Rohr and “The Universal Christ”–Arsenic-Laced Kool-Aid
May 12, 2023
Richard Rohr and “The Universal Christ” – Arsenic-Laced Kool-Aid
By Steve Bussey, Territorial Mission Strategist,
The Salvation Army, USA Eastern Territory
I have been hearing the name, Richard Rohr for some time in both The Salvation Army and broader evangelical and non-evangelical spheres of the church. Rohr is a Catholic Franciscan friar who is the founder of the Center for Action and Contemplation in Albuquerque, New Mexico. He is someone who has been championed in pop culture by individuals like Bono (from U2) and Oprah Winfrey; and has had a profound impact on key influencers in the "emergent church" (Brian McLaren, Rob Bell, Tony Jones, Ruth Haley Barton, and others) - many of whom are now champions of the movement known as "progressive Christianity" and the "eXvangelical" movement.
While Rohr is widely published, his most influential work has been "The Universal Christ: How a Forgotten Reality Can Change Everything We See, Hope For, and Believe." Rohr syncretistically fuses together elements of Christian mysticism with Eastern and New Age concepts that are extremely popular in today's world.
First off, in "The Universal Christ," Rohr dedicates the book to his dog, who is a "Christ" for him! Don't get me wrong, I love my own dog (we have a 14-year-old bichon named, "Mr. Railton" whom we love and adore), but my dog is no more "Christ" than I am... but I get ahead of myself.
Several issues arise from Rohr's writing, including but not limited to:
- Promoting UNIVERSALISM (the idea that all are saved)
- Promoting PERENNIALISM (the idea that all religions and myths share the same archetypes and thus are all viable means by which to seek salvation (whatever that means for you).
- Promoting PANENTHEISM (the idea that God is contained in all creation and creation is contained in God).
Rohr rejects our fourth doctrine, which states: "We believe that in the person of Jesus Christ the Divine and human natures are united so that He is truly and properly God and truly and properly man."
He separates the idea of "JESUS" the human being - who was a normal human being like you and I but a great moral teacher and exemplar for us - from "CHRIST" the cosmic, divine idea - which is not limited to Jesus, but is a title all human beings... and all living things... and all organic matter embody this cosmic reality (see panentheism above).
This isn't a new idea. In fact, it is a major proponent of a movement that came into vogue in the 1960s and 1970s called "process theology" that mirrors Rohr's claims - and reflected much of the sixties revolution's core values. It also goes back further, manifesting itself in various fringe theologies that present themselves as being "contemporary," "modern," "enlightened," etc., etc. In essence, these have been proven again and again to have cut the cord with classical Christianity. They aren't Christian ideas. They are a radically different religion altogether.
However, Rohr's pop theology can be very subtle as it cohabits well with ideas that at first seem to affirm many of the core values of Salvationism: spiritual formation, social justice, understanding our identity, compassion for the poor, and reflecting the love of God. All these sound like wonderful ideas - and they are! Sadly, these ideas are "hosts" which are wonderful conduits for injecting parasitic ideas that subtly realign the disposition of a genuine seeker away from living for the glory of God and the salvation of the world. As the enemy in the garden whispered to Eve, "hath God said...," these ideas begin to erode confidence in orthodox beliefs, orthodox values, and orthodox practices. Before you know it, a tipping point hits where the Christian faith seems hollow (because it has been devoured from the inside out) and has been weakened to the point where one can only deconstruct the outer layers of faith, leaving the once saved individual lost and adrift in a sea of despair.
You might say at this point, "Come on, Steve. That is a bit extreme." Just Google the host of individuals who have abandoned the Christian faith or morphed it into some syncretistic form and tell me I am wrong... I am simply following the evidence. What might appear at first to be a sheep might actually be a wolf.
When reading Rohr, there are some elements of his writing that sound very Christian. However, when you look closer, you will see that there are significant, and dare I say extremely dangerous tares that are sown among the wheat.
Let me illustrate:
In The Salvation Army, our fifth doctrine states, "We believe that our first parents were created in a state of innocency, but by their disobedience they lost their purity and happiness, and that in consequence of their fall all men have become sinners, totally depraved, and as such are justly exposed to the wrath of God."
