This Time Last Year

This time last year I spent five weeks in Germany, four in Dresden taking a language course at the Goethe Institut. On the weekends we tried to get out a little to see something of the country. This weekend we went to the sächsische Schweiz – the Saxon Switzerland, a national park on the Elbe River, about 30 kilometres from Dresden and close to the Czech border. I am sitting next to Maylis from Geneva who was not in our class, but in a higher class. Geneva is in the French-speaking section of Switzerland and Maylis was improving her German to improve her employment opportunities.

Next to Maylis is Tony from Saskatchewan in Canada. Tony was in my class, learning German as a hobby and perhaps reclaiming his roots since he has German forebears. Next to Tony was Donald, a very typical older New Yorker, bold, self-sufficient, a little crusty, and really quite remarkable, flying to another country to learn a new language at 82 years of age. He was in a beginner’s class, and so not in our class. Maybe I can still be travelling and learning at that age!

The next two women were also in my class. Anna, from Japan, was born in Germany because her parents lived and worked there when they were young. Now she has left her homeland to do the same. She was at the Institut for three months and then planned to move to München to find work. And next to Anna is Maria, originally from Spain but now working in a German-speaking area of Switzerland.

A couple of days after this Tony and Maria ended their course while Anna and I stayed on. Others in the class also left and it shrank from seven or eight members to three (there was another young man from Columbia, a cheeky fun-loving gay dude who had moved to Germany for work and the experience). I was left as the old bloke in the class…

This was a much better day than the previous weekend when we visited the historic town of Meissen, a pretty town a little down the Elbe from Dresden. That had been a miserable day, cold, rainy, pure east German autumn! 

We had a beautiful Autumn day for hiking in the rather spectacular hills here. The first photo is from one of the lookouts, looking up the Elbe toward the Czech border. The second is the bridge and view in the unusual hill formations that make this region famous.

It is really worth a visit if you are ever in central Europe. I would like to go again!

Just Arrived: Beyond Four Walls

Look what arrived in the mail this afternoon!

Good friend and partner in crime, Peter Elliott and I have been working on this for quite some time now, with a big push in the second half of last year, and then a final push just a few weeks ago. Wonderful to see it now in print.

Beyond Four Walls was the title of a Conference held at Vose Seminary several years ago; this is a peer-reviewed selection of the many papers presented at the Conference. The book has fifteen chapters including three by Scot McKnight, and other chapters by theologians and ministers from around Australia and New Zealand. I will blog excerpts and summaries of some of the chapters over the next few weeks and months. There is some great stuff in this book!

My own chapter is a theological interpretation of the Book of Jonah entitled “Jonah’s Wail: The Death and Resurrection of a Recalcitrant Church.” When I told a friend who is an Old Testament scholar the title of my essay, he just groaned and said, “Don’t!”

But I did!

Beyond Four Walls: Explorations in Being the Church is published by Wipf & Stock as part of the Australian College of Theology Monograph Series. We are indebted to the ACT’s support of this project, and especially the diligent and enthusiastic help of Megan Powell du Toit.

Vose Seminary will host a book launch for this volume, probably in the early evening of October 21, COVID permitting. I will advertise the book launch once details are finalised. Vose will place an order for the volumes shortly, if you would like a hard copy, or come visit us at the launch!

Listening to Books

Recently I have listened to three very interesting and enjoyable books. The first was Kantian Reason and Hegelian Spirit: The Idealistic Logic of Modern Theology by Gary Dorrien. This is a large and somewhat sprawling book tracing the development of modern philosophical theology from Kant through Tillich, concerned mainly with the German idealists, but including other theologians especially from the UK, and of course, the melancholy Dane. Dorrien tells the story of this theology as though it was and remains the only game in town. Evidently, this is not correct, and one need not agree with his liberal theological vision to appreciate his achievement in this book.

