E S S A Y S , A R T I C L E S A N D R E V I E W S
Cosmology, Creativity and Compassion
Matthew Fox Interviewed by K. Lauren de Boer
It was the summer of 1987 and I was headed to Gainesville, Florida from Toronto, my Plymouth Valiant packed to the roof with belongings. I was going to study something there called "human ecology." On the way down, I took a one week detour to do a workshop with Matthew Fox, someone who seemed interesting. By the end of that week, I'd canceled my graduate studies and was headed for Oakland. Matt had turned my world upside down. But he had also given me the gift of bringing me full circle, back to a spiritual context for living my life: a passion and love for Creation. Recently, I had the pleasure of interviewing Matt, almost twelve years after completing his graduate program in Creation Spirituality. His work is still turning worlds on end.
Lauren de Boer: When I finished the "Litany of the Universe," in your book Sins of the Spirit, Blessings of the Flesh I had what I consider an ecstatic experience. The litany lists an awesome inventory of facts about the universe in which we live. Meditating on just a portion of it every morning would go a long way toward changing individual consciousness.
Matthew Fox: I have to confess that I had a transcendent experience writing the litany. What I hear you saying, is that if you prayed this litany every morning, you'd be building up your muscles of biophilia. This book came out the week of the Columbine murders. In it, there's a line from Eric Fromm: "necrophilia increases when biophilia is stunted." That line really names our culture, which is very involved with necrophilia in many levels and subtle ways. How do we bring biophilia back, how do we pump it up? How do we help people cut through cynicism and despair? Thich Naht Hahn talks about the seeds of peace that have to be watered or the seeds of violence will take over. The culture has not just seeds, but orchards of violence in place.
Lauren: When I think about what happened at Littleton, the kids who survived it, the people in that community, I wonder what a Council of Elders might do to give the kids and the community a sense of reconnection with the cosmos, with meaning within the larger story. To do it openly as a nation, to grieve openly, would be a very healing thing to have happen. You've written in many places about the violence that comes out of not having a functional cosmology.
Matt: When you don't have a cosmology, and your heart breaks, you have no place to take it. Violence often results. Even the preoccupation with horror is because it's the only "big thing" kids are exposed to. Their big feelings of fear get fed, because there is no positive cosmology being taught. There's no sense of wonder or awe. Fear is the shadow side of awe. At least it's big. But it's not enough to get you through life in any positive sense.
Lauren: In Sins of the Spirit, Blessings of the Flesh, you write: "the ecological crisis is a flesh crisis." Would you say more about what you mean by that?
Matt: The new cosmology allows us to see flesh in perspective, in context. We realize now that we can de-anthropocentrize our understanding of flesh, that flesh is all matter, all the elements that make up matter. And that, to our surprise, those beings like ourselves who have flesh, are really quite rare. It's a special opportunity-and responsibility. The new creation story is really teaching us that all material beings have flesh. And we're all related.
What this does is to detox the Western attitude toward the word flesh. The Greeks messed up. Paul, as the very first writer in the Christian bible, went along with the Greek mess-up, even though Jesus was not that way. The Jewish tradition itself is not suspect of flesh. Augustine in the 4th century made it even more of a problem. That has really stuck in the memory of the western church. Fear of flesh has taken over western theology. All of that is an insult to the tradition of the incarnation, which is a celebration of divinity taking on flesh in its many forms.
Why is the ecological crisis a flesh crisis? Because it's about our relationship with the other dynamics of flesh. The ecosystem of the forests, ozone, birds, animals, soil, water-all this is flesh too.
Given a different creation story, we can say, "we're in this together, and what happens to the soil will effect, literally, the food I eat. And the food my children eat." That is a survival question, a flesh question, a spiritual question.
Flesh is something we encounter daily. If we encounter it with a negative attitude, which is what much of our western religious traditions laid on us, then we're going to miss the point. We're not going to have the energy to deal with it when flesh is threatened. I also connect this in the book to the first chakra, to the lower chakras in general. The church has done a terrible job in misleading us about the lower chakras. So, for example, pride is a sin. Pride isn't a sin. The lack of pride is a sin. Pride is necessary-that's what self-esteem means. Arrogance is a sin. Under arrogance come anthropocentrism, racism, sexism, homophobia. All that's arrogant. That's a sin. But not pride. We've been misled there. The nature of lust-I don't think lust is a sin, it's a gift. If you love life, we should be thanking our parents and nature daily for lust. That's what brought us here. But obviously sexuality is a power that can be misused and become a power trip. That's when our sexuality becomes suspect.
Thirdly, anger. We've been told by St. Augustine that anger is a capital sin. But I don't think it is. I think violence is. Anger itself is a healthy response.
Lauren: We've explored this notion for some time in EarthLight that the environmental crisis is a crisis of the spirit. When you say that ecological crisis is a crisis of the flesh, I'm thinking, it's really the same thing.
Matt: And that crisis can raise our consciousness about our attitude toward spirit and flesh. Another connection I make in the book about the first chakra is that acedia-the "lack of energy to begin new things," in Aquinas's words, a cynicism, couch potato-itis-is fed by a lack of cosmology. And it's healed by an intense experience of the beauty of things. Beauty is primary to loving life, to staying in there.
If you think of most of the two million years that our species has been here, you were looking at stars every night, you were watching the seasons roll around, you were so much closer to nature. I don't think we've begun to really grasp how much an urban culture has robbed us of this.
