Some months ago, I was asked by a Christian friend to read, and comment on, ‘The Divine Dance: The Trinity And Your Transformation’ by Richard Rohr (SPCK, 2016). We met, prayed together, discussed the book, and parted without really achieving a meeting of minds about whether this book is a reliable guide to a trinitarian spirituality, or is deeply flawed.
It gives me no pleasure to find fault with an affable Christian teacher, or to contradict a Christian friend who, along with many others, says that he has found Rohr’s teaching profoundly helpful.
I am aware that some will accuse me of mere fault-finding, or of just ‘not getting’ what Rohr is all about. I’m prepared to take the risk, if only to prompt his fans to ask a few questions for themselves about the scriptural and theological basis of his teaching.
What’s to be welcomed?
There are some things in ‘The Divine Dance’ that I welcome…
- the stress on experiential and participatory knowledge.
- the delineation of the path of wonder and the path of suffering as two routes to a deeper experience of God.
- the assertion that real joy has little to do with outward circumstances; much to do with the inner life.
- the insistence that God loves us not because we are good, but because he is good.
…although it has to be said that there is little that is new here: these things have been taught by good Christian teachers for centuries.
What’s the problem?
To put it bluntly, what Christian doctrines are ignored, contradicted, or subtly undermined in Richard Rohr’s The Divine Dance?
He adopts a syncretist approach to religion
‘The Perennial Tradition has often said, “As above, so below.” (The Perennial Tradition gathers traits common in the world’s wisdom lineages.) “God in his heaven” directly impacts things “here on earth below.” We see echoes of this reciprocal language even in the Lord’s Prayer: “Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.”’ (Kindle Locations 1186-1189).
‘Maybe our Christian religion in its present formulation has to die for a truly cosmic and love-centered spiritual path to be born.'(Kindle Locations 2404-2405).
He effectively denies that ‘all Scripture is God-breathed’
by asserting that the entire trajectory of Scripture is ‘three steps forward, two steps back’. Rohr thinks that later portions of the Bible do not simply develop, but actually contradict, earlier portions. ‘Scripture is a polyphonic symphony, a conversation with itself, where it plays melodies and dissonance— three steps forward, two steps back. The three steps gradually and finally win out; you see the momentum of our Holy Book and where it is leading history. And the text moves inexorably toward inclusivity, mercy, unconditional love, and forgiveness. I call it the “Jesus hermeneutic.” Just interpret Scripture the way that Jesus did! He ignores, denies, or openly opposes his own Scriptures whenever they are imperialistic, punitive, exclusionary, or tribal.’ (Kindle Locations 2583-2587).
Rohr’s dismissal of others is grotesque. ‘As the biblical narrative edges forward three steps, it invariably gets scared by the implications of where the Story’s going— and so it pulls back two steps…Bible thumpers are invariably people who prefer the two-steps-backward portions of Scripture— they love to quote anything that’s vengeful, repressive, violent, exclusionary, or fearful. (Kindle Locations 3096-3097).
In this way, Rohr seeks to legitimise an extreme selectivity in any appeal to Scripture (i.e. appealing to those passage that appear to support the writer’s own ideas, while ignoring those which don’t). He does so specifically with the teaching of Jesus, who is ‘credited’ with subverting those parts of the Old Testament that do not suit his (Rohr’s) theology. This can only be achieved by an astonishing silence concerning Jesus’ commitment to the Old Testament as the word of God.
He engages in gratuitous biblical interpretation
by the frequent use of gratuitous prooftexting. Rohr’s repeated method is merely ‘tag on’ to his assertions some biblical reference without due regard to its context or plain meaning. Astonishingly, he claims that the Sermon on the Mount is ‘all about relationships’, citing ‘Matthew 5-7’ in support(!), whereas that passage is much more about ‘righteousness’. I agree with Ian Paul: ‘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.’
He privileges his own experience and tradition over Scripture
by confessing that ‘we Franciscans’ have always been suspicious of penal ‘theories’ of atonement. But he does not pause to ask what Scripture teaches on this matter.
Ditto his doctrine of universalism.
