On this week’s episode, we have Fr. Richard Rohr to talk about a contemplative approach to the Bible. There are a few episodes that we think just deserve to be republished and reissued from previous seasons. And today is our first go at that. This is the second episode we ever aired on the Bible for Normal People podcast.
This is a re-broadcast from March 26, 2017 (Episode 2).
Pete Enns: You’re listening to the Bible for Normal People, the only God-ordained podcast on the Internet. Serious talk about the Sacred Book. I’m Pete Enns.
Jared Byas: And I’m Jared Byas. Welcome everyone to this episode of the Bible for Normal People. You know sometimes there are a few episodes that we think just deserve to be republished and reissued from previous seasons. And today is our first go at that. The second episode we ever aired was with Richard Rohr on a contemplative look at the Bible. Just an amazing time with Richard Rohr. And so we went to reissue that episode for you today. So if you haven’t already heard it, I think you’re in for a treat and if you have heard it last year, I think it’s maybe time for a refresher. Hope you enjoy today’s episode.
Pete Enns: Well, hello everybody. Welcome to the podcast. Our topic today is a contemplative look at the Bible, whatever that is, and we’re going to find out because Richard Rohr is going to help us find out.
Jared Byas: Yeah and Richard is the founder of the Center for Action and Contemplation out in Albuquerque. Written a lot of…
Pete Enns: Is it a meth lab?
Pete Enns: You sure?
Jared Byas: Yeah I asked him.
Pete Enns: Because we don’t want those kinds of people on our podcast.
Jared Byas: Yeah. We’re more righteous than that. But he did write a book called Things Hidden: Scripture as Spirituality.
Pete Enns: Oh, the meth lab.
Jared Byas: That’s the name of the meth lab…
Pete Enns: That it. Okay, Netflix has ruined me.
Jared Byas: But Scripture as Spirituality and I think it’s going to be important but maybe talk a little bit about Rohr and the impact he’s had on your journey.
Pete Enns: Well, Rohr came into my life so to speak… It was like Jesus came into my life. But Richard Rohr came into my life at a time when I was just rethinking a lot of stuff about the Bible. Old paradigms were not working. They were sort of falling apart and I just didn’t really know what to do and he was one of several people whose writings and lectures that just opened up a window of understanding where I had never really thought about thinking about the Bible differently than I was used to thinking about it which is, you know, historical or, you know, not literal but very much trying to figure out what happened and what’s going on back then in time and Richard’s way sort of incorporates that. But there’s a lot more to it and there’s a lot of depth which I think takes into account the history of the Christian church actually which has read the Bible in various different ways for spiritual benefit. And that’s really what I was looking for. And he was just a huge help to me and still is.
Jared Byas: Yeah, I would echo that especially with Falling Upward and helping us out of that. He does a lot with bringing out a kind of dichotomy–that it has to be is either/or. And a really constructive way of getting us out of just critiquing each other all the time. But what are our constructive approaches…
Pete Enns: Yea, using the Bible constructively and not defensively or not just to prove this or that, but actually for spiritual sustenance, which you know oddly enough for people in a Protestant tradition to say “That’s new to me,” there’s a problem right there. So maybe we need a Roman Catholic on here.
Jared Byas: Ah, that’s probably a good idea.
Pete Enns: What do you think? Even Richard who’s probably not a very good Roman Catholic.
Jared Byas: haha That’s right.
Pete Enns: You know, most people say that, so…
Jared Byas: Well, let’s get into that conversation with Richard Rohr.
What is the Bible? (3:08)
Richard Rohr: In our understanding of who God is, God becomes less violent, less punitive, more inclusive, less tribal–that to me is pretty obvious. And I think it’s what we meant when we said that we read the scriptures in the light of Jesus.
Pete Enns: Well, Richard it’s great to have you here on the Bible for Normal People. You are a normal person, right?
Richard Rohr: A great way to start.
Pete Enns: I heard rumors. I’m not sure. OK, well anyway, you’re coming to us from Albuquerque and we’re just honored to have you here. We’re going to have some fun talking about the Bible. So, you know, first off let me just ask a very innocent simple question. What is the Bible?
Richard Rohr: Wow. OK.
Pete Enns: There you go. Let’s just do that for about two hours and then we’ll hang up, okay?
Richard Rohr: Well, all I can do is give you my perspective. But I think it is a history of the inspired writings of the Jewish and the Christian Peoples over maybe as much as you know fifteen hundred year period that we have chosen and selected to be normative. In other words, to give us a touchstone for what we believe. It sets a trajectory that we can build on. If you don’t have that, of course, the field is so open that you have no home base. So this is our home base.
Pete Enns: So, normative. And it’s interesting. You put two words together there that aren’t normally put together in this conversation, or at least with let’s say a Protestant audience, especially an evangelical Protestant audience. The Bible is normative and it sets trajectories. And those two things are all and put together. So help us understand the how can something be normative and yet trajectory implies movement. And norms aren’t supposed to move are they?
Richard Rohr: You know I’m highly formed by things like Spiral Dynamics and evolutionary consciousness and developmental psychology. And I look at the Bible and I clearly see that there are writings that represent very primitive levels of consciousness. That’s not to say they’re uninspired, but they reflect, you know, a purely violent dualistic punitive wrathful notion of God. Let me pull out books like Joshua and Judges. I’m not saying they’re uninspired, but I certainly wouldn’t put them in the same category as the Gospel of John. So I just have to be honest about the text that the evolution of religious consciousness, for me, is exemplified in the Bible itself. Which gives us all kind of permission. And that’s why I use the word “trajectory.” It sets a trajectory that puts us in a direction.
