The kind you’re born with, the kind you choose, the kind that teach Catholic school
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If I were a Catholic, Matthew Fox is everything I’d want in a priest. With his embrace of science as well as spirituality, his passion for social justice, and his full-hearted pursuit of an intimate relationship with the Divine, he is a theologian who takes both God and the world seriously.
Born Timothy James Fox in 1940 in Madison, Wisconsin, he is the son of George Fox, a Big Ten football coach. The younger Fox enjoyed a typically rambunctious boyhood until he was stricken with polio and paralyzed at the age of twelve. Though hospitalized for six months, he eventually regained the ability to walk. The experience helped lead him to become a priest. “It was a miracle that I had legs,” he told a New York Times reporter in 1993. “I knew I was going to spend the rest of my life celebrating the miracle of life.”
At the age of nineteen Fox entered the Catholic Dominican Order and was given the name “Matthew.” He completed his undergraduate work at the Aquinas Institute of Philosophy in River Forest, Illinois, where he also earned a master’s degree in philosophy. He received another master’s, in theology, from the Aquinas Institute of Theology in Dubuque, Iowa. Following the advice of his mentor, writer and monk Thomas Merton, Fox went to Paris to study the mystical tradition and in 1970 graduated summa cum laude with a PhD in the history and theology of spiritualities from the Institut Catholique de Paris. His time in Paris politicized him, and he became a champion for the rights of the poor, women, people of color, and gays and lesbians. In 1976, at Chicago’s Mundelein College, Fox founded a master’s program called the Institute of Culture and Creation Spirituality. He brought in lecturers of other faiths and taught environmentalism and social justice — all controversial moves at a Catholic institution. Most of all, he wanted students to seek a direct connection to the Divine similar to that experienced by the early Church mystics.
Fox’s views on doctrine began to diverge radically from the official positions of the Vatican. He insisted, for example, that God was feminine as well as masculine, and he rejected the prominence given original sin, the notion that we are born into a state of sin inherited from Adam and Eve, who ate the forbidden fruit in the Garden of Eden. Fox instead emphasized God’s love and the goodness of creation through the concept of “original blessing.” These ideas and others made him a target of conservative Church authorities, specifically Cardinal Ratzinger, who in 1989 silenced Fox for a year, forbidding him to teach or speak from the pulpit. When Fox didn’t fall into line, he was expelled from the Dominican Order. A year later, in 1994, he was accepted as a priest in the Episcopal Church.
Ratzinger went on to become Pope Benedict XVI. His papacy was beset by scandals about pedophile priests and money laundering at the Vatican Bank, and he resigned in 2013, becoming the first pope in almost six hundred years to step down. Fox quickly wrote a book, Letters to Pope Francis, aimed at Benedict XVI’s successor, who has pushed for more transparency and established a commission on sexual abuse in the Church. In the book, Fox urges the new pope to rebuild Catholicism in the spirit of his namesake, Saint Francis of Assisi.
Today Fox lives in Oakland, California. He has written more than thirty books about topics ranging from the mystics who have inspired him to his own interpretation of a cosmos in which God is everywhere and worship is a joyful, sensual, life-affirming practice. Some of his most popular titles include Original Blessing, The Coming of the Cosmic Christ, The Hidden Spirituality of Men, and The Reinvention of Work. At seventy-four he gives no indication of slowing down. He has released two new books in just the last year: Meister Eckhart: A Mystic-Warrior for Our Times and The Physics of Angels, with coauthor Rupert Sheldrake. Fox maintains a daunting media, speaking, and book-signing schedule that takes him all over the world.
Goodman: You are frequently described as a “radical priest.” Do you think of yourself as radical?
Fox: The word radical isn’t as dangerous as it sounds. It comes from the Latin radix, meaning “root,” the same as radish, which isn’t particularly revolutionary. It refers to going deep, which is what I try to do. I want to get at the root of Christianity, which, for me, is Jesus’s teachings on love and inclusiveness. It’s about the poor being able to lead decent lives. It’s about caring for those who suffer. And it’s about justice. I believe Jesus calls on us all to be mystics — that is, lovers of God, of creation, and of each other — but also to be prophets or warriors, people who defend what we cherish.
I’m drawn to the mystics: Hildegard of Bingen, Saint Thomas Aquinas, Meister Eckhart, and the historical Jesus. The mystics are also prophets, however, when they disturb the peace. It’s part of the tradition. Jesus got into trouble; Meister Eckhart got into trouble; Hildegard got into trouble; Martin Luther King Jr. got into trouble.
Rabbi Abraham Heschel, who was a real scholar of the prophetic, said that the primary work of a prophet is to interfere. We need to interfere with injustice — whether it’s ecological, economic, racial, gender-based, or social.
So to be radical means to go deep, the way roots go deep, but also to “uproot,” to question whether we’re doing enough to bring about justice.
Goodman: What has been the most “uprooting” aspect of your theology?
Fox: Cardinal Ratzinger, who was the chief inquisitor of the Catholic Church under Pope John Paul II and who later became Pope Benedict XVI, offered a list of so-called heresies that I’d committed. One was that I was a “feminist” theologian. Another was that I called God “Mother.” Obviously my effort to bring in the Divine Feminine was — and remains — threatening to those who want to preserve the Church as a patriarchal institution in the name of a punitive Father God.
