Matthew Fox has been a frequent contributor to Tikkun‘s pages in the past several decades. He was invited to give the graduation address at Oberlin College, and Tikkun readers who heard it urged us to get it transcribed and presented to our readers, and through you to others. He is introduced by David Orr. Here is most of what he said on that occasion.—Rabbi Michael Lerner, Editor, Tikkun
How do I introduce briefly a man who has done as much, as well, for so long as Matthew Fox? Let me do this. Let me start with the context of his work and for all of our lives. If we could magically see Earth, its history in humankind, from some vantage point sufficiently distant in space and time, we might see our present situation more clearly. We’ve noticed that Earth’s climate is poised on a razor’s edge, a tipping point unlike any in previous geologic history. The sudden eruption of carbon dioxide and other heat-trapping gasses into the atmosphere is happening much faster than ever before. We would notice from that vantage point too, that despite many warnings by scientists, those most responsible remained largely indifferent to their implicatedness in the gathering storm.
So when scientists recently warned that humanity had only 12 years left, now 11 and a half, to act in order to avoid the worst outcomes, nothing changed. Not at all in Washington, not in London, not much in Beijing and certainly not in Columbus, Ohio. Instead, it was business as usual. That is to say, a willing sleepwalk to catastrophe. From our vantage point in space, we could see a second and related thing about Earth. With considerable ingenuity celebrated every night on the evening news, its dominant species is rapidly destroying the biosphere, the very fabric of life on which it depends. But when hundreds of scientists reported earlier this month that as many as 1 million species are likely to go extinct soon, nothing changed in Washington or London or Beijing or Columbus, Ohio. The sleepwalk continued.
You’ve noticed a third thing from that vantage point. Earth’s wealthiest, most powerful, and most celebrated gather from time to time for ritual hand-wringing and to give solemn assurances that corrections are being made. But from our vantage point, distant in space and time, it would be nearly impossible to avoid the conclusion that the leadership of this remarkably inventive species have become deranged, had outrun its headlights, its cleverness far exceeding its wisdom. An unshakable faith in salvation by better gadgets and more of the same prevails, instead of a change of heart and a rethinking of paradigms, philosophies, and assumptions.
Said differently, whether about politics or the economy or religion or even sometimes education, in Reverend William Barber’s words, our conversations are too puny for our circumstances. There are exceptions to that, barefoot being one of them. Finally, from our cosmic vantage point, we would notice the fourth and happier thing. At the periphery of power and influence, far from the many distractions that afflict human consciousness, there’s a dawning awareness and a revolution in spirit and in thought and behavior, leading to a very different future for humankind. It is perhaps the last best hope for earth. For the past four decades, the Reverend Dr. Matthew Fox has been a pioneer on that frontier. In Original Blessing, published in 1983 and now widely regarded as a classic of spirituality and theology, Matthew Fox recasts the Scriptures, spiritual classics, Native American theology, and world religions to reveal foundational truths applicable across generations, across cultures.
He encountered the idea that we come into the world tainted by original sin and can be expensively redeemed only through the mediation of organized religion. He asked further, “Why have we become so hostile to life?” The answer, in his words, was this. “Western civilization has preferred love of death to love of life, to the very extent that its religious traditions have preferred redemption to creation, sin to ecstasy, individual introspection to cosmic awareness and appreciation. Those original blessings,” he added, “also include healthy soil, living forests, singing birds, clean waters, and healthy DNA.” In his 1988 book, The Coming of the Cosmic Christ, he wrote, “We need to let go of the enlightenment and its worldview that denies mysticism. It lacks a cosmology. We need to let go of a religious worldview that bores the young, trivializes Jesus Christ, and renders our spiritual heritage almost impotent. The core of Christianity must be a vital and living cosmology, a cosmological mysticism, a cosmic Christ.”
There’s 35 other books, with a couple of others in the works. Matthew Fox has said far more and gone more deeply into our original instructions and a spirituality of celebration than can be said in a brief introduction. But a sampling of his theology would include the following. We come into the world capable of being loving and transcendent creatures. Our existence, yours and mine, is both miracle and blessing. So humankind need not be a curse or a scourge on the Earth. Our predicament is rooted in a derangement at the spirit level, not the technological level, not the economic level, at the spirit level. No matter what our professed faith, we are unavoidably spiritual beings. We stand on the edge of an ocean of mystery that is unfathomable to the dutifully religious. All religions matter. Each reveal some aspect of the divine. But a religion without a cosmology, an explanation of how we fit into the universe, is like a journey without a map or a vehicle with no steering wheel.
