Richard Rohr is one of the spiritual writers people most frequently recommend I check out.  If you haven’t heard of him, Richard Rohr is a Franciscan priest who is very well known in spiritual circles.  He’s even been interviewed by Oprah.  Twice. 

Rohr preaches a “Universal Christ”, also the title of one of his best-known books, and maintains that the entire purpose of life is to “fall in love with the divine presence, under whatever name.”  He describes himself as a “Panentheist”, the belief that God is in all things and also transcends all things.  Thus, he encourages people to go deep into their own tradition in order to encounter the Universal Christ and, ultimately, fall in love with Him.   

The people who recommend Rohr to me do so very enthusiastically, as if he has discovered some profound new spiritual insight I need to check out.  I’ve listened to some of Richard Rohr’s talks.  And I watched one of his interviews with Oprah.  But I don’t feel the need to hear more—because I’ve heard enough to know that I’ve heard it all before. 

In the 1980’s, I became enamored with a book called Original Blessing by Matthew Fox.  Fox happened to be a Dominican priest who preached what he termed “Creation Spirituality.”  It was from him that I first heard the term “panentheism.”  And I was hooked.  I thought he was the best thing since sliced bread! 

Essentially, Fox taught many of the things that are central to Richard Rohr’s teaching, albeit using different terminology, like “Cosmic Christ” instead of “Universal Christ.”  But, like Rohr, he encouraged people to go deep into their own religious tradition because he believed that they would ultimately encounter the Cosmic Christ there and, as a result, fall in love with the Divine. 

For a period of several years, I recommended people read Matthew Fox with the same enthusiasm many people recommend I read Richard Rohr.  But as I explored further, it all fell apart.  While on the surface Matthew Fox seemed to make perfect sense; while I was, and still am, very attracted to his ideas, as I dug deeper, I realized that much of what Fox was teaching is logically incoherent.   

The ideas Richard Rohr and Matthew Fox before him present are so attractive because they appear more enlightened and evolved, as if they contain some profound new insight into the spiritual realm.  The core teachings they share in common seem more penetrating and sophisticated.  More tolerant and inclusive.  More loving and compassionate.  They seem like a superior spiritual perspective. 

But they key question is: How do they know?  How do they know what their teaching is true?

See, what is often missed is that they’re making a huge claim—that they know better than all the great religious traditions of the World, which make very different truth claims.  So how do they know they’ve discovered a superior spirituality?  How do they know they have a deeper insight into the Truth than all the accumulated wisdom that is found in the World’s major religions? 

Perhaps they posses some new revelation, a revelation that trumps the many world religions that claim to be based on revealed truth, a revealed truth which these religions provide evidence to authenticate.  Even if we judge this evidence insufficient, Fox and Rohr, by contrast, don’t even bother to authenticate their teaching with evidence—because neither claim that their views are based on some kind of new revelation. 

Perhaps they’ve developed a superior exegesis, a better way to understand the Scriptures, a way people down through the centuries have missed or overlooked.  Not even close.  The interpretation Rohr and Fox give to Scripture often runs counter to way the best Scripture scholarship says we should understand the text. 

Perhaps they have honed human logic in ways no one else has been able to, presenting an air-tight argument.  In fact, even if they don’t explicitly say so, this does seem to be what they are basing their insights upon, an appeal to reason, a presumption that we will find their arguments self-evidently true, that any sensible person will plainly see the enlightened superiority of their claims. 

But this is exactly where things fell apart for me, and on so many levels.  I only have time for one example, but it is a centerpiece of both Fox’s and Rohr’s worldviews, what is often termed “Universalism”, the belief that all people will be saved.  That all humanity is destined for Heaven.  That, regardless of vast differences in belief, we’re all on a spiritual path to the same destination, namely, falling in love with the Divine, the Cosmic or Universal Christ.

This is an incredibly appealing idea, especially for anyone who believes, like me, in a God of love.  But as much as I’ve always wanted to believe it, and did believe it for a period of time, it only takes a little deep thought to see how logically incoherent this idea is. 