My book Original Blessing was also a big threat to the Vatican, because that institution was very invested in the doctrine of original sin. But how can you build a religion in the name of Jesus and base it on a concept that Jesus, a Jew, never heard of? Author and Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel says that original sin is “alien” to Jewish thinking. The phrase wasn’t even used until the fourth century AD by Saint Augustine. Original blessing is a much more Jewish, much more biblical idea than original sin. In Genesis 1 God created the world and saw that it was good — in fact, “very good.” That’s original blessing, or original goodness.
The Church teaches that human beings are born essentially sinful and bad, but I think the idea that a newborn is stained with sin is dangerous; how can parents believe that their infant child is anything other than good? My saying this was a huge affront to the Catholic hierarchy.
They gave me other reasons why I was expelled. One was that I worked “too closely with Native Americans.” I had a Lakota man on the faculty at the Institute of Culture and Creation Spirituality who conducted sweat lodges for professors and students and taught courses in Native American spirituality. The Church also complained that I didn’t condemn homosexuals, which I don’t. My Bible says that “God is love.” It doesn’t say that God exclusively loves heterosexuals or that love happens only between heterosexuals.
Goodman: What was it like for you to be expelled? Was it devastating?
Fox: Not really. I recognized that my expulsion was a political act. I was expelled the same year that they pressured Leonardo Boff, who preached liberation theology in South America, to leave, and around the same time they expelled Father Eugen Drewermann, a German priest and psychologist. The three of us were all expelled to spread the word on three continents that critical thinking was not going to be tolerated under the Catholic banner. It’s a pity, because there used to be a solid intellectual tradition in the Church — in fact, that is one aspect that drew me to the Dominicans in the first place.
Frankly I think this is why the pedophile-priest crisis developed as it did: because the Church didn’t appoint critical thinkers as bishops or cardinals; it appointed people who would toe the line. Yes men. Those people put the supposed needs of the institutional Church ahead of the needs of young children who were being abused by priests.
I end my book The Pope’s War with a list of 105 theologians the Church condemned or expelled during the reign of Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI — a period of thirty-four years. I’m only one of 105, so I don’t take it personally. In fact, I wear it as a badge of honor to have been silenced by people like that.
Goodman: Still, it seems like it would hurt.
Fox: Well, there are worse fates than having the vow of celibacy ripped away from you. [Laughs.]
Seriously, though, it did hurt to be separated from my brothers in the Dominican Order. But the deepest pain continues to be the disappointment that so few people stood up to protest what was obviously an unjust act. A lot of people I had thought were my friends — people of integrity — tried to pretend they didn’t know me. It diminished my view of them to realize that they didn’t have more courage and loyalty. For many years even bishops had come to my talks and workshops, but as soon as the Vatican rendered me radioactive, they wouldn’t talk to me.
For thirty-four years, under two bad popes, many priests and bishops hid their opinions and didn’t speak out. They were afraid of losing their jobs. That was the big lesson for me: that human nature can be so self-serving and afraid. Courage is rarer than one would wish and pray for.
I’ve moved on, but the pain and disappointment are still there. Let me say, however, that the Dutch Dominicans supported me very strongly, and I’ll always be grateful for that.
Goodman: I’d like to get back to the notion of original sin. Yes, God might have created us without sin, but don’t Jewish and Christian theologies maintain that when Eve ate the forbidden fruit and shared it with Adam, future generations were cursed because of it?
Fox: That’s the story of the Fall, not the story of creation. For the most part, neither Jews, nor Muslims, nor Eastern Orthodox Christians, nor many biblical scholars find a doctrine of original sin in the first few chapters of Genesis. Saint Augustine, whose influence has lasted for some 1,600 years in the Western Church, is the one who taught that the sin committed by Adam and Eve condemned all future humans to being born into a state of sinfulness.
The notion of original sin supposes a God who is harshly punitive. For one mistake, this God not only punished the two perpetrators but also the rest of humanity forever — or, at least, until the birth of Jesus. It’s preposterous. We’re born as blessings, as expressions of the love and creative power of God and the universe. We’re capable of making wrong decisions, of choosing evil from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. When we do, we slip and fall. But that doesn’t affect our being. It’s like learning to walk. We fall then, too, but we get back up and try again.
It’s no coincidence that Augustine lived in the fourth century, which is when Christianity took over the Roman Empire. If you’re going to run an empire, original sin is a useful idea, because it keeps your subjects confused about whether they even have a right to exist. It’s as if existence itself were something you had to prove you deserve. But look at the rest of creation. Look at the animals: They know they have a right to be here. They’re happy to be alive. It’s only we humans who torture ourselves with guilt and shame and regret and all the rest.
When you’ve tied yourself in knots about whether you’re deserving or not, you fall into line. You seek approval from outside authorities. You do as you’re told. You subjugate others in the name of Christ, which is what the Christian empire has been doing for centuries. You buy indulgences, or deny your sexuality, or override your pacifism — all to keep from going to hell. So it serves a political purpose to teach original sin.
Original blessing is the antidote to that. I also like Otto Rank’s idea of original wound. Rank was a brilliant Jewish psychologist of the early twentieth century. He said that everyone comes into the world wounded, because leaving the comfort of the womb after nine months is traumatic. Separation from the mother is our original wound. And when that bell of separation is rung again later in life — by divorce or death or something else — we reexperience the trauma. For Rank the only salve is unio mystica, the mystical union that we experience in love and art.
