An Introduction to the thinking of Matthew Fox[i]

An Introduction to the thinking of Matthew Fox[i]

Glynn Cardy

Sun 23 Jun

On the first weekend of July Matthew Fox will be at St Luke’s.  For the last 45 years he has developed and taught Creation Spirituality, which is rooted in ancient Judeo-Christian teaching, inclusive of today’s science and world spiritual traditions; welcoming of the arts and artists; wisdom centred, prophetic, and committed to eco-justice, social justice and gender justice.   He has authored more than 35 books.  One of his earliest, Original Blessing, has been named as one of the 20 most influential spiritual books, a modern spiritual classic.  This morning I want to begin introducing his thinking.

Matthew was born in 1940 in Madison, Wisconsin, and in 1967, he took vows to join the Dominicans.  During his tenure as a Roman Catholic priest, after reading in philosophy, theology and spirituality, he was to teach at a number of Catholic universities.  In 1976, he founded the “Institute of Culture and Creation Spirituality” in Chicago, and began to teach in ways that challenged the conservative parts of the Roman Catholic orthodoxy.  In 1983, Matthew moved his Creation Spirituality Institute to Oakland, California, and this transition — as well as the publication in that year of book Original Blessing — triggered an official review of Matthew’s theology by the Vatican.

The two-year review somewhat surprisingly came out in his favour.  Then in 1988, Matthew wrote an open letter to Cardinal Ratzinger which asked, “Is the Catholic Church Today a Dysfunctional Family?”  Ratzinger censured Matthew in retaliation, silencing him from teaching for one year.  Finally in 1993 Matthew was expelled from his monastic order for failure to fulfil his vow of “obedience” to church authorities.  When you protest church authority, you become (by definition) a “Protestant,” and Matthew was received the next year as a priest in the Episcopal Church.  

Matthew’s theology not only does the hard theological work of deconstructing the parts of the Christian tradition with which he disagrees, but also the even harder work of reconstructing an alternative.  There comes a point in most of our spiritual journeys when it is relatively easy to say what we don’t believe, what we disagree with and reject.  Matthews many books are a good example of how to move to the next stage of re-constructing a mature faith that honours both our personal experience and the wisdom of tradition.

Today, more than thirty years after the initial publication of Original Blessing, it’s remarkable how much less controversial his landmark book is than in 1983.

The book identified four spiritual pathways: Via Positiva, the “Positive Way” of befriending Creation; Via Negativa, the “Negative Way” of befriending darkness, letting go and letting be; Via Creativa, the “Creative Way” of befriending creativity and befriending our divinity; and Via Transformativa, the “transformative way” of befriending New Creation, compassion, celebration, and justice.

Matthew grants that there is some metaphorical truth to the traditional framework of orthodox Christianity, which begins with a “fall from grace” in the Garden of Eden and concludes with redemption from “original sin” through Jesus as the ‘new Adam’.   But he criticizes this story as too anthropocentric (too “centred on humanity”) to be the central story of our 13.7 billion-year-old universe of which homo sapiens have only been a part of for a few hundred thousand years — or a few million years if you want to go back to the neanderthals.  Either of those human-centred timespans is dwarfed by the 13.7 billion years of the ‘universe story.’  Matthew and many others are sceptical that a Fall/Redemptive narrative than spans a few thousand years of human history and takes place in one tiny corner of the Universe can have ultimate meaning in the grand scheme of things.

Matthew importantly does not end with deconstructing the traditional fall/redemption story.  Instead, he invites us to explore the story of “Original Blessing,” which begins with goodness, compassion, and creativity at the heart of the universe.  This alternative account embraces the best of both religion and science.  It is the wondrous story of “emergence” — how the universe evolved over the course of 13.7 billion years through stages of increasing complexity: “pre-atomic, atomic, molecular, unicellular, multi-cellular, vertebrate, primate, and human.”  As one theologian has written, we humans are stardust now evolved to the place that the stardust can think about itself!…  We are the universe becoming conscious of itself.  We are stardust that has begun to contemplate the stars.  We have arisen out of the dynamics of the earth.   Four billion years ago, our planet was molten rock, and now it sings opera.   Let me tell you, this is good news!

Embracing this universe story perspective of original blessing is precisely what Matthew Fox intends when he invites us to explore the Via Positiva, the “Positive Way” of befriending Creation.  He invites us to embrace all that this world and this life can teach us about God and God’s mind-blowingly huge creation — an act of creation that did not end with a single act in the past, but that has been ongoing for billions of years.

To say more about the difference between the traditional “fall/redemption Story” and the scientifically-based “universe story,” remember that, for the most part, neither Jews, nor Muslims, nor Eastern Orthodox Christians, nor many biblical scholars recognize a doctrine of “original sin” when they read the first few chapters of Genesis.  Our tendency in Western Christianity to read these stories as a “fall from grace” has to do with the way Augustine, the fourth-century bishop of Hippo, (and later Martin Luther) read these stories.

