Richard Rohr: A Field Guide
Richard Rohr: A Field Guide

Richard Rohr: A Field Guide

Exploring a vestibule of Christian faith.

Tired of watching Pope Francis–era Catholics fight on Twitter, I attempted—as an outside observer—to try to get my head around the fresh divisions within North American Catholicism. Conservative Catholics know that liberal claims for “justice” are often cloaked claims for vengeance. They understand the need for law and firm ego structures. “Without law in some form . . . we cannot move forward easily and naturally.” Not surprisingly, the Catholic right does “not believe in prophets who are not conservative. Prophets must be grounded in the Great Tradition of wisdom.” While they do believe in union with God, conservatives are quick to add, “You are not entirely absorbed into God, and you are not the same as God, which would be pantheism.” Aware of the wisdom of other faiths, they do not hesitate to criticize Hindu caste systems, upper-class Buddhist monasteries, or the gender and office divisions in Islam. Faced with competition from generic spirituality, traditionalists insist, “We’d like to remain in an aloof, Zen-like detachment, but that’s not the Christian way. The Christian way is to attach.” They tend to cite Bernard of Clairvaux, Thomas Aquinas, and Teresa of Avila. Often they take unnecessary potshots at Protestantism. And when it comes to sexuality, of course, they take the high road: “You can, if you are called to it, be celibate, because you live in a kind of intimacy with everything.” 

For the left, however, Catholicism too often resembles a “sin management” program that overemphasizes abortion and gay marriage. These liberals complain that the Catholic right “seem[s] preoccupied with clothing, titles, perks, and externals of religion. . . . Ecumenism, interfaith dialogue, and social justice are dead issues for them.” Without denying the importance of Mary, liberals might betray that the Virgin Mary has been “pushed too high,” for which there is little precedent in the New Testament. “There is no such thing as a nonpolitical Christianity,” they thunder. “To refuse to critique the system or the status quo is to fully support it.” They tend to cite Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, Francis of Assisi, even the “non-polarity (advaita in Sanskrit) of Hinduism, Buddhism, and Taoism.” They are much more ecumenical, even arguing that “the Christian world must ever thank Martin Luther for his courage and persistence in recovering Paul and the Gospel for the Western ‘can do’ world.” Predictably, these Catholics whine about (perhaps without flatly rejecting) Pope Benedict XVI’s approach to human sexuality, and they tend to get goaded into excessive statements like, “It’s no wonder his fellow Jews had to kill Jesus, just as many Catholics would love to eliminate Pope Francis today.” 

Rohr is something of a Rorschach test—depending on what they are seeking, readers can find in him what they love, what they hate, or both.

But I’m trying to be clever. I have not outlined the divisions within North American Catholicism (which are far more complicated than sketched here). I am instead quoting two sides (from many of his books) of the Franciscan priest and bestselling author Father Richard Rohr. Rohr’s paradoxical range goes a long way toward explaining his appeal to an audience within, or well outside of, recognizable Christian camps. It also helps explain the inability of opposing Christian factions to adequately make sense of him. 

The Universal Rohr

This same paradoxical Rohr is alive and well in his latest book, The Universal Christ, which expands insights long on offer in earlier publications. The septuagenarian Franciscan’s thesis is that there is a distinction between the universal Christ and the particular Jesus. The former (Christ) is primarily a pre-Christmas and post-resurrection cosmic phenomenon, whereas the latter (Jesus) is a specialty of the more localized incarnation and crucifixion. Rohr did not entirely win me over to the linguistic legitimacy of this distinction; still, he certainly does not want to separate these realities. “We believe in a Jesus kind of Christ,” he tells us, “a God who is going to the mat with humanity and not just presenting us with a heavenly, cosmic vision. If Christ represents the resurrected state, then Jesus represents the crucified/resurrecting path of getting there.

But the meat of this book is on the “Christ” side of the mystery. “A mature Christian sees Christ in everything and everyone else.” Nor is this “morphic resonance” limited to human creation: 

I doubt you can see the image of God (Imago Dei) in your fellow humans if you cannot first see it in rudimentary forms in stones, in plants and flowers, in strange little animals, in bread and wine, and most especially cannot honor this objective divine image in yourself.

One surprising way of putting this is when Rohr says, with the long-range, “Big Crunch” eschatology in mind, that “God loves things by becoming them” (cf. 1 Corinthians 15:28). While this might sound vaguely pantheistic or irresponsible to some readers, the doctrinal locus for Rohr’s statement might be seen as an attempt at rediscovering the classic doctrine of totus Christus (the total Christ). And Rohr is in even better company among ancient church theologians than his book reveals. “You are wholly outside of creation, wholly in every creature,” writes Symeon the New Theologian. “For You are in the all, You are above the all.” And in his later sermons amid the refugee crisis that followed the collapse of Rome, Augustine insists that Matthew 25 (“Whatsoever you have done to the least of these you have done to me”) refers to all humans, not just Christians. But Rohr uses a lot more italics. 

