Article ID: JAR0103DG | By: Douglas Groothuis
A Review Of
The Universal Christ:
How a Forgotten Reality Can Change Everything We See, Hope for, and Believe
(New York: Convergent Books, 2019)
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The author of this book makes a big promise. The “forgotten reality” of “the universal Christ” can totally transform us. For Richard Rohr, much of the church has lost sight of the real Christ. If that is true, it is serious. The epigraph to the book gives an inkling of his view of Christ.
I dedicate this book to my beloved fifteen-year-old black Lab, Venus, whom I had to release to God while beginning to write this book. Without any apology, lightweight theology, or fear of heresy, I can appropriately say that Venus was also Christ for me.1
Richard Rohr is a prolific author and popular speaker. His biography states that he “is a globally recognized ecumenical teacher bearing witness to the universal awakening within Christian mysticism and the Perennial Tradition.” In 1987, Rohr founded the Center for Action and Contemplation in Albuquerque, New Mexico, and has been a strong force in the contemplative prayer movement. Oprah has interviewed him twice. Google finds him everywhere. At the writing of this review (late December 2020), The Universal Christ was listed as #8 in “Christology” and #9 in “Christian Ethics” at Amazon.com.2 Rohr considers it his “end of life book,” containing all his more important thoughts.3
Richard Rohr is a heretic in the robes of a Franciscan priest. To be more specific, he is a wolf in sheep’s clothing, a false teacher, and a deceiver (see Matthew 7:15–19; Acts 20:29–31). My review will back up these strong claims.4 Rohr has a bad track record. Basing his teaching primarily on eastern mysticism rather than biblical Christianity, Rohr counsels us to find our “true self” instead of knowing a Savior distinct from the self, and his teaching on contemplative prayer emphasizes letting go of thoughts instead of focusing them on Christ.5 He also helped introduce the pagan-based and psychologically unsupported practice of the enneagram to Catholics6 and Protestants.7 Yet some of his forty-five books have been bestsellers, and his influence runs deep. Melinda Gates writes, “Anyone who strives to put their faith into action will find encouragement and inspiration in the pages of this book.”8 Bono, lead singer of U2, says, “I cannot put this book down.”9 He never should have picked it up, and Bono, a pop celebrity, is not the best source for theological advice.
When Rohr writes on the most important subject in the universe, the identity of Jesus Christ, it will make waves — and it can capsize spiritually unseaworthy boats. Since Rohr often quotes the Bible as an authority, I will judge him by Scripture. As Isaiah said, “Consult God’s instruction and the testimony of warning. If anyone does not speak according to this word, they have no light of dawn” (Isaiah 8:20; see also John 10:35; 2 Timothy 3:15–17).10 Not all who speak of “Christ” mean the Jesus Christ of Scripture, the true Lord and Savior of the universe. Jesus Himself warned us of imposters who would rise after His departure. “At that time if anyone says to you, ‘Look, here is the Messiah!’ or, ‘There he is!’ do not believe it” (Matthew 24:23; see also 1 John 4:1–6; 2 Corinthians 11:14–15). Not everyone who uses Christian terminology uses the Bible as their dictionary for meaning.11 Jesus further warned of those who nullified Scripture by their preference for merely human opinions (Matthew 15:1–7; see also Colossians 2:8). Rohr has a perverse skill of twisting Scripture to fit his unbiblical worldview (2 Peter 3:16), as we will see.12
Rohr’s Pantheistic Worldview
Rohr packs logical, theological, and exegetical errors tighter than sardines in a flattened can. This makes for a daunting review, since it often takes longer to refute an error than to state it. To keep things in hand, I will outline Rohr’s basic claims and counter with a biblical worldview and will correct some of his most egregious errors. Before proceeding, consider how Rohr wants you to read his book: “Especially as we begin, you must allow some of the words in this book to remain partially mysterious, at least for a while. I know this can be dissatisfying and unsettling to our egoic mind, which wants to be in control every step of the way. Yet this is precisely the contemplative way of reading and listening, and thus being drawn forward into a much Larger Field” (6).
This may sound enticingly mystical and spiritual, but it is, rather, a recipe for disarming the rational mind for spiritual matters, which is, in fact, the essence of his understanding of contemplative prayer. Contrary to Rohr, it is right and healthy to assess truth claims by logic and Scripture. Remember the Bereans, who were “of more noble character than those in Thessalonica, for they received the message with great eagerness and examined the Scriptures every day to see if what Paul said was true” (Acts 17:11; see also Romans 12:1–2; 1 Corinthians 14:20). Moreover, we should be wary of being drawn into “a much Larger Field” (whatever that is). The Larger Field may be a lethal swamp filled with vipers (1 Peter 5:8–9).