Goodman: You’ve written about the “new creation story.” What is it?
Fox: It’s the story science tells: Creation began some 13.8 billion years ago from a compacted particle smaller than a zygote but containing all the energy of the universe. That particle exploded in what we call the Big Bang, though scientists say it was utterly silent. The fireball created matter, which gave rise to galaxies containing supernovae, which gave rise to carbon and sulfur and magnesium and so forth, which gave rise to planets, including Earth. On Earth there was water and eventually plant life. The plants fine-tuned the atmosphere, creating sufficient oxygen for animals, and ultimately us. This creation story is one of interdependence and amazing coincidences — blessings, really — in our favor. For example, science tells us that in the first seconds after the Big Bang, if the temperature had been either one degree warmer or cooler, we would not be here today. Similarly if the expansion had been one-millionth of a second faster or slower, the Earth would not have been created, and life would not have developed the way it has. We owe our existence to this process.
In a sense, the evolution of the universe is an original blessing to humanity, preceding original sin by 13.8 billion years. It seems to me that evolution has far more to say about who we are and where we come from — including our propensities for violence and war — than does original sin, which can be just a cop-out.
But the creation stories that science tells don’t have to replace the many other creation stories, each of which offers its own wisdom if you don’t get stuck on interpreting it literally. Even the Book of Genesis contains two creation stories that contradict each other. In Genesis 1:27 God creates Adam and Eve at the same time: “So God created mankind in his own image . . . ; male and female he created them.” And in this account God made Adam and Eve after making all the other animals. But in Genesis, the story goes that God made Adam, then created all the animals, and finally made Eve from one of Adam’s ribs to be his “helpmate.”
The creation stories in the Bible aren’t intended to be taken literally. They’re not science; they’re metaphors. They provide meaning, not facts.
To me there’s great meaning in this new creation story from science, too — first because it’s shared by people around the world. It’s a story that atheists, Hindus, Buddhists, Muslims, Christians, Jews, and indigenous peoples can all believe together. It awakens awe to hear of our origins 13.8 billion years ago, and awe is the beginning of a spiritual awareness. But we can also keep our other creation stories, because they have their own lessons to teach us.
Religious people don’t have to fear or fight the new creation story. Let’s hear it and welcome it. After all, it, too, is evolving. Scientists are not sure about every detail by any means. For example, what preceded the Big Bang? And is this the only universe? We may never know. One thing we do know is that we need to have great reverence for the universe and for this blue jewel of a planet in particular.
Goodman: Where does God fit into the new creation story?
Fox: Erich Jantsch, a well-respected physicist who is now deceased, wrote a book called The Self-Organizing Universe. In it he said that God is the “mind of the universe.” He admitted that the mystics had said this first, but said it carried more weight for him to say it, because he was a scientist. [Laughs.] That’s not an ego trip. He was just recognizing that people in our culture are more likely to listen to scientists than to mystics.
In my book The Physics of Angels, which I cowrote with British biologist Rupert Sheldrake, there’s a story that I’d not heard until Sheldrake told it to me: When Darwin was coming up with the theory of evolution, another scientist named Alfred Russel Wallace was simultaneously theorizing that life had evolved by natural selection. Though their central ideas were the same, they split over the origin of human consciousness: Darwin believed that the human brain had evolved entirely by chance, whereas Wallace believed that the “unseen universe of Spirit” was responsible for humanity’s genius. For Wallace, a guiding intelligence had intervened at key pivotal points in evolution, such as the rise of life from inorganic matter and the development of consciousness.
The God that I worship is within all beings. This consciousness, this intelligence, is the dynamic through which Divinity works and has always worked.
The Church teaches that human beings are born essentially sinful and bad, but I think the idea that a newborn is stained with sin is dangerous; how can parents believe that their infant child is anything other than good? My saying this was a huge affront to the Catholic hierarchy.
Goodman: You’ve written two books with Sheldrake and one with physicist and cosmologist Brian Swimme. What motivates you to collaborate with scientists?
Fox: I like to work with scientists because I learn so much. I don’t often collaborate with theologians because I pretty much can predict what they will say. But scientists fascinate me. Science today is exciting because it has moved from viewing the universe as a machine to seeing the universe as akin to an organism that has been growing since the Big Bang — a universe in which everything is in relationship with everything else. The phenomenon of quantum entanglement, for example, shows that particles can be linked across great distances. Interestingly enough, the mystics have been saying this for centuries. Meister Eckhart said, “The essence of everything is relationship.” So science is undergoing a tremendous paradigm shift in our time, one that is in accord with the mystic traditions of the world.
Sheldrake has gone out on a limb in his science, like me in my field of religion, by daring to raise questions that mainstream science is afraid to answer. Just as I was called a heretic by the Vatican, he’s been called a heretic by his fellow scientists for revealing the shadow side of science: rigidly held dogma. His position is that science would be much more productive if it dropped its dogmas and started asking different questions. But funding for scientific inquiry goes to research that preserves orthodoxy.
Goodman: Although your message is one of joy and awe, you also acknowledge the collective nightmare that continually threatens humanity and creation. What is the proper balance between enjoying existence and acknowledging the suffering of the world?
