Theology in a 13.7 Billion-Year-Old Universe: Matthew Fox, Original Blessing, and Creation Spirituality

What would Christianity look like if the focus were Original Blessing, not Original Sin; Creation Spirituality, not the Fall/Redemption story; and social justice, not individual perfectionism? How do we do theology in the twenty-first century that accounts for scientific insights in general and the 13.7 billion-year-old “Universe Story” in particular?

Betsey Shank, "Magnificat"

There is in all visible things an invisible fecundity, a dimmed light, a meek namelessness, a hidden wholeness. This mysterious Unity and Integrity is Wisdom, the Mother of all, Natura naturans [“nature naturing” or "nature doing what nature does”]. There is in all things an inexhaustible sweetness and purity, a silence that is a fount of action and joy. It rises up in wordless gentleness and flows out to me from the unseen roots of all created being, welcoming me tenderly, saluting me with indescribable humility. This is at once my own being, my own nature, and the Gift of my Creator’s Thought and Art within me, speaking as Hagia Sophia, [“holy wisdom”] speaking as my sister, Wisdom.

“Hagia Sophia,” The Collected Poems of Thomas Merton

Our Advent theme this year is “Original Blessing,” and we will spend the next four Sundays focusing on the four parts of Matthew Fox’sbook Original Blessing: A Primer in Creation Spirituality. I do not necessarily expect you to read this book since it weighs in at more than 360 pages of theological prose; however, you are welcome to read it along with me if you choose. The book is a modern spiritual classic that has sold hundreds of thousands of copies.

Matthew Fox

The author, Matthew Fox, was born in 1940 in Madison, Wisconsin. And in 1967, he took vows to join the Dominicans, a monastic order known as the “Order of Preachers.” During his tenure as a Roman Catholic priest, he earned masters degrees in both philosophy and theology, as well as a Ph.D. in spirituality. He was then assigned to teach at a number of Catholic universities. In 1976, he founded the “Institute of Culture and Creation Spirituality” in Chicago, and began to teach in ways that challenged the conservative parts of the Roman Catholic orthodoxy. In 1983, Fox moved his Creation Spirituality Institute to Oakland, California, and this transition — as well as the publication in that year of Fox’s book Original Blessing — triggered an official review of Fox’s theology by the Vatican.

Fox’s two-year review somewhat surprisingly came out in Fox’s favor. Then in 1988, Fox wrote an open letter to Ratzinger which asked, “Is the Catholic Church Today a Dysfunctional Family?” Ratzinger censured Fox in retaliation, silencing him from teaching for one year. Finally, in 1993 (ten years after the publication of Original Blessing), Fox was expelled from his monastic order for failure to fulfill his vow of “obedience” to church authorities. When you protest church authority, you become (by definition) a “Protestant,” and Fox was received the next year as a priest in the Episcopal Church. To date he has written more than thirty books.

One of the parts of Matthew Fox’s theology that I admire is that he does not only the hard work of deconstructing the parts of the Christian tradition with which he disagrees, but also the even harder work of reconstructing an alternative. As I have said before, there comes a point in many people’s spiritual journeys in which it is relatively easy to say what they don’t believe, what they disagree with, and what they reject. Fox’s many books are a good example of how to move to the next stage of reconstructing a mature, adult faith that honors both their personal experience and the wisdom of tradition.

Today, almost thirty years after the initial publication of Original Blessing, it remarkable how much less controversial Fox’s landmark book seems given the brouhaha it stirred in 1983. In many ways, the controversy Fox has generated over his lifetime is less from him being wrong per se, and more from him being a trailblazer, ahead of his time. But you can judge for yourself over the course of the next four weeks.

To give you a quick snapshot of the four Advent paths we will be exploring, we will begin this week with Fox’s first section, Via Positiva, the “Positive Way” of befriending Creation. Our second Advent path will be the Via Negativa, the “Negative Way” of befriending darkness, letting go and letting be. Path number three is the Via Creativa, the “Creative Way” of befriending creativity and befriending our divinity. The final path is the Via Transformativa, the “transformative way” of befriending New Creation, compassion, celebration, and justice.

