Original Blessing Twenty Five Years Later

Original Blessing Twenty Five Year Later

Easter 2008

Matthew Fox

I am grateful to Matt Henry for his ambition and imagination in drawing together so many writers and thinkers for a celebration of twenty-five years of Original Blessing.  Because this project has been undertaken under a strict deadline, I have not read any of the essays contained herein—though I certainly look forward to reading them when the book appears.  What I write therefore is not in the context of what the authors gathered here have given birth to.  I do notice, however, that in my original Introduction, penned at Easter, 1983, I point out that each chapter or theme in this book is merely “an unfinished meditation that is only briefly sketched out” and invite the reader to develop the theology and the theme.  Thus, a challenge was laid out twenty-five years ago that Matt Henry has taken up along with each of his writers and artists in this volume.  Thank you, Matt, thank you fellow writers and artists.

As I look back on twenty-five years of this book and the experiences teaching and lecturing and writing and battling that have followed upon it a number of lessons arise and come to mind.  There is the lesson from my mentor, the late French Dominican pere Marie Dominic Chenu, who used to say: “I do not do theology from a comfortable armchair.”  (Chenu, who worked with the worker priest movement in France after WW II and became the grandfather of Liberation Theology as well as Creation Spirituality was silenced by Pope Pius XII and forbidden to publish for twelve years until he was himself liberated by the Second Vatican Council where he was the principal author of the document on “The Church in the Modern World.”  An activist and a theologian, he died at ninety-five the day Nelson Mandela was released from jail.)

I too and creation spirituality as a movement have not been doing theology from a comfortable armchair.  A theology of Original Blessing is a theology of action as much as of ideas.  Its ideas lead to action.  The Via Transformativa is about transformative action that grows from the actions that derive from Creativity (the Via Creativa) and which in turn derive from the levels of being and surrender and awe-filling and facing down injustice that derive from the Via Negativa and the Via Positiva.

I was reminded of the price one pays for living out the Four Paths recently when I was in Omaha, Nebraska to conduct workshops and also to be part of a Cosmic Mass that students of creation spirituality were sponsoring (and which was both well attended and well received).  A woman in her young forties approached me and told me this story: She had been enrolled in a master’s course in religion at Gonzaga University, a Jesuit college in Omaha, and she had cited my work in a footnote in a paper she did for class.  The paper was returned with a red pen x-ing out the entire page where there was a reference to my work.  A sentence said: “We do not cite this author in our religion department.”  The woman subsequently left the school.

I tell this story because it is recent and it is true.  The transformation of consciousness and ideology that an Original Blessing theology requires is still a fierce threat to powers that support the status quo in religion and society and education.  People do have to choose—and their institutions have to choose—whether to go with original sin and all that entails or with original blessing and all that encompasses.  There are those who have sat on the sidelines long enough, mouthing praise but never voting with their feet.  They are like those Dante warns will be in the lower realms of hell because they have not stood up in a time of crisis when choices were called for.  They are mere armchair theologians or armchair scientists comfortable with their privileges but unwilling to challenge religious or secular power structures.

Like Chenu, I am not just a theologian but also an activist.  My activism has been invested primarily in attempting to alter the forms of education and worship.  In education, by establishing ICCS with its right brain/left brain pedagogy at Mundelein College in Chicago (an eight year run), then on to Holy Names College in Oakland (a twelve year run) and then, when then Cardinal and Chief Inquisitor Ratzinger won his ten year battle against us and I was expelled, I established my own University of Creation Spirituality in downtown Oakland (where we had a superb nine year run before it was emasculated by a new president and effectively ended).  Twenty-nine years for an alternative educational institution for adult graduate students was a great blessing.  Many of our faculty and students, including Matt Henry and other writers here, are busy doing great work in the world bringing Original Blessing alive in many and various communities.  It was not easy financing and staffing and recruiting and teaching all those years—but it was a very great adventure and a deep joy.

The late activist and business woman of conscience, Anita Roddick, who appreciated and supported creation spirituality and many alternative movements, said she was an activist “because being an activist makes me feel alive.”  She defined activism this way: “Activism is being a voice for the voiceless, standing up for the weak and the frail, engaging the human spirit.  It’s putting your head above the parapet.  Being heard.  Being seen.  Being counted.”  This strikes me as a twenty-first century definition of justice and compassion.  The Via Transformativa come to life.  And to call it “feeling alive” is to call it one’s spirituality.  For spirituality is about living one’s life in fullness and in depth.