Fox: I’m impatient with people who want Christ without the wounds, who want to gloss over or ignore the suffering of the world — and their own suffering — by covering it up in the name of staying positive. In fact, the negative is a large part of any prophet’s work. Prophets call attention to the suffering of the world. Dr. King was aware that segregation was destroying not only the souls of black people but of segregationists, as well.
The mystic in us is the lover. The mystic says yes. But the prophet in us is the warrior, and the warrior says, “No, this is unjust. No, this is suffering that we can work to relieve.” That’s the rhythm of the mystic and the prophet, the lover and the warrior. It’s not enough to be one or the other. Pancho Ramos Stierle, who worked with the Occupy movement in Oakland, has said that it’s time for the contemplatives to become active and the activists to become contemplative. This moment in history calls for a dance between the two.
Goodman: What about the saying “What you resist persists”?
Fox: When we resist something by denying it, I agree, the condition worsens. Climate change is a perfect example. There are still those who deny its existence even as ocean levels rise due to melting glaciers. That’s why we have to address denial. Meister Eckhart says that “God is the denial of denial.” Until we can let go of denial, the creative, joyous energy of the Divine cannot flow.
Goodman: There are also social ills that no one denies exist, such as genocide and war. Does resisting them perpetuate them in some way?
Fox: We do have to resist those. Remember: the prophet is the warrior who interferes with injustice. The prophet speaks out and creates strategies, such as Gandhi’s Salt March, which allowed Indians under the yoke of British colonialism to do something with their anger, to make a symbolic statement against oppression. The prophet taps into his or her moral imagination and devises ways to wake people up.
If Martin Luther King Jr. had just gone along with segregation — which is what most people at the time, including other black pastors, wanted him to do — nothing would have changed.
Not resisting is easier, and perhaps less frightening, but only if you’re not on the receiving end of the injustice. We need to resist — lovingly, creatively — because, as Gandhi said, the powerful don’t give up their power willingly.
It’s a terrible thing when religion pronounces a universally enjoyed, God-given experience like sex to be sinful much of the time. Young people especially need to hear about the sacred, mystical dimension of sexuality.
It’s a terrible thing when religion pronounces a universally enjoyed, God-given experience like sex to be sinful much of the time. Young people especially need to hear about the sacred, mystical dimension of sexuality.
Goodman: You often refer in your work to the Cosmic Christ. Who, or what, is that?
Fox: The Cosmic Christ is the image of God in everything. It’s a reminder that all beings are made in God’s image, or that of the Christ, or the Buddha Nature, or whatever your tradition calls it. In Judaism the Shekinah represents the presence of God within us. The first writer in the Christian Bible, Saint Paul, writes the most about the Cosmic Christ. He says Christ is that which “holds all things together in heaven and earth.” But this ancient Christian teaching has been forgotten. Instead the Church teaches that Jesus is the only Christ, and that’s just not accurate. We’re all Christs. Jesus said, “The kingdom of Heaven is within you.” In Matthew 10:8 he instructed his disciples to “heal the sick, raise the dead, cleanse the lepers, cast out demons.” They were to perform those miracles through the Cosmic Christ in them. So, clearly, the divine power was not limited to Jesus.
Meister Eckhart, too, is explicit about this. He says, “We’re all meant to be Mothers of God, for God is always needing to be born.” Seven hundred years ago he wrote that we each had a responsibility to give birth to the Christ in our person and our culture. We’re all sons and daughters of God, and we need to start acting like it.
Physicists tell us that there are photons — particles of light — in every atom in the universe. To me this is a reflection of the Christ in John’s Gospel saying, “I am the light of the world.” Science also tells us that light is both a wave and a particle. I like that because it reminds us that the wave is the Cosmic Christ, or the Buddha Nature, and the particle is the individual. The historical Jesus was a particle, but his Christ nature was a wave. We, too, are both waves and particles — not just individuals but also the expression of the Cosmic Christ in all things.
© Adrienne Moumin
Goodman: You write that “the Cosmic Christ will lead the way to a deep sexuality.” Why is sexuality important in Christianity?
Fox: It’s important because for too long religion has moralized about sex. The real meaning of sexuality is deeply mystical. To make love is a theophany — a God experience. But the mystical dimension of sexuality has been missing in the West, even though we have a whole book in the Bible devoted to it, the Song of Songs, which celebrates lovemaking as an experience of the Divine. If every being is another Christ, then, when you’re loving another being, you’re loving the Christ. Nicholas of Cusa, the fifteenth-century mystic, said that every creature is a face (small f) of the one Face (big F). So when you’re face to face with another person, you’re also face to face with the Divine.
Goodman: You’ve written three books on Meister Eckhart. Why are his teachings so important?
Fox: Eckhart was a German member of the Dominican Order who rose to prominence as a preacher before being tried for heresy. Even though he lived in the late thirteenth and early fourteenth centuries, he was ecumenical: his philosophy was interwoven with that of other faiths, which is helpful for us today, when the world is struggling to synthesize so many competing worldviews. People of other faiths sometimes claim Eckhart as one of their own. D.T. Suzuki, the great Japanese Buddhist philosopher, called him “the one Zen thinker of the West.” Tamil philosopher Ananda Coomaraswamy said that “reading Eckhart is like reading the Upanishads.” That’s a tremendous compliment from a Hindu. I don’t know of any other thinker, living or dead, about whom people would say, “He’s a Sufi,” “He’s a Buddhist,” “He’s a Christian,” “He’s a feminist,” and so on. Eckhart puts the experience of the Divine ahead of laws and dogmas and church buildings and hierarchy.