The value of the book is the enthusiasm with which Dorrien tells his story, the detail he provides of their affairs and thought, peccadilloes and motivations; the rich biographical excursions illuminate the theologian’s thought. Dorrien traces the themes that characterise their work, and shows its development within this tradition of modern theology, explores the work of the well-known figures such as Kant and Schleiermacher, and less well known but still significant figures such as Strauss or Schelling or Temple. What I appreciated most about the book as I listened was Dorrien’s evident sympathy for his chosen topic and his heroes.  This is important, for even if in the end one does not agree with the substance of his story–that the idealist tradition is the substance and future of Christian theology–one must still understand these men on their own terms and in accordance with the convictions that animated their work. Anyone seeking an understanding of modern theology will benefit from this book.

The second book is Charles Curran’s The Development of Moral Theology: Five Strands, though it would more accurately be titled, the development of Roman Catholic moral theology. Like Dorrien, Curran takes an historical approach to his topic. His five strands in the development of moral theology are, in order, sin, reconciliation, and the penitential manuals; the teaching of Thomas Aquinas and his followers; natural law; the papal teaching office, especially its development in the twentieth-century; and Vatican II.

Curran is a distinguished and competent tour guide, pointing out the nuances, developments, and distinctions in this tradition. I found his discussion of natural law to be very interesting, especially his demonstration that there is no monolithic or consistent view of natural law in the history of moral theology, and his discussion of the modern prominence of the papal teaching office. Curran belongs to that group within Roman Catholicism that wants to be faithful to the Catholic tradition but not in a slavish sense. He argues that modern Catholic moral theology has an authority problem due to inherent tensions arising in the interaction of these various strands. He demonstrates and illustrates this problem with discussion of particular issues such as Roman Catholic teaching on contraception. Another good book that will repay careful consideration.

Finally, I listened to Tara Isabella Burton’s Strange Rites: New Religions for a Godless World. The book is journalistic and sociological rather than theological,  though Burton does have a doctorate in theology from Oxford. This is a fascinating and for me, a quite disquieting book. Its central claim is that the early twenty-first century in the West is not a godless world as commonly claimed; rather our culture is in the midst of a massive development of spirituality in which traditional religion is not so much rejected as remixed in accordance with personal, idiosyncratic, and bespoke spiritual preferences.

Burton speaks of such things as fandom, witchcraft and wellness, social justice activism, alt-right atavism, and other prominent pursuits as ‘new religious movements.’ She argues that these movements provide a sense of community and belonging, rituals and practices, and in so doing provide a sense of identity and metaphysical meaning to make sense of one’s life and purpose. They function in similar ways that religion has functioned in previous generations. Burton writes as a millennial of millennials, at times perhaps overstating her case but also providing detailed descriptive portrayals of how these spiritualities are expressed in everyday lives.

Several things are highlighted and apparent in this telling: the spiritualities discussed are primarily amongst the young and the urban; I note the centrality of the internet and social media in these burgeoning movements; the similar centrality of marketing and a capitalist ethos that permeates, supports, and facilitates (exploits?) the expressions of these spiritualities; sex and sexuality are prominent in many of the spiritual expressions; and there is an ironic disparity between the idea of a bespoke religious experience or expression, and the fact that it is marketed to thousands if not millions of adherents.

I found the book very confronting. I cannot help but wonder at the seeming irrelevance of the church with respect to these movements. I am dismayed that failures in the church have contributed to the disconnect that this generation has with traditional – or even progressive – Christianity. But I also suspect that this is not merely a result of Christian failures, but also of the aggressively anti-Christian philosophy that has permeated our cultural institutions in the second half of the twentieth-century up to the present.

A final central thesis Burton argues is that these new religious movements are not merely ‘bespoke’ but are grounded in an intuitionalism that prioritises individual feeling and experience. At the heart of these movements is the individual and their own centrality. I suspect that this age-old temptation will not end well for most of the participants in these movements, or for the society as a whole. Some will grow out of what appears to be an adolescent fixation, though many may retain the adolescent fantasies for the whole of their life. Some will profit from the movements. Others will remain devotees. But many, too, will find themselves empty and frustrated at unfulfilled promises.

