Richard Rohr: On Criticism

Well, this is my last post before leaving town. The video games queue is pretty far ahead – I’ve been setting up Wolfenstein articles through to July – but this is where we’re up to with the theology queue. Around the New Year I always go hunting for the ‘Best of 2018’ lists, add a few new characters to my reading roster. I was getting desperate, starting to run out of lists, and so I turned to Book Depository’s best-sellers. Browsing through the religion section, I found the name Richard Rohr popping up a bunch. A quick google, and I discovered some pretty hostile articles. I wanted to talk about one of those articles in particular – not on the merits of its arguments, but about one specific part where the writer describes Rohr as having a “nebulous position.”

When I was in honours, I read an article that I didn’t really understand, and I wrote a paragraph about how I had no idea what the fuck this guy was going on about. My supervisor sent it back with a note saying ‘nuke this paragraph’. He explained later that if you go around saying ‘this writer makes no sense,’ you open yourself up to looking like a fucking moron. All it takes is some other person to come along and understand the original work, and then you look stupid. People realise that the problem is with you, rather than with what you’re talking about.

Anyway, in this article, one Fr. Bryce Sibley criticises Rohr for a bunch of different reasons. Most of them I don’t care about right now. The interesting one is where he refers to Rohr’s “nebulous position.” I initially read it and thought no, bad, don’t do that, you’ll look like an idiot for not understanding. Rohr’s actual idea seemed pretty clear to me, at least in how Sibley described it. I’ll quote the wider passage:

“Speaking from his own experience, Rohr writes, ‘I have found that a great deal of wisdom comes in the world through people who creatively hold the tension of opposites on difficult and complex issues.’

While elaborating on this nebulous position, Rohr makes condescending remarks about those who hold fast to dogma and doctrine, especially…”

First thing to note: ironically, it’s unclear what ‘this nebulous position’ actually specifically refers to. It could refer specifically to the Rohr quote about creatively holding the tension of opposites. That’s the title of the subheading, so it seems like a major point of focus for Sibley. At the same time, Sibley has also just described how Rohr relies on experience over abstract reason, how Rohr recommends being led by God into humility and love rather than trying to have all the correct answers, and how Rohr makes negative remarks about dogmatists. The phrase “this nebulous position” is therefore a little vague – grammatically speaking, Sibley could be referring to any one of those four individual points, or any combination of them. The paragraph structure is also a little messy here. Actually – yeah, just read this whole paragraph:

“Throughout his talks, Rohr made a number of negative remarks about those who search for answers in religion instead of being willing to put themselves in a “liminal space” deprived of answers. There were also several subtle snide comments reserved for those concerned with orthodoxy and doctrine. Rohr has several sections in Simplicity criticizing those who feel compelled to be “right” dogmatically. Rohr claims that one should renounce being right and instead “‘go deep in one place’ and let your God lead you to a place of surrender, love, and humility.” Speaking from his own experience, Rohr writes, “I have found that a great deal of wisdom comes in the world through people who creatively hold the tension of opposites on difficult and complex issues.”

That’s alright, but then the next paragraph comes in:

“While elaborating on this nebulous position, Rohr makes condescending remarks about those who hold fast to dogma and doctrine, especially young laymen and young clergy.”

Wait on, why is that a new paragraph? He’s already said that. Sibley opens the previous paragraph by saying that Rohr criticises dogmatists. At the end of that paragraph, he switches to talking about how Rohr says we should hold tension around difficult issues, and then opens the next paragraph by repeating the earlier point: that Rohr is mean about dogmatists. If we’re feeling generous, we might say that Sibley slightly advances his argument by saying that Rohr is specifically mean to dogmatic young people. But the phrasing doesn’t really establish young people as the core concern of the upcoming paragraph. To me, the reference to young people reads more like a throwaway extra detail. If you wanted to make them the core of the topic sentence, you might say something like ‘among rohr’s condescending remarks towards dogmatists, he reserves special scorn for young laymen and young clergy.’ You acknowledge that you were already talking about Rohr being mean in the previous paragraph, and show that you’re going to narrow in on his treatment of young people. Arguably the ‘especially’ is intended to show that Sibley is narrowing in, but I think it gets lost as a throwaway detail. Especially – I mean, just line these two sentences up:

“There were also several snide comments reserved for those concerned with orthodoxy and doctrine … 

While elaborating on this nebulous position, Rohr makes condescending remarks about those who hold fast to dogma and doctrine, especially young laymen and young clergy.”

It sounds like he’s repeating himself. Rohr is snide, and when Rohr elaborates on his nebulous position (again, what nebulous position?), he’s also really condescending! Yeah, I think it’s some pretty shoddy paragraph construction going on in there. But you know, it’s not good practice to point it out, because somebody else might come along and straighten you out for misunderstanding and being a dick. I live in fear of the day where somebody reads this article and reads Fr. Sibley’s article and then writes a ripping response pointing out how I’ve completely misunderstood his actual point.

