Hunger for Wholeness: What Lies Beyond Death and Institutions with Matthew Fox with Matthew Fox (Part 2)
Ilia Delio and theologian Matthew Fox pick up on their conversation about the viability of contemporary religious institutions in an evolutionary world. They discuss death and resurrection—the enduring challenge of modern approaches to the subject and what we can learn from mystics, past generations and ancient peoples alike.
ABOUT MATTHEW FOX
“We all share beauty. It strikes us indiscriminately… There is no end to beauty for the person who is aware. Even the cracks between the sidewalk contain geometric patterns of amazing beauty. If we take pictures of them and blow up the photographs, we realize we walk on beauty every day, even when things seem ugly around us.”
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Matthew Fox, Ph.D., is a spiritual theologian, an Episcopal priest, and an activist for gender justice and eco-justice. He has written 37 books that have been translated into other languages over 70 times. Among them are Original Blessing, The Coming of the Cosmic Christ, and A Spirituality Named Compassion. His latest books are Naming the Unnameable: 89 Wonderful and Useful Names for God…Including the Unnameable God; Stations of the Cosmic Christ; and The Lotus & the Rose: A Conversation Between Tibetan Buddhism & Mystical Christianity. He has contributed much to the rediscovery of Hildegard of Bingen, Meister Eckhart, and Thomas Aquinas as pre-modern mystics and prophets. Fox holds a doctorate in the history and theology of spirituality from the Institut Catholique de Paris. The founder of the University of Creation Spirituality in California, he conducts dozens of workshops each year and is a visiting scholar at the Academy for the Love of Learning.
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A HUNGER FOR WHOLENESS TRANSCRIPT | S03E08
What Lies Beyond Death and Institutions with Matthew Fox (Part 2)
Robert: Welcome to Hunger for Wholeness, a podcast from the center for Christogenesis. I'm your host, Robert Nicastro. In the last part of Ilia's conversation with theologian Matthew Fox, they discussed one of Matthew's mentors, Dominican Marie, Dominique Chenu, as well as the current state of the church. In today's episode, Ilia and Matthew question the plausibility of major institutions in an evolutionary world and tease out which spiritual values can help us survive the future.
Ilia: One of the things that's kind of ironic for a religious, a spiritual tradition such as Christianity, which has the cross at the heart of the tradition, which is about death, followed by resurrection or new life, is that it's not modeled institutionally. You know, that death and new life are indeed part and parcel of what the Christic life is about. And I couldn't help thinking about Teilhard when you were talking because—well, I think Pope Francis is amazing in terms of, yeah, bringing the round tables, bringing women in, bringing lay people, he's really changed the tenor of the genre of this kind of conversation, so kudos to Pope Francis for the courage that he has taken in the Senate. But obviously, I think like you, I don't think it's enough. And one of the things going back to the centrality of death and new life, and that's what evolution's about. The whole of evolution runs on death and new life, right? Unless things die, there are no resources for a new life to emerge. And so, one of the worst things we can do is try to keep holding on, whether it be personally or institutionally, to what has always been because we live in a finite contingent world, so you can hold on. Things are changing all the time.
So in this respect, I'd often wondered if the church might, even now—here's taking a really radical leap—but I don't think the universal structure works anymore. In an evolutionary world, change is always local. It's never universal or global. And it's
because any change, whether it be personal change or species change, or local civic change, it's conditioned by culture, by history, by environmental factors. So you can't take, say, one rule and want to apply it to a globe of like, what, 8 billion people with very different cultures and very different geographies. So, my suggestion if Pope Francis is to ever ask me is, I think Rome needs to decentralize. In other words, I'd like to see the papacy become like a federated kind of union of leadership and that the power of leadership is then placed in local dioceses or local geographical areas so that the church in Africa can evolve according to its culture and customs. We need to rethink this whole project because it's not going to work as it is. That's the whole point. There's nothing to show that universal structures like this can hold indefinitely. They simply can't. It's sort of a recipe for a disaster. I mean, I don't want to be a downer, because Francis is really making major efforts, but structurally it can't work from my perspective, from the principles of evolution, it cannot evolve. It just doesn't work that way. So I think, let's take this Christ event seriously, and let's just enter into that death and know that death is not the end. You know, that for everything that dies, something new is being born. That is the beauty of organic life.