Eckhart also influenced a lot of nonreligious thinkers. For example, Carl Jung, the great Swiss psychologist, quotes Eckhart some forty times in his work and wrote an essay about him called “The Relativity of the God Concept in Meister Eckhart.” According to Marxist philosopher Ernst Bloch, Eckhart was also important to Karl Marx, because Eckhart was so explicit about economic justice.
Goodman: You call for a dismantling of “liberal religion” and the “regrounding of faith in a mystical, prophetic, cosmological worldview.” But, given the many wars and atrocities carried out in the name of religion over the course of human history, how are progressive, educated people to trust even a mystical, prophetic Christianity?
Fox: I don’t use the word prophet to refer to someone who claims to have received from God a vision of the future. Rather I mean someone who says that if we don’t act with justice, then there will be dark times ahead, and there may be no future. Hildegard of Bingen said that if humans don’t recognize the rights of other creatures and our interdependence with them, then “God will allow creation to punish humanity.” I think we’re already witnessing the beginning of this with climate change: drought, wildfires, ocean acidification, and so forth. Some might say these disasters are simply the consequences of our behavior, but it doesn’t really matter whether you call them punishments or consequences; they’re likely to continue until we start living with greater justice.
Goodman: I guess my reluctance to embrace the prophetic comes from the history of so many fundamentalists claiming to speak for God: from Islamic fundamentalists proclaiming holy war, to Christian fundamentalists shouting at child immigrants on the border. It seems incredibly dangerous to follow such leaders.
Fox: I couldn’t agree more; opposing fundamentalism in any form is part of prophetic work. Jesus stood up to the fundamentalists of his day — those who, for example, criticized him for healing the sick on the Sabbath, because the law said that men should rest on the Sabbath. Jesus said to them, “The Sabbath was created for man, not man for the Sabbath.”
We have to test the spirit of all prophets’ pronouncements based on whether they promote justice. After all, sometimes when people claim to speak for God, we put them in rooms with padded walls. As Jesus advised us, “By their fruits you shall know them.” If the fruits of a so-called prophet are hatred, murder, terror, bloodshed, and the deaths of innocents, that’s not someone you should follow. So a person shouting hate on the border in the name of God is obviously a false prophet. There have always been false prophets. We need to practice discernment, which includes both critical thinking and conscience.
Because you mentioned Islamic fundamentalism, I want to emphasize that Islam is not defined by its crackpots any more than Christianity is. The great Islamic mystics, such as Rumi and Hafiz, have inspired people for centuries. Eckhart quotes the Muslim philosopher Avicenna at least thirteen times. There is much in Islam that is beautiful, and there have been many Muslims devoted to justice — and also to feminism. Part of Mohammed’s genius was his insistence that women have the right to be educated and the right to divorce, which at the time were radical ideas. Mohammed’s wife and daughter were important in early Islam. So it’s ironic that some powerful mullahs today are against equality for women. And let’s not forget that Christians throughout the ages have gone to war, burned people at the stake, enslaved or murdered indigenous tribes, and committed other atrocities, all in the name of Jesus. There’s a marvelous saying in the medieval Church: “The corruption of the best is the worst.” A healthy religion represents the best of humanity, but everything humans do has a shadow side, and fundamentalism and triumphalism are the shadow side of religion.
© Cole Thompson
Goodman: In the book you wrote with Adam Bucko, Occupy Spirituality, you say that, to be wise, an elder needs to have dealt with his or her shadow.
Fox: The “shadow,” of course, is Jung’s term for those parts of ourselves we reject — often the darker side of our personality. He said that when the shadow doesn’t get the attention it needs, it makes itself known. That’s why most religions teach the importance of self-examination. Without it, it’s easy to project our own issues onto others, to say the other is to blame for pain or evil in the world instead of looking at our own responsibility. We create scapegoats very readily.
Goodman: Do you have a practice for dealing with the shadow?
Fox: I practice silence, entering a place of no distractions and no projections. I quiet my mind, and when my mind doesn’t want to be quiet, I listen to what it’s chattering about, because that’s often shadow material. I practice acceptance, letting things be, letting go. When you develop that ability to let go, you can see the world as it is and choose a course of action without reactive judgment or projecting or overreacting.
You also have to ask yourself on a regular basis what works for you as a meditation or mindfulness practice — whether it’s walking, or sitting by a tree, or spending time with a friend, or making art, or listening to music — and you have to nurture that. If you don’t, you’ll give in to cynicism, depression, or despair.
Goodman: You mentioned “evil in the world.” I know you believe in evil. How do you define it?
