Christ as the True Vitruvian Man: An Affirmation of the Cosmic Christ and a Critique of Richard Rohr

Not all visions of the Cosmic Christ are of equal value and some stray off into the panentheistic “flow” to such a degree that one might mistake his dog for Christ or the creature for the Creator. Perhaps I need to restate and clarify my previous blog. While the Franciscans and Barth in the West have retained and developed elements of an Eastern Orthodox sensibility (my previous point), I did not mean to conflate Duns Scotus’s understanding, for example, with the best of Eastern Christology. The accusation leveled at Scotus is that his univocity of being led to the notion that an immanent frame of understanding is self-grounding and adequate. The argument of Radical Orthodoxy is that Scotus’s conception of the univocity of being led to the Enlightenment expulsion of God, as nature’s explanation lies within.

Richard Rohr’s embrace and development of Scotus’s univocity of being illustrates precisely what John Milbank and his Radical Orthodox colleagues warned, rightly or wrongly, are implicit in Scotus’s thought. As Rohr boils it down, because Scotus “believed we can speak ‘with one voice’ (univocity) of the being of waters, plants, animals, humans, angels, and God” we arrive at the conclusion, “Our DNA is . . . divine.”[1] The implication is that just as a swimmer should “be able to be the river” we are all in the flow of God and we need to realize we are God (Rohr slightly nuances this). This reading of Scotus seems to fall under John Milbank’s critique, that Scotism seems to put God and man in competition in the same space for power – a notion connected to the rise of secularism.

As Daniel Horan has pointed out in his book length work on Milbank and Scotus, Milbank presumes univocity constitutes a metaphysics but Scotus deploys this understanding only in discussions of logic, semantics, and epistemology, not as an alternative to analogy, but as an explanation of analogy.[2] Radical Orthodoxy however, would be unimpressed with Horan’s fine distinction, as in Milbank’s view it is not possible to separate epistemology from metaphysics as epistemology implies a particular metaphysics. But my point is not to defend Milbank’s reading of Scotus.

If Milbank’s critique does not to apply to Scotus, it would seem that it hits the mark with Rohr, who claims to be an expositor of Scotus.  Rohr concludes that univocity refers precisely to metaphysics: “We are already connected to everything—inherently, objectively, metaphysically, ontologically, and theologically.” [3] While Rohr seems intent on reenchanting the universe he has struck upon an odd formula, the very formula many point to as giving rise to the disenchanting of the universe in the first place. Whether the genealogy of secularism runs directly through Scotus, or Scotus and Occam to Protestantism, the point is that the very thing Scotus is accused of is precisely the way Rohr understands him.

This is a long way from Maximus the Confessor’s presentation of cosmology, anthropology, soteriology, eschatology, finding harmony in a unified Christology. Maximus maintains that the creation reflects the glory of God and that humans can raise the degree of creation’s participation in this glory. As Lars Thunberg states, “His system of theology was in fact a spiritual vision of the cosmos, of human life within that cosmos, and therefore of the economy of salvation, the salvific interplay between the human and the divine.”[4] There is participation, interplay, a lifting up into participation in the divine. This participation contrasts with Rohr’s notion of univocity in which, “We all participate in the same being. God is one (Deuteronomy 6:4), and thus reality is one too (Ephesians 4:3-5).”[5] The participation seems to be automatic and built in and is not simply analogous reflection and a participation to which one rises. No subtleties here. Which brings me to my point in illustrating the Cosmic Christ as a displacement of the Vitruvian Man.

My illustration of the Cosmic Christ as the true Vitruvian Man (in my previous blog), Jonathan pointed out to me, is riddled with problems (a discussion we take up with Matt in our upcoming podcast). The potential problems Jonathan had with my illustration are not so different from the problems I would have with some of Richard Rohr’s illustrations and conceptions. So, not so much in an effort to answer Jonathan’s objections or to save my illustration but to point to the issues at stake in how we comprehend the Cosmic Christ, I want to defend my argument for displacing the Vitruvian Man with Christ. I have no particular attachment to the illustration, but the very issues it raises pertain to a proper comprehension of the Cosmic Christ.

