After eighteen years, the bold, but controversial spiritual leader Matthew Fox has updated his autobiography, Confessions. In 1996, when the first version was published, I doubt very many people saw the significance of his subtitle: The Makings of a Postdenominational Priest. But Matthew Fox was a man before his time, and by now it becomes clear that a post-denominational understanding of religion and spirituality has become an imperative to which increasing numbers of us are being called.
Mathew's story, as told in the 1996 version, shows a progression through the spiritual development stages, as described by various theorists over the years. The obvious starting point in these stages is traditional religious belief - or that which caused Matthew, early in his life, to enter the priesthood in the Catholic religion of his upbringing.
The next stage usually entails the experience of cognitive dissonance, when the person finds himself questioning some of the "givens" commonly accepted in his religious community. One such matter for Matthew arose during his seminary years when someone recommended a highly touted new book by an Italian cardinal. Matthew describes his disenchantment when the book turned out to focus not on some issue of great theological import, but rather on the relatively trivial question of whether a celibate should be allowed to wash his private parts when taking a shower.
When we feel differently from our "tribe" about an important issue, we have a choice: the more convenient option, and the one more commonly chosen, is to shut down our concerns, pretend we never noticed the discrepancy, sacrificing our own perceptions for the sake of maintaining solidarity with the group. But the bolder, more courageous, option would be to face that discrepancy head on, maintain our personal integrity and risk distancing ourselves from the group. This choice is one that generally will bring us to greater truth,
This critical distancing is a crucial step in spiritual development, though little is made of it in conventional circles, and it is almost never encouraged. Matthew Fox is a shining example of someone who consistently chose the more courageous, and the more truthful option.
Throughout Matthew Fox's career, he always chose to follow his own inner "spirit" authority, even when that conflicted with the outer authority of the religious aristocracy. Not surprisingly, he had to face down some very forceful forms of opposition, and ultimately was expelled from the Catholic priesthood. Yet spiritual development theory tells us that learning to hear and trust an authentic inner spirit authority is typical as one progresses beyond the critical distancing step, and arrives at the next, more evolved, level of spiritual maturity.
We could call this more evolved, most mature spiritual level by many names, but perhaps a most evocative one would be the Universal level. In reading Confessions, as well as Fox's other works, it becomes evident that he serves as a stellar example of this Unitive or Universal level of spiritual maturity. At this level we have transcended our need for static, dead certainties regarding our deepest existential questions, and have developed instead a willingness to embrace and celebrate life's mysteries. We come to dwell in the messy parts of reality about which we can have no certainty. There arises a universal, and fully inclusive, worldview where our connection with everyone and everything in the universe is celebrated - a much broader perspective than most institutional religions will allow.
Thanks to many factors in the current developed world, more and more people are being faced with the necessary cognitive dissonance that arises in a multicultural society, and that proscribes adherence to provincial forms of religious belief. Yet interest in exploring individual personal spiritual experiences and connections continues to mount.
Matthew Fox serves as a vanguard of the inclusive and nonliteral, unitive and universal, spiritual stance, to which many "early adopters" in our world are now being called, due to factors mentioned in the above paragraph. As our societies become ever more globalized and interconnected, ever more of us will be beckoned toward the broader (postdenominational!) perspective to which Matthew introduced us (along with countless mystics from every religion and every age.)
We may call that spiritual stance by many names, but it will be best understood as having transcended the literal and provincial aspects of the belief systems it leaves behind. Whether we call it postdenominational, postliteral, postcritical, postconventional, postmodern or postrational, it will involve a perspective wherein literal, and exclusivist religious beliefs are seen as provincial, limited by cultural perspectives. It will involve an imperative to understand all religions as vessels of a universal spiritual truth.
James Fowler, the father of faith development, told us the final stage his researchers discovered included a person who has not only glimpsed the possibility of a unified, interconnected world, but has grasped the imperative of risking his own well-being and safety in the service of that possibility. He is willing to "spend and be spent" in service of human connection.
The new section Matthew Fox has recently added to the revised edition of his Confessions autobiography describe precisely the type of action in the world a person at Fowlers' Stage Six - Universalizing Faith personifies. A lot of us could benefit from his example.