My hope is that the church will resist the siren call to adapt themselves to these spiritualities in hope of winning some of the adherents. My hope is that the church will resist the pull of intuitionalism and will continue to proclaim loudly and clearly the gospel of Jesus Christ as the true hope of humanity, and the true answer to their spiritual hunger because Jesus Christ is himself the Truth. And I hope, too, that churches might be and become vibrant spiritual communities of such love, holiness, and kindness that they become beacons of life, welcome, and hope for those who find themselves washed up on the shores of a soulless, commercialised or politicised spirituality that has promised the world and delivered – not much.

A Sermon on Sunday – John 5:1-20

At our church we have been reflecting on the seven signs of Jesus in the gospel of John. We are now up to sign number three, the healing of the lame man at the pool of Bethesda in Jerusalem (see John 5:1-20). I was given the task of introducing the sign by teaching, providing some background, giving an overview or account of the main features of the passage, and so on. Subsequent messages will then reflect on the sign from different perspectives such as its meaning or use with respect to prayer, discipleship, relationships, or mission.

As I prepared for the message I was confronted by the fact that I did not really ‘get’ the passage; it seemed weird to me. Of course I have read it many times in the past, and even preached on it, I think. But coming to it now, I found it disruptive, unusual, challenging.

And so did many in the congregation. We had a brief Q&A session after the message, and the folk raised questions about my interpretation of the passage. One person found themselves fuming while I preached because it was evident I was wrong! It was a great time of discussion and continued reflection. I love it that the Scriptures can still speak to us freshly, and that we as the church can discuss and debate our understanding, and come to a deeper apprehension of what God is saying to us through his Word. I am reminded of a saying attributed to John Robinson, one of the Pilgrim pastors, to the effect that “God has still more light and truth to break forth for us from his Word.”

And something else happened while I was preaching this message: unexpected humour. I had not planned on some of the things I said; it just happened. And in the dynamic between preacher and congregation something awoke and we were carried along together.

There’s a fine line to be observed here. I think that if I’d tried to be amusing it would have fallen flat. That was not part of my intent. I don’t mind humour, and in fact, can often appreciate it. Nevertheless, the intent of the preacher should never be to draw attention to themselves but to proclaim Jesus Christ.

On the other hand I was glad that the message went the way it did. I think it helped make the story come alive, to embed it more deeply into memory, to highlight something about it unfamiliar to those who have heard it all before.

Preaching is hard work, a never-ending challenge, and my hope is always to communicate faithfully the message I hear in the passage I am studying. That people receive it as God’s Word is not something in any preacher’s power, but something for which we can only pray. But it is fun, it is rewarding, when we sense the Spirit speaking his Word again, here and now in our time and place.

If you are interested, you can listen to the message here.

Real Good-Looking Boy

 

I’ve been enjoying listening again to this song from the later career of the Who. It’s a nice ballad with an evocative lyric and a cool moment of inter-textuality as Roger Daltry channels his inner Elvis. Pete Townsend has told a little of the story behind the story:

Real Good Looking Boy is a song I wrote quite a few years ago about two young men who worry about their looks. One of them, based on me – hopes and believes he might look like his best friend who is a conventionally handsome fellow. (He is disavowed of this notion by his mother). The second, based on Roger – hopes and believes he will one day turn out to be like the young Elvis. (He, more happily, sees part of his dream come true.)

They both find love in later life (Pete Townsend).

 

Who Am I? (Bonhoeffer)

Peter Kline, ‘Bonhoeffer,’ acrylic on paper, Australia, 2018

Who am I? They often tell me
I would step from my cell’s confinement 
calmly, cheerfully, firmly,
like a squire from his country-house.

Who am I? They often tell me
I would talk to my warders
freely and friendly and clearly,
as though it were mine to command.

