Matthew Fox sat silently, meditating, centering himself in the near-darkness of the Castle Church. Throngs of tourists surrounded him. They'd come to see the site where, half a millennium ago, Martin Luther nailed 95 theses to a door, launching the Protestant Reformation and altering the course of history.
Fox, though, had traveled from Oakland, Calif., to Wittenberg, Germany, to do far more than merely think about the past. That afternoon — May 18, 2005 — he planned to make history. Fox would hammer his own 95 theses and call for a new reformation. The theses, in Fox's mind, were an antidote to the ennui of mainline Protestantism, the myopic thinking of fundamentalist evangelicals, and, most important, the abuses of power by the Catholic Church, led by a new pope, Fox's nemesis, Benedict XVI, previously known as Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger.
Two of Fox's traveling companions rushed in, interrupting his thoughts. One whispered into his ear: “We have a crisis. The TV cameras are not showing.”
The television crew was stuck in traffic. It was already 10 minutes to 4 — there was no way they'd be there in time. The newspaper and magazine photographers wanted to take photos at 4 on the dot.
Fox's group faced a dilemma: If you try to make history, and only the print media show up, will anyone hear about it? “Obviously, this is postmodern,” Fox told his friends. “We're going to have two events. We'll do it first for the photographers, then again for the TV people.”
Unlike Luther, Fox couldn't pound nails into the door itself. The original wood was damaged and replaced with bronze during the Seven Years' War in the mid-1700s, so his group bought nails, hinges, and boards at a local hardware store and built a makeshift A-frame. At exactly 4 p.m., Fox, a former Dominican priest, stood in front of one of the world's most famous churches, hammering nails through a 6-foot-long, ancient-looking scroll produced by a man in Canada. The photographers wanted to make sure they got it from the right angle, and in the right light, so they asked Fox to hammer another nail. And another. And another.
After the photographers left, a bus pulled up, and a group of South African tourists poured out and ambled up to the entrance. Their German guide explained, in accented English, the significance of the church. When she'd finished, Fox raised his hand and told the tourists why he was there. His face was crosshatched with wrinkles, and his once-blond hair had turned a strawish platinum, but even at 64, Fox retained the boyish, jovial demeanor of his Midwestern youth. The South Africans listened to Fox speak, his voice at once robust and hypnotic, like the rumble of a freight train filtered through a mug of warm tea. The guide tried to shuffle them along, but the tourists were hooked. They wanted to stay and listen to this strange man talk about a religious revolution. Then the bus threatened to drive away without them, and Fox presented them with 15 copies of his book A New Reformation, sending them on their way.
When the TV crew arrived, Fox hammered and posed and answered questions for them, too, wearing a blue collared shirt and a beige jacket. Only two dozen people watched. The cameraman shot over their shoulders; to viewers of the regional evening news, it looked as if hundreds had attended. “He worked it. Ha!” Fox guffawed a few months later. “We didn't know if anyone would show up, we didn't know if the media was going to show up. That was the good part — the media showed up.”
The theses themselves, like most of Fox's writings, were a sensible response to a serious issue: the crisis of Christianity in the West. Fundamentalism, corruption, and tedium are driving worshippers away, and Fox hopes his political-minded, optimistic ecumenism will bring them back. The event, though, was an outlandish publicity stunt, designed to raise awareness of a theological war Fox had long since lost.
Once the enfant terrible of the Catholic Church, Fox wrote extraordinarily successful books suggesting, among other things, that homosexuality is not a sin and that priestly celibacy should be voluntary. As his ideas roamed further from traditional Catholicism, he hired a witch to work at his Institute for Culture and Creation Spirituality and named his dog his spiritual director. Fox was stripped of his collar in 1993 after theological clashes with then-Cardinal Ratzinger. During the past decade, he revamped the institute to support his alternate vision for Christianity: that anyone can be a mystic or prophet, blessed with divine energy. Fox also developed a rave-style ritual called “Cosmic Mass,” to help followers access their spiritual side in a communal setting. Over that time, he continued his crusade against the Vatican, and when Ratzinger was elected pope, Fox became the media's go-to lefty talking head, decrying the new pope as “the inquisitor general of the 21st century,” a threat to theologians, women, and even yoga.
