Relating Creation Spirituality to Lutheranism
~Doctorial dissertation by Marilyn E. Jackson


Background on Matthew Fox’ Development of Creation Spirituality

What is Creation Spirituality? Matthew Fox has used this term from a Christian perspective but by itself, the focus on Creation spans and unites more religions than just Christianity. It includes any religion that holds earthly creation to be a dynamic, creative subject of our spiritual belief. I associate the term with Matthew Fox, who developed this philosophy as a Catholic priest, partly in response to the popularity with others his age to Eastern religions in the 1960’s. A graduate school teacher in France, Pere (Father) Chenu, named the "creation centered" vs. "fall/redemption" spiritual traditions for Fox, who developed an institute for the study of Western Spiritual traditions that has taken a few different forms over recent decades.

I must admit that when I first took a class from Matthew Fox having to do with spirituality, I didn’t know what spirituality meant, as it had not been something I had learned much about in my 20 some years of active Lutheran church-going, a religion major and 1.5 years as a lay minister. The exact meaning of spirituality may be open to interpretation. A quick search on the internet did not lead me to a complete definition, though if you asked religious clergy or spiritual leaders of any faith, they would surely have a definition. It might be an interesting study to seek the origin of the term. Spirituality is a religious term which I associate originally with Catholics and which has become popular by other denominations within western Christianity in recent decades. One often thinks of Eastern religions as having spiritual teachings.

Spirituality is a religious term for the ways we each relate to and are nourished by the spiritual realm in our personal as well as social lives, an experience which crosses religious and denominational boundaries. Mysticism is a similar word, which I define religious experience occurring in solitude or with others or expressed through one’s actions in society. Matthew Fox expanded the definition of this kind of experience to include art as meditation, seeing the ongoingness of creation through creativity and artistic endeavor. The use of the word Creation in conjunction with Spirituality is a twist not to be confused with the Biblical answer to evolution, Creationism. It not only has to do with the origins of life, but being aware of our historical and present spiritual connection to the universe and beyond.

Fox’s book, Original Blessing, emphasizes that we are born with original blessing, rather than original sin, which is most commonly associated with Christianity. He outlines four spiritual paths, an alternative vision to the dualism in western European and American society of good vs. evil, right vs. wrong, etc. He names these four paths with Latin terms: 1) Via Positiva, the positive way; 2) Via Negativa, the negative way; 3) Via Creativa, the creative way; and 4) Via Transformativa, the way of transformation.


At the Institute for Culture and Creation Spirituality (ICCS), we were lectured by Matthew Fox in core classes, on his then recent book, Original Blessing. There were many subthemes to study as well.

One class I took was led by Starhawk, described in recent pages as well as a class in women’s spirituality. The women’s spirituality movement goes beyond neopagans and can be reached from any discipline. It has been greatly motivated by the feeling of feminists that if we hold a symbol of women to be sacred in our religious life, women will be treated better and more highly respected in society than they have been for centuries in most civilizations. The various goddesses and other female role models give women something to look up to for affirmation of their innate intelligence and value. This movement has been a philosophical/cultural inspiration for women in recent decades who have taken on more and more roles in our society. The whole neopagan movement, as I have mentioned earlier as well, has also been motivated by a concern for nature in an era of environmental destruction, with the idea that by reviving nature religion, we will counteract the disrespect of nature characterized by western industrialized society.

ICCS also invited Native Americans into their dialogue, who also acknowledge the natural environment. From this and other experiences of Native American worship, I appreciate that indigenous cultures make a point of praying out of doors and include symbols of the natural world in their worship. This seems to be a valuable resource to learn from for postmodern culture where people spend most of their time indoors and where the environment is steadily being degraded.

At ICCS, we had weekly worship experiences. Each was created and planned anew by different groups of students and they were usually a combination of different religions, though primarily Christian. Physicist Brian Swimme taught about the spiritual revelation of modern science and physics, representing a movement among modern physicists who realize that a spiritual force is active behind the scenes while they study scientific phenomena. Another theme was art as meditation classes where we learned about our own participation in the process of creation through art classes. The creation of art is seen as a way to learn about spirituality and life.

When I was a child, participating in church seemed to be the norm, and to do anything else was not even considered. Then through the decades that followed, all the norms seemed to come into question. Matthew Fox heralded this questioning from a Catholic Christian perspective. When I was a youth, there was a poster in the church basement which said that when given lemons, make lemonade. Fox metaphorically made lemonade by creatively developing Creation Spirituality as a positive outlook from the Roman Catholic tradition.