I also invite you to recall that there are strong resonances between this year’s Advent theme of “Original Blessing” and last year’s Advent theme of the good news of the Annunciation of Jesus’ birth. Last year, we considered the question, “What would Christianity look like if the focus were birth, not death; human flourishing, not suffering; and this world, not the next?” Just as last year’s Advent theme highlighted the good news of birth, new life, life in this world, and parenthood (motherhood in particular), this year’s Advent theme highlights Original Blessing, not Original Sin; Creation Spirituality, not the Fall/Redemption story; and social justice, not individual perfectionism.

The 13.7 Billion-Year-Old Universe Story

To elaborate on these differences, Fox grants that there is some metaphorical truth to the traditional framework of orthodox Christianity, which begins with a “fall from grace” in the Garden of Eden and concludes with Redemption from “Original Sin” through Jesus as the ‘new Adam’ and Mary as the ‘new Eve.’ But he criticizes this story as too anthropocentric (too “centered on humanity”) to be the central story of our 13.7 billion-year-old Universe of which homo sapiens have only been a part of for a few hundred thousand years — or a few million years if you want to go back to the Neanderthals. Either of those human-center timespans are dwarfed by the 13.7 billion years of the ‘Universe Story.’ Fox and many others are skeptical that a Fall/Redemptive narrative than spans a few thousand years of human history and takes place in one tiny corner of the Universe can have ultimate meaning in the grand scheme of things.

Fox importantly does not end with rejecting the traditional Fall/Redemption story. Instead, he invites us to explore the story of “Original Blessing,” which begins with goodness, compassion, and creativity at the heart of the universe. This alternative account embraces the best of both religion and science. It is the wondrous story of “emergence” — how the Universe evolved over the course of 13.7 billion years through stages of increasing complexity: “pre-atomic, atomic, molecular, unicellular, multi-cellular, vertebrate, primate, and human.”” As one theologian has written, we humans are,

Stardust now evolved to the place that the stardust can think about itself!…We are the universe becoming conscious of itself. We are stardust that has begun to contemplate the stars. We have arisen out of the dynamics of the Earth. Four billion years ago, our planet was molten rock, and now it sings opera. Let me tell you, this is good news!

Embracing this Universe Story perspective of Original Blessing is precisely what Matthew Fox intends when he invites us to explore the Via Positiva, the “Positive Way” of befriending Creation. He invites us to embrace all that this world and this life can teach us about God and God’s mind-blowingly huge Creation — an act of creation that did not end with a single act in the past, but that has been ongoing for billions of years.

“Original Sin” from Augustine, not Genesis

To say more about the difference between the traditional “Fall/Redemption Story” and the scientifically-based “Universe Story,” remember that, for the most part, neither Jews, nor Muslims, nor Eastern Orthodox Christians, nor many biblical scholars recognize a doctrine of “Original Sin” when they read the first few chapters of Genesis. Our tendency in Western Christianity to read these stories as a “Fall from grace” has to do with the way Augustine, the fourth-century bishop of Hippo, (and later Martin Luther) read these stories.

Augustine has been a major influence on Christian theology for 1,500 years and Luther for more than 500 years, and it can sometimes be almost impossible for us Western Christians to read scripture without the influence of major figures such as Augustine and Luther affecting our interpretation. Both Augustine and Luther were, at times, obsessed with the themes of sin and grace, and these fixations affected how they interpreted the Bible (and, in turn, how many of Christians have read the Bible since). The point is that although we humans are certainly flawed, finite creatures, the dominance of the “Original Sin” motif in Western Christian theology is neither inevitable nor integral either to the Bible itself or to the Universe Story.

Fox relatedly points out that human writing was only invented a few thousand years ago. But the Universe, again, is billions of years old. Accordingly, theologians invite us to consider that although the Bible has enduring importance, we should consider that, “The universe is the [first and] primary revelation of the divine, the primary scripture [predating the Bible by billions of years], [and] the primary locus of divine-human communion.” And God is communicating with us though Creation today, including through science. Said differently, the scientific method is a way of listening to how God is speaking to us about the mysteries of our Universe.