What Leonardo, or Vitruvius before him, were attempting (implicitly if unconsciously) in the Vitruvian Man, was to describe the coherence of things presumed in Christianity but they sought this coherence within an immanent frame (the human frame quite literally). The secularizing element (which would develop with the Enlightenment) was to arrive at an abstraction of man so as to translate this abstract ratio to both architecture and to the world. These ratios only work in the abstract, and the point is not in reference to any particular man, but to the ideal man. As Jonathan rightly points out, the Vitruvian Man in representing the dimensions of the human body as a microcosm is focused on the disincarnate mathematical dimensions of the body (e.g. a palm is four fingers, a foot is four palms, a cubit is six palms, four cubits make a man, a pace is four cubits, a man is 24 palms, etc.). My point in putting Christ in place of the Vitruvian Man is precisely to maintain the positive developments of the Renaissance and Enlightenment while avoiding the failures.

There is a sense in which all that was good and true (the coherence of the world and the human ability to follow its logic) and all that was wrong with the ideas which would blossom in the Enlightenment (anthropocentrism, chauvinism, the turn to mechanics, and ultimately secularism or the presumption of a self-grounding world) are represented in seed form in the Vitruvian Man. In displacing the Vitruvian Man with the Cosmic Christ there is an acknowledgement of coherence, a readability of the universe, without the singular focus on the model of mathematics and mechanics and without the chauvinism entailed in privileging a class of bodies (white, European, males). There is an appreciation for a recapturing of a classical focus on the senses (particularly sight) and the body without a desensitizing turn from the auditory revelation found in the historical Jesus.

It is telling that at points, Leonardo’s reading of the body onto the world sounds like Rohr or vice versa. In a notebook from 1492, Leonardo mused, “By the ancients man has been called the world in miniature; and certainly this name is well bestowed, because, inasmuch as man is composed of earth, water, air and fire, his body resembles that of the earth.” The universals are within and the divine need play no role. Rohr simply extends the immanent frame so as to include the divine: “we can speak “with one voice” (univocity) of the being of waters, plants, animals, humans, angels, and God.” While this may seem to be an affirmation of the material it is the loss of the material world in the shared abstraction of being. The immanent presence of the divine within this univocal being is also constituted an empty abstraction. Rohr maintains, “Creation is the Body of God” and he wants to downplay the particular body of God found in Jesus. He holds that “Jesus” must vanish that “Christ” may come forth. Rohr’s Christ, dispossessed of Jesus, takes on the abstraction of all being which has no specific historical characteristics but which blends with all matter and bodies.  

There is an equilibrium contained in the name of Jesus combined with Christ in which the cosmic, preexistent, reality is made specific and accessible through the incarnate Jesus. The notion of a singular logic, the coherence of the universe, and its accessibility are implicit in Christ as Creator and Redeemer. But, as with Maximus, there is not a given metaphysical univocity of being, but a participation in the divine being through Christ that is not inherently available in the material universe. There is a specific necessity for the historical Jesus, the specifics of the shared body of Christ. It is not that Jesus affirms every story, every body, every form of material existence equally. It is the cruciform life of Jesus that is the point of access to the Cosmic Christ.


[1] Richard Rohr, https://cac.org/the-univocity-of-being-2015-05-27/.

[2] See Peter Leithart, “The Scotus Story” in January 19, 2015 Patheos.

[3] Rohr, Ibid.

[4] Thunberg, Lars. Man and the Cosmos: the Vision of St. Maximus the Confessor. Crestwood, NY: St. Vladimir’s Seminary, 1985. p. 31. Quoted from https://orthochristian.com/96486.html

[5] Rohr, Ibid.

The Cosmic Christ

Vitruvian Man

 A fundamental teaching of the New Testament, largely lost to the Western tradition but preserved (if left undeveloped) in the East, is that the incarnate Christ is the goal, the structuring order, or the inner ground of creation. Partially recovered by St. Francis and Karl Barth is this deep grammar of Scripture that makes of the Bible a “strange new world,” in Barth’s phrase.  It is only in recognizing that incarnation is not the fall back plan (utilized due to the accident of sin) but creation’s purpose, which provides coherence to key biblical doctrines such as salvation, predestination, and redemption. It is not creation and Fall which give rise to the necessity of incarnation; rather creation, in Athanasius’ explanation, is an effect of “our Lord Jesus Christ.”

