October 19, 2020

The Good Scout and the Denial of Jesus’ Way

applauseNote from CM:
Before I write today’s post, I must say that yesterday’s discussion provides a superb example of why I love being part of Internet Monk. That was one of the most thoughtful and respectful conversations I’ve ever been privileged to witness.

I had a busy day at work so wasn’t able to participate too much, but I’m not sure I would have done so anyway. It was a joy just to read and ponder what people were saying.

If you didn’t get a chance to read yesterday’s comments, I encourage you to take some time to consider them. You’ll be challenged and encouraged.

* * *

Today, a quote from Richard Rohr that further explores the themes of change and transformation, the two halves of life, and how, in counterintuitive fashion, the way up is down and the way to life is through death. The seed must fall into the ground and die in order to bear much fruit. The last shall be first.

Blessed are the losers, for only they shall know true “winning.”

Falling-UpwardBy denying their pain, avoiding the necessary falling, many have kept themselves from their own spiritual depths—and therefore have been kept from their own spiritual heights. First-half-of-life religion is almost always about various types of purity codes or “thou shalt nots” to keep us up, clear, clean, and together, like good Boy and Girl Scouts. A certain kind of “purity” and self-discipline is also “behovely,” at least for a while in the first half of life, as the Jewish Torah brilliantly presents. I was a good Star Scout myself and a Catholic altar boy besides, who rode my bike to serve the 6 A.M. mass when I was merely ten years old. I hope you are as impressed as I was with myself.

Because none of us desire a downward path to growth through imperfection, seek it, or even suspect it, we have to get the message with the authority of a “divine revelation.” So Jesus makes it into a central axiom: the “last” really do have a head start in moving toward “first,” and those who spend too much time trying to be “first” will never get there. Jesus says this clearly in several places and in numerous parables, although those of us still on the first journey just cannot hear this. It has been considered mere religious fluff, as most of Western history has made rather clear. Our resistance to the message is so great that it could be called outright denial, even among sincere Christians. The human ego prefers anything, just about anything, to falling or changing or dying. The ego is that part of you that loves the status quo, even when it is not working. It attaches to past and present, and fears the future.

Rohr, Richard (2011-02-11)
Falling Upward: A Spirituality for the Two Halves of Life
Wiley. Kindle Edition


  1. Although I appreciate some of Rohr’s “up is down” thinking, I’m very uncomfortable with the “two halves of life” reading of the spiritual life. I don’t find that my own life has fallen into these two neatly divided epochs, so it’s hard for me to identify with the idea.

    In addition, I suspect that Rohr’s idea is causally related to depth psychologist C.G. Jung’s idea about the two phases of the spiritual life, which he also said corresponded to two chronological epochs in the individual’s life. Jung said that the first half of life is comprised of the project of securing one’s place in the conventional world, and so is typified by striving and struggle, which is also typical of the spiritual life in that period of life. In fact, Jung said that among his patients he never met one who had a real interest in their own spiritual life who was younger than 40.

    The second epoch was the one in which real spiritual growth was possible, said Jung, because one’s conventional identity had been secured, and so much of the energy formerly used in securing one’s place could be devoted to the development of one’s spiritual identity and capacity.

    What I find so irksome in Jung’s idea, and I suppose in Rohr’s, is the assumption that real spiritual development and maturity is dependent on first securing a conventional identity and establishing a level of social, and I suppose economic, mastery in the world. In the absence of this attainment, the implication is that one’s spiritual life will necessarily remain stunted and immature.

    Now, this is a savage blow to those of us who, for whatever variety of reasons, have no such experience of security and mastery in the conventional world. It seems like a word of doom from the spiritual dimension of life, the very place we looked to in the hope that we would find the meaning in our lives that the world of getting-and-spending did not avail us.

    Is this really how “the last shall be first” looks? Which half of life was Jesus crucified in? Is there something I must attain before my spiritual life can flower? Or must you be a bit of a winner before you can be the kind of loser that matters, the spiritual loser?

    Perhaps I’m being unjust to Rohr. Perhaps I’m throwing too much of my own baggage onto him. Still…..

