The phrase “spirituality of subtraction” was inspired by Meister Eckhart, the medieval Dominican mystic. He wrote that the spiritual life has much more to do with subtraction than it does with addition. Yet, I think most Christians today are involved, in great part, in a spirituality of addition and, in that, they are not very traditional or conservative at all.
The capitalist worldview is the only one most of us have ever known. We see reality, experiences, events, other people, and things-in fact, every thing-as objects for our personal consumption. Even religion, Scripture, sacraments, worship services, and meritorious deeds become ways to advance ourselves—not necessarily ways to love God or neighbor.
The nature of the capitalist mind is that things (and often people!) are there for me. Finally, even God becomes an object for my consumption. Religion looks good on my resume, and anything deemed spiritual is a check on my private worthiness list. Some call it spiritual consumerism. It is not the Gospel.
Our word for God’s dramatic breaking beyond our ironclad rules is grace. Grace is God’s magnificent release from our self-made prisons and the only way that God’s economy can triumph over our deeply internalized merit badge system. Grace is the secret key whereby God offers to be the Divine Locksmith for every life and for all of history. Life, when lived fully, tends to tool and retool us until we eventually find some form of grace is necessary for our very survival and sanity. Without grace, almost everything human declines and devolves into smallness, hurt, and blame.
Grace humiliates our attempts at private virtue. Grace makes us feel powerless, where, before, we knew that if we did this, then we would earn that. Accepting grace can make us feel poor and empty and even useless. Who wants grace? Only sinners and almost no one else!
+From A Lever and a Place to Stand: The Contemplative Stance,
Father Richard makes a distinction between first-half-of-life and second-half-of-life spirituality:
Most cultures are first-half-of-life cultures, and even sadder, most organized religions almost necessarily sell a first-half-of-life spirituality. In the first half of life, it is all about me: How can I be important? How can I be safe? How can I make money? How can I look attractive? And, in the Christian scenario, how can I think well of myself and go to heaven? How can I be on moral high ground? These are all ego questions; they are not the questions of the soul. It is still well-disguised narcissism, or even sanctified narcissism, which is surely the worst kind.
I’m sad to say, I think many Christians have never moved beyond these survival and security questions. Even “wanting to go to heaven” is language for securing my future, not a shared future, or a common future for humanity; religion becomes a private insurance plan for that future. It’s still all about me, but piously disguised. It’s not really about love at all!
Any sense of being part of a cosmos, a historical sweep, or that God is doing something bigger and better than simply saving individual souls (my soul in particular), is largely of no interest. This becomes apparent in the common disinterest of so many when it comes to Earth care, building real community, simple living, and almost all peace and justice issues. For many Christians—stuck in the first half of life—all that is important is their private moral superiority and spiritual “safety,” which is somehow supposed to “save” them. It creates what I am now calling a “cult of innocence,” not any real human or divine solidarity. 
Once God and grace move us to the second half of life, religion becomes much more a mystical matter rather than a moral matter. Then it’s about union with all and participation in and with God. Indeed, this is the work of true religion: to help us transition from stage to stage, toward ever-deeper union with God and all things.
Those who fall into the safety net of silence find that it is not at all a fall into individualism. True prayer or contemplation is instead a leap into commonality and community. We know that what we are experiencing can only be held by the Whole and we are not alone anymore. We are merely a part, and as such a very grateful and totally satisfied part. This is “the peace the world cannot give” (see John 14:27).
Real silence moves us from knowing things to perceiving a Presence that imbues all things. Could this be God? When we begin to experience a mutuality between ourselves and all things, we have begun to understand the nature of Spirit. God refuses to be known as any kind of object, but only as a mutuality.
 The phrase “cult of innocence” was coined in a tweet by author and pastor Nadia Bolz-Weber, and is explored in depth in Brian McLaren’s new book Do I Stay Christian?.
Adapted from Richard Rohr, A Spring within Us: A Book of Daily Meditations (Albuquerque, NM: CAC Publishing, 2016), 87–88, 208.
The first chapter of the Gospel according to John talks a lot about light. Light is a common theological metaphor throughout Scripture. John opens up his version of the events of Jesus’s life exploring this metaphor, and applying it to the coming of Jesus.
John the Baptist has come to “testify to the light” that was on its way. John’s witness is to point to “the true light, which enlightens everyone.” The divine light Jesus was going to be bringing into the world was such that no darkness would be able to overcome it.
When light and darkness are used as theological metaphors, they are often used to describe the concepts of belief and unbelief. “Light” describes believing; “darkness” describes unbelief. But it is a metaphor and as such it has its limits.
The limits of the metaphor really hit home for me when one of my seminary classmates explained why it really didn’t work for her to think about light and dark as a binary reality. Jen is legally blind. For her, being in a room that is lit typically actually makes it harder for her to see. Light at that level causes her pain. She needs the lights to be dimmed in order to see more clearly.
