Thursday, January 5, 2017

Richard Rohr: An Appreciation, by Rowland Croucher


(An article submitted to The Melbourne Anglican for publication in their February 2017 edition)

Father Richard Rohr, a contemporary Franciscan theologian, pastor and teacher, is famous for giving us at least a thousand quotable quotes…


* ’Without us God will not. But without God we cannot.’

* ’Much contemporary preaching may be inspirational and even good theology, but it often just remains on the level of anecdote… seldom connecting the dots or seeing the developing tangents… One dot is not wisdom. You can prove anything you want from a single Scripture quote.’

* ’Some would think… the whole meaning of Christianity is to be able to decide who’s going to heaven and who isn’t. This is much more a search for control than it is a search for truth, love, or God.’

* ’Christians are usually sincere and well-intentioned people until you get to any real issues of ego, control/power, money, pleasure, and security. Then they tend to be pretty much like everybody else. We are often given a bogus version of the Gospel, some fast-food religion, without any deep transformation of the self; and the result has been the spiritual disaster of "Christian" countries that tend to be as consumer-oriented, proud, warlike, racist, class conscious, and addictive as everybody else-and often more so, I'm afraid.’

* ’The people who know God well - mystics, hermits, prayerful people, those who risk everything to find God - always meet a lover, not a dictator.’

* ’If you were going to create a religion, who would think of creating as your religious image a naked, bleeding, wounded man? It is the most likely image for God; the most illogical image for Omnipotence.’

* ‘Every time God forgives us, God is saying that God's own rules do not matter as much as the relationship that God wants to create with us.’

* ‘The full and final Biblical message is restorative justice, but most of history has only been able to understand retributive justice. Now, I know you’re probably thinking of many passages in the Old Testament that sure sound like serious retribution. And I can’t deny there are numerous black and white, vengeful scriptures, which is precisely why we must recognize that all scriptures are not equally inspired or from the same level of consciousness.’

Wikipedia summarises the emphases in his writings and teaching: ‘Scripture as liberation, the integration of action and contemplation, incarnation mysticism, community building, peace and social justice issues, male spirituality, the Enneagram, and eco-spirituality.’

Richard Rohr was born in Kansas, joined the Franciscans in 1961, and was ordained as priest in 1970. He has a master’s in theology (1970, University of Dayton). Richard has authored thirty books (the latest, The Divine Dance: The Trinity and Your Transformation, co-authored with Mike Morrell, was published in 2016). He writes for Sojourners, the Huffington Post etc. has been interviewed on the Oprah Winfrey and NPR shows and was one of the spiritual leaders featured in the 2006 documentary film ONE: The Movie. He has participated in media presentations with luminaries such as Rob Bell, Joan Chittister, Shane Claiborne, Laurence Freeman, Thomas Keating, Jim Wallis and the Dalai Lama.

If we must engage in ‘hardening of the categories’ let’s put him with the people in his Annotated Bibliographies: like James Alison, Marcus Borg, Walter Brueggemann, Rene Girard, Gerald May, Eugene Peterson (‘The Message is one of the most brilliant scholarly paraphrasing of the Scriptures I have ever read’), E.F. Schumacher, Eckhart Tolle, Alan Watts, Ken Wilber… (Theologically he describes himself as occupying a place ‘on the edge of the inside.’)

The best place to start exploring Richard’s wisdom is not, however, to put him into a theological box or category (he despises terms such as ‘liberal’, ‘progressive’, ‘conservative’, ‘fundamentalist’). Start - with all mystics - with his wisdom on love. Like these:

[Create a box for these quotes]


* ’As long as your ego is in charge, you will demand a retributive God; you’ll insist that hell is necessary. But if you have been transformed by love, hell will no longer make sense to you because you know that God has always loved you in your sinfulness.’

* ‘It is not that if I am moral, then I will be loved by God, but rather I must first come to experience God’s love, and then I will - almost naturally - be moral.’

* ’The people who know God well - mystics, hermits, prayerful people, those who risk everything to find God - always meet a lover, not a dictator.’

* All we can do is fall into the Eternal Mercy, where we fall into a net out of which we cannot fall.’

* ‘Love is the true goal, but faith is the process of getting there, and hope is the willingness to live without resolution or closure.’


I first ‘met’ Richard in the 1980s via his teaching cassettes when he was the charismatic (in both senses) leader of the New Jerusalem Community in Cincinnati, Ohio.

He currently serves as Founding Director and Academic Dean of the Living School for Action and Contemplation (CAC) in Albuquerque, New Mexico. The CAC’s curriculum has seven themes, addressed in his excellent daily prayer resource Yes, And… [2013] which is the culmination of Richard’s life-long ‘yes, and…’ non-dualistic way of seeing all reality. He aims to avoid dichotomies, unifying what is usually divided - the sacred and profane, natural and unnatural, contemplation and activism, life and death, orthodoxy and orthopraxy, prophetic and priestly, faith-plus-reason-plus-experience…

Yes, and… features 366 meditations, each written by Rohr and adapted or excerpted from his many written and recorded works. It’s an excellent daily prayer resource for those who are looking for an alternate way to live out their faith—a way centered in the open-minded search for spiritual relevance of a transforming nature.
The meditations are arranged around seven themes:

* Methodology: Scripture as validated by experience, and experience as validated by tradition, are good scales for one’s spiritual worldview

* Foundation: If God is Trinity and Jesus is the face of God, then we live in a benevolent universe

* Frame: There is only one Reality. Any distinction between natural and supernatural, sacred and profane is a bogus one

* Ecumenism: Everything belongs and no one needs to be scapegoated or excluded. Evil and illusion must be named truthfully: they die in exposure to the light

* Transformation: The separate self is the problem, whereas most religion makes the ‘shadow self’ the problem. This leads to denial, pretending, and projecting instead of the real transformation into the Divine

* Process: The path of descent is the path of transformation. Darkness, failure, relapse, death, and roundedness are our key teachers, rather than ideas or doctrines

* Goal: Reality is paradoxical and complementary. Non-dual thinking is the highest level of consciousness. Divine union, not private perfection, is the goal of religion.

