This article originally appeared in Christianity Today [June
16, 1989], p. 28-30.
Late last year, the Roman Catholic Church silenced the controversial Dominican priest Matthew Fox. His "creation-centered," New Age-flavored, feminist spirituality was labeled "dangerous and deviant" by Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, head of the Vatican Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. Fox was told to cease teaching, preaching, and lecturing for a year. He agreed only to a six-month sabbatical.
More than anything Fox could have done on his own, however, the silencing brought his teachings out of obscurity and set Christians to wondering about what to make of his hybrid of Christian mysticism and modern consciousness. And Fox did not hesitate to take advantage of the limelight before the silencing went into effect. He created a stir by paying for a full-page advertisement in the New York Times, with copies sent to national news media. In it Fox accuses the Vatican of being deaf, unable to understand, and given to institutional violence. He claims that his brand of mystical spirituality is the answer to the world's cry for justice and liberation. He accepts the honor of being silenced in the company of Fr. Leonardo Boff of Brazil, Archbishop Raymond Hunthausen of Seattle, and Catholic scholars Charles Curran and Hans Küng. And Fox classifies himself with those who were silenced in the past-such as Galilee, Aquinas, Meister Eckhart, Teresa of Avila, and John of the Cross. He concludes the advertisement with a call for those involved in what he calls Creation Spirituality to keep speaking out until the awaited renaissance occurs.
What are Christians to make of Creation Spirituality's esoteric excursions into ethics, theology, and mysticism? Anyone claiming, as Fox does, to be the embattled guardian of a joyful, egalitarian, and ecologically sensitive version of Christianity cannot fait to capture the fascination of a society that still hungers for religious experience, His talk of "deep interaction among all religions of the planet," reverence for "Mother Earth," and Jungian psychodynamics will win him points among seekers of modern enlightenment. The self-styled prophet claims to have recovered aspects of spirituality that have been long suppressed or overlooked.
Much of what Fox advocates, however-both beliefs and practices
should give Christians pause. Evangelical eyebrows rightfully rise at Fox's
ideas about same- and opposite-sex lovemaking, phallus worship, sweat lodges,
powwow dances, and pipe ceremonies. But these are only skin-deep marks
of the animal he is describing. As we scrutinize - and criticize - Creation
Spirituality, we must do more than fasten on details. We need to look deeply,
to where even more problems lie.
Paths to a "renaissance"
For all of Fox's interest in contemporary issues, he traces the early roots of Creation Spirituality to medieval mystics such as Hildegard of Bingen (1098-1179). His favorite is Meister Eckhart (1260-1327), to whom he devoted his Breakthrough: Meister Eckhart's Creation Spirituality in New Translation (1980). He also claims that his Creation Spirituality draws inspiration from a wide array of biblical characters, church fathers, and contemporary thinkers such as the late scientist and priest Pierre Teilhard de Chardin.
The acknowledged guru of Creation Spirituality in its modern form, however, is certainly Fox himself. His ideas began to be expressed in racy best-selling books with quirky titles: On Becoming a Musical, Mystical Bear (1972), Whee! We, Wee All the Way Home (1981), and Original Blessing (1983).
The silencing by Cardinal Ratzinger wilt certainly promote the sale of Fox's latest book, The Coming of the Cosmic Christ: The Healing of Mother Earth and the Birth of a Global Renaissance (1988). The publisher is Harper & Row, which moves Fox decisively out of the quirk), writing field.