Stages of Human Development

When I think about Christianity through this lens of Creation Spirituality and Original Blessing, one of the most exciting implications is the potential to catalyze our progress as individuals and as a society from infantile egocentrism (in which we selfishly only care about our needs) to ethnocentrism (or tribalism, in which we only care about the needs of those similar to ourselves), to globo-centrism (in which we embrace both the common humanity of all humans and the place of humanity as merely one among many important parts of Planet Earth), and finally to cosmo-centrism (in which we truly begin to embrace an integrated perspective that takes into account our place as an interdependent part in the ongoing 13.7 billion year old — and counting! — unfolding of Creation that is the Universe Story). A shorthand description of this process is the move from “me” to “we,” to “all of us,” to “ALL.”

If a picture is worth a thousand words, then perhaps the most iconic photograph that represents the invitation to move from ethnocentrism to globo-centrism is “Earthrise,” a picture taken by an astronaut in 1968 from Apollo 8, which was the first human spaceflight to leave Earth orbit. The three-man crew became the first humans to travel beyond low Earth orbit, and the first to see Earth as a whole planet. In Life Magazine’s 100 Photographs that Changed the World, “Earthrise” was called “the most influential environmental photograph ever taken.” This photo helped expand many people’s consciousness from egocentrism or ethnocentrism to globocentrism. From space, the truth is startlingly clear that, as Peter Mayer sings, “All the World Is One.”

Similarly, the breathtaking pictures of galaxies, nebulae, and the Ultra-Deep Field that we continue to receive from the Hubble Space Telescope, invite and challenge us to take the next step beyond the global consciousness of “Earthrise” toward a Cosmic Consciousness. Fox writes, “If every person is capable of [cosmo-centrism or Cosmic Consciousness], but most people are not encouraged to celebrate it, then what happens to persons and their institutions? They become sick and violent. For we were made for something cosmic and will not fit peacefully into anything much smaller.” For the survival of both our planet and our species, the importance of these shifts in perspective (toward Original Blessing and the Universe Story) cannot be overestimated. The invitation is to truly embrace panentheism (the truth that God is “in, with, and beyond” everything) at the most maximal level that is possible from our finite human perspective.

Embracing Imperfection

There is another vital implications of this shift we have been exploring. From the perspective of the “Fall/Redemption” and “Original Sin” paradigm, the focus of the spiritual life is often on individual moral perfection. In contrast, the “Original Blessing” and “Creation Spirituality” perspective, invites us to have the “courage of imperfection.” Fox writes:

for people who have truly learned to trust creation one of the first lessons is how beauty and imperfection go together. Every tree is beautiful; but if you approach it closely enough you will see that every tree is imperfect. The same is true of the human body: every human body is beautiful, but every human body is imperfect. In nature, in creation, imperfection is not a sign of the absence of God. It is a sign that the ongoing creation is no easy thing….

For those of us who tend toward being perfectionists, this encouragement to be ‘pro-imperfection’ and ‘anti-perfection’ can be hard to hear and difficult to trust. But Fox may be onto something: perfectionism can be narcissistic — always worrying about and cultivating our own perfection turns our focus inward on ourself and our own behavior. This perspective is also often focused on the past (what we did, didn’t do, or could’ve done better). In contrast, Creation Spirituality invites us to be grateful for the present moment, even with all its imperfections.

Perhaps St. Francis of Assisi is one of our strongest examples in the Christian tradition of connecting with God through Nature, standing in awe and gratitude for the wonder of the created Universe, and savoring beauty in all its forms. After all, Francis famously preached to the birds, and spoke to the elements of Creation as “Brother Sun” and “Sister Moon and Stars.” In addition to Francis, Fox has done important work in this book and many of his other books to demonstrate there are strong themes of “Original Blessing” and “Creation Spirituality” throughout Christian history particularly in the Bible and in major Christian figures such as Hildegard of Bingen (1098-1179) and Meister Eckhart (1260-1329).

Do You Really Want to Know?

