Matthew Fox (born 1940) is an American mystic, Episcopal priest, and theologian. Formerly a member of the Dominican Order within the Roman Catholic Church, he became a member of the Episcopal Church following his expulsion from the order in 1993, by Cardinal Ratzinger. Fox was an early and influential exponent of a movement that came to be known as Creation Spirituality. The movement draws inspiration from the mystical philosophies of such medieval Catholic visionaries as Hildegard of Bingen, Thomas Aquinas, Saint Francis of Assisi, Julian of Norwich, Dante Alighieri, Meister Eckhart and Nicholas of Cusa, as well as the wisdom traditions of Christian scriptures. Creation Spirituality is also strongly aligned with ecological and environmental movements of the late 20th century and embraces numerous spiritual traditions around the world, including Buddhism, Judaism, Sufism, and Native American spirituality, with a focus on “deep ecumenism”.
Fox has written 30 books that have sold millions of copies and by the mid-1990s had attracted a “huge and diverse following”. He was likened by academic theologians in one New York Times article to the controversial and influential 20th century Jesuit priest, philosopher and paleontologist Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, particularly for his interpretations of issues such as the doctrine of original sin and the Cosmic Christ and for the resulting conflicts with church authorities.
Fox, originally named Timothy James Fox, was born in Madison, Wisconsin. In 1967, when he entered the Roman Catholic Church’s Order of Preachers (the Dominican order) he was given the religious name of “Matthew”. He received master’s degrees in both philosophy and theology from the Aquinas Institute of Theology and later earned a Doctorate of Philosophy in spirituality (graduating summa cum laude) from the Institut Catholique de Paris, studying with Marie-Dominique Chenu. After receiving his doctorate, Fox began teaching at a series of Catholic universities. In 1976, Fox moved to Chicago’s Mundelein College (now part of Loyola University), to start the Institute of Culture and Creation Spirituality, which developed an alternative pedagogy that diverged from orthodox Catholic theology and would eventually lead to severe conflict with church authorities. The institute’s programs integrated such trainings as “art as meditation” and “body prayer” with an intention to recreate for modern practitioners the visceral, emotional and intellectual connections that Fox asserted early church mystics had had with their faith.
In 1983, Fox moved the Institute of Culture and Creation Spirituality to Oakland, California, and began teaching at Holy Names University, where he was a professor for 12 years. Also in 1983, Catholic Church leadership began officially reviewing Fox’s teachings and theological divergences. Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger – then Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, a Vatican administrative body charged with teaching and defending church doctrine – ordered a panel of Dominican priests and theologians to perform a two-year review of Fox’s writings. When the initial findings found in Fox’s favor, Cardinal Ratzinger, later to become Pope Benedict XVI, rejected them and ordered a second review which was never undertaken.
Among Fox’s controversial teachings is a belief in “original blessing”, which became the title of one of his most popular books. The concept contrasts with the Roman Catholic doctrine that people are born into “original sin”. Fox’s teachings are considered more gender neutral, ecology sensitive, and accepting of non-traditional sexuality, than church orthodoxy. In 1988, Fox wrote a public letter to Cardinal Ratzinger entitled “Is the Catholic Church Today a Dysfunctional Family?”, which was subsequently widely disseminated by the National Catholic Reporter. Soon after, Cardinal Ratzinger issued an order forbidding Fox to teach or lecture for a year.
In 1993, Fox’s conflicts with Catholic authorities climaxed with his expulsion from the Dominican order for “disobedience”, effectively ending his professional relationship with the church and his teaching at its universities. Cardinal Ratzinger ordered the expulsion after Fox refused to respond to a summons to discuss his writings with his superiors in the Roman Catholic Church. Among the issues Fox was asked to defend were that he called God “Mother”;” preferred the concept of Original Blessing over Original Sin; worked too closely with Native American spiritual practices; did not condemn homosexuality; and taught the four paths of creation spirituality—the Via Positiva, Via Negativa, Via Creativa and Via Transformativa instead of the church’s classical three paths of purgation, illumination and union.
