The term of ‘kingdom of God’ was a way of posing the question: ‘What would the world be like if God was in charge?’ The answer, as proclaimed in the Hebrew Scriptures, was ‘justice’ and ‘compassion’. But how that would be delivered was Jesus’ point of difference.
At the heart of Jesus’ message was the idea of an alternative kingdom. This kingdom wasn’t a spiritual/political replica of Caesar’s kingdom, or a restored Davidic monarchy, or an after-life kingdom in the clouds. It was a kingdom already in their midst (Luke 17:21) as they as a community opened their tables, their places of privilege and acceptance, to the poor, foreigners, and those deemed ‘other’.
So Jesus told the Parable of the Mustard Seed. It’s an upside-down parable for mustard doesn’t grow into big trees. Rather mustard is a weed that is difficult to control. The point of the parable is to challenge the thinking of those who thought the kingdom was populated by the ‘big trees’ (the important, the rich); whereas the kingdom was populated by weeds – little, windblown, and uncontrollable (the nuisances and nobodies).
It is similar to Paul’s thoughts in Galatians 5 where the Spirit blows free beyond the fences of the rules and laws of religions and governments; and is present wherever love is. You’ll recognize the seeds/weeds of the kingdom wherever you find such things as love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, etc.
Jesus also told the Parable of the Leavened Bread; which also is an upside-down parable. The key to understand this parable is that leaven/yeast is a metaphor for moral corruption. It was unleavened bread that was considered holy. Three measures of flour are 23 kilograms. That’s a lot of bread. This is the quantity laid out by Abraham and Sarah in Genesis 18:6 for their divine visitor.
The parable is saying that the kingdom of God is a totally corrupting activity. It corrupts your normal ways of understanding holiness and who is holy. Those you deem unholy – the sick, the bleeding, the least, those of foreign religions and cultures – they are the ones you are an integral part of the banquet of God.
So Jesus was preaching and living out an alternate social vision centred in compassion and inclusion/justice. It was radically egalitarian. It involved women and men, poor and some rich. It was political. It was prophetic. It was subversive wisdom. It was threatening.
As Marcus Borg says Jesus directly attacked the central values of his world’s conventional wisdom: family, wealth, honour, purity and religiosity. He upset not just the powers that be but the assumed hierarchy of values across society.
A lot of Matthew Fox’s writing has been about taking these central truths about the upside-down kingdom that Jesus proclaimed, the alternate values, and applying them in the context of earth consciousness and cosmic consciousness.
So differences, for example, between people faith (whether Jew and Samaritan from Jesus’ day, or Christian and Muslim from our day) are set within our context of eco-crisis. As Matthew says, “It doesn’t matter what your particular religion is, or if you’re an atheist, if your backyard is burning up and you can’t plant food anymore, and the waters are rising? We’re all in trouble. And ‘this trouble’ can finally bring religions together and get over their narcissism.”
By ‘narcissism’ he means our focus on us – our needs and survival as a faith or denomination – rather than the needs and survival of all planetary life.
But Matthew goes further in critiquing our human civilisation as essentially narcissistic, and this narcissism permeating our religions. The trap is thinking that spiritual awareness or conversion is for our own individual benefit. If spiritual awareness doesn’t lead to service: compassion, justice, eco-justice then it is just another manifestation of narcissism.
Somehow, says Fox, we have become so focused on our own human journey that we’ve forgotten that this human journey is part of the earth’s journey. There used to be a deeper understanding that our soul is part of the world’s soul, the anima mundi – that intrinsic connection between all living things on the planet - and we’ve lost that connection. We’ve lost that understanding that our spiritual light is part of the light of the world. And how the earth story itself is part of the cosmic story. It’s all one. It’s all one living, breathing, inter-related, interdependent spiritual organism as much as a physical organism; and we have, for some extraordinary reason, forgotten that.
