A fascinating chat with Matthew Fox, renowned spiritual theologian, popular speaker, author of over 35 books, and an early and influential proponent of Creation Spirituality.
Matthew Fox is an internationally acclaimed spiritual theologian, Episcopal priest, and activist who was a member of the Dominican Order for 34 years. He holds a doctorate, summa cum laude, in the History and Theology of Spirituality from the Institut Catholique de Paris. Fox has devoted 45 years to developing and teaching the tradition of Creation Spirituality, which is rooted in ancient Judeo-Christian teaching, inclusive of today’s science and world spiritual traditions; welcoming of the arts and artists; and committed to eco-justice, social justice and gender justice.
Fox has awakened millions to the much-neglected earth-based mystical tradition of the West, reviving awareness of Hildegard of Bingen, Meister Eckhart, Thomas Aquinas and Thomas Merton, among other premodern and post-modern spiritual pioneers. He has authored more than 35 books on spirituality and contemporary culture, among them Original Blessing, The Coming of the Cosmic Christ, The Reinvention of Work, A Spirituality Named Compassion and Meister Eckhart: A Mystic-Warrior for Our Times. His books have been translated into 73 languages.
Matthew Fox’s latest book, published in January 2020, is The Tao of Thomas Aquinas: Fierce Wisdom for Hard Times.
We had the great pleasure early in 2020 to talk with Matthew Fox in person over a bowl of soup, and to learn more about his life, his work, and his faith.
Kolbe Times: Thank you for spending time with us today. We’d like to hear your views on a big topic – our planet – and the urgency of taking better care of it.
Matthew Fox: The United Nations and scientists the world over have told us that as of now, we have 10 years to change in profound ways…or what is happening in this climate emergency will not be able to be slowed down. Will we be asked in the future, “What did they do between 2020 and 2030 to turn things around?” No one who follows Jesus can answer, “I did what I’ve always been doing.” Which is to say, “I did nothing, and contributed to the ongoing onslaught against the environment.”
Kolbe Times: You have been teaching, speaking and writing about Creation Spirituality for many years, advocating for social and environmental justice. In fact, you’ve said that our relationship with the planet must be weaved into our spirituality if we are going to be true to our faith. What sparked this idea for you – the sacredness of the earth?
Matthew Fox: Nature is and has always been very important to me. I was born in 1940 in Madison, Wisconsin, and lived there my whole childhood until I went away to college. I’m one of seven children; I’m right in the middle. I have three brothers and three sisters.
Wisconsin in the spring and summer is a very green place – farmland, like Jesus’ neighborhood in Galilee. And I feel fortunate to have grown up in a place where you can experience all the seasons. Madison was not a large city; it was 65,000 people in my childhood, and there are four lakes within the boundaries of Madison. The experience of nature was ecstatic for me so often, and also sports – even though I lost the use of my legs when I was 12 because of polio. But I regained the use of my legs, and I really enjoyed sports…especially outdoor sports.
Kolbe Times: Tell us about your parents.
Matthew Fox: My father was Irish Catholic, and most of his childhood was lived in South Chicago. He was angry as a young man, and he was also a very good football player – I think because he turned his anger into football. He ended up getting a scholarship, and was the only one in his family to go to college – Villanova College, which is an Augustinian school. His coach there was Harry Stuhldreher, who had played quarterback at the University of Notre Dame. Stuhldreher later got a job as head football coach at the University of Wisconsin, and he told my father that after graduating, he would hire my father as a coach at the University. So after my parents got married they moved to Madison, Wisconsin. My Dad coached there for about 10 years, and then went into business.
My mother was from East Coast Pennsylvania. She was raised Episcopalian, but she was also half-Jewish. After a year of marriage, she decided to become Catholic, but she never told my father about it. She found what she called a “liberal priest” who she played tennis with, and she received instruction from him about the Catholic faith. My father didn’t know anything about it. Before this, she used to go to church with my father every Sunday to a Catholic Church, but of course she wouldn’t go to Communion because she wasn’t Catholic. But then one Sunday, shortly after she was received into the Catholic Church, they’re at Mass and my dad gets up to go to Communion – and my mother got up with him! My father says, “What are you doing? You’re not Catholic. You can’t go to Communion.” And she says, “Yes, I am.” They had this big fight right there in the main aisle of the church.
