An accidental blog

"If God is sovereign, then his lordship must extend over all of life, and it cannot be restricted to the walls of the church or within the Christian orbit." Abraham Kuyper Common Grace 1.1.

Saturday, 12 January 2008

A Fox in sheep's clothing?

Matthew Fox's Creation-Centred Spirituality

Western Christianity, because of its emphasis on dominion, has often been charged with paving the way for the current environmental crisis, consequently theologians and writers have attempted to defend Christianity against this unjust accusation. One such attempt is what has been named "creation-centred spirituality". Matthew Fox, an American Dominican priest and theologian, is the foremost representative of this recently developed spirituality. His basic premise is that we need a new religious paradigm: one that replaces the old dualistic and patriarchal "exclusively fall/redemption spirituality"; that seeks to place humanity within the creation; that celebrates creation's beauty and our creativity; that affirms our bodies. A creation-centred spirituality, Fox believes, is one such appropriate paradigm.

Fox's writings on "creation-centred spirituality" include Original Blessing ,[1] The Coming of the Cosmic Christ [2] and Creation Spirituality[3]; these have been influential among Catholics and Protestants alike, and further afield. He appeals to Christians who are seeking a spirituality that affirms rather than denies the creation, because he uses theological terms and is theologically literate. He also appeals to some greens who are searching for a spirituality to explain the principles of human awareness and existence and interconnectedness. Creation-centred spirituality, because it has roots in a wide range of spiritual traditions and religions, resonates with others of different cultures and beliefs. Fox has been accused of "pure Taoism" and of being "aboriginal"; his is the ultimate ecumenicalism!

So is his creation-centred spirituality benign? Is it as he claims orthodox and supported by the Bible?

A silenced prophet?

Despite his popularity not everyone is happy with Fox's teachings. In December 1988 he was silenced by his Dominican Order for one year; ironically this had the effect of increasing his popularity. A panel was set up to examine his work, and came to the conclusion that he was not heretical. Commenting on this, Fox says:

I have done my homework and have proven that what I am saying is part of the mystical Christian tradition.[4]

In 1994 Fox was dismissed from his order and became an Episcopal priest. It is important to Fox that his teachings are seen as part of the Christian tradition: he thinks tradition distinguishes a spirituality from a cult.

He has never sought confrontation with the Vatican, but that does not mean the Vatican is totally happy with Fox's work. In an interview with Satish Kumar, the editor of Resurgence, Fox remarks:
I have always written for the people [as opposed to the Vatican], and tried to speak to the people, and that is what I will continue doing, and if it means that I will be expelled from the priesthood, then that is the price I will have to pay. I will not leave the priesthood voluntarily because I have spent twenty years proving that this is our tradition; it is in the Bible, it is our mystic tradition.[5]

The mystic tradition

This "mystic tradition" which Fox sees as part of the Christian heritage, however, involves a highly selective view of Christian history on his part. In particular he draws on the "Rhineland mystics", who he sees as "champions of an ecological spiritual consciousness";[6] these include Hildegard of Bingen (1098-1179), Mechtild of Magdburg (1210-1290), Meister Eckhart (c.1260-1327) and Julian of Norwich (1342-c.1415). Technically the latter is not a "Rhineland mystic" but Fox feels she deserves to be called one. He makes use of the works of Francis of Assisi (1181-1225) and Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274).[7]

However, Fox's handling of these mystics is not always fair. Simon Tugwell O. P., in a review of Fox's Breakthrough [8] a translation of and commentary on Eckhart, observes:
it is difficult to avoid the feeling that the mistranslation is deliberate, intended to minimise anything that would interfere with the alleged "creation-centredness" of Eckhart's spirituality.[9]

Tugwell also notes that Fox
repeatedly insults his readers with bland assertions which it would be very difficult to substantiate, with tendentious half-truths, or with downright falsehood.[10]
And concludes that "Breakthrough seriously misrepresents Eckhart".

Creation-centred spirituality

Fox's creation-centred spirituality, which "considers the environment to be a divine womb, holy, worthy of reverence and respect"[11], is a backlash to what he sees as the poverty of Western spirituality. Fox is opposed to the subject/object dualisms that have dominated theology, at least according to Fox, since Augustine;[12] and he rejects the emphasis - again through Augustine - on a fall/redemption theology.[13] It will be worth looking at both these in turn. Before doing so a brief comment on Fox's use of Augustine is called for.

Augustine (354-430)
The blame for our current spiritual poverty is laid, almost solely, at Augustine's door:
The creation-centred spiritual tradition offers an alternative to much of Christian history for it delineates the truth that hellenism and its dualisms regarding the body, feeling and spirit is not Jewish or Biblical thinking and that Augustine's dualistic interpretation of Christianity was a distortion of Jesus' spirituality. since vast proportions of both Catholic and Protestant churchlife and polity have been constructed on Augustine's dualistic Neoplatonic world view, spirituality in the West must let go of Augustine's thought if it is to immerse itself in the profound wellsprings of Biblical spirituality and contribute to creating a global civilisation.[14]
Lawrence Osborn points out the irony of Fox's vehement attack on Augustine. Fox "relies heavily upon the mystical tradition of his own religious order: a mysticism which is steeped in Augustinian influence".[15] It is this selectivity of the truth that characterises much of Fox's scholarship; this is not to say it is deliberate: Fox's world-view - as does everyone's - colours his perception of reality and his choice of "facts".