I will never forget back in 2012 when attending a conference where I heard a well-respected, younger Salvationist stand up and say, "Yeah, I don't believe that doctrine at all" - and went on to go through a list of the doctrines which he didn't believe. I was flabbergasted as I listened to him - and talked with him afterward to confirm I had heard correctly. Sadly, I walked away from the conversation heartbroken to see an individual who I counted as a strong leader from my generation who was no longer aligned nor committed to the mission of The Salvation Army (despite the fact that he continued to travel worldwide promoting these ideas...).
At first, I thought this was an anomaly - but over the past 10+ years, I have seen this multiply ad nauseum - not only in The Salvation Army but also in the church writ large.
What does this have to do with Rohr? Let me share some direct quotes from his book, "The Universal Christ" - and tell me whether or not this reflects the zeitgeist of this present moment:
"The true and essential work of all religion is to help us recognize and recover the divine image in everything. It is to mirror things correctly, deeply, and fully until all things know who they are" (p.59)[I agree].
"For example, there is a divine mirror that might be called the very "Mind of Christ." The Christ mirror fully knows and loves us from all eternity, and reflects that image back to us." (p.59)[yes, I agree. This is biblical and Wesleyan].
Rohr carries on:
"Our inherent "likeness to God" depends upon the OBJECTIVE CONNECTION given by God EQUALLY TO ALL CREATURES, EACH OF WHOM CARRY THE DIVINE DNA in a unique way. Owen Barfield [one of the Inklings, and founder of a movement called 'anthrosophy'] called this phenomenon "original participation," I would also call it "original blessing" or "original innocence" ("unwoundedness").
Whatever you call it, the "image of God"" is ABSOLUTE AND UNCHANGING. There is nothing humans can do to increase or decrease it. And it is not ours to decide who has it or does not have it, WHICH HAS BEEN MOST OF OUR PROBLEM UP TO NOW. It is pure and total gift, given equally to God" (pp.60-61).
This is not biblical nor Wesleyan.
First of all, Genesis 1:27 makes it very clear that HUMANITY was made in the image of God. This is unique to humanity alone. We believe all creation signifies through general revelation evidence of God the Creator, Preserver, and Governor of all things (doctrine 2), but the idea of God placing "eternity in our hearts" (Ecc. 3:11) is for humanity alone. This breaks with the idea of panentheism being promoted here. So, while I might love my dog, Mr. Railton, I'm sorry but he does not reflect the image of God. He did not have God breathe His spirit into him.
In John Wesley's sermon, "The Image of God," he does say that all of humanity was made in the 'imago dei' - but he emphasizes that when sin occurred, the "natural image" (perfect knowledge, tempers, and liberty) were horribly marred. In his sermon, "The New Birth," Wesley differentiates the "natural image" from the "moral image of God" that INSTANTLY DIED when Eve and Adam ate from the tree of the knowledge of Good and Evil. While Adam physically lived for 966 years before he physically died (a consequence of the curse of sin), he and Eve IMMEDIATELY DIED SPIRITUALLY. They lost the moral image.
Here is what Wesley states:
"For it is evident, Adam did not die in this sense, "in the day that he ate thereof." He lived, in the sense opposite to this death, above nine hundred years after. So that this cannot possibly be understood of the death of the body, without impeaching the veracity of God. It must therefore be understood of spiritual death, the loss of the life and image of God."
Wesley goes even further in his sermon on "Original Sin" where he states we no longer bear the image of God, but the IMAGE OF SATAN!:
"Satan has stamped his own image on our heart in self-will also. "I will," said he, before he was cast out of heaven, "I will sit upon the sides of the north;" I will do my own will and pleasure, independently on that of my Creator. the same does every man born into the world say, and that in a thousand instances; nay, and avow it too, without ever blushing upon the account, without either fear or shame. Ask the man, "Why did you do this" He answers, "Because I had a mind to it." What is this but, "Because it was my will;" that is, in effect, because the devil and I agreed; because Satan and I govern our actions by one and the same principle. The will of God, mean time, is not in his thoughts, is not considered in the least degree; although it be the supreme rule of every intelligent creature, whether in heaven or earth, resulting from the essential, unalterable relation which all creature bear to their Creator."