In public, Fox casts himself in the role of good-hearted liberal fighting against the evil church. In truth, though, Fox has little chance of changing the direction of Catholicism during his lifetime. But there is an underlying battle, between Matthew Fox, self-appointed, publicity-seeking defender of “true” Christian faith, and Matthew Fox, the shy academic who just wants be left alone to teach and write. Without that inner tension, Fox could never have turned on hundreds of thousands to his creation-centered theology, becoming one of the world's most famous priests. Yet Fox the press-hungry iconoclast irritates serious theologians, just as Fox the scholar is often a turnoff to the mass audience. He now walks a tightrope between his two selves, trying, somehow, to please everyone — and persuade them to change their beliefs.
In late summer 1970, Matthew Fox returned to the Midwest to teach, after four years spent earning a doctorate in spirituality in Paris. Barely a month into his first semester at the Aquinas Institute in Dubuque, Iowa, Fox was rocking the boat. He gave a homily at community Mass arguing that celibacy didn't mean priests should be sexually repressed. The notion that “impure thoughts” among priests might be acceptable seems tame now, but in a Dominican school 35 years ago, it struck a nerve. Twenty students lined up at his door that night to speak with him, many of them crying. Fox was soon elected subprior (second-in-charge) of his residence. Almost every student, and almost none of the priests, voted for him. The priests wouldn't let Fox assume his position — they thought he was too dangerous. For many students, it was the authoritarian last straw, and they left the Dominican order. Fox moved to Chicago and commuted to the institute during the second term. [page]
The '60s had triggered turmoil within the Catholic Church, just as they did in the whole of Western society. As a seminary student in 1965, Fox had followed the proceedings of the Second Vatican Council, which liberalized many of the church's teachings. The church that Fox and his peers would preach within was different from the one they'd pledged their vows to. Political circumstances, especially the Vietnam War, exposed further rifts among Dominicans. During the 1968 Democratic Party convention, several members of Fox's order were beaten up by Chicago policemen while protesting; their provincial, who supervised the area's Dominicans, sat inside, in Mayor Daley's private box.
Like Fox's young students, many of his contemporaries were leaving the order. He shared many of their concerns: The church didn't take social justice seriously enough, held onto the archaic notion of celibacy, and was too removed from deep spiritual questions. But between fighting the church from the outside or changing it from within, Fox chose the latter. He still believed in the church too much to run off. Besides, he jokes, “What else can you do with a doctorate in spirituality?”
Fox taught religion at a number of schools over the next seven years, studying independently on the side. He discovered the 14th-century German mystic Meister Eckhart and was exposed to feminism as a professor at all-women's Barat College in Illinois. Both informed his conception of spirituality, which migrated further and further from his traditional training. Fox also published two books that combined whimsical titles with serious discussions of prayer: On Becoming a Musical, Mystical Bear: Spirituality American Style and Whee! We, Wee All the Way Home: A Guide to Prophetic, Sensual Spirituality. Across America, bishops and priests enjoyed them enough to invite him to lecture, but the nursery rhyme-ish titles kept Fox off the Vatican radar.
In 1975, the National Conference of Diocesan Directors commissioned Fox to conduct a study on spirituality and education. He produced a radical vision for a new spiritual school. It would play down traditional religious instruction in favor of teaching the arts and mysticism, which focuses on a direct, personal experience with the divine. For centuries, the church had written off the ancient and modern mystics, dismissing them as narcissists in pursuit of individual power — in comparison with the Catholics' ideal of selfless devotion to God, Jesus, and the church. Like Eckhart before him, Fox began to see mysticism as the fundamental pathway toward experiencing God, an end run around the church's monopoly on the divine. At the time, he still hoped to somehow incorporate these ideas into the church itself, but he was now morphing from a priest with radical ideas into a very radical priest.