Rohr wants to root all spiritual traditions in a Perennial Wisdom. He believes that his understanding of “the universal Christ” opens Christians up to the spirituality of other religions and should lead to social transformation. By Perennial Wisdom, Rohr does not mean biblical teaching, but a common spiritual awareness tapped into by various mystics, seers, and sages throughout history and within various religions.13 The essential idea is that God and the cosmos are one. Thus, he says, “No one religion will ever encompass the depth of such faith [in God’s love]” (22). We will see that he vitiates the notion of God’s love through his misunderstanding of Jesus’s atoning death.
Rohr’s worldview is not monotheism, but rather pantheism (all is divine) or, perhaps, panentheism (all is in God’s being).14 He manipulates Scripture to teach this. For example, he refers to Colossians 3:11 as saying, “There is only Christ. He is everything and he is in everything” (16). This is pantheism. But the actual biblical text says, “Here there is no Gentile or Jew, circumcised or uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave or free, but Christ is all, and is in all.” It thus refers to the unity that all believers have in Christ, not their deity. No credible translation backs up Rohr’s mistranslation–misinterpretation. It is a classic case of reading into a text something that is not there at all (eisegesis).
Rohr on Incarnation
Rohr denies a hard break between God and creation and claims that the incarnation began at creation, when the “Infinite Primal Source” poured itself into finite things (14). Jesus was really the second incarnation. Whether we consider Rohr to be a pantheist or a panentheist (he many not even know), he certainly is an emanationist. That is, God “creates” not by bringing the universe into existence out of nothing (ex nihilo), but by extending His being into things, which become divine. The cosmos is the emanation or externalization of God. Because Christians must not be deceived by “fine-sounding arguments” (Colossians 2:4; see also 2 Corinthians 10:3–5), we need to compare this view to monotheism.
Monotheism — whether Jewish, Christian, or Islamic — takes God to be separate from the created world in His being; He is transcendent, unchangeable, omnipotent, omnipresent, omniscient, and wholly good. The cosmos possesses none of these qualities because it is contingent, finite, changeable, and marred by sin. Christianity affirms that despite this Creator/creation distinction, humans are made in God’s image and likeness (Genesis 1:26; 9:6; James 3:9) and that God Himself incarnated once-for-all in the person of Jesus, the Christ, to redeem fallen creatures (and the whole universe) through His perfect life, atoning death, and space-time resurrection (1 Corinthians 15:1-8). At his Second Advent, He will purge, judge, and redeem the world (Acts 1:8; Romans 8:18–23). Moreover, God is with us (Matthew 1:23) and in His followers (Colossians 1:27). But this hardly makes creatures one in essence with God, since creatures remain contingent and finite beings and can never become infinite as God is infinite.15
Jesus and Christ
Rohr chokes on the particularity of the gospel. He writes that “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). Rohr can accept Jesus’ statement, “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me” (John 14:6) only by claiming that Jesus is not speaking of Himself as an individual (Jesus) but as the universal Christ, which is the universal way, truth, and life (26).16 This exactly parallels the New Age christologies I critiqued in Jesus in an Age of Controversy, and it completely misreads the biblical text.17 When Thomas asked Jesus the way to the Father, Jesus affirmed that he Himself was the way, the truth, and the life (John 14:1–6; see also Matthew 11:27; Acts 4:12; 1 Timothy 2:5). Rohr’s gloss on this verse is dross.
Rohr would have us believe that Jesus and the Christ are two separate entities. And for Rohr, Christ is the more important of the two. Thus, we need not submit to Jesus as Savior and Lord to go along with the divine throb and flow of an evolving universe. That would be too narrow-minded. God does not care if we “get this name right” (17). However, Paul, an authority higher than Rohr, taught that at the “name of Jesus every knee should bow…and every tongue acknowledge that Jesus Christ is Lord” (Philippians 2:9–10, emphasis added; see also Acts 4:12). Jesus’ rebuke to the Pharisees applies equally to Rohr: “Woe to you…because you have taken away the key to knowledge. You yourselves have not entered, and you have hindered those who were entering” (Luke 11:52).