As this sermon draws to a close, a major question remains of whether we desire to change. Do we want to know about Original Blessing, Creation Spirituality, and the Universe Story? Or are we satisfied with the tradition of Original Sin and the Fall-Redemption Story? (And if you are, I can respect that position, and, indeed, many millions of Christians continue to hold this view today.) Indeed, in some ways this ‘new’ perspective (which is also quite ancient the more you investigate!) can seem to be a profound break with Christianity and reality as we have been taught to understand it. However, consider the story of the philosopher who was asked, “Why did people used to think that the sun went round the earth?” One of his students said, “Because it looks as if the sun goes round the earth.” The philosopher responded: “But how would it look if the earth went round the sun?” The answer is that it would look exactly the same. Think about it.

Analogously, someone could ask, “Why do some people believe in Original Sin and a Fall-Redemption Story of Creation?” Another might respond, “Because it looks as if Original Sin and a Fall-Redemption story are the case.” But the questioner could retort: “What would it look like if Original Blessing, Creation Spirituality, and the Universe Story were the case?” The answer is that the world would look exactly the same in many way. The difference in both cases is our worldview: what we want to know and what we are able to give ourselves permission to experience, think, and consider.

As you continue to consider these two different worldviews, I invite you to listen to a song from Peter Mayer titled, “Do You Really Want to Know?” After the song we will pause for approximately a minute of contemplative silence during which time you are invited to listen to how God is speaking to you this morning:

The sun once went around the earth / according to the holy church / which helped to reassure / people that they were / The center of the universe

One day his holiness, the Pope / met a man with a telescope / and said Hey Mr. Galilei / What does your spyglass say?  / And the scientist spoke….he said

It’s really quite amazing / entirely life-changing / so let me ask before I show you— / Do you really want to know?

Emma read the bible for direction / She said she was a child of heaven / and that the human race / came from a higher place / from the angels descended

She wound up marrying her cousin / He was a thinker of a husband / Lost in thought, she’d find him / And say “Charlie, what you writing?” / Darwin looked up and said

It’s really quite amazing / entirely life-changing / so let me ask before I show you— / Do you really want to know?

Do you really want to / let knowledge like a breeze / in through the door of your belief / Blow through the rooms and the corridors / Knock cherished heirlooms to the floor / That wind can raise the roof sometimes / And leave you blinking at the sky

So if you stare into this glass / beware that there’s no going back / You’ll say “Sun Rise!” but it will refuse / Instead, the earth itself will move / And spin you ‘round from dawn to dawn / Amid the wonder of it all

Do you really want to know?

For Further Reading

  • Richard Dawkins, The Magic of Reality: How We Know What’s Really True. A similar book to the above, but for older children, or to read to younger children at bedtime. Description: “Packed with clever thought experiments, dazzling illustrations and jaw-dropping facts, The Magic of Reality explains a stunningly wide range of natural phenomena. What is stuff made of? How old is the universe? Why do the continents look like disconnected pieces of a puzzle? What causes tsunamis? Why are there so many kinds of plants and animals? Who was the first man, or woman? This is a page-turning, graphic detective story that not only mines all the sciences for its clues but primes the reader to think like a scientist as well.”
  • Philip Clayton, The Predicament of Belief: Science, Philosophy, and Faith. Description: “Does it make sense — can it make sense — for someone who appreciates the explanatory power of modern science to continue believing in a traditional religious account of the ultimate nature and purpose of our universe? The authors develop a version of Christian faith that preserves the tradition’s core insights but also gauges the varying degrees of certainty with which those insights can still be affirmed.”
  • Brian Greene, Nova: Fabric of the Cosmos. Description: “This DVD takes us to the frontiers of physics to see how scientists are piecing together the most complete picture yet of space, time and the universe. With each step, audiences will discover that just beneath the surface of our everyday experience lies a world we d hardly recognize, a startling world far stranger and more wondrous than anyone expected.”

Notes

1 Fox was investigated by the Vatican’s “Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith,” whose prefect at that time was Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, now Pope Benedict XVI. During the Counter-Reformation this investigative body was known as the “Supreme Sacred Congregation for the Roman and Universal Inquisition” (yes, that Inquisition), which sought to uproot heretics under the leadership of the “Grand Inquisitor.” Fox’s ‘heresy trial’ puts him in a long line of religious figures persecuted for their beliefs. Just this year, new lines were drawn in the decades-long conflict between Ratzinger and Fox with the publication of Fox’s book The Pope’s War: Why Ratzinger’s Secret Crusade Has Imperiled the Church and How It Can Be Saved. In one description of the book, “Fox…outlines his vision for a new Catholicism — one that is not Vatican-based but truly universal, celebrating critical thinking, diversity, and justice.”