Inspiration: The Word of God in the Words of Men and Women (6:03)
Pete Enns: OK now I have 17 follow up questions. I’m just kidding. You used the word inspired. And again, I know how people in traditions that I’m familiar with would define that term. What does inspiration mean for you? What does that term connote?
Richard Rohr: Well, you know, the most common phrase used in Catholic biblical theology–and I know it will sound like a copout, but it really isn’t–is the Word of God in the words of men or women. And that seems like a sellout I’m sure to an evangelical. Because it’s hard to hear that these are in the words of men or words of humans. I think I pretty much hold to that that we have to recognize that God’s invasion into human consciousness, albeit a positive invasion, was always filtered through our capacity to hear it and in our capacity to receive it. And so we have to honor good understanding of human nature–anthropology, psychology–to see that our filters were also growing in contact with this divine invasion. That God broke into history and little by little changed us. And I see the Bible as charting that growth and that change. So it is inspired, but I guess this sounds heretical to an evangelical, but I can’t say that every line in the Bible is equally inspired. There is clearly a growth in our understanding of who God is. God becomes less violent, less punitive, more inclusive, less tribal. That to me is pretty obvious. And I think it’s what we meant when we said that we read the scriptures in the light of Jesus and I that would be my hermeneutic. That I look at Jesus how he interprets the Bible and it’s pretty clear. There are large books of his own Jewish scriptures that he never quotes once. And we can’t deny that, at least in the text we have of Jesus’ recorded statements. And he has preferred prophets any he has preferred themes in the Bible. And he has other themes in his own Bible that he actively disagrees with.
Jared Byas: So, Richard, can you talk a little bit more about these filters? Because I think that ‘s a concept that makes a lot of people uncomfortable. When we talk about things not being equally inspired, now we have to adjudicate. And Jesus has a way of doing that, but you also mentioned things like psychology and other truths that have come out. Can you talk about how you filter the Bible and how you read it?
Richard Rohr: Well, let me step back for a minute and see how I think…this is all just my opinion, but how I think we got into the pit so deep that it’s very hard to get out of. After the Enlightenment of the 17th and 18th centuries, particularly in German-speaking countries, the English speaking countries, and the French-speaking countries, where the Enlightenment was most active, we started feeling we Christians, both Catholic and Protestant, started feeling very stupid. We felt like we were out of the conversation with intelligent people who had all become extremely rational. And so we created, if I can say this, our own form of rationality. And that took two different directions. We Catholics said, “OK, we need an absolute Supreme Court.” And we made our Supreme Court the pope and the bishops. You Protestants needed the same thing–one absolute authority, one Supreme Court. And you made that the written Bible, which for us as Catholics was already one step removed from the living Bible which is the risen Christ or the Bible of creation which has existed for billions of years. And so, coming from a Catholic theology perspective, we feel and, please don’t take this in a negative or critical way, but you way over-emphasize the written Bible. So much so that, from our perspective, it became idolatrous.
Richard Rohr: But I would be the first to admit that we did the same thing with the pope and the bishops and the priests. We became idolatrous in regard to the church. And, in my opinion, we both created a false idol. And that’s the pit that we can’t get out of now. That we put all of our appeal onto extrinsic authority because no matter how you interpret the Bible it’s still your interpretation, which is why we have 30,000 Christian denominations. So we Catholics thought we would solve that problem by saying, “OK the Bible will be interpreted by the pope.”
Richard Rohr: But again what that denied both of us, in different ways, was any reliance upon inner experience. An experience of the risen Christ. The indwelling Holy Spirit. I know that sounds dangerous to most Western people because we’ve so relied upon extrinsic authority that now to pull that back at least a little bit, it sounds pretty scary. And I really understand that. In the school here, in the Living School, we speak of our methodology being a tricycle. And the tricycle has three wheels. The first wheel is “experience.” The back wheels are “scripture” and “tradition.” And I believe those three wheels have to move together forward and if any one of them is missing, you don’t have a very holistic reading of the moment. Or you don’t have any deep Christian experience. So I would say the Protestant tradition overdid the scripture piece. We Catholics overdid the tradition piece and, in fact, defined tradition in a very limited way. Not the great perennial Judeo Christian traditions, but usually very recent tradition, and that we were being rightly criticized for it by the Protestant Reformation. But both of us underplayed the absolute centrality and importance of experience.
Pete Enns: I wonder what’s behind that. What is it that might lead to these traditions developing the way that they did? Are they afraid of something? Or… You know, what psychologically, spiritually, what’s happening in these traditions that makes experience such a problem to hold on to an external authority?
Richard Rohr: Well, you know, for religion to have authority in a moving culture, a moving history, it feels, and I understand this, it has to appeal to an absolute source. It’s the only way to stop the argumentation. You want to hold yourself together at least in some kind of tribe or some kind of coherence. So I think that need to speak with one voice, to speak with a united front, gave both of our groups a different kind of bias toward absolute outer authority and allowed us to underplay what, you know. I mean, Jesus himself, Paul himself, this is undeniable. They trust their own experience of God against their own scriptures. That’s true in Jesus and that’s true in Paul.
