In 2014 I went to a Michael Gungor concert at a small club in St. Louis. Standing in line for the club, I happened to be next to some of his Christian relatives, and in that conversation I sensed some discomfort on the topic of Michael’s faith.
Friends told me that Gungor was then describing himself as an “apophaticist”—meaning that God can’t be named, labeled, or described. From that point, he’s moved farther, and presently answers to the Hindu appellation of Vishnu Dass (“servant of Vishnu”). Gungor’s wife, Lisa, commented in a 2018 interview, “I’m so grateful for the tragedy of losing faith because I think it was a necessary path. It was a path we had to be on.”
As Michael Gungor entered his ex-Christian phase, he found a spiritual adviser—Father Richard Rohr. In March 2019, Gungor spent more than two hours interviewing Rohr on his latest book, The Universal Christ: How a Forgotten Reality Can Change Everything We See, Hope for, and Believe.
Who is Rohr, and what does he teach in his new book?
Rohr, the Spiritual Mentor
The 76-year-old Rohr has been a Franciscan friar and a Catholic priest for 50 years, and he founded the Center for Action and Contemplation in Albuquerque, New Mexico. Rohr’s The Universal Christ is Amazon’s number-one book in both Christology and Christian ethics, and it was blurbed by U2 singer Bono. Oprah Winfrey interviewed Rohr in 2015 and in 2019. The ex-pastor Rob Bell has been influenced by Rohr and did a 90-minute interview with him.
This is Amazon’s number-one book in both Christology and Christian ethics.
A search of the National Catholic Reporter uncovers dozens of articles by Rohr, about Rohr, or quoting Rohr. It is hard to think of another Catholic spiritual author who has gotten more press in recent years. A recent article documents Rohr’s growing influence on today’s spiritually thirsty millennials and offers a thumbnail sketch of one attender at a Rohr event:
Anthony Graffagnino describes himself spiritually as both frustrated and curious. A Pentecostal turned Unitarian, the 28-year-old Graffagnino said he’s had his fill with “stale and dead expressions of faith that I saw really doing nothing to better the people around me or the world around me.” Yet “discovering the Christian mystical tradition through the work of Franciscan friar Richard Rohr helped change that,” and Graffaginino says that “Father Richard’s work allowed [me] an entryway into Christianity when I didn’t think there was any.
The Universal Christ—Rohr’s ‘Jesus’ and His ‘Christ’
Rohr’s overarching project in his new book is to distinguish “Jesus” from “Christ.” Near the beginning he asks: “How is Christ’s function or role different from Jesus’s?” (11). His answer is that “Jesus” is limited, particular, and earthbound, while “Christ” is unlimited, universal, and cosmic. Rohr writes: “Christ . . . was clearly not just Jesus of Nazareth, but something much more immense” (3). Rohr’s “Jesus” is puny compared with “Christ.” In his account of Jesus’s resurrection, Rohr not only distinguishes “Jesus” from “Christ,” but opposes them. He holds that “Jesus” must vanish that “Christ” may come forth.
In The Universal Christ Rohr calls Jesus “the amalgam of matter and spirit” (14). Though not an obviously false statement, it’s a minimizing assertion—a phrase that might be applied to any human being. Rohr conspicuously doesn’t assert that “Jesus is Christ” or that “Jesus is God.” Instead he says that “Christ is God,” and that “Jesus is the . . . manifestation [of God] in time” (19). Because for Rohr everything in the universe is a manifestation of God, to call Jesus a manifestation of God is to merely say that Jesus is part of the universe.
In another passage Rohr calls Jesus a “wonderful symbiosis of divinity and humanity” (130). Yet “symbiosis” implies that Jesus may have been simply a man who interacted with God. Again Rohr writes: “We spent a great deal of time worshiping the messenger and trying to get other people to do the same. . . . [Jesus] did ask us several times to follow him, and never once to worship him” (32).
Rohr’s Redefinitions of Key Terms
Because of the unfamiliar ways Rohr uses familiar Christian vocabulary, readers may be confused. Here are some of his working definitions.
God: a subjective term that denotes a way people look at the world. “Anything that drives you out of yourself in a positive way . . . is operating as God for you” (52). “Every time you choose love . . . you are in touch with the Divine Personality. You do not even need to call it ‘God’” (175).
Revelation: not a distinct, self-disclosure of God, occurring in history. Instead it happens everywhere at all times: “This book . . . [seeks] to reground Christianity as a natural religion and not one simply based on a special revelation, available only to a few.” Rohr’s spirituality is naturalistic, and “the mental distinction between ‘natural’ and supernatural’ . . . falls apart” (7).
Creation: God—from the Big Bang onward—was already “incarnate” in all things: “This self-disclosure of whomever you call God into physical creation was the ‘first incarnation’ (the general term for any enfleshment of spirit), long before the personal, second incarnation that Christians believe happened with Jesus” (12). Rohr writes that “God loves all things by becoming them” (16, 20).
