A Critique of Matthew Fox's Creation Spirituality
I have already noted that, for Fox, all of creation images forth God. However, human beings are, in a unique sense, the images of God because we are the point at which creativity becomes self-conscious.
This identification of the image of God in humankind with our capacity for creativity is, like other aspects of Fox's theology, by no means new. It is, in fact, a perfectly natural development of the Augustinian view of the image of God as human rationality in the light of contemporary interest in creativity and an awareness of the way in which the Bible juxtaposes statements about the image of God with accounts of divine creativity. Thus, as Noel O'Donoghue comments, 'if the creator is essentially creative then it is this creativity which constitutes the creature' (cited by Etchells 1983,59).
However, the conditional in that quotation is very important. If we say that the image of God in humankind consists in our creativity , we imply that God is essentially creative. Fox would apparently agree since he asserts that 'divinity means creativity' (Fox 1983, 184). The logical conclusion of such a view is Origenism: the belief that, for God to be God, God must create from eternity to eternity. God and creation become co-eternal. God becomes a creative demon.
Fox has a very optimistic view of the image of God. Rather than seeing it as marred by human sinfulness, it is, for Fox, merely hidden from view.
Thus salvation is a matter of awakening to the fact that our divinity is within us. Because of a dualistic perception of the world we have been projecting all that is most noble within us onto an imaginary deity 'out there.' When we recognize this, we can begin trust in ourselves and, as Fox comments, 'The psychology of trust and growth that ... is the mainstay of creation-centered spirituality and culminates in our growth into our own divinity' (Fox 1983, 184). This growth is achieved by pursuing the four paths of creation spirituality.
I have already commented on the gnosticism of this approach. Other theologians have highlighted its naivety .Thus, for example, Sallie McFague comments that his prescription for change '... involves neither repentance, which is too reminiscent of redemption negativity, nor addressing the gross economic disparity between North and South America, the regions he focuses on. Rather he suggests that by releasing 'the mystic child' within each of us, we will want to share our wealth with others, spontaneously and naturally. He calls us to 'imagine, for example, the rituals that could develop around letting go of $100 billion of our defense department budget' ... But, we must ask, what prompts people to let go of $100 billion in the first place? Is engaging in practices to release the wounded mystic child within first-world people sufficient? Once our celebrative, joyful spirits are free, will we share? ... Deep in our souls many of us will whisper, no - I won't, we won't.' (McFague 1993, 71f)
As images of the divine we possess the divine eros. This implies that we possess the divine power of creativity. As was the case with his understanding of God's creativity, human creativity is not qualified in any way. It is raw creative power that will flow forth from us whether or not we acknowledge it. 'Creativity, the divine power of Dabhar, is so powerful and so overwhelming in us that we simply cannot deny it, cannot keep it down. If we are not consciously bent on employing it for life's sake, it will emerge on its own for the sake of destruction' (Fox 1983, 182). For Fox, modern consumerism is just such a destructive expression of our creativity .
Human creativity is to be celebrated in diversity, since 'Behind all creativity there lies not just a tolerance of diversity but a reverence for it, a passionate need for it' (Fox 1988,204). This is especially true of sexual diversity. In an unusual form of natural-law argument, Fox seeks to legitimate homosexual activity:
'the Cosmic Christ is radically present to all sexuality in all its dimensions and possibilities. The Cosmic Christ celebrates sexual diversity - "in Christ there is neither male nor female," says Paul (Gal. 3:28). The Cosmic Christ is not obsessed with sexual identity. The Cosmic Christ can be both female and male, heterosexual and homosexual. This is the way nature made the human species, and nothing that is natural to the cosmos is foreign to the Cosmic Christ.' (Fox 1988, 164)
- At the same time we possess the divine power of compassion. We express our compassion through unitive love (Fox 1988, 50) and the struggle for justice understood as harmony or balance (Fox 1988, 62f).