Creation-centered spirituality is among the oldest Christian traditions and reveals that God is neither male nor female, but contains aspects of both, and we as well. A truer and deeper spirituality would free us from centripetal forces of economism, the worship of the economy, anthropocentrism, the worship of us as humans, racism, the worship of the things that divide us, and fundamentalisms of all kind. Life, our means of livelihood should be a celebration of good work. And finally, genuine spirituality is rooted in gratitude and our capacity for thankfulness. We live in a larger circle of reciprocity in which the gift must move. Having been given much, we are obliged to give much. In other words, if you reduce this to common parlance, chill out. Be less certain of your certainties or our certainties, and more accepting, kinder, more compassionate, more joyful, more thoughtful, more forgiving, and more loving.
Through his writings and many talks, Matthew Fox has amplified the work of Meister Eckhart, Hildegard of Bingen, Thomas Merton, Abraham Heschel, Thomas Barry, Pope Francis, and many others. Matthew Fox is a man of many dimensions. He is a scholar of religion and philosophy, a profound thinker, a spiritual entrepreneur, the creator of institutions and movements, a prolific writer and a prophetic voice. And one more thing. Matthew Fox is fearless, a word that has some cache here, a man willing to nail his 95 theses on a cathedral door, or as the case may be, in The New York Times. This is from The New York Times, December 14, 1988. I clipped it out and put it into the cupboard in one of Matthew Fox’s books. Please welcome a true spiritual hero for our time, Matthew Fox.
Thank you David, and thank you David Dorsey for inviting me to be with you on this very special occasion. My hardy congratulations go out to all the graduates and their families, and of course, the administration and the faculty and staff here at Oberlin College. One credit that David did not give me that makes it appropriate that I’d be here is that three of my nieces graduated from Oberlin College a number of years ago, and they’ve all done wonderful work in serving others.
`with a dream that I had a number of years ago. It is what Native Americans would call a big dream. It was not for me, it was for the community, for the larger community. This dream said to me, “there is only one thing wrong with the human species today.” Well, let’s just stop right there. Are you kidding me? If I gave you a piece of paper and 10 minutes to write what is wrong with the human species today I am sure that we could come up with 99 things that’s wrong with the human species today. This is what’s fun about dreams. They hold the power to surprise us and wake us up. And then that sentence went on and it said: “the one thing wrong with human species today is that you have forgotten the sense of the sacred.” You have forgotten the sense of the sacred.
Thomas Berry, one of the great environmental prophets of our time, now deceased, writes this about the importance of a sense of the sacred. “An absence of a sense of the sacred,” he says, “is a basic flaw in many of our efforts at ecologically or environmentally adjusting our human presence to the natural world. It has been said, ‘we will not save what we do not love.’ But it’s also true that we will neither love nor save what we do not experience as sacred. Eventually, only our sense of the sacred will save us.”
How do we recover our sense of the sacred when it seems to have been lost? Again, Thomas Berry speaks to this radical question. He says, “We will recover our sense of wonder and awe, because that is the experiential dimension of the sacred, only if we appreciate the universe beyond ourselves as a regulatory experience of that numinous presence whence all things come into being. Indeed, the universe is the primary sacred reality.” So it is a recovery of this sense of the whole, the sense of the holy, the sense of the cosmos that ushers us anew into the field of the sacred.
In our lifetimes, there’s been this tremendous gift from science, a new cosmology, a new creation story that tells us, all of us, from whatever traditions, cultures, religions, or not that we come from, that tells us all that what brought us here is 13.8 billion years of unfolding of the universe. Without those 13.8 billion years, this Earth would not have happened. The moon would not have happened. The waters, the tides would not have happened. The flowers, soil, the marvelous beasts with which we share this planet, none of this would have happened. Every being we encounter has a 13.8-billion-year history. The sacred is that which is bigger than us. The sacred is that which made us rather than what we make.
For example, did anyone here make their own lungs? Raise your hand if you made your own lungs. How about the air that fills the lungs? Did anyone here make that air and fine-tune it just right? In fact, it was the flowers that fine-tuned the oxygen over 100 million years ago, that set it up that our species would be able to take in healthy and life-giving air every few seconds. To recover a sense of gratitude, a sense of reverence, a sense of the sacred, is to lose, to let go of a sense of taking for granted. And today, because of the crisis that Earth finds itself in, we cannot take for granted air or water or Earth or soil, or land, or animals, or birds, or fishes, or rainforest ever again.
