The Renegade Reverend

TIMES STAFF WRITER

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.

Despite his recurring troubles, Fox says he has never broken with Christian tradition. He has just shifted the focus. For Fox, sin and redemption may be central to the Christian faith, but he would rather emphasize human connections to the larger life of the cosmos.

"Humanity came on the scene 15 billion years after the universe began," he says. "What about the rest of those years? I'd say we've ignored creation."

It is a line of thinking that led Fox to staff his new university with an expert in Native American folklore and ritual, a science professor who teaches cosmology and a tai chi instructor. It is a perspective that leads Fox to urge students during a lecture to "release the goddess within."

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Despite his notoriety, Fox is not the first sight to command attention as he stands in the foyer of his university one morning before class.

He is facing a doorway marked "sacred cave."

Someone whisks past him ringing a dinner bell as part of the morning ritual. Students and faculty members herd through the door into a dark room lit by one candle. They sit on the floor, chant "Om," listen to the recorded sound of a waterfall. Out of the darkness, a voice speaks. "The whole universe is in the spirit and the spirit dwells within our heart."

From the time it was just a gleam in his eye, Fox envisioned a university open to the whole community, with after-school programs, evening lectures and religious rituals for the Technological Age.

"Everything evolves; we need to keep our wits about us and rescue what is worth saving," he says. He says he is rescuing forgotten medieval Christian mystics such as Meister Eckhart, a German Dominican who wrote extensively about the soul's mystical union with God. And there is Hildegard of Bingen, an abbess, herbalist and musical composer who wrote extensively about her visions of heaven. Both have a room named for them at the university.

Fox might well include his own name on the list of names he has rescued. "I have had to reinvent myself in a lot of ways," he says. Warm, talkative but with the slight reserve associated with religious life, he exudes confidence and purpose. Both qualities would seem indispensable, given what it took to get this far.

His dream university emerged in the heat of last summer, after Fox labored through months of political battles with administrators at Holy Names College, a small Catholic school where he founded the Institute of Culture and Creation Spirituality in 1983.

Sparks flew when Fox recommended that the current director be replaced and a new faculty member be hired, says academic Vice President Judie Gaffin Wexler. Tensions built when Fox suggested that Holy Names faculty be allowed to teach at the school he was planning to open a few miles away.

"The college has procedures on terminating contracts and the state has laws," Gaffin Wexler says. "It's important to uphold them."

When Fox left Holy Names, 10 faulty members went with him. Among them was Luisah Teish, a folklorist who trained as a Yoruba priestess and now teaches ritual at the new school.

"At our first meeting, this place was gutted, with pigeons flying around in it," Teish says of her new office. Still, she was charmed. "Matthew told me his ideas about reinventing education and they jelled with my own." She is now helping to start an after-school program for teenagers. "But I was sorry it would be such a hard birth," she says of the break with Holy Names.

Not the least of Fox's troubles came when he suggested bringing rave rituals to Holy Names. "Matt used the term 'Mass,' but he was really talking about a large-scale, nonsectarian service," Gaffin Wexler says. "I did not believe a large part of the faculty wanted to go in that direction."

She recalls that he often compared his predicament to his last days as a Dominican. In both instances, he remains convinced, the Vatican was applying pressure to remove him. Gaffin Wexler denies it. "I think Matt likes to be an independent actor, and there are certain things you need to do when you're part of an institution," she says.

In addition to community classes, his new school offers a master of arts as well as a doctor of ministry degree, with a course of studies that includes art classes, yoga and tai chi, spiritual formation, science and religion combinations, opportunities to work with the community and how-to instructions for creating your own rave ritual.

"Matthew Fox is an urban pioneer," says former Gov. Brown. "He's giving the people of downtown Oakland educational opportunities. And he's raising consciousness."

Thirty-two students are enrolled this first semester. Some are fresh from college, others are middle-aged and taking a break from the work world.

"Matthew Fox has a vision of the human condition and how to heal it," says Phil Deal, a 53-year-old artist and astrologer. "It's been a long struggle for me to get beyond the overextended, capitalistic, patriarchal, left brain, dualist society that's been the source of so much suffering. That's the purpose of this university."

Eufronica Bandigan is a Catholic nun from the Philippines. Her religious community, Missionaries of the Assumption, financed her year in Oakland.

"In the Philippine church, Matthew Fox is not accepted because of his books," says the 40-year-old nun. "His teachings don't really fit with Catholic doctrine. But for me, creation spirituality is the essence of all religions. It is very ecumenical."

More traditional clergy and academics argue that Fox's teachings are out of sync with Christianity.

Episcopal Bishop William Frey, recently retired dean of Trinity Episcopal School for Ministry in Ambridge, Pa., considers creation spirituality naive. "It might sound very attractive, but it doesn't square with our experience of the world," Frey says. "Famine, ethnic cleansing, dishonesty at every level from church to state to individual remind us that something went wrong in paradise. God's original dream was of the goodness of creation, but the same creation story gives us the broken nature of humanity."

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Fox was drawn to religious life as a young boy growing up in Madison, Wis. He was stricken with polio at age 12, and a Dominican brother visited him. He recovered from the disease and entered Dominican training at 19. There, he was immersed in a religious education that culminated with a doctorate from the Institut Catholique of Paris. "My interest has always been spirituality," Fox says. "Having educated me in spirituality, the Dominicans got scared."

Or maybe they just got tired. Father Donald Goergen, who was head of the Dominican order to which Fox belonged in Chicago, recalls that there was a history of conflict between Matthew and the order. Things came to a head when Fox refused to leave Oakland and return to his home community in Chicago.

"Matthew was concerned that relocation would jeopardize his relationship with Holy Names," Goergen recalls. "Our concern was that he also had to be involved with our lives, as a responsible member of the community.

"At different times, we had come to Matthew's defense and supported him. It began to feel very one-sided. He wanted to be one of us when he needed support from us. We felt we were being used."

It was a rave that led Fox to enter the Episcopal priesthood, he says. In the summer of '93, he met the Rev. Christopher Brain and other Anglican priests from Northern England who were staging popular rave masses.

Fox asked how he could help. "They said if I were an Episcopal priest it would help," he recalls.

A little more than a year later, Brain resigned from the priesthood amid charges that he was leading a cult and engaging in intimate acts with more than a dozen women during "healing services." This did not enhance Fox's reputation in some circles.

Fox's move to the Episcopal Church soon after was the last straw for some who have followed his colorful career. "The Episcopal Church is being used to give Matthew Fox credibility," says the Very Rev. Guy Fitch Lytle, who taught in Berkeley for seven years in the late '80s and knew Fox. "He wants the authority of the priesthood without the accountability."

Lytle, now dean of the Episcopal School of Theology at the University of the South in Sewanee, Tenn., recalls Fox holding open lectures at Holy Names. "He'd sit in the middle of the group and pontificate. We'd say, 'Matt is having a guru night.' "

Fox would rather define himself as a post-denominational priest in a post-denominational time.

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