For Rohr, spirituality means mystically experiencing the power of the universal Christ to bring justice, peace, and happiness to the world. He spills the theological beans when he says that Jesus “did ask us several times to follow him, and never once to worship him” (32). Because a proper understanding of Jesus provokes worship, Jesus did not need to ask. Jesus accepted worship several times in the Gospels (see, e.g., Matthew 14:33; 28:9, 17). The worship of “the Lamb, who was slain,” is a central and glorious activity in the book of Revelation (Revelation 5:11–12). Rohr attempts to dethrone Jesus by decoupling Him from Christ, an old trick of heretical Gnosticism.18 But Peter preached, “let all Israel be assured of this: God has made this Jesus, whom you crucified, both Lord and Messiah” (Acts 2:36). That is, Jesus is the Messiah (or Christ).
Rohr writes that Christians can “take the leap of faith”19 that “God’s presence” was “poured into a single human being”; but then he adds, “so that humanity and divinity can be seen to be operating as one in him — and therefore in us!” (14). While Christians are brought into union with Christ and filled with the Holy Spirit, this is not an incarnation, since they have been redeemed through Christ’s work of incarnation, crucifixion, resurrection, and ascension. Moreover, Jesus is God’s “one and only son” (John 3:16), and we are not.
Like many heretics, Rohr wants to liberate Christianity from any narrow limitations for the purpose of making it more appealing to the ungodly (2 Timothy 4:3). Not so for Paul: “Am I now trying to win the approval of human beings, or of God? Or am I trying to please people? If I were still trying to please people, I would not be a servant of Christ” (Galatians 1:10). Rohr ends up liberating Christianity from the truth of the Bible and from the gospel itself. To counteract his counterfeit teaching, consider the real “universal Christ” and the atonement achieved by Jesus Christ.
I have written of God’s transcendence and separation from His creation (contra Rohr), but now we should consider God as a Trinity in order to understand the Incarnation. There is but one infinite-personal God (Deuteronomy 6:4; James 2:19), who exists eternally and co-equally in three persons as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit (Matthew 28:19). This is a three-in-one relationship. The Second Person of the Trinity is referred to as the Word (Greek: Logos) who “was with God and was God” and who “created all things” (John 1:1–3). This Word took on a human nature in space-time history as Jesus of Nazareth (John 1:14). Rohr says that the Greek means that the Word became human nature and that this applies to all humans (5). This is absurd, since the context speaks of the individual Jesus uniquely coming into the world (John 1:1–18). Rohr wants to take what only Christ, the God–man, possesses and extend it to humanity. That is to confuse the creation with the Creator (see Romans 1:25). That is no small error.
The Word existed before Jesus of Nazareth was supernaturally conceived by the Virgin Mary. Another way to put this is that God, the Son, has always existed. The pre-incarnate Christ (the Son or the Word) was guiding the world by divine wisdom and waiting for the right time to appear in the flesh (Galatians 4:4; John 1:18). As John wrote, “The true light that gives light to everyone was coming into the world” (John 1:9). But “the Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the one and only Son, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth” (John 1:14). This is when the Incarnation began. Rohr refers to creation as the first incarnation of “the universal Christ.” This is dead wrong. The Trinity created the universe out of nothing and has providentially guided it throughout its history (Ephesians 1:23). However, divine creation is not incarnation, divine providence is not incarnation, and divine omnipresence is not incarnation. The Incarnation happened but once — in the coming of the Lord Jesus Christ, who alone has all authority: “God placed all things under his feet and appointed him to be head over everything for the church” (Ephesians 1:22). That cannot be rightly affirmed of anyone else. To think otherwise is to mutilate Holy Scripture beyond recognition (2 Peter 3:16; Matthew 15:1–6). The Incarnation means that the eternal Word, without ceasing to be God, took on one true human nature in the person of Jesus, who was the one and only Christ or Messiah. Consider Paul’s statement about Christ Jesus:
Who, being in very nature God,
did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage;
rather, he made himself nothing
by taking the very nature of a servant,
being made in human likeness.
And being found in appearance as a man,
he humbled himself
by becoming obedient to death —
even death on a cross!
Therefore God exalted him to the highest place
and gave him the name that is above every name,
that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow,
in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
and every tongue acknowledge that Jesus Christ is Lord,
to the glory of God the Father. (Philippians 2:6–11; see also 2 Corinthians 8:9)
Rohr’s attempts to downplay Jesus and extol a false version of “the Christ” notwithstanding, the Incarnation was a one-of-a-kind and once-for-all event.
Rohr thinks “the Word” means that “Christ” is a universal power that is redemptively operative all the time. God loves things “by becoming them” (17). The universal Christ is becoming everything — something the Bible never teaches. It is also philosophically impossible for at least three reasons:
(1) An infinite God cannot become anything finite. Even in the Incarnation, Jesus’ divine and human natures remain distinct and do not blend. As the Council of Chalcedon (451) stated, Christ is “truly God and truly man,” one divine person “in two natures, without confusion, without change, without division, without separation; the distinction of natures being in no way annulled by the union.”20
(2) Love requires a lover and a loved. If God becomes the things He loves, then the love would cease, since there would be no object left for God to love.