Wesley's (and the Booths') whole theology of redemption - prevenient grace (which awakens us to our crisis and leads us to conviction and repentance) leads us to recognize our predicament. Justifying grace, cleanses us from sin and allows for us to experience "regeneration" - the REBIRTH of the MORAL IMAGE OF GOD; and sanctifying grace leads us to begin the process of RESTORING THE IMAGE OF GOD through holiness of heart and life. While we believe that we can rule and reign victoriously over sin here and now, this will only be finally realized in perfection, when Christ returns and there is a new heaven, new earth, and bodies FULLY and ETERNALLY restored to the image of God.
This is a FAR CRY from Richard Rohr's theology. Here is what he says:
"But this picture was complicated when the concept of ORIGINAL SIN entered the Christian mind. In this idea - first put forth by Augustine in the fifth century, BUT NEVER MENTIONED IN THE BIBLE [are you starting to see the tares being sown here?] - we emphasized that HUMAN BEINGS WERE BORN INTO "SIN" because Adam and Eve "OFFENDED GOD" by eating from the "tree of the knowledge of Good and Evil." As punishment, God cast them out of the Garden of Eden" (p.61).
Do you see what Rohr is doing here? He caricatures and twists what is pretty clear in both Scripture and the consensual Christian tradition and mocks the idea that sin would "offend" God. If Rohr is right, that a holy God is not "offended" by sin, then WHAT'S THE POINT OF THE ENTIRE REDEMPTIVE STORY? Oh, that's right - everything has to change to accommodate this God who excuses and tolerates sin...
Rohr carries on:
"This strange concept of original sin DOES NOT MATCH THE WAY WE USUALLY THINK OF SIN, which is NORMALLY A MATTER OF PERSONAL RESPONSIBILITY AND CULPABILITY. Yet original sin wasn't something we did at all; IT WAS SOMETHING DONE TO US (passed down from Adam and Eve). So we got off to a bad start." (p.61).
So, we are not accountable for sinning to the Moral Governor (doctrine 2) because we are accountable to ourselves. I'm not born with the consequence of Adam and Eve's sin - I am only personally responsible for MY sin.
This is where things get tricky. There were some Wesleyans in the 19th-century who bought into the teachings of a fellow named Pelagius, who rejected Augustine's interpretation of Scripture communicated as Original Sin. This was never embraced by Arminius, John Wesley, or the Booths. This was popularized by a syncretistic faction in the mid-to late-19th century. Our 5th doctrine has been consistent in The Salvation Army since 1865 and was consistent in Methodism since the beginning - as this has been the core belief of Christians since the beginning. Yes, that means that while this might have been explicitly named 'total depravity' as summarized by Augustine in the 5th century, it was implicit in Christian doctrine since the first generation of Christians.
Rohr then taps into his perennialist notions:
"By contrast, most of the WORLD'S GREAT RELIGIONS START WITH SOME SENSE OF PRIMAL GOODNESS IN THEIR CREATION STORIES..." He then goes on to explain how this is what Jews and early Christians also believed, "But after Augustine, most Christian theologies SHIFTED FROM THE POSITIVE VISION OF GENESIS 1 TO THE DARKER VISION OF GENESIS 3 - the SO-CALLED FALL, or what I am calling 'the problem' ...Christians SHRUNK OUR IMAGE OF BOTH JESUS AND THE CHRIST [hear the separation of doctrine 4?], and our "Savior" BECAME A MERE JOHNNY-COME LATELY 'ANSWER' TO THE PROBLEM OF SIN, A PROBLEM THAT WE HAD LARGELY CREATED OURSELVES" (p.61).
So, this need for "the salvation of the world" for Rohr is a shrunken, weak, not 'great' vision and mission for Jesus or the church. Does that sound like Christianity to you? Not to me. Not to the Booths. Not to Wesley. To be honest, I'm not sure at this point if Rohr has read ANY of the Bible after Genesis 1! He seems to think we are all still living in Eden...