Richard Rohr: Now, there we make them, the writers or the main figures in the New Testament, but we don’t dare follow their pattern. Both of them are highly critical of how their scriptures were being interpreted.
Pete Enns: Well, we don’t follow them because…I mean as the argument usually goes, you don’t follow them because they’re writers of the Bible.
Richard Rohr: Exactly.
Pete Enns: And of course the irony is that well, no actually maybe that’s why we should follow them.
Richard Rohr: There you go. You just poked it wide open.
Pete Enns: Didn’t we though?
Richard Rohr: Yeah, we always make an exception. Well, they were different. Well, are we supposed to imitate Jesus and Paul or not? They both told us to. And I think we should. Now again, I want to repeat, so you don’t think I’m some kind of terrible heretic. I do believe that we have to have the touchstones of scripture and the perennial tradition to test and verify our experience. If our experience is really eccentric or egocentric or idiosyncratic, there’s no saint, there’s no mystic, there’s no Bible quote that ever had anything comparable to what you’re saying, I think you need to call your experience into question.
We All Lead With Our Own Experience and Scripture Can Hold Our Personal Experiences Accountable (15:05)
Jared Byas: So go more into that, Richard, so that we don’t have to call you a heretic. Uh, no. But go into more, you know, you have this tricycle and I think the danger…it’s hard to wrap our minds around accountability. Can you go into it more practically? How do you…you know you said if you have an experience that doesn’t match these, you call it into question. But I think there is a fear around that. What’s the path that you found to being able to hold these three things that are all in some sense an authority but maybe not the authority?
Richard Rohr: Well, I’ll be honest with you, I’m about to turn 74. This has been a lifetime of practice and spiritually directing people who are also trying to hear the voice of God in their life. And so it doesn’t come glibly, quickly, or easily. I think you learn this methodology by trial and error, by doing it wrong, by overemphasizing your eccentric experience, by using the Bible merely looking for proof texts to prove what you already experientially or traditionally have decided to believe. And, for me, that was the big giveaway. That as I directed people, both Catholic and Protestant, I would again and again see that they lead with experience anyway. But that experience was unaccountable and that’s why I put experience as the front wheel of the tricycle. I think Protestants de facto trust their own experience and then they find scriptures to validate it. I think Catholics do the same thing and then we find a saint or a mystic or a pope or a bishop who will agree with us. So, I know I’m prejudiced but I don’t think this takes a lot of proof. This is obvious to me that we all lead with our own experience. And let’s start being honest about that instead of pretending that we started with some magical scripture quote that fell from the heavens. And this gave us the gift of faith. Our gift of faith came through our human anthropological cultural and religious human experience.
Pete Enns: OK. Well, you’re not a very good Roman Catholic, are you Richard? You know, we’re not good protestants, so we should start a new denomination. Which one of us is going to be the ruler?
Richard Rohr: There you go. That’s what always happens.
The Bible is A Text in Travail. (17:41)
Pete Enns: Yeah. Richard, in your book “Things Hidden,” there was one point I got into the book early on and I just sort of stopped and I said my goodness gracious this is such common sense. You cite Renee Gerard about the Bible as a text in travail. I think that was the end. Explain that because that’s just a wonderful humanizing idea when it comes to the Bible that just simply rings so true. I think to anyone who really reads it.
Richard Rohr: Well, I like that phrase too because he’s saying, as I understand it, that the text itself reveals the problem. Mirrors the human psyche. We get it, we lose it, we get it, we lose it. We edge forward. I will see these wonderful highly inspired passages already in the Book Of Exodus, for example, which show real breakthrough of the Holy Spirit. “You have only to stand still. God will do the fighting for you.” I think that’s Exodus 14:14. That’s a high-level understanding of grace already early in the Hebrew Scriptures. But if you stay with such an enlightened passage, in the very next paragraph they’ll pull back. You can almost see the interior soul fighting such freedom, fighting such enlightenment. It contradicts itself again and again in the same paragraph. You’ll have contrary statements. So that’s what I think Rene Girard means by a text in travail, a suffering text. A text that moves three steps forward, two steps backward. And yet once that three steps forward line has been stated, it’s very hard for the soul ever to forget it and it operates as an allurement, an attraction, that pulls consciousness forward. But we fight it every step of the way.
Pete Enns: Sure because we want a book that just works simply and everything stays on the same page. But I guess what you’re saying and what Girard is saying is that paying attention to the contours of the text is actually pretty enlightening. You watch how it behaves and the fact that it’s a text in travail teaches us something about the spiritual life and we see that modeled for us already in scripture, rather than scripture being a rule book or a cookbook or an owner’s manual or something like that.
Richard Rohr: Perfectly said. You’re understanding what I’m trying to say. Thank you.
Pete Enns: I’m just imaging you here over the years, Richard, so I appreciate that. We’d better agree because I get this from you. Yeah, you know, the thing you mentioned before. Another thing I think is so fascinating. Maybe you could talk about. I think you mentioned the evolution of religious consciousness. You see that in the Bible itself. With fits and starts. Three steps forward, one step backward. That sort of thing. Do you see that evolution is primarily…well, let me ask a question. The accusation that sometimes happens, especially with Protestants, is an accusation of anti-Semitism where it looks like the Old Testament is the problem and the New Testament is the solution. But do you see in the New Testament also let’s say maybe a need for an evolution of religious consciousness or is all of the New Testament simply the last word?
