Counting our Original Blessings
“To connect with the great river we all need a path, but when you get down there there’s only one river.”.”
with Matthew Fox
While for many being a Christian implies generous portions of intolerance, self-righteous proselytizing, and patriarchal zeal, some have dug deeper into the well oft he Western mystical tradition and have drunk from sweeter waters. Instead of embracing the religions of the East, they are finding parallel philosophies and equally enlightened gurus amidst the discarded relies of the Christian church.
Matthew Fox, a Dominican priest, theologian, writer and teacher is one such person. He has been called “a green prophet” by the Archbishop of Canterbury, and, by the Vatican, a dangerous radical, heretic, and blasphemer. The author of over a dozen books, his best-known work, Original Blessing, rejects the idea of humanity innate sin and inevitable punishment, and instead proposes a creation-centered spirituality – a philosophy of mystical artistry, universal compassion, and the celebration of the divine within each human soul.
In 1960 Fox joined the Dominican order. He was ordained seven years later; and after acquiring a master ‘s degree in philosophy and theology, he went to study in Paris, where he earned a doctorate in spirituality. In 1977 he founded the Institute of Culture and Creation Spirituality at Holy Names College in Oakland, California, and began to formulate educational programs, encouraging participation from all creeds, races, and subcultures.
In 1988 the Vatican, fearing Fox ‘s popularity, silenced him for a year He used the time to visit and listen to the liberation theologians of Central and South America, and he returned to the States more dedicated than ever to sharing his message. After the year had expired his first words were “As I was saying … ” In 1993, after a number of failed attempts by the papacy at proving him a heretic, which would have led to his excommunication, Matthew Fox was dismissed from the Dominican order:
As church pews gather dust in the twilight Matthew Fox ‘s lectures are standing room only. The clergy at the Vatican must be wringing their hands as he speaks freely about the motherhood of God, the spiritual relevance of environmental consciousness and love for animals, the interconnectedness of all religions, and the acceptance of homosexuality as a viable lifestyle. That Jesus’ message might actually have something to do with progressive social action is an idea that the church has traditionally sidestepped with dexterity, but listening to Matthew Fox, it is easy to entertain the idea that the true spirit of Christ is arising to turn the tables once again. This interview was held on August 8, 1993 at Matthew Fox ‘s home in Oakland.
David: I’d like to ask you, what were you like as a child and what childhood experiences shaped your spirituality?
Matthew: Well, I grew up in Wisconsin and I was certainly influenced by the beauty of the land there. I was also influenced by the presence of the Native American spirit, and from the time I was very little I had Indian dreams. It was a university town and the whole issue of ideas became very important to me. I was Catholic and my best friends were Jewish and agnostic, and we’d get into these philosophical debates which were a lot of fun. There was a priest I knew and he got me reading Thomas Aquinas, G.K Chesterton and so forth. So the intellectual side of faith became very important to me.
Rebecca: Were you brought up a strict Catholic?
Matthew: My father was Irish-Catholic, my mother was half Jewish and half Anglican and although she became a Catholic, she always kept her freedom. So it was a very ecumenical household. When I was a teenager we lived in a large house near the university with my six brothers and sisters. As they went out to college my parents would rent out their rooms to foreign graduate students.
So I spent my high school years next door to a seikh from India who wore a turban and cooked wheat germ at three in the morning, a man from Venezuela who would pull his shirt up to show his bullfighting scars, a communist from Yugoslavia, and an atheist from Norway. It was a very broad education.
When I was in college I brought a friend home for the weekend and afterwards he shook his head and said, “God, it’s like being at the United Nations!”(laughter) I was never that interested in religion but I’ve always been interested in spirituality, and that’s how I got interested in theology.
David: How do you define the difference?
Matthew: Well, I wish there weren’t such a big difference between religion and spirituality, but people have to be very clear about the difference, and not simply settle for religion. Spirituality is about experience, and religion, unfortunately, ends up being about the sociology of the structures, in news reports of Popes coming and buildings being bought. Of course they also influence each other. For example, last week here in the Bay Area, the front page news of the Chronicle was that the Catholic church was trying to sell twelve of it’s churches. Why? Because they have only thirty-five people coming to church on Sunday.
So that’s religion. Religion has to sell it’s buildings. Spirituality is connecting to the source of things, to the source of wonder and awe and pain and suffering and creativity and justice and compassion. Religion ought to be about that but unfortunately it wanders off the path.
David: Would you say that spirituality is based upon one’s own experience, while religion is based upon someone else’s experience?
Matthew: (laughter) That’s good, but I wouldn’t stress the “own” as distinct from the communal. At your deepest depth you are in touch with other people’s joy and other people’s sorrow – so it’s not just a private journey, it’s a journey into the ocean of experience. Jesus was spiritual – would you call him religious? He was taking on the religious establishment of his day. He was trying to bring out the juices of his tradition, which got him into a lot of trouble. That happens all along the line – it’s happening today too with liberation theology.
Bede Griffiths is a monk who died recently. He ran an ashram in India for Hindus and Christians for fifty years. He said, if Christianity can’t recover it’s mystical tradition and teach it, it should just fold up and go out of business, because it has nothing to offer. I agree 100%. Spirituality is about mysticism which is about awe and wonder and the prophetic dimension of standing up to injustice because it interferes with our wonder.
David: How did your interest in theology develop?
Matthew: I had a lot of mystical experiences as a child and as an adolescent, even more. I remember when I was in 9th grade walking into the living-room when someone was playing Beethovan’s 7th symphony, and my soul wanted to dance. When I was a junior I read Tolstoy’s War and Peace and it’s because of Tolstoy that I went into the priesthood, because I wanted to examine the spiritual experience I was having with literature and music.
I think that people are born mystics – we are all mystics as children, but it’s taken away from us as we grow older. It’s taken away subtly by education which trains the left brain and ignores the right brain. They take away your crayons right when you need them most – at puberty. When you should be getting to your cosmic soul they give you football and shopping-malls. I was fortunate. I had polio when I was thirteen, so I let go of my desire to be a football hero like my brothers were. When I was sick in the hospital (they couldn’t tell whether I would walk again) I met a very spiritual person who had been a monk before he married and had five kids. He became kind of a mentor for me and showed me that there was another path in life, besides the obvious.
So, when I got my legs back a year or two later, I was very overwhelmed with gratitude and I said, I’m not going to waste my legs, I’m not going to take this for granted. And I wasn’t going to waste my life, I was going to do something interesting.
Rebecca: Gratitude seems to be very much an aspect of your spirituality. Prayer has been traditionally used to ask favors.
Matthew: Yuck! That’s Santa Claus in the sky! Meister Eckhart said, “If the only prayer you ever say in your life is thank you,” that would suffice.
David: Don’t you think that it takes almost losing something in order to appreciate it?
Matthew: (laughter) Unfortunately yes. And that’s what religion won’t tell you – that we’re losing the planet. We have everything to lose, it’s basic. And that’s why the only resolution is an awakening of gratitude and reverence for the planet, and falling in love in more than an anthropocentric fashion. In that experience there is an excess of gratitudinal energy, and that’s what we need to change our destiny.
Rebecca: Could you explain to us some of the core values of Creation Spirituality and how they differ from Fall/Redemption philosophy?
Matthew: Well, one of course is why I called my book Original Blessing as opposed to Original Sin. My problem with Original Sin is that first of all it’s so anthropocentric – sinning is what humans do, all other creatures do not sin. Thomas Merton says every non two-legged creature is a saint. That’s why my spiritual director was that guy