Preaching and Richard Rohr’s “Two Halves of Life” Model

26 Jan

Once in a while we are fortunate to encounter a person whose unique perceptions can quite literally change our lives. Such was the experience I had in October 2014 at the Catalyst Conference in Sheffield, England (http://www.bmscatalystlive.com/). There I heard an interview with an author I had heard a lot about but had never been exposed to any of his works: Father Richard Rohr. Attached to the Center for Action and Contemplation in Albuquerque, NM (https://cac.org/richard-rohr) Fr. Rohr is the author of numerous books and explores the subjects of Christian mysticism, contemplation and social action for the socially marginalized.

The subject of the interview concerned his 2011 book Falling Upward which introduces the concept Rohr refers to as ‘the two halves of life.’[1] This short article will briefly explain this concept from the book and then finish by raising some implications for preaching from the point of view of Rohr’s model.

‘The Two Halves of Life’

Rohr is at great pains to point out that the ‘two halves of life’ do not refer to a strict chronological or linear development. In other words, there are not literally years that count off in order the first and then the second half of life. Rather, he means two different stages of life along one’s spiritual journey toward becoming ‘authentically human,’ or the person God created them to be. Unfortunately, he believes, many people are ‘stuck in the first half of life’ and never make the transition into the second half. For example, one could be ten years old and be in the second half, and likewise a person could be in their nineties and still be in the first half.

The primary task of the first half of one’s life relates to what he calls the container, or in other words the identity we form as we grow and mature. This is a sort of ‘protective shell’ we tend to build around ourselves. The container relates to one’s ego identity, and is delineated by things such as our reputation, educational levels, profession, social standing etc. In many cases this is defined in positive terms (as in nationality, gender, denominational or theological distinctives etc.), and can often lead to feelings of superiority over others: ‘I am a white American; I am a conservative evangelical; I make good money; I have a good education; etc.’

Equally often, however, Rohr states that one’s container is defined in the negative in order to be more distinguishable from differing beliefs, attitudes, values races, etc.: ‘I’m not a Catholic; I don’t believe in speaking in tongues; I am not a Democrat/Republican,’ etc.  People essentially define themselves more by what they are not, rather than what they actually are, in the attempt to differentiate themselves from others. The major problem with this type of thinking is, he states, that many people become so attached to their container that they end up spending vast amounts of energy padding, protecting and defending this self-created persona. As long as no attempt is made to evaluate critically the elements that make up one’s container, many people go their entire lives without ever moving into the second half of life.

The first half of life is not entirely negative, however. Positively, creating the container in the first half of life can help to develop a healthy sense of impulse control and discipline that one can draw upon in the second half of life. Authority figures (such as loving but firm parents) that place healthy boundaries can enable one to endure the necessary suffering encountered in life. However, the other side of the coin is that oftentimes people construct a reward and punishment mentality and then apply that to their relationship with God. In religious terms, the problem with the first half of life is that people believe that they can please God on the basis of merit–by keeping the rules and disciplined hard work. This relates in biblical terms to the laws found in the Torah—if they are understood, that is, as ‘the means by which to please God by scrupulously keeping them.’ God’s love is thereby characterized as being conditional rather than unconditional.

However, this again is not necessarily a bad position from which to begin. Rohr believes that people have to begin with the desire to earn God’s conditional love on the basis of performance, since only beginning from that point that can in turn begin to create the space and the yearning for someone to love us without condition. This is why people cannot go directly to the second half of life until they have experienced the first half.

The movement into the second half of life involves an exploration of the contents built in the first half. What exactly is this container meant to hold? The journey into the second half of life is often initiated by necessary suffering, which can jar our comfortable sense of self-righteousness, and cause us to question critically what we think we know and believe. The second half involves a movement into wisdom, maturity and deep spiritual interior transformation. It also means coming to the place of learning to live with paradox and apparent contradiction, both within oneself, the nature of God and also the Scriptures. It explores what it means to have an authentic relationship with the person of God and furthermore what unconditional love means—without earning that love on the basis of keeping rules, or by being theologically and biblically correct.

Preaching and the Second Half of Life

Where does religion fit into all of this, or for that matter specifically Christian religion and preaching? The major problem is this: Rohr maintains that much of organized religion is programmed to keep people cycling through the first half of life over and over again. This is a critical point!

As noted above, Rohr believes that the first half of life is mostly about maintaining the rituals of religion. This involves keeping the rules, attempting to build a relationship with God and serve him on the basis of conditional love, and finally the belief that God loves us because the formation of our container ‘ticks all of his boxes’. All of this can lead to a feeling of spiritual and theological superiority over others who think or believe differently than we do: ‘My church or denomination has the entire corner on the truth based upon the fact that we alone can interpret and apply Scripture accurately.’

Christianity therefore becomes defined on the basis of ‘taking moral positions’ or about ‘doing this’ or ‘not doing that’ in terms of rules and laws. As a result, Rohr holds that many Christians do not really love God; instead they actually love laws—laws being the substitute for an authentic encounter with the person of God. Christians can religiously attend church week in and week out, in order to convince themselves of a deep spiritual transformation that they have in fact never experienced on an inward and personal level. How is it, he asks, that Christians can attend church for years and still be racist or homophobic? Clearly their lives have not been impacted either by the preaching of the Word of God or with a personal encounter with God himself.

