The Cosmic Wisdom of Matthew Fox

A fiery priest, once silenced by the Vatican for his controversial views on feminism, sexuality, and the priesthood, calls for a return to Christianity's mystical origins.

Sounds True:In your workshops, books, and recorded lectures, you often use the term “Cosmic Christ Archetype.” Can you begin by helping us understand what you mean by this term?

Matthew Fox:An archetype is a universal experience. And the “Cosmic Christ Archetype” is a universal way of seeing the world. The Cosmic Christ Archetype is a way of seeing the splendor and divine grace in all things. Hildegard of Bingen, the twelfth century Christian mystic, said, “Every creature is a glittering mirror of divinity.” In terms of John's gospel, this is the light of Christ in every creature.

If I try to relate in terms of today's sciences, I think of photons (a tiny indivisible quantity of electromagnetic energy). We know that there are photons in every atom, in every being. Therefore, the Cosmic Christ is the divine radiance that's present in every galaxy, in every star, every porpoise, every blade of grass, and every human.

The Cosmic Christ Archetype is not unique to the Christian or the Jewish tradition. It appears in Eastern traditions as well. Buddhists talk about the “Buddha nature” that is in every flower, in every child, and in every smile. This is the Cosmic Christ; it's just another language.

Sounds True:I know you have worked with many influential physicists relating the discoveries of modern physics to the discoveries of mystics throughout the ages. What about the recent discovery in quantum physics—that the universe is expanding? Does this mean that the Cosmic Christ Archetype is expanding or evolving in some way?

Matthew Fox: Absolutely. Most societies thought that time and space were eternal in their present forms. Not too long ago, we began thinking about time as being evolutionary, but now we're learning that space is something that is being created and expanded. So I think it gives us permission to expand our vision of the Cosmic Christ—in fact it demands of us that we expand.

I think it's like the opposite of fundamentalism. Fundamentalism is the resistance to expansion. It is a desire born out of fear, to trap and hold back, to build walls and moats of orthodoxy and exclusion. Whereas we now know the law of the universe is to be inclusive and expansive.

I think that plays very much into a spiritual consciousness—a mysticism which is what the Cosmic Christ experience is all about—going beyond the ordinary levels of space/time relations and limitations.

Sounds True: What are some of the practical implications of the Cosmic Christ tradition? If we look at our world, with its starvation and inequities and ecological problems, how can the lessons of the Cosmic Christ Archetype be of help?

Matthew Fox: To begin, let's look at the ecological crisis. This archetype, I think, has a power much more than, for example, a stewardship theology which is based on duty, and really, guilt. That we have to save the environment, that kind of thing. This is not about duty; it's about pleasure and delight. That the earth is a garden, radiating with a divine presence. When it is in danger, it is like the crucified Christ; the compelling urgency here is born out of the experience of beauty and grace, not out of duty. Beauty and grace inspire us to let go of our lifestyles that are hostile to the health of the environment, and to recreate our lives in terms of politics, economics, education, worship, all of it. So that's one of the practical implications—in terms of the ecological crisis, it gets us moving and awake.

Another is worship. Worship is so dead in most of the West. And the reason is that it's become heady and wordy, and anthropocentric. It has become boring. But the Cosmic Christ Archetype invites us back into the lower chakras, to start breathing again and rediscovering the ways of praying that we've lost and reduced to words. I'm talking about the drumming, and the sweat lodges, and the earth spirituality, and the playfulness of dances—spiral dances, circle dances—the forms of prayer that get us back into our bodies and in touch with the earth again.

The whole idea of reawakening worship is so important. When you look at native traditions, they use worship to pass on education to the young. It's not through schools and books. And the fact is that our schools are failing us. That's a whole other topic: the task of renewing education. Schools are failing us partly because they're modeled on European Cartesian definitions of truth—clear and distinct ideas, left-brain only. The Cosmic Christ demands heart work, which is bodywork really: breathing, and ritual, and the right brain. When you get both sides of the brain going, then you have authentic education.

Another practical result of the Cosmic Christ is what I call “deep ecumenism.” Because the Cosmic Christ Archetype exists all around the world, and embraces all the great religions, I see an opportunity to draw forth the wisdom from all the world religions. This practice involves praying and exploring the mystical practices of other religions—whether it's breathing, chanting, sweat lodges, dancing, drumming—all the different ways of using worship to evoke the cosmic wisdom. And we need this so badly as a species today; we need all the wisdom we can get.

Sounds True: I'm interested in this idea of redeeming worship. I do believe that many people don't find inspiration or an opportunity for satisfying worship in the traditional churches or temples. Can you talk more about that?

Matthew Fox:We just held a conference this fall in North Carolina for five days around the theme of renewing forms of worship. It was really wonderful. There was a very diverse group of people from all different religious backgrounds. Some of them had left religion completely. But we put a lot of planning into it, and it really worked. I feel so strongly that if we could only renew worship, we could change society—its potential is that radical. Worship is education of the heart as well as the head; the young, the old, the children, all of us can be involved in it.

Sounds True: What if somebody is reading this, and they don't have much of a community for worship? They don't find much connection with their church or synagogue, but they want to pray. What would you say to someone who wanted to pray, but didn't know how to go about it?

Matthew Fox: There's so much to say about your question. One kind of prayer is to just sit and be quiet; to just listen to one's breathing, and breathe in and breathe out. It's something of a conscious way of realizing that breath is the ultimate gift. We know someone's dead when they can't breathe anymore, so breath and life go together. And so do breath and spirit. They're the same word. We have to pay attention to the things we take for granted, and holy breath is one of them. Listening to your breathing is very simple and wonderful. “Something you always have with you,” as Groucho Marx would say.

The keys to prayer are attention and concentration. They're helpful in the next way to pray, which is to go into nature, and again, just listen. Go into the woods, not thinking of all kinds of problems, be aware of your breathing, and be present with the leaves, and the trees, and the wind, and the animals.

Another way to pray is what we call “arts meditation.” This is a way to go into yourself and find your personal images, and give birth to them through painting, or dance, or storytelling, or poetry. It's a very powerful way to pray, and I think a very essential way to pray, too.

Also, read the mystics. When you read a book by a mystic, such as a book by Hildegard of Bingen, you stop whenever you hit a passage that strikes you. Just stop. The point of reading a mystic isn't to finish the book, it is to pray. And these mystics are wonderful because they are poets of the spiritual journey; they engage us with their amazing images. They can bring the mystic out of us.

You learn to play tennis by playing with someone who already knows how to do it. So you nourish your own mystic by reading the mystics who are solid. Not reading them in an academic fashion, but with your heart. And that's a real help for prayer too.

Sounds True: Do you see that the traditional structure of Western religion will change to meet people's mystical needs? Or are people going to develop their spirituality outside of the traditional institutions?

Matthew Fox: Well, Bede Griffith, the 86-year-old monk who's lived in an ashram in India for 50 years, says this: “If Christianity can't recover its mystical tradition and teach it, it should just fold up and go out of business. It has nothing to offer.”

I agree that we're in an “either/or” situation. If the churches cannot recover their mystical tradition, I think they will become passé. And those movements that can, will bear the energy of our Western spiritual traditions into the next millennium.

People today don't want religion; they want spirituality. They have a right to it. And spirituality involves spiritual practice. “Religion” has to strip down and travel much more lightly. I think that's an important part of our future.

Matthew Fox

Matthew Fox Return to top of page

Matthew Fox (b. 1940) is an internationally acclaimed theologian who was a member of the Dominican Order for 34 years. He holds a doctorate, summa cum laude, in the history and theology of spiritualit...


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