Skip to main content

Our Times Call for a New Spiritual (not Religious) Order?

Order of the Sacred Earth - its common vow to protect Mother Earth
Volume 31, Issue 7,8 & 9, September 21, 2017
By

Matthew Fox, Excerpted from bridgetmarys.blogspot.ca (Bridget Mary Meehan)

One of the collaborative paintings from a project organized by Anawim House. Anawim is a self-help centre for street people now in its 3rd decade. (Excerpted from the Aug. 27 edition of The Times Colonist)

     Thinking of a need for a Reformation makes me question whether the time hasn’t arrived for a new religious order that is in fact not tied to a particular religion but is a Spiritual Order, one that might help people of various religious faiths and none to gather around a common value and focus. I think our times call for a focus on the sacredness of the Earth and all her creatures. Therefore I propose a new order called “The Order of the Sacred Earth.” 
     Its members may come from any and all life-styles, married, single, celibate, gay, straight and from any and all occupations so long as their work mirrored the values of honoring and supporting the Earth and her creatures. Blue collar and white collar workers would be welcomed. People of all religious traditions, and none, would be welcome.
     What then would bind them together as a community? A common vow. One that reads like this: “I promise to be as good a mystic (that is, lover) of Mother Earth that I can be and as good a prophet or warrior defending Mother Earth that I can be.” The Order would be established on this common vow and it would provide both a focus for our life decisions and our citizenship but also a community of support to assist one another in the living out of our values and commitment. 
     It would represent a new stage in religious history actually, a leap forward in our spiritual evolution because it would take us beyond denominationalism and hurl us into the deeper calling to be mystics (lovers) and prophets (defenders of what we cherish). It would allow people to stay in their respective traditions or to move beyond them or to be one foot in and one foot out. Thus it would set a new standard for Deep Ecumenism or Interfaith, Interspirituality existence and work.
     Why am I so confident that the time has come for such a new kind of order? First, because it is clear, as Bishop John Shelby Spong has pointed out, that Christianity must change or die – but I also believe other religions are equally challenged today to move beyond their literal teachings to a deeper expression of the very essence of religion – Gratitude and Compassion, Awe and Creativity, Justice and passing on the Earth as the splendid and grace-filled being that it truly is. 
     Whether we talk of the Earth and her creatures as the “Cosmic Christ” or the “Image of God” or the “Buddha Nature” all traditions are trying to wake us up to a sense of the sacred which surrounds us and feeds and nurtures us but which we can all to readily take for granted.
     How can we possibly say that we love our children (and their children and grandchildren to come) if we are leaving them a despoiled planet, a diminishing planet, a sick planet with untold species going extinct and with seas rising and great cities soon to be inundated with salt water? 
     How can we possible say we love God if we are oblivious to our neighbor – whether that neighbor be another two-legged one or a grand species such as the elephants or tigers or polar bears and others? Once we get over our anthropocentrism (what Pope Francis rightly calls our “narcissism” as a species), we recognize not just the good Samaritan serving his ailing neighbor but we recognize all who are working to heal the plight of so many species being threatened by humans pre-occupied with their own agendas.
     I am also convinced that it is time for such an Order, an Order of the Sacred Earth (OSE), because of my reading of Christian history. Ours are not the only times that the Christian religion found itself running out of steam, hijacked by forces eager to use it for their own political and economic ends, boring the young people on a regular basis, offering up stale and often dead and idolatrous forms of worship. 
     But in other eras when the Christ path was hijacked or sold out, the response was to reinvent life styles that more clearly mirrored the message and person of Jesus. Such was the case in the fourth century when the “desert fathers and mothers” withdrew from the cities after the marriage of the church and the empire to seek a more authentic life style. 
     Such was the case in the sixth century when St. Benedict gave birth to the monastic system which was to preserve much of culture and healthy religion for many centuries during the cold and “dark” ages in Europe. Such was the case when, at the end of the twelfth century the marriage of feudalism and monasticism was choking healthy religion and new leaders such as Francis and Dominic sensed the need to break from the privileges of monasticism and get more real and more involved in the poverty movement that backed the serfs and the young and, with Dominic, the newly “secularized” university system which separated education from the monastic establishment for the first time in many centuries.
