293: Conversation With spiritual sage Matthew Fox on envisioning new lives

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his is a big, new day for Americans and for the rest of the world as well! It’s Election Day 2008. From our spiritual perspective here at ReadTheSpirit—we’ve got a perfect interview for this occasion with best-selling spiritual sage Matthew Fox, whose latest book is all about re-envisioning our lives for the world that’s opening up all around us. His book’s title may sound like it’s only for half of the world. After all, the title is “The Hidden Spirituality of Men,” but it’s really a marvelous sourcebook for all people searching for creative new models in daily living.
    In his book, Matt spins out stories of the Green Man and the Blue Man, the Warrior and even the Grandfather Sky—and a half dozen other mythic images that he hopes will help men kick start their lives. He’s hoping that, as men, we finally will get our collective act together and become as creatively useful to the world as women have been for years.
    Twenty-five years ago, Matt published the landmark book, “Original Blessing.” At the time, he still was writing as a priest within the Roman Catholic Church and, like Reformers 500 years ago, he was trying to overturn a centuries-old doctrine. Specifically, he was taking on original sin. He was saying: Hey, here’s some good news! We’re not basically bad people. The world itself isn’t fundamentally a bad place. We’ve messed things up pretty badly, it’s true.
    But, he was saying: Our spiritual calling is to remember God’s goodness, to build peaceful communities and to care for God’s creation. In this kind of message, Matt converges powerfully with voices from the Celtic movement—as well as religious sages in other parts of the world. If you missed it, click here to jump back and read our recent Conversation With J. Philip Newell, author of “Christ of the Celts.”
    In giving the world 10 mythic images of male spirituality, Matt’s idea is not that readers should simply pick one. The idea is to join him in a tour of these mythic images, including the legendary “Green Man” shown on the cover of his book, and then to use these archetypes as playful tools to figure out what will most effectively fuel our journey toward health, wholeness and connection with the world.
     Today, Americans and the rest of the world are discovering that the American President, the world’s most powerful figure, can look and sound and act in ways we might never have envisioned just a few years ago. The question is: Are the rest of us ready to rethink our own spiritual models as well?

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HERE ARE HIGHLIGHTS OF OUR CONVERSATION:

    DAVID: It’s hard to imagine that 25 years have passed since your little bombshell, “Original Blessing,” woke up the Vatican. As a religion writer covering the controversy, I remember that I eventually had a whole thick file of materials about what happened with you, your books, the controversy and your eventual parting of ways with the Roman Catholic Church. That remains a major touchstone in your work, right?
    MATT: That’s the book that’s aroused the most interest. It sold the most and has been translated into more languages than most of my books and, yes, it got the Vatican the most nervous. That book threatened the Vatican more than any other book I’ve done.
    Western Christianity and certainly the Vatican is so committed to the doctrine of original sin that I think the church overreacted to my book. It’s that book more than any other that got me expelled.
    DAVID: I was among the journalists covering that controversy—but the enduring value in what you wrote in “Original Blessing” is bigger than a fight over church discipline. This is a really key issue in religious life for everyone.
    MATT: Yes. Even secular culture is really invested in the idea of original sin. The whole idea of consumer capitalism is the idea that we have to buy our way out of some defect that we’re born with. In contrast are the writings of people like Hildegard of Bingen in the 12th century. She wrote that everything we need for life is within us. That’s original blessing.
    DAVID: You argue persuasively that this comes directly from Jesus’ own teaching.