After his expulsion, Fox met young Anglican activists in England who were using “raves” as a way to bring life back to their liturgy and to attract young people to church worship. He was inspired to begin holding his own series of “Techno Cosmic Masses” in Oakland and other U.S. cities, events designed to connect people to a more ecstatic and visceral celebration and relationship with their spirituality. That initial Anglican connection became more formal when he was received into the Episcopal Church (Anglican Communion) as a priest in 1994 by Bishop William Swing of the Episcopal Diocese of California.
In 1996, Fox founded the University of Creation Spirituality in Oakland, an outgrowth of his institutes at Mundelein and Holy Names. The university offered similar master’s degree programs in creation spirituality and related studies. It was initially accredited through an affiliation with New College of California, before shifting in 1999 to affiliate with the Naropa Institute of Boulder, Colorado, creating and running Naropa’s master’s degree program.
The university also added a separate doctorate of ministry degree, with a curriculum based on his 1993 book The Reinvention of Work: A New Vision of Livelihood for Our Time, which talked about a “priesthood of all workers”. Fox led the University of Creation Spirituality for nine years, then was succeeded as president by James Garrison in 2005. The institution was subsequently renamed Wisdom University.
Since leaving the university, Fox has continued to lecture, write and publish books. In 2005, he founded an educational organization called Youth and Elder Learning Laboratory for Ancestral Wisdom Education (YELLAWE). The YELLAWE program is based on a holistic approach to education and creativity derived from Fox’s master’s level programs. It also includes physical training in bodily meditation practices such as tai chi. YELLAWE has operated in inner-city school systems in Oakland and Chicago and, as of late 2010, had announced plans to expand to school systems in Hawaii and Chattanooga, Tennessee.
Fox’s conception of Creation Spirituality draws on both a close reading of early and medieval mystics within Catholic traditions as well as ecstatic and spiritual practices from numerous other faiths around the world, in an approach Fox called “deep ecumenism” for its connections across many spiritual practices. This was described most particularly in his book One River, Many Wells: Wisdom Springing from Global Faith.
Creation Spirituality considers itself a “green” theology, emphasizing a holy relationship between man and nature. Accordingly, the protection of nature is considered a sacrament and an expression of God and a “Cosmic Christ”. This approach was endorsed by eco-theologian Thomas Berry among others. Fox’s book The Coming of the Cosmic Christ: The Healing of Mother Earth and the Birth of a Global Renaissance delves more into these issues.
Fox also laid out other tenets of Creation Spirituality in some of his other books, particularly Original Blessing and A Spirituality Named Compassion. Fox’s 1996 autobiography, Confessions: The Making of a Post-Denominational Priest, describes his life as a Dominican priest and his struggle with the Vatican as he wrote about his experiences and understanding of early Christianity.
Fox also has authored or edited nearly 30 other books, largely on various spiritual teachings, teachers and mystics. He was the first to translate Meister Eckhart into English from the critical German editions along with a commentary on his work and helped to launch the Hildegard of Bingen revival. His book on the mysticism of Thomas Aquinas translates many of his works that have never before been translated into English, German or French. Fox’s theological positions have been categorized as a type of monism, specifically panentheism.
In 2005, while preparing for a presentation in Germany and following the naming of Cardinal Ratzinger as Pope Benedict XVI, Fox created 95 theses that he then translated into German. On the weekend of Pentecost, arrangements were made for him to nail these to the door of the Wittenberg church where Martin Luther nailed the original 95 Theses in the 16th century, an act often associated with the Protestant Reformation. The action fueled the creation of a lively blog involving tens of thousands of Germans. In his theses, Fox called for a new reformation in Western Christianity. In his supporting book, A New Reformation, Fox argued that two Christianities already exist and it is time for a new reformation to acknowledge that fact and move the Western spiritual tradition into new directions.
Excerpts from his writings:
“What is common to all paths that are spiritual is, of course, the Spirit-breath, life energy, that is why all true paths are essentially one path, because there is only one Spirit, one breath, one life, one energy in the universe. It belongs to none of us and all of us. We all share it. Spirituality does not make us otherworldly; it renders us more fully alive.”
