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Creation Spirituality - Interview Three

November/December 2001

Original blessings: An interview with Matthew Fox
By Ravi Dykema

Maverick priest Matthew Fox has been called one of the most important religious thinkers and teachers of our time because of his devotion to unleashing the suppressed mystical and life-affirming traditions of Christianity. His theology of "creation spirituality" - the belief that we are born in what he calls original blessing - has reinvigorated the faith of countless Christians and earned him the headline-making censure of the Vatican, who officially silenced Fox in 1989 and precipitated his dismissal by the Dominican Order in 1993.

Now an Episcopal priest, Fox has turned his attention to distilling the common principals of all the world's religions, and shows exactly how the different fingers of world faiths connect to a single hand. He shares his insights in his new book, One River, Many Wells (Tarcher/Putnam Books, 2000) and in his recently reissued classic, Original Blessing. Here, Fox talks to Nexus publisher Ravi Dykema about the importance of ritual in religion, the mystical traditions of Christianity and the role of religion in the world today.

RD: What concerns you most about what's happening in the world today, with your fellow humans?

MF: Well, not just fellow humans, but fellow creatures and the earth. Look what's happened to the land, waters, trees and animals. Look at global warming. Polar bears may go extinct in a generation, because the ice is thawing and the babies do not have long enough to live on ice before going into the water to develop. And that's just one example of what's disappearing. We're destroying 27,000 species a year, and species don't return. They're a once-in-a-universe event. This has everything to do with humanity, because our souls will be depleted by the loss of the diversity on this planet. We have 10 years left to change our ways as a species, and if we can't change our ways, we'll not be able to undo the ecological damage we're involved in. What tools do we have as a species to change our ways? Spirituality is clearly the most radical and the deepest. We must unleash our spiritual wisdom, which often means separating it from religion, unfortunately. And we must gather wisdom, to understand what are the issues most important to our survival and how can spirituality contribute. That's why I chose the 18 themes I did for this book, because I think each contributes to what's really important for our species. And yet in bringing forth the teachings from many sources, I found there is a real consensus: We're here for compassion and we're capable of compassion, but it's tough. Jesus got killed for it, and all kinds of other people got killed for it. So you have to work at it. But isn't that what Buddha came to teach? And Jesus, and Isaiah, and King, and Gandhi?

First, we need to calm that reptilian brain we all have, and I think that's what meditation does. It's essentially petting the reptile in us, the crocodile, so we can get on with better things, like compassion. Reptiles don't bond - they're singular animals. That's why meditation and reptilian brain go together, because meditation is about being at home with solitude. Compassion, I think, was brought in with the mammals, first with our mammalian brain, and then with our human, intellectual creator brain.

Currently, though, I think our human brain is linked too closely to the reptilian brain, and we call it global capitalism. It's kind of scary to see this played out in terms of our society. Global warming is worse now than scientists could have even predicted. The ozone hole over the North Pole has opened up, and it's the warmest it's been in two million years. Meanwhile, people are suffering severely from wars and famines and political unrest. Traditionally, I think that has been one of the reasons for spirituality, to make sense of things and to cut the edge of the suffering, if not eliminate it completely.

RD: And to help others who are suffering?

MF: Yes, and that's compassion. When Jesus said "The poor you will always have with you," I think he was also warning us that we'll never eliminate all the suffering, that to be born is to suffer. The whole universe suffers. There are labor pains. When the volcanoes erupted and gave birth to the island of Hawaii, it wasn't without pain. To realize that the whole universe is involved in labor pains can help us to endure our own suffering. But what we humans do is geometrically increase the amount of suffering. There will always be suffering from death and loss and disease. We have to balance that with what we can do to relieve the pain. And it's absolutely evident that our species is contributing too much to the suffering to move to the relief.

RD: There are those who say going back to the fundamentals of religious morality is the answer to our modern problems and the remedy for suffering. But your creation spirituality is the exact opposite of fundamentalism and traditional religions, isn't it?

MF: Yes - spirituality is a more internal response. It's about taking responsibility and finding the wounds and pain in one's own heart, in the heart of one's community and in what we've inherited, the collected pain and suffering. Religion is a more external reference to morality and spirituality.

I was in New Hampshire a couple of years ago when the fundamentalists had taken over a school board through an election. The first decree that the new school board made was that henceforth in that school system, no public school teacher would be allowed to use the word "imagination" in the classroom. They said, "Satan is in the imagination." Well, of course - but God's there, too, and spirituality. Everything's in the imagination. That's what makes it so wonderful. But you have to choose - it comes from the inside. They wanted to police the outside. And can you imagine telling parents not to use the word "imagination" in front of kids? That's absolutely obscene.