Christ: more a process than a person: “The Christ Mystery is not a one-time event, but an ongoing process throughout time—as constant as the light that fills the universe” (14), and so not “limiting the Creator’s presence to just one human manifestation, Jesus” (16). Rohr doesn’t say in so many words that Jesus was or is the incarnation of God or the Son of God. Instead he writes of an “incarnation that Christians believe happened with Jesus.” “Incarnation” appears to be a certain way that people look at Jesus, and not an objective fact. Rohr dedicates his book to the dog Venus that “was Christ” for him.
Crucifixion: something that happened to Jesus and should happen to us too. The biblical death-and-resurrection story teaches us that everyone has to let go of egoistic attachments (“crucifixion”) so as to be reborn (“resurrection”). Jesus’s death was “God’s great act of solidarity” with humanity (33), and “not some bloody transaction ‘required’ by God’s offended justice in order to rectify the problem of human sin” (140). Jesus’s death didn’t accomplish redemption. Instead, I am Jesus, you are Jesus, everyone is Jesus—that is where Rohr ends up.
I am Jesus, you are Jesus, everyone is Jesus—that is where Rohr ends up.
Resurrection: “the general principle of all reality,” and “resurrection [is] another word for change” (170–1). On Easter Sunday “one circumscribed body of Jesus morphed into ubiquitous Light” (176). He adds: “If a video camera had been placed in front of the tomb of Jesus, it wouldn’t have filmed a lone man emerging from a grave . . . [but] something like beams of light extending in all directions” (177). Yet Rohr cheekily affirms that “I am quite conservative and orthodox by most standards on this important issue [of Jesus’s resurrection]” (172).
End Times: Rohr says little, perhaps because he affirms that God’s unity with humanity and the cosmos is a present reality instead of an unrealized hope. He says, “It is just a matter of time until all false power falls apart,” and that “this is the gradual ‘second coming of Christ’” (198–9). Rohr affirms universal salvation, writing that “hell and Christ cannot coexist,” that good news must be “good news for all” (185).
Historic Teaching on Christ and the Incarnation
Though Rohr wraps himself in the mantle of Catholic and Franciscan spirituality (21–22, 65, 129, 239), much of what Rohr presents contradicts the teaching of the Catholic Church and historic Christianity. (I was recently interviewed by a Catholic radio station about Rohr’s book.)
Against traditional teaching, Rohr claims that a “first incarnation” occurred when God created the world. There is an obvious problem: if God is personal Being, then how could God enter into “incarnation” with the physical universe without thereby becoming impersonal? As personal beings, you and I cannot become incarnate in inanimate things. How much less could God become incarnate in stone, ocean, or atmosphere? It demeans the Incarnate One to suggest otherwise.
Rohr’s desire to distinguish “Christ” from “Jesus” was addressed by Irenaeus in his second-century work Against Heresies. There he laid down the principle that “Christ cannot be divided from Jesus.” The ancient saint added: “It is therefore clear that the apostle Paul knew no other Christ except this one alone—he who suffered, who was buried, who was raised from death, who was born, who speaks as man.” Irenaeus stated that it was “blasphemy” to separate “Christ” from “Jesus”—as some gnostic authors were doing.
Who else, other than Rohr, separates “Christ” from “Jesus”? The list includes: Cerinthus, the second-century gnostic; Mary Baker Eddy, the founder of Christian Science; and New Age thinkers of the 1980s. Eddy wrote: “Not that the human Jesus was or is eternal, but that the divine idea or Christ was and is so.” Rohr is in embarrassing theological company.
The New Testament starts from a wholly different premise, namely that “Jesus is Christ,” and that “in him all the fullness of deity dwells in bodily form” (Col. 2:9). First John 4:1–3 says those who deny that “Jesus Christ has come in the flesh” are manifesting “the spirit of the antichrist.” In The Universal Christ, Rohr says the statement “the Word became flesh” (John. 1:14) is not “referring to a single human body” (5). But if the eternal Son didn’t become incarnate in “a single human body,” then how did the miracle of the incarnation happen at all? The Universal Christ aligns with what Scripture calls “the spirit of the antichrist.”
Reality of Evil
One of most serious problems for Rohr is the unacknowledged issue of ethical discernment. He tells us that God in Jesus’s death stands in solidarity with history’s sufferers. So far, so good. But this is where his attempt to salvage some meaning in Jesus’s death runs into a head-on collision with his “universal Christ” teaching. Rohr in The Universal Christ never addresses the ethical problem—endemic to all monistic worldviews—of distinguishing good from evil.
