A Bizarre Mystery: Richard Rohr’s “From Wild Man to Wise Man.”

Jackie Chan“But the most telling thing about the newly discovered baptismal cave of John the Baptist, found nearby, is that there are exactly 28 steps down into the ‘drowning pool,’ exactly like the 28 hot rocks that are brought into the Native sweat lodge. These so-called primitive people understood the cyclic death symbolism of 28 and used it for initiation. Every woman knows it every month, but men have to be taught, and it seems that John’s original baptism was indeed an initiation into that precise meaning, the necessary cycle of death and rebirth.” (Rohr and Martos, From Wild Man to Wise Man, 51.)

The above quote, taken from Richard Rohr’s book on male spirituality, encapsulates its essence in a way that I find myself almost incapable of doing: it is a strange combination of Christianity, vague spirituality, numerical mysticism, and general symbolism that defies neat categorization. After reading it I am very nearly, wonder of wonders, at a loss for words, and it is an odd combination of factors that has brought me to this position. The first of these is that several men whose recommendations I trust commended Rohr to me as an author worth reading for spiritual growth. And the second is the actual experience of reading the book, which frequently returned such nonsensical and bizarre statements as the quote above. For the life of me, I struggle to envision what those who recommended Rohr to me had in mind when they did so, and that puzzle niggles me even more than the specific absurdities of Rohr’s logic.

Wild Man to Wise Man CoverOf course, I welcome puzzles, and despite my mystification (or perhaps, more accurately, as a consequence of it), I want to attempt three things. First, to attempt to explain what From Wild Man to Wise Man seems to be about (I have to say ‘seems’ because it defies categorization); second, to attempt to outline why the book might seem to succeed (again ‘seems’ because people I like must have enjoyed it for some reason); and finally, to outline why the book fails so catastrophically. Perhaps with these three tasks completed I can better comprehend both the reason why Rohr comes so highly recommended, as well as the nature of his absurd musings.

So, what does the book seem to be about? Formally, it’s about male spirituality. More specifically, it’s an attempt to fill the perceived gaps in male spirituality present in the modern man. It seeks to answer key questions: How do we resolve the problem of male inadequacy, the struggle to fit in, belong, and find significance? How do we restore to male spirituality a sense of meaning and significance? In answer to these questions, Rohr can say something like this: “The spiritual man in mythology, in literature and in the great world religions has an excess of life, he knows he has it, makes no apology for it, and finally recognizes that he does not even need to protect or guard it. It is not for him. It is for others. His life is not his own. His life is not about him. It is about God” (Wild to Wise, 13). This is an appealing answer, and it hints to the practical outworking which Rohr is attempting (although he does not state this explicitly), namely, to form a Christian male spirituality through the lens of Joseph Campbell’s Hero with a Thousand Faces. Thus, he draws his central paradigm from Campbell’s heroic/mythic model of manhood, supplies further illustrations from the broader cultural history of male spirituality, and then applies those lessons accordingly. This is an ambitious and compelling premise.

Why, then, does the book seem to succeed? I think I can identify two reasons for this. First, it succeeds because it speaks about an unspoken issue, and specifically male spirituality is a great and unspoken issue. Men, after all, often struggle to talk about their inner lives at all, and it feels at times as if the spiritual landscape of the uniquely masculine soul is uncharted territory. As a consequence, identity disorder is rampant, and men keenly struggle to know how to be both godly and male at the same time. When there is such starvation for masculine spirituality, any book which addresses such an issue—no matter how ineptly—will be felt to fill that need. Second, it succeeds because in this process it touches on key topics in masculine development, such as mentorship (a massively felt-need among men), initiation rites (where males transition from boyhood to manhood—also deeply felt as a need), and the Father Wound (where men acknowledge the gap created by their own fathers). The very fact of bringing these topics to light—even by naming them—goes a long way to explain why Rohr’s book would be recommended to me by the men that I trust. The topics themselves carry a weight of value which, I would suggest, exceed the actual value of Rohr’s content.

I suspect that if all you knew about Rohr’s book was the two preceding paragraphs you would eagerly pick up a copy. The premise of examining masculinity and maturity and applying it to spirituality is fruitful and appealing. But the truth of the matter is that even in summarizing it I have made the book clearer than its contents. To say that it is a confused book would be a vast understatement. So let’s take a moment now to outline why it is such a catastrophic failure.

The first thing to say is that Rohr’s premise overrides his data. This is a common enough problem. An author gets excited about his or her idea and, instead of following the data where it leads, edits the data (even subconsciously) to fit the premise. The problem as it affects Rohr’s book is that he is purporting to write a book of Christian spirituality (Rohr is a Franciscan Friar), but what has been edited to match his premise is Christianity itself.

This seems to be the primary source material.

This seems to be the primary source material.

Consider again the overarching premise of the book—that we can study the cultural traditions of male spirituality and initiation and appropriate these traditions for the modern man. Such a premise might result in two lines of inquiry. First, we would query culture to discover what male spirituality looks like. But second, we would ask which, if any, of these cultural/historical/mythical elements apply to a specifically Christian worldview. The problem is that, to my understanding, Rohr never completes the second process. He investigates the first line of inquiry, then assumes that those cultural elements are authoritative.

