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ORIGINAL BLESSING - AN APPRECIATIVE CRITIQUE

Andrew Basden

Fox's 'Original Blessing'

Matthew Fox wrote a book called 'Original Blessing'. He dislikes what he calls the Fall-Redemption view, promoting his version of what he calls Creation Spirituality as its opposite. His views are attractive to a number of semi-Christian Greens. He was a Dominican and has written a number of books including 'Creation Spirituality' and 'Original Blessing'. 'Original Blessing', an obvious counter to idea of Original Sin, contains most of his ideas.

To me his book is like a river. A myriad waves liven the surface, and each is interesting. Many of them (though not all) are beautiful, many are of value. There is an obvious current: Creation Spirituality. But there is also an under-current, which is not immediately apparent to those who see only the surface. It is with the current and under-current I will most concern myself.

Fox has been considered rather 'New Age', and thus evangelicals tend to automatically dismiss his ideas and move to embrace the opposite of what he says, especially as the vocabulary he uses can be rather off-putting. He calls himself a feminist and is seen as promoting standard liberal causes. What he actually says is that disadvantaged groups (such as homosexuals) should not be persecuted, but listened to.

He calls these the 'anawim', little ones, but I believe he misuses the word. In the Hebrew it has strong connotations in of humility and meekness, not just minority or disadvantage: those whose voice is not heard and whose case is never put. This is hardly true of homosexuals today. Perhaps the severely disabled, animals and unborn children are the true 'anawim' of today?

But that is a ripple on the surface; let us look at some of the more substantial currents and undercurrents.

Four Paths

Fox's current is that there are four paths to the true Christian life of his Creation Spirituality.

I believe his Four Paths are biblical, and form a very useful corrective to much evangelical (and other) thinking. For instance:

If the Four Paths (maybe slightly modified from Fox's versions) are largely biblical, then it behoves us evangelicals to examine our views in the light of them, lest we have only a partial adherence to Scripture.

Evangelicals At ForeFront

But what Fox doesn't realise is that not only do many evangelicals lag behind on the four paths of Creation Spirituality, but many others are at the forefront of them (even if not in precisely the way Fox might hope). His paths are well represented variously in the Evangelical Alliance, the Arts Centre Group, the holiness movements, Keswick, 'Calvary Road' (Roy Hession), Christian music and arts, charismatic circles, Toronto Blessing, Tear Fund, and many more.

Fall-Redemption

This is a paradox. Probably the most fundamental belief evangelicals hold is the reality of Fall and Redemption. If the Fall-Redemption view is the opposite of Creation Spirituality, how can evangelicals be at the forefront of the four paths? The answer must be that Fall-Redemption and Creation Spirituality are NOT opposites. In a very real way, they can be integrated, and Fox misunderstands Fall-Redemption. This misunderstanding is the under-current.

So, we must ask, what is it that Fox hates and calls Fall-Redemption, the opposite of Creation Spirituality? There are three answers to this.

One is a Fall-Only viewpoint - fall without redemption, an emphasis on sinfulness with little hope of real redemption. Holding that all is fallen and for destruction, it would reject the Via Positiva, distort the Via Negativa, ignore the Via Creativa, and not believe in any Via Transformativa. It does not value people, that is ordinary people, nor creation. God tends to be distant, a 'king', and the only 'salvation' offered is to escape to heaven. There is little of Jesus' abundant life.

The mediaeval Roman Catholic view tended to be Fall-Only. Many of that tradition are still tinged by it; for instance some of Grahame Green's novels. Martin Luther's great discovery was that God is not distant, and that redemption is real, experienced here and now. We (protestant) evangelicals have our own version of the Fall-Only viewpoint - we sometimes over-emphasize the wrath of God. (Of course, both also give lip service to redemption, but emphasis is on fallenness.) Being originally Roman Catholic, Fox will have met the Fall-Only view, and is right to reject it.

But the Fall-Only viewpoint is weak. There is something much more pernicious that lies at the root of many of the problems he outlines: dualism.

Dualism

Dualism is a set of presuppositions that underlie most of our thinking about God, ourselves and the nature of things - that reality comprises two 'opposites'. The Christian philospher, Herman Dooyeweerd, traced three major dualisms over the last 2,500 years. First, the Form-Matter dualism of Plato, Aristotle, etc., divided reality into the eternal, perfect, 'spiritual' realm where God is, and the transient, imperfect, changing, earthly stream-of-life. Then Thomas Aquinas and the mediaeval Roman Catholic church 'christened' this into a Sacred-Secular dualism. Then the Humanist Renaissance and Enlightenment removed God and we have a Determinism-Freedom dualism, which divides things into the controlled, objective, rational, material realm versus the realm of freedom, feeling, intuition and spirituality. (These are usually called Nature-Grace and Nature-Freedom, but the two meanings of 'Nature' here would confuse.)

Dualism is not just a philosophical or theological nicety; it has effects in the real world, of work, politics, family life, church life and in the very vision of society. We end up elevating one side as 'good' or 'the answer' and rejecting the other. Much suffering results in the longer term. I have tried to show in 'Understanding Greenery' (Third Way, 1992), how elevating the Determinism side (with implicit faith in science, technology, economics) is at the root of many of our ecological and even social problems.

