Conversations On The Leading Edge
Of Knowledge and Discovery
With Dr. Jeffrey Mishlove
JEFFREY MISHLOVE: Ph.D.: Hello and welcome. I'm Jeffrey Mishlove. Our topic today is "Creation Spirituality." With me is Matthew Fox, who is a Dominican priest and theologian and director of the Center for Creation Spirituality and Culture at Holy Names College in Oakland, California. Matthew is the author of numerous books, including Original Blessing, A Spirituality Named Compassion, The Illuminations of Hildegard von Bingen, Breakthrough, The Creation Spirituality of Meister Eckhart, and books with such whimsical titles as On Becoming a Musical Mystical Bear. Welcome.
MATTHEW FOX, Ph.D.: Thank you, Jeff.
MISHLOVE: It's a pleasure to be with you, Matthew.
FOX: It's good to be here.
MISHLOVE: You are a pioneer in developing a new kind of ecumenical spirituality within the Catholic Church, one that seems to recognize the spiritual thrust in many, in fact in all different religions and cultures.
FOX: Yes, I call it deep ecumenism, and I think it's something that is long overdue. You know, when the Western churches went out in the sixteenth century and encountered the African, the Native American, the native Asian religions, they had lost a cosmology, they had lost their mystical traditions, and so the encounter was extremely severe, of course, and it contributed to the genocide against these peoples. I think when you're looking for wisdom in the world today, you have to look at the native peoples the world over, the wisdom of their religions, and this forces one to look at the wisdom of one's own. I think this whole tradition of mysticism is something that's been ignored in ecumenism. Ecumenism is not meant to be reading theological position papers at each other. It would be best to meet in sweat lodges, or in processes of ancient ways of prayer. We do this in our Institute, and I think it's an essential part of recovering a living cosmology, which I think is the only hope that mother earth has of survival, frankly -- is the human race changing its ways from violence to cosmology, to mysticism.
MISHLOVE: You seem to suggest in your writings -- and it's surprising to me to read this in the writings of a Catholic priest -- that religion itself works against genuine spirituality.
FOX: Well, it often has. Perhaps it doesn't have to, but I think that religion often becomes a sociological phenomenon. You certainly see it in your right-wing television preachers, and so forth, where religion is being manipulated for political reasons and economic gain. And of course it's what Jesus took on in his own day, and any prophet does -- criticizing religion. Gandhi was in fact criticizing the Hindu religion of his time in proposing the intimate connection between social justice and moral development. Hinduism in his day had split the two things, as religion does whenever it goes corrupt. So the renewal of religion is always out of some kind of spiritual awakening, of the community as well as of the individual.
MISHLOVE: How do you define spirituality?
FOX: Well, I would understand spirituality as basically -- Eckhart talks about the innermost part of our being. It's the innermost commitment and experience, that is also the cosmic experience. I think it's impossible to separate authentic spirituality from community celebration, community healing, social justice, any of these things. But it comes out of our depths, in living out of our depths, instead of out of superficiality -- what Paul calls the inner person instead of the outer person.
MISHLOVE: I know in one of your books you suggest that spirituality is a way of life.
FOX: Exactly, a way of life. It's something that dictates our response to everything in life, whether it be the beauty of the trees, the winds, the suffering, the pain, the creativity. It's our response to all of this. The creation tradition maintains that our basic response for being here is, "Wow!" It's awe and wonder. Rabbi Heschel says that wisdom begins with awe, and spirituality is that experience of wisdom, as opposed to just knowledge. But awe is really our basic experience. The more science is telling us today about the amazing story of the universe and our being here -- how there were decisions made in the first millisecond of the fireball nineteen billion years ago, on our behalf, without which earth wouldn't have evolved to be a hospitable place for us -- you have to begin with awe and wonder, and that's where the mystic always begins.
MISHLOVE: And then you in your writings seem to suggest that compassion is absolutely essential, and has been lost in the Christian church.
FOX: Well, not altogether, but I think yes, in Western culture too, that compassion has been trivialized, sentimentalized. People often think of it as dropping crumbs from the table, or feelings of pity, whereas really the Biblical tradition is that compassion means justice, as Eckhart says, and it means this basic healing that comes out of our yearning for unity and the sharing of our common experience. It also means celebration, though. Compassion is fifty percent healing, and it's fifty percent about enjoying, celebrating. And it's not just anthropocentric. We have compassion with the other animals of the world, and the trees and the soil, and all the suffering that mother earth is under today is really an invitation to wake up to our capacity for compassion.
