Review: Richard Rohr, The Universal Christ: How a Forgotten Reality Can Change Everything We See, Hope For, and Believe (Convergent Books/SPCK, 2019).
By George Sumner
Richard Rohr is nothing if not transparent. He states clearly that by Christ he means everything. In The Universal Christ he extols what he calls “perennial tradition” and elsewhere “perennial philosophy.” The Christian faith is a gloss, in other words, on a historically esoteric philosophy in all of its various forms. He reads the creation story in Genesis 1 against its grain as an understanding of God as continuous with his creation, and likewise reads John 1 as denying exactly what it says, namely that the universal Logos, from before time, became flesh precisely in Jesus, in whose very person God was made known. He caricatures the creedal tradition as fundamentalist, tightly rationalist, or intent on exclusion.
In other words, to say that Rohr is outside the bounds of the mainstream Christian theological tradition is not a harsh attack on him. Rather it is to simply take him seriously. In an uncharitable mood one could, for example, find passages that sound like the heresies of Arianism, Nestorianism, Gnosticism, Joachism, or religious pluralism, though these terms do not capture what is really going on in Rohr’s project. Rather he offers us a standard example of theological modernism with predictable bloodlines back both to the Enlightenment (in his praise of “natural religion”) and to Romanticism (in his pointing to holism and feeling as panaceas). Rohr states more baldly what is going on in the modernist theological project more widely.
It is not hard to see why Rohr’s work is appealing to many. It is light on doctrines that are harder to grasp and to believe. It is strong on blessing everything per se and from the start, somewhat in the Matthew Fox mode. And it leaves us free within creation to pursue our own religious practices and goals. It resembles Stoicism most with its pantheism and moral exhortation, but shorn of its pessimism. Rohr also has the vein of positive thinking that we Americans usually prefer, not to mention the frisson of Eastern mysticism popular since the 1960s.
Now an astute theological reader might push back at this point. There has been, for example, reflection throughout our history about how Christ might be at work more widely and yet secretly, has there not? And the Lutheran scholastics liked to speak about the ubiquity of the Christ’s risen body throughout the universe, did they not? And it is the same loving God who made the world, sent his Son, and will in the end be “all in all,” is it not?
Yes, of course, but these wider claims grow out of, and so assume, the particular identity of Jesus and the reality of his saving death and resurrection, as opposed to vitiating them. Clearly to distinguish the two requires a Christian who is adequately catechized. By contrast, Rohr means to remove this major premise of the faith and the resulting differentiation.
Richard Rohr is still worth our attention, not for what he says, but rather for the remarkable following he has drawn among contemporary mainline Christians, including their leaders. In the Episcopal Church, for example, one wonders if the fondness for the Johannine expression “beloved community” has a Rohrian influence. He is then a kind of mirror held up to the face of our denomination.
A teacher of mine in theology graduate school once noted that my generation of more traditionally minded students looked back on Paul Tillich as epitomizing the modernist problem, especially in his transposing of the concept of God into a philosophical term, “ground of Being,” and so subverting the former’s claims by correlating all its terms with our culture. But to students of his own era, what was exciting about Tillich was rather that he once again used the classical terms and thought them even worthy of correlation. To that earlier generation he at least sounded seriously theological. Tillich was a conjurer, one who could eviscerate subtly; Richard Rohr is no Paul Tillich. Rohr denies the classical claims bluntly and flat-out.
Why then the popularity? My guess is that his followers fall into a variety of categories. Some are wounded by the Church and are content to undo its claims. Others are simply uncatechized, and cannot recognize its undoing because they have never been instructed to recognize it. Many clergy have imbibed — to the dregs — the contemporary updates of 19th-century liberal theology during seminary. Many lay readers are serious Christians, but are more the children of modernism than they suppose, as a result of which they do not readily assume a book like Rohr’s to be making claims about truth. As a result they read it instead for how it makes them feel or what it impels them to do. Finally, some Church leaders are of a pragmatic mind and will accept anything vaguely reminiscent of creedal faith if it holds out some hope of leading to growth, so dire does the Church’s position seem, and so out of favor institutions in general. Less could be more, they hope, if offered in passionately mystical tone, especially if it entails no hard doctrinal claims and offers a blanket affirmation of “the All,” within which we can accessorize our spiritual approach.
Anglicanism has been a controverted field from the start, to be sure. But theologians of my vintage, of a more traditional bent, cut our teeth on Stephen Sykes’s Integrity of Anglicanism. It is still worthy of attention. Sykes insisted that modern Anglicanism’s stock criticism of “systematic theology” had in fact provided a pass from having to think at all. We have come to an impasse, according to Sykes, in which we really do not imagine we need cogency and coherence. And we might continue to get away with it, except that we want in our time to exhort the faithful to take evangelism seriously. But if in the next breath we insist, as Rohr does, that we shouldn’t think anything different from the culture, or from equally pluralistically minded adherents of other faiths, do we really suppose that the work of sharing our faith can be so readily disconnected from its what and why? As a guide into this very cul-de-sac, like some arroyo in the New Mexican desert, Richard Rohr serves most usefully.
Rohr would, I would imagine, say in retort that my criticisms are consistent with the narrow and exclusive kind of thinking from which he means to liberate believers, into something more inclusivist and natural (as he likes to say). But is this really true of Rohr, or any other inter-religious pluralist for that matter? To answer this question, I want to offer in contrast a story from a class on this subject I once taught.
A Shiite doctoral student gave a very generous account of Christianity as a “religion of the book.” But, as he was concluding, he said, almost wistfully,
Allah is all-powerful. If He wishes to forgive, He can do so by a wave of his hand. But sending His Son, and having His Son die, what sense can we make of this?
It was a wonderful challenge to my seminary class — what sense indeed? To give an account of the grammar of the divine atoning work is a task for all Christians, not least Anglicans today. The gentle posing of this challenge is an example of inter-religious dialogue of the best kind, in which the distinctive claims of both interlocutors matter, and each must listen and answer. But Rohr, by contrast, needs to do no such thing. Rohr already knows what he and the Shiite both think: the natural religion, the perennial philosophy. No I-Thou for him, since he has an account of both already at hand, neither requiring a real wrestling with distinctive traditions, his own or another’s. It seems more dialogical than it really is.
I do not want to leave my comments in so grim a place. The attraction of Rohr for many people is their desire to find more and go deeper than the thin gruel mainline churches mostly serve up, and this desire is to be applauded. There is more, and it lies not in the jettisoning of the Nicene faith, but rather in its radical reclamation in our postmodern circumstance. Surely the short shrift Rohr gives to the doctrine of sin cannot be plausible in a cultural time and place as harsh as ours. Is it too optimistic to hope that the pessimism our turbulent time requires will open the faithful to the message of the felix culpa, the “happy fault,” which Jesus the Son of God came, died, and was raised to remove?