He promotes an idiosyncratic and eccentric doctrine of the Trinity
by basing the entire premise of the book on a misunderstood and misapplied passage of Scripture (Genesis 18).
by reading ‘Let us make’ (Genesis 1:26) as a pointer to the Trinity. Rohr is not the first to do this, but he does so without expressing any awareness that this is (at best) a disputed interpretation. Most scholars would regard this as a ‘plural of majesty’.
by unduly privileging Rublev’s icon, and building on this fragile base an entire mythology. As Ian Paul notes: ‘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.’
by the employment of tenuous extrapolation: the idiosyncratic doctrine of the Trinity is (a) begun by an appeal to an irrelevant passage of Scripture; (b) continued by an appeal to a religious icon which simply will not bear the weight of interpretation based upon it (even supposing it were legitimate to learn our theology by such religious artifacts); (c) filled out from within the writer’s own imagination.
by making central to the book’s thesis an unwarranted picture of the Trinity as ‘dance’. He is not alone in (mis)understanding the Greek word perichoresis to mean ‘dance’. But I wonder if it occurred to him that he was mistaken with regard to the etymology of the word, and yet thought, “I know it’s wrong, but I’m going to use it anyway, because it suits my purpose”?
by applying an unwarranted numerology to the ‘threeness’ of God: ‘The principle of one is lonely; the principle of two is oppositional and moves you toward preference; the principle of three is inherently moving, dynamic, and generative.’ (Kindle Locations 634-635). ‘For God to be good, God can be one. For God to be loving, God has to be two. Because love is always a relationship, right? But for God to “share excellent joy” and “delight”— and this is where his real breakthrough is— God has to be three, because supreme happiness is when two persons share their common delight in a third something— together.’ (Kindle Locations 1665-1667).
by unwarranted importing and application of notions drawn from modern cosmology and physics. ‘I believe one reason so many theologians are interested in Trinity right now is that we’re finding quantum physics, biology, and cosmology are finally at a level of development that our understanding of everything from atoms to galaxies to organisms is affirming, confirming, and allowing us to use the old Trinitarian language, and now with a whole new level of appreciation.’ (Kindle Locations 1116-1118).
by supposing, without biblical warrant, that ‘the spaces in between the members of the Trinity’ are feminine. ‘I think the spaces in between the members of the Trinity are unmistakably feminine. The forms or manifestations strike me as the masculine dimension, and the diffused, intuitive, mysterious, and wonderful unconscious in-between, that’s the feminine.’ (Kindle Locations 1580-1582).
He entertains erroneous notions about God’s nature and his relationship with his cosmos
by teaching panentheism (citing 1 Cor 3:22f; Col 3:4, 11 in support). ‘Everything you have ever seen with your eyes is the self-emptying of God into multitudinous physical and visible forms.’ (Kindle Location 2391).
by drawing unwarranted analogies between the cosmos and its Creator. ‘I believe one reason so many theologians are interested in Trinity right now is that we’re finding quantum physics, biology, and cosmology are finally at a level of development that our understanding of everything from atoms to galaxies to organisms is affirming, confirming, and allowing us to use the old Trinitarian language, and now with a whole new level of appreciation.’ (Kindle Locations 1115-1118). ‘The shape of the cosmos— quasar to quark— is triune.’ (Kindle Locations 1198-1199). ‘What if we don’t live in a binary universe, but instead a ternary universe?’ (Kindle Locations 1557-1558).
He teaches that ‘God is all about vulnerability and change’, ignoring the Bible’s witness to God’s unchanging nature
by suggesting that the word ‘abba’ is equivalent to our word ‘daddy’ (this is, of course, a relatively trivial error, but it does reflect an outdated idea that was popularised by the NT scholar Jeremias, but has been refuted by, among others, James Barr).
by emphasising the vulnerability of God (in itself a valid and scriptural insight) over against the more basic idea of his almightiness. ‘We like control; God, it seems, loves vulnerability. In fact, if Jesus is the image of God, then God is much better described as “Absolute Vulnerability Between Three” than “All-mighty One.” Yet how many Christian prayers begin with some form of “Almighty God”? If you’re immersed in the Trinitarian mystery, you must equally say “All-Vulnerable God,” too!’ (Kindle Locations 950-952). ‘Our God is much more properly called all-vulnerable than almighty, which we should have understood by the constant metaphor of “Lamb of God” found throughout the New Testament.’ (Kindle Locations 3196-3197).
As Ian Paul says: ‘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….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.’
He denies that there is any wrath in God
by simple and unsubstantiated denial. ‘Any talk of anger in God, “wrath” in God, unforgiveness in God, or any kind of holding back whatsoever, the Cappadocian mystics would see as theologically impossible and forever undone in a Trinitarian notion of God.’ (Kindle Locations 649-651).
