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Review of “The Universal Christ” by Richard Rohr

September 30, 2019

The Universal Christ is subtitled How a Forgotten Reality can Change Everything We See, Hope for, and Believe.  Both title and subtitle are strongly descriptive of the book. It deals with a broad range of issues from Christian history, particularly of its mystical thread, to personal spiritual development – from personal to community and inner to outer life.

Along the way Fr. Rohr says he purposely incorporates insights from psychology, science, history, anthropology (and I’d add Buddhism, with other worldview systems)…. fields he is clearly conversant with though admittedly not the major focus of his fifty-year career (as a Franciscan priest), as are philosophy and spiritual theology.  This conscious integration is important.  Everyone believes or teaches from some form of integration, but when it is unconscious and unexamined, it may actually be detrimental to oneself or others. It may come from the distortions of one’s own inner wounds, insatiable drives or teaching received.  These are aspects of our “shadow side” which Rohr repeatedly reminds us must be faced. For him, contemplative practice is part of this process, engaging ourselves while also engaging God.    

Out of Rohr’s in-depth education, guidance of others, and his own lifelong contemplative practice, emerge jewels of wisdom.  They take the form of many quotable phrases and sections.  A notable early one:

If my own experience is any indication, the message in this book can transform the way you see and the way you live in your everyday world.  It can offer you the deep and universal meaning that Western civilization seems to lack and long for today.  It has the potential to reground Christianity as a natural religion and not one simply based on a special revelation, available only to a few lucky enlightened people. (page 6)

Shortly after this statement, Rohr gives us a good summary of his main point about the effects of his, and others’, understanding of the concept of Christ (taken from a Jewish title, “anointed one” or “messiah”, not a name):

A cosmic notion of the Christ competes with and excludes no one, but includes everyone and everything (Acts 10:15, 34) and allows Jesus Christ to finally be a God figure worthy of the entire universe.  In this understanding of the Christian message, the Creator’s love and presence are grounded in the created world, and the mental distinction between “natural” and “supernatural” sort of falls apart. (page 7)

Shortly into the first of two major “parts” of the book, Rohr makes clear what will be a repeated point – that he thinks “Christ” refers not to mere abstract “ideas and concepts”, which “might well communicate the Christ Mystery [italics his]… but “‘Christ’ for me refers  to ideas that have specifically ‘become flesh’ (John 1:14)….” (page 13, including footnote) 

Let me fast forward all the way to the second appendix of the book, on “The Pattern of Spiritual Transformation”. It might have been good to have this as part of an introduction given that I see the book as primarily about the process of growth for  individuals, for Christian communities and for broader society, even globally.  Now, the author does address points of resistance and important processes in our spiritual growth throughout the book, but this 5-page section is particularly clear, significant, and I believe helpful (as one who has studied and written a short book on spiritual growth myself).  I fear that at least some readers may skip any appendix, not realizing it (or the two of them, in this book) may be integrally tied to and important for the full message of the book.  If you get this book, either read this early or read to the end – Rohr saved some of the best for last!

Between the early and ending material I’ve highlighted, The Universal Christ covers a lot of deep waters.  Some I’m sure would argue that Rohr has betrayed the orthodox positions of his Roman Catholicism. This may be a valid charge, and something he seems to take seriously but is unafraid about, either in terms of his reputation or the effects on his readers.  I’ve not read full books by Rohr for many years (though read articles and heard him speak), but I gather that he has put forward points similar to those in the book in previous books and other expressions.  Given his long ministry of counseling and providing spiritual direction, he seems quite aware of the thinking patterns and emotional reactions of people at various levels of growth or in positions of authority.  He addresses these repeatedly, seeking to draw others beyond binary, black/white, absolutist thinking.  He realizes his concepts about the meaning of Jesus’ life and death and how the “universal Christ” is connected are not simplistic.  They require a certain breadth of perception and maturity of thinking process, whether or not they are “correct”.

I have some concern that he may be hoping for a good number of readers who are mainly binary-thinkers, and I hope he gets at least some.  However, I fear it is unlikely many of them will either pick up the book, or, if so, read very far into it.  This is one reason I mentioned it may have helped some to put the appendix on the growth process close to the front of the book, perhaps stimulating a bit more self-awareness and openness to where one might be headed, and why.

My only other critique of the structure and content of the book is that I feel it could have communicated its basic messages in half or two-thirds the length, and thus been an easier read, especially for the merely curious or those he clearly seeks to draw into a more contemplative and less rigid approach to their faith.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

3 Comments leave one →
  1. RobO permalink
    September 30, 2019 12:58 pm

    Howard,

    Hello Brother!

    I’m back in SD this Nov 21st or so, if you guys want to do something with new film?

    The Divine Plan. In 800 theaters on nov 6th

    http://www.thedivineplanmovie.com

    I copied in Margo so she can help track.

    RobO

    On Mon, Sep 30, 2019 at 4:23 PM Natural Spirituality – Loving Forum for Spiritual Harmony & Growth wrote:

    > Howard Pepper posted: “The Universal Christ is subtitled How a Forgotten > Reality can Change Everything We See, Hope for, and Believe. Both title > and subtitle are strongly descriptive of the book. It deals with a broad > range of issues from Christian history, particularly of its” >

    • November 10, 2019 1:26 pm

      Hi Robert,

      Re. Nov. 21 out here….

      I’m so sorry to have missed your comment. No good excuse, but still… I’ve been running extra hard on various fronts and paying little attention to my blog, as you might surmise by infrequency of posts here. But usually I do see notification of comments. Anyway, sorry I missed yours and the Nov. 6 opening of the great-sounding new film. Congrats!

      Do I rightly presume you may be attending the AAR/SBL annual meeting here, starting Nov. 23? (I’ll email you re. some of the particulars, so we might get a chance to at least visit briefly, though I won’t be at most of it.)

  2. September 30, 2019 4:21 pm

    Good review.I found nothing in Universal Christ to disagree with, though I wonder what percentage of readers are reading it with a nondual interpretive lens.NSent from my T-Mobile 4G LTE Device

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