Richard Rohr: Excellent. Thank you for asking. I’m not a believer in supersessionism–that Christianity made Judaism obsolete. Jesus died a good Jew and all of his major themes, in my opinion, were learned from his Hebrew scriptures, from his Jewish scriptures. But that’s because he knew how to read them. He knew when an inspired text was leading you forward and he didn’t quote the punitive exclusionary imperialistic texts. In fact, he actively avoids them. That’s provable. That’s demonstratable. That Jesus does not quote his own scriptures as if all of them are of equal importance. So that’s why I mentioned, for example, the Exodus 14:14. That I see a capsulized form of every point that Jesus makes already found in his Hebrew scriptures. I cannot accept this disjunction between what we call, unfortunately, the Old Testament making us think it was out of date. I think the trajectory starts and is set by the Hebrew Scriptures. But the key, of course, is to learn how to read the prophets. And very frankly, most of us didn’t read the prophets in any intelligent way. We just saw them as passages that prophesied Jesus. That misses 95 % of their message. So without a good hermeneutical or critical understanding of the prophets, I can see why people said, well there’s a complete disjunction and we got to this supersessionism that Christianity replaced the Jewish religion. The very fact that I often hold up the physical Bible before my class and I say, “Now just look at this physically. Two-thirds of our Bible is the Jewish Bible.” So this is a structural physical statement about inclusively and we can never be an exclusionary religion again because we’ve already included another religion. At least one. So I think this is crucially important or we get it into what you’re talking about, like anti-Semitism. When you know we could already look at John’s Gospel, which I just highly praise and I think largely represents mystical non-dual high-level religion. But there are hints of anti-Semitism remaining in John’s Gospel. So we already have a little two steps backward, or at least one step backward hinted at in John’s Gospel. Sort of scary, isn’t it?
The Prophets Allow Us to See the Old Testament and the New Testament Non-Dualistically (24:09)
Jared Byas: I hear a little bit of a hint of these things that maybe need some correction or a closer look at the New Testament. And the same in the Hebrew Scriptures. Can you talk a little bit more…you touched on how the prophets really allow for us to see them non-dualistically. It’s not Old Testament God, New Testament God. But there’s a nugget of something in the prophets. Can you talk more about what you see in the prophets and how it furthers what you’re thinking?
Richard Rohr: Can you give me two hours?
Pete Enns: Yeah. Yes, actually we can. Go ahead.
Jared Byas: We may take a few breaks, but just keep talking.
Richard Rohr: There’s two things that jump out. First, the prophets are the birth of self-critical thinking. I probably say that, I hope I say that, in the book, Things Hidden. But no other religion incorporates into its inspired texts passages that tell that religion that they’re phonies and hypocrites and wrong and prostituting themselves. Except the Jewish people had the courage to do that. So, when you don’t have self-critical thinking in a religion, you always lack the prophetic instinct. The other element that I think they bring, now frankly we just didn’t have the consciousness to see it till the last 50 years, is they didn’t read Jewish history in terms of retributive justice, but they read it in terms of God’s restorative justice. That it wasn’t quid pro quo, tit for tat thinking as the superficial reading of the Bible will allow you to think. That when God is in the smiting and wrath and drowning everybody on the whole planet because a few people sinned or something. If you just stay at that superficial level, you do think God is a God of retributive justice, but the prophets, especially Ezekiel, Jeremiah, Isaiah, Hosea, they introduce an idea that it’s taken us frankly 2,000 years to comprehend. Jesus exemplifies it, but we still couldn’t get it. And that is restorative justice. That again and again if you read the full historical context in which the prophet is writing or speaking, he again and again says, “You’ve done it wrong. You’re terrible. You’re sinners. You’re hypocrites. You’re prostitutes. You’re phonies. But you know what? Yahweh is gonna love you anyway. God is going to love you into wholeness. I mean the dry bones of Ezekiel 16. It’s there all the way through the prophets. But I think we were so, you used the word PTSD before. I think a lot of the early passages that reflect very primitive consciousness, where God is always smiting his enemies and, forgive the unkind word, but when you have God being pissed off most of the time. People who start reading those texts, especially as most of us did as children, I think we suffer from a kind of spiritual PTSD. That we are afraid of this God. We don’t like this God. We don’t feel safe around this God. And those early retributive justice passages so throws us in consciousness that we just couldn’t hear the passages about universal mercy, forgiveness, compassion. It was just too hard to believe. It was too good to be true. Put it that way. It was too good to be true.
Jared Byas: We’re sorry to interrupt the podcast, but we’re going to take one minute to mention two simple ways to support the work we do with the Bible for Normal People. First, head to iTunes. Rate us. Give us a review. But please only do this if you like us. If not, rethink your life choices. And then just ignore this message. Second, check us out on Patreon.com/thebiblefornormalpeople, where you’ll find ways to jump into the conversation, join the community, and offer support at various levels. Last, but not least, we want to give our deepest thanks to some of the members of our producer’s group. These folks give us feedback through email, calls, and overall just help make the podcast what it is. So thanks to Ted Cole, James White, Scott Smith, Darlene Sinclair, Jonathan Beck, Marilyn Johnson, Daniel Wesley, Darren McKenna, Sharon Rowland, and Dee Forest. We couldn’t do what we do without you, so thanks so much. Now back to the podcast.