I just love that story as an archetype of their relationship, and I enjoy telling it. There wasn’t a lot of compromise in their relationship, but there was a lot of passion. I don’t know how many people have fights like that before Communion in the aisle of their church. They both had very strong personalities.
Kolbe Times: Sounds like they were both a little feisty, too.
Matthew Fox: That’s so true. My mother’s own father died suddenly when she was only 12, and I think that was a very pivotal moment in her life, but I think it also made her quite independent…and, as you say, a little feisty!
Kolbe Times: You spent a lot of time yourself going to church as a teenager.
Matthew Fox: Yes. I enjoyed going to church very much. I went to Mass every morning throughout high school, even though I was attending a public school. I would get up early for my newspaper route, and then go to Mass. I was specially moved by the Saturday Mass, which is always dedicated to Mary. It had readings from wisdom literature like “I walk in the vaults of the sky.” I found all that very moving as a teenage boy. It reminded me that life was not just about cars and football, but there was something else going on too, that was very deep and very beautiful.
Now you know, I can call that the mystical, or I can call it wisdom, or the divine feminine…but back then all I knew was I liked it. It attracted me. It obviously was making up for something that I didn’t feel in the rest of the culture.
Kolbe Times: Tell us more about that early time in your life.
Matthew Fox: Well, all my best friends were agnostic, or Jewish, or Protestant – but I would go to my Parish Priest, who was a Dominican, and he introduced me to writers like G.K. Chesterton and Thomas Aquinas, and I grew to really love that intellectual side of religion. We would get in these great philosophical arguments. I really admired that side of the Dominicans, and in my senior year of high school I did a retreat with the Dominicans in Dubuque, Iowa, at their House of Studies. I was very moved by three things. First, the community life. Of course, I had already been living in a community of nine people, called family. Secondly, I was moved by the Dominicans’ dedication to an intellectual life, and I learned that study can be a spiritual practice. And thirdly, I loved the chanting of the Office – I was very moved by the aesthetic of that.
Kolbe Times: I know you later studied in Paris, and that had a big impact on your life as well.
Matthew Fox: Yes, it was an eye opener for me, and I had wonderful professors. But just living in the French culture was impactful for me as well, especially the acknowledgement of the important role of artists. I started to write poetry again when I was there. As a kid I’d written poetry, but it all stopped when I went off to college. So wonderful things happened to me there. And of course, the history of Paris was very meaningful for me – to walk the streets where Thomas Aquinas and Meister Eckhart had walked in the Middle Ages.
Kolbe Times: What led you to begin to think more deeply about the sacredness of creation?
Matthew Fox: I had this dream years ago, in which I heard, “There’s only one thing wrong with the human species today. You have forgotten the sense of the sacred.” For me, that was a very important dream – what the native people call a Big Dream. It’s a dream for their community; it’s a dream for our species.
Have we forgotten the sense of the sacred? I think we have, and, and yet it’s recoverable. Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel said, “The holy and the sacred come along with the experience of awe and wonder.”
In other words, spirituality is the experiential side of religion. The sacred is about an experience of awe or wonder, or something that renders us silent because of the splendor and grandeur of it. And nature is often that way…or has been for me, at least – and for a lot of other people, too. The poet Bill Everson said that most people experience God in nature, or experience God not at all.
I hang out a lot with scientists, and to know the new creation story of 13.8 billion years that has brought us here…well, it’s a sacred story. Our being here, and being so well equipped, really, to praise and to love and to experience awe and wonder on a regular basis – the sacred therefore – and to be reminded of it by people like Jesus and the great saints, this is, what can I say, this is a wonderful, wonderful life.
Kolbe Times: We sometimes forget how fortunate we are.
Matthew Fox: Yes. To be here today is such an amazing honour. Because so many profound decisions are going to be made in the next 10 years – or not. Meditate on that! But what an honour it is to be alive today during this time of both apocalypse and revelation, chaos and opportunity – with all the creativity and rebirthing that we can do as a species, because we are a brilliant species. We are creative and bright, as well as stupid. The reptilian brain’s response to chaos and the dark night of the species is to hightail it out of town.
There’s a wonderful line from Hafiz, the Sufi mystic. He says, “Sometimes God wants to do us a great favour – hold us upside down and shake all the nonsense out.”
Kolbe Times: The time we find ourselves in now are such a mix of glaring light and heavy darkness – Via Positiva and Via Negativa.
