I am just about as excited as I could be. I’ve just put down Brian McLarens “Part 1: The Narrative Question” in his new tour de force “A New Kind of Christianity”. And on the table, too, is my well worn copy of Matthew Fox’s 1982 Classic “Original Blessing.”
If there are two defining works for the Christianity of the 21st Century, these two books are it. You may have seen Avatar in 3D, reading NKoC and OB together will give superb depth to any vision of the future of Christian spirituality. The very fact that McLaren is predominantly Evangelical Protestant and Fox Dominican Catholic, and that both these great contemporary thinkers consider themselves post the modern era, gives us a tremendous ecumenical advantage over narrower, more sectarian points of view.
The problem in a nutshell
Matthew Fox’s thesis is that Modern Christianity has been hijacked by a set of anti-biblical assumptions, which he calls the “Fall/Redemption” tradition. Properly understood, the Biblical narrative emerges from what he has named the much more ancient “Creation Spirituality” tradition.
The key curators of this are the “Yahwist” author of Genesis, the Wisdom writers, The Old Testament Prophets, Jesus, Paul, Francis, Mechtild, Eckhart, Teilhard and host of others, while the main proponents of Fall/Redemption include Augustine, a Kempis and Tanquerry. Fox shows how modernity built on Newton and Descartes, and siding with this latter paradigm, resulted in the crisis of spirituality we experience today, especially in the West.
Similarly, McLaren posits that a particular combination of Neo-Platonism and Empire resulted in our dominant Greco-Roman understanding : when Emperor Constantine made Christianity the official religion of The Roman Empire, he gradually eroded the vision and fibre of the early church. Augustine’s neo-platonic brilliance was co-opted in cementing ideas such as Original Sin and the political expedient threat of Hell (or what I call Everlasting Punitive Separation).
The fruits of this process led eventually to the Dark ages, the inquisition, the divorce of science and religion, and many of the problems of the modern era – individualism, rationalism, unfettered industrial progress, colonialism, globalisation and ecocide. This paradigm is represented in a 6 line schema, representing Eden, fall, condemnation, salvation, and heaven or hell, as follows:
Fox is a passionate advocate of a return to Creation Spirituality. He extends this way beyond the borders of the Christian worldview, including wisdom from many religions, a deep commitment to scientific thought, and a mystical, cosmic understanding of Christ. As I have examined the veracity of this I have gradually become a more convinced follower in this way.
He offers a 4 part spiritual journey: The via Positiva (creation), via Negativa (darkness and surrender), via Creativa (divine creativity), and via Transformativa (compassion, celebration, justice). And Fox asks 2 questions:
- In our quest for wisdom and survival, does the human race require a new religious paradigm?
- Does the Creation centred spiritual tradition offer such a paradigm?
McLaren asks us to recognise and de-construct the Greco-Roman narrative. Not to replace one state with another but to shift our very paradigm so as to move from the notion of “state” entirely, to a quest. In what is probably the most quotable slogan from the book, he claims that statements lead to a state, and questions lead to a quest.
He presents an alternative reading of Genesis in which man evolves from Hunter/Gatherer (Eden; Gen 1) to Nomadic Herder (The Tree; Gen 3) to Agriculturalist (Cain; Gen 4) to City dweller (Noah; Gen 6) to Empire dweller (Babel; Gen 11). While this to many people is an ascending stairway of progressive social evolution, it simultaneously is a descent from innocence to shame and fear, via murder, corruption and violence, to oppression and genocide. (I’m reminded of Marshall McLuhan’s idea that each amplification of man leads to a parallel amputation at the same time).
Diagrammatically it can be conceived of as an X (technically known as the chiastic curve). In the book, it is represented something like this:
He then extends this thinking into the Exodus and beyond, where there is a constant interplay between human disappointment and divine reconciliation, and a the pattern of a new narrative starts to emerge. To Fox’s 2 questions, McLaren asks 10. The first and perhaps most important being
- “What is the overarching narrative of the Bible?”
Others include biblical authority, God and violence, Jesus, The Church, Sexuality, eschatology and other religions.
The writers, both American male elders, agree that the problems of Christianity can be traced to the 4th Century and the Roman takeover of the church. They both criticise Augustine’s Neo-Platonism, and the gradual loss of spiritual authority to the Empire.
They view Modernity as a period in Western history which has serious failings, and make full use of a post-modern critique with which to view this period. They are deeply ecumenical – calling on traditions “paved over” by modernity, such as streams of spiritual practice relatively unsullied by the modern agenda – Anabaptist or medieval mysticism for example.
Both call for the Hebraic way – a way of journey, story and evolution, as opposed to the Greek way of state, logical propositions and perfection, as urgently needing to be recovered. McLaren in particular proposes we read the bible “forwards”, from the Jewish perspective – Genesis to Exodus, from Abraham to Jesus, rather than from the 2nd millenium backwards via the likes of Augustine.
Both are in their way outspoken critics of raw “Theism”. McLaren offers a name for this deity – Theos (spirit, state, being), preferring instead the original Hebrew name Elohim (the unspeakable: incarnational, changing, becoming). And Fox has championed the idea of panentheism – All is IN God, over transcendant theism (God is other), as well as simple pantheism (All IS God).
Both agree that science should not be divorced from religion, and that it has a key role to play in our ongoing understanding of the cosmos. Fox mourns the fact that in modernity, we have lost a living cosmology. And they are equally passionate about ecology, Fox presenting his in mystical, panentheist terms, with McLaren taking a practical, political stance.
Distinctions and complimentarily
The most obvious distinction is their traditions – Catholic and Protestant. I’d love a contemporary take on the narrative question from the Orthodox quarter as well (but other than Nikolai Berdyaev writing around 80 years ago, I do not currently know of any candidates).
On the whole, Fox is further down this path, and strongly advocates “deep ecumenism” and a mystical, cosmic scope. McLaren focuses on his own evangelical protestant tradition, with a big heart for the whole church. In once sense, McLarens statement
“If we are willing to … let the bible itself generate a narrative for us I think what that will do is open up immense new territory for us.”
finds some fulfilment already in the sparkling diversity of Matthew Fox.
Fox can tend to get a little bogged down in his protestations, especially against the conservative aspects within Catholicism; he was after all excommunicated by Cardinal Ratzinger (now Pope Benedict). McLaren has an exceptionally cool head regarding his detractors, and is a model for conciliation and tolerance.
McLaren points out that his training in Literature has helped him read scripture in a different way. Fox has always been a theologian in the way of Dominic – a preacher. I think McLaren is a more detailed researcher, and I love his incisive insights into Greek, Hebrew, Babylonian and Church history. But I also love Fox’s prophetic flair and sheer breadth of wisdom, especially where it comes to inclusively hosting traditions beyond Christianity.
As emergents, or anyone interested in contemporary spirituality I cannot recommend (although I haven’t completed it yet!) “A New Kind of Christianity” or “Original Blessing” highly enough. Working on the integration of these two powerful visions is a highly rewarding exercise. I am gaining a confidence in the integrity of this synthesis, and that I am going to be working this out, sculpting exciting new formations, for a long time to come.
May God bless Matthew Fox, who sees further and wholeheartedly obeys that vision, to make the Whole Earth a habitation for our Source and God.
May God bless Brian McLaren, who tirelessly and compassionately works to rearchitect this beloved faith of ours, rebuilding the temple of Elohim for generations to follow.
May we with them release the as-yet-unseen form from the rock of our times, and may we with them mould new vessels, new containers, for the wine which is forever new.