Matthew Fox

I have been familiar with the name of Fr Matthew Fox for a number of years, but have never taken the trouble to investigate him in any depth. My attention has only been drawn by a recent exchange of comments on another posting. Unless I buy a load of books, I can only really go by his website. So all I will attempt will be a number of quick observations, and comments will be welcome to fill in the gaps.

Slogans are always suspect in my mind, such as A Spirituality for the 21st Century. What does that mean? We are all living in 2013, soon to be 2014, but we live in our time in different ways, different temperaments, personalities, cultures, situations of life and everything. Defining spirituality by the century and year seems a little superficial. Some of the things I read remind me of Bishop Gaillot and Fr Guy Gilbert over here in France or Bishop Spong in America. Where is it all going? Secularism? New Age? The abandoning of Judeo-Christianity (or Islam for that matter) in favour of other religious and spiritual traditions? I am uneasy with some of this language and the use of slogans.

On the other hand, there are some beautiful ideas like our responsibility as human beings for the world we are ruining through greed and lack of care. I was only a couple of days ago reading about a yachtsman going from Australia to Japan, and was all the time bumping into bits of trash and flotsam from the tsunami in Japan a couple of years ago. The sea is overfished and thousands of tons of food are wasted every so long. We fill our dustbins with rubbish every week, and most of it is food packaging. My stomach turns as I go into a supermarket and see the sheer quantity of food and consumer products and ask myself how long it can continue! Then we have fracking, factory farming, chopping down the trees of the world and various other means of laying waste to our planet. Those who speak up against such horrors are truly prophetic, and we are called to love our planet, because God created it and found it very good – and nature is beautiful when left to its own devices.

I saw Lee Daniels’ The Butler this week about Cecil Gaines who made it from the cotton-picking hells of Georgia to the White House as chief butler. I had no idea about the extent and viciousness of racism in the USA within the time of my own life! I was 4 years old when the Klu Klux Klan set fire to a bus transporting black students. How can people act in such a way? Of course, I was born only fourteen years after the death of Hitler and the end of the Nazi regime in Europe. We think we are so modern! At last, our legislators and philanthropists are making progress, and now people of non-white races and women make as much from a day’s work as anyone else. How much of this progress is made by Christians? Much of it is done by men like Fr Matthew Fox and others with prophetic voices.

I am also impressed by the insistence that we should know something about Hinduism and Buddhism after the example of Bede Griffiths and Teilhard du Chardin. We certainly need to discover the points of convergence between the message of Christ and wise men of the East. However, we again find slogans like Cosmic Christ that can mean anything. I don’t buy the whole package!

What about Occupy Spirituality? What does that mean? I commented a little about money and economics when the American debt crisis was at its height (it hasn’t gone away – they just stuck a band-aid on it for the time being). Sooner or later, our present economic system has to collapse like Communism in 1989 and the early 90’s. As a European, I abhor both the individualist rich man’s Tea Party ideology and the kind of State Socialism we have over here in Europe. Those who dread Obamacare should try the French system of taxes and charges sociales! Even President Holland admits that ordinary people are being taxed to the limit! Behind our problems lies the spectre of a debt-based economy and some small group of people holding the world in their grip. When that system falls, we will all suffer and perhaps die, for the time it takes for something else to be put in its place, hopefully a just society rather than a brutal totalitarian dystopia. I am attracted more by the idea of making politics and economics serve the planet Earth and all the life and beauty it contains. Occupy? It seems to be something of the way of Ghandi and Martin Luther King, an all-enduring perseverance and peaceful resistance that wins in the end. May it remain peaceful and well-intentioned!

