Matthew Fox has spent a lifetime reinventing how we worship. The founder of the University of Creation Spirituality in Oakland, California, he is the author of many books including Original Blessing; Creativity: Where the Divine and Human Meet; and Sins of the Spirit, Blessings of the Flesh. In recent years, he has helped create new forms of worship such as the Techno Cosmic Mass, and has worked to reconcile Western mysticism with both indigenous tradition and the insights of contemporary science. Here, he explores the way of Radical Prayer.
Sounds True: Many people think of prayer as a private act, and not as something you do continuously. Yet you speak of the need to “pray always.” What do you mean by that?
Matthew Fox: To pray always means to hold an attitude of gratitude and reverence, and to be in love with life. Through our actions we carry this attitude into all aspects of our day and our lives. That's what Paul means when he invites us to pray continuously, to pray without ceasing. Because it is that attitude of appreciation and praise that we carry in our hearts all day.
It's also the attitude of resistance—of standing up to injustice. We also carry that all day long, and it shows itself in our work and in our citizenship.
Sounds True: This points to something you discuss in Radical Prayer—the need for each person to be both a prophet and a mystic. Can you explain this?
Matthew Fox: William Hocking, the early 20th-century American philosopher, said. “The prophet is a mystic in action.” I think there's a lot of truth to that. For me the mystic is the lover of life, and the Giver of life and spirit; the mystic therefore says “Yes” to life. The prophet is the defender of life, the spiritual warrior who takes on life's enemies—the forces of evil however incarnated in all of us, such as injustice in any form.
Radical comes from the word for root. I believe the root response to life is both Yes and No. Every human being has to engage their Yes powers, which are their mystical powers, and their No powers, which are their prophetic powers. As Rabbi Heschel said, “There lies hidden within everyone a prophet.” We're all called to stand up and say “No”—or in his words, to “interfere.” The prophet interferes with that which threatens life, beauty, justice, community, and sustainability.
Within a culture, there can be specialists—some who are called to activism, and some who are called to contemplation. But when either are healthy, there's never 100% specialization. That is, every activist has to examine his or her motives, and look for what they're in love with. The prophet who is not mystical becomes a zealot—and there's enough of that going around. So, too, the mystic who does not serve the prophetic struggle in some way can end up very narcissistic. I think the natural situation is a dialectic between the two. That's what I define as “a radical response to life.”
Sounds True: What about those of us who have very full spiritual lives, but would never consider politics and the media having anything to do with our spirituality?
Matthew Fox: Compassion is action born out of our common interdependence. If our spirituality does not lead to compassion, then it's not yet spirituality. Spirituality is about service that leads to some kind of healing—of the body, of the planet, of our species, and of generations to come. It is never private.
True spirituality is never about an individual because individuals don't exist. That's not just a Buddhist insight, it's today's science. We are all made up of one another, literally. We breathe one another's water vapor. We literally are made up of stars and the sun. All the food we eat is sunlight. None of us is living in an isolated cell, as atoms were described in 19th-century science. We have to move beyond the Newtonian notion of atomism, especially in our spirituality. No mysticism worth its salt has ever talked about the salvation of the individual apart from the salvation of the whole.
Sounds True: What role does creativity have in our spiritual life?
Matthew Fox: Creativity is the most divine element in the human species. It's that which sets us off most from other species. It is also what makes us most capable of healing and reinventing ourselves and our professions and institutions. So more than ever at this time in history, we have to call on our creativity.
Human creativity is a participation in the creativity of the universe—the divine creativity. It's not isolation—it's just the opposite. It puts us in contact with other forces, with the ancestors.
A deep part of spirituality is tapping into the energy of the ancestors. The more we learn about our ancestors, the more we learn about just how immensely creative they were. For example, the people in Siberia who apparently came across the Bering Strait—and in my opinion were not by any means the first ones here—followed the reindeer. They are a reindeer-based culture. Their genius at survival in 60-degree-below weather without fossil fuels is stunning. How did they do it? They did it by placing tents inside of tents to create a vacuum to buffer the cold air. In so many ways, it's our creativity that has gotten us this far as a species.
And it is our creativity that can either sink us or allow us to continue on a saner path than we've been on since the industrial revolution. It is our creativity that is going to reinvent energy that is nonpolluting, renewable, truly sustainable. It is our creativity that will create economic systems that work for everybody and not just for a few.
Sounds True: So this increased awareness is not just in space—from the personal to the local to the global—but also in time, including both future generations and the creativity of our ancestors?
Matthew Fox: Exactly. We need to be aware that creativity is prehuman, that the stars have been birthing, galaxies have been birthing—even the black holes have been making their contribution, recycling things. It's been built into the universe from the get-go. The universe started smaller than a zygote, and it's still growing. Clearly, creativity is integral to creation itself.
Sounds True: What would you most want your listeners to learn or take away from Radical Prayer?
Matthew Fox: I would like people to learn to develop what I call an “adult spirituality.” Not a childish spirituality built on human projections of a god in the sky, but an adult spirituality that incorporates childlikeness—spontaneity and play and joy and wonder and awe—that leads to authentic compassionate action. This is so essential at this moment in planetary and human history. Our time is running out. If we keep acting out of our reptilian brains—which is what so much warlikeness and antagonism between religions and races and cultures and classes is all about—then we're doomed.
We've got to grow up fast, and quit using our youthfulness as a species as an excuse. We have to calm the reptilian brain and then expand our mammal brains by plugging our powerful intellects and creativity into the brain we have—a brain that brings compassion with it. I think this is what meditation and spiritual practice can do. Then we can truly contribute to the earth's beauty instead of stealing it.