Monday, February 4, 2013

Richard Rohr: A Rebuttal

Note: The following was written as a response to a piece by the Roman Catholic Franciscan theologian and spiritual writer Richard Rohr that I received via e-mail. While I was not able to copy and paste the piece to which I am responding in this post I did find a link to it here:

Here is my response:

"I enjoy receiving these forwards as Fr. Rohr always gives one a lot to think about. The thing that is interesting about how he presents his thoughts is that he couches a legitimate social and theological concept - in this case conversion of heart; in one of the previous ones I was sent, spiritual liberation - in terms that are controversial and in the end highly questionable. I see it in two ways in this piece: with regard to the person of Christ, and with regard to the nature of the Church.

First, with regard to the person of Christ: based on the canonical Gospels it is absolutely true Jesus never said "worship me." But this hardly matters. This is in fact a highly questionable hermeneutic, and ultimately it proves too much. Because Jesus also never said, "Don't cheat while taking final exams," yet it doesn't follow from that that we are all therefore allowed to cheat on our exams! We have no record of Jesus speaking on many important issues, or what he said about a number of other issues. But yet from the historical records of his life that we do have we can discern certain principles and beliefs. 

Here's one of them: Jesus claimed to be God. And God is to be worshipped and adored. The people of Jesus' day with whom he came into contact recognized his divinity which is why they worshipped him (and also one of the reasons they killed him). The fact that he was God is evident insofar as he did not make them stop worshipping him, but rather accepted their worship. The early Church had to come to grips with the records and apostolic tradition concerning the person of Christ, which is what lead to the Arian controversy and (eventually) to the the first ecumenical council (Nicea) where it was defined that Jesus is "God of God, Light of Light, very God of very God, etc." 

While arguing over the mechanics of worship and devotion can be a tireless waste of time (witness some of the controversies of the Reformation), and can make one miss the point of having a personal conversion of heart, Fr. Rohr must be cautious in how he conveys all of this, as he does so in such a way as to downplay not only one of the major dogmas of the Church, but also the clear witness of Scripture. (In so doing he undermines his own methodology.) That Jesus is both God and man is a fundamental doctrine of orthodox Christianity, and has important ramifications for every other core doctrine.

Second, with regard to the nature of the Church: While making the valid point that Christianity is a "way of being" and a life to be lived, he - like many people from his point of view - simply can't resist taking a swipe at the so-called "institutional church." He claims that man has made Christianity into an institution. But, like his view regarding the person of Christ, this simply cannot be squared with the evidence of scripture or tradition. The reality is that Jesus himself established that most hated thing: an "institutional" religion. This is evident most especially in the calling of the twelve, the establishment of the Holy Eucharist, and the Great Commission. He appointed the twelve to continue his work, giving them the gift of the Holy Spirit to fulfill this duty. He gave them the power of the keys to forgive sin in his name, and to feed his sheep. They in turn appointed leaders in their stead as we see in the Acts of the Apostles and St. Paul's epistles, and also in the writings of the apostolic fathers such as Clement of Rome and Ignatius of Antioch to name a few. Here, again, he is unfortunately quite at odds with both Scripture and Tradition, and with his own methodology. An institution has leaders, policies, and procedures. The church had this from the beginning because that is how God ordained it to be.

He then makes an entirely unfounded and not necessarily true connection between so-called "established religion" and war, greed, etc. Unfortunately for Rohr, "saying so doesn't make it so." And even if he was right (which he is not) that doesn't necessarily invalidate the intellectual claims made by a body or person, as the claims have to be considered on their own merit. (By way of example, one cannot look at atheists who live evil lives and say based on that that atheism is incorrect. The intellectual and philosophical claims have to be evaluated on their own merit.)

What has created manifold human suffering and war in the 20th century (in which more people were killed than in all other centuries combined) is Marxism, built as it is on the foundation of dialectical materialism. It is interesting that Fr. Rohr is so concerned war and violence, and yet he chooses to attack the church (in this article) but then in another article praise "liberation theology" which is built entirely on the same Marxist intellectual framework that brought the world Stalin, Mao, and Pol Pot (to name a few).

While it is always depressing to come across people - especially Christians - who do not "walk the talk" if Fr. Rohr studied the bible, and the parables and life of Jesus more he would learn no doubt that the Church is made up of "wheat and tares." There will always be imperfect and unconverted people in the Church. And while people of Rohr's ilk, I suppose, have some super-spiritual insight into the nature of everyone's hearts, I for one believe that Jesus came to heal those who were sick. The Church - his mystical body - is a spiritual hospital. They need conversion (as he suggests). We ALL need conversion of heart. But he really, in my opinion, shouldn't use such people to attack the basic Catholic dogma that the Church is an institution. If we can use the way some people behave and get away with it to question the legitimacy of an institution or the veracity of its teaching then we all are in trouble!!

