Image for Rising Above Religion: A Review of Richard Rohr’s ‘The Universal Christ’

Rising Above Religion: A Review of Richard Rohr’s ‘The Universal Christ’

Photo of Guy LayfieldGuy Layfield | Bio

Guy Layfield

Guy Layfield is a high school English teacher in Nenana, Alaska and a small group leader for Journey Christian Church in Fairbanks. He loves enjoying hiking, exploring, white water rafting, and almost any other type of adventurous sport with his wife Olivia. Guy graduated with his B.S. in Biblical Exposition with a double major in Youth & Family Ministry and a minor in counseling from Mid-Atlantic Christian University in 2009 and earned his M.A in Storytelling two years later from East Tennessee state. Guy has spent over a decade in youth, worship, and preaching ministry in southwestern New York and currently collaborates with Eternal Hope Ministries in Pakistan to spread the Gospel through virtual sermons.

What should Christians think about Richard Rohr’s influential The Universal Christ: How a Forgotten Reality Can Change Everything We See, Hope For, and Believe? Friar Rohr has a devoted following who view him as a spiritual guide. The Universal Christ continues to be praised widely and continues on bestselling lists. Should Christians view his success as a beachhead for the gospel to gain a hearing in the wider world? Or should we view his thinking more as a competitor to the real gospel? 

Richard Rohr. Many Christians won’t recognize the name as a popular author and influencer. Names like Tim Keller, Max Lucado, Beth Moore, Lee Strobel, Gary Thomas, John Ortberg, R.C. Sproul, and John Eldridge might be names that are a bit more mainstream for many evangelicals. Yet, Richard Rohr has become an extremely popular author in the reading genres of “spirituality,” “Christian ethics,” and even “Christology.” Written in 2019, his book The Universal Christ remains on Amazon’s Top 10 for the categories “Christology” and “Ethics and Christian Theology.”

Rohr is a Franciscan priest in New Mexico and the founder of the Center for Action and Contemplation in Albuquerque. He has collaborated with Oprah, Rob Bell, Shane Claiborne, Jim Wallis, and the Dalai Lama. He has been featured on NPR, receives glowing reviews from Melinda Gates, and has passed his advice along through CNN articles.

Richard Rohr and his Center for Action and Contemplation are all about two primary issues: justice and connection. I don’t know a lot of people that dislike justice or connection. People hate conflict. They also hate injustice. This works great for Richard Rohr’s book sales because he is great at making his readers feel like they are encountering new and illuminated ideas that shift paradigms and allow them to see from whole new perspectives. At the same time, many of his ideas actually seem fairly cliche. Peace, love, goodness, and harmony—yet he is able to package these ideas as somehow radical. This is because the “justice” and “connection” that Rohr writes about are, in fact, quite different from our everyday ideas. More on that in a moment.

Therapist for a Movement

When I was in Bible college fifteen years ago, I had the opportunity to attend the National Youth Workers Conference. While there, a speaker took the stage that caused the energy in the auditorium to shift. Many of my peers acted as if they were teenage girls getting ready to see Justin Bieber emerge onto the stage. The man they were so eager to see was this hippy-looking guy named Shane Claiborne. Shane proceeded to quote the Sermon on the Mount from memory and then left the stage. Everyone seemed as if they had heard some kind of enlightened new truth. Surely, nothing is more powerful than Scripture, but when Shane made that point, it was received as sacred and mystical. Several of my peers began to read anything they could get their hands on by Claiborne, and I was curious about the hype.

Shane was a part of what was coming to be known as the “emergent church.” Other more seasoned leaders like Jim Wallis, founder of Sojourners, had been leading in a similar direction. Other names in this movement included Rob Bell and Brian McLaren. After reading books by several members of this cohort, a picture emerged. These were people who identified as activists who were more spiritual than religious and more mystic than believing in clarity and objective truth. They might show up and quote Scripture at a conference, but their books expressed ideas that radically conflicted with what most Christians believed the Bible taught about theology.


“They might show up and quote Scripture at a conference, but their books expressed ideas that radically conflicted with what most Christians believed the Bible taught about theology.”


As I explored such leaders, I became more aware of just how politicized their positions were. Many hasten to express righteous anger to rally around whatever the current “progressive” position is. Some specify their pronouns to signify their open stance on progressive gender theory. To many, abortion is a women’s rights issue and women are being oppressed by pro-lifers. Many of my Christian friends who were serving the church in ministry positions, or preparing for service in the church, got caught up in this type of activism. Most of them ended up like Rob Bell, abandoning their original enthusiasm for Jesus’ Great Commission, which became eclipsed by pursuit of “social justice” and “connection.”

In this climate, Richard Rohr is like a therapist for angry activists who were left discontent after the emergent church experience. In his book The Universal Christ, he wants us to remember a “forgotten reality.” The big idea of the book is that Jesus and “the christ” are two different concepts. Rohr asks,

“What if Christ refers to an infinite horizon that pulls us from within and pulls us forward too? What if Christ is another name for everything—in its fullness?” (p. 5)

Rohr explains that, “The essential function of religion is to radically connect us with everything.… If you think you are privately ‘saved’ or enlightened, then you are neither saved nor enlightened.” He continues by saying that a cosmic notion of Christ “allows Jesus Christ to finally be a God figure worthy of the entire universe” (p. 7).