Matthew’s books offer a number of thoughts about why we’ve lost that sense of interdependence with the earth and cosmos. Part of this, as I began to mention, is the anthropocentrism and the narcissism of both modern consciousness and modern religion. But Fox also suggests that theologically influential thinkers have been ‘beating up’ on matter over the centuries – labelling matter ‘bad’ and spirit/soul ‘good’. That kind of separation, that kind of dualism is so destructive because then you think the body [matter] is secondary, and then Mother Earth is secondary, and everything else. The truth is without matter we wouldn’t have our imaginations and our breath and our food and our existence.
This dualistic rejection of matter in Christianity Matthew traces back to the 4th century when the Church more or less inherited the Roman Empire. He writes, “If you’re going to run an empire it behoves you to split matter from spirit, to talk about male domination of nature (the male over the female), and also to talk about original sin, and get people confused about their own inner nobility and empowerment, and divinity, really. I think that it has served political interests and cultural power trips to split people that way.”
The spiritual and religious task today, to build that alternative Jesus kingdom in the context of planetary survival, is to redress this dualism and it’s outworking in order to reclaim the sacred nature of creation that is the world around us, and within us. Matthew calls this ‘deep ecology”.
A lot of Matthew Fox’s work has been in researching, recovering, and popularising the work of Christian mystics – like Meister Eckhart, Hildegard of Bingen, St Francis, Thomas Merton, Wendell Berry… He’s done this in order to offer us insights and tools for re-energizing us in the face of our planetary crises’.
He asks: “How can we learn once again to live in love with the earth in the way we live, in our daily activities so that everything becomes imbued with this sense of the sacred?”
For a mystic the power of love is the greatest power in creation. In religious traditions, certainly the Jewish tradition but also Thomas Aquinas, it is said that the mind resides in the heart. We don’t have to pit one against the other. Fox writes: “We need to reclaim that unity, that oneness, because life is dying and it’s dying because we split spirit and matter, we separated ourselves from creation. We need to return to this awareness of the interdependence of all of life, this web of life, which our ancestors knew and revered so deeply. The world is not a problem to be solved, it’s a living being to be related to, and it is calling to us. It needs our attention, not just of our minds, but also of our hearts. It is our own awakened consciousness that can heal the earth.”
The mystics have held this thread in the West, but a thread is no longer enough. It needs to be a revolution, a revolution of the heart, a revolution of consciousness that sees the oneness that is within and all around us.
Matthew talks about the importance of listening as a subversive practice. Quoting Thomas Berry he writes: “We are not listening to the rivers; we are not listening to the winds and stars; we have broken the great conversation.” By breaking that conversation we have shattered the universe. And we have to learn again how to listen to the earth, and how to open that ear of the heart. We have been told this great lie that we are separate from the earth, that it is something out there. It is not out there, we are part of the earth. We are made of stardust.
He goes on: “We need to feel the grief within our own self for the earth and learn to listen to the earth, learn to hear it, learn to re-attune ourselves, just like the shamans did of old, just like the wise people who listened to the wind, who listened to the rivers, who felt the heartbeat of creation. And it might not sound very practical but it has a deep, deep wisdom within it, and I think we need all the help we can get at the moment.”
The way to listening is to learn to meditate and be still. From such stillness comes the attitude necessary for re-sacralizing the earth. The earth is made sacred again by the way we eat and farm through to the way we do business and politics. If we come in the deepest sense, with an attitude of prayer or even just respect and reverence for each other, for the earth, for what is around us, then the healing can begin, and the forces of darkness will recede.
The parables and teaching of Jesus are essentially anthropocentric. They are challenging us listeners, then and now, to move from a ‘me and we’ consciousness (a self and tribal consciousness) to an ‘us all’ consciousness (a consciousness that all humans are of equal worth and dignity and, in religious language, ‘all God’s children’). Jesus’ alternate kingdom and values were about the oneness of humankind.
Matthew Fox and other mystics challenge us to go in heart and mind on another move – to a consciousness of all life, all matter, being one. For just as Jesus was aggrieved by the discrimination against those who were poor or foreign, and the suffering they endured, so too we need to be aggrieved by the discrimination against non-human life on this planet, and the suffering such life endures. By listening to the suffering, acknowledging our complicity, by shifting our attitudes, by recognizing the sacredness of the earth, we might, together, work for its survival and flourishing and the blessing of us all.