2 For more on Fox’s life story, see his 1996 autobiography Confessions: The Making of a Postdenominational Priest. Also noteworthy are the ways in which Fox is heir to the work of the twentieth-century (Jesuit) Roman Catholic priest, philosopher, and paleontologist Pierre Teilhard de Chardin (1881-1955), who died when Fox was fifteen. For more, see John F. Haught, “Teilhard de Chardin: Action, Contemplation, and the Cosmos.” Radical Grace: A Publication of the Center for Action and Contemplation 23:2 (April – June 2010), 5. Available online at http://www.cacradicalgrace.org/rg/issues/2010/2/RG_2010_Q2.pdf.

3 For more on the stages of the spiritual journey toward a mature, adult faith, see my sermon, “Everything Is Holy Now.” Available at http://broadviewchurch.net/2011/09/new-sermon-everything-is-holy-now/.

4 You’ll notice that each of the book’s four sections (or “paths”) has a Latin name because it seems that you can take the boy out of the Catholic Church, but you can’t take the Catholic Church’s influence out of the boy!

5 For more on last year’s Advent theme, see my blog on “Progressive Christian Reflections on Advent.” Available at http://www.patheos.com/blogs/carlgregg/2011/11/progressive-christian-reflections-on-advent/.

6 On the Universe Story, Roman Catholic theologian John Haught offers following metaphor:

Imagine that you have thirty large volumes on your bookshelf.  Each tome is 450 pages long, and every page stands for one million years.  Let this set of books represent the scientific story of our 13.7-billion-year-old universe.  The narrative begins with the Big Bang on page 1 of volume 1, but the first twenty-one books show no obvious signs of life at all.  The earth story begins only in volume 21, 4.5 billion years ago, but life doesn’t appear until volume 22, about 3.8 billion years ago.  Even then, living organisms do not become particularly interesting, at least in human terms, until almost the end of volume 29.  There the famous Cambrian explosion occurs, and the patterns of life suddenly burst out into an unprecedented array of complexity and diversity.  Dinosaurs come in around the middle of volume 30 but are wiped out on page 385.  Only during the last sixty-five pages of volume 30 does mammalian life begin to flourish.  Our hominid ancestors show up several pages from the end of volume 30, but modern humans do not appear until the bottom of the final page.  The entire history of human intelligence, ethics, religious aspiration, and scientific discovery takes up only the last few lines on the last page of the last volume.

We can use Haught’s analogy to give us twenty-first century scientific insight into Paul’s words from 2,000 years ago that, “The whole creation has been groaning in labor pains” — that is, groaning for 13.7 billion years. (John Haught, Christianity and Science: Toward a Theology of Nature [Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2007], xii.) See also the work of Brian Swimme, such as his Journey of the Universe.

7 On the eight stages of emergent complexity, see John Haught, “Teilhard de Chardin: Action, Contemplation, and the Cosmos.” Radical Grace: A Publication of the Center for Action and Contemplation 23:2 (April – June). Albuquerque, NM: 4-5. For a more nuanced, book-length account, Harold J. Morowitz, The Emergence of Everything: How the World Become Complex (New York, NY: Oxford Univ. Press).

8 We are “Stardust now evolved to the place that the stardust can think about itself” — see Michael Dowd, Thank God for Evolution, 92. The part about “four billion years ago the Earth was molten rock and now it sings opera” is originally from Brian Swimme.

9 “We are the universe becoming conscious of itself…” — see Carter Phipps, “Preachers of a New Pentecost.” What Is Enlightenment (May – July 2004), 25. Available at http://www.enlightennext.org/magazine/j25/new-pentecost.asp.