The Universal Christ: “The essential function of religion is to radically connect us with everything.”


This mystical idea of Christ being the spirit/god in all of us revolutionizes Christianity because it combines it with ideas also found in Buddhism, Hinduism, New Age, and Eastern Pantheistic Monism. In the end, everybody is sort of right regardless of what they believe because underneath it all we are all one, united and searching for cosmic justice.

I feel like we are looking back at the 60’s and 70’s with its mix of angry protests with peace-loving hippies. Fists, violence, fury, and maybe some righteous anger interplayed with calm. The protestors set down their picket signs and headed to the commune to meditate. Rohr is the hippy commune of the angry progressive church.

Upgrading Our View of God

Rohr explains that the earth is just drenched in god: “Instead of saying that God came into the world through Jesus, maybe it would be better to say that Jesus came out of an already Christ-soaked world” (p. 15). He even goes so far as to say that he can no longer differentiate between the “holy and the profane” (p. 15). This will make more sense below when we get to his “panentheistic” worldview. Yet it’s worth mentioning that the word “holy” literally means set apart from the profane. Rohr reminds me of a person I knew that was struggling with drug abuse. One day he tried to explain to me that it is hard to tell the difference between people and trees. I looked at him quizzically as he explained, “What if when the trees look at us, they think we are the trees?” In Rohr, there is a blurring together of a very biblical distinction between God and us.


In Rohr, there is a blurring together of a very biblical distinction between God and us.


Rohr believes that historians will one day look back on the first two thousand years of Christianity and refer to it as “early Christianity.” The implication is that, now that Rohr has enlightened us, the faith can move forward and evolve. Yet, despite the obvious, Rohr reassures that his teaching is “not heresy, universalism, or a cheap version of Unitarianism” (p. 48). Rohr has also explained that he is not a pantheist. Pantheists believe that “all is god.” Rohr instead prefers the term “panentheist,” which teaches that God is in everything. (For an in-depth look at panentheism, also known as process theology, click here.) Thus, everything is part of god, yet God is also more than us. Rohr defines “christ” as this spiritual presence in all material things. For example, he writes,

“You might say that the Eternal Christ is the symbolic ‘superconductor’ of the Divine Energies into this world. Jesus ramps down the ohms so we can handle divine love and receive it through ordinary human mediums” (p. 76).

Rohr explains that Paul’s use of the term “Christ” increased through his ministry and that Paul became obsessed with the Christ idea. In Rohr’s mind, “christ” describes this panentheistic interplay of god incarnating into all living creatures. On multiple occasions, Rohr discusses how his dog is, for him the “christ.” Rohr speculates that,

“When you can honor and receive your own moment of sadness or fullness as a gracious participation in the eternal sadness or fullness of God, you are beginning to recognize yourself as a participating member of this one universal Body. You are moving from I to We” (p. 42).


The Universal Christ: “You are beginning to recognize yourself as a participating member of this one universal Body.”


In my teaching career I have been instructed that when I speak to my students, I should avoid the word “you” and that I should say things like, “We need to work on staying awake.” I hate this way of communicating as if we share this common burden. If I am not struggling to stay awake and a student is, I should be able to say, “You need to stay awake.” There is a strong current of anti-individualism seeping into our culture, which gets spiritual legitimacy through this kind of New Age teaching.

Finding Unity Via Erasing Distinctions

If anyone is tempted to call this what it is (heresy), they’re just proving themselves to be the problem. As Rohr explains, most Christians today simply reject unity. Christians call the idea of “universal salvation” for all “heresy” because we stand against unity. As evidence of this, he explains that many Christians cannot even appreciate the United Nations (p. 43). (Sarcasm alert: Obviously, opposing a global political agenda is clear evidence that most Christians cannot stomach the unity that Christ prayed for in John 17. Who can’t see that parallel?)

Rohr wants to make sure that no one challenges his teaching. On pages 88 and 89, he explains how to recognize the voice of God. He explains that anyone that comes towards you with grace is a voice from God and anyone that accuses you is Satan. (Who could argue with that line of reasoning?)

Many of the things Rohr teaches come across as extremely arrogant to me. He writes as if he has received a new message that supersedes Scripture. Yet Rohr explains that if his teaching doesn’t make sense, it is our stubborn faults. “We just need to “take our Christian head off, shake it wildly, and put it back on!” (p. 21).


The Universal Christ: “We just need to “take our Christian head off, shake it wildly, and put it back on!”


While Rohr is not hesitant to proudly announce his teachings as revolutionary to the faith, he declares that God is humble and doesn’t really like to have attention drawn to him. So, all that singing in church, giving God glory, and praising him publicly doesn’t really jive with this new, radical understanding of God’s character. Rohr clarifies,

“God has worked anonymously since the very beginning—it has always been an inside and secret sort of job. The Spirit seems to work best underground. When aboveground, humans start fighting about it” (p.100).

