The Universal Christ (London: SPCK, 2019)
Richard Rohr’s latest offering will, as with his previous books, delight some and perplex others. His many fans will love his fresh, imaginative, free-association, experientialist approach. His critics will be distressed by what they see as his careless irrationality. Count me among the latter; one of those ‘who value plodding virtues such as accuracy and attention to what the scriptures and teachers of the tradition have actually said, [and] 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’
(Edward Dowler, writing in the Church Times).
This is a book about Christ, or, rather, about a Christ – a Christ who is not identical with the historical Jesus, but to whom Jesus points; a Christ who is in everything and everyone (whether they realise it or not); a Christ who is the universal presence of God.
One of Rohr’s stock-in-trades is to take familiar terms and investing them with implausible and idiosyncratic meanings.
Michael McClymond has helpfully summarised what Rohr does in this book with some key theological concepts:
God: a subjective term that denotes a way people look at the world. “Anything that drives you out of yourself in a positive way . . . is operating as God for you” (52). “Every time you choose love . . . you are in touch with the Divine Personality. You do not even need to call it ‘God’” (175).
Revelation: not a distinct, self-disclosure of God, occurring in history. Instead it happens everywhere at all times: “This book . . . [seeks] to reground Christianity as a natural religion and not one simply based on a special revelation, available only to a few.” Rohr’s spirituality is naturalistic, and “the mental distinction between ‘natural’ and supernatural’ . . . falls apart” (7).
Creation: God—from the Big Bang onward—was already “incarnate” in all things: “This self-disclosure of whomever you call God into physical creation was the ‘first incarnation’ (the general term for any enfleshment of spirit), long before the personal, second incarnation that Christians believe happened with Jesus” (12). Rohr writes that “God loves all things by becoming them” (16, 20).
Christ: more a process than a person: “The Christ Mystery is not a one-time event, but an ongoing process throughout time—as constant as the light that fills the universe” (14), and so not “limiting the Creator’s presence to just one human manifestation, Jesus” (16). Rohr doesn’t say in so many words that Jesus was or is the incarnation of God or the Son of God. Instead he writes of an “incarnation that Christians believe happened with Jesus.” “Incarnation” appears to be a certain way that people look at Jesus, and not an objective fact. Rohr dedicates his book to the dog Venus that “was Christ” for him.
Crucifixion: something that happened to Jesus and should happen to us too. The biblical death-and-resurrection story teaches us that everyone has to let go of egoistic attachments (“crucifixion”) so as to be reborn (“resurrection”). Jesus’s death was “God’s great act of solidarity” with humanity (33), and “not some bloody transaction ‘required’ by God’s offended justice in order to rectify the problem of human sin” (140). Jesus’s death didn’t accomplish redemption. Instead, I am Jesus, you are Jesus, everyone is Jesus—that is where Rohr ends up.
Resurrection: “the general principle of all reality,” and “resurrection [is] another word for change” (170–1). On Easter Sunday “one circumscribed body of Jesus morphed into ubiquitous Light” (176). He adds: “If a video camera had been placed in front of the tomb of Jesus, it wouldn’t have filmed a lone man emerging from a grave . . . [but] something like beams of light extending in all directions” (177). Yet Rohr cheekily affirms that “I am quite conservative and orthodox by most standards on this important issue [of Jesus’s resurrection]” (172).
End Times: Rohr says little, perhaps because he affirms that God’s unity with humanity and the cosmos is a present reality instead of an unrealized hope. He says, “It is just a matter of time until all false power falls apart,” and that “this is the gradual ‘second coming of Christ’” (198–9). Rohr affirms universal salvation, writing that “hell and Christ cannot coexist,” that good news must be “good news for all” (185).
Ian Paul identifies three features of Rohr’s writing: (a) the primacy of experience; (b) the use of experience to shape belief, without much justification or analysis; (c) the plundering of biblical texts and Christian writers in broad-brushed attempts to claim support for his ideas.
Rohr is a self-confessed panentheist. For him, the incarnation of Jesus was not something new, for the original creation was itself a first ‘incarnation’. You see, ‘God loves things by becoming them.’ Although Rohr claims this has some connection with the Eastern Orthodox doctrine of ‘theosis’, it seems closer still to eastern pantheism. Then there is a third ‘incarnation’ yet to come, which is the realisation of Christ’s presence in everything (Rohr’s version of Christ’s ‘second coming’).
Within this pattern of thinking, what might be referred to as ‘atonement’ and ‘salvation’ are redefined in terms of ‘enlightenment’. As summarised by Ian Paul, Rohr is saying that ‘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.’
As with his previous works, Rohr’s appeals to Scripture for support are lamentably weak. Ian Paul puts it well, if quite forcefully:-
‘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 notably 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’?’
Such carelessness in handling Scripture is matched by Rohr’s approach both to science and to positions that other people might take. With regard to the first of these, Rohr recruits theories about neutrinos to support a notion that because darkness is ‘actually’ light, then what appears to be the absence of God in the universe is actually the presence of God. But this is simply making a link between bad science and bad theology where no such link exists. So it is with his attitude towards those who might have convictions that differ from his. Ian Paul again. Rohr presents:-
‘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.’
There are many theological and pastoral consequences to all of this, which Ian Paul touches on, but I won’t go into here. But I will move on to a further question that Ian Paul raises: Why is Rohr’s teaching to popular? In response, we can agree, firstly, that Rohr emphasises the feeling side of faith, as distinct from the thinking side, and that this resonates with many people. There is much that orthodox Christianity can learn at this point. Secondly, Rohr appeals to those who find modern life exhaustingly complicated. His broad-brush, impressionistic approach seems to reach straight to the heart, delivering us from the need for analysis. Thirdly (and this point is not made by Ian Paul, although I don’t think he would disagree with it), we live at a time when many struggle with issues of self-esteem. To such folk, a message of acceptance of self and inclusion of others seems to bypass the challenges of radical repentance and self-denial.
Can we learn anything from Richard Rohr? Yes indeed. He raises questions that many thoughtful folk are asking today. But we will need to look elsewhere for reliable answers.