abba is and who we are...and here it must be emphatically said that this is NOT because God will be offended at our stench and filth--God loves us ragamuffins and will be no other way towards us--but because we, unrepentant and proud, are enemies in our hearts towards God if unrepentant and, were we to come home with an improper understanding of "the run of the house," living there would literally be hell for us.

Make no mistake: as Manning says, our Abba, our Creator, our "Daddy" loves us beyond what we can even comprehend. This will never change. No matter what we do or say to Him or to others. His love for us and acceptance of us is based on the fact that we are humans, period. Moreover, He does not demand that we arrive at purity before fellowshipping with Him--only that we recognize that we NEED purity and that, even though we take steps towards God, however falteringly, the fact that those steps are on water serves as a reminder that our progress is not ultimately due to our own cleverness or stamina.

Repentance, then, is not a call to "clean up for God's sake" so He'll be able to stand being around us or justified (in whose sight?!) in "letting us into His presence"; rather it's a call to humble ourselves for OUR sake--as we're the ones who need change--so we can not only stand to be around God, but appreciate, thrive and revel in the never-changing, all-consuming, furious, undeserved and unconditional love that God our Father has for us.

Christ is risen!


owen white said...

I came to Orthodoxy through a somewhat complicated path that included Rich Mullins, whom I met several times as a teenager, and then Brennan Manning, whom I encountered in college. Your post articulates my own sentiments on Manning's work. Flawed, but in the best sort of way. At a time in my life it was exactly what I needed to hear. There are deeper waters, but the particular way in which Manning's stories can break a human heart are certainly a blessing. Thank you for this post. I am so pleased to have encountered an Orthodox ragamuffin. The peace of Christ to you.

Paige said...

Nice! You perfectly articulated my biggest concern about this book, which is that it might lead to a false sense of security or the idea that since all have fallen short, there's no reason even to try.

I had an extremely frustrating conversation with a door-to-door evangelist the other day. When I told him I wasn't sure of my own salvation or anyone else's, he said "I can't believe you worship a God who doesn't love everyone." He's doing just what you said: equating love with salvation.

I think this is one of those books (like the Bible) that you can use to justify positions far from the author's intent. Most folks I know who cite Manning do so to support their "just as I am, and I'm gonna stay that way" position, which has pretty much soured me on it. Perhaps, though, I'm judging unfairly. Thanks for reminding me that you can't judge a man (or book) by what is done in his (or its) name.

owen white said...

Paige's words remind me of a conversation I had with a Bible college prof years ago. We had both been excited about Manning for a spell. After a period of about a year without seeing one another, we met and discussed what had been influencing us of late. We both discovered that the other was over Manning. My prof said, "AA spirituality works wonders for some people, but I find that I can only take it so far." I realized then that Manning was essentially a mixture of moderately liberal Catholicism (he likes Hans Kung), Me and Jesus evangelicalism, and AA. I have problems with all three, but his odd mixture did have, I think, an overall positive impact on me for a brief time. It is hard to say. So much of the spiritual life is smoke and mirrors. Manning seems to be firmly on the side of antinomianism. His earthiness is attractive to kids in their early twenties. I guess I grew out of it.
Mullins had more depth, but even he could be pretty damn cheesy.