Rohr explains that the “energy” of love “sustains the universe” and moves us forward, whether we recognize it as part of religion or not. He explains:

“Our impulse does not need to wear the name of religion at all. Love is the energy that sustains the universe, moving us toward a future of resurrection. We do not even need to call it love or God or resurrection for its work to be done.” (p. 100)


The Universal Christ: “We do not even need to call it love or God or resurrection for its work to be done.”


Let’s not miss the enormity of this claim: He makes it clear that humanity’s work is God’s work. Rohr goes so far as to declare that his central message is that “God loves things by becoming them” (p.113). So, Christ wasn’t as much saving us from sin so much as he was being a bro. (To explore the biblical definition of “Christ,” click here.)

Reconstructing, Not Restoring

The emergent church sought to deconstruct the church, while Rohr is offering a vision for how the church can be reconstructed. The presumption is that, like America, the church’s history is denounced as bigoted, racist, chauvinistic, etc. So, we need to reimagine a church which combines mysticism and activism through seeing God and the world in a panentheistic mold.

What happened to restoring the church to Jesus’ original vision given 2,000 years ago? Yet recall that Rohr sees the first 2,000 years as “early Christianity.” Even the concept of God saving me from my sins through Christ is seen as an infantile way of looking at things. Rohr notes,

“Unless we find the communal meaning and significance of the suffering of all life and ecosystems on our planet, we will continue to retreat into our individual, small worlds in our quest for personal safety and sanity. Privatized salvation never accumulates into corporate change because it attracts and legitimates individualists to begin with. Think about that” (p. 166).


The Universal Christ: “Privatized salvation never accumulates into corporate change because it attracts and legitimates individualists to begin with.”


The problem here is that, actually, Jesus did come to save individuals. His incarnation was for the purpose of “sav[ing] his people from their sins” (Matt. 1:21), and though “his own did not receive him…to all who did receive him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God” (John 1:11–12). Yet Rohr waters down Jesus’ incarnation by calling the act of God creating the world in the first place the “first incarnation.”

A New Salvation

The gospel is the good news that Jesus is the saving king. Jesus died on our behalf and we can accept his gift and be redeemed. Yet Rohr claims on page 185 that the gospel “cannot be called ‘Good News’ unless it is a win-win worldview.” If we don’t all get a trophy at the end of the game, trophies are bad.

There has long been a progressive impulse to erase any distinctions that divide us (e.g., national boundaries, the gender binary, the distinction between human and animal). Rohr’s “win-win worldview” seems to take this impulse and apply it to the relationship between people and God. Why should beliefs about God or religious affiliations separate us from the one who has already incarnated into all of creation? Thus, on page 194, Rohr declares,

“For Jesus to become Christ, he must surpass the bounds of space and time, ethnicity, nationality, class, and gender. Frankly, he must rise above any religion formed in his name that remains tribal, clannish, xenophobic, or exclusionary.”


The Universal Christ: “For Jesus to become Christ, he must…rise above any religion formed in his name that remains tribal, clannish, xenophobic, or exclusionary.”


Rohr reveals that if Jesus cannot do this, he is not the ‘Savior of the World,’ and that this is why Jesus is still trying to save the world.

How does Rohr get to claim these things? What makes him so confident in the face of scriptures that contradict almost every thought he shares in the book? He postulates that we all move forward on a sort of tricycle. The wheels are experience, Scripture, and tradition. The upshot is that he’s putting his experience on an equal footing with Scripture (p. 213). Rohr isn’t a confused but well-intentioned author who is trying to gently bring people together. Biblically speaking, he is a false teacher who is leading people away from the truth. He’s teaching people that, by virtue of being a part of the universe, they are part of who God is, and that they will all be saved regardless of belief. His teachings aren’t new, mystical, or spiritual. They are simply false.

Conclusion

The Universal Christ and this reconstruction movement are all about “justice” and “connection.” Yet it’s worth noting that Jesus described his gospel dividing people, not uniting them:

“Do you think that I have come to give peace on earth? No, I tell you, but rather division. For from now on in one house there will be five divided, three against two and two against three. They will be divided, father against son and son against father, mother against daughter and daughter against mother, mother-in-law against her daughter-in-law and daughter-in-law against mother-in-law.” (Luke 12:51–53)

Jesus was teaching a radical truth that he knew many would reject, and that by rejecting him, they would remain separated from God (see John 3:16–21). The justice we see in Scripture holds those who oppose God and his ways accountable for evil, with Jesus taking on God’s wrath for those who repent.


“The justice we see in Scripture holds those who oppose God and his ways accountable for evil, with Jesus taking on God’s wrath for those who repent.”


If anyone wants to make Christianity more palatable and marketable to a pagan world, Richard Rohr tells them how to do it: 1. Everybody is part of god. 2. You don’t need to repent because we all are going to heaven. 3. Whatever voice that brings you peace is from god and anyone who opposes you is evil. 4. We are all working together to make the world a better, safer place. If you are looking for a book filled with empty platitudes, a guide to self-worship, and heretical teachings throughout, I highly recommend you get your hands on Richard Rohr’s book, The Universal Christ.