by Clint Heacock, PhD
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.’ 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 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—in other words 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, 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 by what they are not than what they actually are in the attempt to differentiate themselves from others. The major problem 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, 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 that 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: much of organized religion, Rohr believes, is programmed to keep people cycling through the first half of life over and over again. As noted above Rohr maintains that the first half of life is mostly about 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 maintains, Christians do not really love God; they love laws—that is, 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.
Granting for the moment that Rohr’s basic conception of the two halves of life is indeed legitimate, 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 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 Brueggemann puts it in his work Hopeful Imagination, such a move thereby makes God contingent and ties him to a particular belief system with its various agendas.
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 styles of 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.
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. Admittedly the second and third points are potentially difficult in terms of addressing the culture of the church as an organization and the expectations of the listeners. Nonetheless 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.