Fox is only partly correct when he notes that "Subject/ object dualisms have characterized the mainstream of spirituality in the West from St. Augustine to Jerry Falwell and points in between".[16] Dualism was also rife pre-Augustine: Plato (427-347 BC) had a form/ matter dualism that characterised all his philosophy, which in turn had an enormous impact on the early church fathers, such as Clement of Alexandria (c. 150-215), Origen (c. 185-254) and Basil of Caesarea (c.330-79). It was through Augustine, under the influence of Plotinus, that dualism "received its ultimate theological legitimation".[17] However, the mystics that Fox draws upon were not free from dualism. Aquinas in particular was responsible for a nature/ grace dualism that paved the way for Descartes' radical dualism of mind/ matter.[18] This mind/ matter dualism is the root of the desanctification of nature,[19] the very thing Fox wants to avoid!

Fox is so keen to eradicate any dualism that he obliterates any distinction between the Creator and his creation. This distinction is described by Fox as "the ultimate dualism".[20] To do this he does not embrace pantheism (God is everything and everything is God) but the closely related panentheism (God is in everything and everything is in God).

...we have to move from theism to panentheism. Theism has haunted us for 300 or 400 years in the West and it basically says I'm here and God is somewhere else, and prayer is about getting to God or getting God here. This encourages subject/ object relationships. Carl Jung said that there are two ways to loose your soul and one is to worship a god outside of you.[21]

For some theologians panentheism can be a subset of theism; for Fox it is more a subset of pantheism:
I am proposing a new theology of creation in which God is not an absentee landlord. God is the creation.[22]
He is vehemently opposed to what he calls "theism": "... theism is by definition dualistic".[23] In 2005 – when Ratzinger was made Pope - he posted 95 theses to the ‘door’ of St Joan’s, MN.
Thesis 6 was:
Theism (the idea that God is ‘out there’ or above and beyond the universe) is false. All things are in God and God is in all things (panentheism).
However, his use of the term theism is a misleading. Most of his criticisms of theism apply to deism but not to theism.[24] He regards theism as naive compared with panentheism:
Moving from a theistic ("God out there" or even "God in here") to a panentheistic theology ("all is in God and God is in all") is a requisite for growing up spiritually.... A theistic imaging of God is essentially adolescent for it is based on an ego mind-set, a zeroing in on how we are separate from God.[25]
In attempting to undermine this "dualism" he falls into the trap of monism: all is one. Fox's panentheism is an attempt to do justice to the involvement of God in his creation and to undermine any desanctification of creation. It fails because it does not distinguish God from his creation: it deifies the creation; consequently humanity becomes divine and paradoxically no different to the grass. A more biblical way to deal with the problem of God's involvement with creation is through the traditional theistic categories of transcendence and immanence. The few Bible verses that Fox cites (out of context) for panentheism offer no support (Luke 17:21; John 15:5; Acts 17:25).[26]

Fall/redemption theology

We can now turn to Fox's trenchant criticism of what he calls fall/ redemption theology. Fox hopes to replace this with a creation-centred theology. Any attempt to mzrginalise the fall is immediately confronted by the problem of how to explain evil, death and imperfection. For Fox, death is a natural event and imperfection is integral to creation. Further, in rejecting a fall/ redemption theology, he bypasses the cross as the means of reconciliation. The cross is seen as a symbol of "letting go".[27] This reduction of the the cross is (at best) sub-Christian. Fox, in bypassing the redemptive function of the cross, ceases to offer a Christian spirituality and does not remain within the Christian tradition.

In discussing the "fall/ redemption" tradition Fox shows misunderstandings and commits several errors. The following factors undermine his position.

(i) His phrase the "fall/ redemption" tradition is a misnomer; it is best characterised by the term "creation, fall and redemption". For obvious reasons Fox ignores the first part.

(ii) His claim that the "fall/ redemption" tradition does not have an appreciation of, or theology of[28], creation [29] is misfounded. The "philosemitic medievalist" Margaret Brearley shows that in the Middle Ages when the fall/ redemption theology was perhaps at its peak that these theologians had an "intense preoccupation" with the creation. She cites Wolfram von Esschenbach, George Herbert and Bousset as medieval examples of those within the fall/ redemption tradition who could write in praise of creation.[30]

(iii) Even today theologians and writers within this tradition are expounding an ecologically aware theology; examples are Loren Wilkinson,[31] Wesley Granberg-Michaelson [32],Rowland Moss[33], Calvin DeWitt and Steven Bouma-Preideger.

