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The Thoroughly Modern Mysticism of Matthew Fox

by Wayne G. Boulton

Wayne G. Boulton is professor of religion at Hope College in Holland, Michigan. This article appeared in the Christian Century, April 28, 1990 pp. 428-432, copyright by the Christian Century Foundation and used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at www.christiancentury.org. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.


Mysticism: it begins with mist, centers on "I" and ends in schism. Or so I was taught in my conservative Protestant upbringing and then at a Presbyterian seminary. I also recall learning that mysticism was vaguely medieval and Roman Catholic. Not until 1970 -- late in my graduate school training -- was a profound and intellectually stirring side of mysticism presented to me, thanks to the work of Evelyn Underhill and the Quaker Douglas Steere. Since that time, Christians have renewed their interest in spirituality and matters mystical, with popular writers such as Thomas Merton, William Johnston and Henri Nouwen leading the way.

Into this changing situation has come Matthew Fox, a Dominican scholar promoting a modern and accessible mysticism. Director of the Institute of Culture and Creation Spirituality at Holy Names College in Oakland, California, and guru of the creation spirituality movement, Fox is on the road much of the time giving lectures and leading workshops (or "playshops") around the world. Fox is author of a number of books on "creation-centered mystics," including Original Blessing: A Primer in Creation Spirituality (Bear, 1983) and his new book, The Coming of the Cosmic Christ: The Healing of Mother Earth and the Birth of a Global Renaissance (Harper & Row, 1988) Fox is such an eclectic and elusive thinker, still in midcareer, that a fair summary of his thought may not be possible. But I am certain that Fox is a mystic. (Happily, he’s certain of it too.) The sort of mysticism he expresses can be significant for (particularly Protestant) Christians today.

What exactly is mysticism? Fox’s definition is marked by a commendable range together with a stress on ordinary experience. Mysticism is that form of religious practice centering on firsthand experience of the divine. Mystic practices belong to the core of all religions, for believers retain vital belief in a transcendent reality only as long as they can communicate with that reality by direct experience. Insofar as everyone is potentially religious, one could say that there is a mystic in all of us.

The practice of mysticism, Fox argues, has two essential elements that correspond to two meanings of the Greek word mystikos: to "shut one’s senses" and to "enter the mysteries." The rhythm in all mysticism springs from the fact that these two meanings are related. To be more fully open to the mysteries requires the purification or shutting down of one’s senses -- pulling the plug on the television, going out into the woods, or calling a halt to marathon reading. The mystic shuts down the senses not because they are evil, but because they are such blessings that they deserve a periodic rest and cleaning to be renewed and restored.

Fox focuses on what he calls the "primal sacraments": sea, land, wind, fire, life -- the universe itself. The great passion of mystics, he writes, is to enter the awesome mystery of the universe and our existence within it. By returning to what he believes is the foundation of all religions, Fox hopes to return sacramental liturgy to its proper setting, to the source of its energy. This move further serves to remind the church that its own tradition points to natural mysteries no institution could possibly control or manage.

Fox’s favorite illustration of a mystic entrance into the mysteries is the experience of astronaut Rusty Schweikert in 1969. While temporarily stranded outside his Apollo capsule high above the earth, in complete silence, this typical macho fighter pilot had a shattering and transforming encounter with his home planet. Looking back on the earth, "a shining gem against a totally black backdrop," Schweikert was so overcome he wanted to "hug and kiss that gem like a mother does her firstborn child." The political divisions on our planet that meant so much to him before he entered space faded away entirely. The rivers didn’t seem to pay any attention to them; the clouds didn’t stop at the border between Russia and Europe; the oceans served communist and noncommunist worlds indiscriminately. Schweikert had never read Tolstoy, but from his perch in space he didn’t need to: there are no nations.

The theological tilt in Fox’s mysticism is toward creation. His project is not only to be creation-centered in his spirituality, but to warn the world about any version of Christianity in which creation appears as an afterthought, versions he calls "fall/redemption" or ascetic spirituality. In slightly different terms, Jurgen Moltmann makes a similar point in God in Creation. As I’ll say later, I’m not at all certain that Christians should center themselves as Fox does, but his understanding of creation strikes me as wise. His work provides the clearest possible example of how a lively sense of divine creation blocks both the sex-negativism and the indifference to public life that have bedeviled the mystical tradition through the centuries.

Fox’s mysticism issues in a new quest -- not for the historical Jesus but for the Cosmic Christ. The new quest is for the divine pattern that connects, say, the crab nebula in the sky with crawfish on earth -- personalizing the connection by grounding it in the joy and suffering of the historical Jesus. For precisely in Christ, Fox says, one becomes connected with the entire world in a new way. On the cross, a cosmic upheaval follows the most violent possible disruption between humanity and divinity: the Father withdraws, letting the Son cry, "My God. my God, why hast thou forsaken me?" But this leads. paradoxically to connection as sin’s power is broken and God raises Christ from the dead. Through this New Man or Cosmic Christ, Christians are reconnected not only to their places, their races, their social classes and their political friends, but to everything -- to the animals (who surrounded Christ’s birth) , to the sick, to the outcasts, to the little and forgotten ones, to the land.