Retribution in the New Testament (29:00)
Pete Enns: Well, Richard, how, I mean…in terms of a specific example or two from the New Testament that people always pick up on…things like Ananias and Sapphira. I agree with you. And I think we have to make judgments about what we think the Bible is doing based to, you know, to a large extent on our experience of God. So we have to evaluate these texts. That’s part of our job, I think, as theological beings is to evaluate them. But so help us evaluate something like Ananias and Sapphira or even, you know, a fair amount of the Book of Revelation, which looks retributive in places, doesn’t it?
Richard Rohr: Boy it sure does. Well, let’s try this. Of course, Acts of the Apostles, where we hear the story of Ananias and Sapphira, is still being written in the first decades of the Christian revelation. I would think most are still highly carrying this primitive notion of God being in immediate causality connection with everything that happens. And so, I don’t know the historical setting, but if one of them did happen to die or whatever, we would naturally, I probably would have too, immediately attribute that to God’s immediate intervention in history of punishment. It’s just really easy for human beings to read historical events that way. Even though Jesus has said, “Do you think when the tower fell in Siloam, that means those people were more sinful than anybody else?” So, we see Jesus reflect a very high level of consciousness. But he’s always been so far ahead of most of human history that we just pulled him right back into our dualistic mind. I mentioned before, and I don’t mean to teach this now – -I couldn’t possibly, but–I use Spiral Dynamics a lot to understand the levels of consciousness. And if most of history was written at what we call the purple or the red levels, where everything is magical, tribal, God is in immediate causality with everything, that’s the only way you can read an event. And I understand that. But I can’t go back to that. And if other people were honest, I think they’d admit that they themselves can’t not go back to that. That it’s not the way they think because Jesus pointed us on a trajectory beyond that. And again you know the passage I’m referring to of the tower falling, where Jesus says, “Does that mean they were more sinful? Of course, it doesn’t.” But, we’ve never been ready for Jesus. He’s just always running ahead of us into Galilee. The Risen Christ. So, you know, don’t hear anything I’m saying as any kind of minimization of the Risen Christ, the presence of the Living Spirit, the Living Christ, the Living Word in history. That’s where I’m placing my bet. And that’s where I believe we have to learn…we have to be retrained to recognize, to honor, to be obedient to this Living Word. And then, once you learn how to discern the Living Word, the Living Presence, the Risen Christ, then we can put the Bible in your hands and you won’t abuse it. Then we can make you a good Catholic who loves the pope and loves the bishops. But you’re not going to treat them in an idolatrous way.
How Can We Still Read the Bible and Look for Meaning? (32:46)
Jared Byas: So Richard, I think this might tie into this idea of the Living Christ and this consciousness idea. But I think going back to the Bible and what it is and how we read it, I think a lot of people would say something like…what the Bible means to us, what it means, is what the authors meant. And I hear you talking about it in a very different way. What the Bible means to us today isn’t necessarily what it meant to the original author. Can you talk about that idea of what does the Bible mean to us? How do we read it and look for meaning, given some of the concepts you’ve talked about?
Richard Rohr: Well, let me say what you just said it’s a very good starting place. And before Vatican II, that was our primary Catholic approach. What did the author mean when he or she wrote the text? What was the message he or she intended to communicate? That’s a good place to start. But, you know, like I just did with Ananias and Sapphira, my assumption would be, if Luke wrote Acts of the Apostles, okay, Luke still saw history that way. I can respect that. I can work with that. I can move with that, too. But you can’t stop there. Let me throw this in. I hope it contributes to the conversation. You know already Origin and Augustine–we’re talking about the early centuries of Christianity. They had already pretty much come to the conclusion. There were at least four to eight levels…different fathers of the church had different levels. The inspired level of a text. The literal was the least helpful and the least inspired. Do you see? If that was the, I think, more or less the consensus–the first four centuries–we went backward. They saw the symbolic, or what you just called the meaningful, level as the highest level of inspiration. Not the only, but the one that would be more fruitful for the soul. The one that would open up the heart and the mind and the soul to God experience. We actually went backward. You know, we had four to eight levels of inspiration. And then after the PTSD, again, of the Enlightenment, Christians went into such paranoia. We didn’t want to appear stupid. We didn’t want to be outside of the university level of conversation, so we wanted to find one certain absolute always-true level of interpretation. And, you know, we did. We settled on the one that was least inspired, in my opinion, and the least fruitful. To prove that Jesus, for example, was really born in Bethlehem in the year 0 is fruitless. That doesn’t expand the heart, the mind, or the soul. It’s the least helpful level of interpretation. I’m not going to throw it out. But I’m going to say that to head down that road is not going to bring many people to the experience of the Risen Christ.
Pete Enns: Right. And I think what strikes me, Richard, in what you’re saying is how I think the Bible itself deconstructs that kind of thinking. Because it’s so diverse, because you have four gospels that contradict each other, you have two histories of Israel that contradict each other. It’s almost as if how much more obvious does this have to be that the literalistic historicistic reading is alien. Maybe not all.
Richard Rohr: I mean right in front of us, we have the same healing story and Mark presents it in one way, Matthew another, Luke another, and sometimes John a fourth. So, who’s telling the truth? So, you just said it. It’s already deconstructed from inside the Bible. That the literal historical is not the important message.