Matthew Fox: That’s because we don’t know the way out of this darkness. All of the mystics teach that the ‘dark night of the soul’ is a very special place to be. You learn things in the dark night that you don’t learn elsewhere; things like wisdom and compassion and how to work together and how to be more honest.
But the Via Positiva is also very strong. The prophet Isaiah said, “I will make you the light of the nations.” Jesus echoed those very words when he said, “I am the light of the world” and “Do not hide your light under a bush.” Those words are for us to speak as well. How are we doing? We are the light of the world in this dark time, in this dark night of our species.
The whole earth is waiting for jubilation, the jubilation of the human species once again joining the other species on this earth, and rolling back the damage we’ve done…with the brilliance that we’re capable of.
Kolbe Times: How can we become the light?
Matthew Fox: We have to get hungry for joy. Hungry for the Via Positiva, for falling in love. If we were truly in love with this planet, the forests, the elephants, the fishes, the whales, the oceans, we would find a way. Our creativity would be bursting, because that’s what you do when you love – your imagination works overtime.
Kolbe Times: As you challenge us to learn from the darkness and become the light, you and others have started a new movement, The Order of the Sacred Earth. Where did that idea come from?
Matthew Fox: A few years ago I had another dream, a very powerful dream, that woke me up at four in the morning with capital letters, “DO IT!!!!” It was in capital letters with four exclamation points: “DO IT!!!! Start an Order.”
I had been reflecting on the shadow side of the church that is manifesting itself pretty strongly in our lifetime. That’s when this dream came. “Start this new order, but don’t make it associated with any particular religion.”
And so this Order of the Sacred Earth is to be open to everybody, from any tradition, any religion, or no religion…atheists are welcome, too. There’ll be one vow, and the vow is a promise to be the best lover of Mother Earth, and the best defender of Mother Earth, that I can be.
Kolbe Times: Were there others who came alongside you to start this new Order of the Sacred Earth?
Matthew Fox: Yes, as a matter of fact, there was a young man named Skyler Wilson, who was 32 at the time. He had a dream that was somewhat parallel to mine that very same week I had my dream.
To make a long story short, we started the Order, and put together a book with the help of Jennifer Berit Listug as well as many other contributors (The Order of the Sacred Earth: An Intergenerational Vision of Love and Action, Monkfish Book Publishing, 2018). We had our first vow-taking ceremony on the winter solstice two Decembers ago. Eighty-five people participated. It was in a Buddhist Centre in Berkeley, and there were Buddhists, Jews, Indigenous people, Catholics and Protestants; a very diverse group. We all took the vow, and it was quite moving. And now there are about 65 pods – in North America, South America, New Zealand, and a few in Europe now as well. They are self-organizing, like universities. We are not dictating what to do; there is no “headquarters”, although we are the launchers of it.
We meet every month on Zoom – with anyone who wants to talk about what they’re doing and how it’s going. And I feel it is a very important form today, because it’s one thing to leave church, or a church, but it’s another thing to be just wandering around with no community. There has to be something in between, and that’s what an Order can be.
One young woman who joined us said to me, “You know, my generation needs this so badly. We are so dispersed by social media. We’re so distracted. We need a focus. This is perfect – a vow to focus on the future of the earth.”
I think the Order has tremendous potential. And people who are in other traditions are very welcome to join, including people in in other Orders, such as monks and nuns. I say bring the wisdom of your tradition to the table!
Kolbe Times: There’s an important role for us to play here, but I wonder if enough of us feel ready.
Matthew Fox: This is a time for all-hands-on-deck. And we need the best that we can bring. So, you know, the diversity of ecumenism and interfaith is part of the energy and the power of our moment in history. It’s a sign of our times.
We’ve been called from the womb to be prophets. That is Jesus’ whole message! Don’t sit it out! It doesn’t mean you have to do crazy things, or get your picture in the news. But it does mean all of us have to shift consciousness and assist others to shift consciousness. The elders have to link up with the young to support them, to encourage them, and sometimes join in their protests. That’s what it means to follow Jesus.
Kolbe Times: Thank you for your time with us today, and for your passion and inspiration. It’s been wonderful talking with you.
Matthew Fox: It’s been my pleasure and my privilege.
Visit www.matthewfox.org for more about Matthew Fox.
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