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The Renegade Reverend

Matthew Fox Says He's Trying to 'Reinvent Worship,' but Others Believe He's Strayed Too Far From the Fold


OAKLAND — On a drab and grungy street, upstairs from a piano store, there lives a newborn university. Like all infants brought into urban poverty, this one could do with some extra attention. Unlike some, this baby is bound to get it. Born of just one parent, the Episcopal Rev. Matthew Fox, the University of Creation Spirituality inherits all the talents and troubles of its maker.

Well before he opened the school in September, Fox had earned a reputation as the inventor of a highly unorthodox statement of faith. Beyond ecumenical, his vision contains facets of every major world religion, several Asian philosophies and a range of pagan traditions, for a very personal understanding of how humanity and divinity interact.

He calls his vision creation spirituality and explains it in a book of that name (Harper San Francisco, 1991). The book's subtitle, "Liberating Gifts for the Peoples of the Earth," and the cover image of an African and a Native American holding up the globe, help convey his point of view.

Fox includes a Christian line in his thinking when he allows that God created everything, and that all of creation contains a spark of the divine. Rich and poor, honored and ignored can claim an equal place in Fox's vision of the perfect world.

But his theology starts to sound more pagan than Episcopal when trees and flowers come alive with their own spirits.

Fox's unconventional vision has a distinctly California flavor. Multicultural in a way that reflects the state's social makeup, individualized to the point of irreverence by most traditional religious standards, built from the grass roots in ways that irk academics, his view offers a haven for native cultures, scientists and artists, women and just about anybody else who ever felt pressed against society's margins.

Generation Xers have a central place in this hierarchy of beings. They inspire the rave Masses that Fox stages in cities around the country. Pounding music, banks of television monitors and images of body organs serve as updated atmospherics for the ancient Christian Mass. "I felt it was important to reinvent worship," he says. "It has become so anemic."

Reinvention is his calling card. It has opened doors to the New Age self-help lecture circuit, helped him publish 21 books and attracted thousands of students to his feet. The impact could be "transforming," to use one of his favorite words.

Not everyone is so enthusiastic. "I'm leery of people who take truths from this and that religious tradition and declare on their own authority that this represents a higher truth," says Luke Timothy Johnson, New Testament professor at Emory University in Atlanta. "I would like to think the great religious traditions are about certain disclosures of the divine that partake of a truth larger than any narcissistic self-preoccupation."

At age 55, with a mist of silvery hair and orb-like eyes, Fox maintains the undisturbed exterior of a hothouse orchid. This is all the more remarkable given his turgid past. Before the '90s were half spent, the renegade reverend was bruised more than once by run-ins with the highest authorities of the Catholic Church.

He was a priest in the Catholic Dominican order until he was expelled in 1993. Five years earlier, he had been investigated by the Vatican's Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, which monitors doctrine and teaching. The investigation led to a sentence of one year of public silence. Fox also was ordered to distance himself from wicca, a folk religion associated with goddess worship and sometimes witchcraft. And he was advised to cease disseminating his ideas about human imperfection and sin.

"I don't deny original sin, but I would put it on the back burner," Fox explains. "It encourages anyone's self-doubts."

It seemed Fox's troubles might be over in 1994 when he joined the Episcopal Church. One of his first projects was to deliver the homily at a rave Mass in San Francisco's Grace Cathedral.

After that, several traditional Episcopal clergy and academics began comparing Fox to a guru, and some dismissed his academic work as slipshod and utterly subjective.

Yet he can claim a constituency of big names in their own fields. Anita Roddick, the English founder of the Body Shop for environmentally friendly bath products, gave Fox a no-interest loan for his school, he says. Clarissa Pinkola Estes, the Jungian psychologist who wrote "Women Who Run With the Wolves" (Ballantine, 1992), raised a financial contribution. And former California Gov. Jerry Brown, who has lectured at the school, loaned Fox a space to put on a techno Mass. All three are adjunct professors at the University of Creation Spirituality. The Episcopal Diocese of California also supports him, with an $85,000 loan for the school.

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