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Book Review: Falling Upward by Richard Rohr

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In the Book of Hebrews the call is given to “press on to maturity, by moving on from the basics about Christ’s word” (Heb. 6:1 CEB). The reason why this word of wisdom is given to the readers of this sermon/letter is that the author recognized how easy it is to get stuck on the basics and never move on to spiritual maturity. A similar word of wisdom is present in Falling Upward, an exquisitely written book from the pen of Richard Rohr, a Franciscan priest with Emergent Church connections. Rohr offers a gentle but firm reminder that although it’s appropriate to start the spiritual journey by focusing on security and identity, but there comes a time when we must move beyond the protective fences and engage the world in which we live through the Spirit of God.

Rohr uses the image of life’s two halves. In the first half of life, which needn’t be defined purely in terms of age, we focus on the foundations and create a container for life’s questions. From there, after we’ve taken care of these basic elements of the faith journey, then we are ready to fill the container with content. Often, in the first half of life, we live with either/or categories. But, staying put in this first stage of life means that our containers remain largely empty and ill-defined. We live in a sort of perpetual adolescence. It’s fine to be an adolescent for a while, but not forever, but unfortunately the church often does little to challenge this adolescence. As Rohr notes, many of the sermons he has heard over his long life never move beyond this first level. Indeed, if a preacher does challenge these sacred foundations, that person will likely be considered “heretical, dangerous, or ill advised” (p. 7).

If, however, we’re going to experience spiritual maturity, or what Rohr calls the second half of life (something that many people never achieve), then we must be ready to leave the comfort of the black and white and risk living with a both/and dynamic. To move into the second half of life we must be comfortable with change and willing be stretched beyond our comfort zones. Indeed, we need to be aware of the trap of worshiping the status quo. Thus, like Abraham and Sarah, we must be willing and ready to leave home and head out for an undiscovered country.

Whereas the first half of life involves providing a safe context to explore one’s faith and identity, as well as learning the traditions, part of this life process involves having the opportunity to fall. In a word to parents – spiritual and otherwise – Rohr writes:

“We are not helping our children by always preventing them from what might be necessary falling, because you learn how to recover from falling, by falling! . . . People who have never allowed themselves to fall are actually off balance, while not realizing it at all. That is why they are so hard to live with.” (p. 28).

Having learned to fall and then get back up in the first half of life, we’re prepared to move outward and face the realities of life beyond the fence. That includes our ability to experience and understand the value of suffering, which is one of the key themes in this book. The point is not that we should pursue suffering, as if we have a martyr’s complex, but that we recognize that enduring suffering enables us to move forward in life. Indeed, the truth is, there must be death, before there is life.

One of the reasons why we get stuck in the first half of life is that we’ve been led to believe that the world operates much like Plato described. It’s a matter of forms and ideas. We expect the world to operate in an orderly fashion, so we find it difficult to deal with reality. He suggests that in many ways Plato is more influential on the way the church thinks than is Jesus – I think he’s right. Consider this word:

“We invariably prefer the universal synthesis, the answer that settles all the dust and resolves every question – even when it is not entirely true – over the mercy and grace of God.”  (p. 56)

In making this statement, he raises the question of postmodernism, which challenges the possibility of constructing metanarratives that can explain everything. There simply are no such things, but we like simple answers, and so we hold out for these metanarratives, which always fail to deliver.

When we move into the second half of life we are better able to see that Jesus doesn’t offer us a one-size-fits-all gospel. Instead, Rohr suggests that Jesus offers us a vision of reality in which “God adjusts to the vagaries and failures of the moment. The ability to adjust to human disorder and failure is named God’s providence or compassion” (p. 56). As we move beyond the first half understandings where rules come first, we discover in the second half of life that God is less concerned about laws and more about the relationship. Thus, the ability to move forward is to embrace God’s unconditional forgiveness.