The Development of Creation Spirituality Theologian, Matthew Fox

Matthew Fox grew up in a large family in Wisconsin. His father was Irish Catholic. His mother was of English and Jewish descent and was raised Episcopalian (Fox, Confessions 1996, 44). His learning about ecumenism, politics and inter-cultural issues began early. As his older siblings went off to college, his parents took in student boarders from other countries, so the family would have international conversations at the dinner table (1996, 49) As a teenager, he sold newspapers at a stand in front of church, and went back and forth between mass and the newsstand. When people came out of church to buy a newspaper, he naturally engaged in conversations about religion and politics (1996, 56).

While Fox studied for his bachelors degree and to become a Dominican priest, Pope John XXIII was launching a revolutionary Second Vatican Council. They were allowed to cease courses held in Latin and go into the vernacular (1996). While earning a masters degree in the 1960’s, he became the editor of Listening magazine, which brought together issues of religion and culture. The magazine commented and critiqued subjects from the Viet Nam war to Playboy magazine. The popular forces in culture and society entered his consciousness through the folk music of the 1960’s. Catholics traditionally would have spoken of the relation of culture to religion as contemplation and action. Later, Fox would call it mysticism and prophecy (1996, 38-39).

Though his masters studies were Biblically based, he connected prayer and spirituality to culture and to time and place. In his dissertation he wrote,

The prayer of Jesus and the prayer of the early Church makes it clear that authentic prayer seeks to change the People of God in a particular time in history and in a particular culture. It is this time and this culture with its victories and its failures that must be the guiding norm for authentic prayer." Jesus’ culture was that of a Jew at a particular moment in the history of the Roman Empire. …Our mysticism must also reconnect to the Jewish spiritual consciousness even while we struggle for spiritual survival in the American empire.

Fox felt a need for studies in spirituality and the Christian mystics. He talked to school officials about this need and said, "My generation is going to be more interested in spirituality than in religion." He urged them to send someone in that pursuit and he was more than happy to go on this quest himself. "Where do you think one should go to study spirituality?" they asked. Fox wound up writing to the well-known priest an author, Thomas Merton. Merton’s reply appropriately directed his quest. He suggested studying at the Institut Catholique in Paris, France. Merton wrote,

I am glad you are going to work on spiritual theology. The prejudice in some Catholic quarters against mysticism is a bit strange, when outside the Church there is such an intense and ill-regulated hunger for and curiosity about spiritual experience (what with LSD and all that). I do think we are lying down on the job when we leave others to investigate mysticism while we concentrate on more "practical" things. What people want from us, after all, is the way to God. (1996, 41)

So off to Paris he went to continue to develop the study of culture, religion and spirituality. Fox writes that his one pressing and urgent question upon coming to Paris, was to understand the relationship between prayer and social justice. Though he became immersed in French culture, he was well aware of the civil rights movement and the anti-Vietnam War protests his generation was living through back in the U.S. He wondered where culture and spirituality or culture and healthy religion met (1996, 65).

One teacher, Louis Cognet, commented that Karl Marx had a great influence on religion in the nineteenth century and urged them to go beyond the pessimism of theologians such as Augustine. Cognet said the "death of God" theologians were asking the basic spiritual questions of our time. He cited Dietrich Bonhoeffer (a Lutheran who lived in Germany and resisted the Nazis) for his emphasis on the essential role of justice in our spirituality, thus putting an end to pietistic religion." Cognet said that "God becomes engaged by creation—not just by the incarnation," and this became a dominant theme in Fox’s development of creation spirituality (1996, 67).

In Cognet’s final lecture, Fox’s exemplary notes quote:

All we know is that there’s a real drama going on and we’re in it and so is God—we don’t know how it will turn out. The reign of God is already here since salvation is not somewhere else. Terrestrial values are real values—justice, generosity, kindness are already salvation. The Beatitudes are right now; justice has to be reached on this earth. To work for it is the church’s duty. There must be a vertical as well as a horizontal relationship to God for these things to happen, say what you will. The task can fail-evolution can contradict itself. The risk is real.

According to Fox, much of his work has been in response to Cognet’s challenge in that lecture. (Ibid.)

Another influential teacher was Pere (Father) Chenu, who named the "creation centered" vs. "fall/redemption" spiritual traditions for Matthew Fox, and "scales fell" from his eyes, Fox remembers. This now gave a religious context to his most pressing question, "How do mysticism and social justice relate?" as well as the issues of dualism and the demeaning of the body and nature.

