The Apocryphal Imagination of Richard Rohr

The More I Read of Rohr, the More He Reminds Me of Early Christian Apocryphal Literature

Todd Brewer / 2.11.21

With a book blurb from Bono and interviews with Oprah, it’s fair to say that Richard Rohr is something of a Christian superstar. A Franciscan friar for 50+ years, Rohr’s thought begins from within Christian orthodoxy and pushes it beyond its usual boundaries. He practices a new kind of mysticism, which taps into cultural needs while creatively thinking outside of the box of traditional Christianity.

In his latest book, Rohr offers a Christian mindfulness that tempers its narcissistic potential with an emphasis on love of neighbor and practical service of others. He preaches a Christianity free of judgment alongside a hopeful, loving embrace of the world: an embrace that mirrors God’s own. Erasing the distinction between God and creation, he preaches a God who is found within creation, whose unremitting presence knows no bounds. The person of Jesus was the revelation of the Universal Christ already within all of creation, whom we encounter everywhere in daily life.

As told by Fred Bahnson recently in Harpers, Rohr appeals to those who find themselves on the fringes of modern Christianity, particularly former evangelicals disillusioned by the shallow certainty of their upbringing. Bahnson’s account of the 2019 Rohr conference is a wild journey into a strange land of cannabis, Buddhism, and pagan ritual: all under the banner of Christ.

Rohr is cognizant that his theological trailblazing may appear to have wandered away from orthodoxy. He writes: “This is not heresy, universalism, or a cheap version of Unitarianism. This is the Cosmic Christ, who always was, who became incarnate in time, and who is still being revealed” (p. 48). If Rohr bristles at the heretical label (which far from clear), I’d argue that there is another category that more helpfully captures his theological vision: apocryphal.

What we now call apocryphal texts circulated with varying degrees of success within early Christianity. Some were wildly popular, while others skirted around the fringes. Some were firmly orthodox, while others were more radical. Their stars rose to prominence by reflecting (and answering) cultural questions, but faded once those social winds changed. All of them met the needs of those who read them, but nearly all of them were eventually forgotten, buried in the sands of Egypt.

Many apocryphal texts are not inherently, or even principally, heretical. They are speculative forays from broadly accepted narratives or beliefs, attempting to fill in the gaps of what is believed and infer new possibilities of existing concepts. They offer creative readings of sacred scriptures and theological explorations of underdeveloped concepts. Apocryphal thought is as imaginative as it is precarious.

The more I read of Rohr, the more I am struck by how much he reminds me of the apocryphal literature I’ve studied in early Christianity.

The universal and ubiquitous Christ within creation, for Rohr, builds upon his distinction between the pre-existent Christ and human Jesus. Jesus is the concrete, Christ is universal: “instead of saying that God came into the world through Jesus, maybe it would be better to say that Jesus came out of an already Christ-soaked world. The second incarnation flowed out of the first, out of God’s loving union with physical creation” (p. 15). Rohr admits that this might sound strange, but it’s familiar territory for those who know the Gospel of Philip, which routinely contrasts the particularity of Jesus with the universality of Christ. For Philip, the name “Jesus” is irreducibly particular to Judaism, while the name “Messiah” or “Christ” is universal, being translated across all languages.

The sacredness of everything is hiding everywhere in plain sight, according to Rohr, waiting to be discovered for those with eyes to see Christ in it all. Likewise for Philip, “truth existed since the beginning, it is sown everywhere. And many see it being sown, but few are they who see it being reaped.” Rohr believes that the dualisms of good and evil, heaven and hell, sin and righteousness, are imperial distortions of Christianity. Philip likewise claims, “Light and Darkness, life and death, right and left, are brothers of one another. They are inseparable. Because of this neither are the good, good; nor evil, evil; nor is life, life; nor death, death.”

The contemplative practice of Rohr is a process of self-discovery, “The Christian life is simply a matter of becoming who we already are. But we have to awaken, allow, and advance this core identity by saying a conscious yes to it and drawing upon it as a reliable and Absolute Source” (p. 65). The word “already” is the one that stands out, making the process of becoming inwardly focused. You’d be hard pressed to find the Church Fathers preaching such a message, but this journey of self-discovery neatly mirrors that of the Gospel of Thomas: “When you might know yourselves, then you will be known and understand that you are sons of the living father.” The discovery of one’s “inner light” is the discovery of the hidden kingdom that brings salvation. To reformational ears, “becoming who we already are” sounds more than a little strange (and for good reason).

Fr. Rohr believes his contemplative beliefs trace back within Christianity to the desert monks of the 4th century who sought to distance themselves from Constantinian Christianity. This comparison is perhaps more illuminating than the casual references suggest. These otherwise impeccably orthodox monks are likely the very same monks who read and copied the Gospels of Philip and Thomas.

Like Rohr’s The Universal Christ, apocryphal texts did not usually have overtly revolutionary intent. Their goals appeared more modest: seeking to explain what seemed inconsistent, correcting misunderstandings, cultivating forgotten themes. But at the same time, they take recognizably Christian motifs and stretch their customary meanings in ways that feel familiar and yet radically new, as if what one had been taught about Christianity were a shadow of some deeper, concealed truth. Rohr’s own rhetoric deploys a similar strategy. The adherents of apocryphal texts would have seen them as innovators. To detractors like Irenaeus, they were false prophets: wolves in sheep’s clothing.

Rohr often speaks authoritatively on the damaging effects of the law and beautifully about the wonders of grace, but that’s where similarities between him reformational Christianity both begin and end. By utilizing these classical themes toward the journey of discovering one’s innate true self, Rohr has written his own apocryphal gospel — embedding a modern gospel of self-actualization in old, familiar clothing.

Given his widespread popularity, it’s clear that Rohr is scratching an itch that many people feel. Amid a frenzied world of unrelenting performancism, anxiety, and self-obsession, the contemplative tradition of Christianity could be a powerful antidote. A tradition that draws us out of ourselves and points to Another who does not merely heal our infirmities, but kills and makes us alive into who we were meant to be. If only such a contemplative Christianity were more prominent in Rohr’s writings.

People are genuinely searching for a Christian faith that does not shy away from the realities of life and its many loves, disappointments, joys, and judgments. We need language to make sense of ourselves and the world. We need to see a God who forgives without hesitation in the vision of a bloody cross, where our sin is held by God and redeemed. The kind of God who saves lost sheep, regular church-goers, religious outcasts, and mystic writers: even apocryphal ones.