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Fierce Wisdom for Our Times: Self-Blessing Can Heal You

Renowned author and theologian Matthew Fox talks about the radical path of love.

Key points

  • Original blessing is a whole new start for Western civilization because love has to begin with ourselves.
  • Wisdom fell away in the modern era because wisdom is traditionally seen as feminine.
  • We need portable practices that strengthen the heart, practices we can take into action in the world. 

Matthew Fox is a spiritual theologian, an Episcopal priest, and an activist for gender justice and eco-justice. He the author of 37 books, including Original Blessing, A Spirituality Named Compassion, and, most recently, The Tao of Thomas Aquinas: Fierce Wisdom For Hard Times and Julian of Norwich: Wisdom in a Time of Pandemic. Fox earned his doctorate in the history and theology of spirituality from the Institut Catholique de Paris and was silenced for a year, in 1989, after suggesting that the Catholic Church had become a kind of dysfunctional family. Three years later, he was formally expelled from the Dominican order and founded the Institute in Culture and Creation Spirituality. Since that time he has taught at Stanford University, the Association for Transpersonal Psychology, the Vancouver School of Theology, Schumacher College, and the California Institute of Integral Studies, and is the recipient of numerous honors and awards. I caught up with this visionary teacher recently to talk about what pandemic has to teach us about "original blessing," and growing more courageous through perilous times.

Mark Matousek: First of all, congratulations on your two new books about Julian of Norwich and Thomas Aquinas. I learned a great deal from both of them. I'd like to begin by asking you how the pandemic has affected our spiritual health as a nation?

Matthew Fox: Hibernating at home has made some people crazy while others became healthier and more introspective, asking themselves important questions. What am I doing with my life? Am I really contributing in my work to something worthwhile? Am I using my best talents to give back to others? That would be the silver lining in this circumstance but of course, at the same time, we see this rise of all this craziness, the built-up anger and hostility that’s rife around the world. The drift toward authoritarianism, not wanting to make our own decisions but having some Führer doing it for us. While this period holds true potential, there has also been a rise of what I call the "unholy masculine." The reptilian brain out of control. That is clearly in the headlines.

I do think that this pandemic has unveiled the best and the worst in us. People are stepping up and there has been a rebirth of community. Maybe this can signal the end of this John Wayne philosophy of life, this rugged individualism, that has taken over such a big chunk of the American soul. Fingers crossed.

MM: Sociologists tell us that fear leads to fundamentalism. The more scared people are, the more rigid and less tolerant they become.

MF: That’s a very good point. You choose the path of fear or the path of love. Fear is more comfortable while love is harder. The same thing happened in Julian's time during the Black Plague. People scapegoating the other. There was a rise of antisemitism in that period, the singling out of heretics, and so on. This blame was projected inward as well by men who believed that plague was punishment for their sins. They created these flagellation clubs and traveled from town to town, beating themselves up publicly in the town square. It got so popular that the pope had to intervene and say, “Chill. Cool it. This is not going to make the bubonic plague go away."

We have a similar kind of guilt going on today, a stirring of awareness regarding what is missing in our culture. The feminist poet Adrienne Rich called this "fatalistic self-hatred" created by the patriarchy. There’s a lot of fatalistic self-hatred going around. Even the denial of climate change is a form of self-hatred because it’s suicide. But patriarchy is not dying with grace; instead, it’s thrashing out like a dinosaur with this big tail and trying to kill everything around it.

MM: The alternative to this is self-blessing?

MF: The ideology of original sin has set the West up for fatalistic self-hatred. That’s why the theology of original blessing is a whole new start for a lot of Western civilization because love has to begin with ourselves, as Jesus said.

MM: You've suggested that we all need to become prophets now, truth-sayers. How can we learn to raise our voices, but not against each other?

MF: Prophets interfere with injustice. We’re all called to interfere with patriarchy today, to move from a worldview focused on personal power to one that engenders shared power. Authoritarianism is patriarchy on steroids and it's up to us to change that. Unfortunately, a consumer culture like ours tends to get lazy about politics. It takes for granted that things are going to be the same tomorrow and the next day. That is dangerous. As Churchill said, "It has been said that democracy is the worst form of government except all those other forms that have been tried from time to time." But democracy demands virtue and inner strength. We have to develop that.