Who am I? They also tell me
I would bear the days of misfortune
equably, smilingly, proudly,
like one accustomed to win.

Am I then really all that which other men tell of?
Or am I only what I know of myself,
restless and longing and sick, like a bird in a cage,
struggling for breath, as though hands were compressing my throat,
yearning for colours, for flowers, for the voices of birds,
thirsting for words of kindness, for neighbourliness,
trembling with anger at despotism and petty humiliation,
tossing in expectation of great events,
powerlessly trembling for friends at an infinite distance,
weary and empty at praying, at thinking, at making, 
faint, and ready to say farewell to it all?

Who am I? This or the other?
Am I one person today, and tomorrow another?
Am I both at once? A hypocrite before others,
and before myself a contemptibly woebegone weakling?
Or is something within me still like a beaten army,
fleeing in disorder from a victory already achieved?

Who am I? They mock me, these lonely questions of mine.
Whoever I am, thou knowest, O God, I am thine.

(Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Letters & Papers from Prison,
 New Greatly Enlarged Edition (New York: Touchstone, 1971), 347-348

Born into a well-to-do family in Berlin in 1906, Dietrich Bonhoeffer knew his station in life, was accustomed to his liberty, and generally had the resources available to secure it. Imprisoned in Tegel, and deprived of every normal comfort, Bonhoeffer struggles now with what is left once the various markers that had anchored his identity have been stripped away.

In his essay on Bonhoeffer and the question of Christian identity, Jens Zimmermann applies Paul Ricoeur’s theory of identity to Bonhoeffer (in Houston & Zimmermann (eds), Sources of the Christian Self: A Cultural History of Christian Identity, 628-647). Idem identity refers to that ‘sameness’ of the self that endures through time, the sense of permanence in terms of characteristics and habits that declare what kind of person we are. Ipse identity refers to one’s personal agency, our self-constancy in the face of challenge when idem identity falters or fails. The generality of ‘what’ becomes more specifically and personally, ‘who.’ Typically, the kind of person we are, and who we understand ourselves to be, find a sense of coherence in a narrative that integrates events and character centred on a personal self we can identify. Yet what happens if one loses control of the narrative, if the crucible of life exerts such pressure that our narrative is forcibly changed or reconfigured in ways contrary to our subjectivity? What, then? Zimmermann suggests that this is what we find in Bonhoeffer’s Who am I?

The three opening stanzas portray Bonhoeffer as he is perceived by others, with a bearing that reflects the kind of person he has become in accordance with the formation which occurred in his family life, education, and other life developments and opportunities. Like a squire coming from his country home, like one accustomed to command and to win. His bearing is that of formative habituation, and in a very real sense, this is who he is.

Or is it? He is not in command nor at liberty—at least, not as he was used to. Is he really that which others say of him? Is ascribed identity his real identity? Is he merely what others see in him? Perhaps it is actually him after all? It is, after all, his action, long practised and deeply ingrained. These are habits of life, relationship, being, and carriage that he has chosen and lived; it is not something merely ascribed as though he had no essential relation to what others now think of him. And yet, his external bearing does not reflect his internal turmoil.

Is his identity really that which he knows of himself—something vastly different from his public persona? The language of the longer central stanza is the haunted voice of his inner unrest, his weakness and powerlessness, his loss of liberty and desperate yearning for the smallest kindness or grace of life.

And so, who am I?—This man as seen by others, or this whom I feel myself to be? Who am I before others—a hypocrite? Before myself—contemptible? Am I both these men? Neither? Who am I? What is my identity?

In the end it is not a question Bonhoeffer can answer, and in the end, he turns from it and lets it go. In the end it is neither a matter of how he appears before others or before himself. Both the approving court of external opinion and the harsh court of internal censure are set to one side. Such opinions, questions and determinations can only mock; they are not a path toward reality or peace. One’s identity rests not in others’ opinions or in one’s own reflections, but in a source external to ourselves. Ricoeur noticed this.

