Winter Books
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Issue Date:  October 7, 2005

By Brennan Manning
HarperSanFrancisco, 182 pages, $21.95
By Molly Wolf
Jossey-Bass, 208 pages, $16.95
Looking for God by temperament


Although we have shared bed and board for almost half a century, my husband and I live in two different worlds. His sphere is what most people call reality: the world of rational observation. Mine is a different realm. I recognize truth when something resonates with my experience somewhere deep inside me. Both are valid methods of reaching conclusions, however different they may be. Although we have learned over the years (very slowly) that pooling our views yields better insights, we still sometimes have difficulty communicating what we know.

Brennan Manning and Molly Wolf write about discovering God’s will for us and come to pretty much the same conclusions. Nevertheless, they are inhabitants of the same different worlds in which my husband and I live, and their approaches differ accordingly.

In The Importance of Being Foolish, Brennan Manning depends on revealed truths -- the words of scripture, especially the Gospels -- and the observations of other well-known spiritual writers. He keeps his eyes fixed on the life of Jesus as he challenges the way we live. He contrasts Jesus’ “relentless passion for the truth” with our own talent for self-deception. He points to Jesus’ single-minded focus on God and our constant concern for lesser things. However Christian we think we may be, he insists, to most of us the material world is more real than the realm of God. We spend our energy in the pursuit of security, pleasure and power. To test his thesis, he asks what made us happiest in recent weeks and what saddened us the most.

Pointing to Jesus’ habit of frequent withdrawal into prayer, Mr. Manning stresses the importance of achieving balance between prayer and action because “God knows each of us by name and is deeply involved in the dramas of our personal existence.” We have access to the same intimate divine guidance Jesus depended on.

Like St. Paul (see 1 Corinthians 1:18-25), Mr. Manning believes that only the sheer folly of Jesus’ cross fully reveals the power and wisdom of God. This is the “foolishness” his title invites us to imitate. He never says it is easy, but “everything we have given up is given back [his italics]. Our worries concerning security, pleasure and power fall away in the recognition that all is well in the kingdom of God.” Drawing frequently on the experience of 12-step programs, which he knows from personal experience, he offers that program as a model for shattering illusions and coming to peace with helplessness.

In White China, Molly Wolf’s approach is much more searching and intuitive. “You will find major doubt in these pages,” she admits in the introduction. “All I can do is to show you how I struggle with belief -- and I struggle a lot.” An Episcopalian, she has a keen sense of the sacramentality of creation. Yielding to her half-grown cat’s demand for her attention, she reflects that God has hard-wired a sense of entitlement into the feline personality and left humans to struggle to accept their need for divine grace and mercy. She watches light play across the ruffled surface of a lake and realizes that she, too, stands bathed in light.

She counts on others to keep her going in the right direction, clinging to the comfort offered by members of her community in times of darkness or doubt. She, too, believes in the power of prayer, but warns that it may take us to places we never wanted to go.

Ms. Wolf is certain that Christians who take their calling seriously can never turn a blind eye to suffering, however inadequate we feel. Like Mr. Manning, she acknowledges how difficult it is to drop our self-deceitful sense of ourselves as virtuous people and accept that God loves us, warts and all. She admits that her own failures can spark self-hatred, but tells of a challenge that rose from deep within her where God dwells: “If you can’t love yourself as you are, how can you love anyone else?” And what is the Christian vocation if not love?

With Mr. Manning, Ms. Wolf is appalled by our attachment to the ways of this world. Jesus is, she says, a “scandalous figure ... who could, quite possibly, stride through the local shopping center with a club, bashing at the plate glass windows and bellowing at the shoppers to wise up as to who their real gods are.”

Each of these books sets before us a rich feast of food for thought. Both authors seem to be firmly centered in God’s loving acceptance. And both their books, like the words of the Master himself, offer both challenge and comfort. They are similar in their content even while they are radically different in their approach.

Which one will you enjoy the most? The answer to that question probably lies in your own method of searching for truth. If you prefer to approach your questions in an intellectual way, as my husband does, Brennan Manning will probably speak most clearly to you. If your preferred method of working things out is mostly intuitive, as mine is, you will find Molly Wolf a delightful companion for the journey. Or maybe you should read both of them. As the two of us are still learning after all these years, combining our gifts yields the best results.

Carol Luebering is a freelance writer in Cincinnati and a consultant on serving the sick and shut-in.

National Catholic Reporter, October 7, 2005

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