Book Review: The Universal Christ

The Universal Christ

by Richard Rohr

Random House Audio

One of the regular conversations I had with my Greek Orthodox friend was about how Protestants seemed to be confused about how to understand the connections and distinctions between the human person of Jesus and the eternal second person of the Trinity. He was a sort of “trouble-maker” so he would generally pose these question to his Protestant friends (mostly lay-persons):

  • Where is Jesus now?
  • Did Jesus exist before he died?
  • Is Jesus the Second Person of the Trinity?

Needless to say, this was generally an issue not given much thought by Christians, not just Protestants. Most laypersons, and unfortunately, most pastors rarely give much thought to this and may not recognize its importance. I don’t raise those questions to try and answer them in this review, nor does Richard Rohr specifically list them or answer them in his book. I simply want to provide some context.

Richard Rohr addresses the idea of the “Christ” and why we should distinguish between the Christ and the person of Jesus. The question of why it makes any difference and why we should have conversations about it is central to the premise of the book. This idea is both a necessary conversation moving forward but it also is a historical conversation that isn’t new. Hence Rohr’s subtitle: How a Forgotten Reality Can Change Everything We See, Hope for, and Believe.

Rohr is what is called a “panentheist.” Not a pantheist, but a panentheist.

To keep it simple, it is best explained by breaking down the etymology of the word. Panentheism is made up of three Greek words: pan, en, theos. “Pan” means “all.” “En” means “in.” “Theos” means “god.” So, Panentheism means “God in all,” or “in all God.” Panentheism is the idea that God is in all things and all things are in God. This is distinct from Pantheism which gets rid of the “in” and is the idea that God is all things and all things are God. Panentheism essentially is a bridge between Pantheism and Theism.

If you are a conservative Theist, you are already bristling which makes this the very book you need to read. The idea has roots in verses like Colossians 1:15-20, Ephesians 1:10 and the multiplicity of Pauline “in Christ/ἐν Χριστῷ statements.

If you are open to a way to look at Christ in a way that is unifying, both of theology and people, then this is a provocative read. Being “in Christ” is the key to living life to the fullest and both fulfilling and experiencing the life of God. Being human and experiencing what it means to be the image of God is Rohr’s hope and life’s work. This work expresses the very foundation for him. For Rohr a verse like Colossians 3:10-11 is key:

10 and have clothed yourselves with the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge according to the image of its creator.11 In that renewal there is no longer Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave and free; but Christ is all and in all!

(Col. 3:10-11 NRS)

My challenge with this review is that I listened to the audio book while driving on my way to record an audio book for a friend, which I will review in a few weeks. Finding quotes and relaying specifics is much more difficult. So I will not stress about those omissions from this review, although I do list important quotes below.

As far as the audio version is concerned, it is top notch. The book is read by Arthur Morey who reads very deliberately and slowly, which means you should definitely speed up the audio on your device. I don’t like it too fast, so 1.10 gave it a near perfect cadence. If you are used to higher speeds then you can increase this, it cut down the listening time and I didn’t even notice at 1.10.

From the book:

“The essential function of religion is to radically connect us with everything. (Re-ligio = to re-ligament or reconnect.) It is to help us see the world and ourselves in wholeness, and not just in parts.”

“Many are still praying and waiting for something that has already been given to us three times: first in creation; second in Jesus; and third, in the ongoing beloved community (what Christians call the Body of Christ), which is slowly evolving throughout all of human history (Romans 8:18ff.). We are still in the Flow.”

“A mature Christian sees Christ in everything and everyone else. That is a definition that will never fail you, always demand more of you, and give you no reasons to fight, exclude, or reject anyone.”

“What Love Tells Us About God Love, which might be called the attraction of all things toward all things, is a universal language and underlying energy that keeps showing itself despite our best efforts to resist it. It is so simple that it is hard to teach in words, yet we all know it when we see it. After all, there is not a Native, Hindu, Buddhist, Jewish, Islamic, or Christian way of loving. There is not a Methodist, Lutheran, or Orthodox way of running a soup kitchen. There is not a gay or straight way of being faithful, nor a Black or Caucasian way of hoping. We all know positive flow when we see it, and we all know resistance and coldness when we feel it. All the rest are mere labels.”

“Creation exists first of all for its own good sake; second to show forth God’s goodness, diversity, and beneficence; and then for humans’ appropriate use. Our small, scarcity-based worldview is the real aberration here, and I believe it has largely contributed to the rise of atheism and the “practical atheism” that is the actual operative religion of most Western countries today. The God we’ve been presenting people with is just too small and too stingy for a big-hearted person to trust or to love back.”

“As G. K. Chesterton once wrote, Your religion is not the church you belong to, but the cosmos you live inside of. 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.”

“St. Bonaventure (1221–1274) taught that to work up to loving God, start by loving the very humblest and simplest things, and then move up from there.”

Frankly, Jesus came to show us how to be human much more than how to be spiritual, and the process still seems to be in its early stages.”

“At best, the theory of substitutionary atonement has inoculated us against the true effects of the Gospel, causing us to largely “thank” Jesus instead of honestly imitating him. At worst, it led us to see God as a cold, brutal figure, who demands acts of violence before God can love his own creation”

“God did not just start talking to us with the Bible or the church or the prophets. Do we really think that God had nothing at all to say for 13.7 billion years, and started speaking only in the latest nanosecond of geological time? Did all history prior to our sacred texts provide no basis for truth or authority? Of course not. The radiance of the Divine Presence has been glowing and expanding since the beginning of time, before there were any human eyes to see or know about it.”

“Given our present evolution of consciousness, and especially the historical and technological access we now have to the “whole picture,” I now wonder if a sincere person can even have a healthy and holy “personal” relationship with God if that God does not also connect them to the universal. A personal God cannot mean a smaller God, nor can God make you in any way smaller—or such would not be God.”

Photo by Peter Nicola on Unsplash

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