Written by Richard Rohr | Reviewed by Doug Poland
Richard Rohr, a Franciscan priest who has taught, studied, and worshiped with faith communities around the world for five decades, describes The Universal Christ as the culmination of his study, practice, and teaching. It is a profoundly insightful and rewarding work, although especially challenging for those of us who were raised in the Protestant church and whose pursuit of Christian discipleship has revolved around the meaning of the Word as it is written, rather than as it is experienced. The crux of Rohr’s message is captured in the book’s introductory section, “Before We Begin.” In it, Rohr opens with the story of twentieth-century English mystic Caryll Houselander, who, for a short time, experienced the resurrected Christ in every person she encountered. Rohr relates Houselander’s account of seeing vividly with her mind as well as her eyes that “not only was Christ in every one of them [the people she encountered], living in them, dying in them, sorrowing in them — but because He was in them, and because they were here, the whole world was here too … not only the world as it was at that moment, not only all the people in all the countries of the world, but all those people who had lived in the past, and all those yet to come.” Rohr’s task in this excellent work is to show why and how “Christ is not Jesus’s last name,” but is instead “a name for every thing.” (Which is also the title of a wonderful podcast that Rohr released several years ago.) This is a book that is very much a product of Christian mysticsim and contemplative thought, yet is firmly aware of the contemporary context in which it is written.
Two of the most poignant aspects of Rohr’s writing, and the messages that he tries most strongly to convey, are that the impacts of Western enlightenment and the Protestant Reformation have stripped from Christianity two of its most important parts. One is that the Enlightenment’s and the Reformation’s focus on reason and logic have been a nearly exclusively intellectual exercise, placing the highest value on thought, faith, belief, and the non-physical aspects of our Christian practices. Although Rohr notes that the Reformation was necessary (presumably but not expressly acknowledged to be due to the abuses and dogma that had developed in the Roman Catholic Church), he believes that it came with a loss of the focus on and appreciation for our physical, experiential world. The second major theme running through the book is that the Enlightenment and Reformation brought about an emphasis on individual freedom and liberty that, in Christianity, manifested as the concept of individual salvation rather than collective salvation, mostly in the Protestant churches. Rohr is an ecumenicist at heart and in practice, however; he doesn’t argue or suggest that Catholicism holds all the answers to discipleship in Jesus Christ. Rather, Rohr builds his understanding of the essential meaning of Jesus Christ on the foundation of Paul’s letters revealing the divine nature of Christ in the human persona of Jesus. Drawing on the work of other contemporary Christian mystics and theologians such as Thomas Merton, Thomas Keating, and John Dominic Crossan Rohr weaves a convincing argument that to fully understand and practice discipleship in Jesus Christ, it is necessary to bring together key understandings, beliefs, and practices of the Western Catholic, Protestant, and Eastern Orthodox churches, as well as aspects of Buddhism.
Most notably overlapping with Buddhist philosophy are Rohr’s writings of the necessary role that suffering must play in human redemption, including in Christian belief. Rohr observes that “[g]reat love and great suffering (both healing and woundedness) are the universal, always available paths of transformation, because they are the only things strong enough to take away the ego’s protections and pretensions. Great love and great suffering bring us back to God, with the second normally following the first, and I believe this is how Jesus himself walked humanity back to God. It is not just a path of resurrection rewards, but always a path that includes death and woundedness.” Hearkening back to the creation story of Genesis, Rohr writes that “[w]e were made to love and trust this world, ‘to cultivate it and take care of it’ (Genesis 2:15), but for some sad reason we preferred to emphasize the statement from Genesis 1, which seems to say that we should “dominate” the earth (1:28).” With that focus, Rohr writes, “”[w]ithin one generation we became killers of our brothers (Genesis 4:8),” and since then “we humans spent most of history creating systems to control and subdue that creation for our own purposes and profit, reversing the divine pattern.”
But as much as Rohr appreciates what Christianity can learn from the inward, contemplative focus of Buddhism, he identifies Christianity’s focus on the necessity of putting our faith into action in this life as a core and unique part of our beliefs and our practices. "Christians are meant to be the visible compassion of God on earth more than ‘those who are going to heaven,’” he writes. “Some people feel called and agree to not hide from the dark side of things or the rejected group, but in fact draw close to the pain of the world and allow it to radically change their perspective. They agree to embrace the imperfection and even the injustices of our world, allowing these situations to change themselves from the inside out, which is the only way things are changed anyway.”
The Universal Christ is a book that is best read (as Rohr expressly recommends in the introductory chapter) a little at a time, stopping to reflect and to re-read passages as necessary. Patient reading and reflection are required to get the most out of Rohr’s remarkable insights. This is not a book to be paged through quickly, or one that contains snippets that can be pulled out of the context in which they appear for inspiration. In the end, Rohr is as irrepressibly upbeat as he is faithful, as he demonstrates with these words: “The freeing, good news of the Gospel is that God is saving and redeeming the Whole first and foremost, and we are all caught up in this Cosmic Sweep of Divine Love. The parts—you and me and everybody else—are the blessed beneficiaries, the desperate hangers-on, the partly willing participants in the Whole.” If you read The Universal Christ patiently and with care, you will be richly rewarded.
Note: this book is available in the church library!