Part of my activism the past nine years and Via Creativa and Via Transformativa has been to bring the body, dance, post-modern language of vj’s, dj’s, rap, world music into western liturgy in what we call the “Cosmic Mass.”  We have celebrated over ninety of these Masses under the auspices of the Episcopal church and trained over a hundred students to do them in various part of North America.  I believe that a revival of ritual and worship is as important as a revival of education and learning if our species is to wake up to its potential and out of its denial and couchpotatoitis.  When the pope fired me as a Catholic priest I met young Anglicans form England who were bringing rave to liturgy with impressive results so I went to the Episcopal Bishop of San Francisco who welcomed me to carry on my work and to attempt a liturgical renewal.  I remain grateful to Bishop Swing.

Now my activism has led me to work with “Professor Pitt,” a gifted rapper and film maker from the inner city as together we attempt to bring to inner city youth lessons learned from the pedagogy of ICCS and UCS over 29 years with adults.  Our YELLAWE program, based on the philosophy of education I lay out in my recent book, The A.W.E. Project: Reinventing Education, Reinventing the Human, is an effort to reinvent education from the inner city out and the bottom up.  We are doing this program in Oakland and other cities are approaching us for possible alliances as well.  The results are encouraging as we see youth regaining a sense of their own dignity and finding their voice as they drum, make rap and videos and theater based on the “ten C’s” which are my latest way to teach and tell about the creation spirituality tradition.  I believe the “ten C’s” are needed to balance the “3 R’s” of education:  They are: Cosmology, Contemplation (or meditation), Chaos, Creativity, Compassion, Community, Ceremony and Celebration, Critical Thinking, Courage, Character and Chakra Development.

Recently I was invited to speak on the Black Madonna and on YELLAWE at Morehouse College in Atlanta which is the alma mater of Dr. Martin Luther King, jr. and the occasion was the fortieth anniversary of his assassination.  Morehouse is also where Dr. Howard Thurman taught and where he and his wife, whom I was privileged to know in the last years of her life, are buried.  They are the ones who visited Gandhi in 1935 and brought back his non-violence strategy to America.

I was reminded of how, early in our sejour at Holy Names College in Oakland, we had invited a very prominent black pastor, Rev. Alfred Smith Senior to speak to our ICCS class and he began this way: He held up a copy of Original Blessing and he said: “Our people need this more than they need jobs.  Because what was ultimately taken away from us by slavery was the sense of our own dignity.”  I am struck by the bluntness and truthfulness of this observation: That, as I point out in the original Introduction to this book, empire builders (and slave masters) have an investment in original sin ideologies—and still do.  This explains more than any thing else the fierce opposition to this book by the Vatican and other purveyors of fundamentalism in our day.  A few years after visiting us, Rev. Smith was interviewed by BBC about my work and he told them: “Matt Fox is so ahead of the church that the church confused him with the enemy.”  There is a sense of political awareness in the black church that one finds refreshing.

As I pointed out in the Introduction twenty-five years ago, the search for wisdom requires a new alliance between religion and science.  Science after all is meant to be studying nature for the rest of us.  As I pointed out then the ecological crisis was a major moral issue of our time.  This is why a creation-centered spirituality and not a psychologically oriented (still more anthropomorphism) is so needed. Now, with global warming finally squeezing its way into the media along side the latest antics of the Paris Hiltons and sexual peccadilloes of our politicians, there might actually be some action that gets humans (including religious believers) into action on this, the number one moral issue of our time.  Though we who preach creation spirituality have been dismissed as “tree worshippers” and “pagans” (I take this as a compliment since a paganus is a peasant or rural person and the historical Jesus himself was a peasant) and heretics, the tide may be shifting.  Reality may finally be setting in and cutting through religious ideologies.

Amazing to tell, the Southern Baptists (sic) just produced a document entitled “A Southern Baptist Declaration of the Environment and Climate Change” in which they confess that they believe “our current denominational resolutions and engagement with these issues have often been too timid.  Our cautious response to these issues in the face of mounting evidence may be seen by the world as uncaring reckless and ill-informed.  We can do better.”  This was signed by the current president of the Conference and two former presidents among others.  In 1993 the Evangelical Environmental Network produced a document on “Evangelical Declaration of the Care of Creation.”  While still arousing opposition within these denominations, at least the word creation is back on the front pages of their theologies.

