Fr Richard Rohr joins conversations on Evolutionary Christianity
By Stephanie Block
My friend says it’s “more than a Teilhard fan club. It looks to me like the armies massing for the Last Battle.”
That’s a bit dramatic. She’s been perusing the Evolutionary Christianity website (evolutionarychristianity.com), established to make a tele-seminar series on the topic available. “Join thirty-eight of today’s most inspiring Christian leaders and esteemed scientists,” it explains on the home page, “for a groundbreaking dialogue on how an evolutionary worldview can enrich your life, deepen your faith, and bless our world.”
To access the tele-seminar series, one must register – an act which includes a free subscription to the Evolving Wisdom e-newsletter – at the website. The series has two parts. The first part took place during the Advent-Christmas season (December 4-January 6) 2010-11. Thirty men and women “on the cutting edge of science and religion” gave talks that were streamed by phone and computer and are now available on the Internet.
The second part of the series consisted of seven “live, interactive panel discussions featuring these inspiring thought leaders,” which also can be downloaded from the website. These broadcasts were – and to some extent remain, as they also can be downloaded at any time – interactive, allowing listeners to make comments on the Evolutionary Christianity blog (evolutionarychristianity.com/blog) or its Facebook page.
The goal of the talks and discussions is to present a path between what its participants call “science-rejecting creationism and faith-rejecting atheism.” They find “no conflict between faith and reason, heart and head, Jesus and Darwin. For us, religious faith and spiritual practice can be strengthened and deepened by what God/Reality is revealing through science.”
The explanation continues: “Evolutionary Christianity points to those who value evidence, in a very real sense, as ‘divine communication.’ Whatever our [“our” referring to those committed to the ideas of Evolutionary Christianity] fascinating and at times infuriating differences, we all have deep-time eyes and a global heart—that is, we are all enriched by the evolutionary history of the universe and we are all committed to a just and healthy future for humanity and the larger body of life.”
The differences among the thirty-eight leaders participating in the Evolutionary Christianity tele-series are important to the group. One section of the website divides them into categories that include two Nobel Laureate scientists, two Templeton prize-winners, and a broad soup of thinkers speaking about process theology, the “emerging” church, eco-theology, progressive and integral Christianity, and evolutionary Christina mysticism. Four of the 38 identify themselves as Evangelicals and six as Roman Catholics. The labels aren’t particularly useful, as one might reasonably argue that all participants embrace the “inclusive” philosophy of Evolutionary Christianity and are therefore coming from a similar perspective.
The better known in the group are Matthew Fox, a Roman Catholic priest who switched to Episcopalianism in the early 1990s after being expelled from the Dominican order for teaching his own ideas – among them Creation Spirituality, Sr. Joan Chittister, a Benedictine who has participated in the dissenting movement Call to Action and is an advocate of women’s ordination, Episcopal bishop emeritus John Shelby Spong, who has called for a new Reformation to reformulate basic Christian doctrine “[s]ince God can no longer be conceived in theistic terms…,” (1) and Father Richard Rohr, a Franciscan who, over the years, has promoted a host of programs that challenge his Catholic profession.
Father Rohr is not so much an originator of these programs – among them the Enneagram and male spirituality – as a brilliant popularizer of them, able to articulate their complexities and make them available to wide audiences. Therefore, as an introduction to some of the ideas espoused by the proponents of Evolutionary Christianity, at least as they will be sold into Catholic circles, it is profitable to take a closer look at Father Rohr’s interview with Michael Dowd, the evangelical minister who conceived the Evolutionary Christianity project.(2)
Again and again, I saw the tremendous social needs of our time and our world. And yet, to be perfectly honest, I often was disappointed in some of the responses, which I would now call “dualistic thinking”… “either/or thinking”… “all or nothing thinking.” I found dualistic thinking to be as much on the left as it was on the right. Different vocabulary, but such thinking still split the universe into the good guys and the bad guy — totally right or totally wrong.” (3)
Dowd interjects that the contemplative mind is “non-dogmatic.” Father doesn’t correct that description but develops the idea that the spirituality of the young, whether in individuals or institutions, is engaged in creating a self-identity – a container. The spirituality of age is more concerned about what’s in the container, such as patience, inclusion, and the forgiveness of reality for not being perfect. God, Rohr says, is comfortable with a diversity that follows different sets of rules. That’s creative and is the sort of thinking that allows one to be compassionate and forgiving.
What makes this line of discussion particularly difficult is that the term dualism has been used in several different ways. As a philosophical or theological worldview that sees the universe locked in an eternal struggle between the equal powers of good and evil, dualism is clearly an unchristian perspective and has been dogmatically rejected by the Church as heresy.
However, not every discussion of contrasting positions comes from a dualistic perspective. To call one line of reasoning “true” or “real” and another line of reasoning “false” or “not real” isn’t dualism – it’s descriptive. Father Rohr and the Evolutionary Christians use such contrasting descriptions themselves. They identify certain ideas as “more evolved” or “spiritually more mature” (such as acceptance of multiple spiritual paths) and others as “less evolved” or “spiritually immature” (such as Christian dogmas). Either they are right or they are wrong but they are engaging in the same intellectual act that Christians engage in when they establish dogmas.
If Father Rohr’s point were simply that the one who believes a falsehood isn’t therefore necessarily a “bad guy,” he’d be correct. People are far more complex than that – thank goodness – and the true Christian struggles to love the sinner while hating the sin.
Changeless Change: Dowd asks Father Rohr, “How has an evolutionary understanding of reality, an evidential understanding of reality, made a difference in your own faith walk?” Father answers:
It’s become almost foundational. If what’s happening is evolving, then of course you’ve never got it. So an evolutionary understanding keeps you with a beginner’s mind. It keeps you with that kind of humility — an expectation of an open horizon. I think the bane of religion, and not just Christianity, has been a closing down of such openness way too early, because of the assumption that ‘I understand; I know.’ And I think this is the arrogance that so many people have come to resent in religious people.
