In this interview author and theologian Matthew Fox discusses his search for God and his fascination for Thomas Merton.
Matthew Fox is an internationally acclaimed theologian and spiritual maverick who has spent the past forty years revolutionizing Christian theology, taking on patriarchal religion, and advocating for a creation-centered spirituality of compassion, justice, and resacralizing of the earth. He has written more than thirty books, which have sold over 1.5 million copies in sixty languages. He lives in Oakland, CA.
Q. What inspired you to write a book about Thomas Merton?
A. Merton was influential in my early vocation. I read his autobiography when I was 16; and it was he who recommended I go to the Institut Catholique de Paris for doctoral studies in spirituality in 1967, after I wrote to him and asked him the best place to go. I was asked to do a presentation about him for a centennial celebration of his birth by the Thomas Merton Center at Bellarmine College last year and in preparing and delivering the talk I rediscovered how we had traveled a similar journey to creation spirituality.
Q. What is Creation Spirituality?
A. It is both a tradition and a movement, celebrated by mystics and agents of social change from every age and culture. It is the oldest tradition in the Bible (the “J” source) and is also the tradition of the historical Jesus himself since the wisdom tradition of Israel from which he derives is thoroughly creation centered. Honoring all of creation as Original Blessing, Creation Spirituality integrates the wisdom of Eastern and Western spirituality and global indigenous cultures, with the emerging scientific understanding of the universe, and the passion of creativity.
It acknowledges the following twelve principles:
The universe is fundamentally a blessing. In Creation, God is both immanent and transcendent. This is panentheism which is not theism
(God out there) and not atheism (no God anywhere).
God is as much Mother as Father, as much Child as Parent, as much God in mystery as the God in history, as much beyond all words and images as in all forms and beings. In our lives, it is through the work of spiritual practice that we find our deep and true selves.
Our inner work can be understood as a four-fold journey involving:
– awe, delight, amazement (known as the Via Positiva)
– silence, darkness, suffering, letting go (Via Negativa)
– birthing, creativity, passion (Via Creativa)
– justice, compassion, healing, celebration, service (Via Transformativa)
Every one of us is a mystic.
Every one of us is an artist.
Every one of us is a prophet.
Diversity is the nature of the Universe.
The basic work of God is compassion and we, who are all original blessings and sons and daughters of the Divine, are called to compassion.
There are many wells of faith and knowledge drawing from one underground river of Divine wisdom. The practice of honoring, learning and celebrating the wisdom gathered from these wells is Deep Ecumenism.
Ecological justice is essential for the sustainability of life on Earth.
Q. How did you come up with the title A Way to God?
A. When I wrote Merton, his letter to me said that people are looking for “the way to God” and that is why spirituality is so important and that we can often get distracted from that key issue. Creation Spirituality is a path and a way to God and Merton found it and rediscovered it in his own journey and his own soul, as I did in my theological studies and teaching, writing and activism.
Q. You not only write about Thomas Merton in the book, but about Meister Eckhart as well. What is the connection?
A. Merton essentially underwent a conversion experience in 1958 on reading Dr. D. T. Suzuki and dialoging with him. Merton moved from being a dualistic, guilt-ridden, Augustinian-tainted monk in his autobiography and writings of the 1940’s and early 1950’s to being a prophetic Christian. It was Suzuki and Eckhart who effected that conversion. He wrote near the end of his life “Eckhart is my lifeboat.” Suzuki insisted that Eckhart was “the one Zen thinker of the West” and Merton had better study him if he was to understand Buddhist teachings. One of his last books, Zen and the Birds of Appetite dialogs with Suzuki and centers around Meister Eckhart and Buddhist teachings–as does Suzuki’s classic work, Mysticism: Christian and Buddhist.
Q. You examine Merton’s teachings through the lens of the Four Paths of Creation Spirituality. Please give us a brief description of each of the four paths.
A. The Via Positiva is the path of delight, joy, awe, wonder, “astonishment.” The Via Negativa is the path of Silence and emptying the mind; and also of grief and suffering and nothingness and the apophatic divinity. The Via Creativa is the experience of God through creativity and the Via Transformativa is the experience of God via justice-making and compassion, the way of the prophet.
Q. Please give us an example of Merton’s teachings on the Via Positiva.
A. Merton was of Celtic (Welsh) ancestry, and like the entire Celtic spiritual tradition he saw the Cosmic Christ everywhere in nature and did not hesitate to write about it as a primary source of his prayer. The “light of Christ” was meaningful for him both for in one’s experience in nature and in the Liturgy and the seasons and the seasonal evolution of Liturgy and feast days, whether the marriage of Easter and Springtime or of Christmas and the dark winter “when the trees say nothing.”
