Wednesday, May 15, 2019

The Universal Christ

Many of you are familiar with the name Richard Rohr, the Franciscan friar who was born in Kansas in 1943 and who has long lived in New Mexico. A few of you may even remember “Listening to Richard Rohr” (pun intended), my 2015 article about him. This article is about his highly significant new book.
Rohr’s Potent Book
The Universal Christ: How a Forgotten Reality Can Change Everything We See, Hope For, and Believe was issued on March 5 in hardback & paperback, and on Kindle. According to this National Catholic Reporter article, that potent book debuted at No. 12 on the New York Times best-seller list for nonfiction.
As indicated in my previous blog article, I spent 30-minutes (or more) every day for a couple of weeks carefully reading Rohr’s book, and I found it to be of great profundity.
Perhaps because I have been reading Rohr’s daily meditations for the last few years, I found the first part of the book more helpful than the latter chapters, which were mostly ideas that he had previously explored in his meditations.
Rohr begins his book with a fairly long quote from Caryll Houselander (1901~54), an English mystic whom I had not heard of before. Reflecting on her words, Rohr refers to “the Christ Mystery” as “the indwelling of the Divine Presence in everyone and everything since the beginning of time” (p. 1).
That is the basis for his thought-provoking exposition of the meaning and significance of the universal Christ.  
Rohr’s Main Point
More than anything else, Rohr emphasizes Incarnation on a far broader scale than most of us have ever seriously considered. Incarnation begins with Creation, he says, and thus we live in a “sacramental universe.”
Rohr’s viewpoint is one of thoroughgoing panentheism. He is clear about that point: “I am really a panentheist (God lies within all things, but also transcends them), exactly like both Jesus and Paul” (p. 43).
Thus, God is seen as present throughout and within the whole world. Rohr starts his fourth chapter with Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s words, which I have long liked:
Earth’s crammed with heaven,
And every common bush afire with God
“Christ Is Not Jesus’s Last Name” is the title of Rohr’s first chapter, which I found to be the most challenging of the book. There he states clearly that “the first incarnation was the moment described in Genesis 1” (p. 12).
He goes on to say that “‘Christ’ is a word for the Primordial Template (‘Logos’) through whom ‘all things came into being, and not one thing had its being except through him’ (John 1:3)” (p. 13).
It was that “Template” (“Logos”) that became flesh in Jesus. So, Rohr clearly affirms both the particularity of Jesus of Nazareth and the universality of Christ.
This is all closely related to what I wrote about in the third chapter of my new book Thirty True Things Everyone Needs to Know Now, although I wrote it before having the benefit of Rohr’s lucid book.
The title of that chapter is “God Is Fully Revealed in Jesus, But the Christ is Not Limited to Jesus.” Rohr makes that point more emphatically than I was able to do there.
Rohr’s Key Emphasis
There is so much more that needs to be said about Rohr’s thought-provoking book, but the following words summarize a key emphasis found in it:
A mature Christian sees Christ in everything and everyone else. That is a definition that will never fail you, always demand more of you, and give you no reason to fight, exclude, or reject anyone (p. 33).
We Christians need to think long and hard about those words—and about Rohr’s entire book.


  1. The first comments received, before 7 a.m., were from local Thinking Friend Marilyn Peot:

    "My first response to your words this morning is the realization of how such an understanding and the willing embrace of Universal Christ is our acceptance of understanding and embracing of all faiths. A true doorway to ecumenism and interfaith relationships.

    "I was minded of the Hindu Namaste: With our hands together and a reverent bow we say: I honor the place within you in which the entire universe resides. I honor the place within you of love and light, of truth, of peace. I honor the place within you where, when you are in that place within you and I am in that place within me, there is only one of us."

    1. Marilyn, I think you would enjoy reading all of "The Universal Christ," for it certainly resonates with many of the things you hold most dear, I think.

      I fully agree with your first paragraph. But I have a problem with the "namaste" statement as being representative of Hinduism. The statement itself is very good -- and yet the caste system seems to be an integral part of Hinduism, so it is hard for me to see how "namaste" applies when those of the higher castes look down upon those of the lower castes--or the Dalit people who are below the lowest caste. I realize that the caste system is officially outlawed in India now, but the effects--and especially discrimination against the Dalit people--are lingering still.

    2. Later yesterday I received the following response from Marilyn:

      "Thanks for your comment. I surely agree that the horrors of India surely aren't indicative of Namaste. I too question that as much as you do. It sounds like in the U.S. We 'claim' ourselves to be a Christian people, but look at the pathetic scene we now experience. Obviously, the Universal Christ is evolving as Truth--but who is aware enough to hear it and live it?"