One reviewer's wise summary: ‘This book of meditations may have the chance at transformation, not because it gives instructions on what to do or how to change, but because it helps us see reality differently… Read this book and you will find in Richard Rohr a spiritual director, a well of wisdom, a sacred companion, and a vision that will help you see not only what could be, but already is. Enjoy the journey.’ [The Englewood Review of Books, November 2013]


One of his most strategic ministries is the international movement he founded focussing on encouraging men towards greater spiritual consciousness - Men As Learners & Elders (M.A.L.E.s). At one of his men’s retreats in Arizona I vividly recall standing with the other guys in a circle, and each of us had to shout out to the group the main ‘put-down’ which came to mind from an authority-figure back in our childhood. Mine: ‘Rowland, you’re a nuisance, asking all those questions!’ Then we started again, each of us shouting the same words: ‘I’m a loved son of God!’ There were tears everywhere…

I asked Richard if we could have a private lunch. ‘Of course’, he responded. His first question: ‘Rowland, you’re not doing this to get me to Australia are you?’ Moi: ‘Who me? That’s up to God and you!’ It was 8 April 2005 and we talked about Pope John Paul 2 (whose funeral/Requiem Mass was being held as we spoke: it set world records both for attendance and number of heads of state present at a funeral). Verdict: 'Good man in many respects, but unfortunately, he was a bully.’

Soon afterwards Richard did come DownUnder - then maybe eight or ten times more… I remember him telling a packed audience in Melbourne’s Pharmacy College auditorium: ‘Say Yahweh: breathe in, breathe out with each word-utterance.’ And to a conference in Canberra, in response to a question about his gift-with-words: ‘I did not ask for that gift: words just seem to form naturally as I speak.’ And somewhere else (this is also in many of his books): ‘I need a major humiliation every day.’

I remember a few years later talking with a ‘fan’ of Richard’s in our guest room. ‘He’s slept in this room’, I said. The man - a converted ‘biker’ and well-read theologically - got up from his chair and laid his hands reverently on the bed…


Back to quotable quotes. Here are some I marked in a recent re-reading of Things Hidden: Scripture as Spirituality (where he cites Old and New Testament passages on almost every page).

* ‘Most religion [operates on the] assumption that if you pass some sort kind of cosmic SAT test [and] get the right answers, God will like you.’

* ‘Suffering of some sort seems to be the only thing strong enough to destabilise our arrogance and our ignorance. I would define suffering very simply as “whenever you are not in control”.’
* ‘All of the Bible is trying to illustrate through various stories humanity’s objective unity with God.’

* ‘The minds of saints and mystics… tend to be non-dual. They see wholes instead of parts.’

* ‘Jesus is “once and for all” saying blood sacrifice is over, as Rene Girard pointed out so well in Violence and the Sacred.’

* ‘If you are not trained in a trust of mystery and some degree of tolerance for ambiguity, frankly you will not proceed very far on the spiritual journey.’

* ‘It is painful but necessary to be critical of your own system, whatever it is. [That] will never make you popular. The prophets are always rejected by their own (see Luke 12:50-51) and eventually killed’.

* ‘Immature religion creates a high degree of “cognitively rigid” people or very hateful and attacking people - and often both.’

* ‘Without a significant other who is also The Significant Other, we are burdened with being hurt own centre and circumference.’ 

* ‘Jesus defines truth as personal rather than conceptual… [rearranging] the world of religion from arguments over ideas and concepts into a world of encounter, relationship and presence… That changes everything.’

* ‘Saint Bonaventure, scholar and intellectual, said that a cleaning person can know God much better than can a doctor in theology.’

* ‘A true Christian is invariably someone who has met a true Christian.’

* ‘Torah, or Law, is the best and most helpful place to begin, but not the place to stay, and surely not the place to end. “Written letters bring death, but the Spirit alone brings life” as Paul said (2 Corinthians 3:6).’

* ‘A prime idea of the Bible is its very straightforward critique of power, from Genesis to Revelation. For examples of good authority, see Joseph, Moses and Jesus; for bad authority, see almost everybody else!’

FINALLY, if all that’s nice theory, how do we get to practise such love day by day? I can’t think of a better ‘how to’ summary than Richard Rohr offered in an interview with TMA Editor Roland Ashby in December 2006. 

‘One of the particularly beautiful and memorable sentences in Richard Rohr’s latest book Contemplation in Action is, “We are all partial images slowly coming into focus to the degree we allow and filter the light and the love of God.” How, I asked him, can we begin to “allow and filter” God’s light and love?’

Richard’s response: ‘The key to this for me is what I call the contemplative stance, by which I mean trying to live in a constant state of consciousness of union with God. Daily silent periods of prayer and meditation are an important way of developing this consciousness – and in my own life I also try to protect big chunks of solitude and silence, working in the garden and working silently in the house – but the goal of contemplation is to maintain this consciousness whatever you’re doing, whether you’re at work, with other people or on your own.’

Rowland Croucher, December 2016