Sunday, December 13, 2015

Matthew Fox, Etc.

Taking another look at Matthew Fox’s Confessions: The Making of a Post-Denominational Priest (Revised and Updated)

  
I arise each morning torn between a desire to improve the world and a desire to enjoy the world. That makes it hard to plan the day.

                                                                                          ~ E. B. White



It is a privilege for me to have been invited to write a review of Matthew Fox’s Confessions: The Making of a Post-Denominational Priest. I received an advance copy of the book in order to take part in the the blog tour. I am actually reading it for the second time since Confessions was first published in 1996, three years after his conflict with the Vatican had led to his expulsion from the Dominican Order. At that time, he had recently found a place to continue his work when he was received as a priest in the Episcopal Church. Now, almost twenty years later, we have a revised and updated version of his autobiography so we can see how his life has unfolded since, and learn anew of the lad from Madison, Wisconsin whose formation as a Dominican priest set him on a life-long and vibrant spiritual quest.

I discovered Matthew Fox by sheer serendipity shortly before he became all the rage with Original Blessing. I had just returned from a two-year stint as a Baptist Missionary teaching English at Hong Kong Baptist College. I had a seminary degree and I was trying to figure out where to go from there. In a used bookshop in Auburn, Alabama, I found a little book titled, On Becoming a Musical Mystical Bear. I was immediately fascinated because I had been nurturing an interest in mysticism and was finding very little interest in the topic among my Baptist colleagues. Evelyn Underhill (Anglican), Rufus Jones (Quaker), and Thomas Merton (Catholic) had been among my chosen sources in spirituality and spiritual practice.

When I read that volume by Matthew Fox, I realized I had found a true kindred spirit. He was talking about bringing together the prophetic voice and the mystical experience, with some exciting concepts on prayer, action and devotion. He was bringing meaning to the spiritual life and giving voice to some of the very concerns that I had been trying to foster myself.

The following year, I found my way to the Episcopal Church in Birmingham, Alabama and began to hear talk about an exciting new book, Original Blessing: A Primer in Creation Spirituality, by that same Matthew Fox I had already happily discovered. Those were energetic days, and I was glad to see so many people turning to Original Blessing to gain new insight on what a life of faith can entail.  

A Prolific Writing Life

Since those days, Matthew Fox has been quite prolific in his writings, with some 30 books to his credit. Bringing the depth and discipline of an academic, he writes in a conversational style that makes ancient wisdom readily accessible. Moreover, he brings that wisdom to bear in new concepts and paradigms for a meaningful spiritual life. I have been greatly encouraged as I have followed him by way of his writings. In his groundbreaking Original Blessing, I found affirmation in my own pilgrimage as well as new guidance with the four paths of his creation-centered paradigm for spiritual practice. Later, I welcomed his work on The Coming of the Cosmic Christ. I had been enthralled years earlier as I read Pierre Tielhard De Chardin’s The Divine Milieu and was equally excited about Fox’s presentation of a concept that had been sorely lacking in religious discussions. 

While Teilhard's work had given me great hope with his concept of the Christofication of the universe (something mysteriously taking place now and will fully come together in the future), Fox's view of the Cosmic Christ was transformative in the here and now. He drew upon the mystics as well as upon Pauline epistles to call us to social action, compassion for the earth, and deep ecumenism. In addition, his continued writings on Meister Eckhart and Hildegard of Bingen have offered a refreshing infusion of spirituality from the mystics of the church.

Pushing the Boundaries
Matthew Fox (photo from his web page)

Matthew Fox has made it his business to push the boundaries, and as a result, I found my own world becoming more expansive. His views on “deep ecumenism” were wondrously challenging. I told a friend at the time, “Matthew Fox is the only person I have read who is more ecumenical than I am!”  It was that challenge of deep ecumenism that enabled me to grow to an even greater appreciation of all faith expressions. 

