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Competing Christianities—Matthew Fox and His “New Reformation”

The conventional wisdom reminds us that a man is often known by his enemies. The same is true for Christianity and, through centuries of heresy, schism, and apostasy, Christianity has collected a good number of enemies.

Now comes Matthew Fox, a former Dominican priest and current controversialist, who sets himself against orthodox Christianity and calls for “a new reformation” that would transform Christianity for the twenty-first century. Of course, it would also transform Christianity into something other than Christianity, but that is precisely what Fox intends.

Matthew Fox is no stranger to tumult and conflict. Born in Madison, Wisconsin in 1940, Fox was ordained a Roman Catholic priest of the Dominican order in 1967. After graduating from Aquinas Institute and the Institut Catholique de Paris, Fox became known for his method of combining non-Christian spiritualities with Christian symbolism. Fox’s syncretism and rejection of core Christian beliefs led to conflict with the Vatican. From 1989 to 1990, Fox was officially silenced by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. Just three years later, he was expelled from the Dominican order.

In a statement published in his most recent book, Fox’s conflict with the Vatican is described like this: “The principled objections to Fox’s work on the part of the Catholic Church’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith were that he is a ‘feminist theologian,’ that he calls God ‘Mother,’ . . . that he prefers ‘Original Blessing’ to ‘Original Sin,’ that he calls God ‘child,’ that he associates too closely with Native Americans, and that he does not condemn homosexuals.”

In more recent years, Fox established what he called the University of Creation Spirituality, now known as Wisdom University, based in Oakland, California. As the Web site of Wisdom University explains, “At most institutions of higher education, students engage in intense intellectual work, and success is largely based on one’s ability to memorize information and capacity to express analytical thought. Art and physical exercise are generally optional electives. At Wisdom University, the pedagogy is designed to balance the body, head, heart and psyche as a single learning continuum. Each morning students begin with physical movement and chanting, called “body prayer.” They then engage in seminars on a range of relevant and intellectually challenging subjects, each of which has an extensive reading list and requires both pre-and post-papers. Each afternoon, students engage in ‘art as meditation,’ exploring a variety of intuitive and artistic expressions. Creativity is not an elective at Wisdom University. Like the wisdom schools in antiquity, learning is predicated on the unity of mind and heart, body and soul. The day is completed with a process session to help integrate the learning that is taking place on all levels.”

Now, for those unable to enroll at Wisdom University, Matthew Fox has brought his teachings to the masses in A New Reformation: Creation Spirituality and the Transformation of Christianity. Of course, the book has a story, and that story is itself fascinating.

Scheduled to give a series of lectures in Germany, Fox realized that he would be speaking in the native land of Pope Benedict XVI, formerly Cardinal Ratzinger. The recent election of the pope, who was once head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith that had silenced and censured Fox, offered the former Catholic priest his opportunity to stage a demonstration of his “creation spirituality” as an alternative to classical Christianity.

But what would Matthew Fox seize upon as his opportunity? “I prayed about it and one night, at 3:30 in the morning, I was awakened with an idea: Why not draw up some theses, just as Martin Luther had done five hundred years ago, that would speak to my concerns and those of the people from whom I was hearing? Why not reenact Luther’s protest: the nailing of the theses to the church door in Wittenberg?”

As he recalls in his new book, he quickly sat down and drafted some of his own theses. By the time two hours had passed, “I found that I had poured ninety-five theses. One after another, they had tumbled out of me, and I was amazed.” In A New Reformation, Fox is now ready to share those many theses, which, he suggests, “represent a certain reformation–and indeed transformation–of church and religion for our times.”

Matthew Fox also decided to take his idea of ninety-five theses one step further–he decided to hold a public event in Wittenberg, where he would nail a copy of his ninety-five theses to the door of the Wittenberg castle church. The plan did not go well. In Wittenberg, Fox and his cohorts were prevented from nailing the theses to the historic door and were required by civic authorities to stay at least forty-five feet away from the historic structure.

In the end, Fox was reduced to nailing his theses to a piece of leaning wood. Needless to say, the spectacle lacked something of the seriousness of Luther’s call for a reformation of the church.

Matthew Fox clearly sees the Roman Catholic Church as the main target of his criticism. Nevertheless, his call for a new reformation is actually addressed to the entire Christian church, Protestants and other non-Roman Catholics included. Fox’s catalogue of complaints against the Roman Catholic Church is long and laborious, including accusations of cover-ups of sexual scandals, the silencing of theological creativity, and injustice against the poor. When it comes to Protestantism, Fox describes the contemporary Protestant scene as “anemic, tired, boring, incurious, unadventurous, emasculated, compromising, confused, depressed, unmystical, lost, irrelevant, preoccupied with trivia, uninspired, one-dimensional, and burned out.” In response to all this, Fox calls for Christianity to “move from religion to spirituality.”

By now, most informed observers have learned to recognize what is being proposed when we encounter calls for “spirituality” rather than “religion.” In the contemporary context, this means the substitution of theological and philosophical creativity from orthodox Christianity–the substitution of postmodern concepts of relativity for the notion of an objective truth.

Fox covers a host of concepts and proposes an odd mix of heresies within his ninety-five theses. He begins with the assertion that God is “both Mother and Father.” From this starting point he argues: “At this time in history God is more Mother than Father because the feminine is most missing and it is important to bring back gender balance.” Leaving aside for a moment the utter lack of biblical evidence or support for Fox’s proposal, one stands back in amazement at his apparent confidence that he would determine when “gender balance” is restored once again.

He also argues that the older idea of God as a “Punitive Father” must be discarded. “God the Punitive Father is not a God worth honoring, but a false god and an idol that serves empire builders. The notion of punitive, all-male God, is contrary to the full nature of the Godhead, who is as much female and motherly as masculine and fatherly.”

In reality, Fox’s theses range across a very disconnected landscape. Nonetheless, some are breathtakingly simple and clear in their rejection of classical Christianity. Take Fox’s thesis 6, for example: “Theism (the idea that God is ‘out there’ or above and beyond the universe) is false. All things are in God and God is in all things (panentheism).”

Other theses are virtually unintelligible. Fox argues that “Christians must distinguish between God (masculine and history, liberation and salvation) and Godhead (feminine and mystery, being and nonaction).” What can this possibly mean?

When Fox’s theses are understandable, they are most often heretical. Like most modern heretics, Fox wants to make a clear distinction between the “Jesus of history” and the “Christ of faith.” In his formulation: “Christians must distinguish between Jesus (a historical figure) and Christ (the experience of God-in-all-things).”

From there, Fox argues that “Christians must distinguish between Jesus and Paul.” Of course, no Christian I know has any difficulty distinguishing between the historical persons of Jesus and Paul. Nevertheless, Fox’s point is clear. He wants to privilege the words of Jesus over the words of Paul. At the same time, Fox clearly does not want to privilege or to accept as authoritative all of the words of Jesus, for that matter–just the ones that fit his model of Jesus as a teacher of universal “spirituality.”

Teachings about human sexuality are at least part of what brought Fox into direct conflict with the Catholic Church and its magisterial authorities. In his new book, Fox argues that human sexuality “is a sacred act and a spiritual experience, a theophany (revelation of the Divine), a mystical experience.” Sexuality is, of course, one of God’s good gifts to humanity–a gift to be exercised only within the Creator’s intention and command, which means within the institution of marriage. In arguing that sex is itself a “spiritual act” Fox crosses over into genuinely heretical territory. Such teachings are part and parcel of many ancient paganisms, but not of biblical Christianity.

Some will note with interest that Fox sees theological seminaries as enemies of his proposals. “Seminaries as we know them, with their excessive emphasis on left-brain work, often kill and corrupt the mystical soul of the young instead of encouraging the mysticism and prophetic consciousness that is there. They should be replaced by wisdom schools,” he suggests.

In one sense, the proposals of Matthew Fox deserve little attention from orthodox Christians. After all, his rejection of biblical Christianity is so transparent that he poses little threat to the institutional church. In one sense, that assessment is probably accurate. There is little chance that Matthew Fox is going to officially be embraced by any branch of Christianity that is in any sense committed to the historic faith.

Yet, at the same time, there are two reasons why attention to Matthew Fox and his new book is worthwhile. In the first place, Fox’s vision of “spirituality” as a substitute for doctrinal Christianity has gained ground in some very unexpected places–even within the pews and pulpits of some churches that consider themselves evangelical. His minimizing of the truth question in favor of existential meaning is a hallmark of the postmodern age and its spirit is a contagion spreading through many churches.

Secondly, Fox’s description of two rival visions of Christianity is, taken by itself, actually quite helpful. Why? Because it is good to know that those who reject historic biblical Christianity understand that their proposals represent a completely different religion. This is exactly the point made by J. Gresham Machen in his book, Christianity and Liberalism, written in the early twentieth century at the height of the Modernist controversy. Biblical Christianity and those movements that call themselves Christian but reject historic Christian doctrine do not differ in degree, but in kind–they really are two different faiths.

“There are two Christianities in our midst,” Fox argues. As he explains, one vision of Christianity “worships a Punitive Father and teaches the doctrine of Original Sin.” The “other Christianity” rejects any notion of a God who will punish sin, and the very notion of sin itself. Instead, this rival to historic Christianity “recognizes the Original Blessing from which all being derives. It recognizes awe rather than sin and guilt, as the starting point of true religion. It thus marvels at today’s scientific findings about the wonders of the fourteen-billion-year journey of the universe that has brought our being into existence and the wonders of our spiritual home, the earth. It prefers trust over fear and an understanding of a divinity who is source of all things, as much mother as father, as much female as male.”

On matters of sexuality, this “other Christianity” celebrates gays and lesbians as a normative part of creation. In making his argument, Fox makes the astounding (and completely undocumented) claim that there are 464 other species of animals which feature gay and lesbian populations.

Most persons will see Matthew Fox’s “new reformation” for what it is–an attempt to hijack the Christian faith in order to push his own panentheistic agenda. Nevertheless, we should note with care and concern that many of Fox’s ideas have taken deep root in various sectors of Christianity. Those wondering where such trends might lead should pay close attention to Fox’s admission that his ideas represent a completely new faith presented as an alternative to historic Christianity.

The Reformation of the sixteenth century was a serious attempt to recover and embrace historic biblical Christianity. Matthew Fox’s “new reformation” is precisely the opposite–an attempt to replace Christianity with a new form of paganism. Will today’s Christians see this clearly?