June 6, 2005

Thesis statement

Filed under: Theology (other) — Camassia @ 6:21 pm

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 ‘out there’ 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 “original wound” 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 “original sin.”

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 “frozen light” (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.

1. What?
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.


  1. I can’t say that I care much for the Gospel according to Matthew [Fox] with its “proclaiming the way Christianity ought to be,” but the panentheism question fascinates me, and what I understand is that panentheism (accent on the first e) is distinctly different from panentheism (accent on the second e). The first is compatible with consensus Christian thought…indeed it finds definite expression within Orthodoxy. Most briefly put it is that while God is completely other from and transcendent to the creation, He nonetheless dwells within every last particle of it thereby holding it in existence. This is different from the panentheism of the second type, which is much more akin to monism…One is All, All is One sort or thing.

    Comment by mcmlxix — June 7, 2005 @ 7:52 am

  2. mcmlxix:

    That’s my understanding, too. If I remember what Fox wrote in “Original Blessing” (that was a while ago), he was advocating the former and not latter panentheism. In fact, he distinguished “panentheism” from “pantheism” (One is ALL and All is One and notice there is no “en” for the second syllable for “pantheism”) and “theism” (God is above and separate from creation).

    OTH, sometimes I think Fox works too hard to incorporate ideas from the East and Paganism into his thinking. Sometimes it’s best to just admit differences and leave it at that.

    Comment by Joe G. — June 7, 2005 @ 8:25 am

  3. Well yeah, I do know the difference and I didn’t make that clear. When I read Borg, I remember the image I got was of a human form with the universe forming a big ball in its belly, like a pregnancy. What bothered me was that the way Borg uses the idea, and definitely the way Spong uses it, is to make God totally unlike a person — not an entity who can think, feel or act like a person, or, by implication, actually incarnate itself as a person. In fact the Spong theses that I linked to above flatly deny that a non-theistic deity could incarnate itself. Borg didn’t go that far, but he was definitely at pains to diminish the importance of Jesus as a person (as opposed to the humble carrier of an important message). I don’t know where Fox stands on that, but he makes noises about distinguishing the historical Jesus from the cosmic Christ, which seems to be moving in that direction. Obviously, that is running afoul of orthodox Christianity (including Orthodox Christianity) and also leaves me with that rather cold feeling about God.

    Comment by Camassia — June 7, 2005 @ 8:44 am

  4. See? See? That’s exactly what I meant…

    Camassia’s response = thoughtful, thought-provoking, engages the argument instead of the person, asks questions that elicit a response, etc…

    My response = fight kill destroy defend attack attack attack (reach for the medicine bottle)

    Truthfully, the main reason for the post was that Dr. Fox is invited to speak on his Creation Spirituality at a Professional Leaders Gathering in an ELCA Synod. My point was that his ideas seem on the face of them to be so antithetical to our Lutheran confession of faith that such an invitation is obviously inappropriate.

    Although Lutherans need not subscribe to a physically-transmitted doctrine of sin, we do confess that we are sinners who are in need of redemption. Although we may hold to different understandings of atonement, we hold the Incarnation, death, and resurrection of Christ as essential to our understanding of who God is and what he has done for us. Fox’s theses do not address these and in some cases explicitly reject them. Whatever the merits or demerits of his ideas on the realization of the Kingdom of God, these first issues are the issues that drove my perhaps intemperate response.

    “God blessed them, and God said to them…” True enough. The concept of original sin, although unarticulated in the Bible (like the dogma of the Holy Trinity) basically says as I understand it that we have rejected the blessing of God as created creatures of God in order to “be like God, knowing good and evil.” God continues to bless us, whether we like it or not, and he has redeemed us in Christ from our turning away from the blessing. This indeed is a reaffirmation of the blessing, and perhaps even the decisive proof of it.