As a consequence, he can write a sentence like the following, “[The Apostle Paul’s] genius and inspiration is that he recognizes Jesus as the new hero who leads us through the needed initiation process correctly” (Wild to Wise, 54). Paul, in other words, is successful not because he preaches the risen Christ, or plants churches, or establishes doctrine, but because he adapts Jesus to Joseph Campbell’s hero myth. Jesus’ function in history, then, has more to do with initiation rites and the myth of the hero than it does with, well, the story of Jesus as told in the Gospels. Functionally, this means that for Rohr the dominant story is the monomyth, while Scripture, Jesus, and history play a supporting, secondary role (if even that).

The second thing to observe about Rohr’s book is the frequent and dangerous assumption that similitude is equality. This is also a common error in books. The author sees that one thing is rather like his or her premise, and in zeal concludes that it actually is that thing. But there is a great difference between something that is like and something that is. Rohr writes the following at the close of one of his chapters, after he has outlined several roles for men to fulfill (lover, magician, etc.):

If you fear that this is a new game of “dungeons and dragons,” as one super-Christian accused it of being, I encourage you to examine the ancient and traditional baptismal rite of the church. Right after the holy dunking, the priest anoints you with scented oil (the lover) and encourages you to follow Christ as “priest (magician), prophet (warrior) and king.” We always knew this, but just did not know that we knew it. (Wild to Wise, 156-7)


Cannibalism. Or not…

Setting aside the implicit strangeness of the paragraph, I want to observe how Rohr appeals to a similitude between the baptismal rite with which he is familiar and the roles he has identified; but note that he has done this not by identifying them as alike but as if they are. What is only similar (and dubiously similar at that) is presented as if it is fact. It is like stating that because the Christian perspective on sin is remarkably similar to that of Buddhism, Christianity and Buddhism are functionally the same. Or, better yet, it is like observing the Christian rite of Eucharist and concluding that because we are consuming the body and blood of our Lord we ought to learn lessons from cannibals—not because we are like them, but because we are the same as them. This is a kind of horrible reductionism that I fear the unwary reader will take without stopping to question. It is justification by similitude; a kind of proof-texting by impression.

The third and final thing to observe about Rohr’s book is the way that he appeals to a false tone of authority. This also, I fear, is a common enough error, especially in religious literature. The author, as an authority, speaks with an authority that is difficult to question. So, from the very first page of the book, Rohr writes: “Anyone who has any authentic inner experience knows that God is only beauty, mercy and total embrace, and nothing but beauty, mercy and total embrace. The Trinitarian nature of God makes that theologically certain” (Wild to Wise, 1). Now, first off, this is patently untrue. God is not “only” beauty, mercy and total embrace. He is also love, justice, truth, and so forth. How it is that the Trinitarian nature of God makes this “theologically certain” is not certain, but what is clear is the tone of the sentence. “Anyone who has any authentic inner experience knows…” In other words, if I disagree with Rohr it means that I lack authentic inner experience. This is a statement that suggests a kind of presumed authority that an unwary reader would be hesitant to oppose, perhaps at the risk of being labeled a “super-Christian.”

The effect of these pronouncements is important to note. Rohr’s individual meditations don’t really argue anything—they ruminate and speculate, each with these impressions of authority pronounced over them. The unwary reader is then likely to feel that he is reading “really deep stuff,” when in fact he is only reading rather shallow stuff dressed up nicely. It is a pauper wearing the prince’s clothing. But the truth of the matter is that the whole book is a catena of exaggeration and misrepresentation, covered by a varnish of smug spirituality—after all, if you disagree, then clearly you haven’t had an “authentic inner experience.” The rhetoric is above criticism.

From Wild Man to Wise Man possesses a compelling premise and touches on vitally important topics, but in its execution fails the reader terribly. The Christian reader who approaches it for a framework for his own male spirituality will be led astray not only by Rohr’s bizarre and chimerical spirituality, but also by his faulty logic and confusing premises. The result is a book that is both false and nonsensical at the same time, but one that somehow feels meaningful and full of sense. Consequently, it is not that From Wild Man to Wise Man is mere heresy—as if it were a simple deviation from or error within Christianity—it is simply not Christian at all. As a final example, I leave you with the following quote:

[Paul] thus introduces the idea of a “memorial meal” that is a “homeopathic cure” for this mystery of death. Don’t fight it or deny it or intellectualize it, but instead “chew on it”! Intoxicate yourself with the blood/wine of the hero until your deaths become one death, and therefore meaningful. This has become standard eucharistic theology, and I believe was the intention of Jesus, but it has been so prettified, stylized and mass produced, that the typical male never appreciates the graphic, corporeal, sexual and even cannibalistic undertones that are being sung and celebrated. (Wild to Wise, 56)

This is meaningless spiritual-ish mytho-babble, and if words are going to have meaning and significance, and if men are going to obtain a rich and fulfilling spirituality, then books like Rohr’s must be given their rightful place in the waste bin of history.

One comment on “A Bizarre Mystery: Richard Rohr’s “From Wild Man to Wise Man.”

  1. Jason says:

    Thank you for this excellent review. The book was recommended to me as well, and while it started off great, it did get more and more bizarre (particularly the part about the Lord’s Supper) as it went along. I’ll keep looking for other resources to use…


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