If we are images of God we are also microcosms of the universe. According to Fox, 'Creativity is the fundamental law of the human psyche which constitutes a microcosm of the universe' (Fox 1988, 202). We image forth all aspects of deity .Interestingly, it is the human psyche that is the microcosm of the universe (and the image of God). This again recalls the Augustinian emphasis on psychological analogies for the Trinity in spite of Fox's dislike for what he regards as Augustine's unhealthy introspection.
It follows from this understanding of the image of God as conscious possession of the divine powers of creativity and compassion that human beings are co-creators with God. Again Fox gives a modern interpretation to a traditional term. We are co-creators not in the sense of creating under God, not in the sense that our creativity is ordained by God. Rather we take an equal divine share in the creation of the universe. We share in the process of cosmic evolution (Fox 1983, 214). Furthermore, we possess the ability to create our on realities: 'we live in the world we create for ourselves. If we deserve better than w hat we have, we must birth it from our souls' (Fox 1988, 206).
This capacity to create our own future is the basis for Fox's faith in the emergence of a global civilization. But, because it derives from our divinity it is imbued with eschatological significance. It is a process initiated by the divine spirit within us and, hence, a process involving rebirth and conversion (Fox 1988, 160!). Elsewhere, Fox presents it in terms reminiscent of Teilhard de Chardin's vision of the Omega Point as the emergence of a planetary soul (Fox 1979,257-66).
Such a process will depend upon the establishment of a deep ecumenism. In contrast to the shallow ecumenism of the World Council of Churches, this will involve an ecumenical council of all religions (Fox 1988, 7). But this will not be so much the cause of deep ecumenism as an expression of w hat is for Fox the truth about religions.
Fox asserts that, at heart, all religions interpenetrate. In keeping with the view that has become widespread in the west since the pioneering missionary activity of Vivekananda, Fox believes that all religions have a common basis in mystical experience (Fox 1988, 65, 229ff). The particularities which mark one religion off from another and which we usually regard as their identifying characteristics are no more than an ideological husk. All religious traditions, in their own way, bear witness to the Cosmic Christ (Fox 1988,228).
Over the past two decades Fox has vigorously mined the Christian traditions for historical precedents for his spirituality . This has led him to classify Christianity into two quite distinct streams: the fall/redemption tradition and the creation-centred tradition.
Fox identifies the creation-centred tradition with the Judaeo-Christian Scriptures (particularly the Jewish Wisdom traditions and the Christian Gospels), Eastern Orthodoxy, Celtic Christianity (which, he believes has been influenced by Hinduism, e.g., Fox 1988,230), Thomas Aquinas (but emphatically not Thomism), St Francis and the Franciscan Dante, and, above all, the Rhineland mystics (Meister Eckhart, Hildegard of Bingen, Mechthild of Magdeburg and Julian of Norwich.
It should be noted that Fox manages to produce this creation tradition out of an apparent diversity of traditions by means of a particular way of reading. He subjects their writings to what may be described as a creation-centred hermeneutic consisting of the four paths of his own spirituality: Eckhart, Hildegard and, most recently, Aquinas have all been translated and interpreted by Fox using just such an interpretative device.
This immediately raises the question of whether the authors in question are being allowed to speak for themselves. On closer examination, it appears that they are, in fact, being subjected to a bed of Procrustes. That mythological character used to measure travelers against his bed - if they fell short they were stretched to fit, if they were overlong amputation was the order of the day.
Amputation certainly seems to be the operative word when one examines Bear and Company's edition of Hildegard's Scivias. The preface acknowledges that passages which were regarded as 'irrelevant or difficult to comprehend today' have been omitted. Hildegard scholar Barbara Newman points out that these omissions amount to about half the original work and include 'lengthy passages promoting orthodox sexual ethics, commending virginity, expounding the theology of baptism and Eucharist, condemning heresy, upholding priestly ordination and celibacy, defending the feudal privilege of nobles, and exhorting the obedience of subjects.' She concludes that 'Hildegard is welcome to Fox's mystical pantheon so long as she refrains from being a twelfth-century Catholic' (Newman 1992,7).