Matthew: Well, I like very much what you're saying. I do. And the Buddhists have that important saying that impermanence is everywhere and that's another way of talking about this. And I love what Otto Rank talks about when he talks about “the immortality project.” If we're in denial about death, then we're putting our energies into a project. And so, the examples he gives would be Pharaohs who die and then need this great big pyramid to be immortal. And then their subjects have to build it for hundreds of years, and they supposedly are participating vicariously in the Pharaoh's immortality. And he goes through many examples like that. And I think Trump Tower would be a pretty good example too. So the immortality projects, and even this effort at empires like Putin's project; this so takes humanity off its path. It distorts evolution because it wants to freeze things. It wants to make something permanent.
But as you say, we're all mortal. And so, I mean, these great visions of—Putin, he'll be dead before anything like that could happen anyway. So, it's just amazing how big and out of whack the ego can get. And then you have an institutional ego, you see. And so you have a so-called church that is somehow going to outlast us all and have power. So I think what you're talking about is very real, and I think it's happening whether we want it or not, just look around. Things are in deep flux. I was just reading this week about the sisters community. So most of them, the average ages in the eighties now; they're passing on. And we can be grateful for what they contributed over the centuries, but it's a new world out there. And I couldn't agree more. I have these great doubts that anything as big as the Roman Catholic Church is now constructed as a future, as an organization.
But again, what I would say, it's what I'd call as treasures, including the saints and the mystics and the prophets, both and above all the teachings of Jesus that inspired them, and a sacramental community coming together to worship and to thank, and to grieve and to empower. I mean, that's going to go on in some format. All humans need ritual.
Ilia: There is something to Christianity that's deeply creation-centered, deeply incarnation, a God who gets involved in the materiality and is okay with change and chaos and a God who is unconditional in love. I think there's a lot of hope in this tradition. And I guess, I certainly am not to critique the church. I love the church for what it can symbolize what it sacramentalizes. And what I'd love to do is to have like a living energy of faith, like what energizes us, what gives us hope? But I think going back to that question of death, we have a deep existential fear of death. I think a lot of people think there's really nothing after this life. You know, when I die, that's it, so I need to immortalize myself somehow. I need to either download my brain or like buy an institution and put my name on it, but I need to make sure that something in me is going to live on or have a lot of children or whatever it is. You know, you got to immortalize yourself. But we really don't have any—I think we have an eschatological crisis. We don't have any real scent of anything beyond this finite mortal world.
And I'm saying, actually, I think it's going to be even more exciting and people are like, that's really wacky. Like, how would you know that? And it's not just like Jesus, I mean like the gospels- talk about a resurrected body or a new spiritual body. I just think there's something about life that endures infinitely. It may change form, I'm sure it will change form. You know, maybe we become part of this cosmic whole. Maybe that's what the God symbolizes is this immense infinite cosmic wholeness of the energies of love and consciousness. And imagine, you know, what if we are part of life elsewhere in the cosmos I just think it can't be just heaven, where you just got to like, okay, 90 years here, a hundred years, we're going to wrap it up, and what, hang out with God, like for eternity? That makes no sense whatsoever. Like, it just makes no sense. I'm just shocked that we even talk about this stuff.
And so, that's why I think it makes no sense, and people are like, oh my God, I have no idea what's going to happen to me when I die. And I think, well, my last thought here is, as you were talking, our need to, because we fear death and we hold on to whether it's our institutions or our stuff or ideas, that is part and parcel of our crisis of the environment today. Our attention is not in our deep interconnectedness. Our attention is on, how can I survive? You know, like, what would happen to me if I should die tomorrow? And I think if we had a robust sense of belonging to a whole, energized by a power of love and presence and interconnectivity, we would not fear death. We would know that what we're about here will be everlasting in this organic wholeness of life. So we've really messed things up royally, quite honestly.