And it’s not totally impossible that such a thing might happen, right. I’m joking about it, but it’s possible. I’m not Catholic, I’m not totally familiar with the audience that Sibley is writing for – maybe I’ve missed a trick. When you’re not fully familiar with a field or a particular discourse, you can miss things that other people would find obvious. For example, take Rohr’s quote about creatively holding the tension of opposites on difficult issues. To me, that seems like quite a simple concept. I’m not sure what’s vague or nebulous about it. It seems to me like Rohr is saying that sometimes there are complex issues in life, and sometimes the wise people don’t just outright reject one side or the other, but rather find creative ways to hold or maintain the tension between the two sides.

For instance, we might say that from a theological perspective, sin is quite a complex and puzzling issue. If God is all-powerful and also wants good things, why does sin exist? Are we more powerful than God? Can we subvert, block, or otherwise impede His will? Each side of this debate has some important elements. On the one hand, we want to preserve the omnipotence of God. On the other hand, we want to maintain that humans have free will. We need to find a creative way of dealing with the problem that holds the tension, respecting the value of God’s omnipotence and free will, but also moves us forward. We might turn to Aquinas, who says that we do have free will and can disobey God’s will, but that we all exist within the overarching scope of God’s plan for creation insofar as disobedience and sin are reintegrated back into God’s plan through punishment and damnation. That is, the criminal who breaks the law is also put back under the law when they are punished for their transgressions. Now, you may or may not find Aquinas’s solution convincing. But it seems obvious that he is creatively maintaining the tension between these two elements, between free will and God’s omnipotence. He’s working out a solution that preserves the integrity of both sides, navigating between them rather than compromising one or the other.

So that whole concept seems pretty straightforward to me. When Sibley says it’s nebulous, he’s opening himself up to looking silly; all it takes is someone to point out what’s actually meant. If you don’t understand something, you’re better off keeping mum until you do. Of course, that dynamic obviously has its own pitfalls. Some people definitely let nonsense bullshit sneak past them because they’re too afraid to come out and say ‘hey, that sounds like fucking mush.’ That said, I think in this instance Sibley has fallen into the opposite error. It seems to me like he’s not taking Rohr seriously enough, or just isn’t educated enough in the relevant fields to understand and respond to Rohr in a meaningful way.

That’s not to say that Sibley is an idiot though, right. He starts off talking about the conflicts between theologians who follow Aquinas and those who follow John Duns Scotus, and that’s some really interesting material. The basic idea is that Thomists place more weight on the strength of human reason than Scotists do. Scotists, Sibley argues, place “a greater trust in the will and the emotions, not only in theological discourse but also in the spiritual life.” That’s a great premise for an article: looking at how Rohr’s Scotism might lead him to express his theology in certain ways. For instance, the bit where Sibley complains about Rohr’s attitude to young people – we’ve touched on it above – is a really great example of those differing approaches. According to Sibley, Rohr thinks many young people are attracted to fundamentalism, primarily because “young people need order in their lives, and they find this in tradition and dogmatism.” Rohr further (apparently) hopes that those young people will have a mystical experience of Christ and get over their dogmatism. Sibley responds with this:

“Rohr’s critique of the young who search for orthodoxy betrays a subtle ad hominem argument — he contends that it is just because the young are young that they believe such things. He does not address their position, but casts off the position outright simply because of their age.”

But that’s not quite what Rohr is saying. Sibley is talking at cross-purposes here. Sibley is a Thomist, and he’s got this high value placed on reason, and, like a good Thomist, he’s complaining that Rohr isn’t arguing against the intellectual positions. Rohr, on the other hand, is acting like a Scotist. He’s treating these young people in psychological terms, focusing on how their theologies might be formed by their environment and cultural upbringing, by their experiences, by their emotional need for security and order. Ironically, when Sibley cites the difference between Scotists and Thomists, he’s also highlighting the reasons why he’s misunderstanding and talking past Rohr’s work. There’s the germ of a really good article in there, but it needs to be carved out with more self-awareness of the conflict between the two traditions.

On the whole, Sibley’s article ends up being really revealing about his methods and approach. I’ve only really focused on one section out of, uh, five-ish, but it struck me as a really fascinating study on some of the problems and pitfalls of disagreement. You can talk past people, you can put your own misunderstandings on display and blame them on the other person – it’s just a little gem of a piece, really. A wonderful laundry list of what not to do. Love it.


  1. […] We’re shifting this week to H. Richard Niebuhr’s 1929 book The Social Sources of Denominationalism. Niebuhr was an American professor of Christian ethics in the 20th century, and this book deals with – I guess with the sociology of religion. It’s about where different denominations come from, and why they continue to exist. We’ve talked about this a bunch of times over the past several years, but there is I think an open question within Christian thought as to how things come to be. What makes things happen? If you stick your hand in a fire, does the fire burn you, or is it God working through the fire? (Aquinas: Is God Hot?) Are miracles really divine interventions, or are they just well-timed natural events? (Schleiermacher: What’s a Miracle?) And what makes people hold certain beliefs? Are they driven by intellectual conviction, or by their psychology? (Richard Rohr: On Criticism) […]


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