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Required Reading for Interspirituality 101

By Paul Chaffee


Swami Vivekananda in 1900 – Photo: sfvedanta.org

Swami Vivekananda in 1900 – Photo: sfvedanta.org

When Swami Vivekananda spoke to the opening plenary of the first World’s Parliament of Religions on September 11, 1893, he quoted lines from an ancient Hindu spiritual hymn:

As the different streams having there sources in different places all mingle their water in the sea, so, O Lord, the different paths which men take through different tendencies, various though they appear, crooked or straight, all lead to thee.

This prayer is anathema to fundamentalists of every stripe, but it is the very basis of the interfaith culture emerging globally. Taking the prayer seriously means respecting those of every faith and practice. As an interfaith activist for more than 40 years, my greatest joy has been discovering the manifold ways in which people love and follow the Divine source, however one names it. Muslims have taught me about prayer, though I identify as an interfaith Christian. Buddhists have taught me about being awake to the Spirit right now and setting aside my considerations about others. Hinduism, about the endless expressions of the Divine in our lives and the world.

Ironically, since the birth of the modern interfaith movement at the 1993 Parliament of the World’s Religions, the one arena that has been out-of-bounds is spiritual practice. Worship services have been an ongoing element in the Parliaments of Religion held in 1993, 1999, 2004, and 2009, but never have been led by more than one tradition at a time.

How many hundreds of interfaith leaders have prefaced their introductory remarks by asserting that “We are not taking away anything from you or trying to change your religion. And we are not starting a new religion.” In fact, affirming religious pluralism does change you, deepen you and your appreciation of the sacred. New interreligious movements are thriving and interfaith congregations sprouting up. Today, most long-time activists and clergy from most traditions have grown more open about interspirituality and sharing sacred space, liturgy, and ritual, as in hundreds of interfaith Thanksgiving services across the United States each year.

Old biases die hard, though. Seminaries are catching up with interfaith but rarely address interspirituality. Don’t expect to see mysticism discussed in Christianity Today, Christian Century, or the National Catholic Reporter. There have been forerunners, though, who have explored the Christian understandings of interspirituality, writers like Bede Griffiths, Wayne Teasdale, Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, Cynthia Bourgeault, and Richard Rohr. The Coming Age of Interspirituality (2013) by Kurt Johnson and David Ord touched a nerve and is helping galvanize a multitude of voices in an international dialogue about Spirit (see TIO’s November 2012 issue). Along with spiritually hungry members of established traditions, this flowering dialogue is attracting scientists, mystics, social justice activists, particularly women, and the growing community of Millennials who identify as “spiritual but not religious.”

Matthew Fox’s Contribution

Matthew Fox – Photo: matthewfox.org

Matthew Fox – Photo: matthewfox.org

Anyone seriously interested in this new arena in global religion should read Matthew Fox. His more than 30 books all focus on re-enlivening our spiritual practice, religious institutions, and social activism. His newest major work, Meister Eckhart – A Mystic-Warrior for Our Times (2014), is a virtual Interspirituality 101 textbook for both the newcomer and anyone deeply involved in a particular spiritual practice and wanting to learn more. First, a few words about its author.

Matthew Fox deserves a good biographer, someone who will capture the remarkable scope of his theological, spiritual contribution set next to the dramatic tussle he has suffered with his spiritual home, the Roman Catholic Church. After 34 years as a Dominican priest, in 1991 he was expelled for heresy from the order, and, effectively, from the Church, by Pope Benedict XVI. The 10-year drama is meticulously chronicled in Fox’s The Pope’s War: Why Ratzinger’s Secret Crusade Has Imperiled the Church and How It Can Be Saved (2011). A year later Father Fox’s ordination was welcomed into the Episcopal Church, and he continues to work towards a second reformation and an emerging, renewed, interfaith-friendly Church.

In the long run, Matthew Fox’s theological/spiritual contribution will concern his explorations of “original blessing,” “deep ecumenism,” Creation Spirituality, the Cosmic Christ, Mother Earth, mystic-warriors and mystic-prophets, and the importance of compassion, which he addressed years before compassion became an international cause. Multi-lingual, with a PhD in the history and theology of spirituality from Institut Catholique de Paris, he has a scholar’s meticulous discipline. (The new Eckhart book has 750 endnotes!)