Matthew: Well, I like your eschatological sense, and I think that in some ways you're proposing, you're bringing back to life, if you will, the beautiful archetype of the community of saints that a gathering and a regathering of beauty is altogether possible. And that's certainly what the church has taught. And then in many ways, I see that overlapping with the eastern idea of reincarnation. What form does resurrection take? And we've never been instructed about that. So, there's really more overlap between reincarnation and resurrection than we've given our ancestors credit for, I think. I think
we're playing with this. In fact, I have a friend who's Buddhist, and he's a younger fellow. He's from Laos. He's actually from the Ming Tribe in Laos, and he grew up in Thailand because they escaped the war. When his mother was pregnant with him, her first child, she traveled by foot through rivers and mountains and all from Laos to Thailand to escape.
But he said to me the other day, and no one ever asked me this. He was going and I said, no one ever asked me this before. And he said, how do you want to be reincarnated? What way do you want to reincarnated? And I couldn't believe the answer just came right out of my mouth. I didn't even think about it. And I had never thought it, but it just popped out. I said I wanted to come back as a scientist. Because scientists that are so important today to see that earth survives and so forth and thrives.
All peoples have asked this question about, is this all there is know? Is this the end? And again, I think in our secular culture, the majority are like you kind of saying, oh no, it's all over. No, I think we have an adventure ahead of us. And I don't think all of our instances we're stupid. And I think people do have encounters with people. I mean, that's what the real stir of resurrections are. 500 people supposedly, or you know, a big number, including Paul and many others encountered Christ after Jesus had died.
I often, when I lecture, I would have people shut their eyes and say, how many of you have had experience of loved ones who came back to you after they died? Or who won't have friends who are not kooky, who've had experiences like this? 80% of those people raise their hands. This should be factored into these realities. And the fact is that the human species has always not just sought a sense of another world, but have very often, especially pre-modern peoples had ways to encounter and to tap into that other world. And that's what the feast Day of all souls and All Saints coming up is about. And it's not just a Christian thing. It's really very universal. So, I think this has to be counted as well.
Bruce Chilton, who I really respect, is a theologian. He taught at Bard College for many years, but he's written some really good books, and his latest book is on Resurrection. It has an unusual title, something like The Logic of Resurrection, but it's really very well
researched. And he explores that whole area. No one's really explored before who were these 500 people? And there are hints and even some names in the gospel. And I just think he does a great job about deconstructing and reconstructing what that whole archetype is about, and so I recommend that.
And then I put it alongside Outer Wrong who says the question of immortality has always been the number one question for the human race. You could even define, he says, the human soul as our press for mortality. And then he goes through all cultures, and it goes way back to the beginning. And he says, at one time, it was the tribe itself. The tribe survived in those rugged times when it was small kinship groups, and that was immortality, and that's why you sacrificed yourself for the tribe. And then he goes through all these eras and he mentions the pharaohs and that whole thing. And then even the era of kings— the king is long dead, the king, the next king. That's the people projecting their immortality into that.
And he was Jewish and not Christian, but he says the biggest, the biggest idea that's ever come down the pike is from Paul and Jesus because that democratizes immortality, the idea of resurrection, it democratizes it. So we don't have to get involved in these big projects, the Pharaoh project, the Empire Project, and the King Project. We can go about living all of us the full life, because we no longer have to be afraid or be in denial about death.
Ilia: One of the concepts I've used from quantum physics is the concept of entanglement; that two entities that have interacted when slid apart, even by death, they're forever interacting. And that's always been a strange, mysterious phenomenon. But even in terms of, say, our experience of, even if we encounter, say a saint in reading, and we identify with that saint or their experience, there's a kind of entanglement there. Certainly with our loved ones when they die, we're forever entangled with them. So, the idea of entanglement is the thought that arises in me is arising elsewhere in the universe or elsewhere in conscious life. So the dead are not—maybe the word dead needs to be
revisited because it sounds like it's over and done. But the fact is, they're a lot in some way that is the Christian teaching, so maybe we need to, something like new life people or something.
Matthew: I like that idea, entangle it.
Ilia: Dana Zohar in her book, The Quantum Self speaks of resurrected life as sort of that entangled life. In other words, while I'm alive, it's like my particle self is the one that's producing and creating and known. But as I am creating, I'm also sharing what I am with others. So there's that wave dimension in my life. So when my particle in a senseis, I collapse into a wave, so who I am lives on in all my relationships. So our resurrected life is part of our entangled life, or who we have, in a sense affected throughout our lifetime.
