I understand very well that many smart educated people despise the word “God” as some kind of supernatural illusion and feel there is glory enough in the richness of nature from the Planck length to the living world to the cosmic horizon. Nature possesses glory and mystery, yes, but in this attitude something crucial to humanity’s long term survival is missing, something hard to say in a word but vividly illustrated in an extraordinary new book – the autobiography of an excommunicated Catholic priest, Matthew Fox, entitled Confessions. Almost twenty years ago Fox published the first part of this autobiography, but he has brought it up to date and is publishing this new version.
Fox is something very rare: a brilliant and highly educated intellect emerging out of pure celebration of existence, of overflowing love of reality itself. Underlying all his daring ideas and poetic writing is this innate preverbal passion that embraces us readers as human beings, not as members of any religion or group. And because this is an autobiography by a person with an incredible memory, we know that even as a child in a very religious family, a kind of celebration of existence bubbled up in of him. What kind of child goes excitedly to mass before breakfast every morning and six times on Sunday? He assumed he had to become a Catholic priest, because that was the only metaphorical home he knew of that seemed big enough to house his cosmic exuberance. But the Catholic Church was not big enough, not even close. Even as a seminary student he was thrilled when he would meet Catholic professors who questioned the stuffiness of the Church and its fear of change.
Fox is a revolutionary – not a mere political revolutionary but something much bigger. He wants to respiritualize the whole world – nature, our relationships, our very sense of what we ourselves are – but in a way consistent with science. He is out there to reconceptualize spirituality as an essential skill for any educated person who wants to matter in this world with compassion.
What originally got him in trouble with the Vatican was a talk he gave, saying that the Church is self-destructive in isolating gays and that its policy is not only inhumane and unjust but a blow against creativity itself. As he puts it, “an ideological group of thugs who attack by lies and innuendo anyone to the left of Attila” complained about him to Rome, and that was the start of a decades-long crusade to suppress him, led by Cardinal Ratzinger, who headed the Vatican office known until the 20th century as the “Holy Office of the Sacred Inquisition” (I was surprised to learn that the Office of the Inquisition still exists, just under a blander name).
Fox has read everyone, to a first approximation, and he translates enormous scholarship into tangible meaning. He has turned Catholic teachings on their head, arguing that children are not born in original sin but original blessing, and that the only creation story that can inspire in our age is one based on science. His radically life-affirming reinterpretations of Catholic doctrines, his feminism (he compares the Vatican to the Taliban in its determination to control women), his openness to wisdom from any tradition, and his dedication to social and ecological justice were intolerable to Ratzinger, who ordered him to be silent for the entire year of 1989 -- an incredible punishment in this day and age. But Fox obediently accepted it, even though he felt that “the act of silencing theologians instead of engaging them in dialogue is a sign of institutional violence.” At the end of the year, of course, he went right back to writing and teaching as before. When Ratzinger became Pope, he excommunicated Fox -- who points out that Hitler and Goebbels were Catholics but never excommunicated.
Thousands of people worldwide inspired by Fox and his theology of “Creation Spirituality” – a spirituality based on love of and full participation in the universe as it truly is – wrote letters to the Vatican appealing his case, including groups of nuns and priests, rabbis, Zen practitioners, secular followers, etc. – people who realized that Fox’s work to make spirituality not only relevant to our times but influential toward justice, environmental consciousness, feminism, and magnanimity of spirit were invaluable, regardless of religion. The Vatican was unmoved. Fox wrote an astonishingly candid and damning analysis of the corruption of the Vatican, called The Pope’s War, which was widely translated and may have been influential in the German Pope’s resignation.
The goal of spirituality to Fox is not nirvana but to live deeply in the real world and the real universe, open to nature’s beauty, feeling responsible to right injustice, experiencing a mystic oneness with it that in no way interferes with scientifically understanding it. It is this balance of spirituality and rationality that he believes leads to compassion. Spirituality as he sees it is not religion but a primal experience that predates the very idea of gods and led our ancestors to develop language and poetry, dance, and trance. Spirituality is the driving force of life to Matthew Fox, and he is convinced it’s not only accessible in the modern world but essential to our survival. Without healing the wounds of religion, he writes, no one can build an authentic political coalition. They need “fire in the belly about justice and compassion.”
Fire in the belly is what everyone who wants to save the world needs! The spiritual power that underlies religions belongs to us, not to the religions. If we distain that, how are we to become a real force in changing the world and not just an esoteric group of scientists, philosophers, and philanthropists? We need the experience of oneness that impassions the motivation to act collectively and that Fox calls the mystic. “When progressive thinkers and doers stay as far away from religion as they can, they turn over religious language and religious values to the very fundamentalists whom they oppose as political right-wingers (Fox’s italics).”
I could not agree more with Fox that we need to redefine the whole concept of “God” – not throw it away, with its irreplaceable power and resonance. We must do this in ways that not only make sense in the modern world, given current knowledge, but that recognize and benefit from the millennia of experimentation that religions have done in how to empower human beings to access that ancient sense of connection to something larger than ourselves. We need that connection to deepen ourselves as humans, to illuminate our cosmic connections to each other, our ancestors, and our distant descendants, and to inspire us to do what must be done before it is too late.
A God That Could Be Real is alsoabout redefining God, but I come from the scientific side and a completely different background. Matthew Fox comes from the other side, moving from religion to spirituality to science to wholeness. His life, his creativity, and the dozens of books he has written have inspired thousands of people, not only in their hearts but to action. You cannot read this book without being changed by it and enlarged. The future of humanity may depend upon our finding more sources of such inspiration.