Last week I posted a link to a review of Richard Rohr’s The Divine Dance, written by Fred Sanders in 2016 soon after Rohr’s book was published. Sanders is well-known as a conservative theologian specialising on the question of the Trinity, and his review was pretty scathing—leading to my (slightly) tongue in cheek heading ‘Just so you know that Richard Rohr is a heretic’. Not surprisingly, given Rohr’s popularity, there was some reaction against both my heading and the review, and one of my online friends challenged me to read it for myself—and kindly sent me his copy.
I have good reason to be interested in what Rohr says about mysticism and the Trinity for several reasons. Perhaps the most intriguing is that I remember having a mystical experience myself whilst in chapel worship during my theological training, in which God as Trinity appeared to be inviting me into participation in the divine dance, and this formed an important part of my spiritual life for some time following. I have also been involved in charismatic churches almost all my Christian life, and was taught about the experience and gifts of the Spirit as a teenager; the use of the gifts and physical manifestations of the work of the Spirit in myself and others has been a normal expectation for me.
And the book makes massive claims. It will lead to a change in my perception of God that will change the way I view everything, according to the blurb. And the reviewers, who read like a ‘Who’s Who’ of ‘progressive Christianity’ are no less ambitious. It is Rohr’s best book, the best book on the Trinity that has been written, pastoral and psychologically brilliant, containing the wisdom of C S Lewis and the accessibility of Rob Bell (who is also a reviewer). And Rohr himself is one of the greatest spiritual masters of this time—or any time.
Why, then, did I find it almost impossible to read? Two things struck me immediately. First, from the beginning, the text included every buzzword from ‘progressive’ thinking that you would expect—inclusivity, feeling, relationship, and the central idea of the book, ‘flow’—along with cliched and stereotyped criticisms of propositions and formal religion. But secondly, and even more frustrating, the whole text appeared to have been thrown together, with little obvious line of argument, much repetition, and the appearance of the author simple adding thoughts as they occurred to him. (The fact that the book is written by ‘Richard Rohr with Mike Morrell suggests that this could in fact reflect the way it was produced.) Perhaps this was designed as a deliberate exercise in non-linear thinking; perhaps this was part of Rohr’s theological method of ‘circling around’ ideas; or perhaps it is just poorly written.
Part of this approach is to use single line paragraphs at key moments, often lines with only five or six words in each, in order I suppose to encourage the reader to slow down and concentrate on the statements—which are often a sequence of repetitions or rewordings for emphasis. And the text is peppered with exclamation marks and questions marks, the latter deployed in sales-style links to the next section.
But the content itself is equally problematic. There are plenty of helpful and positive insights, summarised in pithy observations—for example, that the metaphors for the Spirit in Scripture are constantly dynamic and fluid (p 59). But if you throw enough darts at a dartboard, you are bound to hit the bullseye from time to time, and in between these insights are a good number of things which are simplistic, unhelpful, and downright untrue. Perhaps the most breathtaking claim is that, since the Cappadocian fathers of the fourth century, no-one has been talking about the Trinity until William Paul Young wrote The Shack (p 26). Of course it is true that there has been something of a revival of thinking about the Trinity in the twentieth century, but it is quite difficult to comprehend how ignorant (and even self-important) one has to be to make such a statement. (Young wrote the forward to the book.)
Fred Sanders highlights in his review the numerous errors in the claims Rohr makes about Trinitarian thinking—the false (though popular) interpretation of the Greek idea of perichoresis as ‘dance’, the mistaken etymology of the word, and incorrect understandings attributed to the fathers in their Trinitarian thinking. A key illustration—that Rublev’s icon of the Trinity originally had a mirror attached so that you, the viewer, became the fourth person at the table—is historically implausible, impossible to detect (because of numerous restorations of the painting), and without any actual evidence. Rohr claims that the German term for Trinity means ‘three infoldings’; the term he cites is not the common term in German (it is archaic); and it no more has this implication than we do if we use the term ‘threefold’.
This careless compilation of Sunday-school errors and wishful thinking permeates Rohr’s use of Scripture as well. He repeats the evangelical error of supposing that Jesus’s address of God as abba is identical in meaning with a child’s intimate cry of ‘daddy’, something that James Barr pointed out as erroneous decades ago. And the plural of majesty (‘let us make…’) in the creation narratives are a pointer to the truth of God as Trinity ‘hidden in plain site’, a claim that is not only wrong, but implicitly anti-semitic in asserting the basic incompetence of Jewish exegesis of the Jewish scriptures. The word kosmos usually translated ‘world’ does not mean ‘system’ (p 64, even if Walter Wink’s language of ‘domination system’ is a helpful way to understand some aspects of the NT); the same word describe the thing that God loves in John 3.16 and the thing that hates Jesus and his followers in John 15.18, and it is a paradox in John that needs wrestling with, not sweeping aside with trite ‘insights’. And Jesus’ promise to his disciples that ‘in my Father’s house there are many mansions’ is not, read in context, a proof text for progressive agendas of diversity and inclusion as Rohr supposes. (It would take too long to list all his errors; I have found one on most pages I have looked at.)