For Fox, this is the Christ of Colossians, "the first-born of all creation . . . in him were created all things in heaven and earth: everything visible and invisible . . . he holds all things in unity" (Col. 1:15-17) This Christ is "the radiant light of God’s glory and the perfect copy of God’s nature, sustaining the universe by God’s powerful command" (Heb. 1:3) This is the cosmic ruler to whom "every knee should bow in heaven and earth and under the earth" (Phil. 2:10) Only the quest for such a Christ, Fox believes, can free the church from its captivity to a truncated, anthropocentric "personal savior Christianity."

If the Cosmic Christ is so evident in the New Testament, why is the concept so foreign to most Christians today? Fox’s answer: the Enlightenment. The individualism of the Enlightenment and the industrial age, combined with Isaac Newton’s theory of a desacralized, machinelike universe, convinced Christian theologians that they should put aside their living cosmology, symbolized religiously by the "Cosmic Christ," and focus on personal salvation. Capitulating to a culture driven increasingly by scientific investigation, industrial development and medical advances, the Christian West became more interested in itself than in God or the fate of God’s nonhuman creation. The brilliant New Testament scholar Rudolf Bultmann is perhaps typical in the way he shifts the interpretive focus of theology to anthropology, the doctrine of the person. As even a brief visit to an Eastern Orthodox cathedral will make clear, the Western church lost its Cosmic Christ.

This is not to say that the Enlightenment’s quest for the historical Jesus was a waste of time. According to Fox, any theology of the Cosmic Christ must be grounded in the historical Jesus -- in his words, his life and his liberating deeds. Fox simply means that it is time for a new quest that builds on the old, but goes in a different direction: it reimagines a living cosmology for Christians in our time. Fox writes: "The holy trinity of science (knowledge of creation) , mysticism (experiential union with creation and its unnameable mysteries) , and art (expression of our awe at creation) is what constitutes a living cosmology."

Such a direction would signal a dramatic shift in the way seminaries train students. Science courses would be mandatory, because to understand the dynamic character of the Cosmic Christ we must first understand 20th-century scientific revelations about the creative and vibrant nature of our universe. Sustained attention to the spiritual disciplines and to mysticism in the broadest sense would become integral to the curriculum: We could not teach theology without art as meditation or without laboratories in painting, music, dance, poetry and other activities that Fox claims allow students to listen to the cosmos within and around them, and to give birth to a creative theology.

Though he uses psychology in his work, Fox is not at all happy with the overt dependence on psychological data in Christian ministry courses. He sees "psychologism," or the reduction of spirituality to psychological categories, as a pathological pseudo-mysticism rampant within U.S. seminaries today. Psychologized religion is religion that has lost its mystic center. In seminaries where more attention is given to clinical pastoral education than to mysticism, Fox argues, an entire generation of potential spiritual leaders is often sacrificed to the God of counseling. To use a Foxian image, perhaps it is time to back huge moving vans up to our seminaries, load up all those "practical theology" books and pamphlets cluttered with psychological jargon, and channel our educational resources in a different direction.

Not that Fox is preoccupied with the state of our seminaries or with church curricula. His sweeping proposals for change include but go far beyond the institutional church. A few examples:

Deep Ecumenism. Because the Cosmic Christ is rooted in the witness of the New Testament, this Christ permeates or at least lies dormant in all churches and groups that call themselves Christian. Moreover, the Cosmic Christ connects us to all people ("he holds all things in unity") and can be discerned within the wisdom traditions of all world religions. Fox terms the movement to unleash this wisdom for the common good "deep ecumenism." The heart of the Cosmic Christ is the figure of Jesus as Sophia or Wisdom -- for Fox the perfect bridge between Christianity and other faiths.

Why, one might ask, should we expect a deeply ecumenical era to begin now? Sustained and often mass contact between Christians and other religions has been going on for some time. If the Cosmic Christ has been there all along, why hasn’t this era already begun? Once again, Fox’s answer is simple: the Enlightenment tradition is too powerful. The West is thoroughly out of touch with its own mystical heritage. The Western church can’t engage in dialogue with the East about mysticism or wisdom when it does not know its own mystical roots. Yet authentic and profound contact between Christianity and other religions may lie ahead. The great encounters between Christianity and native people and between Christianity and Eastern religions have occurred only during the past few centuries -- during precisely that period in the West when Newton, Descartes and the Enlightenment deposed the Cosmic Christ.

