I am reading Richard Rohr's book on the Universal Christ. It's called The Universal Christ: How a Forgotten Reality Can Change Everything We See, Hope For, and Believe. Rohr invites me to think of Christ, not only as the historical Jesus who existed for thirty some odd years, but as the living and loving presence of God in the world.
By "the world" he means the whole universe as it has been unfolding over (at least) thirteen billion years. And, of course, he means all the living beings on our small planet: the hills and valleys, rivers and lakes, plants and animals and people. Especially the vulnerable ones: the lonely, forsaken, forgotten, and abused. He invites me to learn to use the word Christ, indeed to see and feel Christ, in all of it. In the cries of the earth and the poor, and in the beauty, too.
I accept the invitation. Indeed, I've been accepting it for some time now, ever since I read John Cobb's Christ in a Pluralistic Age some years ago, with its parallel invitation to see the whole of life on earth, even down to the spirit of creative transformation in plants and animals, as infused with the spirit of Christ as Logos. With Cobb's help I have also learned to see Christ, indeed to feel Christ, in three ways::
as an eternal companion who shares in the joys and sufferings of all living beings,
as the radiant energy of love in the intimacy of local settings
as the spirit of creative transformation
All of this can be put technically if we wish. The eternal companion is what the philosopher AN Whitehead means by the consequent nature of God. The radiant energy is what he means by the warmth and intimacy of this side of God as felt in local settings. And the spirit of creative transformatin is what he means by the continuous presence of fresh possibilities (initial aims) in the lives of people and other living beings, individually and collectively, including aims for justice and wholeness. But the technical language is not at all necessary. It is much more important to feel and respond to these realities than to name them conceptually.
These three realities existed long before the historical Jesus walked the hills of Galilee, offering those who followed in a fresh way of living in the world. If we think of these three realities as the universal Christ, then Jesus himself was inviting us, each in our own way, to walk in Christ. He was a brother to us all, inviting us to share in his journey.
But let me back up.
In my early life as a Christian, I could not hear the word Christ without picturing Jesus in my imagination. Christ meant Jesus Christ. Biblical phrases such as the aroma of Christ or the spirit of Christ did not come naturally to my lips. Nor did the idea, found in the Gospel of John, that Christ was a cosmic energy – a Logos – that was the light of all people, and that was revealed but not exhausted by Jesus. I had fallen in love with Jesus and wanted to share in his journey. That was enough.
Admittedly, in those early days, I had a sense of the Holy Spirit as more than Jesus. For me the Holy Spirit was a wind-like presence of God as found in everyday life. The Spirit was God’s Breathing. But I did not use the word Christ to name this wind-like presence. Christ was Jesus Christ. I had studied enought to know that the word Christ was not Jesus’ last name. I knew that the word was a title, literally meaning something like the anointed one. To speak of Jesus as the Christ was to say that he was one anointed by God to have a special mission to the world. I believe this even today.
Gradually, with regard to the word Christ, things changed. The change occured, not through books alone, but throurh personal experience. An example:
I remember being at St. Peter's Episcopal Church in Conway, Arkansas, listening to a short message from a priest, hearing the word Christ in a very different way. The context was a service for healing and laying on of hands. I don’t remember the exact content of her sermon, but I remember that when she used the word Christ she was referring to a healing presence in the room that night as we knelt together.
I felt that presence. It was like a fragrance, an aroma, part of us but more than us. In that moment Christ was more than a man who lived a long time ago. Christ was a spirit, a radiant energy, a healing light, filled with receptivity and gentleness, love and healing power. I realized then, and realize now, that love is not simply a word or even an actiion but also an energy. Not an all-controlling energy but powerful in a different and healing way. For me, radiant energy and healing energy are two names for the same.
The feeling of Christ as radiant energy was related to, but different from, a personal relationship with Jesus. Earlier in my life I had invited Jesus into my heart, asking him to be my living lord and savior. I wasn’t really afraid of hell, but I knew that in many ways I was lost, and I wanted to take refuge in Jesus. I did so, and am very glad I did. To this day I have a sense that he is my friend. I want to share in his journey. But even this Jesus, the one whom I love and who is my friend forever, is not entirely the same as the radiant energy, the Christ Spirit, I encountered that night in the prayer service. Jesus reveals the Christ Spirit to me, but does not exhaust it.