If true, Universalism would mean that both Mother Theresa and Adolf Hitler were on a spiritual path headed for the same destination.  That the trajectory of their lives was equivalent.  That it doesn’t really matter whether you live like a Mother Theresa or an Adolf Hitler.  Which really means that it doesn’t matter how you live.

William P. Young, author of the wildly popular book The Shack, also happens to be a friend of Rohr’s.  As he’s put it to Rohr, if Universalism is true, then nothing matters.  There’s no point, no meaning to this life.  (To be fair—and clear—Young believes Rohr is misunderstood on this point, that he isn’t truly a Universalist, but rather, that his teaching dangerously misleads people to believe he is.  I respectfully disagree.  In one of the talks of Rohr I did listen to, he clearly staked out a universalist position.  Even if he didn’t use this exact terminology, he clearly indicated his belief that all people will be reconciled to God in the end.)

Indeed.  If, in the end, it is simply automatic that we will all fall in love with the Divine, then why are we here on earth?  Why wouldn’t the Divine spare us all the excruciating angst and agony of earthly life and create us to be in His presence from the start?  What’s the point of this earthly life? 

What could we possibly learn through this life that would justify all the incomprehensible suffering of this world?  What preparation for eternity does this life provide that God couldn’t impart to us in His presence—minus the incomprehensible magnitude of evil and suffering we encounter here?

What kind of a God would subject us to such a meaningless, yet bewilderingly agonizing exercise? 

The only thing that can justify all the incomprehensible suffering of this life is free will; is if this life is absolutely necessary in order to determine our eternal destiny; is if this earthly life is the only way we can truly exercise free will in determining our eternal destiny; is if this freedom can only exist apart from God’s immediate presence, a presence too overwhelming to resist. 

Only something of this magnitude, an eternal magnitude, an eternal weight, an eternal decision, an eternal consequence, can justify all the suffering we see around us. 

I don’t mean to pick on Richard Rohr.  There are a number of other contemporary spiritual gurus, like Marianne Williamson or the late Wayne Dyer, who have been teaching similar ideas.  And there are many spiritual gurus of the past, like Matthew Fox, who have promoted a similar worldview.  But why should we listen to them?  How do they know that their truth is the Truth?  What evidence, what basis do they have for making such a huge—and minus such grounding, arrogant—claim? 

Don’t get me wrong.  I am very attracted to the views Richard Rohr is espousing.  Just as I was very attracted to the views Matthew Fox was espousing forty years ago.  But they aren’t new.  And they aren’t profound or compelling.  Not only do they lack any basis in revelation or a proven tradition of scriptural interpretation, something the great religious traditions like Christianity have in abundance.  They also utterly fail to provide the one thing they do claim to have: A more enlightened, evolved, and logically coherent way of looking at things. 

I totally agree with Rohr that the entire point of existence—the very reason we were created—is to fall in love with the Divine.  But if this is automatic, if it is inevitable that everyone will, then it can’t be falling in love.  By nature, love must be freely chosen.  That’s the whole point of this life—free will.  We can only fall in love with the Divine if we choose to. 

And to fall in love requires personal knowledge of the beloved.  That’s what makes falling in love so thrilling.  With each new thing we discover about our beloved, we are propelled to greater heights of love and ecstasy.  So, in order for us to be able to fall in love with the Divine, we need to know the divine.  Personally.  Intimately.  That’s the whole point of Jesus:  The Divine revealed—in Person.   

If falling in love with the Divine is the whole point, then Christianity is the most—indeed, the only—logically coherent worldview.  The most evolved and enlightened worldview.    

What do you think of Richard Rohr?  I’d love to year your thoughts.  You can leave your comments on the “Contact E. J.” page of the Raising Jesus website.  I look forward to hearing from you!

About Me

E.J. Sweeney is a true skeptic. He needs to see to believe. Hard Evidence. Compelling Proof. Solid Logic. This is what he believes in. In college, he encountered questions that the superficial faith he was raised on couldn’t handle. So he began a quest for Truth, a quest for the answers to life’s ultimate questions.

EJ Sweeney

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