     A similar cultural upheaval in the sixteenth century that grew out of cultural breakthroughs such as the invention of the printing press and that gave birth to the Protestant Reformation and to the opening up of new markets and new continents and encounters with new peoples in the newly “discovered” Americas and in Asia. 
     I think a good argument can also be made than in many respects the various Protestant denominations that began in the sixteenth century were a kind of “lay orders” insofar as they arose in response to corruption in the dominant church structure (what we know today as Roman Catholic Church) but that each denomination, like many of the Orders through the centuries, had their unique form of polities and of worship and training of clergy, etc. The Jesuit Order founded by St. Ignatius in the sixteenth century was another response to the corruption of the dominant religious paradigm.
     One important lesson to learn from the history of religious orders is that they can be very readily co-opted by powers that be, both ecclesial and secular powers and combinations of the two. No better example of this need be offered than the fact that within one generation of the founding of the Franciscans they were enrolled by the Vatican to partake in the Inquisition. 
     The same is true of the Dominicans. I maintain that Francis saw the handwriting on the wall when the ecclesial powers took his order from him (including his desire that his brothers not become priests but stay out of that clerical status and mindset) and that his being stripped of the very brotherhood he had launched brought about his broken heart, his stigmata, and the end of his life.
     This lesson from history is one reason I insist that an Order today ought to be spiritual and not religious, that it should owe no allegiance to any particular religious hierarchy or headquarters but should pick up the sign of our times which is the reality that human consciousness is outpacing religious institutions and that the very essence of religion, spirituality, is what needs to be preserved at its best and carried on. 
     And this is what the Order of the Sacred Earth would be about surely. And this would happen on a post-denominational plane, in a time of deep ecumenism and interfaith and interspirituality. This sense of interfaith would also lie at the heart of the new Order. What unites the members is not their particular religious affiliation or identity (or lack thereof), but their common vow to protect Mother Earth and her creatures, humans included. One’s allegiance will be to that reality and that shared value and that criterion that will become the litmus test for being a participating member of said community or Order. Agnostics and atheists I could see as part of the movement.
     The late Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heshel declared that there are three ways to respond to creation: To exploit it; to enjoy it; or to accept it with awe. This latter way is the starting point for recovering the sacred. And recovering the sacred at the heart of the Order of the Sacred Earth. To recover the sacred means not to take nature or creation for granted, and to explore that part of ourselves that rejoices to be in the presence of the Holy even on a daily basis. But it also means to fight and carry on the pursuit of preserving the Sacred, preserving Mother Earth in all her beauty and diversity. 
     It means taking on those enemies of the Earth from Climate Change and pumping of CO2 into the atmosphere to destroying forests and soil and rainforests and countless species headed for extinction. One’s way of battling on behalf of Mother Earth may vary broadly – from supporting political movements to running for office oneself to employing sustainable ways of living in one’s life style and work places to educating others, to raising money for eco causes, etc.  
     What it does not mean is doing nothing. Or remaining silent. Or contributing to the ongoing pollution of our greatest inheritance and our greatest gift we bequeath to our descendants – the health and well being of Mother Earth.
     The Order of the Sacred Earth (OSE) is scheduled to launch this Fall. Indeed, we intend to have the first day of public vow taking to be winter solstice, 2017, and we hope to live stream it from many sites where people might gather to make a commitment. 
     (2017 is the 500th anniversary of the launching of the Protestant Reformation marking Luther’s pounding of theses at the church door in Wittenburg, Germany). While I am a founding elder and intergenerational wisdom is at the core of the vision, still its leadership needs to come from 30-somethings whose generation is called to stand up at this critical moment in Earth history in a special way. 
     Currently a couple of 33 years old, Jan Listing and Skylar Wilson, are leading the project with me. A book entitled Order of the Sacred Earth: An Intergenerational Vision of Love and Action in which Skylar and I offer essays laying out its philosophy and Jan and a number of other responders offer short essays of vision and hope for OSE will be available in the Fall in a private edition and publicly in the Spring from Monkfish Publishing Company.
Matthew Fox (born Timothy James Fox in 1940) is an American priest and theologian. Formerly a member of the Dominican Order within the Roman Catholic Church, he became a member of the Episcopal Church following his expulsion from the order in 1993. Fox was an early and influential exponent of a movement that came to be known as Creation Spirituality.