Interview with Matthew Fox
Transcript of Matthew Fox Interview on November 28, 2012, 2:00 pm EST
Interviewer: GL, Randall B. Robertson of GladdeningLight
Interviewee: Fox (Matthew Fox)
GL: What an honor to speak with Matthew Fox in Oakland, CA—a spiritual master, prolific author & teacher, iconoclast & mystic, and founder of the Institute in Culture & Creation Spirituality.
First, let’s discuss the upcoming event that will prominently feature you in the Orlando area, the third annual GladdeningLight Symposium of the Spiritual Arts. Realizing that you will be coming to us across the country from California’s Bay Area, have you spent much time lecturing in Florida before?
Fox: Well, I have had the privilege of lecturing in Orlando and Sarasota. My parents lived in Winter Park for seven years or so after my father thought that he had retired, but had to go back to work after the stock markets crashed. He managed an apartment complex for retirees in Winter Park. So I’d regularly visit my parents. I think it was back in the 1970s when I first spoke in the area.
GL: The areas of Central Florida and Western North Carolina enjoy some cross-pollination—a kinship that exists between the communities of Orlando and Asheville. Though you are speaking at the Symposium in the Orlando area, do you have any specific ties to Asheville?
Fox: I do. I’ve often taught and preached at Jubilee! Church in Asheville, which is very committed to Creation Spirituality. For some perspective, the pastor there is a jazz musician who integrates spirituality and the arts in a real and fun way. I’ve also visited the Earthaven Ecovillage, which is outside of Asheville, several times.
GL: May we broach your talks? You are to speak over three days using your bestselling book, Creativity, as a thematic springboard. Your talk on Friday night, February 1, 2013 is entitled “The Advent of Creativity.” What does advent mean in this context? Are we to interpret it akin to a pregnancy, an anticipation of creation?
Fox: Well, the great Otto Rank, who is the father of humanistic psychology, defined the artist as “one who wanted to leave behind a gift.” So, I think there is a profound desire for the artist in all of us to give birth to something substantive, beautiful, truthful that awakens people—all qualities that constitute the sacred nature of creativity. Now, I see a great advent of creativity because our species is in such a dark place these days. All around us, we see that education, politics, and media are failing. Clearly, we have to reinvent things. The darkness can mean that we are on the cusp of a great creative moment. Our species can only survive if we can commit to recreating the way we live on this earth. The way we’re living now is not sustainable. We are destroying habitats, climates, ocean creatures, birds and all the rest. We have to start over.
Thomas Berry, who is one of my favorite philosophers, says that often dark periods give birth to whole new renaissances. He looks to not only medieval Europe, but also to the Han dynasty; it went under, but then what replaced it was the genius of the Buddhist-inspired civilization that carried China for centuries and centuries to come. For Thomas Berry, a new view on life emerges with a new cosmology—which is what science is giving us today. A new civilization requires a new cosmology and a new cosmology requires a new civilization. I think we are on the cusp of a breakthrough, but to do that we have to recreate education, religion and art. Art can’t serve the ego; it has to serve greater needs.
GL: How might this relate to what we commonly term the “Big Bang” arising out of the void?
Fox: Well, whether we call the beginning of this universe the “big bang” or the “flaring forth” is debatable because there was no sound. It was not a bang! That is not the operative word for it. That name is Pentagon-influenced. Awe is often silent and quiet, but no less powerful or transformative.
Hindus say that in the beginning was sound and the Gospel of John says that in the beginning was the Word, which also means sound. Scientists say the beginning had vibrations, and you can translate that as music. Hildegard of Bingen also said that the beginning was music. Every creature was anointed with its own music and life’s journey was finding one’s life music, and the relationship with other creatures. We carry the Big Bang within us; this is literally true. One scientist told me this: that every idea that awakens the mind awakens photons or light waves in the brain. They are related to the original fireball, but alive here and now. It is the same fire burning.
