Richard Rohr, a Franciscan friar and Roman Catholic priest, has been a figure of much debate for the entirety of his ministerial career. Describing himself as living on the “edge of the inside”—an image appropriated by many of his “alternative orthodoxy” cohorts—Fr. Rohr rejects a Western, systematized Christianity, opting instead for the mysticism of the Eastern desert fathers and mothers. He is not afraid to depart from the established tradition of the Church catholic, and routinely filters his understanding of Scripture through Buddhist and Jungian lenses.
To be frank, there is good reason to be suspicious of much of his theology, especially if one is operating within an evangelical Protestant framework. Those of us who cling tightly to Scripture and Creeds will find his books peppered with red flags, and it may be necessary to revise, redefine, or reject elements of Rohr’s arguments in order to find what is of use in his work.
His latest book, The Divine Dance, requires this sort of careful engagement. Here the Franciscan mystic takes up the task of reflecting on the mystery of the triune God, concluding that God’s relational nature mirrors all of reality. Every moment of life is an invitation to participate in a relationship with God—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. It is important to note that this is not a theological treatise, nor does it even primarily deal with the doctrine of the Trinity. The subtitle describes the aim of the book best: “the Trinity and your transformation.” The question here is not, “What does it mean that God is Trinity?” but rather, “What does it mean for us that God is Trinity?” I have met few evangelicals who have devoted much time to this worthwhile question, and Fr. Rohr is to be commended for raising it. It should change the way we live to learn that God is triune. The world should look different to us, the nature of our relationships should change, and our relationship with God should be understood in new light.
Reviews are predictably mixed; progressive, mystically-oriented Christians sing its praises, while conservative evangelicals find it more valuable as a doorstop or a paperweight than a work of theology. (For a particularly antagonistic review of the book, check out The Gospel Coalition.) Those of us who do not fall into either of these categories are left wondering what to do with it. This review is an attempt to engage with The Divine Dance with a critical eye and an irenic spirit. It will not be exhaustive. Let us eat the meat, spit out the bones, and give thanks that God’s success does not depend on our getting everything right.
Rohr is a strange conglomeration of (sometimes competing) theological commitments, with statements ranging from careless to controversial to outright heretical (please note, I use that term in a strict historical sense). Consider one statement early on in the book: “The Christ is the universalization of what many of us first fell in love with in Jesus” (52). Many of us will recognize this as thinly-veiled Nestorianism, condemned at the Council of Chalcedon in 451. Though perhaps not clear from this one sentence, the point Rohr is trying to make in this section is that the end goal of the spiritual life is transformation into perfect union with God, or, as 2 Peter 1:4 puts it, becoming “participants of the divine nature.” This provides an excellent example of what is so frustrating about Fr. Rohr. Though his conclusion is good (or, at least, within the realm of orthodoxy), his supporting argument is needlessly built off of heresy. To get at this idea, one need look no farther than the Eastern Orthodox concept of theosis. Why unnecessarily dabble in unchristian traditions?
There are other views Rohr espouses in The Divine Dance that, while not being heretical, are extremely controversial and will be off-putting to many readers (I’m thinking of my fellow Contrarians here). Open theism (40), panentheism (52), a denial of penal substitutionary atonement (131), a Schleiermachian kind of universalism (69), and a more social reimagining of key theological terms like “sin” (56) and “salvation” (46) come to mind. I will not offer detailed analysis of these ideas here, but they are concepts the reader should be aware of on the front end, and it is possible in many cases to reconcile the author’s perspective with a more moderate-to-conservative theological persuasion. At any rate, these are ideas evangelicals need to be exposed to. Western Christianity is, more and more, embracing a “generous orthodoxy” approach, and it is imperative that evangelicals interact with unconventional concepts with discernment, so that we do not more deeply solidify the public’s view of us as a group with an “us against the world” mentality.
Now that all of my qualifying statements are out of the way, I can talk about what I find helpful in this book, and what evangelicals need to hear from this loose-canon friar who plays by his own rules. Though much of what Rohr expresses in the book may benefit contemporary evangelicalism, I have chosen to highlight two key points: the value of inner experience, and religious practice as the grounding of theology. Christians of all stripes would do well to implement these ideas broadly, but they will be particularly helpful when dealing with the Trinity: how may we deeply experience the mystery of the triune God? What are some ways in which our doctrine may connect with our prayer?
We evangelicals rightly emphasize the primacy of Scripture, and many of us are becoming increasingly comfortable with deferring to tradition where Scripture is silent or ambiguous. But we are largely missing the last leg of the three-legged stool—experience. No Christian would say that experience is expendable; this kind of thinking is what produces, in George Whitefield’s terminology, “Almost Christians.” And no church, evangelical or otherwise, wants a room full of people who have never encountered the living God. But often we make the mistake of dishonoring or invalidating the experience of parishioners, insisting that it perfectly mirrors the doctrine of our church.
