Fr Richard Rohr is a true man of God.
And, in the great tradition of mystics and men and women of God, he is equal parts comforting and challenging, frightening and affirming. Whenever I worry that my theology has become too liberal, I read or listen to some Richard Rohr and I can hear my inner fundamentalist shouting and throwing books. A Catholic priest and an Franciscan, he is the author of countless books and a speaker on innumerable recordings. Surely one of the most influential figures in popular Christian thinking today, I find him 10 per cent exasperating and 90 per cent prophetic.
His development of the language of the ‘two halves of life’ (the ‘first half’ being for building systems of ego identity and belonging that focus on boundaries and litmus tests for orthodoxy – building the psychic container of life, the ‘second half’ being for filling the container) is perhaps one of his greatest contributions to Christian thought.
With its acceptance of powerlessness, reduced emphasis on certainty and it’s acceptance of darkness, its a way of thinking that Evangelicals have trouble with, as Fr Richard demonstrates with a high-profile example. “ Remember when the whole international press was upset when the journals of Mother Teresa were released?” he says. “She was talking the classic language of darkness of the last stages of life. But your mainline Protestants had no ability to understand that. They really thought Mother Teresa was losing faith. No. She was growing in faith. But growth in faith feels like darkness.” For many like myself who came to Christianity by varying degrees of fundamentalism, any move into the ‘second half of life’ feels dangerous. We worry that the framework cannot be traced back to a biblical example, however tenuous (and how we love our tenuous biblical justifications for serving our egos). We fear that we are losing our faith. For those of us who come from a tradition that is permanently worried about backsliding, the relinquishing of control inherent in the second half feels like a dangerous stall on an uphill slope. “Because now God is holding you, you’re not holding onto God anymore,” says Fr Richard. “It’s a very very different stance.”
More enlightened and less simplistic and combative (about faith, at least) I may be, but I still believe in truth. Rohr’s vision of the two halves places importance on discovering truth in the first half of life and using it to define boundaries, but those boundaries,he argues, become less important in the second. But what about simple Evangelicals like me? To misquote Francis Schaeffer (who I suspect would have a sneaking love for Richard Rohr), How should we then live? I asked Fr Richard:
In the second half of life, is there a place for a morality ‒ not necessarily a legalistic morality‒ that comes from a desire to please the God who you know will love you even if you don’t do it right?
Yes. I think I state in my book the principle: transcend and include. I use that a lot. When you transcend to higher levels of holiness, consciousness, awareness, compassion, union, you don’t throw out the previous stages. And I think Jesus is exemplifying that when he says, “I have not come to throw out the Law.” But then he says: “The Law says… I say…”
So you go back to the Law, but boy, your understanding of its goal and purpose is much broader now. The Law is not an end in itself. And Paul made that pretty clear in Romans and Galatians. I always say he might as well not have written those two letters for the effect they have had in mainline Christianity.
But he makes it very clear that laws cannot affect divine union. All they can do – to use my language again ‒ is to get you started. Or, as he says in Galatians, they are the “nursemaid” (I call them the training wheels) to give you some initial limitation to your own egocentricity.
And then Paul also says in Galatians that the Law was even given to us to prove to us that we can’t obey it. If you’re really honest, you never obey the Law in spirit. So, Law isn’t the high-minded thing that we made it into. It’s mainly for social order. It’s mainly to quell your initial egocentricity, to get you to stop stealing and stop lying and stop making out with every person you meet. But that isn’t divine union, you understand. It’s just social order. And good and necessary social order.
I lose count of the number of high-profile people I’ve interviewed who cite you as an inspiration and an influence. Does that make you uncomfortable?
Well, it does in a way, because it’s increased as I’ve gotten older and I remember my father saint Francis, he was walking along a road and a beggar stopped him and said: “Just make sure you are whatever everybody says you are. Because, if not, you’re going to disappoint a lot of people.” Or something like that. So it is a burden that some people, especially those that know me from a distance like the UK, they can maybe idealise me because of my writings. But if they lived here they would see how ordinary I am. I am walking around in shorts now and a t-shirt. I wouldn’t look especially holy at all. So, yes, it does concern me.
And every day there is the fear: am I a hypocrite? Because how can I possibly live up to all of the beautiful things I’ve said to other people? It’s a burden being a preacher and teacher in a way.
Richard Rohr’s latest book, Falling Upward, explains his view of the two halves of life.
If you are too poor, too lazy or too busy to read a whole book, Fr Richard spoke a few years ago at Greenbelt Festival (we love Greenbelt!) on this very subject. The good people at Greenbelt have made the talk available for free, because they are nice like that.
What we’re saying is:
Get yourself some Rohr action.
Photo courtesy of Studiojoslizen.com