But the authors in question have also been subjected to the rack of eisegesis. Fox's fellow Dominican and Eckhart scholar, Simon Tugwell has this to say of Fox's treatment of Eckhart: 'It is difficult to avoid the feeling that the mistranslation is deliberate, intended to minimise anything that would interfere with the alleged "creation-centredness' of Eckhart's spirituality' (Tugwell1984, 197).
Apart from mistranslation, Fox seems to be able to see in the tradition things which no-one else has observed. For example, he asserts that the Noahic Covenant of Genesis 9 is a covenant between humankind and creation rather than between God and creation (including humankind) (Fox 1988, 151). He simply asserts this without argument or authority.
Another example, this time drawn from the Eastern Orthodox tradition, would be his assertion that 'Eastern teaching emphasizes that all began with Wisdom. The Holy Spirit, Mother Sophia, was present ... prior to creation itself (Fox 1991, 64f). This is simply untrue: the Greek Fathers are united in their insistence on the priority of the Father within the Trinity.
The most recent example of his efforts to baptise Christian theologians into his creation spirituality tradition is his 1992 work, Sheer Joy: Conversations with Thomas Aquinas on Creation Spirituality. In this long work Fox asks a series of questions about each of the four paths of creation spirituality and answers them with quotations drawn from a wide range of Aquinas, works. Fox describes it as a post-modern hermeneutical approach. Perhaps so. But, in the process, Aquinas is denied the right to speak for himself. Passages are taken out of context and presented as if they are answers to our questions. The author's intentions are submerged in Fox's emphasis on the reader's response. In fact, almost any Christian theologian could be presented as part of the creation spirituality tradition in this way.
The feminist theologian Rosemary Ruether, who is by no means unsympathetic to Fox's programme, comments that
'The good guys and girls all come out sounding exactly like Matthew Fox. They share entirely his same agenda, whether they be Jesus Christ, Meister Eckhart, Hildegard of Bingen, Sufis, Hasidic Masters, Buddhists or Native Americans. Fox lacks the basic requirement of historical scholarship, and critical distance from his own agenda.' (Ruether 1990, 172)
Fox contrasts the creation-centred tradition with the dominant fall/redemption tradition which he associates particularly with Augustine. It would be no exaggeration to say that the latter is Fox's bete noir. Augustine is the subject of vitriolic attacks which, taken in combination, create the impression that his theology is the source of all that is wrong with western Christianity (and, by extension, western culture).
Significantly, Fox fails to substantiate his accusations. He occasionally cites authorities who are critical of Augustine but never offers a systematic critique of Augustine's thought. In reality, Augustine is a far more complex character than Fox is prepared to admit. It is quite possible to develop a completely different image of Augustine by selective reading of his works (e.g., Santmire 1985, 55-73). The truth probably lies somewhere between Fox's view of Augustine as the source of all evil and Santmire's presentation of him as the creation theologian par excellence. It is possible to trace a line of development in Augustine from the world-hating student of the Manichees and Plotinus to a more mature and less negative view of creation as he allows the Scriptures and Christian tradition to influence his thought. To take just one counter-example from Augustine's mature theology:
'The earth is good by the height of its mountains, the moderate elevation of its hills, and the evenness of its fields; and good is the farm that is pleasant and fertile ... and good are the animals, animate bodies ... and good is the heaven with its own sun, moon and stars' (Trin 8.3.4)
Augustine believed that by contemplating the goodness of creation you might perceive 'the good of every good', i.e., God. This is not the language of someone with a Manichaean disdain for creation.
If Fox's view of the tradition is to be taken seriously he must account for such counter-examples. He must also explain why so many creation-centred mystics emerged from a context which was essentially Augustinian.
Why does Fox adopt such an approach to the tradition? His doctoral studies with MD Chenu preclude the possibility that he is really ignorant of responsible historical scholarship.