  2. Here are brief comments from local Thinking Friend (and eminent blogger) Bill Tammeus:

    "Thanks, Leroy:

    "In case you missed it, here's what I had to say about Rohr's latest book: "

    1. [First posted about 4 p.m. yesterday and posted now with a couple of corrections.]

      Bill, I'm sorry I missed seeing your May 7 article about "The Universal Christ," but I have carefully read it today.

      While I am usually in nearly full agreement with your many blog articles, I must say that I cannot agree with your strong criticism of Rohr's statement you cite from page 73 of the book.

      While I am completely and thoroughly against any kind of discrimination against contemporary Jewish people and try to acknowledge fully the horrible treatment of European Jews in the 1930s and 1940s, that doesn't justify reconstructing the history of Jesus and his first disciples.

      You wrote that Rohr blamed all "his fellow Jews" for Jesus' death, but he did not use the word "all." He did write, "his fellow Jews had to kill Jesus." Of course, the Romans were involved in the crucifixion also, but according to the Book of Acts, Peter and Stephen clearly laid the responsibility for Jesus' crucifixion on the Jewish authorities. No reference was made to "all Jews," but those who were singled out as​ the ones who killed Jesus were Jews. (I am referring particularly to words found in Acts 2:36, 4:10, and 5:30.) If we can't accept what Rohr​ wrote​ about that, perhaps we have to quit reading/using the Book of Acts also.

      Rohr refers to Jesus as a "good Jewish man" (p. 33) and makes positive statements about the "Jewish prophets" (pp.34, 142, 146, etc.) He also says good things about some 20th century Jewish people, such as Anne Frank and Etty Hillesam (whom I don't remember hearing about before).

      With his propensity for being thoroughly inclusive, it is hard for me to see how Rohr could be accused as anti-Semetic in any way.

    2. Rohr's lack of precision and clarity in a matter so fraught with historical baggage is simply inexcusable, Leroy. You have been too kind to him in this matter.

    3. I have not read Rohr's book, but I just finished the post Tammeus wrote. I agree with him that how religions address each other is critically important, and we need to bend over backwards to clarify our thinking and speaking. As modern Christians we tend to look back at the life of Jesus through a fog of two thousand years of theological theories. The Jews who were involved in getting Jesus crucified were a small group of collaborators in the Temple who were effectively Roman employees. In John 19, for instance, it first specifies "the chief priests and the police" (verse 6) were there with Pilate, which John then shortens to "the Jews" since it appears the others present were Romans such as Pilate himself. The chief priests and the police were the ones crying out for a crucifixion. Compare this to the Black Lives Matter protests that have rocked America in recent years. It little matters whether the police are black or white, when yet another unarmed black person mysteriously dies in police custody, the community knows which side the police are not on. Some things have not changed much in 2,000 years.

      Many Christians struggle to understand the difference between Muslims and Islamic terrorists, even as many Muslims struggle to understand the difference between Christians and frequently Christian domestic terrorists such as Christian Identity, Neo-Nazis, white power groups and the lone-wolf assassins of abortion doctors. As was discussed in the first comments on this post, Hindus have picked on the untouchables, but they also have created the wonderful greeting Marilyn quotes. Religions are like families, some members are quite different from others.

      The importance of knowing our history, and knowing it well, was recently illustrated by a mathematics poll which, among other things, found out that 56 percent of Americans are opposed to teaching Arabic numerals in public schools. Do they really want to do long division in Roman numerals? I know the Romans managed to conquer much of the world and build architectural wonders using Roman numerals, but I am glad Roman numerals today are largely confined to outline headings and fancy clocks. Well, there are those pictures of Moses coming down from Mount Sinai with the ten commandments numbered with Roman numerals. So maybe there has been some resistance to Arabic numerals all along. Perhaps the poll should have asked about algebra and algorithms, they may be even less popular than Arabic numerals! Anyway, the zero came from India, where those mystics spent so much time meditating on nothingness that they discovered the zero. The Western World just calls our numerals Arabic numerals because we got them from the Muslims during the crusades. The Christians were the invading barbarians, the Muslims were the high civilization who knew all about zero! You can read about the poll here:

      I personally owe a great debt to Judaism. Jews have been among my teachers, friends, favorite musicians, actors, playwrights, authors, scientists, politicians and on and on. I cannot even imagine who I would be without them. Jews have done so much that a few have even ended up being villains. I am not, however, going to judge Judaism by Bernie Madoff any more than I am going to judge Christianity by Jesse James. (The father of Jesse James was a Baptist minister who helped found William Jewell College in Liberty, Missouri, so Jesse can claim the "Preacher's Kid Defense" anyway. Of course, maybe that does judge Christianity a bit!)

      We all live in an emerging world culture that is pulling in wisdom, inventions, food (Do you want to eat Mexican or Chinese tonight?) and so much more. Our future is not so much a melting pot as a taco salad. We may be as different as olives and cheese, but we are all part of it. Who would want it any other way?