That's one example of the fascism and control motive behind the ideology of so much fundamentalism. We have a political debate going on about education. But all I hear politicians talk about is more exams, more exams, more exams. Well, I'm in education, and exams are not the way to renew education. Creativity is the key to education, because creativity is the key to our unique human brain. Or in theological terms, creativity is the image of God in us. Therefore education should renew itself by centering itself around creativity. Now this would totally freak out the fundamentalist, fascist, control agenda. But the concept is profoundly theological. The Kabala, the great Jewish mystical work of the Middle Ages, says the fierce power of imagination is a gift from God. That's good spirituality and it's good theology. It's scary when religion substitutes control for spirit.

RD: What would you call your system?

MF: Ecumenical, because it incorporates the essence, or at least tenets, of many different spiritual traditions and religious traditions. And I call it creation spirituality, a spirituality that honors and celebrates the connection between psyche and cosmos. Hinduism is profound in its recognition of that. The oldest writer in the Hebrew Bible was a creation center, and Jesus himself was.

RD: What do you mean by creation center?

MF: Well, consider this: Creation has been here 15 billion years, and our religions - those we have named, the ones with the writings and books - have been here for 2,500 to 3,000 years. They're extremely recent. There's no such thing as a Hindu river and a Roman Catholic ocean and a Buddhist rain forest and a Lutheran sun and a Baptist moon. We must reintroduce creation into our spirituality. I say "reintroduce" because it used to be totally understood in the human species. Creation is the sacred matrix in which God talks to us and we talk to the Divine. But this was taken away, especially in the last few hundred years by anthropocentrism and the human agenda, especially of the Industrial Revolution.

I'm trying to bring the ancient creation tradition back because it's more balanced. It's the balance of yin and yang, the male and the female, the sky and the earth. It's a balance of matter and spirit, instead of this awful fear of matter that the Greeks put into us, saying that you have to escape matter to find spirit. One thing I honor about the yoga tradition is that it honors our bodies, not as an abstraction but as a path, as a practice for encountering spirit. It's much more incarnational, therefore fleshy, than is Christianity, because Christianity has been profoundly tainted by Greek Hellenism.

Jesus didn't know Greek. Jesus didn't think that way. He was Jewish, and the Jewish tradition is totally holistic. But Paul was Greek educated. And he's the one who began to introduce suspicion of the body very early into Christian thought. He said, "Flesh and blood will not enter the kingdom of heaven." He began putting flesh down, which is typical Greek. It's not at all Jewish. He gave up his Jewish-ness when he said that. Then St. Augustine, in the 4th century, went even further and said, "Spirit is whatever is not matter." And who is Augustine? He's the single most influential Christian theologian. He wrote that Christianity inherited the Roman Empire, and he invented the concept of original sin. That's how you run an empire. You make people feel guilty about themselves, and they don't ask any questions about justice.

RD: And original sin didn't originate with Jesus as reported by his disciples?

MF: Absolutely not. Jesus never heard of original sin. No Jew's ever heard of original sin. The term was never used until the 4th century by St. Augustine. That's what my book, Original Blessing, is all about. That's why the Vatican went wild about that book in a very negative way.

RD: So you would replace "original sin" with "original blessing?"

MF: Absolutely. That's the Jewish tradition, and that's creation spirituality. The whole universe is a blessing. All creation is a blessing. The first page of Genesis says it's very good, and we humans are part of that. But we have to act like it. We have to take responsibility.

RD: As a Dominican priest, you were expelled from the Dominican order. What was the basis of that?

MF: They gave me a list of complaints. Number one, I'm a feminist theologian. I didn't know it was a heresy to be a feminist theologian. Number two, I called God "mother." But I have proven that all the medieval mystics called God "mother." Number three was that I prefer "original blessing" over "original sin." I think they're afraid that concept could put them out of business. Number four, they said I associate too closely with indigenous people. Number five, I don't condemn homosexuals.

RD: What's wrong with associating with indigenous people?