Jared Byas: I think I heard a little bit of what we might call a hermeneutic principle for you. Maybe it was intentional, so you can expand on it. But, talking about this idea of truth, I think a lot of people go to the Bible looking for truth, meaning an opinion that corresponds to the reality that I can sort of put in my bank of things that are true. But you twisted that a little bit and talked about that’s not going to help us experience the Risen Christ. It sounds like that’s maybe a more primary thing you’re after in the Bible is that your experiences over the quote-unquote truth of it.
Richard Rohr: Sure. When that’s our primary concern–is the proving that it literally historically happened, I think that narrows our lens. I think it limits our capacity for open-heartedness, open-mindedness, open spirit, which is how that Spirit gets at us. Because we are so dang determined to prove that it really happened that way. And even if we could succeed at that, and I’m quite convinced many things in the Bible are historically true, or at least historically based. So I’m not interested in being a deconstructionist. I tell my students always I’m very much a Reconstructionist and that is ok, spend a few years playing the game that every sophomore plays of being excited about your new critical knowledge them. And then get over it. I want to build something. I don’t want to just deconstruct. So my hermeneutic is, I hope, one that can open people to present tense experiences of God, of love, of consciousness, of freedom, of joy. My Bible is marked up. It’s sitting here right next to me. I’ve had it since 1965. It’s the Bible that gives me the self-confidence to talk the way I talk. And I suppose that seems shocking to some people.
Pete Enns: I think what’s shocking is that you’re Roman Catholic and you read the Bible. That’s what I heard. I don’t know, maybe this is a caricature. My pride is a caricature.
Before There Was The Bible, There Was Experience (39:18)
Richard Rohr: Well, I’m afraid you’re right. Just to be a little sympathetic to my Catholic ancestors, just remember that Martin Luther is coterminous with the invention of the printing press. So we had Christianity enduring for fifteen hundred years largely with people who could not read and write. Protestantism has to be much more patient with that and recognize the reason we chained the Bible to the wall is it took the monastery monks a whole year to copy it and we had one copy in town. And so we chained it to the wall. But the more important thing I’m saying is that God’s revelation of God’s self could not possibly depend on people being able to read the Bible. I really do understand that you good Protestants must understand where are we Catholics coming from? And it’s just that our trajectory really started in a non-biblical way because most people could not read and write. And so we developed what we thought was a parallel reading of the scriptures. The clergy hopefully relied upon it or at least a little bit, although it often seemed like they didn’t. But here was the one plus we created an awful lot of mystics. We could not rely upon Bible. We had to go to experience, do you understand? And that’s our gift. That we have a lot of firsthand knowledge of texts that became, for us, parallel texts to the Bible. Now maybe you would rightly think we overemphasize many of them and that’s probably true, but now at this point in history, let’s get back to the tricycle. If we can equally let experience, tradition, and scripture regulate, balance, and compliment one another, I think we have a good approach.
Pete Enns: Yeah, I mean, the bookishness out of which Protestantism was born has had a significant effect. And the irony, of course, is that with all the authority of the book, we don’t agree with each other.
Richard Rohr: Yeah that’s it.
Pete Enns: There is no Protestant perspective…
Richard Rohr: It doesn’t work.
Pete Enns: It doesn’t work. I know, so, and this is why I think, you know, I mean my own experience–I’m sure you’ve had many more than I have–but you know I know a lot of people who walk away from any sort of faith because the book doesn’t work anymore now. And that’s the shame of that is exactly what you’re saying is an absolutizing that book, that reading and the need to get it right and the fixation on history and all that sort of thing and that’s a big shame.
Richard Rohr: An inspired book in the hands of unconverted people is frankly dangerous. If they’re still egocentric, if they still need to be right, if they still need to triumph over their enemies, don’t give them the Bible because they’ll find a hundred texts to justify it. And history now proves that.
Jared Byas: That reminds me of thinking about, you know, when you think of the wisdom literature like the proverbs and, you know, in classes sometimes I would talk about how to read Proverbs actually takes wisdom. So it’s a little bit ironic. You have to be a kind of person that can interpret it and apply it rightly. And it sounds like you’re extrapolating that to the whole Bible saying it takes a certain character, a certain kind of person, perhaps one that’s had an experience with the Risen Christ in order to handle the Bible properly, which is totally a backward way from how I would have been taught growing up. So it sounds like the experience comes first. The reading comes after.
Richard Rohr: And just so you know I’m trying to be fair. I would say the same thing to Catholics about tradition. You better not put the Catholic tradition in someone’s hands who has not undergone at least a basic conversion or they will use it to create Catholic shlock. I don’t know that’s a word but…
Pete Enns: It is now.
Richard Rohr: It’s just a waste of time. It’s pious devotions that have had no corrective from Scripture.
How Does the Bible Fit Into Reconstruction? (43:52)
Jared Byas: Right. So, can you talk a little bit more… you used this word earlier that I thought I really like was the “reconstructionist” because I like how it’s non-dualistic in this way. Like, we’ve talked about the evangelical or the more literal approach and how that can be constraining. But there’s also, you know, when you talked about the destructive or deconstructive, a lot of my progressive friend–their faith is really built on being anti-evangelical or they’re always critiquing or being critical of. And you’re kind of positioning this another way, a reconstructionist way. What’s a vision for how the Bible fits into this reconstruction? How can people use the Bible again in a really positive way?