MISHLOVE: You've referred now several times to Meister Eckhart, who was also a Dominican priest.
FOX: Right. A fellow heretic.
MISHLOVE: He seems to be a very important original figure in the development of creation spirituality.
FOX: Definitely, yes -- fourteenth-century mystic, social activist, who got himself in trouble because he was involved with the peasants of his day, and with the women's movement, the beguines of the fourteenth century. But he's recognized as the foremost Western mystic who we've produced. Dr. Suzuki, the Zen Buddhist, was in a dialogue with Thomas Merton in 1959, and he gave up. He said, "Tom, you're just like every other dualistic Westerner I've ever met. You'll never get Zen, except one outside chance. If you read your one Zen thinker of the West, Meister Eckhart, you might get us." Merton said, "Well, Eckhart's been condemned." And Suzuki says, "Well, I can't help that." So Merton spent 1960 reading Eckhart and Zen poetry, and it converted him from being basically a romantic monk of the fifties, to being a really prophetic figure in culture and the church in the sixties.
MISHLOVE: He had a strong influence on you personally, didn't he?
FOX: Yes, Merton did; in fact, he sent me to Paris to do my doctorate. He told me that would be the place to go. He was a good man. But Eckhart is so amazing, because he speaks out of a deep feminist tradition, and out of the deep Jewish tradition of the wisdom literature. He brings together the justice struggle and the deep mystical experience, like it's very hard to find in any other writer in the West. His influence has been so great outside the church. Carl Jung says that Eckhart gave him the key to opening up the unconscious. He was a big influence on Karl Marx, which has been proven by some Marxist historians. George Fox, the founder of the Quakers, was very influenced by Eckhart. So he's had all this influence on cultural figures, but what I'm trying to do is show the Church that Eckhart lies in the real center of the entire Christian message. His writing is immensely Biblical.
MISHLOVE: Well, to this day, some six hundred years later, Eckhart's works still stand condemned by the Church.
FOX: The Catholic Church is not always swift in changing its mind. You know, they just let Galileo off the hook a few years ago. You have to be kind of patient. They burned Joan of Arc at the stake and then canonized her five hundred years later, so it takes a good sense of humor, in the sense of history, to remain Catholic in these circumstances. But actually the Dominican order has petitioned Rome to lift the opprobrium over Eckhart, and the rumors are that's going to happen. But I don't think that's the heart of the matter. The heart is, is this man a spokesperson for wisdom, or isn't he? And everyone I know who's encountered him finds that kind of truth in his writing.
MISHLOVE: It's always seemed to me that the Catholic Church, as the epitome of a religious body, is a great paradox. One the one hand it proclaims saints and pronounces miracles, and it holds up examples of exalted and pious and holy people for us, and on the other hand it represses that very same thing. I would imagine it must be quite a struggle for you to work within that context.
FOX: It's a challenge. But I suspect that this is a phenomenon that happens in a lot of institutions. I mean, the United States of America has a Declaration of Independence, and started with a Revolutionary War, and now we're at war in Nicaragua against these peasant people, essentially, who have just overthrown a forty-year dictatorship of Somoza dictated to by our military. So the distance between the ideal and the practice is often so vast, whenever humans get together and start guarding their privileges. I think the whole issue of institutional corruption is part of the human dilemma, and this is why you need prophets and mystics. Carl Jung says, "Only the mystic brings what is creative to religion itself." And so the prophecy offered religion, the renewal of the Church and the synagogue, has to happen through the mystical tradition. So you're right. The Catholic Church can produce a John Tetzel or someone like that. It can also produce a John XXIII. It's full of paradox, that beauty can come through.
MISHLOVE: The first name you mentioned -- John Tetzel?
FOX: John Tetzel. He was a notorious Dominican at the time of the Reformation who went around selling indulgences. He was one reason that Luther got hot under the collar about the Catholic Church.
MISHLOVE: Well, when you talk about prophets and mystics, the prophet is the one who is often condemning the unholy practices, so in your view creation spirituality does involve that -- pointing to things that need to be changed, as well as standing in awe of the beauty.