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    MATT: The latest scholarship on Jesus tells us that he comes from the wisdom tradition of Israel. I wrote about this 25 years ago in “Original Blessing.” This spiritual tradition of Israel is feminist, it’s cosmological, it’s about nature’s revelation not just the revelation you get from reading a book. And it’s deeply mystical. Yes, this is what Jesus represented.
    The Christian thinkers I’ve been trying to resurrect—people like Meister Eckhart and Hildegard of Bingen—these are great pre-modern mystic thinkers who were deeply imbued with the wisdom tradition of Israel. They were chanting the Psalms everyday and the Psalms are part of the wisdom tradition of Israel. That’s the tradition of the Dominicans of which Hildegard (at right) was a part.
    What we’re talking about is a very authentic tradition in Christianity, but it’s been put down for so many years.
    DAVID: At quite a cost.
    MATT: Not the least of which is the ecological disaster that faces all humankind and the other species, too. A lot of this is traceable to a religion that is far too anthropocentric. We need to ask: How are we relating to the grace of the rest of nature?
    DAVID: Here’s where you’re converging with neo-Celtic writers like Philip Newell. His latest book “Christ of the Celts,” like your new book, draws on themes that Philip began developing some years ago in his writings. But, now, in this latest book he’s brought his arguments into full flower, writing that the Celtic tradition of Christianity preserves the idea of Creation’s basic goodness.

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    MATT: I appreciate your bringing that book to my attention. Absolutely this is in the Celtic tradition. I often have said that the Celts are the only ones who got Christianity right in Europe. They begin with the revelation of nature, which is wisdom theology, which the latest scholars are agreeing is Jesus’ tradition as well.
    In “Original Blessing,” I’m quoting Celtic theologians all over the place. This also is very close to Native American spirituality, too. The first time I talked in Ireland, years ago, I talked about sweat lodges and a scholar there said, “We’ve uncovered these places all over Ireland that where fire was used in what archaeologists said were essentially sweat lodges. They had sweat lodges in China and obviously in Scandinavia, which is where we get saunas today. But in Ireland there also was this tradition of sweating to pray.
    DAVID: Your new book is aimed at helping men in particular to re-envision their spiritual lives. I want to ask you about some specific examples in the book, but first: Since we’re talking about re-envisioning our spiritual lives—how has your own spiritual life changed now that you’re not within the Roman Catholic Church? How do you look back now on your Catholicism?
    MATT: First to be accurate, I wasn’t expelled from the church. I was expelled from my order and subsequently I took up with the Episcopalians who offered me religious asylum. I wanted to work with young people to reinvent the forms of worship. I felt back then and I feel today that the forms of worship in the Western church are growing very, very stale. That’s one reason that most young people aren’t there in worship.
    But, when I made these changes, I never signed any dismissal papers form the Catholic church. You know, we all belong to so many communities at once today that perhaps we should all write “Etc.” after we sign our name. I am still Catholic. You can’t take that out of your life if you wanted to after 55 years, which is how old I was when I became Episcopalian.
    The Roman Catholic version of Christianity is extremely myopic and small—and I’m talking about Cardinal Ratzinger’s church and Pope John Paul II’s church. It’s a church hiding behind very thick walls of feudal orthodoxy. It’s a time in this third millennium finally to be breaking out of our particular boxes.

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    DAVID: That’s a good description of your new book—a call “in this third millennium finally to be breaking out of our boxes.” I found your 10 archetypes a lot of fun to explore. Like this Blue Man you write about and include a touch of the Blue Man image at the top of your book cover. Tell us a little about the Blue Man as an example of what’s in the book.
     MATT: This archetype of the Blue Man represents connecting to the blue sky, if you will, and expanding our consciousness. From Hinduism, I write about a saint who had a profound experience of this blue pearl that morphed into a blue man. This experience overcame the saint’s fear of death, released his creativity and expanded his consciousness. At the same time, in the 12th century, Hildegard of Bingen has a meditation on the healing Christ, the man in sapphire blue inside all of us. In that meditation she also encountered a blue pearl. It’s a striking invitation to expand consciousness as an integral part of spiritual growth and maturity.
    When Jesus says the Kingdom of Heaven is among us, he is talking about a very expanded consciousness. Everything we do to expand our consciousness of the history of our universe and our species and the archetypes that we can use to express our faith moves us toward communing with the Kingdom of God that is with us and among us.
    We may find that there’s some chemical physiological reason for this that some people are more wired for a grater diversity of ideas, but at the same time when you look at the great spiritual teachers, they were people like the blue man of great spiritual consciousness.

