Matthew Fox, Odd Religion, and the Stories We Tell

Last night, a friend shared on Facebook a piece recently published at Tikkun, the Jewish and interfaith magazine/website devoted to progressive political activism. “A Public Letter to Supreme Court Nominee Amy Coney Barrett” is written by Rev. Dr. Matthew Fox, a best-selling author and Episcopal priest. As is the actual case with open or public letters, the purpose is not to open dialogue with the purported recipient, but to lay one’s cause or concerns before a larger audience. Fox’s “letter,” structured as a series of critical questions directed at Barrett, undoubtedly bears the real intent of galvanizing his peers on the left end of the political spectrum in active opposition against Barrett’s nomination. Which is all well and good, of course. Public letters are something of a useful fiction that sit among other arrows in rhetoric’s quiver.

Pundits on the left have been at loggerheads about how to approach Barrett’s membership in People of Praise, a network of ecumenical, intentional Christian communities rooted in the Roman Catholic charismatic renewal. Are their rather traditional beliefs on matters much-discussed in the culture war – male headship in the home, affirmation of heterosexual marriages alone, proscription of abortion – fair game for challenging Barrett’s nomination or not?

Fox weighs in on the former side of the question. His comments about Barrett’s religious faith and the questions it raises for him are as follows:

11)  Your religion is a bit odd.  It is not Catholicism as such or Catholicism as the Pope practices it, for example, it is a mélange of Protestant and Catholics in a small charismatic community.  Speaking anecdotally, in my interactions with charismatics over the years, I have hardly ever met one who considered the struggle for justice for the poor and oppressed as part of their religious consciousness.  In fact, it was precisely the charismatic groups in South America who were financed to oppose and replace base communities and liberation theologies, while buttressing right wing political fanatics.  

My question is this: What does the canonization of Saint Oscar Romero mean to you and your community?  How does his struggle on behalf of the poor resonate with your version of Christianity?  

Fox sketches a picture of Barrett’s religious practice as marginal, syncretic, and politically reactionary. Charismatics, in his telling, are something other than “real” Catholics (“not Catholicism as such”) and they ignore this-wordly issues of justice, peace, and freedom.

I typed a brief comment on my friend’s post, saying something to the effect that yes, charismatic Christians have often supported the economic and political status quo with all its injustices, or at least have not made it a matter of theological reflection, but that this is not the whole of the story. I mentioned the group Pentecostals and Charismatics for Peace and Justice as a counter-example.

I’m all for asking critical questions about a Supreme Court nominee. But the more I sat with Fox’s portrait of charismatic Christianity, and the more I read online about the history and contemporary witness of charismatic Christians around the globe, the more frustrated I became.

First, I wonder what Fox intends to convey to his real audience by the word “odd.” The word, of course, connotes something as catching interest for being out of the ordinary or the mainstream. It is not the extraordinary as either compelling or repulsive, but as peculiar, perhaps even quaint. We can say of something, “That’s odd,” and the tone is one of mild interest.

But from the perspective of global demographics, charismatic Christians are anything but odd. Pentecostals and other “Spirit-filled” Christians, whether they are members of independent, non-denominational churches or belong to established communions (e.g., Catholic charismatics) are estimated to number over 600 million, representing about 1 out of every 4 believers. There are more charismatic Christians than Anglicans, Baptists, Presbyterians, Lutherans, Calvinists, and Methodists combined. They outnumber the Eastern Orthodox by about threefold. The rise of charismatic Christianity over the last 114 years is the most explosive growth story in all of church history.

Second, it is not particularly odd, or theologically questionable, for a Roman Catholic like Barrett to be involved in an intentional charismatic community. The Catholic charismatic renewal is sanctioned by the hierarchy, having been blessed by Pope Paul VI in 1975 and receiving the active support of diocesan bishops in localities all over the world (the same could not be said for similar efforts among the Orthodox). As an intentional community, members of People of Praise pledge financial support for one another and make commitment vows. Many of them live together in shared housing. People of Praise is not a “sect” as such because the members worship in congregations belonging to their respective traditions. Such intentional or neo-monastic community is reflective both of the long monastic tradition in the Roman Catholic Church and of direct biblical example (e.g., Acts 2). Fox is doubtless aware of the Catholic Worker Movement as a network of intentional communities that bring together Roman Catholics, Protestants, and even persons of other faiths. Such communities also tend toward the political perspectives Fox espouses in his letter. The general structure of People of Praise also reminds me in many respects of Koinonia Farm, where I interned one summer and with which I remain connected as a friend and financial supporter.

Third, the more I study the rich tapestry of charismatic Christianity the less I assent to Fox’s (confessedly anecdotal) story of quietists and reactionaries who either just watch the world burn or have added kindling to the fire. I have learned, for example, that early Pentecostals were largely pacifists and conscientious objectors. They spoke out against nationalism. They sensed the Spirit lead them into advocacy for social justice. Many still do today. John McConnell, the founder of Earth Day, was the devout son of a Pentecostal preacher. Fox’s depiction of charismatics is nowhere close to being entirely wrong. But he tells the story with such a slant that I cannot break bread with him at this table.

Finally, the word “odd” is an interesting choice for this maverick of a theologian. Perhaps charismatic Christians of the sort who join People of Praise are peculiar to the readers of Tikkun. But Fox has made a name for himself with a series of books promoting perspectives that are “odd” or innovative in the grand scheme of Christian history. Fox practices a radical interfaith ecumenism that sees the various religions as many wells drawing from one river. He writes of the Cosmic Christ and the Mother Earth. He is the originator of the “Cosmic Mass” – a form of religious ceremony that combines the Eucharist and techno music.

Fox has detractors and supporters aplenty. My aim is not to wade into those waters. I come neither to praise Fox’s distinctive teachings nor to bury them. I share many of his concerns about environmental, economic, and labor justice. I also deeply respect and value other religious traditions. For example, I generally have an intellectual “love affair” with Buddhism at least once each year. It may be that a full accounting would find that I have more in common with Fox than with the average charismatic Christian. But, on a historical and global scale, Fox’s pluralistic, liberal Episcopalianism is more eccentric than tongues-speaking, co-housing charismatics. That’s no real mark against his views. I’m quite pleased that pluralistic, liberal Episcopalians are at loose in this world. But we shouldn’t be arguing, let alone insinuating, that a person’s religious beliefs or theology may be dismissed simply on account of their idiosyncrasy. I hope, if anything, oddity invites curiosity; curiosity invites empathy; empathy invites solidarity.

That, to me, is the way of the Spirit.


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