Animals and the Universal Christ

If you read reviews of Richard Rohr’s latest book, The Universal Christ, there’s one passage that seems to consistently drive hostile critics up the wall. It’s not even from the text proper. It’s from the dedication, which they all quote.

“I dedicate this book to my beloved fifteen-year-old black Lab, Venus, whom I had to release to God while beginning to write this book,” Rohr states. “Without any apology, lightweight theology, or fear of heresy, I can appropriately say that Venus was also Christ for me.”

As an animal activist, I’m not scandalized by this. In fact, it reminds me of many such things written by my spiritual teacher, Eknath Easwaran. One passage in particular comes to mind, in which Easwaran is reacting to a photo of him taken with a baby goat.

“The divine fragment called the Atman is the same in all people, all races, all creatures,” he writes. “That awareness fills my heart with joy and releases an immense desire to save the lives of all these creatures, knowing they are not merely my kith and kin but the same spark as you and I.”

But what does Rohr mean when he says his dog was Christ?  As far as I can tell, the Catholic mystic, who is a popular religious author, distinguishes between Jesus and Christ. For him, Jesus was a first century preacher. Christ is some kind of God force that is in everyone and everything — people, animals, and inanimate objects.

“What if Christ is a name for the transcendent within of every ‘thing’ in the universe?” Rohr says. “What if Christ is a name for the immense spaciousness of all true Love? What if Christ refers to an infinite horizon that pulls us from within and pulls us forward too? What if Christ is another name for everything — in its fullness?”

Rohr views the Christ as something that transcends religious boundaries. Hinduism, Buddhism, Judaism and Islam all speak of it, simply using different language. So Rohr is a panenthiest and a perennialist. Outside of his focus on meditation, those are Easwaran’s biggest points of emphasis to me.

I’m not sure if Rohr follows his panenthiesm to any kind of vegetarian or vegan conclusion. A quick Google search didn’t reveal much. But I couldn’t help but think that perhaps his concept of the Universal Christ could be the kind of entry point to Christianity I’ve been looking for.

In a recent essay for SlaughterFreeAmerica.Substack.com, I asked: “Is Christianity fundamentally limited in what it can offer animals if one believes Jesus was God and ate meat? In other words, does progressive Christian animal ethics either have to concede Jesus was human or insist he didn’t eat meat?”

One of the benefits of Rohr’s concept of the Universal Christ is it deemphasizes Jesus to a certain extent. I’m not sure to what degree Rohr means to do this, but it’s open to that interpretation. Jesus could be one person — like spiritual leaders from every tradition — who was filled with the Universal Christ.

I’m fairly ignorant of theology, but this seems far outside mainstream Christianity. So I’m not actually sure how helpful the book will be in getting me through a local church service. Still, I enjoyed it a great deal. Hopefully, Rohr’s not labeled a heretic by the Catholic hierarchy!

Jon Hochschartner is the author of a number of books about animal-rights history, including The Animals’ Freedom Fighter, Ingrid Newkirk, and Puppy Killer, Leave Town.