All the way through, Rohr footnotes Bible references as proof texts for his position, without any acknowledgement either that the texts might not mean what he claims or that there has been any previous discussion amongst Christians about what the texts mean. The worst example is his assertion that the Sermon on the Mount is all about relationships, with the helpful citation ‘Matt 5–7’, without any reference to the central importance there of ‘righteousness’ (meaning for Matthew right actions) or Jesus’ emphatic strengthening of the demands of the law. And he tends to mock customary use of language that has good foundations in biblical terminology. In his at times insightful observations about the surprising vulnerability of God, he exposes popular failure to grasp this by asking ‘How many Christian prayers begin with some form of “Almighty God”?’ He offers no awareness that the respective Hebrew and Greek phrases translated by this (Yahweh sabaoth and kurios pantokrator) represent central theological ideas in each testament, and that God’s vulnerability in his love for his people and his creation (in both testaments) only makes sense in tension with this notion, rather than displacing it. Something similar is going on when Rohr (and Maclaren in his commendations) mock static religious picture of God as an old man with a white beard on a throne (p 67) and heaven as a place where we sit on clouds with harps—without any awareness that these are scriptural images from the Book of Revelation which might actually have some important theological content—but of course not content that fits Rohr’s agenda.
The large theological ideas are equally confused, as Rohr appears to sample from a smorgasbord of mystical and fringe theological ideas. Thrown in some panentheism and universalism (which Rohr defends in a footnote as being found both in the fathers and in Scripture); mix a little Martin Buber’s ‘I-Thou’ theology; borrow from Process Theology the idea that ‘God is an emergent process’ (though without wondering whether that actually means anything). Assert that ‘the Christ is the universalisation of Jesus’ (p 52), and argue that true expressions of love can only be between things that are similar, so there is an essential similarity between the Trinity and the creation, which in effect becomes ‘the fourth person of the Trinity’. Mix in some very poor popular science, in which the interaction between subatomic particles in quantum physics are the equivalent of human interpersonal relationships, so that, by some mysterious magic, the whole of the physical world is inherently ‘Trinitarian’. One of the strange paradoxes in all this is that Rohr starts by talking of how mysterious and incomprehensible all this is—and yet, by ignoring actual discussion and suggesting that everything fits with his perspective, he makes it very straightforward. We just need to ‘stay in the flow’.
As Rohr offers his cliched and stereotyped simplicities, he ignores some key theological issues, which I think most people would realise without too much thought are problematic. He quotes from one of his ‘authorities’ (‘a mystic and a scholar’) that God is all about change—but ignores both the biblical insistent of God’s unchanging nature, and the pastoral importance of consistency rather than changeability. And any understanding of Jesus’ atoning death as ‘penal substitution’ is swept aside in a single statement about God’s freedom (p 132)—as if the question of God’s holiness in tension with God’s freedom to forgive, nor the costliness of forgiveness, wasn’t a central theme in both Scripture and Christian theology. And in case we had missed how important and easy this conclusion is, he has put it in italics for us. Add to that the idea that holiness is primarily about therapy, and that all mental illness is at root about loneliness, and you have simply and handy answers to all the world’s problems.
Given these issues—which I suspect would be evident to most reflective Christian readers—the question remains: why is Rohr so popular? It would be easy to dismiss him on the basis that he is simply giving his market what they want to hear—that faith is not about ethics or obedience, but is about going with the flow. God is, as we always hoped, just like us, and shares the same, 21st-century, inclusive agenda. I suspect that is true for some readers, but cannot explain all of his appeal.
One of his central stereotypes is between Christianity as a religion of rule-keeping, and as a religion of relationships. I suspect for many of his readers, particular in the US, and particularly amongst Catholics and fundamentalists, this rings more than one bell. I also suspect that it rings bells for those who see faith in these stereotyped terms from the outside as well. And it is certainly the case that practical books on Christian living are not often based on theological reflection on the Trinity—though that has changed in recent years. Rohr’s approach will certainly be more appealing for most churchgoers than the complex debates about whether or not the Trinity is a model for interpersonal human relationships. And many will enjoy his pithy insights which they desperately need to hear: God loves us not because we are good, but because he is good. Never mind that this was (in effect) the central theological idea of the Reformation; it is something we need to hear, and which many theological traditions have succeeded in obscuring.
But Rohr’s popularity also surely points to the ‘post-truth’ age that we live in. Does it really matter, for most readers, if the illustrations he cites as certainties which prove his case simply are not true? Perhaps this is, in the end, an indictment of many churches in the West, which have, in the face of post-Christendom, and the kind of criticisms that Rohr ranges against them, have abandoned the importance of teaching about Scripture and theology in preference to aiming to be relevant. And it is no small irony that the flattening of relationships and the elimination of difference that Rohr bemoans are the very things in both global economics and social media that allow Rohr’s work to be distributed so widely.
So, is Richard Rohr a heretic? Probably not, in that his thinking does not appear to be sufficiently formed or coherent to offer an alternative to orthodox faith. It certainly contains a mixture of unorthodox ideas—but it seems to me to be more confused rather than heretical per se. What worries me more is that, because his reading of Scripture is so poor, and his use of other theologians so piecemeal, that to stay with his line of thinking, your only option is to read more Richard Rohr, or others who agree with him. In that regard, and contrary to his claims of liberation and freedom in discipleship, he is making his readers ever more dependent on his own work.
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