Fox tested his theories by establishing the Institute for Culture and Creation Spirituality at Mundelein College outside Chicago. The curriculum included elements of mysticism, Eastern religion, and a practice Fox dubbed “art as meditation,” which focused on the spiritual nature of creativity. Though its core teachings were based on ancient traditions, ICCS tapped directly into the burgeoning New Age spiritual movement, as baby boomers matured and began their own personal searches for meaning. Nuns and priests, paid for by their dioceses, were among the thousands who studied at ICCS and attended Fox's lectures. Church leaders took little notice. “It never occurred to me that I'd get in trouble,” Fox says. “It wasn't even on my theological radar.”
Fox finally did land on the Vatican hit list after a full-frontal attack against the church. But it wasn't his divisive 1983 book Original Blessing that first sparked the controversy. It was the fact that he summarized its ideas in a speech in front of Dignity, the organization of gay and lesbian Catholics.
At the core of Fox's creation spirituality is a history lesson. Christianity was once based on two parallel traditions: the fall-redemption tradition and the creation spiritual tradition. Behind fall-redemption is the concept of original sin: When Adam and Eve rebelled, all mankind was cursed. Creation spirituality is based on what Fox calls “original blessing”: The divine blessed the universe with life, art, and creativity. Native to Judaism and other religions, creation-centered spirituality was suppressed for hundreds of years in Christianity, except among mystics such as Eckhart and the 12th-century Benedictine abbess Hildegard of Bingen. This simple change in perspective completely alters the way one thinks about religion. It eliminates the division between body and soul, removes guilt about sexuality, and renders useless the idea of a patriarchal, authoritarian church judging your every move. “I think they feel their whole game is over if we shift from original sin to original blessing, moving from only human sin to a universe 14 billion years old,” says Fox. “It's definitely a paradigm shift.”
Fox had spoken and written about creation spirituality before, but in his 1983 speech at Dignity, he used it to justify the homosexual lifestyle. After his speech, the conservative group Catholics United for the Faith mailed a thick packet of Fox's writings to Rome. “The enemies who've come after us flatter us by trying to destroy us,” Fox says. “They're saying our work is important.” Original Blessing sold several hundred thousand copies in dozens of languages. For Fox and the Vatican, it was the beginning of the end.
Fox transported his institute to Oakland in 1983, attracted to California's liberal spiritual attitudes and the increased space of a new home in the hills at Holy Names College. The motley crew of faculty included Starhawk, a feminist witch; Buck Ghosthorse, a Native American spiritual teacher; and Jeremy Taylor, whom Fox describes as “a Unitarian minister and part-time anarchist who is a genius at dream interpretation.” Fox soon received a letter from his Dominican province in Chicago. The Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith — the Vatican theological police force formerly known as the Holy Office of the Sacred Inquisition — had received complaints about him from Seattle. The Congregation recommended that the province examine Mystical Bear, Whee!, and Original Blessing. In late 1984, the Dominicans set up a commission, reviewed the books, and found no wrongdoing. Cardinal Ratzinger, then the Congregation's prefect, wasn't satisfied. He asked for another report. A proxy war of words followed, with Fox's provincial, Donald Goergan, fighting on his behalf and Ratzinger arguing for Pope John Paul II, eventually firing off a missive declaring Fox's work “dangerous and deviant.”
At the end of 1988, Ratzinger ordered Fox silenced: no writing, no teaching, no preaching for a year. Fox didn't take it personally; he saw it as representative of a much larger issue. “It's not just about this guy getting silenced,” Fox says. “It's more than that. It's about the church silencing its thinkers, and it's about real issues. And I knew I had to outwit the Vatican.” Fox took dead aim, buying a full-page ad in the New York Times, with a huge headline declaring, “I Have Been Silenced!” He called the Catholic Church fascist, comparing himself to Galileo, St. Thomas Aquinas, and other creative thinkers the church had disciplined over the centuries. Then he called a press conference. “There is an honor attached to being silenced by the present regime in the Vatican,” Fox told reporters. “One might even get the impression from a litany such as this that the Roman Catholic Church's track record on just who to silence among its most prophetic voices is not overwhelmingly impressive.” After his blaze of glory and accompanying media attention, Fox accepted his sentence and retreated into silence, traveling around the world as a student, not a teacher.