Another explanation has been suggested by various of his critics. Barbara Newman points out that his style of historiography has ample precedents within the Roman Catholic tradition (and, indeed, in other Christian traditions). It might be described as a harmonistic approach (Newman uses the less complimentary term, 'pre-critical'): diverse voices are forced into harmony to create a party line. Such a technique is common amongst those making a totalitarian claim to the truth.
A recent British critique makes a similar point about Fox, analysing his use of religious language in the light of a recent discussion of ideology (Goodall & Reader 1992). They demonstrate that Fox uses a variety of strategies which have ideological potential. This may also be shown by comparing his treatment of the fall/redemption tradition with Ruth Glass's account of the development of racist language (Leech 1993, 189-97). First, you create a stereotype, writing about groups in the unisex singular. We relate to this stereotype in an impersonal We-It manner. Secondly, you reinforce the stereotype by depicting it as alien, the carrier of problems. Thirdly, the stereotyping is aided by verbal fog and jargon. Finally, it is heated up by the use of language and terror. Fox's fall/redemption tradition is stereotypical in just this way. It is an artificial construct with which the individual Christian cannot easily identify. Secondly, it is presented as the bearer of all that is problematic in Christianity , as the source of our discomfort with the institutional church. Verbal fog and jargon is Fox's stock in trade. Finally it is accused of matricide, genocide and ecocide. In other words, Fox adopts a rhetorical approach precisely analogous to that of the racist demagogue.
Fox describes his creation-centred spirituality as a religious paradigm shift. But, in the light of the above analysis, one may well ask whether it is a shift to something new or, rather, a return to well-worn religious paths, specifically the paths of paganism.
The divinization of the world may well strike readers of Fox as a significant pagan theme within his writings. However, we have to tread carefully here. While the notion of the cosmos as alive grates upon the ears of modern men and women, it would have seemed perfectly natural to our medieval forebears. It is possible to ascribe life (and even divinity) to creatures without compromising orthodox Christian belief about God and the world. The distinguishing feature of orthodoxy would be an insistence upon the conferred nature of any creaturely divinity: it would be God's gracious gift of participation in the life of the Trinity. The question is whether, in asserting that our divinity is within us, Fox recognizes that it is within us only as the gift of God. His emanationist view of cosmogony suggests that the answer must be 'no.' Consistent emanationism implies that divine creativity is natural rather than voluntary: thus the creature is divine simply by virtue of being a creature. Divinity is not conferred upon it.
Another theme which raises suspicions about a return to paganism is Fox's suggestion that men today might celebrate the sacred phallos! He sees this as a way for men to rediscover their origins and thus overcome their fear and jealousy of the feminine. To achieve this, he advocates a 'return to the chthonic by way of drumming, dancing, and entering into the irrational processes that have been native ways of ritual and wisdom for tens of thousands of years' (Fox 1988, 177). These suggestions seem to fit naturally with his essentially pagan understanding of cosmogenesis as a sexual process. If there is one thing that comes across clearly from the historical and prophetic strands of the Old Testament it is that Hebrew religion waged a relentless battle with the fertility cults of the ancient near east. Similarly Christianity has consistently opposed fertility cults and it would be in the name of such opposition that orthodox theologians today would resist the feminization of the Godhead.
Perhaps the most disturbing feature of Fox's theology is his tendency to suppress the temporal and historical. Fox would deny this accusation, claiming that we need to maintain both space and time in dialectical tension. It is true that he asserts that time has a place in his though and hints at the dire consequences of neglecting either pole of this dialectic. However, it might be more accurate to say time is put in its place by Fox.
To begin with, his divinization of the world effectively converts nature into a sacred space - a point he acknowledges when he speaks of Mother Earth as a temple (Fox 1988, 146). Furthermore he argues that western theology has been guilty of an idolatry of time (Fox 1988, 141). In this connection, he singles out the salvation history school of thought for particular criticism (Fox 1988, 143).