“Looking for and enjoying beauty is a way to nourish the soul. the universe is in the habit of making beauty. There are flowers and songs, snowflakes and smiles, acts of great courage, laughter between friends, a job well done, the smell of fresh-baked bread. Beauty is everywhere.”
“Humor and paradox are often the only ways to respond to life’s sorrow with grace.”
“We are not consumers. For most of humanity’s existence, we were makers, not consumers: we made our clothes, shelter, and education, we hunted and gathered our food. We are not addicts. I propose that most addictions come from our surrendering our real powers, that is, our powers of creativity. We are not passive couch potatoes either. It is not the essence of humans to be passive. We are players. We are actors on many stages…. We are curious, we are yearning to wonder, we are longing to be amazed… to be excited, to be enthusiastic, to be expressive. In short to be alive. We are also not cogs in a machine. To be so would be to give up our personal freedoms so as to not upset The Machine, whatever that machine is. Creativity keeps us creating the life we wish to live and advancing humanity’s purpose as well.”
“’Where the Divine and the Human Meet’ shows how important it is to meet the world with the creativity of an artist, particularly in these uncertain times:
What do we do with chaos? Creativity has an answer. We are told by those who have studied the processes of nature that creativity happens at the border between chaos and order. Chaos is a prelude to creativity. We need to learn, as every artist needs to learn, to live with chaos and indeed to dance with it as we listen to it and attempt some ordering. Artists wrestle with chaos, take it apart, deconstruct and reconstruct from it. Accept the challenge to convert chaos into some kind of order, respecting the timing of it all, not pushing beyond what is possible—combining holy patience with holy impatience–that is the role of the artist. It is each of our roles as we launch the twenty-first century because we are all called to be artists in our own way. We were all artists as children. We need to study the chaos around us in order to turn it into something beautiful. Something sustainable. Something that remains”.”
“Political movements for justice are part of the fuller development of the cosmos, and nature is the matrix in which humans come to their self-awareness of their power to transform. Liberation movements are a fuller development of the cosmos’s sense of harmony, balance, justice, and celebration. This is why true spiritual liberation demands rituals of cosmic celebrating and healing, which will in turn culminate in personal transformation and liberation.”
“The system is not working. That is how a paradigm shift begins: the established way of seeing the world no longer functions.”
“Where does creativity come from? Creativity comes from the Universe itself. There is music and poetry in the Universe itself — surely we hear it on planet earth.” And Creativity comes from our joys and sorrows, our deep-hearted experiences. It also comes “from and in the heart of God. All our spiritual traditions the world over agree that creativity follows through the human heart and that it flows from the Divine Heart. Creativity is seen as a spiritual, inwardly-driven activity, directly influenced by a Higher Power, or God. That is the ultimate in inspiration for me: to know I have ‘permission’ to be creative and to be a creator too.”
“If you don’t work on yourself, then much of your politics is merely projections. We have to walk our talk and do the inner work that allows the outer work to be authentic and also effective.”
“To speak of creativity is to speak of profound intimacy. It is also to speak of our connecting to the Divine in us and of our bringing the Divine back to the community. This is true whether we understand our creativity to be begetting and nourishing our children, making music, doing theater, gardening, writing, teaching, running a business, painting, constructing houses, or sharing the healing arts of medicine and therapy.”
“Creativity as Divine intimacy flows through us and is bigger than we are, urging us to go to the edge and grow larger. And our growth in turn delights God.”
“Compassion is not sentiment but is making justice and doing works of mercy. Compassion is not a moral commandment but a flow and overflow of the fullest human and divine energies.”
“To connect with the great river we all need a path, but when you get down there there’s only one river.”
“Inner work is finding joy in work. Our real work is heart work and soul work. A job is something we do to get a paycheck and pay our bills. Jobs are legitimate, at times, but work is why we are here in the universe. Work and calling often go together.”
