The new edition of VOX is out, with all sorts of news and stories from around Ireland.
In my musings column are some thoughts on Richard Rohr’s latest book The Universal Christ: How a Forgotten Reality Can Change Everything We See Hope and Believe.
A good way into Rohr’s thinking in his own words is through the accompanying website ‘The Universal Christ’
Someone asked me did I get up on the wrong side of the bed and deIcide to have a go at Rohr. Actually no, I started reading Rohr with an open mind. I hadn’t read him before although many people I know had. Several people had asked me what I thought of him given his huge popularity.
After reading him I think it is fair to say that he is a modern-day gnostic.
Rohr claims privledged knowledge. He does not say where it comes from, he just asserts all sorts of things without even attempting to defend or explain them.
Just read again the full title of the book – it takes some chutzpah to publish a title like that. Just ‘everything’ will be changed by the unique insight that Rohr along has access to and writes to tell us what he alone knows.
Sorry I just don’t buy such hubris. His claims about Jesus are quite fantastic and dualistic.
But scepticism towards Rohr’s claims is only a partial response. And so in the column there are some musings on what challenges his popularity raises for churches today. Here’s the content of the musings column:
Richard Rohr’s Universal Christ
Richard Rohr is a best-selling author and teacher. His latest book is The Universal Christ: how a forgotten reality can change everything we see, hope for and believe (SPCK, 2019). This piece is not so much a book review as a flavour of Rohr’s beliefs followed by some musings on his popularity.
Rohr says he represents an ‘alternative orthodoxy’ and his understanding of Jesus sure is alternative. The ‘forgotten reality’ – that Rohr uniquely seems to have access to – is that Jesus and Christ are not the same.
‘Christ’ is, for Rohr, not a ‘him’ at all, but a ‘universal principle of truth’. This means that everyone can experience Christ, who is a ‘cosmic, but deeply personal energy field, available to all – Jews, Greeks, and pagans’. So, according to Rohr, since it is Christ, not Jesus, who says ‘I am the way, the truth and the life’ (John 14:6) this verse is not a call to belief in one person but ‘a mystery of Incarnation that can be experienced by all, and in a million different ways.’
Who, then, is Jesus? For Rohr he is the historical person from Galilee in whom God is seen to be personal and individual. Jesus is the ‘grounding wire that holds this huge force field of Christ onto the earth.’ We need Jesus to show us what love and forgiveness looks like, otherwise the Christian message is distorted to be ‘violent, exclusionary, segregationist, imperial and punitive.’
‘If Christ is like the kite, Jesus is the little boy flying the kite and keeping it from escaping away into invisibility … If Jesus is the little boy holding the kite string, Christ is the great banner in the sky, from whom all can draw life – even if they do not recognize the boy.’
That’s a taste of Rohr’s Universal Christ. If you are struggling to pin down what he means you are not alone. His arguments are little more than assertions and personal opinion. No serious biblical scholar would recognise his views of the Gospels or the rest of the New Testament. If a theology student was submitting The Universal Christ as a piece of academic research any reputable college would (or should) give it a fail. Ironically, for someone who champions inclusion, those that do not agree with his views are caricatured as being ‘primitive, exclusionary and fear-based’. In The Universal Christ sin is reduced to recognising that ‘I have never been separate from God nor can I be, except in my mind.’ The cross is reinterpreted as our ‘negative experiences’ and the gospel is psychologised as self-acceptance. There is little or no sense of the cost of discipleship. In other words, it is hard to read Rohr as a Christian author at all.
However, it would, I think, be too easy to dismiss Rohr as a false teacher telling people what their itching ears want to hear (2 Timothy 4:3). His massive popularity should make us ask what challenges does he pose to orthodox Christianity?
Rohr typifies the search to be ‘spiritual but not religious’ since organised religion is unspiritual and bad for your health. A challenge here is for churches to live up to their God-given calling to be Spirit-filled communities of love and justice.
Rohr effectively rejects themes like sin, repentance and forgiveness as negative and judgemental. A challenge here is for Christians joyfully to show that the gospel is good news that leads to a life of human flourishing – what we are for rather than what we are against.
In person and in word, Rohr displays a kindness, welcome, compassion and inclusion for everyone – yet at the cost of ignoring the power of sin within ourselves and our broken world. A challenge for the church today is to hold these two things together.
Rohr wants to make the Bible story simple, beautiful and attractive, yet at the cost of rewriting the script altogether. The challenge here is for Christians to know and communicate the Bible faithfully yet in ways that speak to people’s everyday lives.
And if Rohr’s success lies, at least in part, in how he taps
into our culture’s obsession with self-acceptance and inclusion, a challenge
for the church today is not to lose its nerve and continue to preach Jesus
Christ crucified – however foolish that message may seem.
PS. An addendum. See this earlier post on Fleming Rutledge and gnosticism for her mention of Richard Rohr as a modern example.