A Clanging Cymbal Expresses Adamance
Before the Scopes trial, which ultimately was a debate between creation and evolution, William Jennings Bryan famously said, “if evolution wins, Christianity goes.”
He, like many other absolutists before and after him, was wrong. In the end, neither side could claim victory and Christianity hasn’t gone anywhere.
But it makes you wonder. How many other tightly held biblical ideas could be moderated without destroying faith and the Christian community?
The truth is Faith isn’t easily obliterated and science is not static. I believe in a young earth and a seven day creation but I know I can’t prove those ideas any more than evolutionists can conclusively prove the 13.7 billion year history they claim for the earth.
When conflicts like this occur, the only reasonable response is to respect the rights of others to think differently, share in the discussion and keep digging for facts. Both sides keep digging but the sharing part resembles a barrage of artillery shells flying both ways. Everyone is firing and ducking.
Instead of clarifying, the discussion separates and divides. Neither side seems to understand that ideas aren’t weapons and would be better used to stimulate thought than cause injury.
I understand how uncomfortable some ideas can be but I still find it difficult to refuse the discussion.
Before you walk away, remember that religionists are often the unreasonable party. They don’t argue, they dismiss. Religious conservatives, like the Catholics who put Galileo under house arrest for teaching the earth revolved around the sun, accept only compliance and obedience. Arguments, any arguments, are viewed as an offense against God and there is a long history of burning opposing ideas at the stake.
I’m saying that as one who was raised in religious conservatism. I learned the doctrines well and zealously complied but compelling ideas should never be ignored even if those ideas seem to rub faith the wrong way.
We should never be satisfied to ignore those ideas and always be open to new arguments and perspectives.
The question is where do you find those arguments.
The only quarter offering a new way of thinking is progressivism. Progressives will freely entertain ideas that conservatives refuse to even acknowledge. It would be great if that was the only difference but, unfortunately, there’s another.
Progressives make arguments that are unclearly defined and poorly explained. Fundamentalists are very pointed. Progressives are anything but.
That was a very long introduction but it was intended to prepare the way for a review of the book, The Universal Christ.
The Universal Christ
The Universal Christ was written by Fr. Richard Rohr, a Catholic priest of the Franciscan order and the book pushes the envelop, not just of conservatism, but of Catholicism.
Some Catholics love his kind and gentle approach and others rail against him. Google Rohr and you’ll find the rants. Both perspectives are easy to understand.
Rohr is a gentle, understanding sort who never gives the impression that anyone is in trouble but his ideas compete with both Fundamentalism and Catholicism.
There are several reasons, however, that I found his book untenable.
His Ideas Aren’t Clearly Articulated
You get a sense of what Rohr’s trying to say but it never fully clarifies. He says plainly that Christ is in everything, loves everything and that everything and hence everyone will eventually be saved. His writing feels good and has the pleasant ring of poetry but clear it is not.
You might like him. You might want him to be accurate. You might even agree with his ultimate conclusion but you won’t walk away from the book with a clear understanding of where he is or how he got there.
You might resort to authors like Rohr hoping, aching for an answer but you’ll not find it in his book. It’s frustrating. At one point he says his message …
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.
He says this on page 6 and follows immediately with …
We must allow some of the words in this book to remain partially mysterious, at least for a while.
That statement is not misleading. His thoughts, rather than segmented by chapter divisions, thread throughout the book as if being braided and for me, still remained a tangle.
The book made me question his ability to communicate and I decided to search for him on YouTube. There was a big difference. I only watched one video but his spoken ideas were far easier to follow and understand than his written ideas.
I can’t say the video was more agreeable but it was interesting and provoked a bit of thought. Maybe I’ll watch more later but for now, the book.
The Contemplative Approach
He refers to this non-pointed way of writing/discussing/explaining as the contemplative approach and makes much of it in the book but even that isn’t very clear.
I can’t say he’s wrong about contemplation but I can say he isn’t clear. If truth can only be accessed through the contemplative method, as he suggests, then he should explain the method clearly enough for any pedestrian to understand it.