FOX: That's right, exactly. It's that dialectic, a wonderful dialectic, between yes and no. Yes is the mystical affirmation of the beauty of our being and the beauty of the universe, and the no is that prophetic critique which is also part of compassion. Gandhi said he learned to say no from the West, and you see, that goes right back to the Jewish prophets. The Jewish prophets said no, this is not what fasting means. Fasting means doing justice and cleaning your heart out; it's not just being seen not to eat food. So that marvelous prophetic tradition of Judaism, which Jesus belonged to -- in Luke's Gospel, the first time Jesus opens his mouth he says he's from that tradition, you see -- that is your saying no to institutional injustice and the evils that corrupt us at that level. So you have that marvelous dialectic. I think we all have it. As Heschel says, we're all called to be prophet, and I think Jesus was saying the same thing. We're also all called to be mystics, to be childlike, in awe and wonder at our being here, and in gratitude.
MISHLOVE: You also borrow somewhat, I think, from Marshall McLuhan, perhaps, in talking about the global village.
FIX: Oh, well, I don't know how much I owe Marshall directly. But yes, I think our generation has seen, of course, the astronauts' picture of mother earth, and it's extremely holy and special, and a realization -- again, it's a paradox. On the one hand we're living in a time where for the first time we've seen the beauty and begun to understand the immense fragility and uniqueness of this planet, and on the other hand we're despoiling the planet like it's never been despoiled in history. We're destroying in our country alone six billion tons of topsoil a year; the forests are disappearing at the rate of half the size of California every year from around the globe. What we're doing to the soil, the forests, the other species, the waters -- these are the capital sins of our time, no question about it. And yet most of the churches and synagogues are just quiet about it. Why? It's because they have no cosmology. They're so anthropocentric, like the rest of our culture is -- by that I mean they zero in only on the two-legged agenda -- that we don't have the scope of realizing what we're doing to ourselves as well as to the other creatures when we destroy the forests, the soil, the air, the waters. So that's what I think the issues of creation are, the fundamental moral issues of our time. There are also the fundamental aesthetic experiences, I think, of the whole human race, and that's why we're in a time of deep ecumenism. There's no such thing as a Jewish ocean and a Lutheran sun and a Buddhist river and a Taoist forest and a Roman Catholic cornfield. Once you move to the level of creation, you're into an era of deep ecumenism, and I think for mother earth to survive we need this awakening of wisdom from all world religions, and not just the five-thousand-year-old patriarchal ones, but the goddess religions, the religions of the native peoples of America, Africa, and Asia, and I think this and this alone is going to awaken the human race -- this combination of mystical wisdom -- to its own salvation, if you will, its own getting its act together. That's what we're working at in our program, and so I have working with me scientists and artists and then Native Americans, native Africans, native European tradition people, goddess tradition people, along with Protestant, Catholic, Jewish, Sufi people. I think this is where our education has to take us.
MISHLOVE: I gather then that you see yourself as Catholic with a small c, I suppose, in the universal sense of the word.
FOX: Sure, yes. But also what I'm doing is Catholicism at its best. Your medieval Renaissance of the twelfth and thirteenth century, of which Hildegard of Bingen is a great example -- so is Chartres cathedral; so is Francis of Assisi, Thomas Aquinas -- Meister Eckhart is the culmination of all this in the fourteenth century. This is a tradition we're trying to reawaken, and I think it's very important, because that's the last time in the West when we had a living cosmology -- when you had a combination of your scientific world view and a religious tradition, a mystical tradition, agreeing that here was the basis of a world view. Since that time the West has splintered between science and religion; they've been fighting each other for four centuries. All this, of course, is changing under the Einsteinian paradigm today, where Einstein, being a good Jew, I think, has moved us from the mechanism of Newton to a realization that the whole universe is mysterious, including our bodies and our minds and our imagination, and therefore it's all mystery, therefore it's all a source for mysticism.
MISHLOVE: And I suppose it's in that same sense that you seem to regard all religions as a response to life itself, to existence.
FOX: Of course. Even the Vatican Council of the Catholic Church, the Second Vatican Council, said the Holy Spirit has always worked through all religions and all cultures. I think that statement is one of the most important sentences in that entire experience that was the Vatican Council. I don't think it's been paid too much attention to since, but it's very important that God works through all religions, and that's why we have to draw forth the wisdom of all religions today, to recover our own divinity, and to encourage one another on going the better route, which would be our capacity for divinity, which is our capacity for compassion. The human race is obviously capable of so much folly, of so much militarism, of so much destruction of one another and of other creatures, that we need all the help we can get, I think, in choosing a better path.
