RICHARD ROHR’s books are up there with Marmite and olives. People seem either to love them or avoid them. Many are grateful for his belief that religion must attend to relationships more than rules, his insights about the human psyche, his focus on a non-dual consciousness, and for his encouragement of all Christians to become contemplative, allowing silence to silence us, choosing gratitude and grace until we ourselves transform, and not transmit, our hurts.
Others remain frustrated at what they perceive to be his circling of ideas, his increasingly progressive agenda, with occasional whiffs of heresy, or an apparent manipulation of scripture to shake some foundations that he appears indifferent to or negative about. Either way, this Franciscan priest remains one of the most popular spiritual writers today.
One of those who engage with Rohr’s work is his friend the psychotherapist Patrick Boland. In Every Thing is Sacred, he writes 40 reflections fuelled by thoughts found in Rohr’s book The Universal Christ. He writes: “Our hope is that we would not only see God in certain ‘holy places’ but also perceive the Universal Christ in all of life and experience everything as sacred. It’s from this place of embodied knowing and incarnational seeing that this book is inspired.”
Boland’s responses, seasoned with a Jungian approach, are generously thoughtful, and may well prove helpful to those wanting to grasp the core of Rohr’s theology and its consequences. His “reflective exercises” prompt the reader to dive deeper to unlearn destructive habits of mind.
The World, the Flesh and the Devil is a short book by Rohr himself. Its “undercurrent”, he says, is the words of Julian of Norwich: “First we must fall, and then we recover from that fall — and both are the mercy of God.” Noting that sin is not a word used so much in churches as it used to be, Rohr sets out to widen our concept of sin and evil and, at the same time, to show that, instead of being something to punish and exclude, it is there to enlighten and educate us.
He argues against a relentlessly individual interpretation of it which misses a collective understanding: “I believe the main reason Jesus doesn’t walk around convicting people (except hypocrites) of sin is that he knows people’s evil first comes from a matrix, and agreed-upon delusion, a cultural lie.” Taking St Paul as his thinking-partner, Rohr spells out his wake-up call that “evil is subtle and the evils that are killing us all are usually well disguised.”
At his best, Rohr has the ability to forge a fresh take on the Christian narrative which we don’t want to lose after encountering it. There is no doubt that all that he writes is immersed in a deep trust in the wild power of grace.
Sometimes, his writing can try too hard to make the point, and generalisations can frustrate; but I remain one of those grateful for him at a time when we urgently need Christian spiritual writers who help a 21st-century readership grasp faith’s plausibility and imaginative contribution, while, at the same time, putting the odd back into God.
The Revd Dr Mark Oakley is Dean of St John’s College, Cambridge, and Canon Theologian of Wakefield Cathedral.
Every Thing is Sacred: 40 practices and reflections on “The Universal Christ”
Richard Rohr and Patrick Boland
Church Times Bookshop £9.89
The World, the Flesh and the Devil: What do we do with evil?
Church Times Bookshop £8.99