And, wouldn’t it make sense to think that contemplation, once it has enabled me to see the truth, would also enable me to speak it clearly and pointedly?
Jesus said “you will know the truth and the truth will set you free,” (John 8:32). The objective, according to Jesus, is being set free. “Knowing truth” is how we get there, not mystification. If Jesus promised this kind of clarity, then there’s nothing egotistical about expecting it as Rohr suggests (p 6).
His Primary Point
In his words:
(Religion) is to help us see the world and ourselves in wholeness, and not just in parts. Truly enlightened people see oneness because they look out from oneness, instead of labeling everything as superior and inferior, in or out. If you think you are privately ‘saved’ or enlightened, then you are neither saved nor enlightened, it seems to me!
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 …
Jesus did not come to earth so theologians alone could understand and make their good distinctions, but so that ‘they all may be one’ (John 17:21). He came to unite and ‘to reconcile all things in himself, everything in heaven and everything on earth’ (Colossians 1:20). Every woman or man on the street — or riding a train — should be able to see and enjoy this …
Christ is everywhere. In Him every kind of life has a meaning and a solid connection.
His point seems to be that every person is already saved. Not will be saved but is in fact saved and connected to everyone else in the present tense. Not privately or individually but cosmically saved.
I can accept the idea that Jesus desires and has allowed for the salvation of every person but if by “cosmic” he means everyone and everything is presently in a state of salvation, nothing needs to happen or be said, I’m not there.
I would agree that salvation is not private in the sense of secret but it is individual. What he suggests almost sounds robotic and raises many questions. Is every abused person really connected in a salvatory sense to the person or people who are abusing?
When you think through all the actual scenarios playing out in the world, it’s hard to see that as the thing Christ died for.
But that does explain why Rohr speaks so favorably about suffering.
All His Arguments Stem From His Catholic Background
Another reason I find his ideas difficult to accept is his dependence on Catholicism.
Although he clearly breaks with Catholicism, his ideas all stem from his exposure to Catholic training and institutions. He breaks with and promotes the Catholic Church simultaneously. His ideas are nothing more than adjustments on Catholic doctrines. In fact, he references the Eastern Orthodox Church quite freely as the church division that got it right.
His inability to break completely is easy to understand. He was trained by Catholics (Catholic schools and priests). His greatest examples are Catholics (Mother Theresa, Augustine, Francis of Assisi, G. K. Chesterton and more). He leans heavily on church history as told by Catholics.
He still promotes Mary far more than Mary or the Bible would allow.
He’s still connected to the concept of suffering in a way only a Catholic could be.
At one point, he even equates Jesus with Pope Francis (p 72). Not the resurrected Christ but the incarnate Jesus. He can do that because he makes far less of the incarnate Jesus than he does of the resurrected Christ.
Catholicism is nothing if not constricting so none of this is strange. Everything Rohr says comes out of a Catholic scenario. To be fair, he does reference non-christian religions like Buddhism and Hinduism and gives mention to non-christian philosophers like Jacob Needleman (Jewish) but every non-christian source intersects in some way with Catholic and/or Rohr ideas. It’s all tied to Catholicism.
His Ideas Contradict
He accepts and denies the Bible simultaneously and makes offensive statements with little regard to biblicists.
That, too, is very Catholic.
He knows the difference between fundamentalism and progressivism but he doesn’t offer much of an olive branch to fundamentalist. If he’s trying to convince them to think differently, he’s definitely missing the mark.
He argues on the one hand that all of creation is revelation. In other words, you can look at nature and see the evidence for God. That’s not a new idea but he goes a bit further. Quoting a few Bible verses, he claims Christ is everywhere and not just in everything but is everything, pantheism.
The Bible does teach, and Fundamentalists agree, that the evidence for and nature of God are reflected in nature but Rohr accords higher, more significant value to creation than he does to the Bible.
It’s a contradiction. He references the Bible on the one hand and denies it on the other.