Where we imagine it is sin that necessitated the incarnation, failed humanity and its potential recovery become the ground of meaning feeding into every key theological concept.  For example, the doctrine of predestination becomes an abstract doctrine about who is in and who is out, rather than about God’s purpose in creation found in Christ. For Barth this decision of God before all time, to be who he is for humanity, is the basic truth on which all other Christian truths are built. In his reformulation of the doctrine it becomes central to who God is as the electing God. The Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit together make a choice that the Son of God will become the elected man, Jesus of Nazareth.

But maybe Barth has still not fully recovered the original sense of there being no time before this predestined purpose. That is, among the earliest Church fathers it is not simply the disincarnate Word but Jesus, the incarnate Christ, around which creation’s meaning flows. As John Behr notes, Athanasius “barely even mentions the birth of Jesus” as incarnation is already the principle behind creation.[1] Creations purpose is found in Jesus Christ (the God/Man) and this is the meaning of predestination (he is the predestined One), redemption (as cosmic completion), and the Church’s part in a continued incarnation.

Jesus Christ as the unfolding singular purpose of all things is what makes sense of such passages as Romans 9-11, which is not a depiction of arbitrary cruelty and reward, as if some pots are made for destruction and that’s all she wrote. Israel’s election or predestined purpose had always involved being narrowed down to the preeminent purpose of the Messiah, who would be “cast away” not simply for Israel or a few lucky souls but for the redemption of the world. Paul notes first, that “God has shut up all in disobedience so that He may show mercy to all” (Romans 11:32), and then ends on a note of universality (found also in both Colossians and Ephesians): “For from Him and through Him and to Him are all things” (11:35). We know this due to the incarnate Christ who “is the summing up of all things . . . things in the heavens and things on the earth” (Ephesians 1:10). This is what and who has been predestined “before the foundation of the world” (Ephesians 1:4). There is no choice preceding this choice as this is an eternal fact about God. Jesus Christ is not a contingent reflection of God, dependent upon creation and Fall, but creation is an outworking of the love of God found in Christ. It pertains, as Paul describes it to the divine immanence (who God is in himself): “…having made known to us the mystery of His will, according to His good pleasure which He purposed in Himself” (Ephesians 1:9).

Salvation is not simply deliverance from sin but fulfillment of who God is in Christ for creation. Where Jesus is reduced to helping us get rid of sin, what gets lost are the purposes for all of creation fulfilled in Christ but also in the Church as a continuation of incarnation. Certainly, salvation is the overcoming of sin but the fullness of redemption is the completion of creation’s purpose. Paul has moved our understanding of God’s plan beyond the earth and the human race to its cosmic impact as part of the outworking of the love (the very essence) of God. The whole point of who God is and what God was doing is summed up in the incarnate Christ (1:10). 

The completion of creation in Christ accounts for all the movements of history. The incompleteness of creation in the incompleteness of the first Adam points to the unfolding nature of creation’s purpose in history. The completion of man by the creation of woman means creation is an open-ended process (it has not ended with Genesis 1) in which the whole inner basis of humankind (contained in the name Adam) is an ongoing realization. The Second Adam completes the emergence of the human capacity for image bearing and the second Adam and his bride conjoin the human and divine for eternity. Paul pictures it both as an accomplished fact (“through one act of righteousness there resulted justification of life to all men” (Ro 5:18, NASB)) and an unfolding process (“through the obedience of the One the many will be made righteous” (Ro 5:19)). The Church as the bride of Christ certainly indicates cosmic predestination was always the unfolding telos summing up all things. “For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and shall be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh. This mystery is great; but I am speaking with reference to Christ and the church” (Ephesians 5:31-32). Here is the revealing of “the mystery of his will” (1:9).

