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Father Richard Rohr on Racism, Non-Dual Thinking, and Jesus Christ

02/04/2015 04:06 pm ET | Updated Apr 06, 2015

Father Richard Rohr (OFM), is a Roman Catholic, Franciscan priest, ordained in 1970. He is the founder of the Center for Action and Contemplation (CAC) in Albquerque, New Mexico, and the author of more than 25 books about Christian spirituality.   Rohr is a contributing author to the CAC's journal, Onening, as well as the progressive Christian publication, Sojourners.

As a proponent of the Perennial Tradition with a distinct Wisdom Lineage, Rohr is known for his ability to reach spiritual seekers across traditional religious boundaries. He is slated to appear on Oprah Winfrey's "Super Soul Sundays" show on February 8, 2015.

Father Rohr graciously spent an hour with me on the telephone for an interview on the afternoon of January 8, 2015. A more complete version of this hour-long interview can be found here.

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RTN: Many Christians have spent a better portion of our lives organizing ourselves around what we "believe," personal morality, and neat demarcations of who is "in" and who is "out" of God's favor and kingdom. This is what you've referred to as a sort of "tribal" approach to religion, which refers to in-group/out-group thinking.

In order to transcend this, one must have what you've referred to "non-dual thinking." Can you provide a working definition of dualism, and speak to what the starting point is for us who would work away from dualism?

RR: The natural way the mind already "knows" as a child is in opposition to something else. It's funny that we have to have this explained to us, but you wouldn't know what "cold" was unless there was such a thing as "hot." If everything in the world was the same temperature, we wouldn't have these words.

Unfortunately, we create those contrary words as necessary for the world we live in - that is, all kinds of comparisons, and competitions, and antagonisms...It becomes our primary way of reading reality.

So, since this is the way we naturally think, very soon we tend to think oppositionally. For some dang reason, the ego prefers to make one side better than the other, so we choose. And we decide males are better than females, America is better than Canada, Democrats are better than Republicans. And for most people, once this decision is made, it is amazing the amount of blindness they become capable of. They really don't see what's right in front of them - everything has to be understood in opposition to something else.

Once you see this, it's an amazing breakthrough, and that is the starting place for moving away from dualistic thinking...

This is why teachers like Jesus make so much of mercy, and forgiveness, and grace, because these are the things that, if truly experienced, totally break dualism down. Because once you experience being loved when you are unworthy, being forgiven when you did something wrong, that moves you into non-dual thinking. You move from what I call meritocracy, quid pro quo thinking, to the huge ocean of grace, where you stop counting, you stop calculating. That for me is the task of much of the entire spiritual life of a mystic or a saint - they fall deeper and deeper into that ocean of grace, and stop all the dang counting of "how much has been given to me," "how much I deserve." It's reached its real low-point in our own American country, which is almost entirely about counting and deserving and earning -- we call it a sense of entitlement. When you're trapped inside of that mind, you're going to have the kind of angry country we have today, where you're just looking for who to blame, who to hate, who to shoot. It's reaching that level.

RTN: I live in St. Louis, MO. Since the shooting death of unarmed African-American teenager, Michael Brown, St. Louis has somewhat become an epicenter of social unrest and racial tension between black and white persons. Certainly it's brought to light a lot what is already here. I'm wondering - what is your take on all of this?

RR: We have had years of hate modeled for us from Washington, D.C. That what you do is oppose people, fight people, resist people. It seems to me there has been a modeling of hatred at the highest levels in this country and moving all the way through the culture.

And this seeming irrational hatred of a black President. It's just unbelievable. And then, that the country, in its hatred, keeps thinking more dualistically instead of less. We move to things like "Tea Party" organizations, which are farther right, farther left, thinking that by hating, exposing the other person, we're going to come to some kind of unity. It's very sad. I don't know how we're going to get out of it, except major suffering.

I think we in the religious world have to carry much of the blame, because most would claim, it seems, that they are Christians. But it sure isn't evident.

This is the macro-explanation. I think that racism, hatred, and division has been modeled in this country for years non-stop. It's seeped all the way down.

RTN: So what do we do working our way down from macro to micro? And what should we turn around and say that is life-giving to offer at the gut-level?

RR: Recently, Pope Francis gave a scathing critique of the Roman-Catholic curia and their abuse of power. Some of his metaphors were just brilliant. But he made a lot of enemies. He is recognizing that until individual people come to some level of honesty, love, and truth - conversion - the whole systemic thing will remain as it is.

We do have to change individually, and then wait for chances where God puts us in a larger collective where we can model that. I'm just waiting for some people like that to come on the American scene who can model a higher level of consciousness. But you sure don't get it from the evening news. Neither the people on the streets or those in Washington, except for now and then heroes. And they're always wonderful.

So, I don't have any magic answer. I wish I did. We're still waiting for enlightened people to raise the level of consciousness.

RTN: Who is Jesus Christ, and what is his Gospel?

RR: Well, it's important to note that Jesus and Christ are two different faith affirmations. Hardly any Christians have been taught that - they think "Christ" is Jesus's last name.

So, to believe in Jesus, is to believe that the historic person who lived on this earth 2000 years ago was the image of the invisible God. That's a huge leap of faith, but it is my leap of faith, it's the act of faith of the Christian community.

But, I also believe in the eternal Christ, who existed from all eternity, and that is revealed in creation, was revealed in the Stone Age people, the Babylonians, the Philistines, the Africans - everyone who has ever lived has seen a revelation of the eternal Christ mystery.

If we don't make this distinction now, in this global age and the huge universe we are discovering, the "Jesus" religion [(Christianity)] could be in real trouble. Christ is bigger than the Earth planet. If tomorrow we discover life on another planet, the whole "Jesus" piece would not make sense anymore, if he did everything for just us on this planet he wouldn't be the savior of the "world."

As to the gospel, Jesus Christ came into the world as the image of the invisible God, to communicate to us that not only did we not need to be afraid of God, but that God is more for us than we are ourselves or one another. That God's love is infinite, and unstoppable, and will win!

The first three centuries, sixty percent of the fathers of the church believed in universal salvation, that God was creating a new heaven and a new earth, and that all of creation was going to be saved by the mercy and the love of God, moving beyond all tribalism, all in-group/out-group thinking.

RTN: Which sounds so much more like "good news!"

RR: Oh, gosh! We've gone backwards in so many ways. So, I believe the good news really is good news. If we could be given that great act of hope at the beginning, that this universe is going somewhere, and is beloved of God, instead of thinking we're going to bring people to the love of God by fear, and guilt, and shame. What ever made us think that would work? And we see right now that it is hasn't.

So that good news is really good. Really good. Bigger than we thought.