Richard Rohr is a well-known and popular teacher, and his books are regularly best-sellers. Despite that, he is something of a ‘Marmite’ theologian—people either adore or loathe him. Depending on which side you come down on, you will either find his latest book, The Universal Christ (London: SPCK, 2019) a scintillating and energetic tour de force of broad-brush theology, or an irritating, simplistic and infuriatingly inaccurate repetitive jumble of ideas. Edward Dowler, in his review in the Church Times, puts it rather well:
Many will warm to him who think that theological language and concepts grown stale and fusty will benefit from being thrown up in the air so that we can be excited by seeing where they land. And they often do land in interesting places, thus yielding a wealth of striking aphorisms and insights.
Others, however, who value plodding virtues such as accuracy and attention to what the scriptures and teachers of the tradition have actually said, will find difficulty with the sweeping generalisations, questionable assertions, and Aunt Sallys that Rohr frequently sets up, so as then to be able, triumphantly, to knock them down.
It is worth starting with his broad-brush theological ideas, since that is where the book itself starts, plunging immediately into a radical claim about the meaning of Jesus and Christ which is then repeated and reiterated throughout the book. Rohr starts by recounting at length an experience from someone when travelling on the London Underground; all at once, as she looks down the carriage, she suddenly sees ‘Christ’ in everyone and everything—the ‘universal’ Christ who is in all, whether we realise it or not. Beginning in this way offers a pointer to three consistent features of Rohr’s writing. The first is the primacy of experience; for Rohr, supposedly unmediated experience offers us authoritative insights into reality, including theological truths, though there is no recognition that there is no such thing as unmediated experience, since all experiences sit within a pre-existing set of assumptions, and all need interpretation. The second is that this highlights the shape of his argument, in which he sets out large-scale claims without any real justification, and then writes around them, revisiting them repeatedly and showing their importance, though without offering much analytical reflection about what they involve or what issues they raise. The third is the way he plunders both biblical texts and theologians in the tradition for broad-brush claimed support for his ideas—this one simply being followed by ‘(Colossians 1, Ephesians 1, John 1, Hebrews 1)’ which apparently demonstrates conclusively that what he is setting out would have been accepted by the apostolic church.
Taking this conclusion of universality as his starting point, he then makes several moves in relation to the nature of God and the Christian revelation. The first move is to separate ‘Jesus’ (the historical figure) from ‘Christ’ (the universal presence of God). In the book overall, his claim seems contradictory, in that his first concern is that the ‘Church’ has not paid sufficient attention the cosmic language attached to Jesus, particularly in Paul’s writings—yet in the first half of the book he seems to completely detach this cosmic language from the person of Jesus, using the term ‘Christ’ in a quite distinct way. In the later chapters, he appears to return to the specifics of the person of Jesus, but it is (like many things) not clear how he makes connections with the earlier language of universality.
His second move functions as a complement to this separation, and consists of an integration between creation and the creator. Believing that the incarnation of the universal Christ as the particular Jesus is not something novel, but a continuation of God’s activity, he asserts that the ‘first incarnation’ is the act of creation itself. The principle here is that ‘God loves things by becoming them’ (p 20), the comment that is pulled out by Bono on the back cover commendation as a key, startling insight of the book. This reads very much like the eastern idea of pantheism, which features in many strands of Buddhism and Hinduism, and later in the book Rohr acknowledges the connection with Buddhism (whilst asserting differences). He also claims that his view is panentheism, which in some forms maintains a difference between the creation and the created, rather than pantheism, though it is not clear in the first half of the book how this is realised, and he further claims that this is not much more than the teaching of Eastern Orthodoxy with its interest in ‘theosis’—but again, there is no exploration of this with any care.
In this context, he briefly appears to dismiss any notion of eschatology as traditionally understood or set out in the New Testament. The ‘second coming’ of Christ is best understood as the ‘third incarnation’, which is the realisation of the presence of the universal Christ in all. This leads to what might be described as his understanding of atonement and salvation: the only thing which separates us from God is our failure to realise that we are not separated from God. What is therefore needed is an awakening or enlightenment, a realisation that God is already present in us. Once more he comes close to what appears to be a Buddhist understanding—though I think it would be distinct from Buddhism in offering some sort of immediate confidence of God’s presence, rather than seeing enlightenment as the final goal of a long path of discipline and contemplation.