When he returned to the public eye after spending 1989 silent, Fox believed he'd done his penance. But the Vatican and the Dominicans were still smarting from his publicity stunt the year before. His province served him with an ultimatum: Come back and teach part of the year in Chicago, or leave the order. Fox refused.
Ratzinger disciplined more than 100 Catholics whose ideas on faith, sexuality, and the infallibility of the pope he found to be incompatible with Vatican teachings. The Brazilian Franciscan priest Leonardo Boff, whom Fox visited during his 1989 sabbatical, was twice silenced for writings on liberation theology, the idea that Catholics have a duty to fight for social and economic justice. Dozens were kicked out of the church or left under pressure, but Fox's situation is unique. His controversial ideas were at issue, but so was his personality. The Times ad, which earned Fox and creation spirituality considerable attention, alienated the Dominicans, who hadn't been consulted. Although many in Fox's province agreed with the tenets of creation spirituality, they were bothered by the lack of control over his very public anti-church actions. “Matt has a big ego and big ideas. We could only accommodate that up to some point,” says Charles Bouchard, president of the Aquinas Institute in St. Louis and a member of the provincial council that dealt with Fox in the early 1990s. The Dominicans say they asked Fox to return because they wanted to hold him accountable to the order for his actions. At the time, many correctly predicted that if they threw him out, their judgment would be co-opted by the Vatican as a theological victory, and by Fox as another reason to rail against the “fascist” church. Nevertheless, they voted to sever ties.
In 1993, Fox was dismissed. The next year, he became an Episcopal priest. “It's kind of like getting a divorce,” Goergan says. “It's best not to blame one side or the other.”
As a child, Fox gave little hint of his future antagonism. Tim Fox, as he was then known, was a quiet, bright young boy, sometimes lost as the middle child among seven siblings. When his parents conducted family dinner-table discussions, he usually replied only when spoken to. If Fox inherited his anger, it was from his father, an assistant football coach at the University of Wisconsin. In the 1930s, George Fox was an angry young man with an invalid father, and he earned a football scholarship to Villanova by playing rough. There were few rules, so George Fox memorized them all. “There was nothing in the rule book about brass knuckles. So, the first play of every game he'd tackle the best player on the team with brass knuckles, knock him out of the game. It worked every time,” Matthew Fox says, laughing with pride. His homemaker mother, Beatrice, was half-Episcopalian, half-Jewish, with a strong sense of righteous indignation. When she pulled her kids from Catholic school and sent them to better-quality public ones, the bishop of Madison told her they'd all go to hell. “Well,” she told him, “at least they'll be in hell with educated people.”
Fox contracted polio in an Indiana swimming hole at the age of 12. He confronted the disease with little fear, and after months of therapy regained the use of his legs. Though he was never actually near death, the experience deeply affected Fox — even as a young man, he approached the world with the awe and wonder of those given a second chance at life. [page]
Fox was known as a shy, serious student at Madison West High School. Friends say he thought deeply about issues but never acted as a leader or made waves with the administration. West was packed with sons and daughters of university faculty. At Fox's 10th reunion, 30 alumni from his graduating class of about 300 were tenured professors themselves. Teachers fostered a sense of scholarship rare at that time for a public high school. Students were taken seriously, mentored by their teachers to think and question their readings. Fox is only the most prominent among many optimistic, rebellious West grads. His prom date, Ann Schonberger, now director of the women's studies program at the University of Maine, is a strong supporter of feminist causes. Classmate and friend Tim Harrington became a rheumatologist whose academic work is in redesigning the health care system. “The interaction with peers and faculty at this school, as much as anything, explains why he's listened to his own conscience and pursued this independent direction,” Harrington says.
