By Matthew Fox, selected with an introduction by Charles Burack. Orbis Books, 2022. 272 pages. $24/paperback; $19.50/eBook.
When I was offered the opportunity to review this book, I knew very little about Matthew Fox and had read none of the three dozen or so books he has written. Essential Writings contains carefully compiled excerpts from his lifetime oeuvre with many explanations and transitions, making it a very good place for someone like me to learn about him.
Born in 1940, he grew up in the Catholic tradition. With encouragement from his parish priest, he entered the Dominican Order. After four years in the ferment of 1960s Paris, he became radicalized—so much so that the Church once silenced him for a year and then later expelled him. After switching to the Episcopal Church in 1994, he opted to become a “postdenominational” priest. He remained loyal to his Christian background but recognized parallel spiritual forces in every religion on Earth, which he identified as the Cosmic Christ.
His mission has been to promote the understanding of “creation spirituality,” which he distinguished from the “fall/redemption” tradition of Christian theology. He saw the latter as patriarchal, hierarchical, ascetic, focused on sin, requiring obedience for personal salvation, and anthropocentric. In contrast, for him creation spirituality is mystical, feminist, imaginative, prophetic, artistic, and cosmological.
His inspiration comes heavily from the medieval mystics Hildegard of Bingen, Thomas Aquinas, Meister Eckhart, and Julian of Norwich. With equal fervor, he also turns to Indigenous cultures. Fully open to the teachings of science, he perceives the universe, over its whole history of 13.8 billion years, as permeated with the power of spiritual energy. Our planet is not an astronomical accident but loved from the beginning, alive with creative spiritual forces. All art is divinely inspired; the universe itself is God’s work of art.
Basic to creation spirituality are four paths that coexist in us all. The first two are “ways of being”: Via Positiva (awe and wonder) and Via Negativa (emptying). The second pair are “ways of doing”: Via Creativa (imaginative output) and Via Transformativa (relief of suffering and correcting injustice). After in-depth presentations of these central paths, this rich book offers material on all of the following: the meaning of prophecy, compassion, sensuality, ecstasy, interfering with evil, spiritual practices and rituals, youth work, activism, ecumenism, the ongoing role of institutional religion, prayer as a radical response to life, the difference between creation spirituality and liberation theology (the latter seen as patriarchal), plus more.
This is surely a difficult read, yet a compelling one. Matthew Fox stands comfortably in the broadest interreligious context. At the same time, in this sampling of eclectic writings of a visionary, we hear a desperate cry, especially in its most recent passages, for just how deep we, the present human generation, have sunk into a threatening crisis—along with some hints, before we destroy our planet, for how we could extricate ourselves from this mess.
Robert Dockhorn, a member of Green Street Meeting in Philadelphia, Pa., lives in Sandy Spring, Md.