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    DAVID: As people are reading these lines on our Web site, they won’t catch all of your exploration of a figure like the Blue Man—unless they read more. We are going to write more about the Green Man on the day after this interview is published to help expand on at least that idea for people. But I am aware of this: What you’re talking about in these archetypes can be pretty difficult for many people to embrace.
    MATT: These ideas are powerful but they also are controversial. Jesus or the Buddha or Muhammad—they were all reformers turning over the bucket of satisfied, rote religion. They were shaking things up.
    DAVID: Let’s talk about the “male” focus of this book. Obviously, we’re two men talking about these themes right now, but I suspect that women who follow ReadTheSpirit will find this a fascinating book, as well.
    MATT: Women need this book, too, for at least two reasons: One is that men are important in their lives. They’re sons, grandsons, lovers, husbands, fathers, grandfathers, co-workers. No. 2 is that speaking psychologically now there is a masculine dimension in every woman just as there is a feminine dimension in every man. That masculine dimension in many women’s lives has turned as toxic in many cases as it has for men.
    A lot of my work has come out of the feminist tradition. When the current pope, Cardinal Ratzinger then, condemned me—his first objection was that he said I was a feminist theologian and he also complained that I called God, “Mother,” even though I’ve shown that medieval Christian mystics called God, “Mother,” as well.

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    DAVID: But you’re saying that, as men collectively, we’re really slow in getting our spiritual act together.
    MATT: I’ve come to the point of realizing: Hey, men are not on par. Men have been meeting in small groups and doing spiritual work. But men have not been doing enough.
    There’s another book out there for men that has gotten a lot of publicity in the men’s movement and this fellow actually is quoting Gen. Patton time and time again—more than Gandhi or Jesus or Buddha or King. I think that’s distorted and sick. Do we really want to give our kids this vision of Gen. Patton as our spiritual guide? That man may have been certifiably unbalanced!
    There really are far deeper stories from our traditions about what it means to be male. There are so many of these deep stories and they call us to do a lot more than turn ourselves into Patton and beat up the rest of the world and declare ourselves No. 1.
    DAVID: Sounds like we’re coming here to a fairly practical impact of this new book. It’s coming at a time when America is changing its top leadership.
    MATT: Yes, for eight ugly years we’ve seen too many leaders talking about this sort of reptilian-brain thinking that says our world is about winning and being No. 1. That’s how you lose relationships in the world. That’s how you lose our relationship with the Earth itself. That’s how we lose relationships with our communities, our bodies, our children.
    There’s a tremendous vacuum today and in all of our institutions we’re running on fumes. We’re almost empty. The next generation coming along is looking for answers, too, and there’s a tremendous need to connect the wisdom of the old with wisdom of the young. We have to develop an intergenerational wisdom.
    This time is a tremendous opportunity to reinvent and to recreate our ways of living on this planet. This is an opportunity to bring in a more nuanced and generous and just expression of what human economics can be, one that includes not just human beings but also the other species on the planet from forests and rivers and oceans.
    This globe has to be a system that works for all of us—humans and all the other creatures as well.
    I’m not a wild-eyed optimist but hope is not about optimism. Hope is about tasting the future enough so that you will want to contribute to a new way of building the world.

CARE TO READ MORE?

    VISIT OUR BOOKSTORE: Click on the book covers above or on this text link—and you’ll jump to our recommendations of three of Matthew Fox’s books.
    CHECK OUT WIKI’S OVERVIEW: Fox’s Wikipedia page is a brief outline of his life and works.
    OR, EXPLORE HIS OWN SITE: Fox’s personal Web site is not fancy, but if you explore the links you’ll find intriguing articles and information about his life and work.
    CREATION SPIRITUALITY IN COMMUNITY: Visit a Web site set up by men and women influenced by Fox’s teachings who want to provide resources for communities living out his spiritual principles.
    COME BACK TOMORROW: On Thursday, we’ll tell you more about the Green Man from a special visit to a site made world famous in “The DaVinci Code.”

PLEASE, Tell Us What You Think.

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   (Published in the ReadTheSpirit online magazine.)

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