    In addition, I’m uncomfortable with placing the burden of spiritual inertia on the ego, which Rohr does in the quoted passage, as if the isolated ego is the facet of the human soul that should be teased out and made to play the part of the scape goat for the spiritual deficiency of the human person. The ego is an expression of the whole person, and the problem is not that the ego resists change, but that the whole person is enslaved to sin. Yes, sin, and resistance to the change that would address sin, is found in the ego; but it is also found in every other facet of the human being, the human soul.

    The whole person is in need of redemption.

    • Excellent comments, Robert F.

    • Not to totally defend Jung (I have my own problems with some of his theories), but I would guess his observations about the “two epochs of life” were honestly come by – that’s quite likely what a majority of his patients (I would guess middle and upper class urban Europeans post WWI) reported as their life pattern. it’s what’s called in statistics “sample bias” 😉

  2. A quick read of the friendly to Rohr Wikipedia article indicates that Rohr is indeed greatly influenced by Jung, and that his rendering of Christian theology turns it into his own personal version of the Perennial Philosophy.

    No thank you. I left such “merging-of-the-self-into-the-SELF” metaphysics decades ago, and I ain’t going back. And if this means, according to Rohr’s “halves of life” idea, that “I was so much older then, I’m younger than that now,” so be it.

    • Rohr does say that this division of the two halves of life need not be chronological. There are young people who are “old souls” because they have known the “falling” that leads upward in one way or another. Furthermore, I don’t think the striving that characterizes “first half” living need lead to success to prove futile — it is the young Luther torturing himself to achieve favor, whether or not he actually enjoys it, that marks the first stage. At some point, the “good scout” project, however, must be acknowledged as futile and laid to rest. Only then comes any hope of rising. Whatever Rohr’s influences may be, this is the baptismal life.

      • I would also add that it helps to read this in context with Rohr’s other teaching on nondualism. In order to live nondually (embracing the yes/and), you have to recognize the duality of life (either/or) that we are often faced with. I understand his idea of the 2 halves of life as an expression of this philosophy.

        • Why is it necessary to embrace non-duality? How did that become a concern of Christianity? If we are creatures of God, then it was God who created duality. Either we are God, or we are God’s creatures. There is no non-duality involved in that truth.

          Of course, God has graciously provided for our participation in his divine life through the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, and he graciously gives us experiences of being in unity with him and others, sometimes with the whole creation, but these experiences never erase the infinite qualitative difference between God and creature.

          I spent years chasing non-duality in the practice of Zen. The funny thing is that the underlying idea of non-duality is presented as a distinct reality, which is logically impossible if all reality participates in non-duality. The either/or keeps cropping up, because it is always actually there, though hidden by claims of non-dualism.

          According to Christianity, we live in the matrix of relationship, not non-duality

          • “According to Christianity, we live in the matrix of relationship, not non-duality.”

            Robert, that is the heart of the matter, stated succinctly. Thanks.

          • I’m not disagreeing with you, Robert. But aren’t our relationships helped by recognizing that our friends, family, loved ones, we aren’t all one thing or another? I guess I see nondualism as a recognition that there is more gray than black & white to life/relationships. This awareness helps me every day in navigating my relationships.
            I agree tjhat God is God & we are not, but we do carry God’s divine spark. I think nondualism just continues the conversation between. It strives to pull creation together; it wants the whole gospel not just the praise & thanksgiving.

          • FranH,

            I think you actually are disagreeing with me, but of course there’s nothing wrong with that.

            A certain amount of contemplative prayer practice that results in a state of consciousness in which the boundaries between us and everything else become less determinate may well have a positive spiritual aspect, and may even be psychologically therapeutic, under certain conditions and for certain people.

            But to think of such non-dualistic practice as the goal of the Christian spiritual life is, in my opinion, to make a very big mistake. For Christian spirituality, the everyday world in which we live is the real world and the place in which the story of redemption unfolds. In his resurrection and ascension, Christ has taken up residence in the very midst of this world, where in his time, at the parousia, he will publicly make himself known as the center around which all else circles.

            This is the goal of all life, spiritual and material, and it is Christ who will “pull creation together,” not the practice of non-dual awareness.

        • I’m foggy on the concept of “non-duality” especially since it seems to be a technical term with very specific meaning to this conversation. Anyone care to unpack that for me? (us?)