Rohr states, "That's a very limited role for Jesus. His DEATH instead of his LIFER was defined as saving us! ...Jesus became a MERE MOP-UP EXERCISE FOR SIN, AND SIN MANAGEMENT HAS DOMINATED THE ENTIRE RELIGIOUS STORYLINE AND AGENDA TO THIS DAY" (pp.61-62).
He then frames this narrow-minded view as essentially being the reason for everything that is wrong with the world. These types of beliefs are oppressive and cause for so much abuse.
"When we start with a THEOLOGY OF SIN MANAGEMENT administered by a too-often elite clergy, we end up with a SCHIZOPHRENIC RELIGION. We end up with a Jesus who was merciful while on earth, but who punishes in the next world. Who forgives here but not later. God in this picture seems WHIMSICAL and UNTRUSTWORTHY even to the casual observer. IT MAY BE SCARY FOR CHRISTIANS TO ADMIT THESE OUTCOMES TO OURSELVES, BUT WE MUST" (p.63).
Wow. So, Christianity is schizophrenic when we believe in the Biblical story and what has been tested and validated as part of the consensual Christian tradition? Nothing good has come from this whimsical and untrustworthy movement? Then why even be a part of it? If all people who call themselves are deluded and fearful to simply acknowledge this, then why have anything to do with it? [Please note, I am being facetious here - I don't agree with pretty much anything Rohr is saying here. I'm not sure how ANY person who calls themselves a Christian can...].
So, while pretty much EVERYONE who has influenced the Church since Augustine has got this wrong, Rohr is now going to set things right [I do think we call that 'hubris']:
"To begin climbing out of the HOLE of original sin, we must start with a POSITIVE AND GENEROUS COSMIC VISION... The Christian story line must start with a POSITIVE and OVERARCHING VISION FOR HUMANITY AND HISTORY, or it will never get beyond the PRIMITIVE, EXCLUSIONARY, AND FEAR-BASED STAGES OF MOST EARLY HUMAN DEVELOPMENT. We are ready for a major course correction" (p.63).
And so Rohr begins to help the church overcome its' arrested development by presenting a "new theology" - one crafted in his own, more 'positive' and less 'primitive' vision that is so much more evolved and sophisticated than this barbaric form of Christianity that we need to shed as quickly as possible!
So... that's just a few pages. Does anyone think this is something we should be promoting? You're welcome to, but please do the world a favor and call it something other than Christianity.
Catherine Booth warned us about such false teachers. In Popular Christianity, she warned:
"Men have made up their minds that they can possess and enjoy all they can get of this world in common with their fellow-men, and yet get to heaven at last. They have made up their minds that it is all nonsense about following the Christ, becoming a laughing stock to the world, which He made Himself every day He lived, and setting themselves to live a holy life, which He said if they did not they were none of His; all this they have abandoned as an impossibility, and yet, not content without a religion, and finding it impossible to look into the future without a hope of some sort, they have manufactured a Christ to meet their views, and spun endless theories to match the state of their hearts. The worst of all, however, is that a great many of the teachers of Christianity have adopted these theories, and spend their whole lives in misrepresenting the Christ of the gospel."
I stand with Catherine Booth and implore us to return to Jesus Christ and sound doctrine that provides the true hope for this generation:
"Here I stand and make my boast, that the Christ of God, my Christ, the Christ of the Salvation Army, does meet this crying need of the soul, does fill this aching void, and does become to man that which God sets Him forth as being in this book. Guilty humanity He promises to pardon, and He does pardon. Ignorant humanity (with respect to God and the things of God) He promises to enlighten, and He does enlighten it. Degraded, sunken, impure humanity (in the very essence of its being) He promises to purify, and He does purify it. We make our boast of this Christ, and we say He is able to save to the uttermost, and that He does this now as much as ever He has done in the 1800 years that are past, that He is a real, living, present Saviour to those who really receive and put their trust in Him."