(3) God is a personal being (Exodus 3:14). As such, he cannot become anything impersonal and remain personal. But much of the cosmos is impersonal (such as stars and trees). Thus, Christ could not incarnate into it (although He is present throughout it).21
Rohr is wrong to separate the Word from Jesus. Jesus Himself is now seated at the right hand of the Father and from there governs the cosmos (Colossians 3:1; Matthew 28:18). Paul’s statements about Christ’s universal reign and presence never detach Jesus from Christ and never make redemption into an evolutionary process whereby humans become divine (see Colossians 1:15–19, for example).22
Getting the Gospel Wrong
Given Rohr’s emanational metaphysics based on the Perennial Tradition, it is no surprise that he distorts the gospel. If God loves the world by becoming it, then there is no sin to be atoned for through Christ’s substitutionary sacrifice on the cross.23 Rohr says we should contemplate this idea: “I have never been separate from God, nor can I be, except in my mind” (44). This cuts against the grain of the biblical understanding of the fall and sin and undermines the biblical account of salvation. I cite only Isaiah to refute Rohr: “Your iniquities have separated you from your God; your sins have hidden his face from you, so that he will not hear” (Isaiah 59:2).
In the chapter, “Jesus’ Last Name Is Not Christ,” Rohr tries to show that Christ is a universal force, and that Jesus was a human manifestation of this Christ. But His death did not involve anything “retributive.” That is, Jesus did not suffer the penalty for sin that we owed to a just and holy God (Romans 3:25 and 1 John 4:10 to the contrary). It was, rather, “restorative” and extends to the whole universe (10).24 For Rohr, God’s love is more of an evolutionary energy than a sacrificial offering God Himself provided through Jesus Christ, “the Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world” (John 1:29). There is no ethical atonement made by “the universal Christ” of Rohr’s concoction. He writes that Jesus’ death was “not some bloody transaction ‘required’ by God’s offended justice in order to rectify the problem of human sin” (140). Nor does Rohr speak to the need for sinners to repent to receive salvation (Matthew 4:17; Luke 24:47). He dismisses all biblical language of atonement — such as sacrifice, expiation, paying the price — as contextual “metaphors” that reflect a fallacious “transactional thinking.” If you do the right thing, it will go well in the courtroom with God (141). Rohr asserts that this does not lead to personal or social transformation. Thus, it must be dropped. Notwithstanding, the Christian movement and its doctrine of salvation has done more to transform individuals and societies than any institution in world history and continues to do so.25
For Rohr, Christ deifies the world but does not reconcile it to a holy God through the holy oblation of Jesus Christ (Colossians 1:19–20). If everything is already one, there is no need for reconciliation. By making a spurious concept of “the universal Christ” more important that the historical Jesus Christ, Rohr detaches redemption from Jesus’ shed blood on the cross, which was given to redeem sinners (1 John 1:7; Hebrews 9:12, etc.). Christ’s work was indeed “transactional,” and thank God it was. Through Christ’s atoning and penal sacrifice, those who have faith in Christ are washed clean from sin and receive His perfect righteousness (Ephesians 2:8; 2 Corinthians 5:21). This is called the great exchange, but it could be called the great transaction.
And this transaction does lead to godly transformation. Christ-followers are forgiven of their sins, justified, given the righteousness of Christ, born again, filled with the Holy Spirit, made agents of God’s unstoppable and eternal Kingdom, and given a new dynamic to worship God and serve their neighbor in the Holy Spirit’s power through plenteous good works (James 2:14–26; Ephesians 2:8–10; John 15:1–8). That is the real gospel. That is what turned the world upside down (Acts 17:6). That is what can turn the world upside down again.26 Rohr’s false religion will not.
The Apostle Paul will speak the final word to Richard Rohr, who has turned the gospel itself upside down.
I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting the one who called you to live in the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel — which is really no gospel at all. Evidently some people are throwing you into confusion and are trying to pervert the gospel of Christ. But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach a gospel other than the one we preached to you, let them be under God’s curse! As we have already said, so now I say again: If anybody is preaching to you a gospel other than what you accepted, let them be under God’s curse! (Galatians 1:6–9)—Douglas Groothuis
Douglas Groothuis, PhD, is Professor of Philosophy at Denver Seminary, a long-time contributing writer to the Christian Research Journal, and the author of Walking Through Twilight: A Wife’s Illness ― A Philosopher’s Lament (IVP, 2017).