MF: Nothing. That's how spirit works. I've found great spiritual energy and healing through Native American ritual and so forth, and they're the ones who can bring creative spirituality back for us. And I don't condemn homosexuals. That's an interesting point: the whole homosexual debate in religion today, which is literally splitting all the churches. The question is, is homosexuality part of creation, or is it an aberration? Of course it is part of creation. Science has helped us understand that. We know at least 55 other species that have homosexual populations - birds, dolphins, all kinds of creatures. It's natural for a certain percentage. And among humans, it's absolutely natural. There's no human population we've seen that is not at least eight to 10 percent homosexual.

The previous argument against homosexuality was that it's "unnatural." It may be unnatural for 90 percent, but it's not unnatural for the other 10 percent. Let's just cool it and realize that God and nature are biased in favor of diversity. And there must be a good reason that nature continues to reproduce homosexuals, since they don't reproduce themselves as a group. There must be a reason, and it might have something to do with evolutionary survival. In Native American teachings, it's recognized that homosexuals have a special spiritual power for spiritual leadership. The spiritual directors for all of our major chiefs in North America were homosexual. The same is true among Celts and among many African tribes: they believe the homosexual brings special spiritual insight to a community. So a church or a society or a culture that is homophobic is depriving itself of much of its spiritual potential.

One of my main works or accomplishments was recovering the mystical tradition of Christianity. For example, I was the first one to translate Eckhart into English from the critical edition, and provide a commentary on it. In fact, it was through a Hindu - not through Christianity - that I discovered Eckhart. It was Suzuki, the Japanese Buddhist, who alerted Thomas Merton, the Catholic monk, to Meister Eckhart. In 1959, they had a dialogue on Buddhism and Christianity, and Suzuki threw up his hands and said "Merton, you're a typical Western dualist. There's only one outside chance you'll get Zen, and that is to read the one Zen thinker of the West, Meister Eckhart." And Merton said, "But Eckhart was condemned by the church." And Suzuki said, "Well, I can't help that, can I?" So in 1960, Merton went off and did nothing but read Zen and Meister Eckhart, and it totally changed him. You can see his writings from the '50s to the '60s - he became very prophetic in the '60s, and he was the first religious figure who came out before Dr. King against the Vietnam War.

Merton is the one who sent me to Paris to study spirituality, and it's there that I got the creation spiritual tradition named for me by Pere Chenu, a wonderful French Dominican who is the father of liberation theology and creation spirituality. The year I was expelled from the Dominican Order of the Catholic Church by the Pope, they also expel Leonardo Boff, who is a liberation theologian and the most read Catholic theologian in Latin America. And they expelled Eugene Dreuermann, the most read Catholic priest theologian in Germany. Clearly it was not a good year for theologians, but there was obviously a political purpose in all this. By getting the three most visible Catholic priest theologians on three continents, they were sending a message of fear and control. It was theological downsizing.

RD: And since then you've become an Episcopal priest. Why is that?

MF: I'm convinced that worship and ritual are terribly important for changing our species, and the Episcopal Church is open to alternative forms of worship. Now I'm doing these techno-cosmic masses, taking rave from a young people's post-modern celebration, and putting it into the liturgy. So instead of sitting, you're dancing. And instead of being read to, you're the media. We find this a very powerful way to pray. But it's still a mass - there's still Communion and so-forth - so it's co-opting the tradition. We got an abandoned ballroom in downtown Oakland where we do these techno cosmic masses, and it's just stunning what happens.

RD: Could you describe one?

MF: Each one has its own theme - the return of the divine feminine, a Celtic mass honoring the Celtic or, on Mother's Day, a Gaia mass. The themes are important and universal. For each theme, we gather slides. For the return of the divine feminine, we had about 600 slides of the goddess from all over the world's traditions, and we were dancing and honoring the goddess while the slides were flashing. We use DJs and techno-music for these dances, and some live drums. Within each theme, we have the via positiva dance, the dance of joy. Then we go into via negativa, which is going into grief and sorrow, creativa, when we go into healing, and transformativa, the warrior dance.

For example, in the African Daspra mass, for the first part we had slides of the great heroes and sherels of the African-American experience, whether ball players or entertainers or politicians or theologians, and we all danced to that in the via positiva. Then we had slides of the middle passage and slavery for the via negativa. I remember there was a triptych of two young black men hanging from trees with a black Christ in the middle. You know, you don't need sermons when you see pictures like that - the post-modern language of images is much more powerful than the modern language of getting in a pulpit and telling people what to do. In the negativa, we go into grief work. That's important, because people in our culture are not being invited to do grief work, to find a healthy way to get rid of their anger. We wail, we go into some deep stuff, and it's powerful.