I live in Northern California, where no doubt you’ve heard there have been wildfires like none other recorded the last few years. I live about a 150 miles south of the great wildfires, but last summer the air was totally affected. The sky went dark for days, and even weeks. I was afraid to take my dog outside for a walk because what it would do to her breathing.
I visited San Francisco and half the people were walking around with masks on. This is a sign of our times. This is just the beginning. Science has said the dry places are going to get drier and hotter, and the wet places are going to get wetter. And that is exactly what is coming down.
Now another gift from science that has come our way very recently, since you graduates joined Oberlin four or more years ago, is the discovery that our universe is not a few hundred billion galaxies big, which is what we thought for quite a while. In fact, it is two trillion galaxies big! Now that is awesome, that is astounding news. Each galaxy has hundreds of billions of stars, and I’ve been told by two scientists that what that means is there are more stars in the universe than there are sands of grain on all the beaches of the earth. Think about that next time you pick up a sand of grain on a beach. More stars than all the sands of grain on all the beaches on the earth.
And what is a star? Well, our sun, our star can hold a million earths! It is not the biggest of stars, it’s kind of a medium sized star. Now, if all this doesn’t take the top of your head off, you’re asleep. You’re already dead. This is a world we live in, a world of awe, a world of wonder, and it makes more precious than ever this tiny dot of an earth that contains so much beauty. So much wonder–the rainforests, the elephants, the giraffes, the polar bears, the whales, the fishes, the trees, the flowers, the land. I’m so glad that there’s a project here at Oberlin of Barefootness, of letting the land talk directly to our feet, and thereby to our heads. It’s best to begin from the bottom up, rather than the top down.
It deconstructs patriarchal hierarchy to have programs like that, that celebrate “barefoot theology” and barefoot reverence, as David spoke of earlier. Mary Oliver is a very authentic mystic of our time. How many of you know Mary Oliver’s work? Wonderful. She had a marvelous poem called “At The River Clarion”, in which she talks about the experience of the sacred. It goes like this: “I don’t know who God is, exactly.” I love that opening sentence. Too many theologians seem to know who God is, exactly.
Not just theologians, but politicians. We put God’s name on dollar bills, and coins, and MX missiles. So I like her humility. “I don’t know who God is, exactly, but I’ll tell you this.” Oh, she’s gonna tell us a story. “I was sitting in the river named Clarion on a water splashed stone, and all afternoon I listened to the voices of the river talking. Whenever the water struck the stone, it had something to say. And the water itself, and even the mosses trailing under the water. And slowly, very slowly, it became clear to me what they were saying. Said the river, ‘I am part of holiness.’ ‘And I too,’ said the stone, “And I too,” whispered the moss beneath the water.”
That is a tradition of the Buddha nature, it is tradition of the Cosmic Christ, it is a tradition of Tselem in Judaism, the image of God, that all beings are radiant with the divine presence. They’re all speaking of the divine. They’re all uttering the word of God. And then Mary reflects, “I’d been to the river before a few times. Don’t blame the river that nothing happened quickly. You don’t hear such voices in an hour, or a day. You don’t hear them at all if selfhood has stuffed your ears. And it’s difficult to hear anything anyway through all the traffic and ambition.” And so it’s not the river’s fault that we’ve ignored the sacredness of the river. It is that our ears are full of so much else, traffic and ambition and the rest.
We have to do our emptying, that’s what meditation is. We have to do our emptying in order to listen more deeply, because all of nature is talking to us today. All of nature is crying to us today. And then, Mary draws a conclusion. She says, “If God exists, he isn’t just churches and mathematics. He’s the forest. He’s the desert. She’s the ice caps, that are dying. She’s the ghetto, and the museum of fine arts. He’s van Gogh and Allen Ginsberg and Robert Motherwell. He’s the many desperate hands, cleaning and preparing their weapons. He’s every one of us, potentially. The leaf of grass, the genius, the politician, the poet. And if this is true, isn’t it something very important?”
Yes. It is something very important to see the world anew with a sense of the sacred. Even our selves, even our species, for all of our mistakes, and all of our problems. So I see in your time here in this university where you are graduating from today you have lived through some amazing events while you were in school. The discovery that the universe is two trillion galaxies, and of course that the event David Orr referred to last year, for the United Nations in an international scientific team, that we have 12 years, now 11 and a half years to change our ways as a species.
And so I invite you, everyone of you, to do this right now. Meditate on, think about 13 years from today. Think about that. Thirteen years from today look back to this day–that should be easy to do because you’re graduating–and your loved ones who are graduating today, and you students who are graduating today. Think back to this day, and ask this question: what can I do? What can we do? What have we done in these 12 years to wake our species up, to turn things around? Because as David laid out, we are undergoing the greatest spasm of extinction of the past 65 million years. Never has there been an extinction spasm this great since the dinosaurs disappeared, and so many other species with them.