Three-fourths of Chenu’s students were from Latin America, as a result of his work in the worker-priest movement in the forties and fifties when he gave support to the development of liberation theology’s base community movement. Chenu was an advisor to the Vatican Council and was the original author of their document, "Church in the Modern World," though it apparently was edited down a bit from his original. Chenu reminded his students that it was lay movements which had sparked the church renewal in the twelfth century, "the only renaissance that succeeded in the West," because it came from below, not above. Laity would lead in this century as well (1996, 69-70).

Pere Chenu, said one day, "Remember, the greatest tragedy in theology in the last three hundred years has been the separation of the theologian from the poet, the dancer, the painter, the dramatist, the potter, the filmmaker." Fox, who had stopped writing poetry when he entered higher education, found in Paris permission to be an artist. He learned that art is not about getting a degree or being a genius, but a way to see the world and to let it see us (1996, 63).

During the seminar with Chenu in the spring of 1968, all of Paris was paralyzed by student riots and strikes of civil workers. Chenu shut his notebook at the end of one class and said, "We have been talking about twelfth-century history—here is your chance to make some history. Go out and join the revolution! Don’t come back next week, come back in two weeks and tell me what you have contributed!" Fox writes that Chenu was seventy-three at the time (1996, 71). As the sixties reached a crescendo, the modern age was crumbling and something new yearned to be born. Fox was aware that the Catholic church and all of Christianity were being awakened by John XXIII and the Vatican Council, and society was being awakened by youth revolts in Europe as well as at home in the U.S. "The Vietnam War, the civil rights movement, assassinations…all this was searing our hearts and souls, pitting father against son and brother against brother and daughter against mother" (1996, 71).

At home in Chicago, during the Democratic Convention, a close Dominican friend and young priest was attacked by police while demonstrating against the Viet Nam war, while a figurehead/leader of the Dominicans sat in Mayor Daly’s box. The young man left the priesthood within two years (1996, 72).

After completing his Ph.D. in Paris, Matthew Fox found opportunities to teach as a priest at Catholic colleges in the Midwest. He developed the concept of teaching extrovert meditation (as opposed to introverted prayer) which he came to call art as meditation, in workshops. Over time he uses the word mysticism more and more interchangeably with spirituality. The development of art skills teach about meditation and spirituality as an illustration of how we are co-creators with God and how the spirit works through us to build our world the way artists are guided to create art. One can do art as meditation alone, in secular groups or it can be applied to spiritual worship (1996, 103) For Fox, this way to practice spirituality is a skill and an art. If it works right, we will experience God, not just hear or talk about God (1996, 102).

In Becoming a Mystical Musical Bear, though the word mystical is in the title, Fox prefers the word "spirituality" in the book, though he didn’t like its "overly introspective and navel gazing connotations." A Lutheran pastor who read it commented that "Spirituality is where the action is in American religion, but Lutherans have never even used the word" (1996, 95). In Fox’s Whee! We, wee All the Way Home…A Guide to a Sensual, Prophetic Spirituality, he focused on his theories of the practical side of how art is a meditation.

Before his vision for a spirituality institute became a reality, Matthew Fox had some key awakening experiences. After a serious auto accident, he was able to function but was in a lot of pain. During his long recovery, he happened upon an essay on Meister Eckhart, a German priest born in 1260. It startled him to find entire sentences in Eckhart’s work that were in his book, Whee, We, wee, All the Way Home…. He found in Eckhart a rich treatment of the theological concept of "compassion." "Compassion means justice," Eckhart wrote, teaching from the Jewish biblical tradition "Compassion is about our shared interdependence...when we struggle for justice and...healing and we are compassionate when we celebrate." Eckhart put it, "What happens to another, whether it be a joy or a sorrow, happens to you." Fox was amazed at how little the subject of compassion had been developed by Christian theologians (1996, 106).

While studying Eckhart’s writings on compassion, Fox found an answer to his question since before going to Paris, on the relation between mysticism and the world. He says that in summary to his teachings on compassion, Eckhart quotes Psalm 85:10, "Justice and peace have kissed." (Fox 1980, 436) Fox interprets this to mean that "In compassion, peace and justice kiss," (Fox, Confessions 1996, 106), thus relating mysticism (peace) with justice in compassion.