Here's my point. A walk in Christ can include, and be enriched by, a personal relationship with Jesus, but it can also occur in the absence of such a relationship, and in very rich and beautiful ways.
Different Names What words to use? These days I use the following phrases synonymously, choosing one or another relative to context. Some lean more toward radiant energy, some toward creative transformation, and some toward eternal companion.
The Christic Side of God
Heart of the Universe
The Deep Listening
The Deep Mercy
I’m sure it must drive some people crazy, especially those who prefer one phrase over another, or who think that the some of realities to which these phrases refer are radically different from others. But we live in an age ever-needful of metaphors that communicate and convey one or another aspect of radiant love, creative transformation, and eternal companionship. All are part of the Abba in whom Jesus placed his trust.
Christ = God's Love for the World
I am thinking of this healing love as I read the description of Richard Rohr’s book on the Universal Christ, and a review of it by Eliza Griswold in the Atlantic Monthly. I think she articulates Rohr’s point of view very well:
Rohr argues that the spirit of Christ is not the same as the person of Jesus. Christ—essentially, God’s love for the world—has existed since the beginning of time, suffuses everything in creation, and has been present in all cultures and civilizations. Jesus is an incarnation of that spirit, and following him is our “best shortcut” to accessing it. But this spirit can also be found through the practices of other religions, like Buddhist meditation, or through communing with nature. Rohr has arrived at this conclusion through what he sees as an orthodox Franciscan reading of scripture. “This is not heresy, universalism, or a cheap version of Unitarianism,” he writes. “This is the Cosmic Christ, who always was, who became incarnate in time, and who is still being revealed.”
As noted above, I think of this radiant energy when I recall the understanding of Christ developed by John Cobb in Christ in a Pluralistic Age. In this book Cobb builds upon traditions of Logos Christology in historical Christianity to share a similar idea: namely that Christ is, in Cobb’s words, the Spirit of Creative Transformation at work in the world, in people’s lives, in the natural world and, beyond that, the ever-unfolding universe. Wherever we see the Spirit of Creative Transformation, says Cobb, we see the living, universal Christ.
I realize that many orthodox Christians will say that the Universal Christ is a person with agency and feeling residing in heaven alongside God. They will say that he is the second person of the Trinity, distinguishable from the first and third persons, God the Father and the Holy Spirit.
I cannot believe that God consists of three distinct persons, each with agency and feeling. Perhaps there is too much Judaism and Islam in me. I take comfort in the fact that this idea would probably seem strange to Jesus, too. He was not an orthodox Trinitarian; the whole idea of a Trinity emerged only after he died. I am a Christian Trinitarian insofar as the idea of the Trinity communicates the notion that there is something like mutual love or compassionate relationship in the very heart of God. I am not a Trinitarian if this means that God consists of three distinct persons. I see the Trinity as a metaphor for divine relationality, but not as a literal truth about God's makeup. The Universal Christ is not another person alongside God in the heavenly pantheon; the Universal Christ is the loving side of God as felt in the world.
On this I am helped by Islam, which speaks of two sides of God: tanzih and tashbih. Tanzih represents the profound transcendence God: that side of God which is always more than our understanding of it, to which we respond with awe and fear. It may have some similiarity to what process theologians mean by the primordial nature of God: that side of God which is beyond space and time and which contains all the potentialities.) Tashbih represents that side of God with is near to us, closer to us than our own breathing, and which is tender and loving and compassionate. The Universal Christ, then, is the nearness of God, the love of God. Muslims would agree that it was revealed in, but not exhausted by, the historical Jesus.
Jesus after he Died
Of course there is more to Jesus than the historical Jesus. There is also the Jesus who appeared to his disciples after he had died and who then ascended into heaven, where he still exists. Here I find Rohr helpful. He proposes that, in his resurrected state, the historical Jesus, assumed a glorified body transparent to the loving side of God.
"In the resurrection, the single physical body of Jesus moved beyond all limits of space and time into a new notion of physicality and light—which includes all of us in its embodiment. Christians usually called this the “glorified body,” and it is indeed similar to what Hindus and Buddhists sometimes call the “subtle body.” Both traditions pictured this by what became the halo or aura, and Christians placed it around all “saints” to show that they already participated in the one shared Light."