But this time around, it’s not a meteor hitting the earth causing the destruction–we are the meteor, humans are the meteor. We have to change the way we do agriculture, change the way we do education, change the way we do politics and economics and religion itself. Are we up to it? Well, they say that necessity is the mother of invention. We do not come from a wimpy stock. When humans left Africa about 65,000 years ago, and we went wandering, following our curiosity and more we landed in what today we call Eurasia, where Asia and Europe come together, and the ice age hit.
For 10,000 years, there was ice. I’m sure the first thousand years of our ancestors, just having emerged from the savanna of Africa, the question was, “Who turned off the heat?” Meanwhile, we had to hustle. We had to learn how to kill woolly mammoths and skin them, how to hide in caves against the wild saber-toothed tiger, and create songs to uplift the hearts, and rituals to make us strong together, to go out hunting, to survive. And we did it. Those are our ancestors. We derive from strong stock. There’s no time today for self-pity, and there’s no time today for denial. These are luxuries we cannot afford today. Time is running out on our species to wake up.
Meister Eckhart, the great 14th Century mystic says, “God is the denial of denial.” Which is another way of saying when denial gets incarnated in a community discourse, or any political party, God is nowhere to be found, because God is about truth. Eckhart says “God is the denial of denial.” And there will be no redemption, there will be no liberation if we don’t take on the powers of denial. And the best way to begin is to be as Mary Oliver says, “Be astonished.” To be astonished.
That is awe. That is wonder. That is what stirs the human heart, the human mind, the human soul. And that stirs up the fire, the energy. Thomas Aquinas, 13th century, said, “Compassion is the fire that Jesus came to set on the earth.” The Dalai Lama has said, “We can do away with all religion, but we can’t do away with compassion. Compassion is my religion.” In the Koran, by far the most frequent adjective applied to Allah, to God, is “Allah the compassionate one.” And of course the prophets are all about compassion, as was Jesus. In Luke 6, “Be you compassionate, like the Creator of heaven is compassionate.” In the Jewish tradition, compassion is the secret name for God.
And Jesus let the secret out of the bag in Luke’s gospel. Compassion means justice. It’s not about feeling sorry, it’s not about pity. It is about action, but action that comes from the heart, that comes from non-action. Hildegaard of Bingen, a great 12th century mystic and activist, drew a picture of a vision she had of “the man in sapphire blue, the healing Christ that’s in all of us,” she says. The picture is this. You see the hands are extended in front of your chest. Like this. Try this where you are. Take your hands and go like this. That is the icon for compassion. Do it again and notice what’s going on. You’re lifting your rib cage, you’re putting your heart energy into your hands.
One thing I love about David Orr’s work, and there’s so much to love, but lately I’ve been quoting him all over the world–is his definition of hope. “Hope is a verb with the sleeves rolled up” he says. That’s what compassion is, too. Compassion is a verb with the sleeves rolled up. We have to do the inner work. It’s inner work. That’s dealing with awe, and wonder, and the sacred, and dealing with grief, and dealing with letting go, all that is the inner work. But you bring that work into culture, into society, wherever you feel called. And that is the outer work.
Everyone today, whether you’re 88 or 18, is called to this common vocation at this time to stand up for Mother Earth in whatever ways you can do so. That is so at the heart of the next generation.
Another gift that has been given you people graduating today, this generation, is a gift of so many young people launching movements in this time. A rediscovery of the wisdom of the young. You remember that Thomas Jefferson was only 31 when he wrote the Declaration of Independence? It’s so easy to think that you have to be old or you have to have many years of tenure or something under your belt to make a contribution. In fact, so many young people today are waking up and they’re waking up because Gaia is waking them up. Mother Earth is waking them up. Think of the New Green Deal. Think of the high schoolers in Parkland, Florida, taking on the NRA. Think of Greta Thunberg leading at 15 years of age. Think about the Extinction Rebellion. I just love that name, “Extinction Rebellion”.
Is there anyone here who does not want to rebel against their own extinction? Why don’t you raise your hand? Is there anyone here who doesn’t want to rebel against the extinction of elephants and tigers and whales and forests and rainforests and soil and the land and the waters? Anyone here who doesn’t want to rebel? That name is so wonderful. It’s about tapping into our moral outrage. But this is what we learned, the great teachings of Gandhi and Howard Thurman and others, that nonviolence takes the passion of outrage and learns to steer it effectively so outrage does not just result in venting and clutter all over the wall. There’s a strategy to wake others up, to invite them into their own sense of compassion.