Fox outlines his Creation Spirituality by describing four ways, or paths, of renewal. The first path, Delight, is also called the via positiva, a joyful attitude of respect for Mother Earth evidenced by eating and drinking, dancing and singing, and affirming the body with its senses-including the erotic and playful. In the second path, Darkness, or the via negativa, Creation Spirituality makes room for our sense of the world's mystery and darkness, symbolized, for example, in native American moon rituals. It includes the Quaker stress on silence as opposed to busy activism. Most of all, says Fox, this path resonates with the "cosmic suffering" of Christ, the lamentations of Jeremiah, and the sad chanting typical of black churches in their oppression. Birthing, the third way, is the right-brain freedom of artists to generate new images and language, explaining, perhaps, why Fox's Oakland-based Institute in Culture and Creation Spirituality makes so much of "playshops," where seekers realize their creative and mystical potential through dance, artwork, and storytelling. The final way, Compassion, includes concern for Mother Earth, justice, and peacemaking. Fox develops this in another book, A Spirituality Named Compassion, and the Healing of the Global Village, Humpty Dumpty, and Us (1979).
At first sight, these four ways of renewal may seem innocuous,
even suggestive of helpful directions. And all four emphases can be found
in some form in the Old Testament, in Paul, and even in the Gospels, as
Fox documents. Why then should we look before leaping on the guru's bandwagon?
A massive shift
Fox, as he will readily admit, is recommending nothing less than a transformation of the way we think about faith. He advocates what some have called a "paradigm shift," a revolution in thinking such as took place when Newtonian physics gave way to Einsteinian relativity. Creation Spirituality is portrayed as the vanguard of a new manifestation of the kingdom of God in our midst, a second coming of the "Cosmic Christ."
At the heart of any discussion of Creation Spirituality, therefore, are two very different ways of picturing the world and our place in it: theism and monism. Simply put, theism argues for a Creator who is distinguishable and apart from creation. Fox, in contrast, seems to be advocating monism, which is the belief that only one unified reality, only one eternal principle, exists in the universe. Monism therefore denies a Creator above and separate from his creation. Hindu thinkers also call this nondualism, meaning that there is no duality or difference between the human and the divine. To be precise, Fox is teaching a form of monism that is already 3,000 years old in India.
Over the generations, Hindu philosophers have divided monism into four species, an examination of which helps us assess Creation Spirituality. Since Fox denies that he is a theist, we must ask which of these four forms of monism is his adopted paradigm.
The first of the four, pantheism, claims that all that is, is God. Rocks are God, animals are God, you and I are God. On that view, God is indistinguishable from our world, and nothing can be called evil. That obviously makes any kind of ethical standards impossible. Whatever affinities Creation Spirituality seems to have for pantheism, Fox claims that his world view is panentheistic, which asserts "all things in God and God in all things." So while Fox claims that his mysticism is "not theistic, which envisions deity 'out there' or even 'in here' in a dualistic manner that separates creation from divinity" (The Coming of the Cosmic Christ, p. 57), Fox is clearly committed to some things being right and others being wrong. This requires him to reject strict pantheism.
Fox is muddier when it comes to modified pantheism, the second form of monism. This view pictures God as the principle or life force that energizes our world. By observing what is creative and life enhancing, this view suggests, it is possible to distinguish good behavior from destructive While this fits Fox's concern to stop us from ravaging Mother Earth, the problem with a principle or life force is that it can never have a personal dimension. Although creation mysticism can be a merely impersonal vibrating in tune with the life force, Fox seems to be feeling for something that he wants to name in a personal way. He is keen to recommend gratitude and thanksgiving. How can one say thank you to an impersonal ,force such as gravity or energy?
A third possibility is absolute monism, which does more than argue that God is the absolute, ultimate reality of our world. Our problem, this line of thinking also argues, is that we live in a dream world of our own making. All we think and experience is maya (illusion). The absolute is totally impersonal since it is the opposite of any sense of personal distinction. In Hinduism, the discipline of yoga was originally designed to prepare a person for deep meditation, and the end product was an experience of this absolute when all the things of this world lost their hold. Salvation lies in loosing oneself from the chains of personality and merging with the absolute, like a drop of water in an ocean. Fox is evidently not an absolute monist. People having fun together is too important to him.