Fox: Social psychologist Erich Fromm provides a powerful explanation of evil in his book The Anatomy of Human Destructiveness. He writes, “Necrophilia grows as the development of biophilia is stunted.” Necrophilia, as Fromm uses the word, is not sex with a corpse but the love of death; biophilia is the love of life. In that one sentence, Fromm gives us both a definition of evil and a way to confront it: through appreciating the beauty and wonder of creation. We’re all capable of tapping into necrophilia at various times in our lives. It may show up as envy, as projection, as hatred, as arrogance, as violence. There’s a real danger in thinking that evil resides only in certain people, like Hitler. After all, Hitler was elected by churchgoers, many of them Catholics. He represented the unexamined shadow of the German citizens in the 1930s. They were living in poverty — not just because of the Depression but also because of the reparations the Allies had imposed upon them after the First World War — and Hitler articulated their anguish and resentment. Everyone who felt represented by Hitler was a participant in the evil that he carried out. That type of mass participation in evil continues today.
Goodman: What are some examples?
Fox: I would consider the denial that human activity is causing climate change to be a collective evil responsible for the destruction of many species. Just in today’s newspaper there was a story about more than two thousand sea-lion pups washing up starving or dead on the shore here in California. Ocean temperatures are higher than normal, and the fish that sea lions normally eat have moved offshore in search of a cooler habitat. Yet some politicians are walking around saying, “What climate change?”
And then there’s our economic system, which serves only the few. It also perverts and corrupts the few it serves by giving them more wealth and power than they know how to handle. Consumer capitalism can make addicts of us all — the poor as well as the rich. As former Harvard business professor David Korten has written, we need a living economy for a living Earth. Instead we have an economy that’s killing the Earth and killing our souls. This is an evil we’re all involved in.
The human race is very capable of self-delusion. People do their best to rationalize the status quo so that they can justify going along with the system. Most professors in Nazi Germany went along with Hitler because they were getting good salaries and their families were doing well. We shouldn’t think we’re any better. It’s human nature to look for reasons to take the easy way out and pretend there aren’t important issues and values to fight for.
Goodman: Just the same, I’m leery of the word evil because it seems that too often the people who believe that God is on their side use it to demonize anyone they don’t like. Gays, for example. Or Muslims. Or “illegal aliens.”
Fox: I agree. We’re prone to project onto others the shadow that is in ourselves. The word evil, like any word, can be misused. To make it more difficult, we’re short on language when it comes to discussing evil in the West, partly because so many churches have been preaching to us for so long about the universality of sin. We’ve been taught to see sin everywhere, so it’s hard for us to identify true evil when we see it. I see it in racism, sexism, classism, homophobia, ageism, militarism, and so forth.
There is something about evil that’s bigger than any individual. It’s an energy that people tap into. You can’t stomp it out; you have to redirect it, and every generation has to do that work for itself. The job is never done.
Goodman: You express a lot of faith in the ability of young people to carry us through our current crises to a more loving world. But why should young people have to take responsibility for the mess we’ve made? Why aren’t we chaining ourselves to the White House fence instead of asking young people to do it?
Fox: Well, clearly, we’re all in this together, but the fact is that young people have more skin in the game. They’re going to be here longer than you and I. I don’t mean that we elders can just wash our hands of the whole situation. We need to put our heads together; we need intergenerational wisdom. It’s going to take creativity and courage to make changes, and the young, as a rule, are more likely to be creative and take risks. Thomas Jefferson was only thirty-three when he wrote the first draft of the Declaration of Independence. Moreover, many contemporary young people feel as if they have no place within the current economic system, because there are few jobs for them and they owe lots of money on their student loans. So they’re being forced to think outside of it. That’s an asset.
But young visionaries cannot create systemic change alone. The elders need to provide information on strategies that have worked in the past and on pitfalls to avoid. The elders can give young people the benefit of their experience, so that the wheel doesn’t have to be reinvented by every generation.
People in their twenties and thirties often tell me that the few elders who are willing to engage with them talk too much. They won’t shut up. That’s important. The first job of an elder should be to listen. Young people are facing issues that are new in the history of humanity. No previous generation has had to face the rapid rising of sea levels, the disappearance of freshwater, or the loss of species at such a phenomenal rate. So we need to respect what young people are up against and not presume that we know it all. If we know so much, why is the planet in such dire straits?
Most important, we elders need to share stories about courage — such as the courage of Sister Dorothy Stang, a nun who stood with the peasants in the Amazon against the powerful landowners who threatened them and ultimately murdered her; or the courage of Fred Shuttlesworth, a minister who fought for racial justice in his town of Birmingham, Alabama, despite being beaten by the Ku Klux Klan on three different occasions, having his house blown up, and having his eight- and ten-year-old children jailed. When I asked him where he got his courage, he said, “You can call it courage, but I call it trust.”
These are the kinds of stories we all need to hear.
Goodman: You have a lot to say to the current pope in your book Letters to Pope Francis. Can you summarize what you’re asking of him?
Fox: I’m asking him to be true to the values of Saint Francis, whose name he deliberately chose. Like Saint Francis, this pope has been outspoken about the divide between the rich and the poor. He has strongly criticized “savage capitalism,” the idolatry of money, the failure of trickle-down economics, and our collective “narcissism.” Saint Francis also had a deep relationship with the Earth. He preferred praying in caves to praying in churches. And caves, like sweat lodges, are a symbol of the Divine Feminine, of the womb, of the Great Mother. I understand that this pope is writing an encyclical on ecology, which is long overdue. I hope it’s a good one.
