I am not too proud to respond to flattery, and I appreciate that Maurice Frontz at the Blog of Concord regards my blog as a model place to “explore questions.” That comment is, however, a preface to opening a can of Lutheran whupass on theologian Matthew Fox. Fox has apparently done his own version of Luther’s 95 theses proclaiming the way Christianity ought to be. They’re a lot like Spong’s, actually, only with a lot of New Agey Eastern mysticism and pro-art items thrown in (there’s one in favor of liturgical dance!). However, I am not inclined to be quite so hard on him. Maurice responds specifically:
1. God is both Mother and Father.
I would affirm that God is neither male nor female. However, the term “Father” as a designation for the first person of the Trinity is part of our Triune Confession of God, the first of our Lutheran Confessions.
I’ve never been quite sure what to make of this one. This seems to be an issue with some folks at my church also, since the pastor sometimes invokes “our mother in God” and song lyrics are edited to excise male pronouns for God (though oddly enough, they leave in masculine titles like Father and King). However, I’ve long wondered if this is an expression less of some deficiency in the traditional understanding of God than in a deficiency of modern fatherhood. Fox’s theses seem to assume that father = someone distant and punitive. Fathers have always been disciplinarians, but in premodern cultures other attributes of fatherhood loomed larger: your father would probably have been your primary educator, your protector in a rough world, and (if you’re male) a model for when you come into fatherhood and the family profession. All those functions appear prominently in the God of the Bible (and in the New Testament, the inheritance definitely includes women). Discipline, then, occurred within the context of the close relationship, not in “wait till your father gets home” sort of threats. Fatherhood can and does turn nasty and abusive of course, but so does motherhood, so I’m not sure how changing God into Mother helps that much.
6. Theism (the idea that God is â€˜out thereâ€™ or above and beyond the universe) is false. All things are in God and God is in all things (panentheism).
Panentheism seems to me to directly contradict the Christian notion of Creation by a God who is not this world but who creates this world.
I first read about panentheism two years ago from Marcus Borg, also with the justification that it makes God immanent instead of “out there.” I don’t really get the appeal, though; it brings God close, but also makes him into such an impersonal miasma that it’s like trying to have an intimate relationship with oxygen. And anyway, isn’t the idea of the Trinity that God is “both/and” — immanent force, human being and otherworldly ruler?
32. Original sin is an ultimate expression of a punitive father God and is not a Biblical teaching. But original blessing (goodness and grace) is biblical.
33. The term â€œoriginal woundâ€ better describes the separation humans experience on leaving the womb and entering the world, a world that is often unjust and unwelcoming than does the term â€œoriginal sin.â€
Contra article two of the Augsburg Confession.
Besides, this is totally illogical. If the world is often unjust and unwelcoming, then where did that come from? If “bad stuff” originates with the world, where did the bad stuff come from in the first place?
Good question, though in my view, Lutheranism doesn’t answer it very well either. However, Fox does have a point here. The “original blessing” is pretty clear in Genesis 1-2, and the doctrine of original sin, as such, is not in the Bible. His statement actually sounds somewhat like the Eastern Orthodox view of original sin that I wrote about in the second half of this post. However, this view necessarily assigns a large role to Satan, who seems nonexistent to Fox.
88. When science teaches that matter is â€œfrozen lightâ€ (physicist David Bohm) it is freeing human thought from scapegoating flesh as something evil and instead reassuring us that all things are light. This same teaching is found in the Christian Gospels (Christ is the light in all things) and in Buddhist teaching (the Buddha nature is in all things). Therefore, flesh does not sin; it is our choices that are sometimes off center.
2. The fact that this guy calls himself a theologian is breathtaking. “There is no sin, there are only bad choices?” Hitler, Stalin, Pol Pot? Auschwitz was a bad choice? Apartheid? Slavery? Gang violence is the result of bad choices? How about sex slavery in Asia? Child pornography? Even his favorite sins – economic injustice, etc? A bad choice is Folger’s Crystals rather than fairly-traded organic coffee. A sin is killing rather than giving life, lying rather than truth-telling, taking rather than receiving.
3. The fact that this guy cannot distinguish the idea of “our flesh” as the poetic biblical term for the sin that dwells inside of us rather than denigrating the entire bodily existence is disturbing. The entire Christian tradition has been remarkably pro-body as an expression of God creating the world and seeing it as very good. However, it realizes that our very selves are turned away from God and towards ourselves, something that Fox represents to perfection but cannot see himself.
Actually, Fox doesn’t really say, “There is no sin” (though I agree that “off center” is an awfully mild way of putting it). What he says is, “flesh does not sin.” He seems to be disputing certain phrases of Paul’s that describe the impulses spirit and flesh as being in conflict. I’m still not entirely sure what Paul had in mind, but I kind of take it like John Hiatt singing, “I’m just so easily led when the little head does the thinking.” Not that flesh literally thinks, but it has certain automatic responses that experience pleasure whether we’re doing something under the right circumstances or the wrong ones, and so therefore is not a particularly trustworthy guide. Christianity is “pro-body”, but only when the body is placed under proper guidance by reason, conscience, etc.
The “frozen light” line seems like it’s tangling up the meaning of the various biblical metaphors associating light with God. They did not have our physics in those days, so clearly “light” did not primarily signify “energy”, which is what the physicist means by saying that matter is “frozen light” (i.e. energy slowed down into mass). Instead, the fairly clear meaning of “the Light of the World” and so on is “that which enables people to see.” So the Gospel of John, for instance, keeps pairing its references of Jesus as Light with Jesus as Truth, because he is illuminating reality for people. To turn this into an argument for pantheism seems like a semantic game.
Actually, this whole thing reminds me of nothing so much as the second part of William Blake’s The Marriage of Heaven and Hell
(scroll down to “The Voice of the Devil” subhead). Both seem to be arguing against a neo-Manichean version of Christianity that I have not, fortunately, gotten to know; but I guess it must be there, if people keep needing to smash it.
Generally speaking, a lot of Fox’s theses could have come from the Mennonites (social justice, siding with the poor and oppressed, protecting the environment etc.) so I’m not about to take issue. However, I think the overall feeling I was getting was that he wants everybody to be like him — he says we’re all naturally mystical creative artist types, so presumably your earthy lunch-bucket auto mechanic, for instance, is not recognizing his true nature. That seems wrong to me, and indeed going against some of his other theses praising diversity. I’m all for mystical arty people (hey, I include myself in that) but I recognize the need for other types of people in society. As Paul recognized, one of the toughest things about church is getting them all to work together harmoniously. If such a thing could be achieved, it really would look like the Kingdom.