          • In many Eastern, and some Western, spiritual disciplines, non-duality, or non-dualism, is asserted to be a blissful state of being/consciousness in which the distinction between subject and object is seen to be an illusion, and consciousness is said to have achieved a level of integration which transcends description as either awareness of the one or the many.

      • Jung also talked about how the two epochs were not necessarily chronological; nevertheless, much of what he had to say about the subject assumed that they were, despite his caveat.

        I went back to the Wikipedia article on Rohr, and was not surprised to see what I hadn’t seen before, which is mention of the Perennial Philosophy as his primary framework. It confirmed my impression of what Rohr is saying. I know that Wikipedia articles do not necessarily reflect the subject’s self-understanding, but the language that Rohr uses in the above quote is fairly redolent with the idiom of cosmic absorption, in which the ego or “false self” is seen as the barrier to spiritual wisdom and understanding, a barrier that must be transcended to make spiritual progress.

        I’m very familiar with this idiom, having immersed myself in it for a good number of years. Although its ideas may seem to overlap with the gospel of Jesus Christ, it is a different religion altogether, and a different spiritual practice. The cycle of dying and rising is often employed by the Perennial Philosophy as a metaphor for the spiritual life, but it is not the dying and rising to be found in the baptism given by Jesus Christ, which is a dying a rising grounded in the dying and rising of a specific person. In the Perennial Philosophy, dying and rising are understood as non-personal principles that may be symbolized by Jesus’ life, death and resurrection, but are not contained by them. It is this divorcing of the principles from the person of Jesus Christ that makes it a non-Christian religious understanding.

        • Robert, I hear your concerns, but they are the concerns of someone whose experience with Jung has tainted his reading of Rohr. I have no such experience, and since Rohr is also writing as a Christian, I have no problem with the integration of this language. Our concern here at IM is always to keep things Jesus-shaped, so we will certainly keep him front and center and not divorce “principles” from him.

          I’m reading Rohr with Galatians 2:20 writ large over it and infused through and through.

        • Also, with regard to the chronological nature of the two parts of life, I think many of us do experience it that way, and it is my own personal context that led me to this material. Life has not been the same for me since around age 50, when I experienced a “fall” that changed my life and altered my perspectives forever. It was that “fall” that led me to Internet Monk, to begin appreciating “wilderness” language, to embrace the Lutheran tradition, and in many ways, to grow up for the first time. There is something about growing older in our culture that lends itself to this analysis.

          • Okay, CM, I’ve had my say.

            I don’t mean to impose my experience on everyone else, and I do recognize that many, perhaps most, people do experience the spiritual seasons of life in more or less chronological order. But I was born in the shadow of death, with an acute awareness from a very early age that I would never be a “good scout.” I wish that those who categorize the stages of the spiritual life would be more careful to say a little bit more about and to those of us born out of season, thereby acknowledging, and making more than just a cursory allowance for, the complexity of these things.

          • Just one more thing, if I may: the “downward path to growth through imperfection” can become a legalistic path, too. As far as I can tell, the movement of grace in our lives follows no invariable method or law or technique or path, otherwise it wouldn’t be grace. Grace doesn’t have any rule books, not even the rule book of the upside down kingdom.

          • CM,
            For some reason I haven’t received your e-mail yet. I’ll check again later.

  3. “this is the baptismal life”

    Yesterday I really appreciated Dave Denis quoting Gerhard Forde’s “Justification:A Case of Life and Death”.
    I forget exactly, but he summed up by showing irrevocably that there is a death involved. Then the new. Forde’s description, no justice by me, that there can be no more sanctification than that needs reading over and over as much as Michael Spencer’s why we must embrace our brokenness.

  4. A friend gave me Rohr’s book. I thought it very thought provoking and enlightening. It’s one that I need to revisit.


    Now wonder Paul said; Jews demand signs, Gentiles seek wisdom, we preach Christ crucified, …” it seems the crucified have little place in this discussion!

    • That’s exactly who this discussion is for, Dennis, and that is who is participating. Why do you find it uncomfortable?

      • Randy Thompson says


        From my 60 plus years perspective, the first 2/3’s of my life provided the facts for my latish-in-life, God-given epiphany of how much I really did (and do) need to be crucified with Christ.