The “evolutionary understanding” of reality, which Dowd defines as science-based understanding, may believe that what has been revealed by God about Himself may evolve to “reveal” something quite different – say, that the personal One, Creator God of yesterday is today revealed to be the universe itself - is as much an “I understand; I know” position as any other. Knowing certain truths, however, doesn’t mean one has exhausted their meaning nor does rejecting what little one can know guarantee freedom from arrogance.
The mystery of the Enfleshment of Spirit began 14.5 billion years ago, approximately. That’s the real birth of Christ. When I say that to Christians, they’re shocked. So I point them to the prologue to John’s gospel and to the hymn in the beginning of Colossians, the hymn in the beginning of Ephesians, the first chapter of the first letter of John. These passages all say, without any equivocation, that Christ existed from all eternity.
Of course the one doesn’t follow the other. To say that Christ existed from all eternity isn’t to say that he was enfleshed from all eternity. Nothing in the scripture passages mentioned, or in any other scripture passages for that matter, suggests that he was – quite the contrary, scripture is clear that he existed before creation. (Col 1: 15-20).
Father Rohr continues that the material world is the “hiding place,” the “revelation place,” of God:
So to get to your notion of deep time, you’re right on. Deep time is not just taking my moment as if it’s the reference point — the be-all and end-all. Rather, I must look to how I fit in to past and future. How am I connected to this universal history, this geological history, this history of civilization? How do I situate myself inside of all of that history? This seems to me to be the real appreciation for incarnation. Incarnation is planted inside the very nature of the world that God created and through which God is revealing God’s self in every creature. Every creature is a word of God.
St. Bonaventure was a philosopher. He took the experience of Francis and made an entire philosophical system out of it, in which he made the point that every step of creation and every piece of creation is another word of God. Each is another footprint, another fingerprint, another revelation of the mystery. So the whole distinction between sacred and profane just doesn’t work anymore. It’s not helpful. It’s not true. There is only one universe. It’s all sacred, and it’s all revealing the divine.
The confusion of God with His creation as expressed by Father Rohr, has been addressed by the Vatican document on the New Age, Jesus Christ the Bearer of the Water of Life: “For New Age the Cosmic Christ is seen as a pattern which can be repeated in many people, places and times; it is the bearer of an enormous paradigm shift; it is ultimately a potential within us. According to Christian belief, Jesus Christ is not a pattern, but a divine person whose human-divine figure reveals the mystery of the Father's love for every person throughout history (Jn 3:16); he lives in us because he shares his life with us, but it is neither imposed nor automatic. All men and women are invited to share his life, to live “in Christ”. (5)
Later in the Vatican document, some brief formulations about New Age thought are detailed, including the idea that the “new consciousness” – sounding rather like the “evolutionary understanding” above – “demonstrates itself in an instinctive understanding of the sacredness and, in particular, the interconnectedness of all existence. This new consciousness and this new understanding of the dynamic interdependence of all life mean that we are currently in the process of evolving a completely new planetary culture.” (6) At one point in the interview, Dowd says that his dualism collapsed when he realized universe had started to become conscious of itself. Rohr responds that when one isn’t operating on the mystical level, all one is left with is a low-level morality.
“If God is Trinity, then God himself, herself, itself is relationship. This is my foundation — that God is not a noun. God is a verb. God is an eternal circle dance. The Cappadocian Fathers in the third and fourth century said this — that God is a circle dance. Once that becomes your template for the very shape of the divine, and therefore the very shape of creation, then there’s nothing that can be understood outside of relationship.”
In that relationship, then, Rohr argues, one is not believing things or judging things but simply participating with “the mystery” and honoring the divine expression in all people, because humanity’s survival depends on not excluding one another with sectarian “truths.” The new, emergent, participatory religion is entirely inclusive, rejecting a Jesus who is the exclusive son of God for an inclusive son of God. Rohr quotes Thomas Merton as saying that if this is the sacred dance, it’s always the general dance and if you’re not in the general dance you’re not in it. If you’re compassionate only for your own self, or your own group, you’re not compassionate.
Compassion can’t be just for my group or my political party or my baseball team or my religion. That’s the very thing Jesus was critiquing in his own Jewish brothers and sisters. So I say, “Why was Jesus inclusive in his lifetime, and then afterwards we created an exclusive religion in his honor?” It doesn’t make a bit of sense.
Even “truth” must be inclusive, it seems, encompassing contraries and contradictions. Dowd remarks that one can’t expect everyone to have all the truth but everyone has something useful to offer, even atheists who help others to evolve their own religious expression. Father Rohr develops that thought, adding that religious people can’t build on their superiority but must build on commonality of humanity.
There are billions of us on this planet. If we can’t start honoring the divine presence in all people, all religions, and all things, I don’t know what hope there is for the world.
As indebted as Father Rohr and his cohorts may be to the thought of Teilhard de Chardin, its roots go much deeper. Rather than being an evolutionary step in religious thought, if one considers evolutionary steps to be progressive, positive developments, Evolutionary Christianity is constructed from quite ancient ideas, such as incarnated by the Hindu greeting “Namaste,” the divine in me greets the divine in you.
Not that this fact would bother an Evolutionary Christian.
Stephanie Block is the editor of the New Mexico-based Los Pequenos newspaper and a founder of the Catholic Media Coalition.
1 Bishop John S. Spong, “A Call for a New Reformation,” www.dioceseofnewark.org/vox20598.html (7-19-04), Thesis 2.
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