It even affects the way we interpret Scripture, as Middleton and Walsh showed in their book, 'The Transforming Vision'. In his book, 'The Myth of Religious Neutrality', Roy Clouser points out that both the fundamentalist and the liberal views are essentially rationalistic - and that is why they are wrong.

Back to Fox. His concern in the Via Positiva was that we devalue God's creation. What causes this is not the Fall-Redemption view but rather the Sacred side of Sacred-Secular dualism that says that 'material' creation is of no value to God, and should therefore be of no value to us. His concern in the Via Negativa is that we do not accept nothingness and suffering. What causes this is not the Fall-Redemption view but rather the desire for power, individuality, which is legitimised by the Form side of the Form-Matter dualism. His concern in the Via Creativa is that we do not realise our 'divine' potential. This is brought about to some extent, not by the Fall-Redemption view (though it could be by the Fall-Only view) but by emphasizing the Determinism side of the Determinism-Freedom dualism: "human beings are no more than products of evolution". His concern in the Via Transformativa is that we have little expectation of the creation being transformed. This is not the fault of a Fall-Redemption view, but rather of a combination of all three dualisms.

Pride

Interestingly, Fox does mention dualism, but what he means by it is the separation of the self from the other, the 'I' from the 'It'. He wants rid of such separations, in an almost eastern fashion. But in doing this he is reaching for the third part of the answer as to what is to blame: human pride and self-centredness.

Selfhood is real, and can be the source of real blessing to the other. That is how the ultimate I AM, who is agape love, designed it. But when selfhood becomes self-centredness, it is a source of immense harm to the others. It manifests itself in pride, arrogance, unconcern (e.g. for the poor, Ezek. 16:49), selfishness, stubbornness, rebellion, and these all lead to injustice and suffering. Unconcern for the creation prevents us taking the Via Positiva. Pride prevents us taking the Via Negativa. Rebellion distorts the Via Creativa. And arrogance prevents us taking the Via Transformativa.

Original Sin

Because of contrary under-currents Fox sets Creation Spirituality against Fall-Redemption, Original Blessing against Original Sin. But the real culprit is not Fall-Redemption, but dualistic presuppositions mixed with human pride.

Fall-Redemption and true Creation Spirituality can be integrated. Indeed, I believe they cannot really be separated because if creation truly is a blessing, we cannot really explain evil without Fall, and we cannot have hope without Redemption. You cannot have Original Blessing without (the idea of) Original Sin. My reasoning is as follows.

  1. Origin of Sin. Humankind has only ever known two ways of explaining evil - Dualism and Original Sin. Dualism says that one side of the creation is inherently evil (yin-yan). The infinitely pessimistic conclusion of this explanation is that evil is with us forever. Original Sin says human nature has become warped at a 'Fall'. But God has revealed a gloriously optimistic answer: Redemption.

  2. Original Blessing? No, Fox's idea is Original Curse. He describes the Four Paths, but gives us no ability to follow them. As Paul knew (Rom.7) and Terry Waite discovered ("... there is no such thing in me as a purely altruistic motive ..."), we can never live up to such demands. That is our curse.

  3. Original Sin. Our helplessness goes even deeper than simple inability. Our presuppositions prevent us realising, and pride prevents us admitting, how helpless we are. Nothing in creation - education, law, healing, human will, etc. - can overcome this. So God must do so.

  4. Redemption. And God does so. God proactively came to earth as a human being, paying to redeem all who believe, and all creation.

  5. Real Creation Spirituality. God lives in those who become his children, giving us new life and power, and this enables us to tread and explore all Four Paths. Link Rom.8:14 with Rom.8:19-22. The real Via Transformativa.

    That, of course, is the standard evangelical doctrine of salvation, but notice how it is made much fuller and richer by reference to God's plan to save creation as a whole, not just individuals. It has been suggested to me that it is a key to evangelism in the West as we enter the 21st Century.

    The Beauty of Original Sin

    But there's more in this idea of Original Sin. It's got a bad name, probably because of dour Calvinists (who were very unlike the real Calvin). But, if we really consider the implications of the idea, comparing with those of the suggestion there is no original sin, then we find the idea of original sin is quite beautiful. Here is a summary of a some points from a fuller explanation.

    In these ways the idea of Original Sin, of Fall-Redemption, is a real blessing. I find it profoundly beautiful. We do not claim to live up to it perfectly, but it does give the only real basis I can see for a genuine Creation Spirituality as God intended it.


    Since the above was written, I have started to develop an honest theology of the creation, which works itself out in practice. Look at New View In Theology And Practice, and see if you find it interesting.


    This page is offered to God as on-going work. Comments, queries welcome.

    This article is a shortened version of a 30-page letter to Fox, entitled 'The Beauty of Original Sin', which is available from The Christian Studies Unit, 76 Waterside Way, Westfield, Radstock, Bath, BA3 3YQ, U.K. or from the author, costing 1-75.

    Andrew Basden is Professor of Human Factors and Philosophy in Information Systems at the University of Salford, was joint leader of a small evangelical church, is on the leadership team of the Christian Academic Network, and is a member of the U.K. Green Party.

    Copyright (c) Andrew Basden all dates below. But you may use this material subject to certain conditions.

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