So, I think that there are many ways in which creativity nears the original universe. Thomas Aquinas said “the same spirit that hovered over the waters in the beginning of creation hovers over the mind of the artist at work.” In other words, the cosmic creativity of the creator thoroughly parallels the human act of creativity. The same Holy Spirit is still at work.
GL: Your second talk, “The Sacred Vocation of the Artist,” is scheduled for Saturday morning, February 2nd. Talk to us about the four Vias or paths and how they correspond to the rhythm of creativity. How might these interrelate with the artist’s path?
Fox: These four paths in the creative tradition are archetypal of everything that’s going on. They begin with the experience of the Via Positiva—the experience of awe, wonder and delight. The experience of divinity is light. Awe is what triggers our intuition and wakes us up; it ignites and surprises us—like falling in love with another person or with music, science, flowers, poetry, and the earth. So many vocations begin with the act of falling in love when we’re young. Every scientist I’ve ever asked said that they fell in love with a bush or a star when they were five or six, and that is what birthed their scientific vocation.
The second path is the Via Negativa, the path of darkness, emptiness, silence, meditation, and suffering. Grief is a trigger for awakening our creativity and our powers. We learn in grief how truly deep we are and how connected we are to the universe. So, it too is an opening and a deepening, and again, artists go through this on a regular basis—first as human beings, and also in terms of their work. There are highs and there are deep lows. The mystics in all of us learn how to navigate both of these. There is a darkness when wrestling with our truths. Silence and solitude matter as well.
The third is the Via Creativa itself. The Via Positiva and the Via Negativa together give birth to the Via Creativa. Falling in love, letting go, experiencing emptiness and darkness is paramount to entering creativity—it gives us depth in art. It is not just our experience, but universal experiences of falling in love and of grief lie within all art. Creativity is as much a path to the divine as the other two paths.
The fourth path is where we take our creativity, love, and grief. The Via Transformativa provides contours for our creativity, and those contours are compassion and justice. That’s what we’re supposed to do with our creativity. Obviously, we humans can take our creativity to negative places. We can create bombs, gas ovens—all these things that we’ve been known to do. Misusing our creativity is the basis of injustice and of neurosis. According to Rank, we use our imaginations to abuse ourselves. We can use it to make people obese with dangerous food that is addictive and bad for our bodies. Creativity needs direction. That’s what the great spiritual teachings of the world teach us: that creativity’s purpose is to create justice, compassion, celebration and healing. That’s what the artists’ gifts are for.
GL: Your third talk on “The Prophetic Role of the Artist” is set for Saturday night the 2nd. Describe how the artist might speak to our despair in the brokenness of the human condition.
Fox: Well, Rabbi Heschel says that the role of the prophet is to interfere, so there is that dimension of interference to the injustices of our world. Or, to put it differently, every prophet was an artist—Isaiah, Josiah, Jesus’s teachings. It is about blowing the whistle on injustice and about how Jesus put it in Isaiah’s teaching on compassion in Matthew 25, “Just as you did it to one of the least of these, you did it to me.” That’s a profound teaching.
Jesus himself was an artist. He chose the method of creating stories and parables to wake people up, not to give them lists of dos and don’ts and commandments, so much as to leave them with images that sparked the imagination. That’s how he chose to implement his practice of interfering with suffering.
So, the artist does speak to despair because, first of all, despair is a very heavy situation psychologically and socially. Thomas Aquinas, in the 13th century, says despair is the most dangerous of all sins because when people are in despair they don’t care about themselves, and certainly not others. When you lose the love of self, that’s where despair takes you.
There is a lot of that in the cynicism and the apocalyptic language of today’s culture. Even in the spate of vampire movies. I understand that Hollywood has made about $7B on vampire movies in the past two years, and what I learned about the archetype is that it’s not about sex as much as the abuse of power. Of course, sex may come in under that, but that’s what’s really being spoken about under the archetype of the vampire. What would that be like to have power over others? Young people see it growing up around legends of pedophile priests and other abusive powers.
I call it “adultism” where adults are running our institutions including religions. Adultism can’t appreciate playfulness and the spirit of the young. Artists have to interfere with “adultism”—that kind of despair. We all need to stay in touch with our own playfulness. Playfulness is important to musical and artistic being.
