What happens when a Tibetan Buddhist lama and a Christian minister sit down to talk? And not just any lama and minister, but a renegade Catholic priest silenced by the Church for his progressive and inclusive beliefs and an American-born secular Jew who once embraced Tibetan Buddhism as a student, and now is embraced as a teacher. The result is The Lotus and the Rose, a collection of dialogues between Lama Tsomo and Matthew Fox, spanning over a decade. In this first of two guest-post reflections drawn from the book, Matthew Fox dialogues with a student about the Christian roots of mysticism. This volume is a featured Speakeasy selection.
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We’re living in an amazing time because the scholarship on the historical Jesus has really come around. So people like Marcus Borg or John Dominic Crossan or Bruce Chilton, great scholars today with the Jesus story, they all agreed that Jesus comes from the wisdom tradition of Israel. And the wisdom tradition is the feminist, the cosmological, and the nature mysticism of Israel. It is the Creation spiritual tradition of Israel. This is why I was so turned on, visiting the Dominicans, chanting the wisdom literature that is Psalms, when I was a teenager. The Psalms are so creation centered. They bring in the sky, and they bring in the Earth, and they bring in the feminine. And they bring in eros, therefore. In fact, the Book of Wisdom says, “This is wisdom: to love life.” That’s the “yes” to life that I think we yearn for as a civilization.
Of course, the whole relationship of social justice and spirituality was absolutely the question for me because I came of age in the 1960s. So the Civil Rights Movement and the Anti-War Movement. And that’s when I was in Paris, and the students brought down the government—and justice and mysticism, or do you, can we?” And really all of my writing has been about that question.
When I did return, I taught four years at a women’s college at Barat College in Lake Forest, Illinois, hearing women’s stories. Now, my family was different because I had a very strong mother and a strong father, but my father learned feminism early. He did. Before she died, my sister reminded me of a story I hadn’t remembered—I have three sisters and three brothers—how when we were teenagers, my dad put us around the table and said, “I don’t make enough money to send you all to college. I make enough to send the girls to college. You boys have to go out and find scholarships because it’s easier for boys to get scholarships.” So my father was pretty well-educated by my mother, you see. I had forgotten that story, but it’s true. So I had the Dominicans pay for my education, I had another brother who went to West Point and had the Army pay for his, and another brother who had Princeton pay for his. So we got the message. And then the Ecological Movement in the 1970s, and the Gay and Lesbian Movement. Integrating all this with spirituality has been my passion and has gotten me into a little bit of trouble along the way, too.
But what I want to stress is that—and it’s been brought up in many of you who came out of Presbyterianism, Catholicism, and so forth—that all of us have been short-changed when it comes to knowing that there is a powerful Christian mystical tradition, beginning with Jesus himself. Jesus was a nature mystic. In fact, I’ll use a word that’s been badly abused, because I’ll use it to wake you up, he was pagan in that respect. Paganus is just a Latin word for a country person. Jesus was a peasant. He was from Galilee, the Wisconsin of Israel, right? The green part of Israel. And the scholarship today is saying, look, he was considered illegitimate in his village, he wasn’t allowed in the synagogue on the Sabbath, so he did what you did: While the others were in the synagogue, he went out to nature to pray. That’s what he had to do. This is why he was steeped in nature, wisdom nature, mysticism. You see it in all of his parables, all of his stories. He was not with his eyes in the book. His was not a book-oriented religion. Wisdom theology in Israel is—first of all, it’s ecumenical from the get-go. It’s ecumenical. Wisdom is not restricted to the Jewish people. Nature is not restricted to Jewish people; it’s cosmological and it’s Earth based. So that’s the first point in terms of this lineage, that Jesus was a creation mystic and, of course, his mentor, John the Baptist.
The second story today, coming out of the latest scholarship, is this guy Paul. Paul was a very well-schooled, well-educated—unlike Jesus, speaking Greek, writing Greek—Jew who was very zealous. At first he was attacking this Jewish sect, and it was a Jewish sect, calling themselves Christians. Then he had this amazing mystical experience that literally changed history. You can say whatever you want to say about it psychologically, sociologically, or theologically, but Paul being struck on the road to Damascus changed history. As Otto Rank said, Jesus was the introvert and Paul was the extrovert in the origins of Christianity. Paul took the movement into Gentile country, into Rome, and into the educated classes through his Greek experiences. He was an amazing figure. The latest scholarship on Paul is stunning; John Dominic Crossan and his book on Paul that came out last year. Now, Crossan is a Biblical scholar, whose emphasis is on justice and liberation theology. Crossan comes from the Catholic tradition of liberation theology. It’s stunning to find in his book this statement that “for Paul, you cannot be a Christian without being a mystic.” Now that’s stunning. Let me say it again. “For Paul, you cannot be a Christian without being a mystic.” Paul is the first writer of Christianity.
The first guy in the Christian Bible, in terms of date, is Paul. And he’s the first Christian theologian and unlike any other theologian, since his stuff is in the Bible. But he’s saying, “You can’t be a Christian without being a mystic.” Well, that’s stunning because 99 percent of Christians don’t know anything about mysticism. We have these churches, we have these seminaries, we have all these edifices, and, believe me, they’re not teaching mysticism. So, whoa, there’s some cacophony, and so no wonder so many Christians have had to go East or someplace to find their mysticism. Not only is Paul insisting all Christians have to be mystics, but for Paul, Christ is a cosmic wisdom tradition.
I presume by mysticism you mean the direct experience of God as in when Stephen filled with the Holy Spirit had the Father and the Son revealed to him. This is the bread and butter of Pauline mysticism, a dance with partner switching among the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Paul in his letter to the Thessalonians assumes they had known the joy given by the Holy Spirit given through the invisible Jesus not given via the contemplation of nature. It’s been my experience that the liberal side of Christianity gravitates to nature mysticism as the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit isn’t that real to them but nature is right there as a ready substitute and proxy for spiritual experience.