Conclusion

Granting for the moment that Rohr’s basic conception of the two halves of life is indeed a legitimate construct, how should his notion help to shape homiletics?  Preachers could reassess the purpose of preaching on the basis of this concept: preaching should be about helping people to transition into the second half of life. Exploring this value involves at least three tasks for preachers seeking to reconceive how they approach the homiletical task.

First of all, this relates to the preaching of the gospel message itself: how is it characterized? If it relates to a positive ‘upward and onward’ message linked to a conception of the so-called ‘American dream,’ then it will become difficult for many to continue to believe it, if not impossible. Salvation itself merely equates to God’s desire for people to deny their failures and to become successful, wealthy and prosperous on every possible level. As Dr Walter Brueggemann puts it, such a move thereby makes God contingent, reduces him to the level of personal preference, and ultimately ties him to a particular belief system along with its various agendas.[2]

The second task of reconceiving preaching in light of Rohr’s notion involves assessing the method of how one preaches Scripture. While I believe that there is certainly a place for expository-style preaching, oftentimes this type of explanatory or deductive idea-based preaching can become little more than a consistently positive affirmation of the theology or belief system of the preacher, the church or the denomination. Passages that do not fit into those specific ideological boxes are either ignored or explained in terms that make them fit a particular theological agenda. The result of this style of preaching can engender a corresponding attitude amongst the listeners that merely reinforces that what they already believe embodies the truth and helps to reassure them that their attitudes, values and behaviours are in fact correct. Therefore they can walk away from each sermon feeling smug and superior, knowing that they have the ‘corner on the truth,’ and that their container they have constructed is of more value than someone who disagrees with their worldview or belief system. One additional point of note in this connection is Fred B. Craddock’s argument related to preaching. He held that the form of the sermon shapes the form of the faith of the listener.[3] Preachers, feeding their listeners a steady diet of idea-based deductive sermons, ultimately produce hearers whose faith is framed in black-and-white theological terms.

The third and final task of reconceiving homiletics in light of Rohr’s concepts is a corollary to the second point above. Perhaps preachers could seek to explore the tensions in Scripture rather than avoid them, and moreover seek to give people a variety of interpretative options when working through a biblical passage. Such an approach can help engaged listeners to question their own beliefs and agendas, rather than merely reinforcing what they already think they know and believe.

In connection with the above point, by imposing a neat and orderly bullet-point outline form upon a multivalent biblical text, this indicates that the preacher is both out of date with current biblical scholarship and out of touch with the listeners. Either way, maintains Craddock, no authentic communication is occurring; and furthermore, it results in “preaching what the text does not say and doing with the sermon what the text does not do.”[4] In other words, Craddock maintained that the sermon should seek to do and to say what the text itself does and says. The form of the text should ideally have a controlling influence over the form of the sermon.

In past times, biblical scholars held that there were ‘authoritative guides’ for interpreting the biblical text correctly, avoiding error and uncovering the original meaning of the text (such as the Holy Spirit in the Calvinist tradition, ‘the gospel’ in the Lutheran tradition, or apostolic authority in the Catholic tradition). However, these traditions are increasingly being called into question. Carr, in his article “Untamable Text of an Untamable God” points out that “it is increasingly difficult to maintain that scripture has—in and of itself—a clear or consistent meaning. Instead, biblical texts have multiple meanings, or to put it in more technical terms, they are ‘multivalent,’ and the same is even truer for the canon as a whole.”[5]

The reality is that Scripture is oftentimes in tension with itself, and Carr argues that this is done intentionally by later editors of earlier biblical texts. Rather than ‘correct’ an earlier source the editors or redactors would add a secondary source that offered a different—and potentially conflicting—reading with the earlier material. Thus, rather than seeking to explain away these tensions, Carr believes that we should instead embrace and explore them. In the very process of struggling with the text, we may in turn find ourselves struggling with God himself, and thus experience transformation by the very process itself.

Admittedly, the second and third points are potentially difficult in terms of addressing the culture of the church as an organization, as well as managing the expectations of both the listeners and preacher alike. Hearers of sermons oftentimes have a set of expectations they project on to the preacher. Many times this involves the notion that the preacher should consistently buttress their beliefs and their particular hermeneutic, rather than to challenge or even contradict them. Likewise, preachers have expectations they project on to the listeners: that they pay attention to what the preacher is saying, and actually respond to the message by changing their attitudes, beliefs, values or behaviours. This symbiotic cultural relationship needs addressing, and potentially challenging on a leadership level, if true changes are to occur.

It is my contention that ultimately the goal of preaching—and indeed church as a faith community—should be about helping people to experience transformation on a deep spiritual level rather than keeping them cycling through the first half of life.

[1] For further information watch the YouTube video of Father Rohr discussing these concepts at the following link: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=J1kXeklcmMI.

[2] Brueggemann, Hopeful Imagination: Prophetic Voices in Exile. London: SCM Press (1982): 81.

[3] Craddock, Preaching. Nashville: Abingdon Press (1985): 172-174.

[4] Craddock, Preaching, 84.

[5] Carr, “Untamable Text of an Untamable God: Genesis and Rethinking the Character of Scripture.” Interpretation (October 2000): 348.

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