A Remarkable Mentor

In Confessions: The Making of a Post-Denominational Priest, Matthew Fox shares with us the events and experiences from which his ideas arose and unfolded. For example, we are introduced to Père Chenu, priest, theologian and mentor to Fox at Institut Catholique de Paris where he did his doctoral studies. Chenu must have been quite a remarkable scholar. He articulated for Fox the two streams of theological thought: Fall/Redemption vs. Creation-centered spirituality and thus lit a fire that has not gone out.  Chenu also articulated the concept of liberation theology to a young priest from Latin America, Gustavo Gutierrez who was also studying at ICP, thus lighting another revolutionary fire within the church. Fr. Père Chenu is therefore regarded as the grandfather of both Liberation Theology and Creation Spirituality.

When Institutions Fail

One thing that becomes evident in Matthew Fox’s story is that while institutions can bring us great benefit, they can also be places of sorrow, pain, and conflict – whether it is the Vatican in the 1980s with Cardinal Rattzinger’s theological police and henchmen, or Fox’s own later attempts to establish a school for Creation Spirituality. Surely part of the problem is that we have not figured out how an institution is supposed to work in the 21st century. The institutions that we have grown up with in the U.S. – religious, educational, economic and political – had their formation during the Industrial Revolution. They are all slowly dying. My own view is that we have not yet found the institutional structures that can serve us in the 21st century world. Until those structures coalesce, we will continue to see many starts and stops along the way. The good news is that the fire that Matthew Fox has ignited in his writings has a vitality that cannot be contained by established institutions. Where current institutional models fail, the ideas continue to thrive.

 Improve the World, Enjoy the World

I began this essay with a quote from noted children’s author, E.B. White: I arise each morning torn between a desire to improve the world and a desire to enjoy the world. That makes it hard to plan the day. I first heard that quote a few years ago when it was cited by Garrison Keillor on The Writer's Almanac.  It has become one of my favorites because it captures the place we often find ourselves. We live in a beautiful world to be enjoyed, and we also live in a world that is broken and in need of repair. I often call these words to mind because they reflect my own struggle to balance the enjoyment of the world with the need to set about repairing the world.

On the one hand, I wondered if Matthew Fox had this same struggle. Judging from his writings, he lunges full-throttle at both notions simultaneously to enjoy creation while working tirelessly to repair the brokenness of the world. On the other hand, in looking back at that first book of his that I read, On Becoming a Musical Mystical Bear,  I was astounded to find a sentence I had underlined on page 73 that sounds very much like E.B. White's observation: A tension in our life-response asserts itself in the dispute between our desire to enjoy life and our drive to improve it...” I was astounded because I underlined that sentence by Matthew Fox more than 25 years before discovering the quote by E. B. White. In each case, I found a resonance with the concept. 

Perhaps it is that blend of the mystic and the prophetic that Fox has exhibited from the outset that allows him to enjoy the world even as he tries to improve it. In that early work, Fox describes the concept of our our desire to enjoy life and our drive to improve it as a dialectic [of] rooting [and] uprooting that is the arena of an adult spiritual life.” Indeed, one can read in Confessions about that calling to an adult spiritual life. Moreover, Matthew Fox seeks to call us all to an adult spiritual life that will celebrate the mystery of creation, respect other voices, and work to mend the world.

No Turning Back

Toward the end of Confessions, Fox has some guardedly hopeful comments about Pope Francis. He said that he has been asked if he might return to the Roman Catholic Church now that Francis is bringing his refreshing message of justice and compassion. Fox admits that having been nurtured for the first 54 years of his life in the church and having served as a Dominican priest for 34 years, there is much that he never really left. It will always be a part of him. Having gratitude, however, for how his world has expanded, he apparently has no thoughts of turning back. He finds agreement with contemporary sociologist Walter Truett Anderson who, in writing about our postmodern times, “makes the point that today we all belong to so many communities at once that we should write ‘etc.’ after our names.” 

And so it shall be. The autobiography has been expanded, but life continues on beyond the printed page. If you have never read anything by Matthew Fox, Confessions is a great place to start. If you are already familiar with his writings, you will certainly find this updated and revised autobiography to be both inspiring and informative.
  

                           ~ Charles Kinnaird, RN, M.Div., MSN, Etc.


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