A common spirituality beneath different faiths

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In 1997, The New York Times described a religious service led by Matthew Fox, an Episcopal priest. "The mood turns somber as Fox gets eco-spiritual, exhorting the group to 'cry out to the mother with real feeling and grief.' As voices rise in a collective wail of 'Ma!' the walls flash with graphics of screaming women."

In addition to conducting these techno-cosmic masses, Fox is a bestselling author. In his latest book, "One River, Many Wells," he seeks a common spirituality in the world's religions. "There is one underground river - but there are many wells into that river: an African well, a Taoist well, a Jewish well, a Muslim well, a goddess well, a Christian well, and aboriginal wells."

Not just any underlying spirituality, however, will do. Fox is only interested in discovering a spirituality that fully embraces matter and human biology. Thus, he repeatedly rejects the Platonist theology that informed the first chapter of the gospel attributed to John, the letter to the Hebrews, and so much of early Christianity. In this, he follows philosopher and theologian Thomas Aquinas, who, according to Fox, "spent his entire life trying to fight this anti-matter bias that had developed in Christian thinking." Fox also seeks a spirituality that is consistent with contemporary natural science.

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What Fox brings to the reader, as a result of his search, is a collection of snippets from popular and traditional religious texts - and also from popular writing about the natural sciences. He then strings these snippets together in order to tell his own story. The result is like reading one of those ransom notes made of words cut from a newspaper. Sometimes this worked for me, and sometimes it didn't.

I liked the section where Fox describes God as Mother as well as Father. Among his many quotes is this one from 14th-century Julian of Norwich: "Just as God is truly our Father, so also is God truly our Mother." It was fun to see the breadth and variety of female representations of deity in world religions. I also enjoyed his enthusiastic argument for living in the present, bolstered by sayings from a wide range of sources and related to his own Christian heritage. "What is the way out of suffering?" he asks. "A capacity to live the Now fully...."

Fox's section on joy and gratitude as essential to spirituality also made for interesting reading. Again, he quotes Julian of Norwich: "Glad and happy and sweet to our souls is the joyful, loving face of our Lord."

The low points came when I felt Fox cut a corner in order to promote his own views. For example, where he equates talk of creation with talk of light. "To talk of creation is to talk about light." Wait a minute, I thought, what about the beautiful Indian description of creation in terms of sound, a drumbeat where there was only silence?

I also felt that Fox's treatment of the natural sciences was a bit unfair. Over and over, he seemed to be drawing superficially on popularized presentations with no other purpose than to bolster his own religious views.

"Post-modern science," he tells us, "has taken us back to more ancient notions that are conducive to and supportive of community." In another place, "The light of the Buddha and the light of the Christ have both wave and particle elements to them."

I can't recommend reading this book as an introduction to the world's religious traditions, and I am sure that Matthew Fox did not intend it that way. But if you are interested in the current search for spirituality in American society, "One River, Many Wells" will certainly serve as an informative report from the front lines.

David K. Nartonis is a writer and researcher living in Boston.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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