But “scholar” is an inadequate descriptor unless you include interspiritual Christian, mystic, and social justice prophet, particularly regarding economic injustice, feminism, and care for the Earth. Above all, he is a teacher and founder of schools focused on what he identifies as Creation Spirituality, grounded in the spiritual teaching of the 13th century theologian, mystic, feminist, and social justice advocate, Meister Eckhart, a fellow Dominican friar.

The Influence of Meister Eckhart (1260-1328)

Meister Eckhart

Meister Eckhart

Meister Eckhart – A Mystic-Warrior for Our Times is Fox’s third Eckhart book. The first, published in 1980, was Passion for Creation: The Earth-Honoring Spirituality of Meister Eckhart.A 580-page translation and commentary on 37 of Eckhart’s sermons, it is an ambitious tome without a teacher. Meditations with Meister Eckhart (1983) is perhaps the best place to begin with Eckhart unless you have a penchant for big books. Meditations is a 132-page devotional reader with short selections translated from Eckhart – short, poetic, and powerful.

The newest book, published this summer, is a superb primer in interspirituality because you get much more than Eckhart himself. Chapter by chapter we meet more than two dozen thinkers, mystics, and activists, brought “into the room” to explore the resonance and relationship they share with the Medieval priest. For instance, Eckhart was preoccupied with the Divine Feminine and a pioneering champion of feminism. Fox begins a chapter on the Divine Feminine by introducing the contemporary American poet Adrienne Rich with an illuminating comparison of her poems on creativity and compassion with the 13th century theologian’s writings.

The following chapter, on women’s liberation, explores how Eckhart worked closely with a women’s movement called the Beguines, a mystical order that resisted social injustice. Fox brings in Dorothee Soelle, the distinguished 20th century social justice theologian who has written about Eckhard’s close association with the Beguines. Fox goes on to introduce us to Mechtild of Magdeburg, Julian of Norwich, and Marguerite Porete, Eckhart’s contemporaries, all on the same path of the mystic warrior reclaiming our spiritual heritage. History, biography, poetry, and theology all weave together. Fox concludes this chapter noting, “Eckhart was in his day, as he is in ours, an ally for women awakening to their own wisdom and God-given potential. And he extends an invitation to men and male-dominated institutions to develop a healthy gender balance with self and structures.”

Most of Eckhart’s “metaphorical meetings” in this book come from the modern era. They include Black Elk, Thomas Berry, Abraham Heschel, Thich Nhat Hanh, Ananda Coomaraswamy, Bede Griffiths, Carl Jung, and Howard Thurman. Others are ancient, such as Rumi and Hafiz. The chapter about the historical Jesus – where we visit Marcus Borg, Bruce Chilton, John Dominic Crossan – takes us another step closer to Eckhart’s passion for justice. Borg is quoted saying “For Jesus, compassion is political,” and Eckhart agrees, Fox suggests. Depth psychologists, psychotherapists, Hindus, Sufis, Shamans, indigenous leaders, and ecologists all find their way “into the room.” For this reader it was an education, learning about religious, spiritual traditions and giants I’ve heard about but haven’t yet read. Interspirituality 101, in other words.

Near the end of the book, Fox writes:

Eckhart becomes a teacher and a guide, a prodder and a challenger. He himself is a mystic-warrior – or sacred activist or active contemplative – who calls humanity today to wake up before it is too late, to extend and stretch to a newer, deeper level of being and activity.

Like Fox, Meister Eckhart was accused by the Pope John XXII of heresy and went before the Inquisition. He died in 1328, at the age of 68, days before the pope made his final judgment. There remain many today – Christians and others – who would side against these two provocative Dominican theologians, but that judgmental influence is diminishing year by year. Meanwhile, the draw of interspirituality in a globalized world is growing. A new framework is providing wisdom and comfort to those seeking their spiritual bearings in an uncertain world, where old authorities feel untrustworthy. Meister Eckhart – A Mystic-Warrior for Our Times is a superb doorway into this joyful universe.