Another dimension to Saint Francis’s teaching, and one that this pope has not yet properly addressed, is gender justice. In his brilliant poem “Canticle of the Sun,” also known as “Brother Sun and Sister Moon,” Saint Francis alternates stanzas between the Divine Masculine and the Divine Feminine, treating them as equals. This pope is still representing a patriarchal institution that desperately needs to be receptive to women’s wisdom. There’s no reason, other than patriarchy, that women can’t be priests. The argument that Jesus didn’t ordain women is ridiculous. Jesus didn’t ordain anyone. The priesthood is a second-century invention. The Church’s refusal to give women positions of power is about the patriarchy’s desire for control, pure and simple.
I also encourage Pope Francis to take a world tour with the Dalai Lama. The two of them traveling together would model ecumenical exchange and put wind in the sails of good people working at the grass-roots level for justice. Such a tour would also revitalize the Church itself, not as a separate institution but as a truly catholic — meaning universal — institution.
I actually proposed this last year at a lecture in Claremont, California. A Tibetan man approached me afterward and said he was the Dalai Lama’s representative in North America and would share my idea with him. He said they had suggested such a thing to the previous pope but had never received a response. I told him to count his blessings: the Dalai Lama wouldn’t have had any fun traveling with Pope Benedict XVI. But I think he and Pope Francis would learn a lot from each other.
Goodman: You also call on Pope Francis to effect some radical changes, such as making celibacy optional for the priesthood, closing the Vatican Bank, and returning some of the Church’s gold to the indigenous people in South America from whom it was stolen.
Fox: Pope Francis has actually come very close to closing the Vatican Bank. He’s downsized its operations so that it serves only religious orders and will no longer be part of the general banking system. This has angered the Mafia, who used it for money laundering. He’s also spoken publicly about allowing married clergy from other denominations to convert to Catholicism and stay married. So obviously there’s no dogmatic obstacle to allowing priests to marry. And Pope Francis has advanced the canonization of Archbishop Óscar Romero, who represented the poor in El Salvador and was murdered and martyred by the military junta — a junta aided and abetted by right-wing Catholics, including the Vatican at the time. Sad to say, the pope is also going along with the movement to canonize Father Junipero Serra, who set up the system that oppressed so many Native Americans in California. This is exactly the wrong message to send to indigenous peoples, and frankly I would have thought the first pope from the Americas would have been more sensitive to indigenous history.
So Pope Francis is taking a number of significant steps forward (and at least one backward), and I wish him well. The biggest challenge he faces is the organization he leads. The Church is still married to the ideology of Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI, because for thirty-four years those were the values by which priests were trained and cardinals and bishops were appointed. In the San Francisco Bay Area, where I live, the archbishop is not paying attention to what Pope Francis is saying. To the contrary, he’s probably doing everything he can to thwart this pope’s efforts. But the media and a lot of laypeople within the Church are on the side of Pope Francis, as well as some priests and ex-priests.
I actually doubt that the Catholic Church in its present structure is reformable. I think it will have to die, and it is dying. Young people are walking away from it. They are taking the treasures from the burning building and letting the building burn.
Goodman: What should replace the Church?
Fox: What we need is something more experiential and less dogmatic. People don’t need the Church to tell them who or what God is. They need to experience God, and then they’ll know for themselves. For centuries, though, the Church has been afraid of this. People also need the Church to be a force for justice and compassion and forgiveness in the world. Too often the Church has been just the opposite, promoting violence and oppression. We don’t need basilicas so much as backpacks. We have to travel more lightly, with the mystics and the prophets as our guides. And, of course, we need to be traveling with people of other faith traditions.
Goodman: As aware as you are of the problems in the world, how do you stay optimistic?
Fox: There’s a wonderful line from eco-philosopher David Orr: “Hope is a verb with its shirt sleeves rolled up.” That’s how I maintain hope — by getting to work. We have to be warriors, and warriors don’t give up just because they lose a battle. They retreat and regroup and revise their strategy and redouble their efforts. We can take inspiration from the people who have gone before us: Jesus and Martin Luther King Jr. and Hildegard of Bingen and Nelson Mandela and Dorothy Day and Gandhi and countless others. We don’t need to put them on a pedestal; we need to adopt them as templates for our own lives. That way our activism will come from a deep place that is ultimately about a love for life. That, too, is what sustains me: knowing that, whatever the outcome, I have stood with those who love life.
As a non-Christian, I enjoyed the interview with Matthew Fox. I wish him luck uprooting the Church’s deep-seated propagation of guilt and bigotry, by arguing against original sin and vouching for science, a feminine aspect to God, and for gay and other social rights. I wish he would also have touched on hell and resentment, another noxious core of Christianity.
I wonder what Fox makes of Jesus’s statement “No one comes to the Father but through me,” and the teaching that if you don’t quite buy (or hear) the story that he is the son of God, you suffer eternal torment in hell. St. Thomas Aquinas, the namesake of Fox’s theology school, professed that the bliss of heaven is made sweeter by the joy of looking down upon those suffering in hell. I think Fox, like myself, would prefer hell to an eternity alongside such company.
I imagine that, as a theologian, Fox could formulate a new interpretation to make hell palatable to liberal thinkers. This is how the Church has always incorporated secular ideas regarding science and social justice when the public finally demanded such — although always a bit tardy. Theologians are similar to lawyers, who take certain texts as authoritative and then gerrymander the parts they like, redefine terms, neglect context, and ignore or twist inconvenient pieces of evidence while emphasizing others — in order to sell a story, not truth.