The Greening of the Religious Life. In biblical language, Fox is anticipating a new Pentecost, a great outpouring of the Holy Spirit on the entire human race. For Christians of European heritage, this will often involve self-criticism of a deep and painful sort. They will have to let go of liberal, Enlightenment-sponsored worldviews that deny mysticism and lack a cosmology. They will have to accept instruction from the same religions of the earth they customarily dismiss as primitive and superstitious. They will be required to enter a global religious awakening without trying to control it. According to Fox, the color of the coming religious transformation of contemporary culture must be green. In and through the Cosmic Christ, after all, everything in heaven and on earth is created. And Mother Earth is dying before our eyes.

From the Mediterranean to Alaska to the Soviet Union to the California coast, we encounter news of ecological disaster. But this is only the tip of the iceberg. Topsoil is being destroyed around the world at an alarming rate -- 6 billion tons per year in North America alone. It is estimated that Iowa, a state traditionally rich in topsoil, will be a desert by the year 2020 if the current rate of soil depletion continues. The world’s forests are disappearing -- largely to satisfy First World appetites -- and in these forests dwell incredibly diverse species of plants, animals and birds. As forests go, species go. We are currently in the midst of an "extinction spasm of immense proportions. Ordinarily, a species of plant or animal dies out about every 2,000 years. Currently, species are disappearing at the rate of one every 25 minutes. If this rate continues, we will eliminate 10 percent of the remaining species (100,000 per year) in the next ten years. Some believe that the only parallel to this pace of extinction is found in major geological and climatic upheavals in the ancient past.

In this global crisis, Fox argues, political programs and voluntary activity will not be enough. A spiritual response is also required -- the enormous resources of our religious heritage. The earth will continue to bestow its blessings of soil, forest and rain, but are we responding as we should -- with gratitude, restraint, appropriate reverence and the proper rites?

Worship. The end of Fox’s new book contains the most intriguing program for liturgical renewal I’ve ever seen. His primary concern is to arrest "the anthropocentric deterioration of worship in the West" through renewed attention to the Cosmic Christ. Fox finds that worship on the part of non-Christian peoples often possesses a trait Western churches need: a cosmological sense. Native peoples do not worship anthropocentrically. In their dances, ceremonies and rites, they see themselves as members of a mysterious and sacred universe.

Fox peppers this section of the book with stories (I could add to them) of priests and ministers reading richly cosmic biblical texts, creeds or traditional prayers and then completely ignoring the cosmological dimension in their exposition or commentary. What might happen to worship if church leaders were retrained in a cosmological context? What if, for example, brides and grooms at weddings were encouraged to explore and express the mysterious cosmos of their own bodies by reading parts of the Song of Songs to each other, with the congregation playing the role of the chorus? Fox is usually right in claiming that he is not abandoning Christian traditions but delving deeper into them.

Most standard criticisms of mysticism simply don’t stick to Fox. For example, Fox doesn’t wallow in subjectivism, making it up as he goes along. Any fountainhead of ideas like Fox is bound to appear subjectivistic, particularly when some of these ideas are, well, unlikely. But there is a personal element in all theology. Recall also that Fox is second to none (perhaps only to James Gustafson) in attacking anthropocentrism. But the most telling answer to the charge that Fox is too subjective is that he consistently works out of a coherent tradition alongside Francis of Assisi, Hildegaard of Bingen, Julian of Norwich, Nicholas of Cusa, Teresa of Avila, John of the Cross, Roger Williams, George Fox, John Woolman and others.

Nor is Fox’s mysticism quietistic, wasting its substance in playful aestheticism and luring us toward a religious withdrawal from public affairs and social issues. Dip into any Fox book, and you will meet a man pervasively and consistently engaged in political questions. Fox would concede that his tradition displays dualistic and quietistic tendencies, which is a major reason for his tilt toward creation. But Fox’s supreme test for distinguishing authentic from inauthentic mysticism is "justice-making and compassion as Jesus taught."

It is more likely that the opposite is true: with leftist sympathies visible on every page, Fox could be accused of politicizing the gospel, a temptation that Donald Bloesch identifies in Essentials of Evangelical Theology as ‘the principal challenge to the evangelical church in our time." Yet Fox is simply too mystical in the classical sense, too interested in the inner life, to reduce Christianity to a scheme for social and political transformation. His call for a change of heart, for a "resurrection of the human psyche," is clearly a prerequisite for social change, which makes Fox as "conversionist" as any Christian evangelical.

Other criticisms, however, are not as easily, dismissed. Fox’s work reminds us why the church has never been completely at ease with its mystics. For one thing, his evaluation of the institutional church is almost entirely negative. His writings reflect no interest in Christian institutional practice -- a trait that appears to me to be characteristic of most Christian mystics. It is not clear how the church might be authoritative for him, even in a proximate or penultimate sense. On the other hand, Fox is obviously and deeply interested in movements of all kinds -- Christian and non-Christian, artistic, philosophical, social, political, economic, literary, scientific and spiritual.