Richard Rohr: Wow. You know, this is going to sound almost infantile but I use that with the students and they find it helpful. I tell them, almost from the very first class, that I want them to picture three boxes. The first box is called “Order.” The second box is called “Disorder.” The third box is called “Reorder.” And then I tell them there is no nonstop flight from the first box to the third box. Now our Christian way of saying that, I don’t know if you use this phrase, but we often say in Catholic theology, we’re saved by the death and resurrection of Jesus. So death and resurrection. The “and” is the important word. What conservatives do is they remain trapped in the first box. Just the insistence on some kind of order, usually a false order that they were given as a child. It always falls apart if you’re at all observant or honest about your experience.
Richard Rohr: But the trouble is, in this post-modern era where we’ve educated a lot of people entirely in the second box of disorder, most of my liberal progressive academics sophisticated former Christian friends. They live their entire life in the second box. That’s no way to live. Yes. To constantly be deconstructing everything. Why you don’t believe this. Why you don’t agree with that. This is half of America. It lives entirely in a kind of cynical, skeptical world-view about life. This is no way to build life on what you don’t believe. What you don’t agree with. The full passage of death and resurrection is to allow grace, and life, and love, and friendship, and forgiveness to lead you through the second box. Now, remember when I talked about the prophets before. The prophets were the masters of the second box. They knew how to lead you through deconstructed Israel, deconstructed Temple religion, priesthood religion, law religion–like Paul does too–into the third box. But that’s our goal is the experience of the Risen Christ, where you don’t have time and I hope no one has heard me here wasting in what I don’t believe or…I know it could have sounded like that. Could have sounded like I’m being dismissive of the Bible. But it’s the Bible that has given me the courage to talk the way I talk about the third box.
Richard Rohr: So if conservatives are trapped in the first box, most liberals and former Christians are trapped in the second box. And you and I–I can tell by the way you ask your questions. You and I are happily living, whether we know it or not, in the third box, where we’ve gone through the cynicism, the sarcasm, deconstruction, but that’s only to take away the idols. The false idols of the first box. This is what Thomas Merton, who’s a hero for many of us Catholics, he called your “private salvation project.” Right? Your private salvation project is where we all begin our childishly understood transactional understandings of religion and what else could you understand except at a childish level? But you have to let God deconstruct that. Because you’re not really in love with God. It’s like Paul in Philippians 3, where he says, “I obeyed the law perfectly. I was a perfect Pharisee, but I didn’t love God. I love myself and my interpretation of my religion.” In my book, “Falling Upward,” I call this “discharging your loyal soldier.”
Pete Enns: Right, yea I remember that.
Richard Rohr: A lot of people substitute the first box for the third box. That’s my major point here.
Pete Enns: Mmhmm. And the goal is to stay in that first box as a matter of faithfulness to God.
Richard Rohr: Now, all-time religion, you know, it works when you’re a teenager. It really holds you together, gives you focus and direction and zeal and righteousness. I was there once as a young Catholic, but when you confront the real issues of the world, it doesn’t work at that simple level. What I’m saying is you have to grow up. You have to suffer reality. You have to suffer the text. You have to get on the cross with Jesus and move from dualistic arrogance to non-dual compassion. And a lot of people don’t want to hang on that cross. I admit.
Pete Enns: Who does?
Richard Rohr: Yea, who does? But it’s the only way you grow up. And again, who gives me the courage to talk that way? It’s not modern psychology. It’s the life of Jesus and the life of Paul, who are most of the New Testament.
Pete Enns: I mean the trick I think for, I mean, I think Jared and I can both speak to this from her own experiences. The trick is that people are raised in the faith to stay in that first box.
Pete Enns: [00:50:25] That’s right. We were too.
You Can’t Start With Box #2 (50:27)
Pete Enns: I’m asking somewhat rhetorically because I don’t think there’s an easy answer to this question, but you know, the future might depend on creating cultures where you don’t live to do that. Right? But that’s hard to do because, you know, people aren’t happy with that. They want the box, right? And life doesn’t work that way.
Richard Rohr: And it’s a pedagogical problem, which we both understand. How do you still hand on the faith to the child–I don’t know if you’re fathers to your own children–and you want to give it to them. And you can’t start in the second box of deconstruction. Although liberals have mistakenly tried to do that. You have to start in the first box. There has to be a basic order, focus, direction, and purpose to life. And conservatives do that much better than liberals. They Do.
Great Truth is Taught Through Story (51:21)
Jared Byas: Yea, can you can you say more to that? Because I think that hits on a lot of things for where I am and in my life. I have young kids–eight, seven-year-olds. I’m often pushing against my progressive friends who want to begin there. Religious education in that disorder box and I see, just given some background in psychology and developmental psychology, that for a kid, that can be really disruptive. It’s hard for me, who no longer reads the scripture in that way, to endorse it for my kids even though, hey for me it worked because it gave me structure and order. What are ways…is it just kind of, well we’ll do it and we’ll deconstruct it later? That feels disingenuous.
Richard Rohr: You know, I think for a lot of us, it’s a matter of taking a Literature 101 course. I realize that great truth is taught through stories and G.K. Chesterton said, you know, big truth can only be seen on small stages. I think it’s the way you tell the story to your children that I think they still are–and you know this, I’m sure you read your kids when they were little–they need to move around inside of an exciting story that they can visualize. So, I would still do that. I really would. But it’s the way you preface the story and tell them, “This is a story by which God is going to tell you something.” You can teach the story in a dogmatic, literalistic, mechanistic way and you can tell this story in a way that invites them to move around inside of it. And just knowing what you guys already clearly know, I think you know how to do that. But don’t throw the story out. Highly conceptual, highly abstract theology does not inspire people.