Adapting Fox’s theology is like pouring liberal California wine into saggy and wrinkled Catholic sacks. Fox says the Church is dying. I hope this means that the repulsive things about it will die off, and we can keep what’s beautiful: the mythology, traditions, and rituals that give everyday life deeper meaning; and its concern for mercy, justice, and the suffering of all of us poor souls.
Oh, those wearisome Roman Catholics! They’re headed toward Protestantism: the priesthood of all believers; clergywomen; and sainthood determined by someone’s relationship with Christ rather than by a council of men.
Matthew Fox should look to the United Methodists as an example of a Church that’s made progressive changes.
Leslee Goodman’s interview with Matthew Fox [“The Mystic and the Warrior,” July 2015] deeply saddened me. This reaction was not because I disagree with everything he said (knowing that I will encounter viewpoints very different from my own is a large part of why I value The Sun). In fact, as a politically liberal, environmentally conscious Catholic attracted to the mystical, intellectual, and prophetic tradition of my faith, I share a great deal with Fox. That’s why it was so painful to read his perception of the Church that I love. His portrayal of Catholic teachings made me want to exclaim, “But that’s not actually what we believe!”
I wish the two of us could just sit down and talk. I know I could learn a lot from him, and I hope he would consider hearing another version of the story.
After several years’ hiatus from subscribing, I received the July 2015 issue. I was shocked by the following quote from Matthew Fox, because what he says plainly contradicts the Catechism of the Catholic Church: “The Church teaches that human beings are born essentially sinful and bad.” Especially false is the “and bad” — I cannot understand why Fox said it. “Handicapped” might be a better fit, since we are not born in Paradise.
Although it is but a speck in Matthew Fox’s body of work, your interview “The Mystic and the Warrior” is a telling speck that leaves no question where he stands: with both feet planted firmly in midair.
Fox states, “I want to get at the root of Christianity, which, for me, is Jesus’s teachings on love and inclusiveness.” This statement seems profound on first read, but it renders the life, ministry, death, and resurrection of Christ moot.
Christianity is about Christ: the salvation God affords to those who believe. Christianity is not about doing good deeds, social justice, inclusiveness, or anything else. Yes, good works are central to a Christian life, but the Gospel message is that Jesus came to give eternal life found in Him alone. He did not come to make bad people good. Any self-help seminar can do that.
If the Gospel is the good news, then there must be some bad news, which is absent from Fox’s understanding. Christian faith holds that sin leaves man in an eternal state of spiritual and physical separation from God. But Fox believes all people are born without any such stain. Such a view is antithetical to Christianity because it eliminates the need for a redeemer. If it were true that man is born good, then why does he continually choose bad? And if man is born without sin, why was Christ born of a virgin? It would seem an unnecessary step for God to take.
Fox recoils from a God that is “harshly punitive” — a ploy where Bible passages are taken out of context to show God as a moral monster, or to present two different Gods, one of the Old Testament and one of the New. But this ignores the countless pages in the Old Testament that show God’s justice, love, and provision for all people, even the Canaanites. Fox’s idea of the Cosmic Christ smacks of regurgitated New Age pantheism — we are all gods with some kind of divine power.
The Bible holds just as much water with Fox as the Koran, the Hindu Vedas, and any other “holy” book, which demonstrates his lack of any objective moral framework. He embraces a bundle of contradictory worldviews, even praising the “genius” of Mohammed. But the question remains: On what grounds is Fox’s morality based? For, without a transcendent, omnipotent, eternal, and immutable law-giver, there can be no objective moral values.
I felt uplifted by Matthew Fox’s challenge to the patriarchal Church [“The Mystic and the Warrior,” interview by Leslee Goodman, July 2015], which has perpetuated a story of sin: Eve is bad and Adam is forever blaming her. But as cultural historian Riane Eisler points out, the Adam and Eve story “tells us that there was a time when woman and man lived in harmony with one another and with nature.” And mythologist Joseph Campbell notes that in ancient Sumerian artifacts the female deity gives fruit to the male deity, saying, “Come in and be refreshed.” These artifacts represent a narrative created a thousand years before the Book of Genesis was written. Fox helps us rediscover a story that is not about a fall from grace but rather a divine blessing.
“Eternal life” is not something that begins at death but something that begins in this lifetime. It includes the ever-growing awareness of the holiness of creation, the sacredness of our lives, and the decisions we make during our lifetimes — decisions to love instead of hate, to heal instead of despoil, to cherish the earth and honor all her creatures as other Christs, which we all are. Or, if you prefer, “other Buddhas.” Names for God are never final; no human words are. God’s incarnation — that is, dwelling in the flesh and in history — and His presence among us is confirmed by the Jesus story but is by no means limited to it. In John’s gospel it is not Jesus saying, “The only way to the Father is through me”; it is the Cosmic Christ saying that. We are all meant to be ways to the Father, and the Cosmic Christ, who is the “light in all beings,” is found in all beings. So creation itself is the way to the Father/Mother, the Source of all joy and light, and the Source of eternal life — a life that remains full of grace and gratitude for existence and wants to share that with others through works of compassion and justice.