Interview: Matthew Fox on his ‘Christian Mystics’



Matthew Fox prefers to be called just “Matt”—perhaps because his full name in news media usually comes with “Provocative” or “Controversial” attached like it’s his first name. There is some truth to those labels: Matt doesn’t suffer fools lightly and throughout his career in preaching and teaching, his activism has stirred fiery reactions. If you’re reading this interview, you’re probably aware of his years-long feud with the Vatican that led him to move to the Episcopal church in 1994.

Read Part 1 of our coverage of Matt’s work, this week, for a link to his new book about the Vatican. Or, to learn more about the breadth of his work, consider reading this provocative 2008 interview with Matt, which focused on his book, “The Hidden Spirituality of Men.”
Yes, we just used that “P” word, again. How fair is that term? Well, the photo at right shows Matt in 2005 in Wittenburg, Germany, nailing up a long list of principles for transforming Christianity. Wittenburg is the site traditionally associated with Martin Luther and the birth of the Protestant Reformation. Matt staged this 2005 demonstration to protest the election of Pope Benedict XVI, his own long-time sparring partner.

But, let’s be clear: Matthew Fox’s work is far larger than his feud with the Vatican. In fact, Matt describes his vocation as cosmic in scale.

In 2005, Fox wrote from Germany that a TV cameraman in Wittenburg asked him, “Is this just about the corruption in the Catholic church?”

Matt says he answered: “No! The Protestant church is suffering differently from the Catholic church. It is more from boredom and accedia, lack of energy to begin new things.” Matt concluded: “A Reformation—better yet, a Transformation—is called for across the board as we enter a new millennium.”

However, some of the concepts Matt explores in his work can seem a bit dense for general reading, which is one reason we like his new Christian Mystics: 365 Readings and Meditations—it’s an introduction in day-by-day segments to the core teachings on mysticism that drive Matt’s work on spiritual renewal.


DAVID: Let’s start with your new book, called The Pope’s War: Why Ratzinger’s Secret Crusade Has Imperiled the Church and How It Can Be Saved. Give readers some background on the scope of this book about Benedict.

MATT: I go into his story, his career—and his enemies. He has silenced more than 90 theologians and activists and expelled them, including me and many in the liberation-theology and base-community movement in Latin America. I write about his allies in the church, too. I write about the pedophile scandal, but also two other scandals: the financial-mismanagement scandal, more of which is just coming out now, and the scandal of dumbing down the church.

DAVID: Explain what you mean by “dumbing down”?

MATT: In expelling all of these theologians, then by appointing only yes men in the hierarchy, this really dismantles the intellectual energy of the church.

But my book is not all about scandal. In the last part of the book, I write about where we can go from here. My thesis is that the church has been so deconstructed under the last two papacies that it’s time to push the restart button on Christianity itself. I see this as the work of the Holy Spirit leveling the playing field. Now, we should be asking: What should we save from this burning building? And that’s where my new book on mysticism comes in. This is part of the treasure of the church that we truly need to save. What does a truly catholic-with-a-small-c Christianity—a truly universal Christianity—look like? The church needs a new Reformation—both in our Catholic and Protestant wings. The Catholic wing is corrupt at the very top and Protestantism has sold its soul to Fundamentalism and needs a good kick in the pants, too.


DAVID: We all have some mental image of a “mystic,” but your list of mystics will surprise readers, I think. You’ve got some famous mystics in this book—but you’ve also got people in this collection like Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Marcus Borg, who most readers wouldn’t think of in this regard.

MATT: That’s because too many people define mysticism in an esoteric, narrow way. That kind of definition deprives people from recognizing that they are mystics, too. And that’s at the heart of my 40-year ministry—reminding people that they can be mystics. It’s there inside them.

My whole life has been trying to connect mysticism to the work of compassion and justice. In fact, that’s why I’ve gotten into so much trouble with critics! If I was just telling people to go lock themselves away and be still and meditate—I wouldn’t have made the enemies I’ve made! I would still be making a living as a priest in the Catholic Church! I like to quote William Hocking: A prophet is a mystic in action! I’m trying to find that balance, that dance between the mystic and the prophet. And, you know? There’s a prophet inside all of us. We just have to kick start it! It’s the church’s mission to help people become both mystics and prophets.

DAVID: You list the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. as a mystic. He’s a great man, obviously, but doesn’t show up in most works on mysticism.

MATT: Don’t even try to tell me that King wasn’t a mystic! That misses the whole point of what I’m saying about mystics. They don’t have to wear their mysticism on their sleeve. It’s by their fruits you will know them. King certainly was a mystic! Did you know that, when he went to jail, the book he carried with him was Howard Thurman’s “Jesus and The Disinherited.” I’m sorry for anyone who tries to tell me that King wasn’t a mystic—or the others I’m including here, like Howard Thurman—shouldn’t be in this collection. I think that response is just spiritually illiterate.