The price we paid for the modern era has been to diminish the sense of mystery and the presence of beauty that's among us. With that, we're set up for consumerism, passivity, and couch potato-itis.
Lauren: You call acedia the most dominant sin of today. You also say that sin is something we don't like to talk about in this culture. Why is that?
Matt: I think religion has oversold sin, what I call cheap guilt. The very word sin has lost its meaning. People spend a lot of time fleeing from it. Nevertheless, you can pick any newspaper and 95% of the headlines are about human complicity in evil. Scott Peck says that our language for talking about evil is still at a primitive stage. I think he's right. A sin-obsessed religious ideology has been responsible for keeping us in an infantile, primitive stage in talking about evil.
Lauren: You call generosity the optimal virtue for this time of creating a new cosmology, the moral wave of the future. Is there a particular kind of generosity that's needed now?
Matt: You raised the issue of the elders. But where are the elders? They're out on the golf course, a lot of them -- and they're playing the stock market. They're playing adolescent games, frankly. I'm not saying all golf is adolescent, but their unavailability to the young is scary. Giving young people spaces where biophilia can happen, where celebration can happen, and play can happen, and strutting around can happen, is to prevent violence and crime of another kind. The unwillingness of older people in our culture to give away is mainly about fear, insecurity. But that's where generosity comes in. It's meant to stand up to fears and insecurity.
Lauren: One of things you're doing now at the school, through the ritual center, is involving young people in creating ritual, giving them a place, an opportunity to experience that celebration and play.
Matt: I hope so. Certainly we're learning from the young people. So much of the form that we're bringing into the worship is taken from their experiments. They're going out in celebration, all night dances, inventing new art forms like rap and techno-music. It's what I call an urban sweat lodge.
Adolescence is precisely the time when we begin to feel our connection to the universe, with the cosmos as a whole, and with one's own heart and soul. It's about psyche and cosmos coming together and our own heart and soul growing beyond just the local family to connect to the big picture.
A Catholic priest I knew in 1975 said if you go to any Catholic church in Chicago, there's no one there under 43 years of age. That doesn't mean the young don't want to experience transcendence. It means they are so serious about it, they know they can't get it in church anymore. The forms there are too modern, too centered around text, words, and benches. The cosmos is not breathing and pulsating there.
Lauren: In the twenty one years since you first started the Institute at Mundelein College, what have you seen in the culture that's changed?
Matt: Certainly there's more openness to talking about spirituality today. Eight or nine years ago, the dam broke through. Instead of people resisting and saying "yes, but; yes, but," people moved to another place and started saying "yes and; yes and!" Ecological and cosmological awareness has increased tremendously in that time. I also think there's more impatience with organized religion today than there was twenty years ago.
I had no clue I would be an Episcopalian or that I would be president of a university. We have no guarantee that a small university built around spirituality is going to survive in Oakland. But I think it's struggle worth engaging in, because I think education is at the very heart of our misinformation, of our excess as a species. We have knowledge factories, but not wisdom schools. Wisdom schools don't mean that you throw out the intellectual brain, but you've got to balance it with other ways of knowing.
We are trying to do that here and I think that for the most part we've been successful in these twenty one years. We now have a model of pedagogy that's post-European and post-modern. I've seen it work time and time again in people's lives. I see a lot of our graduates doing very good work out there, effecting cultural change and transformation.
We're dealing here with something so intrinsic to the human species: the need to learn and the joy of learning. I know we have something to offer because we're drawing on sources, such as the mystics, that we've been ignoring for centuries. It's like returning to the repressed.
The focus of our doctorate of ministry here is work and spirituality, bringing the new cosmology and spirituality into the work world. It's been wildly successful! What's happening is that all our professions are failing. We are offering the basis of what's missing in academic training in our professions. Today's education is a strainer that strains the soul and the spirit out. We have to bring that back.
We need to create mentorship relationships between elders and young people. Education has to be more personalized. You have to be able to dance together, celebrate together, argue together, learn together. We need education with a human face. Education should not be an unhappy experience. Learning should be as delicious as eating a good meal!
Lauren: If you could look twenty years into the future, what would you like to have the University of Creation Spirituality have helped birth?
Matt: I hope that there will be ritual centers like we're doing here in every city in the country. That we don't just build more theaters to watch movies. But that we can deal with the communities' grief, and joy, and wonder through ritual centers. I would also like to see this model of a spiritual university be imitated in many places. And one that brings together the wisdom traditions of the world, both in practice and theory. And, hopefully, even to see this somehow incorporated in the universities we have. (See story, page 34). I think it's coming to that. There's no way of reinventing work without reinventing education. Everything else is just a bandaid. I know there's a passion around reinventing work. It's going to build, not lessen. Therefore, there's going to be a real need to reinvent education. I hope we can contribute to that.
A young person asked me two years ago: "Does creation spirituality have a strategy for social transformation?" It got me to focus clearly. I am trying to live out a strategy and it's threefold. If you can reinvent work, reinvent worship, and reinvent education, we will have brought about a non-violent revolution. Those are the three areas I'm committed to.
Matthew Fox is the author of 27 books, including One River, Many Wells, his latest. He is currently at work on a book on creativity.
K. Lauren de Boer is EarthLight's editor, at work on a book, Walking the Path of Sacred Ecology.
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