While leading a retreat with feminists, Fox was moved by the experience of dancing and singing "We are dancing Sarah’s circle" to "We are climbing Jacob’s Ladder." He found the circle to be more pan-en-theistic theme (God within) rather than theistic (God is up). The circle is not competitive; there is always room for more. A ladder sets up more of a hierarchy "Compassion is passion ‘with’ and requires a different kind of energy." (1996, 107) In the book, A Spirituality Named Compassion, Fox brought in the theme of cosmology, being struck by the psalmist’s poem, "God’s compassion is over all that he/she has made (Psalm 145:9) (1996, 109)

He became more aware of his body while healing from the injury and his soul’s relationship with his body. His dog, Tristan, taught him about friendship with animals, leading to an essay in the compassion book, "Spiritual Lessons Animals Teach Us." In this essay he anticipated this theme for his book, Original Blessing, when he wrote, "Animals have a sense of their own worth and dignity—a pride at their own unique existence that subtly suggests that no one ever preached to them about original sin" (1996, 110).

He relates compassion to the new science and cosmology in this book, writing about moving from a mechanistic piecemeal universe to an organic and interdependent one. Both compassion and the new science are about interdependence. It would not be long before science became part of the ICCS curriculum. In speaking about creativity and compassion he urged moving from a "fetish" with the cross to an exploration of the empty tomb" (Ibid.).

Fox found in the book by the potter, M. C. Richards, Centering, the term, art as meditation, which later became a main part of the ICCS program. His study of Otto Rank’s work, connecting religion, psychology and art, further developed the theme of art as meditation as a spiritual experience (Ibid.).

ICCS was first manifest at Mundelein College in Chicago in 1977. It came to embody Fox’s philosophies in art as meditation. There was also a compassion practicum where students went out into the community to connect their spiritual experiences to real life problems. Faculty included a Catholic priest from Harlem, one who liked to portray himself as a spiritual fool, a scientist, psychologists, therapists, feminists, Native Americans, neo-pagans, a Yoruba (Voodoo) priestess who taught African dance as well as a Biblical theologian who interpreted the creation centered history in the Jewish tradition and Christian scripture. There were weekly rituals planned by the group as well as visiting speakers, artists, etc. Robert Bly came once a year for awhile, when he was into the Eastern mystics, before the men’s movement (1996, 116). ) Matthew Fox moved ICCS to Holy Names College in Oakland, California in 1983 and published Original Blessing, a Primer in Creation Spirituality (1996, 130).

Meister Eckhart, the Beguines & More

Before Original Blessing was published, Fox developed his concept of four spiritual paths while studying Meister Eckhart. Eckhart named the Via Negativa but Fox, a creative thinker connecting the dots, found in his writings the concepts which he named the Via Positiva, Via Creativa and Via Transformativa. Fox published a small book about Eckhart in 1982. Fox wondered where Eckhart got all this "good stuff." He studied women mystics of the 12th century and came upon Hildegard of Bingen, a Benedictine Abbess, a true Renaissance woman and genius at music, art, healing and intuition. He found "Deep resonances with Eckhart’s work, especially her sense of cosmology and earthiness and body (1996, 125).

Lutherans should take note that Meister Eckhart (c. 1260-1329) influenced John Tauler who Martin Luther was an admirer of, several centuries later. Many other European mystics are suspected of having been influenced by Eckhart, including the anonymous author of The Cloud of Unknowing in England and Fox presents a case for influence on Teresa of Avila and Saint John of the Cross and even early Marxist thinking (Fox 1980, 1-2)

In his Book, Breakthrough, Meister Eckhart’s Creation Spirituality in New Translation, Fox writes that Meister Eckhart was steeped in Biblical and Jewish thinking. He had a theology of the blessing of creation, but he suffered accusations of heresy by those Fox says were "overly saturated in Scholasticism and Augustinianism" (1980, 24). Eckhart preferred to begin and end his theological writings with authentic biblical categories. Eckhart put compassion ahead of contemplation as the basic goal of spiritual journeying, which Fox says is profoundly Jewish and Biblical.

Fox writes that Eckhart was most influenced from the Bible by the writings in wisdom literature, including, Psalms, Wisdom, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes…and the prophets, especially Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Amos. He was influenced by Thomas Aquinas and the Dominican spiritual movement, which is characterized by a way of life actively involved in the world (1980, 25-26). Fox writes that Eckhart follows Aquinas’ belief that "being is radically relational…. Aquinas speaks of the unity of the cosmos…or the universal harmony of all things. Eckhart says that ‘all things are connected.’" (1996, 28).