In the final analysis, the ipse or true selfhood that persists when all other aspects of identity fall away consists in the address from beyond itself by another to which the self responds, ‘here am I’ (Zimmermann, 634).

Zimmermann notes that Ricoeur would not identify the source of this address which calls to and grounds the ‘I’—philosophy forbids such identification. This Other could be God, or it could be another person, or perhaps one’s own very self, or perhaps an empty space. Bonhoeffer as a Christian, however, has no such hesitation:

Whoever I am, thou knowest O God, I am thine.

Who he is, whether before others or himself, is a question he cannot answer. But he knows, and he knows that God knows—which is the truly important thing—that he is God’s. His identity and being lie not in himself but in God. And in this he can rest.

‘Prophetic’ Proclamation or Didactic Doctrine?

In 1963 Emil Brunner wrote that, ‘A further consequence that necessarily follows from the basic error of orthodoxy is the overvaluation of doctrine in the life of the church and in the faith of the individual’ (Truth as Encounter, 178)—this from a man who spent his life teaching and writing books on Christian doctrine! Brunner has not had a change of heart whereby he now considers doctrine to be deleterious to the life of faith or the life of the church. To the contrary sound doctrine is greatly desired and necessary. Still, he asserts that doctrine can be ‘overvalued.’

First it is necessary briefly to note the ‘basic error of orthodoxy’ to which Brunner refers. The error is what he calls objectivism, the idea that somehow God’s activity stands complete in and of itself whether or not there is any human response or correspondence to that activity. This view pictures God’s work in impersonal terms and as such departs from what Brunner considers a more biblical portrayal of God as relational and personal. Thus, Brunner views with suspicion concepts of grace, the church, or the sacraments in which the divine activity is institutionalised or rendered automatic or mechanical in its operation. Brunner uses the practice of baptism as an example. Baptism is a work of divine grace in which God is active forgiving sin, cleansing, and regenerating. But it is not an act of God solely, for the human agent is also active having been moved by grace in faith and confession. Any practice of the sacrament that either implicitly or explicitly diminishes or removes the human element so that the requirement of faith is removed ‘destroys’ the character of the sacrament (181-184). Brunner’s view is that God’s grace and truth is always an ‘event’ in which the person is encountered by God in such a way that their personal response is called for and called forth.

With this background we can begin to explore Brunner’s point in the citation above. Brunner insists that the primary commission received by the church is not doctrine but proclamation.

Proclamation, I suppose, must always have a doctrinal content, but it is itself something other than doctrine. It is faith awakening, faith-furthering, faith-wooing address. Genuine proclamation always has a prophetic character – even if we preachers are no prophets; pure doctrine, on the other hand, has a didactic character (178).

As Brunner uses the term, prophetic refers not to foretelling future events or preaching about social issues or condemning various evils—two common misconceptions. Rather it is hortatory address, calling people to respond to God and his promises. It is to be a messenger of the covenant as the Old Testament prophets are sometimes characterised, calling people to faith in God. The prophet confronts the hearer with the reality of God and calls for a decision. Teaching, on the other hand, is didactic, instructional, the communication of information that may or may not have any direct existential claim upon the hearer.

Brunner rejects, therefore, a direct identification of doctrine with ‘the Word of God.’ The Word of God is the event whereby a person is addressed by God through the human word of proclamation in such a way that the response of faith and obedience is aroused. In the modern period especially, Brunner contends, proclamation is more necessary than teaching if the church is to fulfil its missionary commission (198). This is even more the case in the postmodern and post-Christian environment in which we now live.