Another bothersome yet historically predictable feature of his work is its idiosyncrasy. In his newest book Fox calls Christianity to a rebirth and a new quest that would entail some of the most cataclysmic changes in its history. And then he writes, "A Cosmic Christ who does not accomplish the renaissance I speak of is not the true Christ." Such a line will strike most readers as perhaps a tad overstated. Indeed, what does Fox think has been happening for the past 20 centuries, when nothing even approaching his "renaissance" has taken place? As others such as William Thompson in Commonweal (June 16, 1989) have noticed, this trait in Fox may be linked to a certain theological vagueness throughout his work concerning the difference between the creator and the creator’s deeds and effects.

But all these shortcomings tend to be limitations of mysticism as a historical movement within religions, and we would be hard-pressed to find any significant movements displaying no theological limitations. Furthermore, we need more Christian mysticism today, not less. Dead liturgical formalism together with doctrinal or biblicistic rationalism are so strong in some quarters of the church that some sort of a recovery, of the mystical side of faith is an absolute necessity. Protestants in particular have much to learn from the contributions of Fox’s inner circle -- the great mystics of catholic Christianity.

Fox’s most damaging flaw is that in Christian terms he is not mystical enough. He presents us with a Christianity so worldly -- so wedded to his own time, so confident of the superiority of post-Enlightenment categories -- as to be almost religiously incoherent. The New Testament, after all, is hardly silent about heaven (as opposed to our time and place) , an afterlife and a severe judgment on this world. Fox is silent about these things; his creation-centered spirituality excludes them. There is nothing even approaching world-suspicion in the man -- a trait common among Christian mystics from St. Anthony in the third century to T. S. Eliot in our own. To be sure, he is suspicious of the religious and political right wing, but this is suspicion of a different kind.

Fox subscribes to the "common factor" school of mysticism, which helps him but doesn’t help us. It helps him because it accepts the notion that the most diverse spiritualities all have a common basis; only subsequent interpretations distinguish one mystic experience from another. Thus Fox can draw freely from religions as archaic as Taoism and as primal as Lakota Indian spirituality, since their insights are assumed to be ultimately compatible with Christianity.

But why should we assume that interpretation is always extrinsic and subsequent to the mystic experience? Such a view eliminates the cognitive dimension of the experience, reducing it to sensation. Discerning a certain family resemblance between, say, Shinto and Christian mystical experiences hardly establishes that they share a common foundation. Is it not at least as likely that even mystical experience has a specific ideal content of its own, and that therefore there is no such thing as mysticism in general, but only Jewish mysticism, Buddhist mysticism and so on?

Nothing more clearly reveals Fox’s accommodation to modernity than his rejection of original sin. I admire his candor. Since 1983 he has been completely open about his intention drastically to shift the traditional Christian paradigm from original sin to original blessing. Fox’s target appears to be the Manichaean notion of sin without creation, the idea that we come into this world despised, worthless, ugly and powerless. This state of low self-esteem is then easily and too often displaced onto a scapegoat, such as racial minorities, women or homosexuals. As damaging now as it was in the ancient world; such a mind-set is indeed a worthy target for criticism. But Fox throws out too much. Creation spirituality needs a profound sense of sin. Without it, his grasp of evil -- not to speak of his impact on orthodox Christianity -- is severely compromised. Creation and redemption are brought so close together in Fox’s work that his programs for social transformation are almost inevitably simplistic. And in his call for personal transformation ("a resurrection of the human psyche") he can sound faintly like a Robert Schuller of the left.

The good news is that nothing in creation spirituality requires these shortcomings. My troubles with Fox -- the blurred distinction between creature and creator, the diminished sense of the church and sin, the absence of world-suspicion -- stem in the end from his wholesale and catastrophic rejection of Augustine, the great bête noire of the Foxian version of church history. Augustine is Fox’s honorable opposition, like Barth’s Schleiermacher. But Fox has yet to learn from Augustine as much as Barth learned from Schleiermacher, and herein lies his eminently soluble problem. Plunge more deeply, Father Fox, plunge more deeply.

No good reason remains for Protestants to continue to ignore Christian mystics. Blessed with an agile mind, Fox has more range and creativity than any mystic writing in English today. His stress on individual freedom in religious matters, on ethics and on ecumenical concerns will appeal to many Protestants. But perhaps his greatest contribution will be to awaken us to "sacred spaces" that go unrecognized in our hectic, distracted lives -- meetings and places where time is suspended in the midst of time, where space "fills" with Christic experience of the Eternal Now, an experience that has always been the highest promise of the peculiar tradition known as mysticism.


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