Hearing Jen talk about how the metaphor of light and darkness feels to her was very helpful for me. I still embrace and affirm the metaphor, but with a qualifier. Jen’s insight helped me realize a very important truth:
Everything we say about God is a metaphor.
As soon as we start talking about God we place limits on God’s identity, the limits of human language. Theology is an attempt to describe the indescribable. God is infinite, present everywhere at once, the creator of all that is and ever will be.
And so we embrace metaphor, and it is good! For yes indeed, the light has come into the world, and no darkness will ever overcome it.
BB: So, this leads me to another quote, which I think is something that I really… You know we have those internal conflicts, and I couldn’t name it until now. But I have Brené, who’s seven, at Holy Name of Jesus Elementary School and Sister DaVita. And I was scared to death. And then I have the adult in her 50s Brené saying, “It’s okay. God… If this makes us connect… Closer connected to God, we can change these words.” And there’s an internal struggle sometimes. But when I think about this quote of yours all the time, “God is always bigger than the boxes we build for God, so we should not waste too much time protecting the boxes.”
RR: The boxes. That’s the job of a clergyman. He thinks. She thinks, I guess. Yeah. God has to obey our laws. I mean let’s take the whole gay issue. How dare we say to God, in effect, “You may not love gay people. You’re not allowed to, God. We have decided.” And that’s what we’re saying because…
RR: We can’t deal with infinity. The human mind can’t form the notion of infinity. So, as all the mystics say, “God is infinite love.” Infinite. We don’t know how to process that. We just don’t. So we pull God down and make an anthropomorphism out of God so he loves like we do, very conditionally, with threats and punishments.
BB: And ego.
RR: Yeah, and ego.
BB: We create a God that loves with ego, which is like the opposite of God.
RR: Oh, you get it. Why didn’t we meet 30 years ago? Darn. When did you start going on the road?
BB: 15 years ago, maybe.
RR: I see. See I was on for 52.
RR: That’s why my voice is almost gone now. Go ahead.
BB: When you say… Like, I’m thinking about all the anti-trans bills right now that are really dehumanizing trans kids, especially targeting trans kids.
BB: And when you say when you do that, you’re telling God who God can love and who God shouldn’t love.
RR: You are not allowed to love this person.
BB: Oh that is…
RR: We’re back in charge. We’re back in charge. Yeah. Well, you get it, thank you. Thank you.
BB: Well that feels me with grief.
RR: Grief, I know. Imagine the pain we’ve caused so many people at so many levels, who until the recent generation lived lives of pretend, disguise, denial.
BB: A mask.
RR: A mask, when all God wants us to be is who we really are.
BB: So, flawed and imperfect.
RR: Created in the image of God, that’s right. Which always there is a fly in the ointment, and it’s a struggle with that fly, that gets religion on the bad course when you can’t integrate failure, the negative sin, mistake, that’s the work of vulnerability.
BB: Is there a prayerful contemplative way to find our way to an understanding of infinity but to find our way? Do you know what I’m asking? Like… I don’t want an answer, but is there a path to get us closer?
RR: The historic universal paths of spiritual transformation are two, great love and great suffering. Now, great love normally leads to great suffering. So it comes down to great suffering, but it’s learned by great love, and I’m sure you couldn’t know what you know if you hadn’t loved probably more than one person very deeply.
BB: I have.
RR: And that’s where the world of infinity opens up, where you stop trying to limit her, him and make them into your image. Without great love you cannot understand infinity.
Father Richard describes his spiritual development as a “pilgrim’s progress,” with God using the circumstances of his life—particularly his international ministry and travel—to expand his vision, heart, and mind:
As I moved in ever-widening circles around the world, the solid ground of the perennial tradition never really shifted. It was only the lens, the criteria, the inner space, and the scope that continued to expand. I was always being moved toward greater differentiation and larger viewpoints, and simultaneously toward a greater inclusivity in my ideas, a deeper understanding of people, and a more honest sense of justice. God always became bigger and led me to bigger places. If God could “include” and allow, then why not I? If God asked me to love unconditionally and universally, then it was clear that God operated in the same way.
Soon there was a much bigger world for me than the United States and the Roman Catholic Church, which I eventually realized also contained paradoxes. The e pluribus unum (“out of many, one”) on American coinage did not include very many of its own people (women, BIPOC, LGBTQIA+ people, poor folks, people with disabilities, and so many more). As a Christian I finally had to be either Roman or catholic, and I continue to choose the catholic end of that spectrum—remember, catholic means universal. Either Jesus is the “savior of the world” (John 4:42), or he is not much of a savior at all. Either America treats the rest of the world and its own citizens democratically, or it does not really believe in democracy at all. That’s the way I see it.