This past week the states of California (where I live) and Oregon have announced the suspension of all commercial salmon fishing.  The salmon are fished out.  Four countries from Egypt to Haiti and southeast Asia have had food riots this past week.  Food shortages are just beginning to make the news.  One is reminded of the warning from Hildegard of Bingen: If humans tamper with the “web of justice” that all creation is, God will allow creation to punish humanity.  A new word for “justice” has emerged in the past twenty years: Sustainability.  What is just is sustainable; what is unjust is not.  Injustice leads to chaos and insustainability.

At this time we are also experiencing a new awareness of cosmology and our amazing place in the universe.  Hubble Telescope and other technologies orbiting in space since this book was written assist us marvelously in seeing and understanding the wonders of our universe.  In The View from the Center of the Universe by astrophysicist Joel Primack and Nancy Abrams we are treated to a telling of the new creation story with metaphors and story but also to a search for the deeper meaning of this new story.  I am very grateful for their work and for their willingness and indeed eagerness to teach their findings to our inner city youth in the YELLAWE program.  I keep in my pocket a wonderful saying from the Native American tradition: “To be human one must make room in one’s heart for the wonders of the universe.”

Dialogs I have had with Rupert Sheldrake and with Ralph Abraham, one of the founders of chaos theory and author of Chaos, Gaia and Eros, have also helped me and others to explore in deeper richness the implications of a healthy via negativa and the mysteries of darkness and of disorder that we experience in our lives and in the creative richness of nature.  Professor Abraham has also volunteered to share his findings on chaos with our inner city teen agers and to great effect.

Recent Biblical scholarship has also been turning in the direction of a creation spirituality in so many instances.  It is striking, for example, that scholars like Markus Borg, Bruce Chilton and Dominic Crossan are rediscovering the wisdom origins and nature-centered spirituality of the historical Jesus.  In addition, Chilton and Crossan are coming to grips with the cosmic origins of the Christian story not unlike what I outline in this Original Blessing and reinforced in a subsequent book, The Coming of the Cosmic Christ (published twenty years ago this year).

Christianity flies on two wings, that of the historical Jesus and that of the cosmic Christ.  By lumping the two together we have done a great disservice to both.  We have put Jesus up for sentimentalization and robbed the Christ dimension of its power and its universality restricting it only to Jesus.  This is especially so in a context that is strictly psychological and anthropocentric (“am I saved?”  “Will my ego live for ever after death?”).  Consider what these two authors say about Paul, who after all is the first writer in the Christian Scriptures and the first Christian theologian.  Says Chilton:  “No Christian thinker before or since has thought on so cosmic a scale, linking God’s Spirit to humanity’s and both to the transformation of the world.  The picture he conveyed of what it meant for even small groups of believers to meet together involved them in a literal reshaping of the universe…The range of Paul’s thinking was literally cosmic, and metacosmic, because the viscera of Christ, the mind of Christ, wove all things into the primordial whole that had been their source.”[1]

John Dominic Crossan underscores the role of mysticism in the earliest Christian teaching when he asks: “Does Paul think, therefore, that only mystics can be Christians or that all Christians must be mystics?  In a  word, yes….For Paul being “in Christ” [a phrase he uses 164 times in his letters] is not just metaphorical trope, but mystical identity.  It determines everything in his theology….That in is the beating heart of Paul’s theology, and everything else flows from it in life and in death.”[2] The historical Jesus is being recognized again for the nature mystic, the creation-centered mystic, that he was. First, because he lived in the “green” area of Palestine, Galilee, but also because he comes from the wisdom tradition (the feminist, creation-centered, cosmic and earth based tradition) of Israel.  The wisdom tradition is deeply imbued with the prophetic tradition of Israel—Wisdom is said to be a “friend of the prophets.”  She (and wisdom is always a “she” the world over including in the Bible) interferes with injustice and lack of compassion. Just as Jesus did.  The Christ of John’s Gospel is presented practically as the incarnation of Wisdom.  Wisdom speaks and acts through Jesus in the synoptic gospels as well.  The reader will note that from the first pages of Original Blessing Wisdom played a major role in creation theology more than twenty-five years ago.  I welcome the Biblical scholars back to that table that so nurtured the historical Jesus.  For wisdom theology is the creation spirituality of the Bible.