Putting these together, it is quite difficult to see any of this having any real connection with anything that could be described as orthodox Christian belief as historically expressed. Rohr repeatedly claims that his vision is radical, startling, surprising and new, and that readers might struggle to understand it if they have been raised in traditional Christian faith.
If all of this is true, we have a theological basis for a very natural religion that includes everybody. The problem was solved from the beginning. Take your Christian head off, shake it wildly, and put it back on!
But he often immediately combines this with the claim that there is little new here, merely a recovery of what the writers of the New Testament, and their first readers, believed, but which the Western church has ‘forgotten’ or obscured. (Like numerous others, he is then claiming that his insight is a new kind of ‘reformation’). However, he does this by paying no attention to what the texts of Scripture that he cites actually say, and stopping to ask whether theologians that he claims for his case actually mean what he claims they mean would slow the argument too much.
In light of this, it is worth asking two questions. The first is: how does he get to this point? I am not sure the answer is much more complicated than saying he pays no attention to what things actually mean and say, but happily adapts them into his thinking, bending them to fit into his argument. This applies to things non-theological as well as texts of Scripture and the ideas of theologians. For example, on p 14 he claims that
Scientists have discovered that what looks like darkness to the human eye is actually filled with tiny particles called ‘neutrinos’, slivers of light that pass through the entire universe.
Scientists have discovered no such thing. There is a ‘neutrino theory of light‘, which claims that photons (light ‘particles’) might consist of neutrino–anti-neutrino pairs, but there is simply no experimental evidence for this, and neutrinos and photons remain quite distinct fundamental particles. It seems as though Rohr has heard someone mention this, and the idea that what looks like darkness is ‘actually’ light fits with his idea that what appears to be the absence of God in the universe is in some sense the presence of God—so in goes the illustration.
The approach marks Rohr’s use of scripture and theology without—a connection is found, and a text or idea is levered in to provide ‘support’ for his ideas. I can honestly say that I did not find a single biblical text which was cited with any plausibility; every single one was either misread, or taken out of context, or even cited with errors. It doesn’t help the credibility of his case that he cannot spell either the Hebrew term meshiach (‘messiah’, anointed one) or the Greek en Christo (‘in Christ’)—though I suppose that using non-conventional spellings in transliteration could be part of a claim to be novel. He claims that John 1.14 uses the term ‘flesh’ to suggest that the incarnation was not confined to a single body (p 7); that the inclusion of gentiles from Acts 10 confirms should be understood as universalism; that the ‘all’ in John 17.21 means all of humanity, not all believers; that Paul’s cosmic language in Col 1.19 implies panentheism; that, since light is universally present in the cosmos (in the form of neutrinos), when Jesus says ‘I am the light of the world’ (John 8.12) he is claiming to be universally present; and so it goes on. What is notable here is Rohr dislocates these text both from their cultural context, failing to ask how these words might have been understood by either speaker, writer or hearer in the first century, but also ripping them from the wider text itself, ignoring the ‘canonical’ context, even of immediately surrounding sentences. If Jesus is the universal light and universal ‘flesh’, why do we immediately find comment about ‘those who would not receive them’ (John 1.11), or about the repeated references to those who ‘continue to walk in darkness’? There are some questions to be asked about Paul’s universal and cosmic vision—but it is not one that can ignore the centrality of repentance, faith and judgment in Paul’s theology.
This happiness with inaccuracy then extends to Rohr’s characterisation of the positions of other people. As Dowler notes, the argument is choc-a-block with Aunt Sallys, with exaggerated caricatures of opposing views which are depicted as so ridiculous that it is hard to resist how superior Rohr’s own view is. You are either a happy universalist like him, or you are obsessed with a wrathful God who is just waiting to condemn everyone. You either agree with his vision of the cosmic Christ, or you are locked into a narrow misunderstanding which is over concerned with the human Jesus and misses the real point of the whole narrative. This kind of rhetoric is one that is then embedded in one of effortless superiority, which I think is something of a paradox. I suspect in person that Rohr is a kind and gentle man, and listening to a few minutes of online interview certainly confirms that he comes across in an avuncular way which matches his appearance. But his consistent line is that his position is the mature understanding of Christian faith, and that if you have any objections to it, it is essentially because you have not yet understood and not yet reached his degree of contemplative maturity. The answer to this is not to ask questions or delve into the arguments, but to sit and wait, read again, contemplate, and eventually enlightenment will come and you will realise that he is right. If you don’t do this, you are not only unenlightened, you are positively damaging, and you have ‘no good news’ (p 29).