‘I do not believe there is any wrath in God whatsoever— it’s theologically impossible when God is Trinity.’ (Kindle Locations 2624-2625).
‘if God is absolute given-ness, then the flow is always and forever in one positive direction; any stumbling talk of God’s anger, God’s wrath, or God doing any kind of withholding is spiritually, theologically impossible.’ (Kindle Locations 3088-3090).
by ignoring or distorting biblical texts that teach otherwise – for starters: Psalm 2:12; Matthew 10:28; John 3:36; Romans 1:18; 2:5; Ephesians 5:6.
He distorts the biblical doctrine of Jesus Christ
by making an unwarranted distinction between the historical ‘Jesus’ and the cosmic ‘Christ’ (the latter being the ‘universalisation’ of the former; or, to put it otherwise, the former being just one limited manifestation of the latter)
‘The Christ is the universalization of what many of us first fell in love with in Jesus.’ (Kindle Location 806).
‘By essentially extracting Jesus from the Trinity, and attempting to understand Jesus apart from the Cosmic Christ, we have created a very earthbound, atonement-based Christology that will utterly fall apart if and when, for example, we discover life on other planets. We’ve tried to love Jesus without loving (or even knowing) the Christ, and it has created an unhealthy tribal, competitive form of religion instead of Paul’s, “There is only Christ: he is everything and he is in everything.” “The Christ” is a cosmic and metaphysical statement before it is a religious one. Jesus is a personal and historical statement.’ (Kindle Locations 2296-2301).
‘Once Christians learn to honor the Cosmic Christ as a larger ontological identity than the historical Jesus, then Jewish, Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist, and spiritual-but-not-religious people have no reason to be afraid of us. They can easily recognize that our take on such an Incarnation includes and honors all of creation, and themselves too.’ (Kindle Locations 2947-2949).
by making wild guesses about the nature and purpose of the incarnation. He conjectures that Jesus probably had to come in a male body to undo any patriarchal notion of God from the inside out.’ (Kindle Locations 2698-2699).
He denies a critical aspect of redemption
by teaching that the doctrine of penal substitutionary atonement is a ‘dangerous doctrine’.
‘Courtroom scenes and penal systems do not inspire or change the world. They are totally inadequate to communicate the Divine Banquet and invitation; in fact, they make it largely impossible to imagine.’ (Kindle Locations 558-559).
‘Sometimes I court controversy because we Franciscans never explained God’s at-one-ment with humanity in terms of the current popular atonement theory that some theologians call “penal substitution.”’ (Kindle Locations 2481-2482).
‘I’m not questioning God’s redemptive work in and through Jesus Christ; I’m only questioning a particular interpretation of it that was virtually unheard of in our ancient past but seems to pick up steam over the millennia. I think penal substitution is a very risky theory, primarily because of what it implies about the Father’s lack of freedom to love or to forgive his own creation.’ (Kindle Locations 2483-2486).
‘Humans change in the process of love-mirroring, and not by paying any price or debt.’ (Kindle Locations 2488-2489).
‘The cross is the standing icon and image of God, showing us that God knows what it’s like to be rejected; God is in solidarity with us in the experience of abandonment; God is not watching the suffering from a safe distance. Somehow, believe it or not, God is in the suffering with us.’ (Kindle Locations 2490-2492).
‘On a cross, we find this man who has given his whole life to heal suffering becoming a victim of suffering himself.’ (Kindle Locations 2520-2521).
He perverts the scriptural doctrine of salvation
by teaching universalism (everyone is ‘saved’, but not everyone realises it yet). Rohr refers to ‘the supposed heresy disparagingly called “universalism”’, adding that it was ‘a rather common belief in the early Eastern church and even the Scriptures.’ (Kindle Locations 2133-2134).
by teaching, consequently, that loss of salvation is ‘opting-out’ of what we already have. ‘Once God included us in the divine flow— both outward and inward— all we can really do is opt out, refusing to participate.’ (Kindle Locations 1106-1107).
by misrepresenting the inclusiveness of Jesus. ‘Up to now, we’ve generally used Jesus in a competitive way instead of a cosmic way, and thus others hear our belief at a tribal, “Come join us— or else” level. A far cry from the Universal Christ of Colossians “who reconciles all things to himself, in heaven and on earth.” In short, we made Jesus Christ into an exclusive savior instead of the totally inclusive savior he was meant to be.’ (Kindle Locations 2941-2945).
