“How far back and forward in time does the Christ figure extend, and who exactly is Christ?” These questions were posed by Richard Rohr in an interview with Rich Heffern of the National Catholic Reporter published on December 11, 2009. A decade later, in his best-seller The Universal Christ: How a Forgotten Reality Can Change Everything We See, Hope For, and Believe (Centre for Action and Contemplation, 2019), Rohr is still flogging the same heretical answers he gave there:
The Gospels are about the historical Jesus. Paul, however, whose writings make up a third of the New Testament, never talks about that Jesus. He is talking about the Christ. Jesus is the microcosm; Christ is the macrocosm. There is a movement between the two that we ourselves have to imitate in our life and walk, the resurrection journey.
Now, dividing Jesus from the Christ is the oldest gnostic trick in the book. It belongs to a whole bag of tricks, including the division of the New Testament from the Old, the God of Jesus from the God of Moses, redemption from creation, resurrection of soul from resurrection of body – setting the former, in each case, against the latter. That sort of thing was exposed and overthrown long ago by St. Irenaeus in his foundational work of theology, Against the Heresies.
Our recent tricksters such as Matthew Fox and Richard Rohr, however, deceive those with itching ears by way of a new ruse. They pretend that there is a seamless “movement between the two,” so that what appears to be an opposition is really just a feature of a larger and more dynamic vision, one that takes account of the vast tracts of time and space that modern science has brought to our attention. This allows them to say that they think the creation of the material world was a good thing, not (as the gnostics of old claimed) a bad thing.
Like Hegel, they even try to give the new construct a trinitarian twist, making it sound as orthodox as possible. They turn the Irenaean critique back on itself, in other words, as a cover for their gnosticism. “Western Christianity,” complains Rohr, “has plucked Jesus completely out of the Trinity,” breaking the bond between the doctrine of creation and the doctrine of salvation. The doctrine of the cross, of atonement through Jesus, displaces the big picture. It’s all Jesus, all the time, not enough Cosmic Christ; all microcosm, no macrocosm; all world to come, not enough openness to this world.
These are tricks they learned from Teilhard de Chardin, of course. “When [we] emphasize Jesus apart from the Father and Holy Spirit,” says Rohr, “then creation is just an afterthought or a backdrop to a limited salvation drama… We become preoccupied with those last three hours of Jesus’ life, when we get the blood sacrifice that gets us humans saved, our ticket to heaven punched.” This distracts us from the real mystery of Christianity, the mystery “that the material and the spiritual coexist.” It distracts us from “the mystery of the Incarnation”:
Once we restore the idea that the Incarnation means God truly loves creation then we restore the sacred dimension to nature. We bring the plants and animals and all of nature in with us. They are windows into the endless creativity, fruitfulness and joy of God. We assert that we believe in the sweep of history, humanity and all of creation that Christ includes.
Mark that. The doctrine of the incarnation is, at bottom, no more than the commonplace that the material and the spiritual somehow coexist. Rohr’s Christ, like Teilhard’s, includes all of creation. Jesus, it follows, may in his way be uniquely the Christ but he is, nevertheless, merely one instantiation or revelation of the Christ. And it is revelation, not atonement, that we should look for in Jesus. According to Rohr, “Incarnation is already redemption. Bethlehem was more important than Calvary.” From which it follows that everything is good and that we may believe also in ourselves as Christ. “It is good to be human. The Earth is good. God has revealed that God has always been here.”
We have, then, an earthy religion, an environmentally sensitive religion, a sustainable religion. We have a self-affirming religion open to a variety of forms of worship and to a variety of sexualities–perhaps even to a mixture of the two. And this, Rohr asserts, taking in vain the names of the two great theologians of his order,
is a Franciscan approach, and indeed was the theology of key Franciscan figures like Duns Scotus and St. Bonaventure. It will increasingly become mainline spirituality as we become more comfortable with an expanded view of the mystery of Incarnation in the cosmos. If we Christians had taken this mystery seriously, we would never have raped the planet like we do, never have developed such an inadequate theology about sexuality.