By the time he was 16, Fox knew he wanted to become a priest. He chose the Dominican order because its members worked out in the world. Fox thought he might fulfill his secret wish to “bring faith to the University of Wisconsin crowd — to lecture and preach in universities.” During his early Dominican training, he was like every other novice. “I never experienced him as a fringe person. He was always very much a part of the life of the community,” says Father Thomas Poulsen, a classmate of Fox's during the decade from Dominican college through ordination. The first hint of rebellion came in 1965, when Fox co-founded a student magazine, Listening, to translate articles by the liberal European thinkers behind Vatican II. In editorials, he took a few stands of his own (including against the Vietnam War). The priests were critical, until Listening gained thousands of paid subscribers.
After ordination, Fox went to the Institut Catholique de Paris to study spirituality with the fiery, liberal theologian Pére M.D. Chenu, who had also once been silenced by Rome. Fox credits Chenu most with shaping his theology, including naming creation spirituality. When riots and strikes shut down the city in 1968, Chenu urged the students to take to the streets. “Here is your chance to make some history,” he said. “Go out and join the revolution!”
Late in the afternoon of April 19, the cardinals elected Ratzinger the church's 256th pope. Half a world away, it was still morning. Fox sat in his living room in front of the television, watching the puff of white smoke that announced a new pontiff, then Ratzinger addressing the crowd from a balcony. At first, Fox was neither angry nor surprised. After a quarter-century of sparring with Ratzinger and Pope John Paul II, he'd become almost numb to the inevitability of events that might once have enraged or depressed him.
Then the calls starting coming in. He heard from friends and colleagues who were angry and anguished over the election. His sister Tricia, a feminist who'd stuck by the church even as she'd questioned it for decades, e-mailed to tell him, “I'm out of the Ratzinger Church.” Reporters called, too, wanting to know what Fox thought of Ratzinger becoming pope. “He has appointed ecclesiastical 'yes' men all around the world — who in fact elected him pope — and who dumbly abetted the crimes of priestly pedophilia,” he told the San Francisco Chronicle. The more Fox spoke, and the more he heard, the more his own anger and sadness boiled over. “Anger is a very important source of energy,” Fox says. “Moral outrage creates political movements. Nothing great happens without anger.”
Fox spent weeks searching for a way to channel his fierce emotions into something constructive. He circulated an e-mail, trying to persuade those whom Ratzinger had silenced to make a joint statement. Few were keen on the idea, even those with great respect for Fox's theology. Paul Collins, a prominent Australian theologian pushed out of the church for criticizing papal power, vacillated, then declined. “I felt that it'd be completely lost and wouldn't achieve anything,” says Collins. “I think Matthew is a bit dramatic.”
One night, Fox woke at 3:30 a.m., tossing and turning. He'd been invited to speak in Germany during Pentecost, the feast commemorating the birth of the church. It didn't feel like a time for celebration, particularly not in the native country of the reviled new pope. Fox needed to do something grand, something worthy of the events. Maybe, he thought, it's time for a new reformation. He'd write his own theses — 15 or so of them — and bring them to Wittenberg, just like Martin Luther. If enough people paid attention, he might be able to really change the Catholic Church, and Protestantism, too. “I've been taught to think historically,” Fox says. “These things come along every 400 or 500 years. You've gotta shake it up.”
He pulled his lanky body out of bed, sat in his favorite rocking chair, and wrote the first thesis, “God is both Mother and Father,” then searched his mind for more. Hitting 15 was not a problem. Over the course of two hours, more than four decades of theological inquiry poured out of him in the form of 95 theses. They were a condensed version of his entire body of work, covering everything from his basic theological ideas to the creation spiritual perspective on environmentalism and gay rights. At half past 5, Fox looked out the bay window and saw sunlight rising over the tops of the trees and Spanish houses. Then he went back to bed.
While Fox may want a new reformation, whether Christianity needs one is questionable. As society modernized and secularized, and as government and social service organizations replaced church functions, academics (and Fox) expected that people would abandon traditional religion in Europe and the United States. Even Pope Benedict recently lamented the “dying” church in the West. The theory may apply to Europe, where parishioners exit the church in droves every year, but in the U.S., religion is booming. The Catholic Church grew by 16 percent between 1990 and 2000 to 62 million Americans, according to the American Religion Data Archive. Recent abuse scandals have had little effect on those increases, particularly in more traditional dioceses. [page]
Fox may be outraged by the rampant fundamentalism of evangelicals and the abuse of power by the Vatican, but many Americans aren't. The success of traditional Catholicism over the more liberal kind — a success epitomized by the election of Ratzinger as pope — is echoed among Protestants. The most successful churches in America right now, in terms of numbers, are evangelical and charismatic ones such as the Assemblies of God. Mainline Protestant denominations such as the Methodists and the United Church of Christ are in free fall. Fox's own Episcopal Church lost more than half its membership during the past few decades.