Then comes the creativa, and that's the Eucharist part. We take the bread and the wine, but it's a very ecumenical prayer. It's not just about Jesus' last supper: It's about the holiness of all matter. That's the cosmic Christ theology, that the cosmic Christ or the Buddha nature fuel is present in all beings in the universe. We have Communion, and then the last dance is the transformativa, the warrior dance. We gather the energy to become servants of compassion, and to go into our work and our communities stronger. The whole idea is to go into a trance, to get lost dancing in the temple, so you return energized to meet the world.

RD: How many people are there and who are they? What do they look like?

MF: The mass will range from 300 to 1200, and they're all ages - it's not just young people. Once there was an 84-year-old lady dancing away. She told me, "I have been waiting 83 years to dance in church, to pray while I'm dancing." It's great to see the generations praying - in most churches, the young people aren't there.

RD: That's one of the things that's so remarkable about your work, is that you're attracting a large following of young people, without losing the people my age.

MF: It's important - never before have we needed each other more. The whole thing about elders is coming back, but many young people are elders today, old souls, and they have a lot to teach older people. Gaia and spirit are calling a lot of young people to be more pro-active in terms of spirituality today. And the present generation of young people isn't hostile to older people. They want elders, they want some wisdom. We need wisdom from all corners today, because knowledge alone is destroying the earth. Wisdom is not just about the human agenda. It includes the heart, and has bought our place in the universe.

RD: Why do you think your techno-cosmic masses and creation spirituality are so compelling to young people today, when so many other spiritual traditions and churches are not succeeding in attracting youth?

MF: They're stuck in modern forms, and we're living in a post-modern time. One example is the architecture of our churches. Sitting in benches in straight lines mirrors the printing press, which gave birth to the modern age. So it's like linotype: Everyone's lining-up behind each other, everything's straight. That's very modern, as is the whole idea of being preached at and reading from books. In ancient traditions, every creature is a word of God. That tree has something to teach us. The birds and the sun have something to teach us. The Native Americans have this sense that God is speaking to us through nature, not books. An Indian wouldn't think of bringing a book into a sweat lodge. Prayer isn't about reading. It's about opening your heart up.

Now if reading can open your heart up, congratulations. But it's getting harder and harder for people to do that. This post-modern generation isn't that into books - it's more into images. We're changing the form of worship by consciously moving from a modern style and form to a post-modern, which honors the body. It's much more effective because it covers all the chakras. When you're sitting, it's hard to keep the lower chakras alive. But when you dance, you're engaging the first chakra, because you're connecting to the earth. We Westerners are all in our heads, in our upper chakras. We call it education and religion, and it's killing the earth.

We have to take both religion and education down, down. This is why this image - one river, many wells - is so powerful. Eckhart says God is an underground river that no one can damn and no one can stop. Our various churches and religions are the wells into the underground river. We have to invite the river up, and that honors our lower chakras. The body, you see, is our cosmic connection. In the West cosmology seems so like some abstract thing, except that we eat it - it's called food. Our tea and our orange juice, all of it is sunlight. We breathe it. Most of the air is sunlight. And our bodies are light. So this idea that we should get out of our bodies to experience the sacred is dangerous and is killing the earth.

RD: Some say if we jump from one spiritual tradition to another, taking what we like and discarding what we don't, we remain superficial, that we need to stay with one tradition. What do you think of that?

MF: Well, I've certainly done that with my Christianity. That's why I became an Episcopal priest when the Pope fired me, because I wanted to stay within the tradition. And I wanted to work on this whole worship thing, the Eucharist, for example, and make it live again. And of course, in going into the Christian mystics in particular, I've tried to excavate and dig them up. So I'm in favor of that as a principle - it is about going deep, and not just hopping around like some kind of spiritual supermarket.

When you go deep into your own well and closer and closer to the source, that's when you start meeting the language and the metaphors and the experience of all the other wells. Post-modernism is a time of pluralism, of mixing boundaries. The modern age encouraged denominationalism. But we're all breathing the same molecules, whether we're Buddhist or Muslim or atheist. Religion can be dangerous when it is closed in on itself. Look at Gandhi. Here's a guy who took on the British Empire and won and lived to tell about it, but he was assassinated by his own fundamentalist Hindu brother. That is so shocking a story. How dangerous religion can be when it feeds on itself, instead of being a servant, a means, a well. That's confusing the well with the river.