You know 150 years ago Walt Whitman said it was time to smash the crystal of poetry and start over. I think it’s about time to smash the crystal of classic theology. We’ve gotten into a terrible mess. Let’s start over.


DAVID: Last year, one of our most popular stories in ReadTheSpirit was a short profile of your friend, the California-based poet Rafael Jesus Gonzalez. You’ve worked for years with Rafael so you know his approach to art and life and spirituality. What caught our readers by surprise was Rafael’s argument that the American standard of living actually is impoverished when compared with Latin America.

Why? Rafael gave the example of music and holiday celebrations: In Mexico, “there  is much more music in the streets, more dancing in the streets, more color. There are more holidays that have so much meaning in them that they flow through the streets until everyone shares in them. In the United States, people don’t sing in the streets. People glue their own private music to their ears.”

I would say that Rafael is pointing to something very close to the everyday mysticism you’re describing. Rafael is talking about the “awe” in vibrant living—a concept close to mysticism. In American culture, we tend to squeeze that awe out of our daily lives.

MATT: I love your quote from Rafael! Yes, we live in a culture where art itself is encased in crystal. We only talk about art in terms of what sells commercially. We miss the important point that everyone has an artistic life. Everyone can express themselves creatively. Yes, this is what I’m talking about when I talk about the everyday mystical journey on which all of us can take part.

DAVID: I appreciate your including Howard Thurman. We actually publish a book, “Interfaith Heroes,” that profiles Thurman for contemporary readers. We think Thurman was a very important spiritual pioneer.

MATT: Of course! Thurman was a spiritual influence on Dr. King. I consider Thurman one of the greatest mystics in North America. I knew his wife, because he ended his life here in San Francisco. The pastor of his church was vice president of my University of Creation Spirituality. We published a whole issue of our magazine some years ago on Thurman. The guy was an absolute spiritual genius. His work influenced so many other movements. You can even see his influence in the Jewish renewal movement. I never met Thurman, but I’ve seen film of him and I’ve heard his sermons in recordings. There’s a beauty in his voice that’s absolutely moving. So, it’s no small thing that King chose Thurman’s book to take to jail.


DAVID: Your book and your public speaking has an apocalyptic air to it. You talk about the house of Christianity burning down. You talk about kicking Christianity in the rear end. So, let’s close this interview with what you see on the horizon line.

MATT: I am not optimistic, but I am hopeful. I think hope is very different from optimism. Hope comes out of facing the darkness, facing the despair. We have to face what is happening to us as a people and as a planet. The damage we are doing to Earth is reaching irreversible proportions.

We’re running out of time and we’re still making very unwise decisions. The BP disaster is a sign of that. The situation in Japan is another sign. The Japanese know they’re sitting on a ring of potential earthquakes—so why didn’t anyone stop to think that earthquakes can produce tsunamis and it’s a very bad idea to design nuclear power plants and the emergency-response equipment in such a way that it all can break down when an earthquake strikes. You would think the human race would be smarter than this.

What we’re realizing is that, as a species, we’re not as smart as we think we are. For example, I’ve been reading about new thinking on farming. It could be that we’ve been doing agriculture wrong for 10,000 years if we want to sustain ourselves and the Earth. And, I think we need to admit that we’ve perhaps been doing religion wrong for 10,000 years—or doing education wrong for 10,000 years.

We have to learn from the mystics about purifying our longing, living simpler lives, using less energy and getting out from under this incarnational greed that passes itself off as our economic system.

But, we do have a lot going for us. You’re going to publish this in an online magazine. The Internet allows us to communicate beyond our own tiny cultural ghettos. We can send out wakeup calls. We have to live differently on this planet to survive. Can we do that? Of course, we can do it. Our species is amazingly adaptable and we can change—but not if we remain trapped in our own tiny, little, introspective consciousness.

Remember: You can purchase Christian Mystics: 365 Readings and Meditations—Fox’s 365-day vision of what mystics can teach us at this moment in history—via Amazon.

Please connect with us and help us to reach a wider audience

Conversation is far better than the dangerous shouting matches we’ve been witnessing in our global culture. So, please, email us at [email protected] and tell us what you think of our stories—and, please tell a friend to start reading along with you!

We welcome your Emails! . We’re also reachable on Twitter, Facebook, AmazonHuffington PostYouTube and other social-networking sites. You also can Subscribe to our articles via Email or RSS feed. Plus, there’s a free Monday morning Planner newsletter you may enjoy.

Originally published at, an online journal covering religion and cultural diversity.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email