Matthew: That's beautiful. But you know something I played with too, I think that Einstein once said, no energy is lost in the universe. And I know Hildegard said, no warmth is lost in the universe. And I like to say, no beauty is lost in the universe, so I think that all this carries on in another form. Obviously the form changes. And Eckhart says, life dies, but being goes on. We stumble for language here, of course. But I think all those things and this entanglement, I think that's a very rich concept. But I think all these are worthy efforts to name something that's quite ineffable and bigger than us, but it's a mystery, but it is, as you say, it's worth putting on top of the table. And it's much more positive than denial or despair.
Robert: The mystery of death and even life after death has enamored communities for ages and will continue to touch every human long into the future. Next, Ilia asks Matthew about his work, introducing the Christian mystical tradition to 21st century readers, and how he thinks these mystical thinkers can help us navigate our contemporary crises.
Ilia: Way before, when I was a young thing, a young student, I read books by Matthew Fox on Hildegard of Bingen and Meister Eckhart, and they were very formidable. They were very impressive on me, so I just want to thank you for your tremendous work on these
mystics and you know, the way you really have brought them into the 20th century and the 21st century, and really introduced people to the whole Christian mystical tradition. I think you've really opened up a whole avenue of spirituality that was in a sense very quiet for a long period of time. And I think from your work, I began to actually teach Hildegard with her incredible sense of viriditas and the rich greening, the energy of creation. And then Meister Eckhart to me, I mean, going back to your original insight on courage, Eckhart was a tremendous mystic in that sense of, and sort of fearless.
I'd love to just hear a little bit more from you because he seemed to be unafraid to speak of this deep unitive experience of God and I love his, “I pray God to rid me of God,” like, let's get rid of this thing of God that we have here and experience. So God has that deep experience of units of life, and his sermons on poverty, his identification as being like the son of God like the son of the Father, in the same way that—do you think the resurrection of the mystics in our own time has had a tremendous influence for the good on keeping people alive and hopeful that there's something to live for here?
Matthew: It certainly can, and it has had some, and I think it needs to be more exposed. You know, Carl Jung says that only the mystic brings what is creative to religion itself. So to go back to our original conversation, if organized religion is dying all around us, then clearly this is a time for going deeper and journeying with these mystics who kind of focused on the depth of things and not on the structure. They're always in trouble with the structure, it seems, at least on and off, let's say. So I do think, and again, to me, if you want to look at history this way, the Age of Aquarius is the age of mysticism in so-far. It is about the water. It is about our origins, the sea, la mer, our mother, the sea. And your beautiful analogy of wave and particle, you'd see that whole idea that the ocean is the big thing and we are droplets of water. And that's the way to talk about—and in dialogues I've had with Buddhists, my teachers, that always comes up, they love to talk about the waves and the drop, so I just think there's so much to find there.
And Eckhart, as you say, is absolutely one of the most courageous creative souls. And of course, he paid a great price too, for his being out front, like he was. But the way he blended too, the social justice, compassion and non ablation and mysticism is so wonderful. He said, “the person who understands what to say about justice understands everything I have to say.” Whoa, that's amazing. Because many mystics don't get around, tell you about justice and all. So I mean, he was engaged. He was engaged in the women's movement of his day, with the Beguines who were made condemned by the Pope 17 times in his lifetime. And he was engaged with the peasants. He was speaking their language. He was the first scholar to preach in the German dialects, which is what they were in his day.
So for him, it wasn't just theory; he was engaged with women and engaged with the peasants and his famous treatus on how everyone is an aristocrat. That did not go over well with the aristocrats in Germany. They knew who they were. They had one before their name. And then this guy gets up and says, the vernacular through the peasants, he says, we're all noble, we're all aristocrats because we're all born from the deepest mystery there is. And it was on and on about the royal personhood that Ernst Bloch says he was a big influence on Karl Marx because he was democratizing the idea of nobility and royalty. And he just had so many angles on the Christian story that still reverberate today.