While we might argue about what caused the division between the sensibility of East and West (was it Augustine’s notion that no physician would have been sent apart from the disease of sin, or Anselm’s singular focus on satisfying God’s honor in light of the dishonor of sin?), what is certain is Eastern thought and small remnants of Western sensibility were not focused on the forensic accomplishments of Christ but the fulfillment of cosmological purposes. What was preserved in the focus on the “primacy of Christ” or “Christocentrism” is the Pauline notion that Jesus Christ is “the image of the invisible God, the first born of every creature” (Colossians 1:15) or the Johannine notion of Christ’s recommencement of creation. What might be considered the fundamental doctrine of the New Testament, or the glue which holds it all together, is operative in Franciscan theology (as pointed out at the popular level by Richard Rohr), recovered in part by Karl Barth, but maintained as a key part of Eastern Orthodoxy. For example, Maximus the Confessor (among several Eastern theologians), held that the incarnation would have taken place without a Fall. In Duns Scotus’s terms (a Scottish Franciscan Friar), the Incarnation takes place in light of God’s glory and not due to any sin committed prior to the Incarnation. As Ilia Delio describes Scotus’s understanding, “The Incarnation represents not a divine response to a human need for salvation but instead the divine intention from all eternity to raise human nature to the highest point of glory by uniting it with divine nature.”[2] God is perfect love and wills according to the perfection of that love. Since perfect love cannot will anything less than the perfection of love, Christ would have come in the highest glory in creation even if there was no sin and thus no need for redemption

 In this understanding, the constitution and meaning of the cosmos is summed up by the incarnate Christ, who redeems fallen humanity but who is primarily the completion of the cosmos. This pertains not only to the integration of things in heaven and earth but there is a clearer integration of the life, death, and resurrection of Christ if we see in Christ the completion of creation and not the means of escape. The Western focus on the forensics of the Cross tends to split not only heaven and earth but the person and work of Christ. We might speak of the primacy of Paul and the Cross in the West and a downgrading of the Sermon on the Mount, the life of Christ, and the resurrection, but of course, this is a misconstrual of Paul, in which key terms are abstracted from the person and work of Christ.

Among the early Church Fathers, Irenaeus insisted on the primacy of the incarnate Word, with salvation not restricted to redemption from sin but inclusive of a process by which all are led from “infancy” to a state of maturity and which, in his doctrine of recapitulation, includes the summing up of the entire cosmos in Christ as its head. With this understanding as background, key terms such as “justification” or “rectification” are cosmic in proportion – making things right for the cosmos in the apocalyptic act of God in Jesus Christ. Such terms as “faith” pertain to Christ not as object but as the ground of faith. Through the death and resurrection of this faithful one the powers which hold people in bondage are defeated as they take up the Cross. This pertains not so much to reduplication of faith but participation in faith’s origin. As Barth describes it we have a part in the faithfulness of God, established in us when we meet the Christ in Jesus. As John Paul II put it, “He (Christ) satisfied the Father’s eternal love, that fatherhood that from the beginning found expression in creating the world, giving man all the riches of Creation, and making him “little less than God,” in that he was created ‘in the image and after the likeness of God.’” Here our image takes on its proper likeness to the divine image, not because Christ satisfies the wrath of God but because he satisfies his love.

A stark illustration of the centrality of Christ is found in the mysterious history surrounding Leonardo da Vinci’s Vitruvian Man. Ancient thinkers had long considered the circle as representative of the divine and the square as representative of the earthly.  Leonardo, with the spirit of his age assumed the divine proportion was contained within the dimensions of the human body (some think he is his own model for the picture). Christ as Vitruvian Man accomplishes the squaring of the circle (the principle Leonardo presumed was present in the perfect man). The ordering principle of the circle is fit to the square of the world in the notion that Christ is the center of meaning of the cosmos. In this reinterpretation of the renaissance ideal (seemingly already a secularized version of a Christian notion), creation is not anthropocentric it is Christocentric. Christ is redeemer but redemption is not simply being “saved from” but rather being made “whole for” God’s creation purposes found in Christ.



[1] John Behr, John the Theologian and his Paschal Gospel: A Prologue to Theology (Oxford University Press, 2019), vii.

[2] Delio, “Revisiting the Franciscan Doctrine of Christ,” 9.