MISHLOVE: One of your critiques of established religions is that they're basically geared to children, to the Sunday school process. We grow up thinking about such important aspects of our own being as prayer in a way that it's taught to children, and not really quite as adults yet.
FOX: Yes. The sentimentalizing of religion really occurred in spades in the nineteenth century with industrialism and capitalism, and the real moral choices moved from the farm to the factory, and the people who owned the factory. Religion became more interested in children, so you invented kindergartens for children, Sunday schools for kids. And of course in death -- cemeteries became a big investment on the part of religion. But the fact is if you look at the Gospels, Jesus never taught religion to children. He used children as examples of spirituality for adults, time and again. You see, it seems to me that spirituality is natural for children. Every child is a mystic; we were all mystics once. It gets driven out when we move into the adult world, and we make so many compromises with the child inside. This is why you need spiritual leaders like Jesus or Isaiah or Gandhi or whoever -- to awaken healthy spirituality in adults again. This is a very important need today, because many adults are frozen in a fifth-grade religious world view, and it's just pitiful. A good example is these types who are still fighting scientists over whether evolution happened or not, because they think God couldn't work through evolution -- I mean, that kind of ignorance. The fact is in the twelfth century, Hildegard and others dealt with this issue, and they concluded that it shows more of God's power that God would create gradually over years and years, working with creation in an act of co-creation. It also shows more of God's trust of creation than if God had done it all in six literal days. The whole idea that adults are still playing out this fantasy problem with science is really kind of pitiful in the 1980s.
MISHLOVE: How do we mature in this direction? I notice you use humor a lot, and whimsy, in your writing, and refer to the importance of ecstasy. Yet one has a sense -- there's a paradox here for me. I feel, as you're speaking, a sense on the one hand of becoming as children again, and on the other hand becoming more mature in our spirituality.
FOX: It's both/and. It's not a question of becoming childish, but childlike, and it's recovering what is the child in the adult. The child in so many adults has been so wounded, and wounded partially because religion, both synagogue and churches, have ignored their mystical traditions. I've talked to a lot of rabbis, a lot of ministers and priests. None of us were trained in the wisdom literature of the Hebrew Bible in our scripture classes -- like Proverbs 7, that says, "I was by God's side, the master craftsperson, playing with God day after day, ever at play in the universe" -- that whole sense of the delight of play in the universe. Eros as a spiritual experience. What has the West done? We've turned the word erotic into an X-rated thing, and handed it over to the hustlers and the Hugh Hefners or something, and supposedly church people or believers are these serious people, worrying about heaven and hell. But really, what the whole mystical tradition tells us is that God is at play in the universe; we've been called to be players and celebrators in the universe, and until this is recovered, we're in trouble. Now, how do we do it? One thing is listening to one's own experience. Our ecstasies are our mystical experiences. You know, I can look at my own life as a teenager. I remember the experience of hearing Beethoven for the first time -- you know, hearing it, just walking in the living room, it was the Seventh -- and I just wanted to dance. I can remember reading Shakespeare in class in high school. I remember nature, and just being out with the animals and the trees and so forth. All these experiences of unity and ecstasy, these are mystical experiences. We all have them. But in the church, everyone's going mousing around, not even using the word mysticism, because Newton didn't allow it, because Newton's universe was a machine and in a machine there's no room for mystery or you're in trouble. So the churches and synagogues have so failed us, we are mystically illiterate in the West. This is why those who have been serious about mysticism in the last twenty years, most of them felt they had to go east, because they didn't even know there was a mystical tradition in the West, which is quite pitiful.
MISHLOVE: You seem to be suggesting that since the rise of science -- and I suppose probably since about the Renaissance, when the scientific world view came to dominate over the religious world view -- it's as if the Church has been kind of kowtowing to the god of science.