This site gives the impression he is selling his wares. That’s fair enough, as I do the same as a translator through mailings to translation agencies to get work. I don’t think that is dishonourable. Perhaps it all appeals to some of us who grew up in the 1960’s and were part of the post-war quest for something new once Hitler’s evil empire was beaten. There is something appealing about a different kind of Christian like St Francis, Hildegard of Bingen and the medieval monastic tradition of contemplative life. Reading the Gospel through a cynical (ancient Greek) viewpoint takes things at a tangent away from strict Talmudic orthodox monotheism, and opens our minds to possibilities that Christ as an incarnate human came under influences other than his native Jewish tradition. It’s possible…

Fr Matthew Fox has always been a fly in the ointment for conservative Roman Catholics, a so-called “dissident from the Magisterium”. We have Küng and Bishop Gaillot over here among others. Fr Fox has been writing letters to Pope Francis, and they can be read on the site. I think he exaggerates about the Benedict XVI papacy, because Joseph Ratzinger is not a conservative, but rather an intellectual who sought to uphold some of the more positive aspects of traditionalist aspirations. There is two much in the way of simplistic and binary thinking. I appreciate Benedict XVI’s work on liturgical themes, and he has a firm grasp on what makes Christianity and the Church differ from political and humanitarian organisations. So much for Ratzinger’s Secret Crusade! I don’t think such a thing ever existed.

What does Fr Fox suggest? Base communities and funky masses? New Age for folk who are even greyer than I am? Is there anything positive to say about a base community? The first problem to overcome is that I have never been in contact with one. Admittedly there are more of them in countries like Brazil and Bolivia than France or England. How are such communities recognised? Do they cater for people who like classical music, a more traditional notion of life and a “classical cut”. Are young people interested in things that interested young people back in 1968 or a couple of years later when we had tie-and-dye tee shirts and bell-bottomed jeans? Is there any leadership by a priest, or is is all lay spontaneity? If any of my readers have first-hand experience of base communities, please describe it.

Then there is the so-called Cosmic Mass… It is said to have bits and pieces for every taste with song and dance. Would it be entertainment for all the family? Here is a page about it – Cosmic Mass. It’s worth seeing. There are some good ideas, like getting rid of pews. On the other hand, Fr Fox developed an idea of a kind of spiritual night club with dancing and pop/rock music. There seems to be an assumption that we all belong to that kind of culture – too bad for those of us who don’t. The method involves de-constructing traditional liturgical forms and inventing something new. I look at the images of the dancing adepts at this service, and ask myself whether they are truly in prayer or an auto-suggestive state. One big question comes out of all this – the objectivity of liturgical tradition and aesthetics, did what we have in the past mean anything at all?

We can try to shed the usual conservative / traditionalist rhetoric and try to approach these ideas and practices with an open mind. I saw in the video that those attending the Cosmic Mass obviously found it good for their spiritual lives as they understand spiritual life. From my own viewpoint, if this were presented to me as the only available form of Christian worship, I would prefer to go sailing or on a long hike alone or with a small group. This idea of liturgy would become meaningless because its assumptions and symbols are not a part of my life, whether in terms of music, choreography or general outlook on life. I am a country dweller and recoil from city life, and seek simplicity and reality. If such kinds of services were all there was, and if I were not a priest of a “traditionalist” Church, then I would probably feel that I would need to drop Christianity in order to remain a Christian.

Eventually, we liturgical “traditionalists” will rediscover a spiritual basis to our conservative instincts, digging deeper and growing spiritually and emotionally. We have work to do in order to rehabilitate the ways of the early, patristic and medieval Church in everything that is spiritual and beautiful. Personally, I don’t mind if people want to go to Cosmic Masses, just as long as they don’t try to put a crimp in our freedom or ridicule us for our aspirations.

According to information I have just received, it appears that this form of service called the Nine O’Clock Service. There is also Roland Howard’s book, The Rise and Fall of the Nine O’Clock Service. A cult within the church?, London (Mowbray) 1996. My correspondent describes it as “post-Christian worship with vestments and smoke”. According to the footnotes of the Wikipedia article, it would appear that the English priest in charge of this service “would talk regularly about how we were discovering a postmodern definition of sexuality in the church, but it was really one bloke getting his rocks off with forty women“. Yeah…

There’s a lot of thinking to do, and some of these characters are a great help in our reflection on what things are really about. I am not convinced by the slogans or the assumptions of another age – but they are the fare of some obviously sincere people. We need to try to understand people like Küng, Gaillot, Spong and Fox – what drives them. I don’t think (at least speaking for myself) that the final objective is all that different – contemplative life and concern for our world over and above the work of politics and humanitarianism. It is a question of the means rather than the end. That in itself is something to think about.

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