If there is wisdom in this idea, then Christians can assume that, today, Jesus is fully transparent to the loving side of God in a way that surpasses his transparency in his life. He is today a window to that side of God.
So was Jesus, during his lifetime, the messiah? Perhaps, at least for Christians and also for Muslims, he was indeed someone anointed by God to reveal God’s nearness to the world. But he was not a king-like messiah who established a rule over the earth; he was a reverse-messiah who emphasized that the first shall be last, and that we are all called to help bring about communities of love on earth, with no one left behind. And, tragically, misconceptions about Jesus led many Christians throughout the centuries to malign Jews for failing to recognize him as the messiah they awaited. Messiah language can only go so far. Sometimes it is more destructive than constructive. Jesus lived and died a Jew.
Was he, in addition, God incarnate? So much depends on how we understand incarnation. Perhaps, as John Cobb proposes in Christ in a Pluralistic Age, there were times in this life when he so identified with the Christic side of God as the central organizing principle of his own life, that he became transparent to the spirit itself, such that he and the spirit were one. He was God incarnate. But his transparency to the spirit does not preclude other people and the more-than-human world as being transparent as well their ways. Again, Christians must be careful. It is enough to love him and to share in his journey of helping bring about communities of love and forgiveness on earth.
I suggest that it is more important for Christians today to walk with Jesus, to share in his journey, than to worry too much about how 'unique' he was. Let Jesus be Jesus, and let him be a window to the the Universal Christ.
Rohr believes that an emphasis on the Universal Christ can help Christians enter deeply and generously into interfaith cooperation and dialogue. John Cobb likewise says something of the same, but emphasizes that in such dialogue we best recognize, take delight in, and learn from different modes of salvation and different ultimate realities.
Can an affirmation of the Universal Christ play a role in interfaith work? Yes and No.
Yes, insofar as it encourages Christians to be open to ways in which the loving side of God has been and is being revealed in other religions, and in the secular world as well, in inspiring ways. Christians can rightly learn to see Christ-at-work in many, many religions outside Christianity, and in modes of salvation which have beauty of their own. But there is no need to ask others to name the loving side of God as Christ or to use the language I am using above. They may well have their ways of speaking of the loving side of God. It seems to me that Pure Land Buddhist can speak of the compassionate side of Amida Buddha without need to call it Christ. There may be other names for Christ than "Christ." That would be good news, not bad news, for Christians.
The Next Two Thousand Years
My suggestion is that a broadening of the word Christ to include more than Jesus is good for Christians, because it can help us appreciate the many ways in which God’s love is present and effective outside Christianity, and help us move past one of our most serious sins, so focusing on Jesus and matters of personal salvation that the world is forgotten. Rohr puts it this way:
"I cannot help but think that future generations will label the first two thousand years of Christianity “early Christianity.” They will, I believe, draw out more and more of the massive implications of this understanding of a Cosmic Christ. They will have long discarded the notion of Christian salvation as a private evacuation plan that gets a select few humans into the next world. The current world has been largely taken for granted or ignored, unless it could be exploited for our individual benefit. Why would people with such a belief ever feel at home in heaven? They didn’t even practice for it! Nor did they learn how to feel at home on earth." (Rohr)
It is time for Christians and for all people to feel at home on earth. There may well be a continuing journey after death. I suspect that there is. But our need is to help bring about meaningful tastes of heaven on earth, for life’s sake and for God’s sake.
Process theologians emphasize that this 'coming home' to the earth means living with respect and care for the community of life, humans very much included. As Christians our concerns cannot be for personal well-being alone, or for harmony in our relationships with friends and family, or for 'spiritual aliveness' understood in primarily individual terms. It needs also to be for a different kind of world. Process theologians speak of this different world as an ecological civilization. Its building blocks are local communities that are creative, compassionate, participatory, inclusive, multicultural, multireligious, humane to animals, and good for the earth, with no one left behind.
We are called to be healers, each in our own way. To help bring about loving communities. To be vessels of the radiant energy. To be agents of creative transformation. To hear and respond to the cries of the poor and of animals and the earth. And to appreciate and take delight in the beauty of life itself, all along the way. To live in the moment with courage and faith and laughter. To walk in Christ.