Q. What did he offer along the path of the Via Negativa?
A. Time and again he teaches the importance of Silence and emptying of the mind such as taught in the West with mystics like Meister Eckhart and John Tauler but is also taught in the East through meditation practices. Like Eckhart, he talks about “nothingness” and “darkness” and the apophatic divinity (also like John of the Cross) and he respects Buddhist teachings and practices on mindfulness and emptying of the mnd.
Q. What did Merton offer as far as the role of art in spirituality?
A. Merton was in many ways an artist himself—as a writer, a poet, a photographer (which he took up in the monastery), a calligrapher, a lover of jazz, a pianist. His parents were both artists who in fact met at the Art Institute in Paris. His correspondence included many artists from Russia, Latin America, and America including Henry Miller. He saw a theology of the Holy Spirit at work in our creativity.
Q. How would you describe Merton’s perspective when it comes to justice and freedom?
A. Not only did Merton speak out strongly in support of Martin Luther King Jr and the civil rights activism, but he also was the first religious figure in America to speak out against the Vietnam War.
Q. What was Merton’s position on feminism?
A. Merton died in 1968 which was before the feminist movement really took off. Nevertheless he was very aware of early feminist writers and comments favorably on them and he struck up a serious correspondence with Rosemary Radford Ruether who was still in her twenties but to whom he listened intently as they exchanged very candid thoughts on the church, religion, society, vocation. He also wrote deeply about “Hagia Sophia,” “Holy Wisdom” who of course represents the feminine side of Divinity. He loved the work of Julian of Norwich who calls God “Mother” on many occasions.
Q. How would you summarize the influence that Thomas Merton has had on your life and work?
A. While I cite him in my books and admired him as a youth, I was rather shy of overcommitting to the Merton Industry that developed so strongly over the years. I felt I had to go my own way and not just imitate others. But now, in my later years, I see the “circle” (very much a Merton word) that he and I have traveled, a common path of creation spirituality.
Q. Why do you think Merton is still so widely read and respected today?
A. Merton was not just a deep contemplative—he was also very critical of culture and of its “idols” (an important word to him). His writing is excellent—he was a first class poet and an artistically gifted writer. He had a broad understanding of culture from art to science to religion. His passion for justice comes through as in his defense of Martin Luther King and Malcolm X. He was sensitive to racism not only against blacks but also the sad history of the way indigenous people have been treated in American history. He spoke out when it counted. Yet he maintained a deep contemplative practice and spirit. Many of his critiques of American culture still apply to today including but not limited to his criticism of the media and of gee-whiz technology.
Q. Pope Francis invoked Merton in his talk to Congress this past year. What is that about?
A. I think the pope was advised to include some American spiritual thinkers explicitly in his talks in the United States and he wisely chose one of the most influential spiritual minds and cultural critics in Thomas Merton who was both mystic and prophet, contemplative and activist, in his (monastic) way.
Q. What about Merton’s views on an Ecological Spirituality?
A. It is stunning how Merton responded almost immediately to Rachel Carson’s classic work on the Silent Spring. While she was being denounced by fellow scientists and academicians, he wrote her a long letter praising her book and promising that his monastery would quit using DDT, etc. He immediately got the message about ecological peril and the spiritual implications of our losing healthy soil, forests, birds, animals, rivers, etc. An excellent book exists that gathers Merton’s ample writings on behalf of Mother Earth, her wisdom and her beauty, called When the Tress Say Nothing: Writings on Nature with a foreword by Thomas Berry.
Q. What about Merton’s views on technology?
A. Merton was very suspicious of technology as he saw it as a possible weapon not only for war and nuclear war but for distracting us from the real spiritual discovery that humanity has to undergo. In his day the big “gee whiz” issue was going to the moon (he died before we got there)—but he warned that even bugs can fly and that humanity ought to be exploring more the regions of inner space, the realms of the human soul that prefer violence and racism and injustice to compassion and justice and peace.
Q. Do you think young people today are eager to hear from and about Thomas Merton?
A. I see many young people very keen on Thomas Merton—some are introduced to him in college assignments and others find him in their quest for a meaningful spirituality that is about more that religious ego and “churchiness” but that truly wrestles with the contemplative (and mystical) life and how it relates to issues of social and eco-justice and activism. Merton stands for a marriage of mysticism and warriorhood for many.
A Way to God by Matthew Fox May 12, 2016 • Spirituality/Mysticism • Paperback & eBook • 320 pages Price: $18.95 • ISBN 978-1-60868-420-5