    4. Thanks for your long, substantial comments, Craig. Of all that I might respond to, I am writing this only in response to your next to last paragraph.

      You wrote about your debt to Judaism. But I wonder how many of the "teachers, friends, favorite musicians" etc. made a contribution to your life because they were Jewish and how many made that contribution simply because they were good teachers, good friends, good musicians, etc. Much of what most people do, I think, is not specifically because of their religious faith and certainly not because of the religious "tribe" to which they belong.

      And then just a few words about Rev. Robert S. James, who, as you correctly stated, was one of the founders of William Jewell College in 1849 and also the father of the infamous Jesse James, who was born in the fall of 1847. But Rev. James left his family in Missouri and went to California in April 1850--and he died there in August that year. While I don't know to what extent Jesse embraced the Christian faith, it seems quite clear that he was not directly influenced much by his preacher father, whom he last saw when he was about two and a half years old.

  3. Thinking Friend Glen Davis in Vancouver, Canada, share these comments:

    "Thanks Leroy.

    "I have dabbled a bit in some of Rohr’s earlier writing about male spirituality which I found helpful.

    "His much broader view of incarnation resonates with my thinking, and might be something of an antidote to confining the second person of the trinity to the historical Jesus."

    1. Thanks, Glen, for your comments. And, yes, Rohr's understanding of the second person of the Trinity is far broader than in most theological writings on the Trinity. As you may know, his previous book was "The Divine Dance: The Trinity and Your Transformation."

  4. From Arizona, Thinking Friend Truett Baker writes,

    "Another esoteric blog that I want to understand but haven't the 'tools' to fully grasp. However, many of your friends will appreciate the thoughts in this blog and in the book. The first Chapter of John is one of my favorites and the "Logos" has led to many hours of study and thought. Paul's 'God was in Christ' (II Cor 5:19) expresses that complex thought so well and has meant a lot to me. It sounds as if Rohr's idea expands that incarnational thought even more.I want to get the book as I have done following other stimulating blogs of yours. Thanks!"

    1. Truett, I think you are being too modest; I'm sure you will be able to grasp most of what Rohr writes, but, like me, ​there ​may be some things that you will find hard to understand--or to agree with.

      You are perceptive to see the relationship of what Rohr writes to Paul's emphasis ​on ​"in Christ." That is the title (in Greek) of a section in his third chapter, and he says that Paul uses the words "en Cristo" "more than any single phrase in all of his letters: a total of 164 times" (p. 43).

  5. Thanks for drawing our attention to Rohr’s latest book and for getting me to finally start reading it this morning. I like Richard Rohr and his emphasis on inclusiveness.

    “Challenging” was also the word that came to my mind as I considered his ideas in the first chapter, even before I read your blog later today.

    It seems to me that Jesus and the New Testament writers have different ways of leading us to be inclusive than the way Rohr promotes. Jesus gets us thinking beyond the tribe when he tells the story of the good Samaritan, or tells us that when we feed or clothe or visit “the least of these,” we’re doing it for him. That causes me to see Jesus in the poor and marginalized. But to lose the metaphorical intent and say that Jesus is the poor, and the rich, and the green grass and the blue sky, dilutes the intent rather than helps. But maybe that’s just me. I’d like to be more of a mystic and have more in common with my pantheistic neighbors—I really would—I just can’t make myself believe it or find the basis for it.

    Rohr’s Bible references in the first chapter seem strained. To me it’s a stretch to go from “Through him all things were made” to “all things are identical with him.” Same with going from “The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us” to the idea that John meant to say the Cosmic Christ was actually “all things,” and John shouldn’t have used the word “his” because that confuses matters (p. 13).

    God’s omnipresence, and God’s immanence in all things, is different from making God identical with all people, all stars, and all broomsticks. I’d have to have good reasons to make that leap, or even to agree with his frequent claim that the material universe is “enchanted.” I’ve always seen Judeo-Christian revelation as an improvement over that kind of magical thinking. Still, I do look for reasons to experience nature with more appreciation for it. I’d hate to be missing a good thing, if it's true.

    1. Thanks, Fred, for posting such thoughtful comments. I look forward to discussing these and other matters with you face to face. I'll soon contact you about a possible time for our first study session on Rohr's new book.

    2. Late yesterday afternoon I received the following comments from Thinking Friend Eric Dollard in Chicago:

      "Thanks, Leroy, for introducing us to Richard Rohr's new book.

      "The pastor at Wicker Park Lutheran Church, where I am a member, is a panentheist and he gave a sermon about it several months ago. I suspect that he is aware of the works by Rohr, but I have not discussed this with him.

      "The line you quoted from Rohr's book at the end of your blog are critically important as there is really 'no reason to fight, exclude, or reject anyone.' So true."