A review of Matthew Fox’s Confessions: the Making of a Post-Denominational Priest
The revised and updated version of Matthew Fox’s autobiography, Confessions, tells the story of a courageous and creative theologian, a Roman Catholic priest who articulated a life-affirming theology about the sacredness of all creation. He was silenced by the Vatican, however, and expelled from his order. Like early Quaker George Fox, Matthew Fox has asked deep questions about the nature of God and life, and he found answers he was able to put into fresh language. Both taught about the life of the Spirit in ways that were liberating and spiritually energizing for many people. Both men also found themselves in the midst of great controversy, accused of heresy.
When Confessions: the Making of a Post-Denominational Priest first came out in 1996, I hurried to buy a copy. I had been making my own long, expansive journey from the theology of my childhood church, and I was eager to read the story of the priest who wrote books with provocative titles such as Original Blessing and The Return of the Cosmic Christ. Matthew Fox was known for something called Creation Spirituality, a theology that affirms the sacredness and wholeness of all creation. Creation Spirituality is not the same thing as pantheism, which worships creation as God. Instead, it sees that God is in everything, and everything is in God. What God is is greater than creation, but infuses all created things. This is called panentheism. Matthew Fox sees traces of this theology in the Scriptures and in the teachings of some celebrated Christian mystics. He teaches that the world has been suffering from an outdated theology that has shaped the West in ways that are devastating to the planet’s people, creatures, and ecology. He insists that this destructive theology, perpetuated through institutional Christianity, does not spring from the teachings of Jesus.
Matthew Fox attended seminary during the reign of Pope John XXIII, and he felt the fresh winds of the Spirit that were ushered in at that time. The Second Vatican Council opened the Roman Catholic Church to the modern day and to ecumenical dialogue. In the late sixties, the Dominican order sent Fox to Europe to get a Ph.D. in theology. On the advice of Thomas Merton, the young priest chose to study in Paris. He went with a burning question: “What is the relationship between prayer and social justice?” His mentor at the Catholic Institute in Paris, the esteemed scholar Père (Father) M. D. Chenu, gave his theology students permission to be poets and artists as well as scholars. He taught them to distinguish between a dualistic fall/redemption theology that denigrated the earth, women, and all things feminine, and a creation-centered spirituality that emphasized wholeness. It was a time of cultural turmoil, the era of the Civil Rights movement and protests against the Vietnam War. Many of Fox’s fellow theology students were priests from Latin America interested in liberation theology. In Paris in the late sixties, he found himself in the midst of student riots and worker strikes. Père Chenu encouraged his students to bring their theology alive by engaging in the streets.
Ever afterwards, Matthew Fox sought to articulate a relevant Catholic theology for our time, one that sees the earth and all beings as worthy of reverence. At Mundelein College in Chicago and later at Holy Names College in California, he created and headed a graduate program called the Institute in Culture and Creation Spirituality (ICCS). His goal was to encourage a spirituality of wholeness, integrating body, mind, and spirit. Mysticism, prophecy, social justice, and culture were all part of the curriculum. Academic study was combined with poetry, art, and movement. Fox invited gifted teachers from other spiritual traditions, and also from science, to join the noteworthy faculty. This caused controversy among conservative Catholics.
After the death of Pope John XXIII in 1963, the Roman Catholic Church began lurching away from the innovations of the Second Vatican, contracting back into an old conservative stance. Cardinal Ratzinger was appointed head of the department of the Vatican once called the Roman Inquisition. His mission was to weed out liberal progressives in the church. According to Confessions, the Congregation on the Doctrine of the Faith, headed by Ratzinger (later Pope Benedict XVI), “silenced, denounced, expelled, and often drove into poverty or early death over 105 theologians for doing exactly what theologians need to do: think.” (424) Matthew Fox was one of them. Cardinal Ratzinger found fault with several things in Fox’s teaching and writing. First was that he sometimes referred to God as Mother. He also focused on the Original Blessing of life, rather than on the Catholic doctrine of Original Sin. In his interfaith work, Fox joined in practices with Native Americans and people of other religions.