From the dawn of the republic, when new denominations formed, the most conservative were the most successful, says Philip Jenkins, a Penn State history and religious studies professor and expert on new religions. The cause might be simple logic — if people are too liberal for their old church, they're less likely to stick with a new one. The success and letdown of Fox's techno Cosmic Mass is a perfect example. Inspired by rave masses in England, Cosmic Mass was Fox's mid-'90s attempt at redefining religious ritual as an entertaining and enlightening event. It intermingled a creation spirituality Mass with a Burning Man-style colored light show, DJs, and dancing. Early on, the Mass was a huge hit, drawing hundreds of all ages to an Oakland ballroom, many of them joining in organized worship for the first time in years. Recently, though, attendance has shrunk dramatically.
Jenkins' Penn State colleague Roger Finke says the secret of religious success is a return to tradition, rebelling against the dominant culture. This is the exact opposite of what Fox is doing — unless you believe, as Fox does, that the last 1,600 years of mainstream Christian theology were an abomination. “Matthew Fox has done some very interesting things, and I've certainly read many of his books,” Jenkins says. “Is [creation spirituality] going to go anywhere? I don't think so.”
Wisdom University, the current home of Fox's creation spirituality school, resides in a former piano warehouse in downtown Oakland, across the street from Lottie's Beauty Salon and an Armed Forces Career Center. Last year, a medicinal marijuana clinic called Compassionate Caregivers opened downstairs, so the building often reeks of pot. It's one reason the school is in the process of moving its headquarters to the Presidio. In the steep stairwell at its entrance, a painting along the left wall tells the story, bottom to top, of the history of the cosmos, from the fiery big bang through the bluish present. The dawn of man, Fox points out, is to the right of the light switch at the apex of the stairs.
The place combines the atmospheres of a nursery school and an old folks' home. Pastel-colored doors lead to smaller rooms with names such as Gandhi and Sojourner Truth. The rotating book carts up front carry an assortment of scholarly and New Age titles: Perspectives for Religious Consciousness, Exploring the Physics of Angels, The Da Vinci Code.
This morning, Fox will begin leading a five-day-long “Introduction to Creation Spirituality” course. Before the lecture, two dozen students meet for body prayer, which Fox developed to augment traditional, mind-focused prayer. Only a few students are tree-hugging, New Age types. Most are 50-ish women with chubby arms poking out from their sleeveless blouses. They're Methodists, Quakers, former Catholic nuns. All seem less likely to be exploring spirituality than to be carrying a tuna casserole to a Tupperware party in suburban Ohio. The woman wearing the most makeup has a massive wooden cross hanging down her chest.
Today's body prayer is a musical one, led by a man named Michael, who straps an acoustic guitar over his pale blue sweater and speaks in a gentle Mr. Rogers voice. What follows is part hokeypokey, part yoga class, and part gospel song. The students join hands in a large circle, except for an older woman with a cane, who sits in a chair in the center, rocking happily from side to side like a Disneyland puppet. On the floor next to her are postcards and posters of waterfalls and Native American rituals and a boy with a rainbow face, among candles and swirled blue crepe paper.
After a brief, eyes-closed meditation, Michael begins to sing and play a Sufi song:
The O-cean re-FU-ses no RI-ver
“Ready?” He instructs the students to sing along, crossing one leg over the other as they walk around the circle, stepping forward in, stepping back out. Then he plays the Arabic section of the song, whose lyrics roughly translate to: “God is lover, God is loved, and God is beloved.”