Now part and parcel of being of this generation is being interfaith as this program is all about here at Oberlin, and wonderfully so. I’ll tell you a story. Years ago when I was a freshman in college, and that was many years ago, it was actually 1958, my college was in Dubuque, Iowa, and the Mississippi was overflowing. A lot of rain. So, we all went down to the Mississippi to help. I remember all these sand bags we had to fill. This event proved to be my first real awakening to a deep ecumenism or interfaith, because I was elbow with elbow with Jewish people, Protestants, Muslim people, humanists, atheists, Buddhists, the whole gamut was there. But it was the tragedy facing us all because the Mississippi River was rising and threatening our city that brought us all out, and no one was asking, “What’s your faith? My faith is better than your faith.” We were all involved in this survival moment. And that, my friends, is what beckons us today.
We are facing together as a species, an absolutely survival moment, less than 12 years left, and of course we’re not asking to convert one another. We’re asking, “What does your tradition … how does your tradition make you strong and courageous so you can bring something to the table?” Because ours is the time for all hands to be on deck, all hands on deck, the young and the old, believers and nonbelievers, an assortment of believers, all cultures, because this is about all of us. It is about the future of our species and the future of our planet as we know it.
That is to say, many, many other species will go down and are going down with us. Here’s the great prophet and mystic Howard Thurman, who is the real spiritual genius behind the civil rights movement, who went to India in 1935 with his wife and brought back Gandhi’s nonviolent strategy. Says Howard Thurman: “It is my belief that in the Presence of God there is neither male nor female, white nor black, Gentile nor Jew, Protestant nor Catholic, Hindu, Buddhist, nor Muslim, but a human spirit stripped to the literal substance of itself before God.”
It seems to me that Thurman is speaking to what we are undergoing together today in the face of the apocalyptic news that we are hearing. It’s a time for stripping down, for letting go, for being emptied. Hafiz, the great Sufi mystic who came right after Rumi, in the late 13th century, a contemporary of Meister Eckhart, said, “Sometimes God wants to do us a great favor, turn us upside down and shake all the nonsense out. But most everyone I know,” he said, “when God is in such a playful, drunken mood, quickly packs her bags and hightails it out of town.”
So, Hafiz is talking about what the mystics called the dark night of the soul, what I call today, the dark night of our species. We are in a dark night. We do not know if we’re going to survive, but let’s not fall into the trap of packing our bags and hightailing it out of town. Let’s stick around because that’s what the mystics say to do with the dark night of the soul–stick around because we have something to learn. Something about courage, something about wisdom, something about compassion, something about what matters.
This is the kind of time we are in, and remember this because there are many false prophets these days giving up on the human species saying, “It’s all over.” I was at a meeting a month ago of the Sierra Club in Berkeley. They asked me to speak on the Pope’s encyclical “Laudato Si” on the environment and also on the new “Order of the Sacred Earth” that I’ve been involved with with young people; and then two scientists spoke and there was a group there of about five people who said, “It’s all over. It’s all over. Eat, drink, and be merry.”
But truly the word apocalypse also means in Greek revelation, and I think what is happening to our species today is this: We have a choice. There is that choice of Apocalypse. There is also the choice of Revelation. Can we move to that next stage of human evolution where we can learn finally what compassion is about? What the Buddha taught? What Lao Tzu taught? What Muhammad taught? What Jeremiah and Isaiah taught? What Jesus taught? What White Buffalo Woman taught? That we are capable of interconnectivity. What Thich Nhat Hanh calls our interbeing, and that is what compassion is. Living out our potential for interbeing, our interdependence.
That, to me, is the choice facing us as a species today: Apocalypse or Revelation? Which shall it be? And imagine what that revelation would be 13 years from now if we learn something about truly standing by our four-legged ones, our tree people, our finned ones, our winged ones, and our fellow two-legged ones…..
It is your generation, young people, that is facing this apocalyptic moment. But together, through intergenerational wisdom, the elders and the young can stand, not wilt in the presence of apocalyptic news, but stand together in the choice, the choice to see our species thrive and all these other species with it. This revelatory choice is the work of the spirit that is still striving hard to awaken us and bring us humans into a better place.
May this spirit, who works through all religions and none, through all of creation, may this spirit awaken us, bestow in us courage and vision, so that when we meet again 13 years from today, something may truly have shifted in our species, in our consciousness, and in our actions. Amen.