- Rohr repeats his view on page 51. God’s goodness comes in many forms, some canine. However, since dogs do not bear the image of God, they are ill-suited vessels for incarnation. They absolutely cannot be identified “as Christ” in any way.
- The New Yorker recently ran a story on Rohr by Eliza Griswold titled, “Richard Rohr Reorders the Universe,” February 2, 2020, https://www.newyorker.com/news/on-religion/richard-rohr-reorders-the-universe. The subtitle reads, “The seventy-six-year-old Franciscan friar Richard Rohr believes that Christianity isn’t the only path to salvation.”
- Griswold, “Richard Rohr Reorders the Universe,” https://www.newyorker.com/news/on-religion/richard-rohr-reorders-the-universe.
- Jesus used strong language against the errors of some of the religious leaders of His day (see Matthew 23).
- See Douglas Groothuis and Sarah Geis, “Examining Contemplative Prayer,” Bibliotheca Sacra, 172 (January–March 2015). Rohr’s teachings are mentioned and critiqued several times in this paper.
- Mitch Pacwa, a Catholic priest, critiqued and rejected the enneagram in his book, Catholics and the New Age (Ann Arbor, MI: Servant, 1992). See also Mitchell Pacwa, “Tell Me Who I Am, O Enneagram,” Christian Research Journal, Fall 1991, https://www.equip.org/article/tell-me-who-i-am-o-enneagram/. See also Don Veinot, Joy Veinot, and Marcia Montenegro, Richard Rohr and the Enneagram Secret (Wonder Lake, IL: MCOI Publishing, LLC, 2020).
- 7 See Sarah A. Schnitker, Jay Medenwaldt, and Lizzy Davis, “Can We Do Better Than the Enneagram?” Christianity Today, December 21, 2020, https://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2021/january-february/enneagram-personality-psychology-research-based.html.
- Publisher’s blurb.
- Publisher’s blurb.
- Scripture quotations are from NIV.
- See Walter Martin, “Scaling the Language Barrier,” Kingdom of the Cults (1965, reprint, Minneapolis, MN: Bethany Press, 2002).
- See James W. Sire, Scripture Twisting: Twenty Ways Cults Misinterpret the Bible (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1980).
- On perennialism, see Douglas Groothuis, Christian Apologetics (Downers Grove, IL InterVarsity Press, 2011), 577–79.
- See Douglas Groothuis, “Pantheism and Panentheism,” in Paul Copan, et al., Dictionary of Christianity and Science (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2017). The word panentheism does not appear in The Universal Christ.
- Eastern Orthodoxy speaks of the process of theosis, but this does not mean that humans become omnipotent, omniscience, or omnipresent in the way that God is.
- A Kindle search finds no reference to three other passages that single out Jesus as the only Lord and Savior: Matthew 11:27, Acts 4:12, and 1 Timothy 2:5.
- Douglas Groothuis, Jesus In an Age of Controversy (Eugene, OR: Harvest House Publishers, 1996). See also Ron Rhodes, The Counterfeit Christ of the New Age Movement (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 1991).
- On Gnosticism, see Groothuis, Jesus in an Age of Controversy, chapters 5–6.
- Being a Christian requires no “leap of faith” in the sense of fideism, as I argue throughout Christian Apologetics. Rather, we can take a step of faith based on knowledge.
- “The Chalcedonian Definition,” The Westminster Standard, https://thewestminsterstandard.org/the-chalcedonian-creed/.
- I owe this third point to Michael McClymond’s excellent review of The Universal Christ at The Gospel Coalition, September 16, 2019: https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/reviews/universal-christ-richard-rohr.
- See Douglas Groothuis, “Jesus and the Cosmic Christ,” in Jesus in an Age of Controversy (Eugene, OR: Harvest House, 1996). In this chapter, I critique the work of another (then) Catholic priest, Matthew Fox, called The Coming of the Cosmic Christ (New York: HarperOne, 1988), which is quite similar to Rohr’s book.
- Rohr denies the biblical view of sin — with a lot of caricatures thrown in — on pages 59–63.
- The chapter, “Why Did Jesus Die?” explains Rohr’s rejection of Christ’s substitutionary atonement.
- Charles David Eldridge, Christianity’s Contributions to Civilization (Nashville: Cokesbury Press, 1929) and Rodney Stark, The Victory of Reason How Christianity Led to Freedom, Capitalism, and Western Success (New York: Random House, 2006).
- On the work of Christ, see John Stott’s magisterial book, The Cross of Christ (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1986).