For if “Christ” is the Jewish girl hiding in her bedroom trying to escape detection, then “Christ” is also the Nazi storm trooper kicking in the front door. Following his own preference, Rohr might wish to identify with the youthful victim in this case, but what if I preferred to identify myself with the brutality of the storm trooper? By Rohr’s principles, the heartless soldier is “Christ” no less than the hapless victim. The premises might lead as readily to a Nazi-storm-trooper theology as to a solidarity-with-victims theology. I see no escape from this ethical problem, unless Rohr either jettisons his premise of a “universal Christ,” or embraces a “universal Christ” who is both good and evil, merciful and merciless. If he admits that not everything is Christ, his argument collapses. But the alternative is to assert that Christ is evil as well as good.
Problem of Self-Salvation
During the second century, the so-called gnostics wrote of “Jesus,” “ignorance,” “salvation,” and “sin,” and yet they assigned meanings that diverged from Scripture. For them Jesus was a model for the rest of humanity. The basic human problem for the gnostics was the self’s ignorance of its own true identity. Overcoming such ignorance would occur through knowledge (Greek, gnosis). All human beings needed to wake up to their own true nature; Jesus was simply the first to have awakened.
Rohr’s position amounts to a doctrine of self-salvation—and completely eclipses the historical reality of Jesus.
Thus Jesus doesn’t save us; we save ourselves as we pass from ignorance to understanding. For someone like Rohr, Jesus may be a helpful figure, but he can’t be indispensable, because it’s quite possible to pass from the incomprehension of the “false self” into the wisdom of the “true self”—without hearing the name of Jesus or believing in him. Rohr’s position thus amounts to a doctrine of self-salvation—and completely eclipses the historical reality of Jesus.
What Can We Learn?
To return to the story with which we began: only Michael Gungor knows his own heart—or perhaps only God does (Jer. 17:9–10)—and it’s impossible to know what cause-and-effect relationship there may have been between Gungor’s exposure to Rohr’s teachings and Gungor’s loss of Christian faith. But one wonders whether Rohr’s work offers readers a spiritual and theological bridge toward something post-Christian, interreligious, or naturalistic.
As noted, Rohr doesn’t accept special revelation. Nature (read: God) is all we need. “Christ” isn’t only a label that can be plastered everywhere, as in Rohr, but a label that can also be applied nowhere, if one so wishes. Culturally sophisticated people today might want to avoid identification with or reference to “Christ.” And if “God,” “Christ,” and “Jesus” language can all be jettisoned, then why not? Why not say “the Universe is guiding me” or “I go with the cosmic flow”?
The problem with Rohr isn’t that he has adopted certain theologically debatable positions. It’s that the indispensable, all-transforming, holy mystery of the gospel . . . is not even there. In its place is emptiness.
The problem with Rohr isn’t just that he has adopted certain theologically debatable positions. It’s that the indispensable, all-transforming, holy mystery of the gospel—the Word become flesh (John 1:14)—is not even there. In its place is emptiness. If Jesus’s human body vanished, as Rohr tells us, and its diffusive beams scattered everywhere, then there is nothing left to worship except the universe itself. Or perhaps the conclusion is that one worships one’s own Christ-nature? It’s hard to see how worshiping the universe or worshiping oneself is any different from worshiping nothing, in a shadowy sort of pious nihilism.
There is something somnolent in Rohr’s sunlit satisfaction that everyone’s fine and everything’s okay. No one with real problems in life—a violent gang infesting one’s street, an alcohol or drug addiction, a family member who committed suicide—will find much encouragement in learning that “Christ is another name for everything.” Those crushed by life might respond to Rohr’s Panglossian optimism with outrage. Despite Rohr’s talk in The Universal Christ about overcoming social privilege, this is a book likely to be read by the comfortable and privileged few. It’s not a book that someone in a homeless shelter is going to read or appreciate. To quote Dorothy Parker, “This is not a book to be tossed aside lightly. It should be thrown aside with great force.”
Real Christian Spirituality
Where does serious Christian spirituality begin? Beyond Scripture itself, there are an abundance of works to consider, many accessible online. A few of my personal favorites would include Benedicta Ward, trans., The Sayings of the Desert Fathers; Bernard of Clairvaux, On Loving God; Thomas à Kempis, The Imitation of Christ; Frances de Sales, Introduction to the Devout Life; and A. W. Tozer, The Pursuit of God and The Knowledge of the Holy.
No Christian believer who delves into this great literature will go back to Rohr’s Universal Christ and find much of value there. The pity today—for people like Michael Gungor—is that one finds so little preaching and teaching in the churches on the truth, mystery, and majesty of Christ’s incarnation, and so little cognizance of the vast repository of wisdom contained in the Christian spiritual tradition.
Until Christian leaders discover for themselves the riches of Scripture and the insights of holy men and women of the past, the spiritually hungry people of our time may pick up The Universal Christ at the library or bookstore, and suppose that this is a book of Christian spirituality. They’ll take home this lump of stone in place of bread. Shepherds and teachers, give heed.