We have the possibility of the revelation people can find within themselves: A feeling of growing, wisdom, connection with their own body and their own feelings. And then we have traditions, like Dominican and Hindu and so on, which provide methodologies: "Do this first, then do this, watch out for this," and we have elders within those traditions who teach. The two must be balanced.

RD: So how would you recommend a person who's interested in really plumbing the depths of their spirituality balance these?

MF: I think one key thing is spelling tradition with a small "t." When you spell it with a big "T," when it becomes an eagle in itself, that's when dangers lurk. There are obvious moments in the history of Christianity and Roman Catholicism when it became an evil force: One obvious example is the inquisition.

RD: But don't you think the Inquisitors thought they were saving people?

MF: Well, Hitler thought he was saving people, too. You always have to test claims through justice. That's what justice is about. It's a test of our claims. We might ask, "What is it giving birth to?" What did Hitler give birth to? Did he give birth to life, or did he give birth to death? The same with the Inquisitors, or the crusaders or the witch burners.

RD: Can you give an example of a modern religious or spiritual tradition that's taking itself too seriously and uses the capital "T"?

MF: Obviously the Vatican, especially the way it's putting down women and thinking and theologians. But that's okay - the Holy Spirit has a bigger sense of humor and perspective than any tradition. And what's happening today is a complete meltdown. This Pope has de-mythologized the papacy more in 17 years than Protestants would be able to do in 500 years, which is quite an accomplishment. De-mythologized means to take away the credibility of a particular institution. The end result of that, I think, will be that the Catholic Church will be forced to find its essence and to relate to other traditions, especially Christian ones. I think that ecumenism will be stronger ultimately, rather than weaker.

RD: Do you find brothers in this field, other ecumenical theologians?

MF: Absolutely, especially people like Thich Nhat Hanh and the Dalai Lama. The Dalai Lama says the single biggest obstacle to interfaith is a fabulation of one's own faith. And this is why I insist that you must go deep. Imagine a superficial Catholic, who is just in some kind of neurotic relationship with the Pope as a father figure, or if you're a Hindu in India and your only thing is beating up on the Muslims. Any tradition that remains superficial will never be able to connect to the depths of other people's traditions.

What does it mean to go deep? It means to go into the mystical tradition and practices of your well, your tradition. It means that you develop your capacities for spiritual experience. And it also means going deep into the prophetic. The prophetic means the social outreach, the service, the compassionate part of things. That's the depth of religion: Mysticism and prophecy. If your churches or synagogues or mosques or whatever don't take you there, you have to jump ship and find some other means. That's where knowing that there are other paths is very valuable.

I have found the Native American path to be extremely important for my own spiritual survival. Sweat lodges, sun dances, chants, smoking the pipe - these sacred ceremonies have been very supportive of me. The universe is ecumenical. It's about diversity and interdependence. Jung said he never dealt with the North American level of spirituality when he didn't find an Indian inside. All of us have an Indian inside of us. We're not just European Americans or Afro-Americans, we're also Indian, because we are on this land. We should heed that dimension to our spiritual psyches.

RD: You said we need spirituality to change our relationship with the earth and stop the destructive patterns we're creating. What will it take for this to happen?

MF: One thing that always helps is desperation, bottoming-out. People in AA will tell you that - often their first experience of God or spirit is when they hit bottom. If the truth were really out about how close to bottom we are as a species, that alone could shift us. Humans prefer to be lazy rather than energetic. But when we've got survival facing us, our species gets pretty active, and it calls on its deepest energies, including creativity. That's where we are now. We could solve the energy problem and, with it, the global warming problem, through our imaginations and creativity. We have cars today that can run on water, separating hydrogen and oxygen and making energy happen, through our creativity.

And that's just technology. How could we redo our cities, education, our professions, by bringing imagination and spiritual practice in? We need a new form for education, and new professions that bring in spirituality and cosmology. We'll change the world quickest through our work, so why don't we try to bring spirituality into work? Everyone's work is a ministry, and everyone is a priest if their work is good work. Why shouldn't we honor that?

Given the form of education today, very few people, even ministers, priests and rabbis, learn any spirituality at school, in their seminary training. It's not possible. The form of education from Europe ignores the lower chakras, including the heart chakras. It's all about the head, and you can't do spirituality in the head. One thing yoga is bringing to the West that's so radical and important is the body. It's teaching people that the heart is right in the middle of the body. Western education and Western religions managed to keep that a secret for the most part. Worship isn't about fleeing the body. It's about gathering the body's energies and seeing spirit everywhere.

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