Fox was defended by the Dominican board that examined him and cleared him of heresy. Nonetheless, in 1988 Fox was silenced by the Vatican, forbidden to speak in public, teach, or publish any new books for a year. In obedience, he took a sabbatical. During that time he traveled to South America, where he visited with another silenced Catholic priest and theologian, Brazilian Leonardo Boff, a Franciscan known for his work on behalf of the poor and oppressed. Later, however, when Fox refused to close ICCS, he was expelled by his order, the Dominicans. He had to find a new home for his school, so he started the Institute of Creation Spirituality (ICS), in Oakland, California. These events brought greater public attention to Creation Spirituality.
The 1996 edition of Confessions ended shortly after his expulsion, which felt to Fox like being hit by a train. Soon afterwards, he became ordained in the Episcopal Church, where his theological thinking, exploring, and teaching were welcome. The newly expanded edition of Confessions includes the story of the twenty years since then. These have been years of greater freedom. Fox has continued to be a popular speaker and a prolific writer. He has continued to champion radical kinds of education, and he has been led to experiment with fresh forms of liturgy that appeal to young people. His Cosmic Mass shows multi-media images from around the planet and the universe; it also involves a great deal of lively music and dancing. Each Cosmic Mass includes both celebration and mourning; each has a different theme, highlighting the suffering of oppressed people and the earth as well as the courageous work of prophetic people. Without his former institutional backing, however, Fox has struggled financially to make his innovations in education and liturgy available.
The new sections of Confessions contain some harsh criticisms of the two previous Catholic popes and the socially and theologically conservative hierarchy appointed by them. Speaking of “thirty-four dark years in recent Catholic history,” he condemns the church not only for expelling more than one hundred of its theologians, but also for protecting pedophile priests, and for opposing feminism and movements to support workers, the poor, and native peoples. He cites the huge decline in numbers of Catholics attending church services on a regular basis during those decades, especially the young people. In his anguish over the backward movement in the church since the Second Vatican Council, he has asked himself why God would allow this. His conclusion is that the Holy Spirit wants to, “end the structure of the church as we know it and to push the restart button on Christianity so that it more readily expresses the person and teachings of Jesus.” (424) He is glad that Pope Francis is attempting to bring the focus of the Roman Catholic church back to those teachings. He applauds Francis for daring to “speak of climate change and eco-devastation as a terrible sin.” (437) However, Fox does not see the future of religion in institutional churches. He believes that on the whole, the young people of the world are looking elsewhere, and that, “The Holy Spirit seeks a deep spirituality of action rather than a propping up of religious institutions.” (438)
For Quakers who know the story of George Fox, there is much about Matthew Fox’s biography that is familiar. In some discoveries, George was ahead of Matthew by 350 years. George Fox is included in a list made by Matthew Fox of Christian mystics who have espoused some of the tenets of Creation Spirituality in the past. He gives George Fox 3.5 stars out of 4. Matthew Fox has worked to resurrect such teachings from past Christian history. At the same time, he has made a fresh, earnest attempt to receive continuing revelation. He believes ecumenical and interfaith dialogue are imperative; the insights of all religions can work together to “inspire our species to undergo the transformations required of our souls and societies and institutions.” (426) His recent work also helps bring together the insights of mysticism with those of science. Along with other important theologians such as Thomas Berry, Fox has been working to help create a New Story for our time that helps human beings to understand and embrace our true place in the sacred order of God’s creation. It is necessary and life-affirming work needed to help humanity turn away from the ecological destruction which has resulted from the disrespectful and unsustainable way we have treated the earth. The God that Matthew Fox celebrates is a Creator who endows everyone with sacred creativity meant for wholeness and for the healing of each other and the planet.
The Revised and Updated Confessions is available at: http://www.amazon.com/Confessions-Revised-Updated-Making-Postdenominational/dp/1583949356/
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I will be facilitating the year-end retreat at Ben Lomond Quaker Center, Dec 27 – Jan 1 (Sunday – Friday) in Ben Lomond, California. The topic is In the Life and Power of God. Elaine Emily is serving as elder for the weekend. For more information, click HERE.
I will also be facilitating a weekend retreat January 22-24, 2016 at Powell House Retreat Center in Old Chatham, NY, on the subject of Transformation and the New Birth. For more information, click HERE.
© 2015 Marcelle Martin