Once let the relation between the Word of God and doctrine be rightly understood, and there will hardly be room any longer for the view that the single thing which the church could do for the awakening of faith is the conceptual clarification of the Holy Scriptures. Has it, then, not yet been noticed that the most perfect knowledge of Biblical concepts and the entire acceptance of Biblical doctrine is wholly compatible with the completest want of actual faith – and indeed that this is anything but a rare phenomenon? (180)

I am sure that Brunner’s reflection provides crucial guidance for the present task of preaching. Matthew’s gospel tells us that Jesus went about teaching (didaskōn), preaching (kērussōn), and healing. Teaching is certainly necessary for those who are already Christians. But even more now than in Brunner’s day the church in the west exists in a missionary context. We would do well to infuse all our sermons with a kerygmatic element—proclamation, and not simply teaching. Such preaching points to the beauty of Jesus Christ, his sovereignty, grace, promise and redemption, and on this basis, calls people to repentance and faith. Such preaching seeks not merely to inform but to call for an informed decision. That such a decision is actually made is not our work, however, but the work of the Holy Spirit. For this we can and should pray.

Spiritual Conversation

We had our final Zoom Church service this morning; well, for now at least. From next Sunday our church will be meeting in person again, gathering for worship, fellowship, and teaching, and it seems that most of us are pretty keen to be back together again.

Our church is a smaller congregation with a mostly older demographic. The leadership did not even really consider the possibility of ‘live-streaming’ or pre-recording a service for distribution on the internet.

I’m glad. We would not have had the technical capability to do so, and I am sure the product would have been very poor. Instead they opted for a live Zoom Church model with two or so YouTube  worship clips, one to start and one at communion. There was pastoral time, a shortened message, and general conversation at the end that most times included some Q&A around the topic of the message. They worked hard to make sure that our most senior members had devices, could get logged on, could make contact during lockdown via Facebook or email, and could join church services on Zoom. We had folk in their nineties who had never used a computer before joining in like old pros!

I’ve enjoyed Zoom Church. It’s been easy for me since I am not one of the organisers! Before Zoom I was at church early every week to help set up and participate in the worship ministry. For the last two months or more I have Zoomed in at 9:28am or so, wearing pretty casual around-the-house kind of clothes, participated in the service, and at the end, I was already home! It’s been a pretty-relaxed couple of months.

This relaxed approach to church can be deceptive, however. “How can I offer to the Lord that which costs me nothing?” asked David in Chronicles. It is possible that Zoom Church could reinforce the sense of worship and fellowship as optional aspects of Christian life. It could also reinforce a passive, individualist, or consumerist approach to Christian life and worship, although Zoom Church could be better in this respect than live-streaming. At least we can speak to and interact with one another in real time.

Actually this was both a blessing and a difficulty. I found the conversation time at the end of the service could be difficult with one person only at a time being able to talk. Typically our church gathers for ‘foyer time’ – coffee and cake and all kinds of goodies, as well as conversations that can linger on for longer than the service itself. Multiple conversations and prayers happen in this time, and frankly, I prefer the foyer to Zoom.

In Zoom Church we can see faces and hear voices which is great. But it is not the same as the embodied presence of one another when we are all together. Christianity is an embodied religion – think incarnation; think resurrection; think the church as the Body of Christ – and in this respect Zoom is less than adequate.

And embodied gathering is local, public, and visible in a way that Zoom Church is not, and this, too, is part of what it means to be the people of God in the world. The digital environment is a representation that does not yet mediate reality; I doubt it ever will. Reality is messier and more demanding.

But a blessing of Zoom Church has been a new experience and depth of spiritual conversation. At the end of the service many in the congregation have stayed online and we have opened discussions around the content of the message and theme preached. And sometimes, this has been very rich indeed. It was this morning, as different members shared insights and experiences of prayer, faith, brokenness, and hope. I came away from the service grateful for the privilege of having been there, enriched by the depth of conversation, in awe of the way in which God was teaching and forming us through the priesthood of all believers.

As we return to gathered services next week, the leadership of the church are planning to gather differently. We are not going back to ‘business as usual,’ but are endeavouring to retain some of the advances we have made in Zoom Church. Foremost for me, is the hope that we can retain and grow in this practice of spiritual conversation.

On May One Flee a Deadly Plague?