He teaches unscriptural ideas about human nature and the human condition.
by entertaining the notion that the human person is an emanation from the Trinity. ‘Daniel Walsh, who was Merton’s primary philosophy teacher, says he’s not sure if the human person can even legitimately be called a creation, because we are a continuance, an emanation from, a subsistent relation with what we call Trinity. We are in continuity with God somehow, and not a separate creation. We are “chosen in Christ before the foundation of the world,” as Ephesians puts it.’ (Kindle Locations 1287-1291).
by claiming (based on a historically implausible assumption about Rublev’s icon) that we are the ‘fourth person’ at the table, with the Trinity
by asserting that humankind is essentially ‘good’, and not ‘fallen’. ‘The difference is not between those who are united to God and those who aren’t. After all, as the psalmist asked, Where can I go from your Spirit? Where can I flee from your presence? If I go up to the heavens, you are there; if I make my bed in the depths, you are there. We’re all united to God, but only some of us know it.’ (Kindle Locations 1863-1869).
by gratuitously redefining sin. Sin is ‘the state of being closed down, shut off, blocked, and thus resisting the eternal flow that we’re meant to be.’ (Kindle Locations 886-887).
‘Sin is not a word for certain things that upset or hurt God. Inside the Perfect Flow, God could only be “hurt” if we are hurting ourselves, just as, in effect, the risen Jesus tenderly says to Paul, “It is hard for you when you push back against the goad.”’ (Kindle Locations 3000-3003). ‘We are not punished for our sins— we are punished by our sins!’ (Kindle Locations 3005-3006).
by advocating a doctrine of ‘original goodness’ (in contrast to ‘original sin’. ‘The world is now repositioned on a totally positive ground and foundation. The bankrupt, sad storyline of guilt, shame, reward, and punishment never got Western civilization very far anyway. When you start in a hole, you never really get out of the hole. But when you start with original blessing, life only grows bigger and always much better.’ (Kindle Locations 3124-3126).
by gratuitously redefining ‘the world’ in Scripture as equivalent to ‘the system’. As Ian Paul comments: ‘The word kosmos usually translated ‘world’ does not mean ‘system’;…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’.’
He makes highly selective and biassed appeals to Christian history
by generalised and dismissive comments about Christians of other theological persuasions
by denying that anything useful has been said or written about the Trinity until he and William Paul Young came along
He exhibits signs of deeply anti-intellectual thinking
by promoting ideas that do not sit on any reasonable foundation of objective truth
by disparaging the ‘certainty’ of others, while uncritically accepting his own
by absolutising a relative truth – the limits of the human mind. ‘Just ask anybody whom you sense truly knows— and you’ll find out what they know the most is that they don’t know anything!’ (Kindle Locations 2377-2378).
by repeated use of ‘straw men’ and false dichotomies (while repeatedly criticising ‘dualism’)
by postulating a dualistic dichotomy between propositional knowledge and ‘contemplative’ knowledge. ‘Our explorations can’t be understood with the normal mind. Rather, they are best perceived with what we call the contemplative mind, which is an alternative operating system. “Deep calls unto deep,” as the psalmist says.’ (Kindle Locations 2318-2320). (The allusion to Psalm 42:7 is just one example of gratuitous ‘tagged-on’ referencing mentioned above). ‘You cannot know God with your mind alone. And that’s why all teachers of prayer and contemplation are teaching you to let go of your inadequate mind so you can go to that deeper, ubiquitous consciousness that we call the mind of Christ.’ (Kindle Locations 2797-2799).
I hope that these notes might prompt someone who has not yet looked beneath the plausible surface of Rohr’s teaching, or someone who is approaching his writings for the first time, to pause and think: ‘I wonder if there is a problem here?’
While many positive reviews of Rohr’s work have appeared, these tend to be uncritically eulogistic.
Of the (smaller number of) critical reviews, that by Fred Sanders is helpful. Also helpful is the the one by Ian Paul, although I’m not convinced that headlining with the question, ‘Is Richard Rohr a heretic?’ gets us very far.
For a more general critique of Rohr’s teaching, focussed on another book of his – ‘Falling Upwards’ (2011) – see this by Jame Krammer.