The spiritual journey is driven, according to Rohr, by a sense of homesickness. We move on into the second half of life because of spiritual restlessness and dissatisfaction with the status quo. Of course, for many, if not most of us, the fear of the unknown keeps us from moving out into the world to address this restless, which moves us toward union with God. Drawing from St. Augustine, he suggests that “we are created with an inner drive an necessity that sends all of us looking for our True Self, whether we know it or not. This journey is a spiral and never a straight line” (p. 94).

The journey toward the second half of life leads us through complexity and paradox to a new simplicity or unified field, where the painful and excluded parts of parts life brought into a unified picture (but not a metanarrative). The real tragedy in life is that so few can make this journey. The tragedy of so many elderly people never becoming elders may be due to the fact that they themselves had never been eldered or mentored. Thus,

“Such people seem to have missed out on the joy and clarity of the first simplicity, perhaps avoided the interim complexity, and finally lost the great freedom and magnanimity of the second simplicity as well.” (p. 114).

This is one of the key elements of this reflection on the movement toward spiritual maturity – age itself is no marker of maturity. Some who are young have been able to move into spiritual maturity, while some who are quite elderly remain spiritually immature.

The journey into maturity requires us to honor the needs of the first half of life – identity formation and security – while providing room to move into the second half. There is a tension here, but if we’re able to keep this tension then there will be an opportunity to grow wisdom. But, as is clear from the book, none of this is easy. It will likely involve endurance of suffering and pain, of overcoming obstacles, and maybe even hitting bottom before climbing back up toward union with God.

The benefits, however, are wonderful. There may be sadness, but there will be less anxiety and fear, and thus openness to others. What you may have avoided in the first half of life, in the second half becomes your friend and teacher. And, this should come as no surprise, considering this perspective, Jesus would have been and is, a “second-half-of-life man,” but as Rohr points out he had the “unenviable task of trying to teach and be understood by a largely first-half-of-life history, church, and culture” (p. 149). Alas, the choice of moving into the second-half-of-life is ours to make or not. Indeed, to be ordinary is not really a choice, but to move on to something extraordinary is a choice. The question is – are we ready to make that choice?

For the most part we Christians are content to live inside the comfortable confines of the institution and the tradition. We’re not too eager to ask questions or wrestle with doubt and despair. So, the numbers of people who take the journey toward maturity, and thus union with God are few in number. The road is narrow, and thus we prefer the wide and smooth highways. But, if we’re willing to follow the path that Rohr sets out, there will be blessings to be found – though may be not the riches that some would promise.

Although this is really first real engagement with Richard Rohr, I found him to be a trustworthy guide to the spiritual life. As I read the book I was forced to examine my own journey and thus wonder whether I had moved beyond the first half and into the second. This is definitely a book to be read and pondered and digested, but if one chooses to do so and truly imbibe its wisdom, there will be spiritual transformation.

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  • janice

    i would have liked to see more of a review (i.e. evaluation) of the book than just a summary

  • Ray

    I found this book quite difficult to read Richard does not explain his ideas and concepts in simple understandable langauge Having said that if you persevere you become interested in his thesis of the two stages in life in ones journey to spiritual maturity. I am not sure he is correct that you have to experince tragedy (falling down ) before you can fall up. I find the words of jesus much more understandable and much more challenging ” where your treasure is there you heart is also ” The sanctification process starts when we acknowledge Jesus as Lord of our life and it is on going until we reach eternity

  • Marty Schmidt

    This year a small group of teachers at our school, all in the second half of life, read Falling Upward during the time set aside for spiritual growth at our school. Having
    perused these kinds of reading materials in the past and found them
    wanting, my/our experience with Rohr’s book, by comparison, was very
    satisfying. If the first half of life is about establishing boundary
    markers, creating an identity, and succeeding at the game of life, then
    the second half should be about being more inclusive, letting go of the
    egoic identity, and gaining wisdom in life’s journey. The book is filled
    with Rohr’s characteristic Merlinesque insights – the ladder of success
    may actually be leaning on the wrong wall (ix), sin is superficial
    thinking (95), and the cure for loneliness is solitude (143). As we
    continue further down the path of the second half of life, Rohr’s books
    is worthy companion on the journey.