Other problems

There are several other aspects of Fox's position that give cause for concern. Briefly these include: his defective anthropology - we are divine and have a responsibility to "divinize the universe";[34] his acceptance of non-Christian traditions such as Taoist, Kabir (Hindu/Sufi), Native American, Wicca (Starhawk, a well known white witch, teaches at his Institute in Culture and Creation Spirituality), African, Zen, Celtic and Hasidic;[35] his understanding that the basis of all sin is dualism [36] - he also names dualism as "original sin";[37] his concept of salvation as "awakening to our divinity";[38] and his desire to see an emerging global civilisation that is "grounded on the understanding that the world is an undivided whole",[39]"a Global Civilisation which will usher in a new era in the divinization of the cosmos".[40]


What then are we to make of Matthew Fox? There are many aspects of his work we can endorse, even if we do not go the whole way, these include his rejection of dualism, his attempt to develop a world-affirming rather than world-denying spirituality and his desire to be equally inclusive of female and male; at least now these crucial issues are on the theological agenda. His increasing popularity and apparently uncritical acceptance by many Christians, however, can only be cause for concern. In this article I have attempted to show that Fox stands outside orthodox Christianity - be it Catholic or Protestant - despite his vociferous claims to the contrary. The methods and sources he uses to support his case are at best "suspect".[41]

I can only conclude with Lawrence Osborn [14] and Margret Brearley [29] that Fox's teachings are a vehicle for highly dubious New Age thinking; they are New Age in Christian clothing.


1 Original Blessing: A Primer in Creation Spirituality (Bear & Co, 1983; UK edn 1990).
2 The Coming of the Cosmic Christ (Harper & Row, 1988).
3 Creation Spirituality: Liberating Gifts for the People's of the Earth (HarperSanFrancisco, 1991).
4 "From original sin to original blessing" Resurgence Jan/ Feb 1991 (issue 144) p. 26.
5 Ibid.
6 "Creation-centered spirituality from Hildegard of Bingen to Julian of Norwich: 300 years of an ecological spirituality in the west" Cry of the Environment: Rebuilding the Creation Tradition ed. Philip N. Joranson and Ken Butigan (Bear & Co, 1984) ch. 4.
7 For a more comprehensive list of those he believes "lived out and taught the creation-centered tradition" is to be found in "Appendix A: Toward a Family Tree of Creation-Centered Spirituality" Original Blessing pp 307-15.
8 New Blackfriars vol. 63 (1984) pp. 195-7.
9 Ibid p. 197.
10 Ibid p. 196.
11 Cry of the Environment p. 84.
12 Ibid.
13 Ibid.
14 Matthew Fox and Brian Swimme Manifesto for a Global Civilization (Bear & Co, 1982) pp. 17-8.
15 Meeting God in Creation Grove spirituality series No 32 (Grove Books, 1990).
16 Cry of the Environment p. 84.
17 Brian J. Walsh and J. Richard Middleton The Transforming Vision: Shaping a Christian World View (IVP,1984) ch. 7.
18 Philip Sherrard The Rape of Man & Nature: An Enquiry into the Origins and Consequences of Modern Science (Goolgonooza Press, 1987) p. 60.
19 Ibid.
20 Original Blessing p. 89.
21 Resurgence p. 24. See also Original Blessing pp. 89ff.
22 Resurgence p. 24.
23 Cry of the Environment p. 86.
24 He even refers to a "Newtonian theism that posited a clockmaker God who wound the universe up and sat back...". An excellent description of deism not theism! Original Blessing p. 90.
25 Cry of the Environment. p.97.
26 Resurgence p. 24.
27 Original Blessing p. 166.
28 This is the same accusation made by Sean McDonagh: "This theological tradition has no adequate theology of creation" To Care for the Earth: A Call to a New Theology (Geoffrey Chapman, 1986) p. 81.
29 Margret Brearley "Matthew Fox: creation spirituality for the aquarian age" Christian Jewish Relations vol. 22 (2) (1989) p. 40.
30 Ibid. p. 41.
31 Editor of Earthkeeping: Christian Stewardship of Natural Resources (Eerdmans, 1988).
32 A Worldly Spirituality: The Call to Redeem Life on Earth (Harper & Row,1984) and Ecology and Life: Accepting Our Environmental Responsibility (Word, 1988).
33 The Earth in Our Hands (IVP,1982).
34 Manifesto p. 19.
35 These are all included in his "family tree of creation-centered spirituality" Original Blessing Appendix A pp. 307-15.
36 Original Blessing p. 296.
37 Cry of the Environment p. 88.
38 Ibid p. 235.
39 Manifesto p. 13.
40 ibid p. 7.
41 This is the conclusion of Oliver Davies "Eckhart and Fox" Tablet vol. 243 August 1989 pp. 890-1 (cited in Brearley op. cit.).

No comments: