Relatively Faithful Outdated Book Review: Matthew Fox's 'Confessions'


It's Labor Day, Angel's out to lunch, and I'm still feeling a bit under the weather. Great opportunity to write a book report on my most recent outdated literary conquest, Matthew Fox's 'Confessions: The Making of a Postdenominational Priest'.

For those who aren't familiar with Fox, he's an ex-Catholic Dominican theologian (deposed by the efforts of none other than Cardinal Ratzinger, now Pope Benedict XVI. Here's the pope's blog.) turned Episcopal Priest, and champion of something called Creation Spirituality, which he considers to be a post-modern expression in the tradition of the great historic Christian mystics. Fox has been an influential thinker in environmentalist Christian circles and a big proponent of experimental liturgical forms, including the Planetary Mass as organized by the now defunct and down in flames Nine o'clock Service (NOS), which arguably originated the Emerging Church movement in the Church of England. This book, a memoir, is the first long work I've read by Fox in it's entirety, and the first thing I've read by him at all since Otago.

I have to admit that 'Christian spirituality' draws to mind negative images for this disillusioned post-evangelical: emotions drummed up by schmaltzy praise choruses and then attributed to God's spirit, Thomas Kincaid paintings, pastel doves, that sort of thing. Being unapologetically cynical, 'Creation spirituality' also has negative connotations. Actually what I think of first when I hear the phrase is Tim Treadwell, the guy from Grizzly Man who loved and connected with bears so much that they ultimatly ate them (there's some great allegory in that tragedy). After that, I usually think of those ladies at folk festivals who sell scarves and wear bandannas and pirate pants. If I'm honest, I just don't fully trust 'spirituality' or the people who are into it. I have to say though that Fox makes me question whether that's a good thing or a bad thing.

I've decided that if you're going to understand a philosopher or theologian, you should really start by reading their biography. I say that because when I first read Fox's spirituality work, I assumed that it was typical San Francisco New Age mumbo jumbo--all about chakras, embracing Gaia, that sort of stuff. I picked up this book b/c I like autobiographies, and b/c he's an Episcopal Priest and I wanted to learn about what made him tick. Having read this full work, I've gained an appreciation for the extent to which his thought connects with Judeo-Christian mystical traditions, the traditions of Celtic Christianity, and trends of thought present in Catholic monastic and Dominican traditions. I've also realized that (!) his theology isn't very different from my own, although the language he speaks is, in my estimation, more WOOWOO. He's probably no more of a New Age heretic than I am, for whatever that's worth, and a much more substantial thinker than I'd assumed.

One thing I like about Fox is that he's a panentheist--he sees God as being present in everything, and everything as being present in God. (It's not a pantheism, where God is the goat or the dirt or the rock, but God is seen as being both immanent and transcendent, both present and seperate, if that makes any sense.) For Fox, there's no God-figure standing outside of reality doing magic tricks when we pray hard enough and give him enough money. God is present with us and is something all of us experience, whether we decide to label it as God or not. This isn't gnosticism, as is so much modern Christianity, because it doesn't make one's connection with God dependent on a set of beliefs or assumptions. Very 'postmodern', and a lot of modern theologians fit this bill, but it also has a proud lineage in historical Christianity among other traditions.

One intriguing thing about Fox is that he's trying to work out this understanding of God liturgically and institutionally. The NOS's Planetary Mass, which was essentially a rave form of the Eucharist, incorporated the universality of God's presence in creation (and human experience) as a central element of worship, rather than focusing 'God' into the priest or preacher or even the bread and wine as traditional sacramental and liturgical worship has tended to. He's working ecumenically as well, and points out that denominationalism has some significant theological weaknesses from a panentheist and universalist perspective. I see a lot of resonances in these aspects of Fox's thought with what is happening in the Emerging Church movement--which was of course a bit startling since I've associated Fox with New Age senselessness, and myself with the Emerging Church. It's always fun when you find out that the people you look down your nose at are actually a lot like you, (or much better than you).

Ultimately, I say bravo to Matthew Fox. Read his stuff. He's an admirable artistic pioneer forging his own path--some of his ideas are probably nonsense, but there's a lot that's solid in what he's done and a lot that's anticipatory of the direction that religion in the West will be heading in coming years.

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