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The Universal Christ, by Richard Rohr

29 March 2019

Edward Dowler finds questionable assertions in an insightful book

A FEW years ago, on a summer pilgrimage to Walsingham, I visited the (Roman Catholic) Chapel of Reconciliation, near to the original Slipper Chapel. The Sacrament was exposed in a monstrance on the altar. Behind it, the chapel’s large doors had been pulled back to show the rural scene beyond. The result was an intense focus on Jesus, sacramentally present on the altar, which then led me out towards the whole of the rest of creation, now seen in and through Christ.

The popular Franciscan author and spiritual guide Richard Rohr would be partially happy with this: in his view, however, a focus on the person of Jesus can actually obscure what he describes as an “incarnational worldview” in which we have “the profound recognition of the presence of the divine in literally everything and everyone”. Similarly, we will miss the point of Jesus’s incarnation, death, and resurrection if we see these as unique events rather than universal principles. Rather, each one of us has God within us, and should embrace the Christ who is “revealed in us — as Us”.

In some ways, it is rather odd that the book carries an endorsement from Bishop Michael Curry, whose frequent description of the Church as the Jesus Movement encourages us to look at the particular example of Jesus himself and his early followers. In Rohr’s view, our sights should not be set so much on the historical Jesus but, as the title of the book indicates, on “the universal Christ” to whom he points. As Rohr cheerfully admits, “I am really a panentheist . . . exactly like both Jesus and Paul.”

This last quotation may indicate why, to use a well-worn cliché, Rohr is theological Marmite: delighting some and infuriating others. Many will warm to him who think that theological language and concepts grown stale and fusty will benefit from being thrown up in the air so that we can be excited by seeing where they land. And they often do land in interesting places, thus yielding a wealth of striking aphorisms and insights.

Others, however, who value plodding virtues such as accuracy and attention to what the scriptures and teachers of the tradition have actually said, 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.

Rohr writes that “what we first of all need is here,” and this is, perhaps, the nub of my misgivings about this persuasive and popular writer. God’s voice is often, as Psalm 81 puts it, one that is “unfamiliar” — not, as Rohr contends, something that we can discover if we look deeply enough within ourselves.

Similarly, any ability that we may have to live a grace-filled life is, first and foremost, a gift that comes to us from the outside, not the product of our own resources. And the Prologue to St John’s Gospel teaches that, while Christ is indeed the Word through whom the universe was created, yet he was not, and is not universally, received.

The Ven. Dr Edward Dowler is Archdeacon of Hastings in the diocese of Chichester.

The Universal Christ: How a forgotten reality can change everything we see, hope for and believe
Richard Rohr
SPCK £9.99
Church Times Bookshop £9

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