Ilia: I just finished a book this year on Carl Jung and Teilhard de Chardin and the relational whole. And you know, there's a chapter there on mysticism. I do think Teilhard would say that mysticism is the inside of evolution. In other words, it's precisely going into that depth, that unrestricted depth of God and God being the plenum of potentialities of ideas of spiritual energy. And tapping into that is like Hildegard and like Meister Eckhart, it allows one to live from a deeper center. And that's why I think the mystic is often misinterpreted, and they're always slightly out of place because they are- you would know this well, they're living and acting from a very different center of consciousness, a deep awareness, a level of unitive consciousness oftentimes, or integrated consciousness that most people are acting from lower levels of consciousness, whether it's kind of sort of an adolescent consciousness where they need to follow the law and order of things to feel
safe. Or having that kind of approval from their parents or the institution. In the mystic, it goes way beyond that and that's why there's a breakthrough to use that Eckhartian term, that breakthrough of consciousness. And that's a kind of awareness that pushes one to act from a new center and therefore in a new way.
And that's why I could see Eckhart being involved in the many areas of justice and wanting to call everyone an aristocrat because he's seeing everything from a different angle, a different perspective, and that type of thing—and that's what moves evolution. And that's what Tehard was saying, we need that kind of deep consciousness to move us into a new level of humanity, which kind of leads me sometimes to think that social justice is good in its aim, but we can't solve the problems of poverty. We have to create new conditions for humanity. We have to, in a sense, reform ourselves and reform the matrix of humanity to creatively push forth into new structures. But it's not about problem solve. We're not going to solve the problem of hunger or the problem of homelessness, but we can begin to create new ways of living together that might include the homeless, and so there are no homeless anymore, or poverty, so there is no poverty anymore. So that's why I think mysticism may be the most important area today for the evolution of the human community, even beyond AI. AI can take us so far, I think we have unlimited unbridled wealth already within us at our disposal. It's already there. We don't have to create it, it's here, but we have to have the freedom to enter into it.
Matthew: You know, one line from Eckhart that I know you would like or you do like if you've heard it before, he says, relation is the essence of everything that exists. Relation is the essence of everything. Because, well, that echoes very much what you were talking about earlier in our dialogue here, that interrelationship and so forth is so at the heart of things. And it's a different way of seeing the world, different from way we've been seeing it, but with the modern consciousness. Just that alone, I think is another insight of his that has taken 800 years to catch up. Now science is saying it, now maybe we can move, but yeah, there's so much there in the mystics. And the key is, I tell students, is not just to study the mystics, but take them into your own life and into your own perception. See the
world that way. That's the point. You know, not to put them on pedestals, but to employ them as agents to stir up your own mystical inner life, as you say. And of course, you've devoted a lot of your life to studying Teilhard and I grow every year in appreciation of Teilhard. And of course what he suffered too, what he underwent, but so many people stand on his shoulders, including Thomas Berry and many others who've done a lot of good work for us today. Yeah, I think you by kind of attaching yourself to the Tehardian story and and me with the Eckhart and Hildegard story, and of course she's talking about microcosm and macrocosm all the time. She's painting pictures of it even, and she's putting it to music while she's at it, you know? So, there's so much to be graced by through these great mystics. So, that's one of the great treasures of the church, I think, is that these people are there and they're here too now to stir us up and to get us moving, as both of us have said, moving from an adolescent existence into authentic adulthood, which of course incorporates the child too. Then the mystic is the child, the poorer, the pela—who knows how to play Proverb says, with the world and with divinity.
Ilia: I want to just emphasize where you began this conversation on the note of courage. I think that is so important. I think ending it on the mystic and beginning with courage, these are two bookends that actually come back to the same point. Mystic is the courageous one, right? Because they're acting from an inner sense of presence and love and unitive consciousness, but they're not afraid. And I think this is where Jesus was, he had that unit of consciousness, so it was like, don't fear. And we do fear. I think fear is our greatest limitation. I hope people will take your words and your wisdom and the many profound books that you've written over the years and continue to grow in that courage, so thank you for all you do.
Matthew: Thank you. And thank you for your work and your writings.
Robert: This concludes our conversation with Matthew Fox. Be sure to follow Hunger for Wholeness on social media, for updates on new episodes and guests. Find the Center for Christogenesis online at christogenesis.org to dig deeper into these topics. And look for
Ilia's latest book, The Not-Yet God. A special thanks to our partners at the Fetzer Institute. I'm Robert Nicastro. Thanks for listening.