There’s a wonderful line from the philosopher, William Hocking: “The prophet is mystic in action.” I like that because we’re all potentially mystics and prophets. The mystic is the lover in us, the one who says yes. The prophet is the warrior who stands up and says no, we have to interfere. This is not the way to go, this is not healthy.

MM: You've written that post-modern times require pre-modern wisdom? What do you mean?

MF: Many of the problems of the modern era began with the Black Plague, This preoccupation with fear and with the separation from nature. Before that, in your premodern worldview, they begin with the universe, with the whole picture, not with the human. Descartes couldn’t have been more wrong. It’s not because I think that I am. It’s because the universe has prepared the table for me for 13.8 billion years and this earth is a place of utter interconnectivity and community. It’s not about the “I,” it’s about “us,” the “we,” and how we interact with one another. To the extent that we follow that ego agenda down that rabbit hole, we’re going to kill ourselves and a lot of other creatures on this planet. We are doing that already. It’s very serious business.

The pre-moderns look for wisdom, not just knowledge. Wisdom fell away in the modern era because wisdom is traditionally seen as feminine. Sophia as the Greeks called it. Wisdom shows us why power is useful and also that it has its limits. That balance of wisdom and knowledge is part of the much-needed balance of the masculine and feminine we’re missing so desperately today.

I was invited to give a series of lectures at a university a few years back. I stood up in front of 400 faculty and staff and students and told them, “Talking about wisdom in the university today is a bit like talking about chastity in a brothel.” I’ll never forget the response! Everyone rose from their chairs like a tidal wave and we wound up having a very lively discussion about when wisdom was murdered in education. As I write in my most recent book, we've forgotten the wisdom of Julian of Norwich, for example, and what said about the web of creation. “If we disturb that web, God will allow creation to punish humanity,” Julian tells us. I think that’s what climate change is. We’re getting our rewards for how narrow our mindset has been for centuries. The wisdom we need cannot be found in a patriarchal educational system, or patriarchal religion, patriarchal politics, or economics. This is becoming more obvious by the day.

MM: I find it hard not to view organized religion as a central obstacle to getting the sort of wisdom we need.

MF: There’s nothing worse than bad religion. It’s dangerous. But when religion is healthy—as it was with like it was with Bishop Tutu and Mandela and Martin Luther King and Gandhi—it’s wonderful. It brings truth alive and truth is the basis of liberation. In truth, spirituality is the renewal of religion. That’s why wisdom teachers like Julian, Aquinas, Hildegard, and others are so important to me. Keeping their wisdom alive is like rescuing the treasures from the burning building. I think we need portable practices that strengthen the heart and that we can take into action in the world.

MM: Let’s talk about self-love. Creation spirituality puts forth the idea of original blessing, the essential goodness of humankind. This is a radical reversal of orthodox theology, isn't it?

Matthew: Yes. When Jesus said, “Love others as you love yourself,” it was presumed that self-love was present. Healthy self-love means that you get to know yourself, to appreciate your gifts and know your weaknesses. We all carry a shadow, of course. We all have wounds. If you’ve had a difficult childhood or been victimized by something like priest abuse, that never leaves you, of course. It’s a weight, an anchor that you carry with you your whole life. But even that can be redemptive in the sense that people can use their pain for self-healing. This is where psychology is strongest, in dealing with hurt and learning to listen to ourselves. It’s the covering up that takes so much energy and interferes with healthy self-love.

MM: One last question. If you were to meet yourself as young man, what would you tell yourself?

MF: (smiles) Beware of institutions. That has probably been my most difficult and painful lesson. I would also want my younger self to know that change is hard. I'd pass along Gandhi's sage advice. “If you want to transform society, prepare yourself for mountains of suffering.” Not to be too negative, but knowing the truth only makes you stronger.

This interview was condensed and edited by Rena Graham.

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