MaBUD le lah
There's a new set of steps that involve twirling in place. The students mimic Michael, the men having more difficulty than the women. It's a song they've never heard, but many harmonize on the fly — probably remnants of time spent in church choir. Once they've mastered “Ishk Allah,” Michael switches back to “Ocean.” The speed increases. “Ishk Allah!” he calls out, and they swap sections again. “Remember, there are no mistakes, only variations,” he says. The students chuckle, stepping on each other's toes and nearly pulling their neighbors' shoulders out of socket with the tempo changes. Michael pushes them faster, faster, switching back and forth between sections. He runs around the circle, playing guitar and singing, blue eyes wide in a post-Sinai Charlton Heston gaze. Mercifully, the song ends. [page]
Michael then leads them through a haunting version of the Negro spiritual “Wade in the Water,” and a tune whose only lyrics are: “You are a spring of water that never runs dry, that never runs dry.” The students dance, as directed, with feet planted on the ground, not using their arms, slithering from a crouch onto their tiptoes, looking awkwardly into each other's eyes. When the song ends, Michael herds them back into the circle. “This is great work,” he says. “Be here. Don't miss it.” The students, overflowing with newfound energy, bound off to their first class with Fox.
Around Wisdom University and its antecedents, Fox has always been more than just a teacher — he's a prophet. Students and colleagues see a world tumbling toward apocalypse, and only Fox and his ideas can save it. “He's a prophetic, radical personality,” says Andrew Harvey, a longtime Fox associate who has taught at Oxford and Cornell, in addition to Fox's schools. “Everybody who comes to a certain level of heroic self-sacrifice realizes what they're doing is for the planet, for humanity. The great transformers of humanity are people who've gone for it — they just have to wait for civilization to catch up.”
Part of the attraction to Fox comes from his ideas. “People at all these workshops and lectures say: 'Oh my God! You just said what I've been thinking for years. Can I come out and study with you?'” says Robert Rice, an art and dance therapist who has taught with Fox for two decades. Fox's personal charisma, though, transcends his scholarship; he sees himself as an almost historical figure. “He's a large personality with large ideas,” says the Aquinas Institute's Bouchard. “It didn't surprise me a bit when I saw the thing about him nailing the theses to the church door. There aren't many people who'd see themselves as someone who could affect that kind of transformation.”
Fox's character is so amalgamated with his theology, even some of creation spirituality's most ardent believers are concerned that his ideas won't outlive him. “I worry about what happens when he passes on,” says Catherine Browning, who founded Cultivating Connections to help coordinate the worldwide creation spirituality movement. “He always has been and still is very prominent. I want to believe it's the [strength of the ideas], but I'm a little more realistic. I've been out in the field for the last 20 years getting the message of creation spirituality out there.
“Realistically, it takes Matt's voice.”
When Fox lectures, he's both wise grandfather and curious child, the teacher at the head of the class and the searching student sitting next to you. His facts and logic, no matter how unorthodox their foundation, seem airtight — though later, on paper, the arguments may not be as convincing as they were in the moment. Fox possesses the preacher's gift of making every one of a crowd of hundreds feel like he's the only person in the room. “He seems to spark something in people,” Browning says. “It's not just charisma. It's that he can name what people are feeling inside. There is this strong component to him that's extremely intuitive, and somehow has access to the collective unconscious, to the voice of God.”
While many mainline religious leaders respect Fox's teachings, most dismiss his schools as fringe, New Age institutions. None has been accredited by the Association of Theological Schools. Yet over the course of 30 years, Fox has taught creation spirituality to about 10,000 students at various schools, in addition to perhaps 100,000 at lectures and workshops around the world. His ideas have percolated into the minds of hundreds who teach religion or lead worship.
The most successful is an ordained Methodist minister and former actor named Howard Hanger. Every Sunday, he leads 800 people in a service at Jubilee, a 15-year-old creation-centered “community” — not a church — in Asheville, N.C. Like Fox, Hanger emphasizes creativity, social justice, and environmental causes. Other creation-centered groups aren't as large, but they exist across America, including in Bible Belt strongholds such as Tulsa and Wichita. Fort Worth megachurch First United Methodist launched an alternative, creation-centered service called “11:11” two years ago.