Deep Ecumenism lifts the veil on the Western church’s preoccupation and investment in original sin when it inherited the empire in the fourth century.  Eastern Orthodox Christians are not so invested and neither are Jews, Muslims, Buddhists or native peoples.  The late psychologist Otto Rank talked about “original wound” and I think that language is far more accurate and helpful than the convoluted theologies of original sin, a concept that the advertising mania of a consumer-driven economic system has, quite literally, cashed in on.[3]

A number of theological seminaries are closing in the West.  I do not see this as an unabated tragedy.  Academia including theological academia has been far too slow, lazy and busy protecting its privileges to apply activism to its own backyard. The pedagogical lessons learned from my twenty-nine years of teaching graduate programs in creation spirituality (and Original Blessing was the primer for those programs) have been for the most part ignored by mainstream seminary educators, lessons like the importance of the body, of art and creativity, of meditation both bodily and artistic, of awakening the mystical or right hemisphere of the brain, etc.  Why is it that we had over 400 students in our doctor of ministry program three years after opening the doors and a D Min program at GTU in Berkeley had 4 students in it after 15 years in business?  GTU never bothered to investigate.  Our students have gone on to accomplish such things as launching Engineers Without Borders which sends engineers to places like Haiti and the Amazon and Africa to assist in eco-conscious and solar generated irrigation systems, etc.  Others are involved now in launching creation-centered base communities.

One reason for the storm raised by my book is that it represents a deconstruction of religion and theology and with it a reconstruction as well.  This is seen as a threat to the status quo.  Which it is.  The book, by emphasizing creation again as integral to a faith journey, is calling for a Green Christianity and a reminder of how green the historical Jesus truly was.

It is not easy to propose a new paradigm for religion (even though we can prove intellectually that it was the original one).  Many factors go into people’s complacency or feeling threatened by the new that is really the ancient.  Not least of these factors is that personally and psychologically speaking, there is much in our upbringing that does not teach us we are blessings at all.  We wrestle with our own self-doubts and qualms about our worthiness often on a daily basis. But that is what the good news of original blessing is about.  That goodness precedes all failures and all imperfections and it comes not from our achievements but from our existence itself.  “Isness is God” as Meister Eckhart put it.  We are here.  By the great groaning of the universe in labor for fourteen billion years, we have arrived.  We don’t have to prove ourselves so much as be ourselves.  For deep down we all carry goodness, we all carry our original blessing.  Can religion teach these things once again?  Is religion up to it?  Or can we travel more lightly with spirituality alone? That is part of the human drama unfolding in our time.

Religion itself needs a heavy dose of activism, indeed a New Reformation as I wrote about in my book on that topic and which I made an effort to draw attention to by going to Wittenburg and pounding 95 contemporary theses of protest at the church door there.  One person has remarked how those 95 theses are themselves another summary of the creation spirituality tradition outlined in this book.

The scandal of opus dei bishops and canonization of their Hitler-admiring founder, the silencing of over 109 Catholic theologians by the present pope when he was employed as Chief Inquisitor, the support of pedophile priests including the founder of right-wing seminaries known as Father Marcel will not go away in the Catholic church.  And the scandal of Protestants turning the name of Jesus over to Fundamentalists preaching a crackpot Christianity wedded to a pursuit of an American Empire will not be erased by history’s judgments.  Where are the religious activists?  Who has the courage to apply the Via Transformativa to religion itself?  One waits.  And one must act.

For all these reason I welcome this celebration of the twenty-fifth anniversary of Original Blessing and I look forward to reading the essays contained herein and to continuing to entertain stories from people who tell me their “lives were changed” and “religion transformed” by reading this book.  And of course I want to ask as well: “And how has your activism profited from reading it?  What are you doing as a result of this theological shift to make a difference in the world we live in and that is suffering so much at this time?”

Until we meet again,

Matthew Fox

Oakland, California Easter 2008

[1] Bruce Chilton, Rabbi Paul: An Intellectual Biography (New York: Doubleday, 2004), 207, 249.

[2] John Dominic Crossan, Jonathan L. Reed,  In Search of Paul (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 2004), 280, 278.

[3] You can see this understanding of “original wound” developed in my article on Otto Rank available on my website, www.matthewfox.org.