The Universal Christ (Richard Rohr) -- A Review

THE UNIVERSAL CHRIST: How a Forgotten Reality Can Change Everything We See, Hope for, and Believe. By Richard Rohr. New York: Convergent Books, 2019. 260 pages.

                Can we and should we separate Jesus of Nazareth from the Christ? That is, should we think of the Christ as a kind of principle that incarnated in Jesus, but is not limited to Jesus? If we do this, might we find a deeper and more fulfilling vision of reality? Might we embrace the idea of the “Christ Mystery, the indwelling of the Divine Presence in everyone and everything since the beginning of time as we know it”? (pp. 1-2). That is the idea that underlies Richard Rohr’s latest book (to be released, I believe, in March) titled The Universal Christ. It is this idea that includes but is not limited to Jesus that Rohr believes can alter our understandings of God and reality. I expect that his vision of God and reality will be attractive to many. While that may be true, it is also likely that the way he lays out this vision will prove challenging and even problematic to many readers.

                Richard Rohr is a one of today’s best-known writers on spirituality. I’ve read several of his books and benefited from his wisdom and insight on matters spiritual. As a Franciscan, he understands that there is a long tradition of Christian mysticism and spiritual writings to draw from, but he is also open to drawing insight from other spiritual traditions, especially Buddhism. We see that heritage present in this book, which I believe, is a follow-up to his previous book on the Trinity—The Divine Dance: The Trinity and Your Transformation. I’ve not read The Divine Dance, but I know that many have found it helpful. I’ve also heard that some of his suggestions concerning the Trinity are controversial. I would say that the same likely is true for The Universal Christ, which as you would surmise from the title focuses on Christology.

For the purpose of this review, I am making use of an advanced reader's copy of the book. Thus, it is possible that the final production might look slightly different, but likely not in any major way. Nonetheless the page numbers may not in the end match the final edition.

The question that he seeks to address here is who is the Christ? In Richard Rohr’s estimation the answer to this question includes but is not limited to the person of Jesus of Nazareth. In other words, he wants to challenge the idea that the incarnation of the divine presence was limited to the person of Jesus. He calls this "this transcendent reality the Christ Mystery, which reveals itself in the incarnations of nature, the Jesus of history, and even you and me. This Christ passionately and relentlessly loves us in a highly personalized way, wooing us toward wholeness in a vocabulary unique to each soul" (p. 91). He believes that this broader definition is true to Scripture and to early Christian thinking, especially in the Eastern Church. In his mind, this “universal Christ,” or “Christ Mystery,” is a theory of everything. It is an explanatory key to understanding reality, at least from a spiritual point of view.

Rohr describes himself as a panentheist, and that is borne out in his presentation. While I am drawn to this position myself, I also struggle with it. Nonetheless, a simple definition of panentheism suggests that God is in all things and all things are in God, but all things are not God (that would be pantheism). In laying out his vision of the Christ Mystery being the template for all things, he draws from John 1, which speaks of the Christ in terms of the Logos, which he calls the “Primordial Template.” “Everything visible,” he believes, “without exception, is the outpouring of God.” This vision, he calls the Christ, “could be Christianity’s unique contribution among the world religions” (p. 13). With that as the foundation, he begins to describe his vision of reality as the expression of this Christ Mystery.

While I normally will give a fairly detailed outline of a book under review, this book is somewhat difficult to describe as Rohr takes on a number of ideas and weaves them together, with a lot of twists and turns. What I can say is that Rohr wants to connect his Christian faith to a broader religious framework, one that is inclusive rather than exclusive. He wants to share what he believes is good news that involves Jesus, but clearly goes beyond Jesus. I expect some readers will find the book spiritually uplifting, while others may find it heretical. As for me, I found it a bit wearying. This may just be me, but I think the book could use a bit of editing. In the end, while I have benefited from a number of Rohr’s books, this one didn't hit the spot for me. At the same time, it likely will prove inspirational to others.

I do have a few concerns, however, and they center around the way in which Rohr separates Jesus and Christ. I understand his desire to broaden the message, and that he sees the idea of the Christ being a key contribution to the conversation. I see where he can draw from John 1, and that this makes sense to me. At the same time, I felt like there is in this message a form of supersessionism. In a way that is often present in Christian engagements with Judaism, he offers an evolutionary view of religion that suggests that Jesus somehow improved upon and transcended the ethnically bound nature of Judaism. That can lead to the assumption that Jesus, and therefore Christianity, due its more universal vision, is somehow superior to Judaism. Whether Rohr intends this, I see it present in a statement like his description of Saul's movement beyond "his beloved by ethnic-bound, religion of Judaism toward a universal vision of religion, so much that he changed his Hebrew name to its Latin form, Paul" (p. 40). While I don't think Rohr is anti-Jewish, historically, when we put too strong of a divide between the person of Jesus and the Christ, there is the temptation to re-envision the faith in ways that lead to a dismissal of Jesus' own origins, which then leads to the belief that Christianity replaces Judaism. Further, with this idea of the Universal Christ, is there a temptation to overlay Christianity on top of other faith traditions. At the same time, is something lost in the Christian understanding of reality, if we simply think of Christ as another world view or lens by which to look at reality. 

In our desire to make our faith relevant to the contemporary world there is a temptation to re-incarnate Jesus as a modern spiritual thinker. That has always been the danger of the quest for the historical Jesus. We see in him a reflection of ourselves. With that is a temptation to import into the past modern thinking. I understand. I’m a preacher. I need to connect scripture and the person of Jesus to my own context, but what happens when I take the idea of the Christ and turn it into something foreign to its original context? These are questions that we need to keep in mind as we engage in spiritual thinking.

In the end, the book didn’t connect with me. In addition, I found uncomfortable with some aspects of Rohr’s vision. I would prefer we keep Jesus and Christ closer to each other, lest we lose sight of our own roots in Judaism. That being said, I believe there is stuff here to mine spiritually.  That is a task that each of us must undertake, if we wish to benefit from this book.

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