GL: Reminds me of one of the Symposium artists, John Wells, from New York’s Chelsea Arts District. He calls his fanciful images, “visions of Byzantium.”
Fox: I think of all of this is food and nourishment for the imagination. That’s what we have to awaken in spite of and because our education system rarely engages young people for their powers of imagination. I think this Symposium is what real education needs to be at this time.
GL: In the absence of fear and anxiety, might newfound joy be discovered in this process? What I’m thinking of is the artist revealing an undeniable gift, rather than mere “ego-art” of self-satisfaction?
Fox: Absolutely. Again, Rank says that ultimately humans give their gift of art to God. And that’s what it is to say that the artists leave a gift more enduring than our mortality. The whole issue of the joy of God is that it is so rarely celebrated in religion, and yet it is within our traditions. Thomas Aquinas said that “sheer joy is God’s and this demands companionship.” The universe exists for the mutual joy of all beings. Joy is one of the gifts that art is all about.
Art brings another dimension to awe. We can experience awe in sunsets, mountains, and children. There is also awe involved in music—in listening to Mozart, or participating in dance, or observing dance, or in many paintings. Awe is there. That’s the gift the artist brings. It’s like upping the ante on the awe of nature. After all, humans are nature too. Humans can contribute to the lineage of awe. Joy flows from that.
GL: You’re fond of quoting Rank, the Native American mystic Black Elk, Meister Eckhart and your beloved twelfth-century Hildegard of Bingen, who was just canonized as a saint. Tell us about your most recent book on Hildegard, A Saint for Our Times, a follow-up to your 1985 exposition of her Illuminations. I believe that you are credited with interpreting for modern audiences Hildegard’s paintings as well as her music and her letters to the abbots, monks, popes and political figures of her time.
Fox: Hildegard was an amazing force, a truly renaissance woman of the 12th century who wrote the first operas 300-400 years before any other western opera. She wrote twelve books on science. She painted 36 paintings of visions. She was an herbalist and a healer. She wrote books on healing so useful that a clinic in southern Germany uses only her teachings, and the medical doctors get real results. She was a prophet who wrote letters to bishops, cardinals, emperors and kings demanding they quit ignoring “lady justice.” She was fierce. It is interesting that she is canonized now, maybe because she wrote to popes about their being surrounded by evil men, “cackling in the night like hens.”
She led an amazing human existence. Her art and her music were absolutely first rate—and original Gregorian chant. I call it erotic Gregorian chant. It’s unlike other Gregorian chant and extremely sophisticated. One musicologist says that she predates Mozart with interweaving themes coming in and out. And there are lyrics to songs—she’s a poet too! Above all, she brings the divine feminine back. That’s what makes me laugh about her recent canonization. I like irony. She is the Trojan horse for the patriarchal institutions. She tries to balance patriarchal excess with extra dimensions of feminism’s maternal and circular images of divinity. She is all about creativity and the greening power of the Holy Spirit. She says, “The only sin in life is drying up.”
She says, “Human beings are redeemed by the Incarnation and awakened by the Crucifixion.” Only one of her paintings has the crucifixion, and it does not stand alone but is presented in a fuller context. She is not obsessed with the cross theology that dominates western theology. She has experienced the radiation of glory from nature and that represents the wisdom tradition of Israel which is creation-centered mysticism and which all scholars agree today was the tradition of the historical Jesus. She writes often how the waters sparkle with the divine presence, i.e., the Cosmic Christ. She rhapsodizes about redemption by the grace of nature. Crucifixion wakes us up to the price to pay for compassion and grace.
We’re all supposed to be doing things like taking on empires like Jesus did or Gandhi did in his day. Her theology is amazingly balanced and profound. That’s the real reason she comes through so strongly today. She is given power by being named a Doctor of the Church. There are only three other women with that title. Luther himself called her the “first Protestant.” She was protesting corruption in her many sermons and her letters. She was kicking butt. I think she’s a model for all kinds of people today—not just Christians or Catholics.
