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Ecumenism and the Great Minds of the Ages

ONE RIVER, MANY WELLS, Wisdom Springing From Global Faiths, By Matthew Fox,

Jeremy P. Tarcher / Putnam, $29.95, 470 pages


At times when I've found the institutional arrogance of my own or another person's faith especially hard to swallow, I've turned to the writings of Matthew Fox for welcome relief.

Fox exudes patience, the height of reason, even when he proposes the most radical changes to religion and contemporary worship. I found appealing his abandonment of original sin in "Original Blessing" and his call for new ethics in "The Coming of the Cosmic Christ," even if the Vatican didn't: He was expelled from the Dominican order in 1993.

Such a rebuke seemed only to increase the vigor of Fox's voice. In the years since, this self-described "post-denominational priest" has tirelessly written about the mysticism of Meister Eckhart, compared photons to angels and pushed for a reconciliation among the world's religions in the name of "deep ecumenism," a recognition that each religion is only a different window opening onto a single divine reality.

At his Techno Cosmic Masses, worshipers dance to house music, chant Hindu and Christian prayers and watch multimedia displays, all to show them that the world's religions can accommodate each other, and pop culture too.

Now along comes "One River, Many Wells" with a title inspired by Eckhart. ("God is a great underground river that no one can dam up and no one can stop.") A 13th century German mystic, Eckhart made Catholic doctrineers' knees shake because he moved so easily between approved beliefs and heresy. Fox glides with similar ease among many world traditions--Jewish, Buddhist, Taoist, African, Muslim, Christian, aboriginal, even scientific--to compile this collection of wisdom sayings. He calls this book "a mixing, a stirring together of the 'essence' of religion, namely, spirituality." Perhaps, he says, this book will be "an example of what future Scriptures will and must contain."

Short excerpts from Sufis, Native Americans like Chief Seattle and others have been collected into sections with titles such as "Creation," "Light" and "Suffering." It's like a conversation among the great minds of the ages. To live with suffering, for instance, the Buddha says that one must cultivate "mindfulness" and live fully in the present. Jesus echoes him, telling the apostles, eager to know when paradise will come, that "the [kingdom] of God is among us."

One learns how dance, as a celebration of the divine, is as central to African storytellers as it is to whirling dervishes or Shiva Nataraja, the great Hindu lord, leaping through the universe. Nor are we all so different in our attitudes toward death: From the Tibetan Book of the Dead to the Mesoamerican myth of Quetzalcoatl, Fox shows that many traditions see death as part of a cycle, a continuum, not an end.

What emerges from these juxtapositions is a sense of humility, a sense that no group can claim a monopoly on revelation. Passages are also well-chosen. Fox knows that religion operates on at least two levels--the doctrinal, where everyone argues, and the mystical, where even the briefest experience of divinity is enough to stop all words--and he has selected excerpts solely about mystic experiences of God.

The effort to be inclusive, however, has mixed results. When Fox praises a version of the Lord's Prayer that begins with "O Birther!" and not "Our Father," I wince, wondering how this is a more intimate rendering of Jesus' words. Nor can Fox help but deliver a few non-ecumenical barbs (well-intentioned, of course).

He is frustrated by the inflexibility of Christian dogma, even when archeology shows it must change. The 1945 unearthing of the Gospel of Thomas in upper Egypt, which gives a demythologized picture of Jesus, suggests to him that Christians must face "who [Jesus] was--not what we want to make him over to be."

It is a joy to discover our common attitudes to meditation or ritual in "One River," yet larger questions inevitably arise, despite Fox's effort to forge mystic connections: Can the Buddhist view of the world as a source of misery really be reconciled with the Judeo-Christian view that everything God made is good? Can two such outlooks be brought together in a single worship service--and would that be honest or fair?

At a prayer service during the Dalai Lama's recent L.A. visit, I was warned not to recite a certain prayer because it would set forces in motion that I didn't understand. For me, that's a sign that some differences are too essential to ignore, too rooted in dissimilar cultural ancestries.

Fox expects this sort of reaction; it's typical of the mind-set he hopes will be overcome in the new millennium. To that purpose, he ends "One River" with "18 New Myths and Visions" for humanity, calling for mutual respect among religions and a renewed commitment to the environment.

It is nothing less than a spiritual Bill of Rights intended to remind us that our traditions share a common stake in communing with the divine.


Nick Owchar is an assistant editor with Book Review.

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