Environmentalism and a new theology that liberates us from traditional Christian scruples about sex while restoring pagan scruples about transgressing against Mother Nature? A new theology that is a rediscovery of the fact that God has always been here? Vive la Pachamama! What more could today’s itching ears want to hear? Unless perchance they desire the titillation of talk about the coming discovery of extraterrestrials, which Rohr thinks likely and for which he wants us to prepare by enlarging the vision of our faith.
And how exactly do we do that? By revising, among other things, our view of the resurrection along the lines that Hegel showed us. “Jesus died, Christ arose.” The transformation that takes place in this resurrection – this bifurcation – is precisely that “Christ’s consciousness is untied from a specific place and time.” Or as Rohr puts it in his new book: “What if Christ is a name for the transcendent within of every ‘thing’ in the universe?” What if Christ references “an infinite horizon that pulls us from within and pulls us forward too?” What indeed “if Christ is another name for everything – in its fullness?” (2019: 5)
This, of course, is nothing more than a rehash of Teilhard’s “onwards and upwards,” which I have criticized at length in Ascension and Ecclesia and elsewhere. There is no need to repeat all that here. Suffice it to say that, in the final analysis, “everything in its fullness” really means “everything returned to nothingness” or, as Teilhard has it, escaping the vexation of being trapped in “the cosmic bubble.” It also means that, for the time being, all the fullness of the Godhead rests bodily not in Jesus but in us. For divinization is not a share, by the grace of the Holy Spirit, in the immortal life of the resurrected Jesus and, just so, in the eternal joy of his divine and human sonship. No, on Rohr’s construction, it is a cosmic process of bringing “into ever-increasing consciousness” a non-judgmental love that includes everything and everyone (72). It is God realizing himself by becoming all in all.
Back in 2009, Rohr was asked by his interviewer whether “if Jesus becomes more the Christ” he also becomes somehow more remote from us. Rohr’s response was revealing of the idea that drives and governs his work. Remote? Au contraire, “everything that happens to Jesus must happen in our individual souls as well. The Incarnation means the divine indwelling is not out there, over there. It happens within us. This movement from Jesus to the Christ means that the same anointing that was given to Jesus is given to all of us.”
This psychologizing of salvation history, this dynamic movement from the universal to the particular and back again, is the classic gnostic move. It allows us to toy with, and then dispense with, the man from Nazareth who himself is God and to embrace instead the universal Man who lives within each of us, showing us that we are God and that God is us. “God loves things by becoming them” (20). “The evolving, universe-spanning Christ Mystery, in which all of us take part,” is what we must concern ourselves with, not the Jesus whom we fancy will someday return to us.
Unsurprisingly, Rohr reminds us that “Carl Jung called Christ the archetype of the soul. Jesus came forth from God, was initiated in baptism, went through a normal growing up then developed a ministry, was rejected, suffered, died and ascended – returned back to where he came from. We all go through that journey of transformation that returns us to where we began but with a freer consciousness.” Unfortunately, laments Rohr, “the Universal Christ was just too big an idea, too monumental a shift for most of the first two thousand years” (47). Our true liberation is only now taking place, aided by his own humble self.
Like the gnosticism of old, this syncretistic pseudo-scientific neo-paganism can be dressed up in Christian language, given Catholic sacramental trappings, and successfully marketed to those who want to be religious without genuine conversion to God through Jesus the Christ. If that’s your neighbor, she won’t object to finding a copy of Rohr’s book under the tree this Christmas. You might even accompany it with a copy of Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code, in case she missed that. (Rohr apparently didn’t, since he offers us the same sort of historical nonsense about half way through his book, suggesting that the origins of orthodox Christology can be found in imperial politics.) But if you actually care about your neighbor you might consider offering her something by way of an antidote instead. I’ve tried to provide one here, in a little book leaning on Irenaeus that shows what the unitive, anaphoric work of Jesus Christ really entails.
If you value the news and views Catholic World Report provides, please consider donating to support our efforts. Your contribution will help us continue to make CWR available to all readers worldwide for free, without a subscription. Thank you for your generosity!