GL: You have projects that presently occupy your time—among them the Green Man, the Black Madonna, Stations of the Cosmic Christ and the I AM sayings. Can you speak briefly about these endeavors?
MF: I’m working with the Episcopal Bishop of California, Marc Andrus, to create the stations of the Cosmic Christ as a practice to balance the tradition of the Stations of the Cross. This goes to what we talked about, the Western emphasis on the cross—we’ve forgotten the important breakthrough archetypes of the Cosmic Christ that reawaken human consciousness and are found in the Gospels—the I AM sayings, the vine, the living bread, the light. All these carry profound archetypal meanings in peoples’ lives. We also have events—the Nativity, the Transfiguration, Resurrection, Ascension, Pentecost, Crucifixion—all cosmic events. The stories are bigger than any religion or individual because they are universal and strike all of us. These archetypal lessons of the Christ story are applicable far beyond Christianity, but they can also help awaken/reawaken Christianity when it falls into stale, unimaginative structures and teachings which utterly fail to touch the excitement and cosmic fire that originally lit up the early Church and gave it the courage to take on the Roman Empire. I think that this kind of courage needs to come back.
In a book three years ago on The Hidden Spirituality of Men: Ten Metaphors for Awakening the Sacred Masculine, I present ten archetypes of healthy masculinity. One is the Green Man. The return of the Green Man is important today—he stands for the warrior defending Mother Earth and other creatures. That’s so primal for our survival. Artists who are developing and expressing this Green Man archetype are doing important work to wake us up to what we’re all capable of. There is a Green Man/Woman in all of us.
GL: In closing, could you speak to the mission of GladdeningLight bridging the intersection of faith & art, exalting the artists’ role in spiritual creativity, and the Symposium theme, “Love, Now?” How does all this resonate with your take on creativity?
Fox: I love what GladdeningLight is doing, because there can be no spirituality without art. Besides silence, art is the language that we have for expressing our deep, mystical experiences—awe, wonder, gratitude, grief, and suffering. This is what art is for: to help us name these deeply human, but universal, experiences. And also the struggle for justice. Gandhi and Martin Luther King were artists. The organizing of human beings to free themselves from oppression is an art form. True politics is an art form. It’s gathering these people as an artist gathers paint, or a musician gathers notes or instruments. An authentic politician gathers people.
Thomas Aquinas said that a politician needs to know more about the soul than a doctor knows about the body! I think that creativity and art are integral to the healing of people and inspire people to do better. They feed the soul.
What you’re doing with GladdeningLight has tremendous implications. By opening up the connection between healthy religion and art, you are opening up rivers of empowerment, nourishment, beauty, and joy that art always stirs up. You can’t have spirituality without art. Art, too, has to be redeemed because I think a lot of art in the West has fallen into secular, ego-oriented, and commercially-oriented appeasement. Artists can sell their souls; they must be alert to who is using their gifts and for what. Art needs to enlisted for the work of eco-justice, social justice, economic justice and more. In short, for the sustainability of our species.
Artists have to have a spiritual life, too. Artists need a compassionate direction for their passion. Leonard Cohen is interesting—his living for ten years in a Buddhist monastery was important. Not that you have to do that to be a great artist. But for artists, a spiritual discipline is often necessary for their survival. Consider how many twentieth century artists died young by filling the void in their souls with unhealthy addictions. Spiritual practices can help all humans face life’s demons and not surrender to them.
I love the way GladdeningLight is bringing together such a rich diversity of art so that people may realize how many people are committed to the sacred vocation of art. There is a sacrificial element to being an artist; there is no insurance. This sacrificial element—an artist’s generosity—is built into the journey. Other people only see results of fame, but there is a long journey before that. Motivations get tested and purified in the process, and that can be a beautiful thing. M.C. Richards said, “The greatest accomplishment of the potter is not the pot; it is the potter.”
GL: Thank you, Matthew Fox. See you at GladdeningLight in February.