But this slow process of transformation and the realizations that came with it were not either-or decisions; they were great big both-and realizations. None of it happened without much prayer, self-doubt, study, and conversation. The journey itself led me to a deepening sense of holiness, freedom, and wholeness. Although I didn’t begin thinking this way, I now hope and believe that a kind of second simplicity is the very goal of mature adulthood and mature religion.
My small, personal viewpoint as a central reference for anything, or for rightly judging anything, gradually faded as life went on. The very meaning of the word universe is to “turn around one thing.” I know I am not that one thing. There is Big Truth in this universe, and it certainly isn’t mine.
Mature religions, and now some scientists, say that we are hardwired for the Big Picture, for transcendence, for ongoing growth, for union with ourselves and everything else. Either God is for everybody, and the divine DNA is somehow in all creatures, or this God is not God by any common definition, or even much of a god at all. We are driven toward ever higher levels of union and ability to include, even if some of us go kicking and screaming. “Everything that rises must converge,” as Teilhard de Chardin put it. 
 Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, The Future of Man, trans. Norman Denny (New York: Harper and Row, 1964), 192.
Pain teaches a most counterintuitive thing that we must go down before we even know what up is. It is first an ordinary wound before it can become a sacred wound. Suffering of some sort seems to be the only thing strong enough to destabilize our arrogance and our ignorance. I would define suffering very simply as whenever we are not in control.
All healthy religion shows us what to do with our pain. If we do not transform our pain, we will most assuredly transmit it. If our religion is not showing us how to transform our pain, it is junk religion. It is no surprise that a crucified man became the central symbol of Christianity.
If we cannot find a way to make our wounds into sacred wounds, we invariably become negative or bitter because we will be wounded. That is a given. All suffering is potentially redemptive, all wounds are potentially sacred wounds. It depends on what we do with them. Can we find God in them or not?
If there isn’t some way to find some deeper meaning to our suffering, to find that God is somehow in it and can even use it for good, we will normally close up and close down, and the second half of our lives will, quite frankly, be small and silly.
+Adapted from Things Hidden: Scripture as Spirituality, p. 25.
The sin warned against at the very beginning of the Bible is “to eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil” (Genesis 2:17). It does not sound like that should be a sin at all, does it? But the moment I sit on my throne, where I know with certitude who the good guys and the bad guys are, then I’m capable of great evil-while not thinking of it as evil! I have eaten of a dangerous tree, according to the Bible. Don’t judge, don’t label, don’t rush to judgment. You don’t usually know other people’s real motives or intentions. You hardly know your own.
The author of the classic book The Cloud of Unknowing says that first you have to enter into “the cloud of forgetting.” Forget all your certitudes, all your labels, all your explanations, whereby you’ve put this person in this box, determined this group is going to heaven, decided this race is superior to that race. Just forget it. It’s largely a waste of time. It’s usually your ego projecting itself, announcing itself, and protecting itself. It has little to do with objective reality or real love of the truth.
If the world and the world’s religions do not learn this kind of humility and patience very soon, I think we’re in historical trouble.
The Spirit of the Lord God is upon me…he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and release to the prisoners.
In this reading from Isaiah, the prophet describes the work of the com ing Servant of YHWH. It is precisely this quote that Jesus first uses to announce the exact nature of his own ministry (Luke 4:18-19). In each case, Jesus describes his work as reuniting things that have in any way lost. their divine state or been rginalized or demeaned by society.
Jesus’s ministry is not to gather the so-called good into a private country club and punish the outsiders, but to reach out to those on the edge and on the bottom, those who are last, to tell them they might just be first! That is almost the very job description of the Holy Spirit and, therefore, of Jesus. Some call it God’s unique kind of justice or “restorative justice.” God justifies things by restoring them to their true and full identity in himself, as opposed to retributive justice, which seeks only reward and punishment. To receive unearned love is their only punishment.
+Adapted from Preparing for Christmas with Richard Rohr: Daily Reflections for Advent, pp. 36-37.
A very little bit of God goes an awfully long way. When another’s experience of God isn’t exactly the way I would describe it, it doesn’t mean that they haven’t had an experience of God or that their experience is completely wrong. We have to remain with Francis’s prayer: “Who are you, God, and who am I?” Isn’t there at least ten percent of that person’s experience of God with which I can agree? Can’t I at least say, “I wish I could experience God in that way”?
What characterizes anyone who has had just a little bit of God is that they always want more of that experience! Could it not be that this Hindu, this Sufi, this charismatic, this Jew has, in fact, touched upon the same eternal Mystery that I am seeking? Can’t we at least give one another the benefit of the doubt? I can be somewhat patient with people who think they have the truth. The problem for me is when they think they have the whole truth.
The mystic probably represents the old shibboleth, “Those who really know don’t speak too quickly. Those who speak too quickly don’t really know.”
+Adapted from Following the Mystics through the Narrow Gate… Seeing God in All Things (Recording).