“Creation is all things and us. It is us in relationship with all things. All things, the ones we see and the ones we do not; the whirling galaxies and the wild suns, the black holes and the microorganisms, the trees and the stars, the fish and the whales – the molten lava and the towering snow-capped mountains, the children we give birth to and their children, and theirs, and theirs, and theirs.”
“If you look closely at a tree you’ll notice it’s knots and dead branches, just like our bodies. What we learn is that beauty and imperfection go together wonderfully.”
“I reject the notion of talking about God as a person, but there’s a difference between talking about God as a person and talking about God as personal. The term I use is panentheistic – everything is in God and God is in everything. That’s pretty intimate, but it doesn’t mean that we don’t have to find our own way and do our own creating. I see the universe as a Divine womb and we’re all swimming around in this soup.”
“Compassion is the essence of Jesus’ teaching, and indeed of the teaching of all great spiritual figures from Mohammed to Isaiah, from Lao Tzu to Chief Seattle. Yet compassion has been sentimentalized and severed from its relationship to justice-making and celebration. Creation Spirituality links the struggle for justice with the yearning for mysticism.”
“It has taken fifteen billion years to get you here. That is scientific fact. We are not just the products of our parents. Sixty percent of our body is hydrogen atoms. The hydrogen atoms in us go back to the fireball fourteen billion years ago. We have been around a long time, and it has been a great birthing process to bring us forward.”
“To recover a spiritual tradition in which creation, and the study of creation, matters would be to inaugurate new possibilities between spirituality and science that would shape the paradigms for culture, its institution, and its people.”
“Left to my own imagination, I could never have composed a scenario that was anywhere as interesting as my life has been: starting out as an eager altar boy, a good Boy Scout, a relatively docile Dominican brother and priest, receiving an advanced degree in spirituality, teaching bishops and many others around the world about our Western spiritual tradition, and then ending up being expelled from the Dominican order.”
“A civilization built on dualism and war within and between persons, one that puts its most creative minds and its best engineers to sadistic work building more and more destructive weapons, is no civilization at all. It needs a radical transformation from the heart outwards. It needs to outgrow and outlaw war just as in the last century it outlawed slavery. The human race has outgrown war, but it hardly knows it yet.”
“Beauty saves. Beauty heals. Beauty motivates. Beauty unites. Beauty returns us to our origins, and here lies the ultimate act of saving, of healing, of overcoming dualism. Do not confuse beauty with beautiful. Beautiful is a human judgment. Beauty is All. The difference is everything.”
“I don’t think that fundamentalism has anything to do with Jesus Christ. They call themselves Christians, but if that’s Christian, count me out. Fundamentalism is built on fear and greed. They’re telling you to give them your money otherwise you’re going to hell.”
“We are in the cosmos and the cosmos is in us.”
“When it comes to wilderness animals we have to make an effort to preserve what areas we can that they can be themselves in. Its come to a point though, clearly, where some species have to be cared for by humans if they are not going to disappear altogether.”
“We were made for something cosmic and will not fit peacefully into anything much smaller. And when we try to build our lives around anything much smaller than cosmos we become grotesque, and our institutions, be they religious or familial or educational or governmental are asked to do too much. They become misshapen and malformed and turn into instruments of cosmic and personal destruction.”
“Our generation has been taught to think in terms of the evolution of the universe, but the fact is that physics didn’t get into evolution until the 1960’s – it was just this biology thing. Then we learned how the universe is evolving. Now we’re going a step further and understanding that even the laws that govern the universe are evolving!”
“Animals love. They love their being. They strive to survive, to celebrate, to propagate . So certainly something we learn from animals is love. To survive and to celebrate, propagate and to love life. To be the best we can be – the right to be here and the responsibility to be the best dog or bear or horse that they can be. Humans have the tendency to self pity that other animals don’t indulge in.”
“I am a Westerner. We’re not going to change the West by going East. The East has a lot to teach us, but essentially it’s like a mirror, saying, hey, can’t you see what’s here in your own religion, what are you, stupid?”
An interview with Mathew: