Original Blessing

Our family is far flung these years, from Singapore to Sacramento, so our Thanksgiving gatherings are held in two stages.  The first, on the night before, is more practical than celebratory. We enjoy the turkey, especially the wings and the carcass for soup-making, and our own from- scratch lumpy cranberry sauce, and the retro green bean casserole with canned mushroom soup and liberal amounts of fried onions. So I make a pre-holiday meal for just three of us (my husband, one son and I) and we get an early start, so as to ensure our own leftovers.

For the “real” Thanksgiving Day feast we count on the kindness and hospitality of others, sometimes in church social halls, sometimes in unlikely settings like Phoenix Arizona midday with the family of a cousin. This year we were graciously invited – along with other area ministers and their kin at loose ends – to the home of one of our colleagues.

It was there, in the pressure cooker presence of two other Unitarian Universalist ministers and their families, that I was asked to say a few words over our contemporary American meal: the pre-cooked Kroger bird and complimentary stuffing, the bagged salad, the coleslaw, the microwavable peas and onions, and the one or two heirloom recipes that added just enough nostalgia for over the river and through the woods.

When I heard our host, my former intern supervisor, ask me to say a few words, I immediately heard give a blessing. And in that awkward moment between the request and the clumsily improvised words I managed to come up with, something about all of us coming from different families of origin, from different traditions and something about  some ambiguous entity  blessing the food that had been grown and prepared, I flashed on the  original words of the traditional Thanksgiving hymn: We gather together to ask the Lord’s blessing, He hastens and chastens his will to make known; the wicked oppressing now cease from distressing; sing praises to his Name; he forgets not his own.

He hastens and chastens his will to make known. Sing praises to his Name; he forgets not his own.  Not exactly the kind of blessing I would choose to ask for, from an exclusive male Ruler of the Universe who castigates and punishes, whom we praise in order to win wars (and football games). What former Dominican scholar and visionary theologian Matthew Fox calls the fall and redemption God, who we ask to bless us, to save us from our human taint, our original sin.

A God perhaps too familiar to some – if not many – of us in this room.  The product of the orthodox Christian dogma first proposed by St. Augustine of Hippo more than three centuries after the death of Jesus. He believed that man(!) was created with supernatural gifts, was more god-like in nature, which were lost by the Fall of Adam (and Eve) who chose to eat fruit from the Tree of Knowledge than to obey the injunction to leave the apples alone. As a result we all suffer from a hereditary moral disease and subject to the inherited liability from Adam’s “original” sin.

Since Adam refused to accept his position as creature, instead wanting to know as God knew, according to one Lutheran theologian, the result was concupiscence – unrestrained lust after things in this world, especially sex.

From these evils we can only be saved by God’s grace, and in Augustine’s way of thinking about salvation, only some of us, and for no particular reason that humans can fathom.

Some of you have told me about your exposure to Fall and Redemption Christian theology. One member said that as a recovered Catholic, he could say that the doctrine of original sin did not serve him well. It made him feel that his life had a fundamental moral flaw that colored his self concept, which has many problems. Even if it were possible, it simply isn’t fair to blame descendents for errors of forefathers. But, he observed, such a doctrine would benefit those who could relieve the burden, namely the church.

His thoughts echo those of Matthew Fox, born of observant Catholic parents, in fact a conservatively devout Catholic father. Who from an early age wanted to become a faithful priest, but who,  in addition to discovering that Augustine was not his favorite theologian, found in his adult studies and conversations, that original sin was not a universal religious teaching. His ultimate rejection of the idea of our innate sin and inevitable punishment and his rediscovery of what he calls Original Blessing, a life-affirming, creation-centered spirituality,  caused him to be first silenced and then driven out of the Catholic faith that had been his religious home for 50 years and his vocational home for a quarter of a century.

How did Fox get from his mid 20th century Catholic and sports-imbued childhood in Madison Wisconsin to being called a “green prophet” by the Archbishop of Canterbury and a dangerous radical, heretic and blasphemer by the Vatican?

I imagine his childhood story might resonate with more than a few of us, both his solid American Midwest roots and the far-reaching wings that would take him into unexpected places: to a philosophy of mystical artistry, universal compassion and the celebration of the divine within each human soul that would serve us well as one of the newer sources of our living tradition.

He describes growing up surrounded and awed by natural beauty- the fields and lakes around his home. And sports, especially football, his father was the assistant football coach at the University of Wisconsin for ten years. While his father was politically as well as religiously conservative, never missing Mass on Sundays or Holy Days, giving up cigarettes and alcohol at Lent, his mother might have defined herself as spiritual not religious, an avid reader, giving service in the community, urging her children to have opinions, to do justice in the world. Unlike his father, his mother welcomed the Second Vatican Council with open arms, saying things like “I told you Latin is unimportant.” Fox recalls that probably the most problematic demand on her was cooking nonmeat meals on Fridays, Lenten days and special holy days, which she failed to remember.

On one such Lenten Wednesday, when they all sat down to eat vegetarian, and she brought out meatballs, there was a hush around the table because the kids in their parochial school had told them they were not allowed to eat meat.

His mother took her big wooden spoon, held it over the food and blessed it, and said “it is a greater sin to waste food than to eat it”. Eat the food, she said, and I will confess the sin. They ate.

His mother’s gentle resistance to orthodoxy and her encouragement of compassion and justice was coupled with his parents’ homegrown ecumenism, which involved practicing a small ‘c’ as well as a capital ‘C’ Catholicism, which also means universal. His parents friends, he recalls, were a diverse lot – Catholic, Jewish and Protestant. They rented a spare room to a series of foreign graduate students, including an Indian Sikh (who would cook wheat germ at three in the morning) and a Venezuelan former bullfighter, an Australian skier, and a Yugoslavian communist. It was a tremendous education, Fox says, in global awareness, delivering the message every night at the dinner table that our world is not made up exclusively of Westerners, Catholics or even Christians.

Fox’s   love   of Catholicism in particular and his decision to become a Dominican priest came from his love, as a teenager, of daily mass: the quiet, the silence, the mystery ( it was still in Latin), the attention, as he writes, his heart got, the scripture readings, the saints’ lives to meditate on, the communion time, the masses for the dead – all moved him deeply.

Wonderful images strode through his heart he remembers, images for which at that time he had no names at all. They were, he says, just something sacred and useful and good nourishment for his spirit.

Texts from the proverbs like:

From everlasting I was firmly set,
From the beginning, before the earth came into being.
The deep was not, when I was born,
There were no springs to gush with water,
Before the hills I came to birth:
Before he made the earth, the countryside,
Or the first grains of the world’s dust.
When he fixed the heavens firm, I was there.

Here, Fox says, was a world removed from football and cars and the anticommunist ideas in the air. Perhaps a better one – certainly a memorable one.  A world of mystery and what he now calls “cosmology” – honor of and study of the physical universe.

After finishing high school, Fox attended a Dominican House of Studies in Iowa, and then went to Paris to the Institut Catholique, where he was exposed to French theologians who were breaking through orthodoxies and crossing boundaries of traditional Western spirituality, perhaps especially the condemnation and suffocating of human will theology of Augustine.

Moving from a judgment and redemption centered God in the Sky to  a God in the Now, everywhere, at all times, within and around us.

Theologians like Pere Chenu, who first named this much older creation spirituality tradition for him. In encountering this tradition, Fox’s entire life would gain a focus and direction it never had before. It would also gain a notoriety that he never, in his “ecclesial naiveté” could have predicted.

He can still recall as if it were today that teachable moment during a seminar at his university, with the green velvet cloth on the table, when his professor, Chenu, named the two spiritual traditions of Christianity: that of fall/redemption and that of creation-centered spirituality. Scales, he remembers, fell from his eyes – he was bumped from his horse. It would change his notions of dualism, and the demeaning of body and matter, it would help him see how mysticism and social justice relate, as well as science and religion, Christianity and other world religions.

Like others before him, Fox first had to let go of exclusive acceptance of the one, in his words outdated dualistic paradigm Fall/redemption theology focused on sin that was comfortable to him – the God who had been failed by the humans he created, the humans who no longer had innate goodness and compassion and the free will to choose to act on it, but who now could only regain these qualities, if they could at all, through petition and intercession.

He could then be open to another, more ancient Jewish and Christian creation-centered theology, as he writes, which honors and celebrates human- generated creativity, social transformation, Eros, play, pleasure, and the God of delight. That teaches love for the earth, care for the cosmos, and celebrates our own direct experiences as spiritual and mystical. That teaches not original sin, but original blessing.

A theology, a spirituality which in contrast to Augustinian theology can trace its roots to the 9th century B.C., to the very first authors of the Bible, the psalms, the wisdom books, to many of the prophets, to Jesus and much of the New Testament.

As he returned to the United States and began teaching in Catholic and other colleges,  his names for God changed to reflect a rejection of an old damning theology and what was emerging as a blessing or celebratory theology. He began to deliberately avoid the word God, and substituted Life because the term God is too subject to projections and carries so much baggage from our religious woundedness that it seldom conjures up the great mystery that divinity is and especially that prayer is meant to tap into.

Breath of life, the meaning of the Hebrew word for spirit, seemed more fitting for a God, described in similar terms by another Catholic, Thomas Aquinas, in the 13th century as “God is Life, per se Life.”

Not separate from, not different from, but Life itself. Our task as humans then becomes, not begging for individual deliverance and a better afterlife from a remote figure, but as Fox believed, becoming radically rooted in prayer, which means the direct experience of divinity, within ourselves, our communities and our earth.

To love life, which is divine, as Leo Tolstoy wrote, in all its countless and inexhaustible manifestations.

His understanding of creation-centered spirituality was enriched by teaching at Barat College, an all women’s school, with groundbreaking feminist theologians like Rosemary Reuther and Mary Daly, hearing women’s stories of real life, not unlike, he writes, visiting a third world country for the first time, being given a crash course in women’s studies. Here, he was exposed to the creation-loving writings of female mystics, including Hildegarde of Bingen, who believed God is God and all things which proceed from God are good. And Julian of Norwich, who wrote: I know that heaven and earth and all creation are great, generous and beautiful and good… God’s goodness fills all God’s creatures and all God’s blessed works full, and endlessly overflows in them. God is everything which is good, as I see it, and the goodness which everything has is God.

The Jewish students there taught him many things, including how un-Jewish much of our Judeo-Christianity is. He remembers a day when a his students, mostly Christians, got into a discussion of original sin, after which a Jewish woman come up and asked him “what is this original sin  the students were discussing?”

“Surely you know original sin was in Genesis,” Fox replied. To which, she said that she had been a practicing Jew for 41 years and never had heard a rabbi or anyone else use that term.

Fox later read in the words of Holocaust survivor and author Eli Wiesel that the concept of original sin is alien to Jewish traditions, as it is to Buddhism, Islam, Eastern Orthodox Christianity, Celtic Christianity, and to the core of Unitarian Universalism.

While in our contemporary form, UUs do not subscribe to any formal doctrinal perspective, it is historically true that both sides of our liberal Christian heritage rejected the biblical dogma of original sin. In fact, doctrinally Universalism’s principle theological contribution, our own theologians tell us, lies in eliminating hell from our core vocabulary and on our Unitarian side, doing away with the notion of predestined judgment .Together, as one theologian observed, they conspire brilliantly on behalf of goodness.

This “belief” indeed is the genesis for our beloved first principle, affirming the inherent worth and dignity of each person.

The doctrinal conviction, now a principle we affirm, that helped make this a more inviting religious home to one former Lutheran who in being able to reject original sin and accepting the

Thought that the Creator may be in her, pure and innocent, was such a freeing notion. Being born right (and at the same time not blind to the struggle of the separation and human dilemma).

The same strain of orthodox Christian censors who condemn Unitarian Universalism for its response to Fall/Redemption theology and Original Sin, saying that (quote) “the Bible teaches that mankind- descended from Adam and Eve – is by nature sinful. Thus people are incapable of enjoying a relationship and are in need of full redemption”,   are those who have condemned Matthew Fox’s diminishment of and then rejection of this doctrine. This former mainstream Dominican priest who has come to believe that given the overwhelming evidence that our scriptures are concerned with original blessing much more than original sin, the only reason that it has played such a major role for 16 centuries of Western Christian thought is politics. This condemning, damning theology which emphasizes inherent human weakness and worthlessness plays, Fox insists, into the hands of Empire builders, slave masters, and patriarchal society as a whole. A tool for oppressing the other – invoking original sin to condemn and control, promoting callousness about human suffering.

This is threatening theology to the orthodox religious establishment, recognized so by the then Cardinal Ratzinger (now the Pope) who headed up what was the Congregation for the Doctrine of Faith, which had formerly called the Holy Office of Sacred Inquisition. He was especially incensed by Fox’s popular book Original Blessing, which he called an altogether personal, gratuitous, and subjective interpretation of Christian Spirituality, of its theological foundations and the history and thought of its spiritual writers.

In short, he pronounced, the book is considered dangerous and deviant.

While defended by many American Catholic theologians and officials, Fox was eventually “silenced” for a year- not permitted to preach, teach or make public comment – before being ousted as a priest in l993. He has subsequently become an Episcopal priest, continuing his lifelong prophetic witness against unjust war and environmental degradation, and in favor of women’s and gay rights, including ordination.

As one critic declares, Fox also continues to be one of the most creative, the most comprehensive, surely one of the most challenging spiritual teachers in America. Teacher to the orthodox and surely a teacher to religious liberals as well.

His clear alternative to a Fall/Redemption theology has much to show us as many of us come out of religions drenched in sin and need another more life-affirming theological framework.

As Fox has come to see:

One that affirms that passion is not a curse, but a blessing. That suffering is not the wages for sin but suffering is birth pangs of the universe. That holiness is not the quest for perfection but is cosmic hospitality. That we did not begin in sin, but with God or Life or Creative Energy. That instead of focusing on guilt and redemption, that we need to focus on thanks and praise.

That we are all indeed originally blessed.

In that spirit, blessed be.

This sermon is much indebted to Matthew Fox’s own writing, particularly Confessions: The Making of a Post-Denominational Priest (Harper-Collins, 1996) and Original Blessing (Bear & Company, 1983)