In all of this he undermines two parts of his methodology: scripture and tradition. He undermines the other "leg" of his three-legged stool methodology - experience - by holding these views as a Roman Catholic priest! The Roman Catholic Church is defined as a hierarchical communion and an institution founded by Christ. He is part of it, yet he attacks the very idea of an institutional church, claiming that man invented it. And the Nicene Creed, which is proclaimed at almost every Mass, is clear statement on the divinity of Jesus, who is worshipped in the Mass. Very curious inconsistencies indeed!

That Rohr is concerned with such important spiritual matters as conversion of heart, helping the poor, and liberating the oppressed, is certainly laudable. But in the end, the way that he does so - at least as it is presented in this redaction of his work - is highly problematic, not only because he completely undermines his whole methodology, but because it contains many subtle errors. That said, please keep sending me these forwards as I enjoy reading them and interacting with them. I like the message I think he is trying to convey. I just have some disagreements with how he chooses to couch it, and also with some of the corollaries he attaches to them."

1 comment:

  1. I too am struggling with the ubiquitous Richard Rohr. When I read his book on 'Things Hidden, Scripture as Spirituality', I had this very conflicted response; on the one hand enjoying the certainty that he seems to have of God's nature being love for everyone and all we have to do is surrender to it and on the other hand feeling that there is something very important missing. I first noticed it when reading about the atonement in his work. Clearly he thinks that Jesus gave us all in His incarnation and that His death and resurrection are almost irrelevant except as a supreme example of self sacrifice and pattern for absorbing the violence of the world(transformation) Then I picked up hints and remarks where he clearly questions mainstream Christian expression of salvation. Also sin appears to be just what we are born into and is not our fault. In fact his is a no blame religion except for institutional Christianity who have a lot to answer for. Now in this he patterns himself on Jesus whom he says aimed his strongest criticisms at the religious of the day. So ( and I'm not saying the church is lilywhite in all its dealings as clearly the church is a gathering of sinners and the sick in need of help to work out their Christ won salvation.)it seems that all we need is to step into an awarenesss of the ‘Divine Flow’ (read His work on the Holy Trinity) But what about Jesus’ clearly dualistic challenges to his disciples and to the crowd, Jesus gives us choices and when we fail we can be forgiven and start again. Rohr's words sound nice but I feel they may have wandered away from the Word of God which is the sword of the Spirit. There is right and wrong, truth and lies,sight and blindness and Rohr would like us just to seethe flow..However another and real concern I have is personal; the roots of both Rohr and Cynthia Bourgeault's, thinking come from Gurdjieff and Ouspensky, two thinkers whose work came to prominence in the 1970's and which is clearly gnostic in feel. They ( and Richard Rohr ) claim that the 'principles' of Christianity and all major religion point in the same way; to salvation through increasing awareness as we meditate on the unknowable God. This raises our level of consciousness and takes us towards divine Union which is what everyone longs for apparently. Now I have a confession. I grew up with this teaching. My father attended meetings in London for seven years where these teachings were propounded. (The School of economic science or now called The school of practical philosophy) They started schools at one point and my father asked me to go.
    But I became a Christian instead and he was disappointed.
    My point being that at one point when struggling under my fathers teaching I recognised that I could not call Jesus Lord (for Rohr and his adherents Jesus is one of many great teachers) Through the prayer of others I awoke one day unexpectedly to a different world. I saw that the great paradox of Christ is that in surrender to Him we find true freedom. And for the first tme in my life I was free not to see the world though the tainted eyes of Ouspensky and his ilk (I would include Richard Rohr here) where people were divided into those on higher or lower levels of consciousness (worth listening to or being with and those not) but that each person is truly a child of God equally loved by our father in Heaven and equally called to more of Him in Jesus. It was such a freedom that I scarcely know how to explain it. My friends would say I'm a classless person, I am happy with who ever I am with and have no fear either of the homeless or princes. And this is our heritage in Christ . And this is precisely what Rohr will take away from those who follow his teaching. I hope I am wrong but by experience tells me that before long Rohr will throw so many Christian fundamentals away that his unfitness as a teacher will be clearly seen. I do so hope I'm wrong. It is not good to seen a well meaning Franciscan Priest lose His first love.