Modified monism is the fourth kind of monism, and it appears to be the basic paradigm that Fox has espoused. This world view understands God as the soul of the world. God is part of our world but also relates to the world, much as we feel our own personality is in some sense distinguishable from our body. The organs of the body may feel with and react to what the person experiences, but there is hardly a personal dialogue. It is a far cry from the Christian view of a Father who wants and allows a relationship with his children.
Our discussion of the varieties of monism is not just a matter of words or philosophical categories, as I discovered battling Hindu monism for 11 years as a missionary in India. I studied Hindu philosophy and discussed it with holy men by the sacred river Ganges. For eight years I taught in Hindi at the Allahabad Bible Seminary, contrasting the Bible's Christian theism with the Bhagavad Gita and the worship of Krishna and Shiva. I spent three years establishing evangelical student groups across North India, traveling for days in crowded third-class compartments, participating in heated discussions all the way, often staying overnight in university hostels. So the scent of the monistic animal is still in my nostrils.
I find many of the same arguments in Fox's work that I did in
India. Fox himself admits that his panentheism is a totally different animal
from Christian theism. In the face of Fox's claim that Jesus was a nondualist,
and not a theist, it should be easy to see that the Bible is not a monistic
book, nor is the God who was in Christ a monistic deity.
The Creator's artistry
The Bible begins with God the Artist, a Creator, not some impersonal force. This Artist uses light for the colors of his palette. He puts in the land and sea and sky. He adds the trees and vegetation. After the birds in the sky and fish in the lake, he puts in mammals, and an amazing creature made in his own image. At each stage he steps back, half-closes his eyes, and says, "That is good."
Such a Creator must in some sense be separate from creation. That is the first point to make about biblical theism. We guess some things about Van Gogh from his swirling skies, but the artist is not part of the canvas, or in the oils, or even perceived in the brush strokes. In Creation Spirituality, however, there is no ultimate distinction between the artist and his creation.
Second, the Artist of biblical theism is very personal. We can talk back, and thank him, and complain. As we get to know him, we expect to engage in dialogue, at times even argue. While Creation Spirituality seems to offer a sense of oneness with the world, even compassion, it can never hold out the promise and blessing of conversational prayer.
Third, Christian theism assures us that we pass at death from
the canvas of the painting to the sphere or home of the Artist. The Artist
made us in his image so we could eventually be part of his family. Monism
or nondualism means there is nowhere else to go. At most, Hindus expect
a reincarnation to another life in this world. Fox is careful not to argue
for reincarnation in The Coming of the Cosmic Christ, but neither
does he offer hope of a bodily resurrection. Resurrection is reduced to
"Jesus as Mother Earth crucified yet rising daily" (pp. 145, 149). For
humans, resurrection merely means "aliveness, wakefulness, awareness, and
rebirth -- in short, mysticism" (p. 38).
A guru in Christian clothing?
Christians can hope Matthew Fox's silence for six months will have clarified his mind. Is he a genuine monist? If he is, he should come clean and declare himself a guru in the ancient Hindu tradition. Or does he think he can enliven our sometimes too-stuffy theism with monist categories? Either way, there is confusion and error-that must not escape Christians' notice.
Fox actually has some things to say. Many will resonate with his chiding of the church-and secular society-for their and rationalism. He speaks of "the art of friendship, the art of making beauty where we dwell, the art of conversation, of massage, of laughter, of preparing food, of hospitality, of the sharing of ideas, of growing food and flowers, of singing songs, of making love, of telling stories, of uniting generations, of putting on skits, of satirizing human folly." The only item on this list that seems out of place in the New Testament is "massage," but then even Jesus allowed a woman to massage and kiss his feet (Luke 7:38).
The significant thing is that all the arts recommended by Fox are with and for individuals. That is the glorious characteristic of theism, and the Christian view of God. The Artist made a world because he loves us and has a future for us in his family. That future finds its center in the concrete and personal love of God in Christ.