        The latter part of life, it seems to me, is when all my youthful spiritual ambitions were exposed to be vainglory.

  6. To quote a very old commercial trope “I’ve fallen and I can’t get up!”

    I just can’t get into believing the linear aspect of the philosophy described in that excerpt. Most of my life has been falling, striving, failing, and in only a very brief portion of my life, sometime in my 30’s, did I ever approach the second phase of life. Only it wasn’t a “second phase”, JUST a phase. Soon after I reverted to the falling/failing/losing, etc. version of life.

    Robert aptly summarizes the Christian life as a “matrix of relationships”, after all, what happens in my/your personal life is meaningless unless it relates to those around you and with whom you share life. Right now, at 63, I am in a darkening phase in my life, one that seems gravity bound to sink further.

    And, as life passages would have it, my wife and I are becoming more detached from the close the relationships that we experienced in our younger days. Children have grown and moved on, old friends are too busy dealing with their own concerns, and church relationships just do not seem as deep as we once believed. It seems as if we are turning more inward, contemplating our ever shortening mortal existence.

    For these reasons we are more prone to reflection rather than engagement with others. “How to…” discourses by Christian writers just don’t cut it for me.

    • Actually, I find Rohr an ANTI-how-to writer. That’s why I’m enjoying him. Perhaps I’m reading more than is there, but when I read people like Nouwen and Rohr (at least so far), I feel I’m entering the world of earthy, natural, organic processes rather than the literalistic, mechanical/technological, or corporate/sports/success, programmatic conceptual world of contemporary evangelical writing. Perhaps this is just a honeymoon phase, but right now it is speaking volumes to me.

    • Brianthedad says

      My experience has been similar. Often wonder where some of the old friendships went, and the church relationships seem much different. We’ll see how it all turns out.

      • Brian, after observing the Senior population (70 yrs+) in two churches I have observed the same pattern, a pulling back from active (as in leadership/excitement/propagation/promotion) participation. I am beginning to believe that this may be a natural progression of aging that we will ALL experience.

        As a result I, myself, have undergone a gradual transition into a more Buddhist-like faith experience. Not BUDDHISM as such, just a general “watching the river flow” kind of faith. My relationship with Christ is still the same, it is just how it is manifested in the Body that is changing. I find myself less concerned about “finding my place” or figuring out “how I fit in” because I am cognizant of my particular gifting and place in the assembly. I no longer look for recognition or validation (although it IS nice when it comes my way) and success is no longer a part of my concern, although that fraud keeps popping up in my mind on occasion.

        Validation and Success, BOTH things would only ruin what God has accomplished in me, even if I can’t see that accomplishment with my own eyes. I am satisfied.

        This does not change how I feel about how my local church operates, and what message and image it portrays, because I DO! The Evangelical Circus robs a church of real purpose, and I’d hate to see my church to fall into that category.

    • I don’t mean to change the subject too much, but I’m a young twenty-something deeply in need of this kind of wisdom. I love it when older, more experienced men lay their cards on the table as you’ve done. I’m deeply grateful for this kind of transparency. Any advice, Oscar and CM? I’m just starting out – a young family (two little girls), graduate school, the typical goals of a house and a stable career, the desire to contribute beyond myself, the desire to be a better human being… What would you have done differently? What do you wish you would have done? What should I be investing my time and effort in?… Just pickin’ your brains, if you’d be so kind. Thanks in advance.

  7. Robert…Like you, I’m a recovering Rohr-aholic. I was caught up in his, Tolle, Wilber and the Centering prayer gurus and their teaching and workshops. I was so non-dualistic, I was becoming nothing, but was such an *ss to my family and conservative friends on how higher I was in my Spirituality. I got down to earth through Flannery O’Connor’s writings

    • At this point, I don’t think Rohr has to be read that way. All teachers can be bastardized: even the Beatitudes can get turned into the “Be-Happy Attitudes” by some people. Flannery O’Connor would be excellent ballast to read along with Rohr and Nouwen. So would Marilynne Robinson. I’m also planning on reading Malamud’s The Natural soon. That’ll bring a baseball sentimentalist like me down to earth fast.

      • I read a couple of Marilynne Robinson’s books in the past year and I like her writing very much.