Perhaps the clearest indication of his preferences comes in his discussion of time and space in relation to the death and resurrection of Jesus. The death of Jesus pertains to time. What follows is the resurrection of Christ which Fox associates with space (Fox 1988, 143). Earlier he asserts that 'The resurrection is nothing if not a conquest of time and place (death on Golgotha) by space - that is by an empty (space-filled) tomb where sadness and death no longer are granted place' (Fox 1988, 141). Time is given the negative associations of death and decay. But could it not be argued that time is more properly associated with life? Thus the resurrection is the victory of time (and life) over space (death; the tomb). Clearly, for Fox, it is space that is the dominant reality.
Another indicator of his bias towards space is his form of realized eschatology. For Fox, the fulfillment of all things is located in the present rather than the future - it is the depth of the present. However, 'The invitation to explore the depths of the Now time is also an invitation to let go of all time. For an entry into the divine power of the present constitutes an entry into that divine space where all time stands still, where timeless play is operative, where time is at last suspended, forgotten, shed, so that God may be "all in all".' (Fox 1983, 106f)
Finally his bias against time is seen in his inability to take history seriously. This inability is witnessed in his essentially a-historical treatment of the Christian (and other) traditions touched on in the previous section. It is visible in his mythologization of the Christian Scriptures in his efforts to find evidence of his mythological Cosmic Christ to supplant a historical Jesus. And it is clear in his rejection of the historical particularity of religions in favour of a mythical and mystical common spirituality .
Why have I put so much emphasis on this aspect of Fox's theology? Simply, because the predominance of space over time is characteristic of paganism. According to Paul Tillich, 'Paganism can be defined as the elevation of a special space to ultimate value and dignity' (Tillich 1964,31). Existence under the dominance of space is ultimately tragic: all existence is governed by the inexorable cycle of genesis and decay, birth and death, outpouring and return - precisely the powers celebrated by Fox in his theology. The characteristic form of religion under the dominance of space is mysticism (Tillich 1964,34).
Fox's emphasis on space at the expense of time is corrosive of human relationships and, hence of a dynamic trinitarian understanding of Christianity .This is because relationships exist in time. The abolition of time effectively walls the mystic off from contingent human existence and, hence, from personal relationships with others (including God). As Carl Raschke points out 'In the endeavor to stop time, man runs the risk of undercutting his relations with others; indeed, he threatens to stab to death his very humanity' (Raschke 1980, 22). In a similar vein, Tillich accuses paganism, with its emphasis on space, of being inherently unjust (Tillich 1964, 38). A tragic cosmos leaves no room for Christian concepts of justice and love. Instead there is only will to power.
It seems that Fox has achieved Aldous Huxley's vision of a spatialized Christianity:
'From the writings of Eckhart, Tauler and Ruysbroeck, of Boehme, William Law and the Quakers, it would be possible to extract a spiritualised and universalised Christianity, whose narratives should refer, not to history as it was ... but to "processes forever unfolded in the heart of man." But unfortunately ... Christianity has remained a religion in which the pure Perennial Philosophy has been overlaid, now more, now less, by an idolatrous preoccupation with events and things in time.' (Huxley 1958,63f)
But whence has come this paganism? What are the roots of Fox's new paradigm? Many critics look, with some justification, to the New Age movement. A number of themes in the foregoing analysis certainly point to affinities with the New Age - and these affinities are strong enough for Fox to have been invited to speak at Findhorn (one of the foremost British New Age communities). Similarly one may draw parallels between Fox's work and that of his colleague Starhawk. Less justifiable are the accusations that he is indebted to theosophical sources.
However affinities and parallels are not the same as roots. There can be little doubt that Fox's roots are firmly bedded in the soil of Roman Catholic Christianity . As I have hinted at various points in this paper, Fox's writings show a clear indebtedness to the very theologian he goes to pains to repudiate, namely, Augustine. Earlier I described Augustine as Fox's bete noir; I might have said, drawing on Jung, that Augustine is Fox's shadow.
