For quite a while now, Richard Rohr’s notion of the Universal Christ has not sat well with me. A while back I started to listen to the book on audio, and it just kept ringing notes I consider false. I have hesitated to say this publicly because so many people I know love reading Richard Rohr, but the thing is: he’s one of these writers who is close enough to seeming right that he is dangerous, but what he is really arguing simply doesn’t comport with Christianity, perhaps even especially progressive Christianity.
I mean, I find beauty in Ralph Waldo Emerson and Unitarianism as much as the next person… I just don’t ultimately subscribe to it, or think it’s Christianity.
The whole thing of distinguishing Jesus from a concept “the Christ” is muddled and problematic.
I know I know I’m supposed to like it because Bono (of U2) and Oprah like it. But I don’t.
It’s only fair that I try to outline my resistance to Rohr’s “universal Christ” thesis, even though I will also admit my resistance first arises from a very basic instinct: this just isn’t right.
As far as I can tell, one of Rohr’s primary reasons for distinguishing “the Christ” from Jesus has to do with the fact of Jesus being born at a specific time and place just 2021 years ago.
Rohr posits that the “spirit of Christ” is not the same as the “person of Jesus Christ.” “The Christ” for Rohr is existent throughout all time and space. A cosmic Christ. This “Christ” is eternal, and can be found or encountered in many different ways or places.
He worries that an over-emphasis on Jesus risks Christians blessing certain kinds of political hierarchies and depicting Jesus in manners that are racist and cultural constrained. “We pulled Jesus out of the Trinity, gave him a white beard and white skin,” says Rohr in his recent interview with Eliza Griswold.
Conversely, Rohr’s concept of the universal Christ allows an emerging generation of folks still attracted to Christian spirituality but rightly desiring to distance themselves from parochial and harmful versions of the faith to discover and articulate more ecumenical and interfaith positions. Perhaps the most famous recent example of this kind of universalizing is a recent tweet from Michael Gungor, a former Christian musician and composer of the justifiably famous worship anthem “Beautiful Things.”
Jesus was Christ.
Buddha was Christ.
Muhammad was Christ.
Christ is a word for the Universe seeing itself.
You are Christ.
We are the body of Christ.
— Michael Gungor (@michaelgungor) July 23, 2021
However, it is precisely these kinds of implementations of Rohr’s thesis that have me worried. I mean, I don’t disagree with the spirit of Gungor’s post. I myself truly welcome what we can discover in common between the world’s religions. I study and love multiple religious belonging.
And I’m a universalist. I happen to agree with Rohr and others who believe the movement of the creation is toward the redemption of all things in Christ.
But I do so with considerable trepidation, because although I trust God to be redeeming all things, I also do not want to be colonial, and inflict my eschatology on those of other faiths. That is to say, although I hope their are resonances between Buddha and Christ, I think it is presumptive, even disturbing, to claim, as Gungor does, that “Buddha was Christ.”
How can he know that? And would Buddhists agree? How do Muslims think about the claim that “Muhammad was Christ?” Therein lies the rub.
Rohr’s thesis is not without precedent. It’s tied into his Franciscan mysticism, and many theologians over the course of history have emphasized to greater or lesser degrees that we have a man named “Jesus” who is also bestowed a more cosmic name “Christ.”
I’ve got two big fat volumes on my bookshelves by Edward Schillebeeckx, the first with the title Jesus (a experiment in Christology), the second with the title Christ (the experience of Jesus as Lord). Focusing on one or the other title in relation to the other is a thing (although the particular way Schillebeeckx does this thing is quite distinct from Rohr).
Now admittedly, we are weighing into rather esoteric theological spaces where even angels fear to tread. The Christian tradition has been debating the issue of Jesus Christ’s humanity and divinity ever since there was a Christian tradition.
The basic question has always been: how can Jesus Christ be both “true God from true God” and also “born of Mary.”
Was Jesus adopted into the Trinity? Was the Christ from all eternity and simply arrived late in history in Jesus? Is Christ in everything and just “especially” made visible in Jesus?
Where was this Christ before the incarnation? What is this Jesus up to now? What about other religions and their relationship to this Christ? How exactly did this Jesus become “the Christ”?
I’m not going to be able to solve all these questions in one blog post. Whole heresies are named after some of the theories. Whole church councils have gathered to write creeds defining the terms.
But I’ll just point out my basic content:
Rohr diminishes Jesus as Jesus, and as the kind of Christian I am I really love the Jesus of Scripture and faith.
I believe when we are talking about Jesus Christ, we are talking about this Jesus, this particular Jesus, this one.
Of course we have to work out the metaphysics of it all as best we can. That’s why we have John 1 and some of the letters of Paul. But all those metaphysical proposals (in the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God) were developed precisely because of Jesus, the one about whom the gospels are written and the church has always testified.
All of this goes back to a larger issue for me, one I’ve spoken about regularly whenever I end up preaching about the Trinity. Basically, we don’t have the Trinity so we can explain an esoteric theological formula. No, we have Trinitarian theology because we have this Jesus.
Trinitarian theology is what developed to talk about this Jesus as the Son of God.
The universal Christ notion, for all that it hints at universal salvation (something I trust in) and attempts to open space for mutual recognition of other religions (something I value), it ultimately gnosticizes and distances Christ, giving a kind of presumptive universality to Christ I think most of my neighbors of other religions would find colonialist and moderately offensive.
I happen to think sticking with this particular Jesus, the one we know in Scripture, and in the breaking of the bread in Christian community, positions us much better to relate to other religions and all of creation in a more particular and helpful way.
Sometimes the things that are most troubling are the things riding so close to sounding right. I’ve long reacted to Rohr’s theology as this kind of thinking. It sounds good until you examine it.
After all, the Scriptures emphasize the preaching of Jesus Christ and him crucified was going to be a scandal. It’s too particular. Too specific and local and historical. How could it possibly be enough to be a theory of everything?
And yet that is what it is.
I tend to think a corollary danger of Rohr’s theology is a hopefully accidental anti-Semitism. Remember the scandal of the Old Testament is God’s covenanting with one chosen people. Israel.
If you asked me, “Where was the Christ before the birth of Jesus?” I would probably say, “Well, what do you mean by ‘before’?” I mean, how we think about time has become more complex these days, right? Time isn’t what it used to be. So I don’t think that a so-called pre-existent Christ presents the kinds of philosophical complications for theology most people think it does.
But from a biblical perspective, the obvious answer to Christ before the birth of Jesus would be, “Israel.”
**a friendly addition/edit from Russ Meyer: “I do find a conflation at the end of your article. When speaking about before Jesus there is Israel, you imply that Israel was it’s own Messiah. That might be leaving the door open for the universal Christ idea to slip back in and rob you of your complaint. Before Jesus appeared, Israel as a distinct people was understood in scripture to be the son of God and God was understood to be the Father of the people Israel. These collective applications of familial titles become individualized with Jesus: he is the Son and God is our Father. Sonship and anointing are distinct traditions that interweave throughout the history of Israel.”
For the most part, I guess what I’m saying is you can have your metaphysical abstractions arising out of puzzling theoreticals.
I’ll choose Jesus every time.
I think there are resources within Christianity for maintaining the profound particularity of Jesus, this one, even in a productive and hopeful relationship to other religions or no religion at all. I would even argue that my sticking close to this specific Jesus gives us a much better purchase from which to engage other religions, because we can approach them from our own specificity, rather than attempt to co-opt all of them in a form of bizarre Western colonialism that assimilates all religions into “the Christ.”