Jared Byas: Right. Yeah and I think actually funny enough I think my wife is much better about that when we read stories. I think there’s nothing she can’t stand more than when one of my kids say, “Did that really happen?” And she calms herself and says, “Well I’m not sure it matters because it’s true.”
Richard Rohr: Perfect! Perfect! Women are probably a lot better at this. Doesn’t really matter because it’s true.
Pete Enns: Yea, creating a climate in the home where they can ask questions like tha–children. Right? And, you know, I remember when my son was six and we were reading the Garden of Eden story and he was getting very irritated with me. I’m just reading it. And kept sighing and then huffing and puffing. I said, “What’s wrong?” And he goes, “Dad, animals can’t talk.” Right, so to try to go with that and say, “Well yeah you’re right they don’t. So what is this story telling us?” Right? Rather than what was my–I mean I was a young seminary professor at the time and in, you know, a fairly conservative place and my instinct was, “Shh. don’t talk like that, He may hear you!” You don’t want God to get–I didn’t say that. I think the spirit muzzled me for the first time in my life. But it was it was a good moment. But, you know, to create that culture and that space for children to be human and ask the questions that maybe God is inviting them to be asking to begin with, you know, so they don’t stay in that first box.
Richard Rohr: Born into a post-modern world, they can say animals don’t talk. In my generation, we didn’t allow ourselves to think that way. But you don’t want to deny them the world of awe and wonder and mystery either.
Pete Enns: Correct. It’s hard to pull off though, isn’t it? My children are all in their 20s–mid to late 20s–I sort of want to start over. And get it right.
Richard Rohr: No, don’t do that. Don’t feel bad.
Let God Out of His Box: The Bible is Full of Surprises (55:26)
Pete Enns: Richard, this is another issue here that, I mean maybe you can comment on briefly. We’re moving towards the end of our time and I don’t want to keep you longer, but I want to get back to the word trajectory. And I think you like to use the word “surprise.”.
Richard Rohr: Oh, do I?
Pete Enns: In scripture…I think you do. Basically, the Bible is full of surprises and that’s a really hard thing for some people to accept, but it probably has some spiritual value for us, doesn’t it?
Richard Rohr: Well, you know, you’re illustrating the boxes right there. People who think religion is about maintaining the first box don’t like the language of surprise. Because they’ve been told that religion is all about certitude and order and, when you’ve been taught that it’s all about certitude and order, then there is really no room for surprises. That’s what has to be undone. You know, I think it was Einstein who said that the foundational religious intuition was the experience of awe. And awe allows you to be surprised. You’re almost programmed for it. You let God be free. You let God out of his box of order. You know the line that I love to say that shocks some people is, I say you realize every time God forgives you, God is breaking his own rules and saying, “OK I know I made that commandment, but I would prefer a relationship with you to being right.” That’s what God is saying when God forgives. So that’s a great surprise. Now, if you don’t let God operate incoherently, surprisingly, outside of his box, outside of his rules, you’re never going to experience forgiveness. So all of the great theophanies are God being a major surprise.
Pete Enns: You know God’s in the business of surprise and not writing legal briefs.
Richard Rohr: There you go.
Pete Enns: Well, Richard listen. This has been absolutely wonderful. We are respectful of your time and we want to have the…
Richard Rohr: I could talk to guys like you all day.
Pete Enns: Yeah. So could we.
Jared Byas: Thank you for coming on Richard.
What’s Next for Richard Rohr? (57:41)
Pete Enns: But Richard, one last question. Are you working on anything now? Any books that you’re working on are going to be coming out soon?
Richard Rohr: Ah. Well, I just finished the one on Trinity. And the sequel to that, if I can call it that–and this April/May I’ve set aside time to write it–is I want to write on the Cosmic Christ. Because as you probably, if you’ve heard my stuff, you know I don’t believe Christians have been told that there is a very real difference between Jesus and Christ. We were told to follow it up with Jesus. I’m glad many people did. But the reason that we’ve had such persistent problems with racism and sexism classism and militarism is because we weren’t really given the more universal notion of the Christ. So I pray that I can make that clear in the next book.
Pete Enns: Do you have any idea when that might be finished?
Richard Rohr: Well, I hope to finish up by the middle of May and, you know, it’ll come out next spring, I guess.
Pete Enns: Wow. That’s fantastic. I’m sure it will be. Have confidence in yourself Richard. This is not your first book. You know how to do this , right?
Pete Enns: Alright Richard, thank you again from both of us. Thank you for spending some time with us and we had a wonderful time with you.
Richard Rohr: My privilege and you’re welcome to New Mexico. If you ever come this way, I’d love to meet you face to face.
Pete Enns: Thank you.
Jared Byas: Wonderful. Have a good night.
Richard Rohr: God bless you. Bye.
Jared Byas: Thanks again for tuning in to this episode of the Bible for Normal People. Again, this was a reissue of the second episode we ever aired–with Richard Rohr on a contemplative look at the Bible. And for those of you who have listened from the first season to the second and notice the difference in sound quality, I just want to give a shout out today to Dave Gerhart, audio engineer and all things audio extraordinaire, for really helping us. You know, in that first season we had no idea what we were doing. And in the second season we still have no idea what we’re doing, but at least we have Dave on the team. So thanks Dave for all that you do. We hope to see everyone else next time.