Fox goes on to say that though Eckhart relied on Aquinas, he was an original thinker with a different style. Aquinas was more of a teacher and Eckhart, more of a preacher. He found the Scholasticism of his day too confining and became one of the creators of the German language, helping to shape and mold it from peasant dialects (1980, 29). It is interesting to note that Martin Luther advocated printing the Bible in German so the average German could read it for themselves.

Fox believes that Eckhart was influenced by the pre-Christian Celtic nature based religion which originated in the area of Germany where Eckhart lived (1980, 30-35). In my readings of Eckhart’s sermons in Breakthrough, there are often references to pagans, not to condemn (as Christians have been known to do) but to quote their sayings on spirituality and life. For instance, in a sermon on God’s love for all creatures equally, Eckhart is quoted:

We find this attitude among the pagans, people who came to this sense of love-filled equanimity through the knowing faculties given them by their basic human nature. It is a pagan teacher who tells us that a human being is an animal which is naturally gentle (1980, 92).

The Eastern (Orthodox and non-Roman) Christian church was another influence, Fox writes:

Celtic Christianity was far more dependent on Eastern than on Western spiritual theology…. In many respects—in [Eckhart’s] emphasis on creation and creativity, on divinization, on his down-playing of original sin, in his sense of cosmic grace, in his facility with the via negativa—Eckhart follows this same Eastern Christian spiritual tradition, as did his predecessors in creation spirituality in the West such as Irenaeus, Benedict, Cassian and John the Scot. Indeed, the most substantial work published on Eckhart’s theology until now has been that by a theologian of the Eastern church, Vladimir Lossky (1980, 34).

Fox says the Beguines, a lay women’s religious movement, also influenced Eckhart. Only those from the noble class who could pay a dowry could be nun.

These were groups of women who banded together to live a life of dedication to spiritual development and to ministering to others but who were not recognized officially as "religious" or nuns. They did not take formal vows and thus were free of church authorities… (1980, 37).

"Meister Eckhart preached to Beguines and apparently learned as much from them as they learned from him" (1980, 35). Mechtild of Magdeburg wrote a book, The Flowing Light of the Godhead, employing the term "Godhead," in common with Eckhart, as well as

images of sinking, dancing, of God’s delight, of growth, of awakening, of letting go, of compassion, of God as a flowing stream, of the dialectic between isness and nothingness. Her work deeply influenced German mysticism and Eckhart in particular (1980, 36).

"Eckhart’s is not a spirituality of contemplation but of compassion." Fox writes that the influence of Augustine on Eckhart has been exaggerated and led to a distortion of his spiritual theology by those ignorant of creation-centered theology. Though Augustine was the chief authority in his day of Western theology and theologians were expected to refer to him as Eckhart did often. However, Eckhart’s spirituality is not dualistic and preoccupied with original sin as was Augustine or Augustine’s apparent preoccupation with making it to the next life. "Augustine remarks that ‘man but not woman is made in the image and likeness of God’…Eckhart says the reason Eve was created from Adam’s side was to demonstrate the absolute equality of woman to man." (1980, 40-41)

Augustine wrote as the Roman Empire was collapsing around him and Eckhart as the unity of Western Christendom was doing the same. Augustine betrays his pessimism toward human nature while Eckhart chose a "more hopeful and grace-centered response, emphasizing the divine potential humanity possesses for creativity, compassion, and deification itself." (1980, 42)

Hildegard Of Bingen

In 1985 Matthew Fox published a book about Hildegard of Bingen (1098-1179) who was a Benedictine abbess living in the Rhineland valley in Germany. She was a preacher, doctor, scientist, artist, poet, composer and author of books on theology, medicine, science and physiology as well as several poems. She had visions which she painted and called "illuminations," several of which are portrayed in his book, Illuminations. They are intricate and many are mandala like inspirational pictures describing Hildegard’s spiritual awakening with images portraying the interaction of spirit with creation. Chapters describing these pictures include "The Man in Sapphire Blue: A Study in Compassion," "Hildegard’s Awakening: A Self Portrait," "Viriditas: Greening Power," "Egg of the Universe," "The Cosmic Wheel," The Human as Microcosm of the Macrocosm," "Cultivating the Cosmic Tree," "The Creator’s Glory, Creation’s Glory," "Sophia: Mother Wisdom, Mother Church" (Fox 1985).


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