Augustine has been a major influence on Christian theology for 1,500 years and Luther for more than 500 years, and it can sometimes be almost impossible for us Western Christians to read scripture without the influence of major figures such as Augustine and Luther affecting our interpretation.  Both Augustine and Luther were, at times, obsessed with the themes of sin and grace, and these fixations affected how they interpreted the Bible (and, in turn, how many of Christians have read the Bible since). The point is that although we humans are certainly flawed, finite creatures, the dominance of the “original sin” motif in Western Christian theology is neither inevitable nor integral either to the Bible itself or to the universe story.

Matthew relatedly points out that human writing was only invented a few thousand years ago.  But the universe, again, is billions of years old.  Accordingly, theologians invite us to consider that although the Bible has enduring importance, we should consider that, “The universe is the [first and] primary revelation of the divine, the primary scripture [predating the Bible by billions of years], [and] the primary locus of divine-human communion.”  And God is communicating with us though creation today, including through science.  Said differently, the scientific method is a way of listening to how God is speaking to us about the mysteries of our universe.

This lens of creation spirituality and original blessing enables us to see our progress as individuals and as a society from infantile egocentrism (in which we selfishly only care about our needs) to ethnocentrism (or tribalism, in which we only care about the needs of those similar to ourselves), to global-centrism (in which we embrace both the common humanity of all humans and the place of humanity as merely one among many important parts of planet Earth), and finally to cosmic-centrism (in which we truly begin to embrace an integrated perspective that takes into account our place as an interdependent part in the ongoing 13.7 billion year old unfolding of creation that is the universe story.  Carl Gregg‘s shorthand description of this process is the move from “me” to “we,” to “all of us,” to“ALL.”[ii]

In Life Magazine’s 100 Photographs that Changed the World, “Earthrise” was called “the most influential environmental photograph ever taken.” This photo, the first of the Earth as a whole planet, helped expand many people’s consciousness from egocentrism or ethnocentrism to globocentrism.  From space, the truth is startlingly clear that, as Peter Mayer sings, “All the World Is One.”  Similarly, the breath taking pictures of galaxies, nebulae, and the Ultra-Deep Field that we continue to receive from the Hubble Space Telescope, invite and challenge us to take the next step beyond the global consciousness of “Earthrise” toward a cosmic consciousness.  

Matthew writes, “If every person is capable of cosmo-centrism or cosmic consciousness, but most people are not encouraged to celebrate it, then what happens to persons and their institutions?  They become sick and violent.  For we were made for something cosmic and will not fit peacefully into anything much smaller.”   For the survival of both our planet and our species, the importance of these shifts in perspective (toward original blessing and the universe story) cannot be overestimated.  The invitation is to truly embrace panentheism (the truth that God is “in, with, and beyond” everything) at the most maximal level that is possible from our finite human perspective.

There is another vital implication of this shift: from the perspective of the “fall/redemption” and “original sin” paradigm, the focus of the spiritual life is often on individual moral perfection.  In contrast, the “original blessing” and “creation spirituality” perspective, invites us to have the “courage of imperfection.”  Matthew writes: “for people who have truly learned to trust creation one of the first lessons is how beauty and imperfection go together.  Every tree is beautiful; but if you approach it closely enough you will see that every tree is imperfect.  The same is true of the human body: every human body is beautiful, but every human body is imperfect.  In nature, in creation, imperfection is not a sign of the absence of God.  It is a sign that the ongoing creation is no easy thing….”

For those of us who tend toward being perfectionists, this encouragement to be ‘pro-imperfection’ and ‘anti-perfection’ can be hard to hear.  But perfectionism can be narcissistic – always worrying about and cultivating our own perfection turns our focus inward on our self and our own behaviour.  This perspective is also often focused on the past (what we did, didn’t do, or could’ve done better).  In contrast, creation spirituality invites us to be grateful for the present moment, even with all its imperfections.

Perhaps St. Francis of Assisi is one of our strongest examples in the Christian tradition of connecting with God through nature, standing in awe and gratitude for the wonder of the created universe, and savouring beauty in all its forms.  After all, Francis famously preached to the birds, and spoke to the elements of creation as “Brother Sun” and “Sister Moon.”   In addition to Francis, Matthew has done important work in this book and many of his other books to demonstrate there are strong themes of original blessing and creation spirituality throughout Christian history particularly in the Bible and in major Christian figures such as Hildegard of Bingen (1098-1179) and Meister Eckhart (1260-1329).

Today many Christians still believe that the only way to faith is through the fall/redemption myth.  What Matthew Fox did was not only deconstruct this human-centric myth but hold out an alternative of original blessing, creation spirituality, and the universe story.  He pointed to the spiritual path that will equip and strengthen us for the huge challenge – the survival of planetary life – that is now before us.   

[i] I have drawn significantly on the synthesizing work of the Rev. Carl Gregg the pastor of Broadview Church in Chesapeake Beach, Maryland.