The Universal Christ (2019), by Richard Rohr – A Book Review
Richard Rohr sees The Universal Christ as a summation of sorts of the insights he has gained over many decades of promoting a contemplative approach to faith. Readers familiar with Rohr’s writings should not be surprised, therefore, to find references to ideas expressed in his earlier books and in his daily meditations.
I found a good abstract of the book on the fly-leaf of the book cover:
“Drawing on scripture, history, and spiritual practice, Rohr articulates a transformative view of Jesus Christ as a portrait of God’s constant, unfolding work in the world. ‘God loves things by becoming them,’ he writes, and Jesus life was meant to declare that humanity has never been separate from God – except by its own negative choice. When we recover this fundamental truth, faith becomes less about proving that Jesus was God and more about learning to recognize the Creator’s presence all around us and in everyone we meet.”
Rohr’s central focus in the book is to help readers rediscover the universal nature of Christ, as affirmed in Colossians 1, Ephesians 1, John 1 and Hebrews 1. It is important, he says, to understand that there is more to Christ than the Jesus born in Bethlehem. It goes without saying, although often overlooked, that the man Jesus, born of the virgin Mary, was not physically present at creation.
Rohr claims that after the great schism of 1054, the church in the West gradually lost the biblical notion that Christ is in the process of liberating and loving all that is. “Instead, we gradually limited the Divine Presence to the single body of Jesus, when perhaps it is as ubiquitous as light itself – and uncircumscribable by human boundaries” (4). He further declares that “Once we know that the entire physical world around us, all of creation, is both the hiding place and the revelation place for God, this world becomes home, safe, enchanted, offering grace to any who look deeply. I call that kind of deep and calm seeing ‘contemplation'” (7).
Reclaiming such a perspective can change a lot of things about how we practice spirituality, says Rohr, as evident in the sub-title of the book: How a Forgotten Reality Can Change Everything We See, Hope for, and Believe.
In the seven chapters of Part I, “Another Name for Everything,” Rohr makes his case for Identifying the Universal Christ as the grand vision of the Cosmic Christ. For example, he says that, “Instead of saying that God came into the world through Jesus, maybe it would be better to say that Jesus came into an already Christ-soaked world” (15). Another way of saying that would be that “Christ is God, and Jesus is the Christ’s historical manifestation in time” (19). Jesus, then, reminds us that the universal Christ offers us an all-inclusive worldview in which the mature Christian will see Christ in everything and everybody.
Such a universal presence implies that, “All of us, without exception, are living inside of a cosmic identity, already in place, that is driving and guiding us forward. We are all en Cristo, willingly or unwillingly, happily or unhappily, consciously or unconsciously” (43). Such a perspective, claims Rohr, does not have room for the traditional notion of “original sin,” but rather grounds us in an inherent goodness, so that the Christian life is really all about becoming who we already are. Religion, in this construct, is “more about waking up than cleaning up” (72). And “Grace is just the natural loving flow of things when we allow it, instead of resisting it” (77).
Starting with such a positive view of anthropology, maintains Rohr, will give us greater confidence to trust ourselves, since “The supernatural is forever imbedded in the natural” (87), and as we learn to trust the voice of God we can know that “we are always moving toward an ever more inclusive love” (95). In Rohr’s opinion, this grand vision of standing in the flow of the universal love of the universal Christ forms the foundation for a revitalized and expanded vision of being Christian.
In Part 2, “The Great Comma,” Rohr sets about illustrating how such a perspective of the Universal Christ enlivens and enhances various dimensions of the Christian faith. Each of the nine chapters of this second part highlights one way in which this happens. Once this pattern clicked for me, I got to see the grand vision of the whole book.
The idea of “The Great Comma,” comes from the fact that all the early church creeds basically omit reference to the life and teachings of Jesus, substituting them with a comma in the text. Rohr claims that this is the case because the “first seven Councils of the Church, agreed upon by both East and West, were all either convened or formally presided over by emperors. This is no small point. Emperors and governments do not tend to be interested in an ethic of love, or service, or nonviolence (God forbid!), and surely not forgiveness unless it somehow helps them stay in power” (105). So Rohr’s project here is to reimagine what the creeds would have looked like had they emerged from a vision of the Universal Christ instead of aspirations of emperors.
For one, says Rohr, there would have been less emphasis on orthodoxy (getting our doctrine just right) and a greater focus on orthopraxy (wrestling with life implications of the indwelling universal Christ.) Seen through this lens, each chapter in this section offers a rich vista of what the Christian life could look like if the comma of the creeds would be replaced with the essence of Christian orthopraxy.
No doubt some will find fault with Rohr’s line of thinking. But for me, his perspective of the Universal Christ helps me to make sense of the many “universal” passages found in scripture. And furthermore, it broadens my vision of the work of God in the whole world, not just in the lives of a few select individuals.