His argument justifying the idea that nature is more relevant than the Bible is that the Bible was written in recent history (five to six thousand years ago) but the earth has been around 13.7 billion years. Why would God wait so long to make His written revelation known and available, he queries, if creation weren’t sufficient? What would humans have done for billions of years till then?
The answer is simple.
Even by evolutionary standards, humans have existed only one or two million years (evolutionists are never quite certain on the timing) and the ability to read and write developed much later so why would a written revelation be needed till then?
If the Bible came before humans could write, who would do the writing? Who would do the reading? How could it be copied if the skills to read and write didn’t exist yet?
And since the capacity for moral judgement also evolved more recently, according to evolution, why would any written revelation be needed till then?
Jesus vs Christ
Much of Rohr’s book is dedicated to making a difference between Jesus as the human incarnation of God and Christ as the resurrected example of transformation. To Rohr, the resurrected Christ is far more meaningful than the incarnate Jesus.
He doesn’t discard Jesus but in his mind, Jesus clearly takes a backseat to Christ. According to Rohr, Jesus was not to be worshipped but followed. I’m not sure you can separate those ideas. Can you follow Jesus without worshipping Him? Isn’t the act of following an expression of worship? Can you worship without following?
And more to the point, you can’t follow a resurrected Christ. You can follow the incarnate Jesus because we have a written record of what He did, what He said and how He responded to different situations and people. His life was the lesson.
You might believe in the resurrected Christ. You might obey the commands He gave but the only lesson plan to follow is the incarnate Jesus.
You can sense Christ is everywhere and cares about all of us. You can trust He’ll never leave you nor forsake you but the only example you have to follow is the incarnate Jesus.
In fact, the two ideas go and in hand. If you believe in the resurrected Christ, you’ll be motivated to follow the incarnate Jesus.
It would be difficult to accept Rohr’s idea that everyone is already in a state of salvation and connected but if that were true, what should we do now?
We wouldn’t need to tell anyone because they’re already saved. We could live as we please, even sinfully, because nothing changes ones fate. The only consequences would be here and now and only if one is caught.
Even some who get caught manage to get a free pass!
If Rohr is correct, what about fairness? What about abuse? What about avoidable tragedies? Is Christ concerned about these questions and if so, how should we respond?
If Rohr is correct, what about church? What purpose would the church serve?
Not education because high quality educational institutions already exist. Not medicine because we already have a vibrant medical industry. Not evangelism because everyone is already saved. Not fellowship because you can find friends anywhere. Not government because we already have all the infrastructure needed and maintaining order isn’t necessary since we’re all connected anyway.
for argument sake, let’s moderate Rohr’s belief and consider the idea that everyone will eventually be saved. They may not be saved now but will definitely be in the future. There are several questions to consider.
The first question is when will that happen? Should we expect some or all to get saved now? If some get saved now, how many should we expect that to be? And why would it be important for any to be saved now? If everyone will get saved eventually, why not tough it out for the present and enjoy salvation at a later stage?
In other words, what’s the upside for people to get saved now? What troubles could be avoided if they do? What tragedies would occur if they don’t?
If it will definitely happen eventually, there’s no need to fret at the moment. Let law enforcement take care of the bad apples now and they can be sorted out later.
Should we tell people Jesus loves them and wants them to be saved? If so, how should we get the message across? What attitudes should we express? Should we be judgmental, critical and damning or should we approach the issue with an understanding tone of voice and a gracious attitude?
What about consequence? What is the penalty for those who are stingy and hateful? If they’re also going to be saved eventually anyway, why bother pointing them out? Should we leave them alone for the present?
If unity was the plan from the beginning, what is getting in the way? Sin? If sin is the problem, where did it come from? Who is at fault and what is the consequence?
If salvation is the point, who will save us? If salvation is corporate, when and how will that happen? If people aren’t saved individually, will corporate salvation happen all at once? Will each generation be saved separately but all at once?
Rohr speaks very broadly and superficially to significant ideas but offers little detail to assuage concern or clarify issues.
I don’t think Rohr is a bad guy. I’m just not sure how to understand his ideas other than to say, I need more.