    But this cannot mean that every choice, every urge, every drive, every reach for power, pleasure, and knowledge is good. Such an approach is counter-intuitive when one looks at history, but perhaps that is not the issue. It is simply an unknown idea in the Judeo-Christian revelation. The Christian tradition authentically names those desires to experience life unmediated by God and God’s will as sinful, where the blessing is rejected so that it can be elevated to the status of “idol” or “right.” And this is where I think Fox errs. In his seeming obsession with punishment, he sees every impulse as natural and to be celebrated, and there is nothing aside from the seductive pull of society that inspires us to make wrong choices. But if sin does not reside in us, why does society find a hold in us? Fox’s theses do not take the notion of the radical nature of sin to reject and twist the blessings of God so that they redound to our hurt and the hurt of others.

    Comment by Maurice Frontz — June 7, 2005 @ 8:45 am

  5. Yes, that was why I pointed out that the non-appearance of Satan was a problem. Fox certainly recognizes that evil exists, as is shown in the theses inveighing against injustice, imperialism, sexual abuse etc. But if you’re not going to primarily blame God or humanity for the existence of evil, you have to put the blame somewhere. In these theses at least (which are all I’ve ever read of Fox), he can’t seem to fit evil into his cosmology, as it wants to make everything so good and benevolent. Like I said, no theodicy has really come up with the clinching explanation IMHO, but I think Christians need to have a consistent understanding of evil and its origins if we’re to know how to address it.

    Comment by Camassia — June 7, 2005 @ 9:16 am

  6. Wow, that’s some “whupass” — Lutheran or otherwise.

    When guys like Fox and Spong come out with a laundry-list of tenets, all they’re doing is creating another orthodoxy, one that’s even more inflexible that the old one.

    I love your point about the lunch-box guy being a mystic. Yes, and maybe every New York cabbie is a contemplative at heart, right? Your assertion that people are spiritually diverse is spot-on. It reminds me of an interesting article on spiritual types at

    Comment by Steve Jones — June 7, 2005 @ 10:03 am

  7. There are some germs of good ideas in Fox’s thought, ideas which have resonances with Eastern Orthodox and Celtic spirituality. But then he goes way, way overboard, to the point where he seems to depart from Christianity altogether.

    Comment by Larry — June 7, 2005 @ 1:37 pm

  8. Fox obviously means well, but he’s mostly just flailing. You’d think he’d have made up his mind a bit more by now.

    I liked the link to the spirituality personality types diagram. But it didn’t really say much about the other part of spiritual life — that life as a Christian community is almost designed to make you experience God in all those ways in turn. Sometimes the lunchbox guy is a contemplative, even if he isn’t most of the time. So we should make room for all those styles — and let people know they exist inside Christianity, so they don’t run off looking for something that’s right in their backyard.

    Comment by Maureen — June 7, 2005 @ 8:57 pm

  9. 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…

    And “God”?

    Comment by Tom — June 8, 2005 @ 5:42 am

  10. “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…”

    This is a very small point, but the term being used is “mothering God.” You can look at it in various ways; it might be a nod to people who are uncomfortable with God being seen as female so instead a “female action” is referenced. It can also be viewed as a way of avoiding assigning God a gender at all. When I have heard this used, it is often pared with references from the Bible that do depict God in mothering roles. I will have to listen to see if I hear this approach being used for traditionally male aspects of God as well.

    Comment by Thea — June 8, 2005 @ 12:13 pm

  11. “[O]ddly enough, they leave in masculine titles like Father and King”

    Possibly because Jesus, the Queen of Queens and Princess of Peace, might be a bit much, even for some liberal folks. I’m rather flexible, though. I suppose it could be done ;-)

    Comment by A Progressive Christian — June 11, 2005 @ 4:54 pm

  12. […] these, which several other bloggers have already been discussing (Camassia’s take is here, and I’ve also seen some discussion at the Progressive Christian Bloggers Network aggregator […]

    Pingback by Noli Irritare Leones » Blog Archive » Matthew Fox’s 95 theses — June 21, 2005 @ 8:45 am

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