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A Franciscan psychology

24 March 2016

Douglas Dales compares the wisdom and error of a US Franciscan

Breathing under water: Spirituality and the twelve steps

Richard Rohr

SPCK £9.99


Church Times Bookshop £9


Breathing under water: Spirituality and the twelve steps: Companion journal

Richard Rohr

SPCK £9.99


Church Times Bookshop £9


THIS is a very interesting and thoughtful book, accompanied by a journal for completion by anyone committed to the path of spiritual development that Richard Rohr advocates. He is a US Franciscan priest, and the director of the Centre for Action and Contemplation in Albuquerque, New Mexico. His writing distils 40 years of experience in Christian pastoral psychology.

The roots of Rohr’s approach lie in his respect for the “twelve steps” at the heart of Alcoholics Anonymous. He has evident sympathy with the psychotherapeutic principles that arise from Jungian psychology, while still remaining rooted in Franciscan Christianity. Rohr writes very well and generally avoids jargon. He carries his considerable reading and experience lightly; so the book is intelligent but accessible. It might be helpful to anyone wrestling with addiction of any kind.

The principal text provides a vivid mirror to the preoccupations of US consumer society, moulded so strongly by commercial and competitive values and steeped in widespread psychoanalysis. It is also a critique of various forms of US Christianity, notably Roman Catholicism and Evangelical fundamentalism, although much of what Rohr asserts would probably be true within forms of Judaism and Islam as well.

He has considerable sympathy with Buddhist teaching, and is eclectic in his reading and references. What is lacking is any overt reference to Sufi mystical teaching, much of which would reinforce the line that he is taking. His is a sensitive, honest, and inclusive approach that many may find attractive and helpful in orientating their spiritual life and its values.

There is much wisdom in this book, but also serious error. Two of his key assumptions must be questioned, and not only from the point of view of Christian orthodoxy. The first and governing assumption is put like this: “We are all addicts. Human beings are addictive by nature. Addiction is a modern name and the honest description for what the biblical tradition calls ‘sin’”. The second assumption is more hidden, but implicit in the first: “No one consciously does evil. . . Evil proceeds from a lack of consciousness. . . God does not directly destroy evil. . . God uses our sins in our own favour.” Deliberate cruelty is, sadly, a consistent hallmark of human behaviour.

The very last chapter is an interesting piece of applied theology entitled “Only a Suffering God Can Save”, words derived from Dietrich Bonhoeffer and consonant with important themes in modern spiritual theology, from Jurgen Moltmann to St Silouan the Athonite. But chapter 11, “An Alternative Mind”, demonstrates the extent to which the language of the Gospels has been transmuted into yet another form of spiritual and psychological thinking, that is, at best, sub-Christian in content if not in intent. It is a far cry from St Bonaventure’s Itinerarium or other classical Franciscan spiritual writing.


The Revd Douglas Dales is a parish priest in the Oxford diocese.

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