      • CM, I really do think there is a conflation of some types of New Age-y stuff + xtian mysticism + Jung et. al. in Rohr’s stuff. I was just looking at his organization’s website, and find myself wincing a bit at terms like “sacred soul tasks,” emphasis on the Enneagram, etc

        In saying all that, I have to admit that I’ve kind of steered clear of Rohr up til now, for reasons very similar to those stated by Robert F. *But* I am more than willing to read him and find what is good, and from what you’ve been writing, I do think there is some good there.

        But I am very, VERY wary of the way Rohr is being, well… marketed. It’s like he and the Center for Contemplation and Action are every bit as much a corporate deal as Acts 29, The Gospel Coalition and similar evangelical circus organizations. To say that I have a low opinion of these groups and their “leaders” is an understatement, and it does look to me like there’s a cult of personality surrounding Rohr.

        Finally, I was seeking mystical, transcendent experiences before my conversion (many years ago!) and have been wary of xtian mysticism (in all its forms, East and West) ever since. Does that mean that I think people like Teresa of Avila and St. John of the Cross were all wet? Nope – only that I see in myself a tendency toward mysticism that needs to be grounded in the practical, here-and-now business of life.

        I do not think a mystical “experience” (whether real, or via a dissociative state per drugs or mental illness) is proof of anything except that whoever’s gone through it has had a mystical experience. For me personally, there have been a couple of times in my life that I had what were, to me, momentary epiphanies – mystical experiences, if you will. But I also realize that I might just have been experiencing a bit of an endorphin high from physical activity and the like (runners’ high). The thing is, I also think that whatever happened could have been a combination of the two – and in any case, highly subjective. I think part of the problem comes when people try to make that kind of subjective, fleeting experience into a goal – i.e., contemplative prayer. (Again, I don’t want to throw it away, just to say that I think there needs to be more balance than is often the case when people become mystically inclined.)

        As for life having only two stages, my thought is ??? I would rather err on the side of psychologist Erik Erikson’s ideas re. the stages of life, though again, I don’t think they’re carved in stone. (Not sure that he did, either, but they’re an interesting model and there’s a lot there.)

        • Don’t worry, numo, I won’t be a fanboy of Rohr’s. It’s not in my nature. We aim to share only what contributes to Jesus-shaped spirituality.

          • CM – I can’t imagine you being anyone’s fanboy! And I’m sure you’re aware of Rohr’s weaknesses, too.

            I do appreciate the quote you posted today.

          • That’s so interesting you should say it like that CM. The term “Jesus Shaped Spirituality” is one that has recently been coming back into my mind and speech. I first picked it up from InternetMonk lo these many years ago, but hadn’t seen it here in a long time. To my surprise, it popped into my mind, and out of my mouth in a recent conversation, rather like running into an old friend.

            I think it is a concept we ought to revisit explicitly.

          • I use that term “Jesus-shaped spirituality” consistently, both here at iMonk and with my church friends. It helps me frame whatever it is that’s being discussed, especially if it’s religious in nature. Too often, I run into “Lutheran-shaped spirituality,” or “Wesleyan-shaped spirituality,” or “RC-shaped spirituality,” or…fill in your favorite religious denomination here. These are often PRESENTED as “Jesus-shaped” but when you really examine them, they’re not. It gets back to Michael Spencer’s purpose for iMonk, to help those who come here distinguish Jesus-shaped spirituality from religiosity and “churchianity” and move us toward being Jesus-shaped.

        • numo,

          Unfortunately, the Enneagram became a big thing in Roman Catholic circles a few years ago, particularly in guided retreats in monastic houses, and this despite opposition from the big shots in the hierarchy. In this case, I think the big shots were right and that the Enneagram is just lot of empty-headed hocus pocus.

          • I hear you – it reminds me of the vogue for labyrinth walking that many in the Episcopal church have embraced. (And for which there’s no real evidence, despite claims of authenticity that cite the tile labyrinth in Chartes cathedral as proof positive.)

          • Hi Robert

            Not sure your life experience but for someone who has been led closer on my walk to Jesus, grown up as a person and matured greatly through exposure to many of the things you seem to consider a waste I find many of your comments tainted (in my opinion) by things I don’t understand

            My life was shattered by not only my church experience but also my own sin and my need to grow up. And when I say church, in my over 35 years of professing some form of allegiance to following Jesus I have experienced and been very involved and immersed in the spectrum of ecclesial experiences.