10 Fox gets Augustine precisely right: “The fall/redemption tradition is profoundly introspective and introspection does not lead to cosmic relating or cosmic caring or cosmic celebration. [It’s too “me,” instead of “we” or “ALL.”] Augustine’s genius was in writing what is probably the first autobiography in the West. But here too lies his weakness [because everything has a shadow-side]. Too much guilt, too much introspection, too much preoccupation with law, sin, and grace” (Original Blessing, 76).

11 On Augustine’s role in promoting “Original Sin” theology, see Fox, Original Blessing, 5.

12 On the brief tenure of human writing compared to the Universe, see Fox, Original Blessing, 37.

13 “The universe is the primary revelation of the divine, the primary scripture, the primary locus of divine-human communion.” — see Thomas Berry, “Our Children: Their Future,” the little magazine, Bear & Company, Vol. 1, No. 10, 8. See also Berry’s book The Sacred Universe: Earth, Spirituality, and Religion in the Twenty-first Century.

14science is a way of listening to how God is speaking to us about the mysteries of our Universe” — Michael Dowd frequently makes similar points. See his book Thank God for Evolution.

15 On the stages of human development, including globo-centrism and cosmo-centrism, see Ken Wilber, Integral Spirituality: A Startling New Role for Religion in the Modern and Postmodern World.

16 For the lyrics to Peter Mayer’s “All the World is One,” see http://www.petermayer.net/music/. To listen: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=t1wmkYMsNcs. The song is on his incredible album Heaven Below. An excerpt: “Ask an atom in the breath you take / Ask the water by the river bank / Ask a strand of DNA — it’s written in your blood / One life running in your veins / One light from one big bang / You can try and separate it / But all the world is one, / all the world is one.” See relatedly the work of Mary Oliver (such as Thirst: Poems) and Annie Dillard (such as For the Time Being).

17 For a gallery of Hubble pictures, see http://hubblesite.org/gallery/album/. The Ultra-Deep Field image looks back approximately 13 billion years (between 400 and 800 million years after the Big Bang), and contains an estimated 10,000 galaxies. For more, see NASA’s press release at http://hubblesite.org/newscenter/archive/releases/2004/07/.

18 “… For we were made for something cosmic and will not fit peacefully into anything much smaller.” — see Fox, 72.

19 On perfection and imperfection, Fox adds, “A perfection-oriented spirituality of holiness is intrinsically-privatizing and does not lead to a spirituality for [all] the people…. One has to ask how much of the quest for perfection is a look back, a nostalgic quest for a time that never was. Certain myths about creation teach that humanity was created in a ‘state of perfection’ and that original sin disrupted that ‘perfect’ state. Fall/redemption theologians like Augustine teach this. Thus the quest for holiness as perfection is a quest for a past event…. [A] world view that ignores what we know of evolutionary history, that flees from nature, and that makes too big a thing of the past. The fullness we seek and the ripening into fuller, compassionate people that we desire draws us into the future much more than into a past that most probably never existed” (Fox, 110-111). By embracing the this-worldly imperfectionism of everything that we can experience with our senses, Fox is rejecting the abstract, theoretical Platonic notion of perfect, other-worldly “forms” as the ideal. For more, see Richard Rohr’s blog post on “Plato or Jesus?” available at http://richardrohr.wordpress.com/2011/11/25/plato-or-jesus/.

20 On Saint Francis and similar perspectives, see Fox, 66-68.

21 For Fox’s “Appendix A: Toward a Family Tree of Creation-Centered Spirituality,” see 307-315. The other two appendices are also excellent resources: “Fall-Redemption and Creation-Centered Spirituality Compared at a Glance” and “An Annotated Bibliography in Creation-Centered Spirituality.”

22 “But how would it look if the earth went round the sun?” The answer is that it would look exactly the same.” — The philosopher referenced is Ludwig Wittgenstein (1889–1951).

23 For the lyrics to Peter Mayer’s “Do You Really Want to Know?” see http://www.petermayer.net/music/. To listen: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NgidmxdmlXs. The song is on his incredible album Heaven Below.

The Rev. Carl Gregg is a trained spiritual director, a D.Min. candidate, and the pastor of Broadview Church in Chesapeake Beach, Maryland. Follow him on Facebook (facebook.com/carlgregg) and Twitter (@carlgregg).

About Carl Gregg

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