Cosmic Mass, though on hiatus in Oakland due to lack of interest, has found new life in other states and countries. Philip Murray, the youth ministry director at a church in Vancouver, organized one in July that sold out, with hundreds outside begging to get in.
Luther's aim was to reform the Catholic Church. Instead, his actions started a new religion. Fox gave up on changing the church long ago and now advocates a split: “Give them the churches, we'll take Christ and move on.” While he may not have swayed hearts and minds in the Vatican, Fox has changed the way many Christians think about their faith. Jubilee's Hanger says: “I don't see any big creation spirituality Vatican somewhere 1,000 years from now. I see it as seeping into other denominations, seeping into what's already happening.”
On a Monday in early August, Fox sits in the living room of his midsize, dark brown house in Oakland, a mile up the road from Wisdom University. It seems as if the whole interior of the house is wood: the floors, the walls, the thick column at the bottom of the stairs. Bright-colored paintings cover the walls, gifts to Fox from Native Americans and Africa-inspired artists. Upstairs, there's an altar room packed with artifacts from Inuits and Navajos, vulture feathers from shamans and boomerangs from Aborigines.
Fox is about to head off on a solo retreat. He'll spend time at an ashram, at a cheap hotel in Palo Alto, then head to the ocean for the weekend. Fox used to travel to Bodega Bay all the time to write and recharge, often bringing his dog, Tristan, a white spitz he called his spiritual director. Tristan died in the early 1990s, and it's been years since Fox took much time to relax. Sometimes, he steals a bit of free time while leading spiritual retreats, or reads novels on long plane trips, but during the week, Fox is usually on call. The administrative duties of being president of a university, even a small one, have turned out to be much more time-consuming than he'd expected. [page]
In fact, this spring Fox stepped down as president of his University of Creation Spirituality, handing the reins to Jim Garrison, co-founder with Mikhail Gorbachev of the State of the World Forum, which brings world leaders together to discuss global issues. With Fox's approval, Garrison changed the name to Wisdom University and broadened its mandate. Eventually, there will be university affiliates worldwide and departments devoted to the wisdom and spiritual traditions of all the world's major religions. Fox will be chair of the creation spirituality department and president emeritus. Garrison plans to move creation spirituality from the school's core concept into a spoke on a much larger wheel.
With these changes, Fox seems concerned about losing control of his own school. In talking about the situation, he uses five variations of the phrase “I'm watching and observing” over the course of two minutes. Next month, when the nonprofit Friends of Creation Spirituality sells the ballroom used for Cosmic Mass, that money will go toward Wisdom University, redoubling creation spirituality's prominence at the school. If things don't work out, Fox might leave. “I'm not married to staying at this place forever,” he says, “and yet I want to see it thrive, and see creation spirituality thrive within it.”
On the retreat, he'll mull his transition from administrator back to teacher, as well as the future of Cosmic Mass and his reformation. Meanwhile, Fox is writing two more books. One is about reinventing Christianity, a more comprehensive version of the ideas in A New Reformation. Fox calls the other his “educational manifesto,” in which he's rethinking the entire educational establishment, preschool through adult learning. “It's going to be an in-your-face, kind of blunt thing,” he says. “Short, yeah. One hundred pages, something like that, roughly. I think people are — I'm just too lazy, too tired to read thick books about education. I just kinda want to hit 'em in the head, wake people up.”
It's another in the long line of outsize tasks he feels compelled to perform. “The loud things I've done have been more of a necessity. Take this reformation thing. I would love it if someone else would respond noisily,” Fox says. “It's a question of conscience, you gotta do something. I've been given privileges, being a priest, being an author, and being a person with a doctorate of spirituality. I'm responsible, I've gotta speak out. You can't hide in a corner, it seems to me.”
Another part of Fox, though, remains reluctant to do anything that exposes him to the public eye. “I don't feel drawn to be any kind of media icon or anything like that. I'm basically a teacher. I love teaching, I love lecturing. I love thinking and reading and writing. That's how I am.
“I'm not a show man,” he says, softly, “I'm not a showman.”