FOX: That's true. You know, the real priests of our culture are not priests, they are scientists and doctors and people who work out of the technological achievements of the Enlightenment era. But you know, it's not science's fault, or anything like that. The year 1600 began with the church burning Giordano Bruno at the stake. Bruno was a great mystic and a scientist. He was trying to bring together the new cosmology, and boom! He got burned. Well, the scientists had already seen the religious wars for a hundred years, with Christians burning each other, and they said, "You know, these Church people can be kind of dangerous, so we'd better work out some kind of truce here." Essentially what was worked out was this. The scientists said, "We'll take the universe; you guys take the soul." And the church people were set up for this by Augustine's introspective conscience: "Oh, the soul, OK, great, good deal." What happened was science discovered the laws of the universe, but it had no conscience and no wisdom, because it cut itself off from the religious traditions. That's why we're six minutes away from blowing up the world today. On the other hand the churches, giving up on the cosmos itself, became more and more introspective, rendered the soul something punier and punier, trivialized everything to do with religion from sin to sacraments to who Jesus Christ or any other prophet was, and that's where we were left until Einstein came. But Einstein has brought the two together again, by insisting that awe, mystery, and mysticism are at the heart of true science and of authentic living. Einstein said, religion without science is lame, and science without religion is blind, or the other way around. In either case he says you need both, or we're crippled. And we live in a crippled civilization. That's why we're cosmically lonely, we're cosmically violent, we're destroying other species at an unprecedented rate. It's because we don't have a cosmology. Cosmology is when science and mysticism come together, and then the artist carries this news into our psyches with dreams and rituals and music and dance, and that's what I'm expecting to happen today, is a renaissance, a global renaissance -- a rebirth of civilization based on a spiritual vision, a new cosmology being born of the new science and of the ancient mystical traditions, creation mysticism. And you know, we in America have a special role to play, because the Native Americans have so much wisdom in their creation-centered sixty-thousand-year-old way of praying on this soil. We have a special role to play in awakening us to our own deeper traditions.
MISHLOVE: Tell me a little more about that.
FOX: The connection of natives? Well, they have ways of praying. You said, how do we awaken the child? How do we awaken the ecstasy in us? A sweat lodge -- you know, where you go in the dark together -- it's a return to the womb, only it's a communal womb. You're in there with others praying, and it gets very hot in there, and it's very scary. My first twenty minutes in a sweat lodge, I was looking for the fire exit, or fire extinguisher, and finally I decided, well, I was going to die there. And once I did that, I went through this process of yielding. Then it was a very mystical experience. All mysticism really is a process of letting go and yielding, surrendering. So there are these ancient ways of prayer, and we have sweat lodges on our campus, and it's amazing experiencing these kinds of prayer with Christians and Jewish people and native people together. This what I mean by deep ecumenism -- our praying together instead of just theologizing together. The drumming, the drumming -- I don't think you can have worship without drumming. That's why worship is so boring in the West. We're putting people to sleep in most religious services today. Why is the drum so powerful? Why do all native peoples have drumming? Well, it takes us back to our womb experience again. The drumming is the heartbeat of our mother whom we were with for nine months, but it's also the heartbeat of mother earth. It's a very deep, archetypal moment, our drumming together. So I've never prayed with native people without it being very genuine and cosmological. They have a cosmology. They wouldn't think of experiencing the divine except within the universe itself. They have not succumbed to the split of religion versus science.
MISHLOVE: You've used the word deep on several occasions -- deep ecumenism. I get the sense that what you're saying is that as we go into the mystical experience we go deep within ourselves, and the cultural conditioning falls apart -- what the churches say or perhaps even what some scientists say -- and at that deep level we get in touch with what really is true.
FOX: Exactly. In fact deep, I guess, is kind of a synonym for me for true spirituality -- what Eckhart calls the innermost part of the soul, the innermost part of the person. That's deep, as opposed to superficial, external, or dictated by external forces. And in the depths -- Eckhart says God is a great underground river. So we come to this common ocean of being. This is why you have different wells of wisdom. There's the Jewish well and the Sufi well and the Buddhist well and the Catholic and Protestant, but they sink into one deep underground river. There's only one divine source of all this wisdom, you see.
MISHLOVE: Matthew Fox, we're out of time now. It's been such a pleasure to be with you.
FOX: Thank you. Mystics always run out of time. They don't notice it.
MISHLOVE: Time seems to be infinite, anyway.
FOX: That's it, exactly.
MISHLOVE: Well, thank you for sharing this moment of infinity with me.
FOX: Thank you.
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