There are several points at which this indebtedness to Augustine (and Neoplatonism) is particularly striking. There is the role of eros on which I have already commented. There is the tendency to emanationism: arguably, Augustine suppressed the tension between emanationism and creatio ex nihilo permitting a strong Neoplatonic influence in subsequent western Christianity (e.g., Knowles 1962,39). One example of that influence is the ubiquitous concept of the great chain of being which eventually became a root of modern evolutionary thought (Lovejoy 1936). A third similarity which I have already noted is the psychological locus for the image of God - Augustine locates it in the structure of human rationality, Fox in human imagination and creativity. But Fox's move from rationality to creativity does not move him out of the orbit of Neoplatonism; it merely brings hims closer to another significant Christian Neoplatonist, Origen.
Another point of contact between Augustine and Fox is their shared suspicion of time. As is well known, the young Augustine developed a psychological theory of time in his Confessions. Like Fox, he also associated time with death and decay (vera relig 4.6, util 17.35). But even the mature Augustine, writing a seminal work on the philosophy of history, could identify history with the sea of chaos in the Book of Revelation and look to an eschatological escape from history and time (civ 20.15-16).
Finally, on the rare occasions that Fox discusses the Trinity, he adopts a characteristically Augustinian form of the doctrine. Thus he insists that the filioque (the procession of the Holy Spirit from Father and Son) is 'the' traditional form of the doctrine (Fox 1983, 214). Indeed he even suggests that this Augustinian innovation is the most important feature of trinitarian thought:
'child and parent, ... together form the divine dynamism. Indeed, this would seem to be the deep meaning behind the trinitarian doctrine in Christianity: only a relationship of mutuality between the Parent and the Child, i.e., the senex and the puer, truly births the Spirit. ...Ony senex and puer, Parent and Child, can truly enspirit the world.' (Fox 1988, 191).
As might be expected, there is a corresponding suppression of the personhood of the Spirit which is variously identified with love, compassion, divine eros (e.g., Fox 1984, 100; Fox 1988, 145).
Far from turning his back on Augustine, Fox has unwittingly perpetuated some of the key Neoplatonic themes of Augustine's theology. It is the inattentive acceptance of these themes which is integral to Fox's return to paganism.
This may strike readers as a hostile critique. However, if there is hostility in it, it is because I share many of Fox's concerns about contemporary culture and western Christianity. Fox is entirely right to want to shake Western Christianity out of its Babylonian captivity to Enlightenment liberalism. He has also pointed to some valuable resources to aid us in that task (specifically the Scriptures themselves; the Eastern Orthodox tradition which, at its best, achieved a transformation of classical culture which might be described as cultural conversion; and Celtic Christianity, a less intellectual but nevertheless highly successful example of inculturation).
However, I believe the attempt to mythologize (or paganize) the tradition is fundamentally mistaken. Such a process can never revive 'a religion of time aiming at the sanctification of time' (Reschel 1966, 7). It cannot restore shalom: a concept which might well be summarised as 'justice, peace and the integrity of creation.'
If Fox were to permit some of his sources to speak with their own voice he might find that there is a third way between the life-denying distortion of Christianity which he rightly rejects and a superficially life-affirming paganism masquerading as Christianity. For example, he might listen to the Cappadocian Fathers and hear them speak of a trinitarianism which sees the universe in terms or relationships rather than substances.
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Lawrence Osbornwas born in 1954. He is a physical scientist turned theologian and holds more than one academic degree in both fields. For the past five years he has worked with The Gospel and our Culture, an ecumenical programme inspired by the writings of Bishop Lesslie Newbegin and dedicated to the development of a missionary perspective on contemporary western culture. His interest in the work of Matthew Fox stems from his own doctoral research on the place of the natural world in Christian theology and subsequent research on the New Age movement. He is the author of several books, including Angels of Light? The Challenge of New Age Spirituality (London, 1992) and Guardians of Creation: Nature in theology and the Christian life (Leicester, 1993).