A Pagan Perspective On Matthew Fox
by Mike Nichols
On a recent trip to my bookstore, one of my regular customers posed an intriguing question. Of all the books carried by the Magick Lantern, which one is the most overlooked, the one most deserving of attention but getting the least? I answered without hesitation: "Original Blessing" by Matthew Fox. Not that it's too surprising. After all, the bulk of our patrons are Neo-Pagans, or at least from some other "alternative" religious tradition. A book on Christian spirituality can hardly be expected to appeal to them. Not that Pagans are anti-Christian. Or, at least, most of them would have no problems with the supposed teachings of Jesus. But, on the whole, I would guess that most modern Pagans would tend to agree with Mark Twain's comment, "If Jesus were alive today, there is one thing he would NOT be: a Christian."
Another reason that one might miss Fox's book is that "Original Blessing" is already five years old! This would not seem to be a very timely review on my part. But, as I already mentioned, books written by Dominican priests can hardly be expected to be on the mainstream reading lists of most Pagans. (It goes both ways. Only last month I picked up a current Christian periodical with a review -- mostly favorable -- of Starhawk's "The Spiral Dance", now eight years old!) But Pagans who study their own sources closely may already know about Matthew Fox. Starhawk, for example, often mentions Fox in her public appearances, and for good reason. She has been a lecturer on his staff at Holy Names College in Oakland, CA. And Fox has often quoted Starhawk in public, as well as in his book, "Original Blessing".
What's this, you say? A Dominican priest asking a Witch to lecture at his university?! Wasn't it just several hundred years ago that the Dominicans were burning Witches at the stake?! And now they invite Witches into their monasteries to teach theology?! What goes on here?! Is the Catholic Church going "soft" on Witchcraft and Paganism? While it's true that the Pope, on a recent visit to Spain, conceded that the Inquisition had been a bad idea, one should still not expect Holy Mother Church to welcome Witches with open arms. What Fox is doing, he's doing on his own. And the Vatican Curia would just as soon he stop doing it. Although this brilliant scholar may well be on the cutting edge of modern Catholic theology, he is regarded by Rome as a bit of a renegade.
The crux of the matter seems to be this: Fox believes that he has discovered a new theology within the Christian tradition. He calls it "creation-centered spirituality". And it's not "new" exactly, because it's really been there all along -- supported by proponents such as St. Irenaeus, St. Francis, St. John of the Cross, St. Phillip Neri and, especially, Hildegard of Bingen and Meister Eckhart. However, this mystical substratum of Christianity was ruthlessly suppressed by a Church that was often more interested in this world than the next. And the officially sactioned form of theology, which Fox dubs "fall/redemption spirituality", became a tool used to control the masses, rather than to liberate them. Perhaps Fox doesn't state the case quite so dramatically, but any Pagan reading his work would certainly interpret it that way.
What is the difference between "fall/redemption" and "creation-centered" spirituality? In practical terms, almost everything! The former is patriarchal, dualistic, ascetic, tied to a linear concept of time, obsessed with sin and guilt, disdainful of the earth, and contemptuous of sexuality. Creation spirituality is feminist, dialectical, aesthetic, based on cyclical time, sensual, tied to the earth and the universe, and rejoicing in the gift of our bodies and our sexuality! Even the counterpoint title of Fox's book, "Original Blessing", is meant to be a rebuttal and antidote to the notion of "original sin". In short, all the things that Fox claims for "creation-centered" theology are the VERY SAME THINGS that modern Pagans have come to regard as beliefs that are quintessentially Pagan.
With one possible difference: the place of Jesus in all of this. Fox seems to have made a conscious choice to remain WITHIN the Christian tradition. That means that he believes in the "specialness" of Jesus Christ. Fox may have a different perspective on Jesus than many of his colleagues, but his Christology is essentially intact. Pagans might do well to remember this before nominating him for "honorary Pagan of the year", a distinction which Fox, considering his questionable status with the Vatican, might see as a MIXED (original) blessing.
But how good a case does Fox make for this forgotten strain of Christianity? His argument is as impressive as it is copious. One of the things that makes "Original Blessing" such a delight to read, is that it is peppered with so many quotes by near-forgotten mystics. Often, their pithiness makes them hit home with astounding impact -- like spiritual one-liners. And many of these utterances are as "Pagan" as anything you'd find in the pages of Starhawk or Margot Adler. In fact, through page after page, chapter after chapter, Fox is attempting to chronicle the difference between these two approaches to spirituality, creation-centered and fall/redemption. But he might just as well be itemizing the traditional differences between Christianity and Paganism. Therefore, it should not be a surprise that many of these Christian mystics were hounded, harrassed, tortured and killed by the Inquisition -- just like their Pagan counterparts.
For many modern Pagans, Christianity remains the chief symbol of centuries of repression and genocide. However, if Christianity is ever to be made palatable to Pagan sensibilities, it will be through the scholarship, dedication and love of someone such as Matthew Fox.
NOTE:Since I wrote this article, almost two years ago, a great deal of controversy has surrounded our boy Matt Fox. His writings have been under the careful scrutiny of the Vatican's Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faithful, which passes judgement on the orthodoxy of the writings of leading theologians. This sacred Congregation is headed up by the brilliant, but ultra-conservative, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger. Ratzinger convened a council of Fox's superiors in his order, and asked them to pass judgement. The council found Fox's writing to be 'creative', but devoid of any actual heresy. Whereupon Ratzinger ignored the findings of his own council, and demanded that Matt Fox be silenced (i.e. made to stop writing and teaching). (One point of contention for Cardinal Ratzinger is that Starhawk is on Fox's teaching staff. That she be removed from the staff is one of Ratzinger's conditions for the lifting of the imposition of silence.)
Document Copyright © 1983 - 2009 by Mike Nichols.