As is his custom, Father Richard constantly pushes against traditional Catholic teaching, but not (in my estimation at least) to the breaking point. “I do,” he insists, “believe in the physical resurrection of Jesus, because it affirms what the whole physical and biological universe is also saying—and grounds it as something more than a mere spiritual or miraculous belief.” He advises us to pray, “Now I do not have to pretend that I am God.” Still, Rohr suggests, we have overspecialized in what to believe over how. Rohr is fond of citing Aquinas on this point, Prius vita quam doctrina (life is prior to doctrines). And there is more and more of this experiential flavor in The Universal Christ, making misunderstanding almost inevitable. Rohr predicts as much in the book’s concluding pages:

When one too quickly and smartly says, ‘All things are sacred’ or ‘God is everywhere,’ that doesn’t necessarily mean one has really longed and made space for this awareness, nor really integrated such an amazing realization. This is why we must balance Christ Consciousness with the embodied Jesus. . . . Only sincere and longtime seekers experience the deep satisfaction of an incarnational worldview. It does not just fall into your lap.

Rorschach Tests

Rohr deliberately situates his writing in the vestibule of traditional Christianity.

If Rohr, like many mystics, fully expects to be underestimated, his readers have not missed their cue. Let me paint in broad strokes here regarding both his admirers and detractors. To deploy an unforgivable pun, Rohr is something of a Rorschach test—depending on what they are seeking, readers can find in him what they love, what they hate, or both.

First, his fans (think the progressive, post-evangelical, Enneagram-enamored type). They love their Rohr fix and gravitate toward what British Anglicans a century ago might have called his “broad church” appeal. But they tend not to hear him at his most orthodox. And if they would listen more closely to their master, they would quickly learn that they cannot easily become like him. This is because Rohr claims, in countless places, that pre-Vatican II, conservative Kansas Catholicism was an essential ingredient in making him what he is today. Accordingly, if it is a good thing to be an expansive, Rohr-like Christian, the only way to make more such Christians—by Rohr’s own admission—is to promote the kind of conservative Catholicism that he frequently shuns. Which is to say, if one wants more Rohrs, one might best start with young readers of First Things, The Lamp (should it materialize), or The Gospel Coalition than the Sojourners or America crowd. 

The good friar seems well aware of this dynamic. It is well illustrated in several conversations in the podcast (Another Name for Every Thing) that accompanies The Universal Christ. While his admiring young interviewers are prepared to toss out the doctrine of hell, Rohr at one juncture surprisingly suggests that they hold onto the possibility of a divine “No.” Rohr even suggests that sometimes after you’ve developed your practice of contemplative prayer and discovered the universal Christ, you tend to get too Buddhist, and need to return to old-fashioned conversational prayer with Jesus. 

And second, there are his more conservative detractors. They call Rohr out on his sloppiness, which involves taking developments in contemporary theology, and throwing the book at him. As it turns out, this is not very difficult to do. Rohr is more widely read than many theologians beyond the field of contemporary theology, but not within it. And some of his books—The Divine Dance, for example—seem to have been talks hastily woven together by someone else. Because of this, Rohr can be caught making mistakes. Even worse, he can be made to look like a warmed-over Protestant liberal, but for the fact that he also bears exact similarity to the great enemy of liberalism, Karl Barth. Here, for example, is as convenient a summary of Barth’s Church Dogmatics I/1 as one is likely to find: “Please don’t begin with some notion of abstract being and then say, Okay, we found out through Jesus that such a being is loving. No, Trinitarian revelation says start with the loving.” And here is Barth’s Church Dogmatics II/2 in a nutshell: “We are all en Christo [in Christ], willingly or unwillingly, happily or unhappily, consciously or unconsciously.”

To be sure, world-class professional theologians in their prime can make Richard Rohr’s points with far more precision and elegance. “The fullness and flourishing of creation is not something that has to be won at the Creator’s expense,” Rowan Williams explains in Christ the Heart of Creation. “The outpouring of God’s life into the world to fulfil the world’s potential for joy and reconciliation does not entail an amputation of the full reality of the world’s life. . . . [There is a] non-competitive relation of Creator and creation.” Williams’s magisterial statement differs in no way from Rohr’s insistence that “God is not in competition with reality.” But we can also be forgiven for enjoying books about God that do not require a theological education to read, and which reach wider than the academy (a reach which Williams, in his more popular writing, enjoys as well). 

In short, Rohr deliberately situates his writing in the vestibule of traditional Christianity, and he might therefore, I imagine, facilitate an exit; but his critics should remember that the vestibule approach can facilitate entry and re-entry as well. I know of more than a few people who are finding their way back to Christian faith through Rohr’s untraditional, though relentlessly biblical, style of thought. His writing is a gateway drug to authentic Christian contemplation, which evangelicals are discovering as well. In fact, perhaps peppering his writing with exotic sources is an evangelistic technique. Ken Wilber, Eckhart Tolle, or spiral dynamics is the bait, but then the trap closes, with Rohr finally claiming, “Jesus for me always clinches the deal, and I sometimes wonder why I did not listen to him in the first place.” 

As to the question of whether a “mature” Christian should be reading Rohr when they could read the best classic sources he draws upon, I can think of two responses. The highbrow response is that one can, of course, read both; and considering Rohr’s immense popularity, we should know him well. Shepherds, after all, should smell like the sheep. The second, and more honest answer (speaking personally), is that—as much as I’d not like to admit it—I need him. Rohr’s work is the fruit of a lifetime of ministry in much less glamorous contexts than the perch he now enjoys at the Center for Action and Contemplation, and his hard-won pastoral instincts impress. Burnt-out on academic theology, I needed someone who could speak in my own North American idiom and minister to me without flattering—perhaps even while slightly degrading—my academic ambitions. (Though there have been times reading Rohr in public that I was tempted to switch out the dust jackets for something more intellectually impressive like Sergius Bulgakov, Willie Jennings, or Hilaire Belloc.) 

The Company We Keep

Still, this is not to say that all suspicion of Rohr is unfounded. Perhaps the problem is not so much Rohr as those with whom he is associated. Unlike similar spiritual writers like Jacques Philippe, William Barry, or Henri Nouwen, Rohr’s tastes are particularly adventurous. Attempting to understand his influences, I began to read the figures he casually recommends, and I’m grateful for some of his suggestions. Rohr’s book on St. Francis cured me of my lingering suspicion of Duns Scotus; because of Rohr I finally read the Book of Privy Counseling by the fourteenth-century author of The Cloud of Unknowing; and Rohr introduced me to new books by contemporary figures like Steven Charleston and Barbara Holmes as well. But in The Naked Now, Rohr recommends the work of Bernadette Roberts among others in the family of contemplative Christians he promotes, so I dutifully attempted to follow the career of this contemporary California mystic. After losing her ego completely, “she” (if there is still a she left to describe) claimed that “true revelation has been lost to Christianity,” which, in her magnum opus, The Real Christ, Bernadette Roberts restores. It concludes with this crowning insight born of mystical experience: 

Mary cares more for man than does the Trinity Itself, she is the only “heart” of God. . . . I learned early (age seven) it was useless to pray to God. . . . The most terrible mistake I ever made was, at age nine, physically ill and at the bottom of my barrel, in desperation I turned to God—an aura of light in the center of my being—and begged It for some help. And what did God do? That light faded to a pinpoint, and in Its going out, suddenly exploded into a black hole that took over just about all the space in my being. I totally collapsed, mentally, physically, there was never an incident in my life comparable to this cruelty. If this taught me any lesson, it was never, ever, pray to God for anything—and I never did. . . . The only good thing God ever did for man was reveal Its Own Immanent “Mother.”

Roberts, God help her, like Carl Jung at his weirdest, is a warning of what unhinged contemplation can become. And Jung, unlike Bernadette Roberts, is no passing reference for Rohr, but remains one of his chief inspirations. 

It does not take long to realize that the entire template for Rohr’s approach to masculinity—sketched out in Adam’s Return or From Wild Man to Wise Man—comes from Jung. There is much to be gained from the Jungian psychological tradition, and Rohr should be read in the line of those before him who have successfully Christianized the puzzling Swiss psychiatrist. In fact, after Jordan Peterson, Rohr might be the most famous contemporary popularizer of Jung’s ideas. For example, his German edition of Der Wilde Mann was so popular that Rohr once managed to fill the Nuremberg Cathedral with German men—many of them weeping—who were aching for fathers and for faith. 

Rohr’s work on masculinity did much to ground and establish the modern men’s movement launched in the 1990s by Robert Bly’s Iron John. Both figures felt a special urgency for modern men who lack both the natural and cultural markers of adulthood such as (of course) menstruation or (less obviously) the male initiation rites once on offer in older societies. These rituals taught men powerlessness before they attained power, and the men in power in our society frequently reveal what we have lost. Rohr’s chief source for all this, however, is the Chicago Theological Seminary Jungian analyst Robert Moore’s books on the four classical male archetypes—Lover, Warrior, Magician, and King. Rohr, unlike Moore, grounds each of these archetypes in the person of Christ. I was intrigued enough by the approach that I thought I would pursue a chance to meet Dr. Moore himself, but I just missed my chance. Looking him up, I learned that after killing his wife, he killed himself in 2016. Tragically, it seems the man who wrote (to borrow one of his book titles) Facing the Dragon: Confronting Personal and Spiritual Grandiosity, was consumed by his dragons after all. 

The tragic fate of Moore, along with that of Bernadette Roberts, might even be enough to dim Rohr’s relentlessly rosy estimation of human nature, and cause us to look for wisdom not just to his beloved St. Francis, but to Augustine and Luther as well. Thomas Merton, one of Rohr’s founding inspirations, offers a solemn warning that Rohr’s readers would do well to consider: “There is a temptation to a kind of pseudo-quietism which afflicts those who have read books about mysticism without quite understanding them. . . . There is no ‘reason why’ emptiness should necessarily bring us face to face with God. Emptiness might just as well bring us face to face with the devil, and as a matter of fact it sometimes does.”

Great Love and Great Suffering

Do such cautionary tales (to which more could be added) offer enough to dismiss Rohr? I’m not sure they do. Perhaps his diverse company even makes Rohr all the more appealing, as he is able to rescue their insights and draw them into something more rich and lasting, which is what Christian tradition has always done to the scattered wisdom of the world. His work on the Enneagram—for which Rohr remains the original popularizer—exemplifies this. As with the Jungian archetypes, for Rohr it is Christ who holds all nine numbers together. And while many enthusiasts see the Enneagram as a tool for self-discovery, Rohr reminds us it is in fact a tool of self-transcendence, involving humiliation (which learning one’s type always entails), and a tool for loving and understanding others, not just oneself. But the Enneagram is only the warm-up for Rohr’s real message that transformation comes from great love and great suffering—God’s first and foremost, not just our own. 

Rohr tells us he prays for a daily humiliation, and I am tempted (should he read this) to deliver today’s by citing a wise friend of mine who told me Rohr is a brilliant pastor but a lazy theologian. I think that’s fair. And there sure are enough brilliant and under-employed recent PhDs in theology in the world that he might have hired one of them to proofread and strengthen his books. Still, Rohr’s popularity reveals our dearth of brilliant pastors, and we should read him for his strengths. Purists of left or right might be tempted to say Rohr is confused or duplicitous. Then again, knowing “there is both a rebel and a dictator in all of us,” perhaps Rohr has transcended some forms of left/right polarity. “If you stay in stage one—conformity—or stage two—criticism,” he advises, “you are in no way ready for mystery, paradox, the collision of opposites that is the Cross.” Suspicious (or envious?) of the fact that Rohr gets speaking invites from Oprah and Google, we forget his insistence that “the ‘way of the cross’ will never go out of style because it will surely never be in style.” The paradox of Richard Rohr might therefore be the paradox of the gospel. Perhaps this explains why he is such a pleasure to read, especially when one periodically puts down the book, as he repeatedly advises, to spend time in silent prayer. Rohr knows, as I wish we all did, that “the only future of the church, the one Body of Christ, is ecumenical and shared.” 

In short, there are enough real heretics in the world that we need not conjure them where they don’t exist. When a man insists, in his culminating work, that “I cannot abandon an Orthodox or Catholic worldview,” should we not take him at his word? But again, I cannot emphasize this enough: To give Rohr the benefit of the doubt is also to give it to the traditional Kansas Catholicism that shaped him by—among other rigors—requiring him to spend the wee hours of the morning in Eucharistic adoration as a teenager. “Every great mystic,” writes William Johnston, “as every genius, is like a huge iceberg with only a fraction of its vast bulk protruding from the waters. Below the surface lies the great mass of tradition upon which the whole thing rests.” I would not call Rohr a great mystic, but the mystics he cites, like the author of the Cloud of Unknowing, “took for granted a Church, a faith, and a sacramental life that many of his modern readers will less easily recognize.” And so, if they wish to be more than spiritual centaurs with a Buddhist torso and a Christian behind, the best thing that Rohr’s many readers can do is to cleave to the classical theological and liturgical Christian traditions that shaped him. This is something that I imagine more than a few of Rohr’s many followers have yet to understand, even as he reminds them of it—as he reminds himself—over and over again.

Matthew Milliner
Matthew Milliner

Matthew J. Milliner teaches art history at Wheaton College.


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