This is, of course, the goal towards which the Church works. Much of sanctification is learning the limits of our experience and trusting the revelation we have received in Scripture. But people have a hard time filtering everything through doctrine. Sometimes, no matter how many times we recite Psalm 139, we feel that God is absent. Sometimes a Virgin Birth seems laughable. And sometimes we cannot wrap our heads around the idea of our dearest loved ones enduring eternal punishment, just because they weren’t Christians. The Church’s hasty proofreading of bad theology (real or perceived) bludgeons people into silence, causing many to passively accept the teachings of their pastor or denomination and ignore the part of themselves that yearns to question and grow. Their faith is now functionally in their pastor, or in their Bible or catechism, instead of in the living God. This is the situation Fr. Rohr describes:
Perhaps one of the greatest weaknesses of institutional religion is that we’ve given people the impression that the pope could know for us, or the experts could know for us, or the Bible could know for us—that we could have second-hand knowledge of holy things, and could be really invested in the sacred because someone else told us it was true. God ended up being an outer “thing” and largely remained out there, extraneous to the experience of the soul, the heart, and even the transformed mind. Yet God has no grandchildren, only children. (53)
Doctrine, pristine as it may be, does not save. It is often a channel through which people come to a better understanding of God, but on its own it amounts to no more than idolatry. God wants his people to experience personally his love, power, and grace. He wants to know us intimately. Listen to Rohr’s take on this biblical story of Moses:
Three times, Scripture mentions that Moses was the only one who knew YHWH “face to face.” This is the first account of the divine unveiling in the biblical tradition, and it is done precisely through a process of personal interface, or mirroring. The image is effectively transferred to Moses, and then he spends the rest of his life trying to pass on the mirroring to the wandering Israelites—with scant success. (53)
Important as Moses was, he could not perfectly reflect the Lord’s presence to the people. God was content to use middlemen for a time, but this was a Band-Aid for the sin problem, not a lasting cure. True healing and restoration of relationship was only made possible when “the Word became flesh and dwelt among us,” and we "beheld his glory" (Jn 1:14). The unique beauty of Christianity is the mystery of “Immanuel;” let us not reconstruct walls that Jesus tore down two millennia ago. It is absolutely vital that each and every person be encouraged to experience for themselves the beauty, mystery, and power of the living God. The Church is there to explain and refine that experience—not to dismiss it or ridicule it. If we evangelicals continue to do so, we will see more and more people “checking out” of the spiritual life.
Secondly, Fr. Rohr rightly emphasizes spiritual practices as vital instruments for growth in one’s journey with God. These practices must be informed by good doctrine (as discussed above, experience and doctrine are not mutually exclusive), because “we always become what we behold; the presence that we practice matters” (p. 36). With this assertion, Rohr actually places himself within an Anglican paradigm, as our tradition is primarily concerned with the “speculative-affective synthesis,” or the place where doctrine meets prayer.* We evangelicals need to learn this. Much of our worship, prayer, and (if we’re honest) theological reflection cannot be properly described as trinitarian. This needs to change.
Rohr offers seven disciplines for “practicing” the Trinity in daily life, some of which are more worthwhile than others (199-217). They include performing the sign of the cross, walking meditation, an interesting practice of “breathing” the divine name (“Yah” on the in-breath, “weh” on the out-breath), and lectio divina. Of course, I would also point out that Catholic, Orthodox, and Anglican liturgies are all very trinitarian. If you have no experience with these, look at this Morning Prayer liturgy and try to identify all the references to the Trinity and each of its members.
It is vital that our spiritual practices, our interactions with God, reflect his triune identity. Our God is the God who exists in relationship and who designed us to live that way, too. Whether we like it or not, we become what we take in. We are shaped by those with whom we live in relationship, giving and receiving pieces of ourselves until we all begin to look a little like each other. And so the prayers we pray, the creeds we confess, the songs we sing, the sermons we preach, the meals we share, the conversations we have, the homes we make—every part of life—ought all to be informed by the triune identity of God. When we consistently apply this truth to our daily experience, we will be surprised at how profound our appreciation and love for the doctrine of the Trinity can be.
The Divine Dance is an important work for evangelicals to read. It performs a unique combination of tasks, in that it exemplifies much of what is wrong with contemporary American spirituality while simultaneously providing partial solutions to its own problems. It is a mixed bag, as is every human contribution to theology, and it is our job as careful readers to find the truth in its pages and leave the rest behind. We may not all want to join in the divine dance exactly as Fr. Rohr envisions it, but hopefully this book will encourage us to listen to our inner experience, practice what we preach, and cut in when the music feels right.
*See Martin Thornton, English Spirituality.