Part of the difficulty with this is that Rohr is leading us down some very odd paths and a long way from orthodox Christian faith at numerous points. There is, he believes, no real difference between the ‘holy’ and the ‘profane’ (p 15), which gives us a problem with the biblical understanding of God’s holiness. Christianity should not be in the business of making universal claims, but should provide a hospitable space for different theological positions (p 17). Jesus is a Third Someone, a different kind of creature, which sits very oddly with orthodox understandings of Christology. Since the life of God is in all things, Jesus’ resurrection is not at all surprising, but what we might naturally expect. (It is not really surprising that any sense of the Jewishness of either the Old Testament or the historical accounts of Jesus in the gospels, or Paul’s theology, is completely absent.) The goal of the gospel is self-acceptance and universal inclusion. God is not an ‘old man on a throne’ (p 28), despite God being depicted as, well, an old man on a throne in the visions of Daniel 7 and Rev 4 which provide some of the most central ideas (ancient venerability and universal sovereignty) to the New Testament. In his reading of Paul, any question of ethics has no connection with the cosmic theological vision, an assertion contradicted by just about every Pauline passage. But this is necessary since, like Buddhism, Rohr’s theology appears to have little ethical content beyond the virtue of ‘inclusion’.
One of my concerns here for the general reader is what seems to me to be the failure to take seriously pastoral realities. If the universal Christ is present in all, how do I make sense of that in the person who has hurt or abused me, or in those who manipulate power, or (in the extreme) collude in or initiate murder and genocide? What is Rohr’s theology of evil, beyond ‘lack of enlightenment’? Is the Bible really that easy to read, and can we simply pluck universal formulae from it? Can we really brush aside the ‘scandal of particularity’ so that we don’t need to take Jesus seriously as a first-century Jew? Rohr’s simple answers seem to me to avoid all the difficult questions, and I cannot help feeling that we do people a disservice by taking such an approach.
But this leads to a second major question to ask: why is Rohr so popular? And what challenge does that leave us? It would be easy to dismiss Rohr’s writings as a mishmash of theological psycho-babble, and this is made easy by his generalising turns of phrase. But I feel the need to move beyond such dismissal, not least because a number of friends whom I respect like his writing and have found this book to be energising.
First, Rohr clearly recognises the divide between ‘thinking’ and ‘feeling’ approaches to faith and spirituality, and clearly comes down on the ‘feeling’ side in response to an over-emphasis on the ‘thinking’ side, especially in his own context in North America. Is there a strategy that ensures that ‘orthodox’ thinking does not fall into this trap on the other side?
Second, I think Rohr articulates a general sense of exhaustion with the complexities of modern life. We are overwhelmed with the demands of everyday existence; even turning on the television now requires the use of two remote controls and (it feels like) a degree in engineering, and both regular broadcast media and social media tell us relentlessly of the bewildering variety of competing theories of life that we are supposed to live with, cope with and even engage with. Rohr’s broad-brush, simple approach has an almost visceral appeal to it. Can we do some serious reflection on life and theology without wearing people out?
Thirdly, this spills over into how we engage with others and make sense of the world. I suspect all of us have a sneaking feeling that taking time to really understand all the different claims made by those with different views will just take too long to understand. Far better, then, to pick and choose, and find easy points of agreement, than get into argument and dispute. Can we do justice to the viewpoints of others, with respect, whilst retaining the integrity of difference?
And lastly, of course, the language of ‘inclusive’ feels much easier to live with in a tired world, even if it is actually incoherent, even in its own terms. Can we disagree with others, even profoundly, whilst also engaging?
I am not at all convinced that Rohr offers us helpful answers to any of these questions—but he surely highlights the desires around us for spirituality and discipleship which is not confined to the intellectual, which offers rest and respite from complexity, which is content, and is known more for what it is for than what it is against.
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