            My point is that with wisdom we can draw from the wisdom in many places. Some of these sources maybe for a season and some longer. Also we presume that just because I had painful experiences in Pentecostal or Roman Catholic or with some teacher or teaching does not mean the truth in those are all there suspect or to be discarded. In fact my experience is rather with those who supposedly are the purveyors of the truth being anything but. So much loss from following those who i believed had my well being at heart.

            We find truth in many places and we find lies masking as truth similarly. I trust you continue to experience truth in your journey

    • BobP,

      Yes, spiritual pride has a way of surrounding “successful” practice. Meditation/centering prayer very often lead to enormous ego inflation, and non-dualistic asses abound.

      • And surely we are talking about the same pride that inhabits the human soul of any successful practice, from centering prayer to running a mega church.

        Maybe just where I am in life but I will take meditation over entertainment any day.

        • Adrian Z,

          I apologize for not treading more carefully around this topic, and for taking an unnecessarily harsh tone in some of what I’ve commented. It’s not my intention to criticize all practice of contemplative prayer.

          My real concern is that Jesus Christ should remain at the center of any spiritual practice that calls itself Christian. When spiritual practices, and theories about the nature of spiritual life, become divorced from the person of Jesus Christ, and attached to principles that are spoken of as if they operate apart from the person of Jesus Christ, then we are moving away from Christian spirituality and into something else.

          Jesus Christ is not merely a particular embodiment of a wider truth that can be encountered equally well in other ways: Jesus Christ is the way, the truth and the life. No method or practice is greater than the Lord to whom they point, otherwise they become faithless substitutes that will ultimately drain our spiritual vitality, and leave us with nothing for our troubles.

          The Enneagram and labyrinths, however, are no more true, or Christian, spiritual disciplines than astrology and the Tarot.

  8. David Cornwell says

    ” yesterday’s discussion provides a superb example of why I love being part of Internet Monk. That was one of the most thoughtful and respectful conversations I’ve ever been privileged to witness.”

    Very true. Yesterday morning I started to write an opinion about the subject, but as the conversation progressed, and after a couple of interruptions, I lost my train of thought, or it no longer seemed as relevant. I think this conversation, as much as anything, shows the importance of this forum.

    When reading through the posts, and the resulting exchanges, I couldn’t help but think of the link provided in the box entitled “Learning New Ecclesial Languages.” by Fr Jonathan Mitchican. Here, in this forum, we come from many different places. The languages we speak are oft times very far apart. A word, or term, which means something special to us, can mean something entirely different from the other person. The high church Anglican speaks in a different tongue than that of a Regular Baptist in West Virginia.

    But here we learn from each other. God is here, and through the mediation of the Holy Spirit, we learn the language of the other person or tradition. Some of what I hear sounds so foreign, and it does not please my ear. But, over time, I have learned to listen.

  9. David, thanks for pointing out that link from yesterday concerning ecclesial languages and cultures. Highly pertinent. I think in particular today’s comments show how we can be using the same words and meaning entirely different concepts, talking past each other and likely not even realizing it.

    I am still thinking about your story of casting your library pearls. Grrrrrr. It may take me longer to let go of that one than you. Grrrrrr!

    • David Cornwell says

      Charles, thanks. However the library episode was basically my own fault and significantly it happened when I was about 55 years of age. And related to a severe downside afterward that tested my faith to the limit. For a year or two I did not want to pray. I lost connection with the church in more ways than one. My old friendships were no longer available. In the Methodist system, once a pastor leaves a community, your superiors ask you not to return, so local friends are supposed to go away also. Some of them I refused to let go of, and over time we have become even closer.

      So I ended up feeling disconnected from colleagues, friends, the Church, and God. Eventually, in one way or another, there has been healing in most of these areas. Former colleagues is the exception, and I’ve been in touch with very few.

      • Sounds sorta like this place much of the time. Glad you made it thru. Time and distance sure help, and good friends if you’re blessed to have them. I’ll let that guy go too. Like the rest of us, most likely he was doing his best.