The latest edition of The Advocate is now available (published by the Baptist Churches of Western Australia). During COVID this has been a digital publication only. This month’s edition has many reflections with respect to the situation in which we find ourselves, including my brief reflection on Martin Luther’s 1527 letter On Whether One May Flee a Deadly Plague.

My article starts as follows:

The Reformers had first-hand experience with the plague, which struck with great fear. In the mid-fourteenth century it devastated Europe, killing tens of millions of people in only five years. And every decade or so afterwards it would return bringing fear and death.

Ulrich Zwingli almost died of it in 1519 in Zurich. Andreas von Karlstadt did die of it in Basel in 1541. And Luther, too, experienced it in Wittenberg in 1527, ironically, as he responded to a letter asking Whether One May Flee from a Deadly Plague.

You can read the whole article on page 13 here.

Richard Rohr’s Falling Upwards (2)

In my earlier post on Richard Rohr’s Falling Upwards I endeavoured to set forth sufficiently and sympathetically, the central tenets of his spiritual vision. It is a vision of ageing gracefully by finding a way—being led—to personal and spiritual maturity. The measures of this maturity are indicators such as being freed from the narrowness of self-serving ego needs, and of dualistic and exclusivist patterns of thought. The mature person has learnt to accept reality, and others, as they are, and have become more self-critical than critical of others. They have learnt that the secret of internal freedom and happiness is to ‘receive and return the loving gaze of God every day’ (159).

The book sets forth a range of perceptive insights and warnings that we do well to reflect upon. For example, Rohr insists that change and growth, movement and direction are integral aspects of a mature spirituality. Similarly, he warns that sin repressed or denied will surely break-out elsewhere. He wisely admonishes his readers toward practices of solitude and friendship, and reminds us that there is a connection between personal and spiritual maturity, and that we cannot ignore the one in the pursuit of the other. He speaks of the place of Jesus and of the church in his spiritual vision: ‘I quote Jesus because I still consider him to be the spiritual authority of the Western world, whether we follow him or not. . . . Jesus for me always clinches the deal, and I sometimes wonder why I did not listen to him in the first place’ (81).[1] The church he regards as ‘both my greatest intellectual and moral problem and my most consoling home’ (80). The church functions like a cauldron:

A crucible as you know, is a vessel that holds molten metal in one place long enough to be purified and clarified. Church membership requirements, church doctrine, and church morality force almost all issues to an inner boiling point, where you are forced to face important issues at a much deeper level to survive as a Catholic or a Christian, or even as a human. I think this is probably true of any religious community, if it is doing its job. Before the truth ‘sets you free,’ it tends to make you miserable (74).

At the heart of his spiritual vision lies what he calls an ‘incarnational mysticism,’ a two-sided spirituality deeply grounded and engaged in the world and in ‘mystical union’ with God (75-78). It is incarnational as it is open to, inclusive of, and embracing the world in all its diversity, suffering, and beauty; mystical in its desire for immediacy, to abide in, as we have already noted, the loving gaze of God.

Despite the various strengths and claims of the book, I find I remain ambivalent toward this vision. Behind every exposition of spirituality lies a theological or philosophical vision of God and reality that in turn shapes the distinguishing features of the spirituality being proposed. As I understand it, Rohr’s theological vision is the product of a pluralist understanding of divine operations and revelation, and of human encounter with and participation in the divine. The spiritual quest is a universal impulse and Christianity is just one expression among many religious and non-religious quests for the truth. It is one expression of the primary spiritual insights which are found also in the writings of other religious leaders, poets, myth-makers, mystics, psychologists, and so on.

The portrayal of God in this book is remarkably thin and one-sided:

There is not one clear theology of God, Jesus or history presented, despite our attempt to pretend there is. The only consistent pattern I can find is that all the books of the Bible seem to agree that somehow God is with us and we are not alone. God and Jesus’ only job description is one of constant renewals of bad deals. The tragic sense of life is ironically not tragic at all, at least in the Big Picture. . . . Faith is simply to trust the real, and to trust that God is found within it—even before we change it (62-63).

The tactic applied here is not uncommon; find and emphasise the diversity of witness in the biblical documents and then use the fact of this diversity to discredit the reliability of the whole. This is lazy theology, though very convenient, for then one can introduce one’s own ‘reading’ as the explanation, or the meaning, or the key. In this case the knowledge we might have of God is stripped back almost to an empty abstraction. Is the gospel as vague and as bland as presented here—somehow God is with us and we are not alone? Is this really the extent of that for which we might hope? Is it the case that this ‘god’ exists merely to clean up our mess—and that we are those who will change the real? Somewhat ironically, just two pages earlier Rohr had complained that ‘organised religion has not been known for its inclusiveness or for being very comfortable with diversity’ (60). Although social diversity is an imperative, diversity in Scripture renders it questionable.

Rohr’s reading of Scripture and of the gospel thus appears somewhat reductionist, as he selects and emphasises only some aspects of the biblical-gospel narrative at the expense of other elements. His reading of the atonement, for example, is exemplarist and Girardian, and discounts the testimony and imagery of Paul, Peter, John, and Hebrews with respect to Jesus’ saving death on the cross (68-69). He interprets God’s forgiveness as a sign that ‘God is saying that God’s own rules do not matter as much as the relationship that God wants to create with us’ (56-57). It seems to me, however, that this is precisely the opposite of what the New Testament declares, that the very act of forgiveness, together with its necessity, presupposes that the ‘rules’ matter a great deal. In this respect Rohr’s position not only diminishes the New Testament portrayal of the cross of Jesus, but also treats the idea of sin—which surely includes the inhumanity and abuse of some towards others—as something negligible or easily dismissed. The Bible, on the other hand, approaches all kinds of sin with great seriousness.

Rohr argues for a spirituality based in ‘Big Picture incarnational mysticism.’ The Big Picture is a mechanism for side-stepping the particularities and details of a biblical vision in favour of a few generic universal principles. The image of the incarnation is employed with a dual purpose. On the one hand it affirms a spirituality of service amid the harsh realities of life in the world—something I also affirm. On the other hand, however, Rohr also uses it to affirm Western cultural priorities as though these are a religious obligation. This is cultural Christianity, something he otherwise rejects when it differs from his own cultural preference. Mystic desire or experience grounds the spirituality as a religious phenomenon without tying the adherent to any particular portrayal of God beyond the notion of God as absolute and unconditional love.

In the end Rohr’s spirituality appears as related variety of the ‘moralistic therapeutic deism’ that Christian Smith argued has become a major religious faith in North America. To me, this is not so much an exposition of Christian spirituality (and certainly not a biblical spirituality), as an exposition of a generic ‘spirituality’ suited perhaps for those who might claim to be ‘spiritual but not religious.’ This is a spirituality amenable for those who consider themselves ‘progressive’ whether religiously inclined or not. Richard Rohr himself is, of course, religious—he has been a Roman Catholic priest for most of his life, and finds his ‘most consoling home’ in the church. But he also admits that this is not a necessity per se. Other religious communities could just as easily assist and guide a person on their spiritual journey. I suspect, however, that some of his followers will not have the same degree of attachment to the church that he has, and may be led by this account of spirituality away from the God and the Jesus portrayed in Scripture, and into a spirituality and form of life of their own devising. Christians, whether Roman Catholics, Protestants, or disaffected evangelicals can do better much than this.

[1] It would be of interest, however, to assess Rohr’s understanding of Jesus in light of his more recent The Universal Christ (2019) in which he aims, according to one reviewer, to distinguish between Jesus and ‘Christ,’ with Jesus understood as limited, particular, and earthbound, while ‘Christ’ is unlimited, universal, and cosmic. I suspect that this move would allow him to displace the particularity of what Jesus actually says and does as recorded in the gospels, with an idiosyncratic content predicated upon his vision the universal Christ.