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Via Positiva

I read Matthew Fox's book, Original Blessing, many years ago and it was instrumental in my continuing evolution of constructing a healthy theology. Frankly, I have always struggled with the traditional Christian notions of original sin and the requirement of payment in the form of the sacrifice of Jesus to set things right. While it’s one thing to reject/deconstruct what doesn’t make sense or feel right, it’s another to be able to construct something to take its place. Many people leaving organized religion may find themselves in this place… they don’t agree with what’s being taught anymore, but haven’t found another way of understanding God.

Matthew Fox begins with the basic assumptions that God is good and that creation is inherently good as its natural state. With this foundation, he dives into creation spirituality by setting forth four paths to experience the Divine: the Via Positiva, the Via Negativa, the Via Creativa and the Via Transformativa. It’s my intent to explore these four throughout the month of September.

Fox begins his chapter on the Via Positiva with this story and perspective:

On his deathbed the great psychologist and lover of the human race Erich Fromm turned to his friend Robert Fox and asked, “Why is it, Bob, that the human race prefers necrophilia to biophilia?” A significant question, this, Why do we prefer love of death to love of life? Missiles to celebration? Power-over to power-with? Greed to letting go?

…I would offer just one answer from my own perspective as a theologian. It is this: Western civilization has preferred love of death to love of life to the very extent that its religious traditions have preferred redemption to creation, sin to ecstasy, and individual introspection to cosmic awareness and appreciation. Religion has failed people in the West as often as it has been silent about pleasure or about the cosmic creation, about the ongoing power of the flowing energy of the Creator, about original blessing.

Let there be no question about it: what has been most lacking in society and religion in the West for the past six centuries has been a Via Positiva, a way or path of affirmation, thanksgiving, ecstasy.

It’s interesting, isn’t it, that so much of traditional Christian doctrine and rules are based on a theological concept that Jesus - our role-model, teacher, and spiritual guide - never even heard of?

This concept of original sin, coined by Augustine in the 4th century is, as Fox says, “woefully anthropocentric” (centered on humans as opposed to the entirety of creation) and seems to form the pessimistic heart of the Fall/Redemption theology that has dominated Christian thought for centuries. With the focus on the fall of humanity, Christian theology has become obsessed with sin and the need for the redemption of humanity. Traditional teachings have been incredibly silent about original blessing and about experiencing God in pleasure and the cosmic creation.

Fox’s proposal is that we deconstruct that old life-denying theology and embrace a creation-centered theology that is much older than Augustine. It embraces a good God who creates, and what God creates is inherently GOOD. This new understanding celebrates life, puts life first, includes finding God in the natural world, and is about living life passionately.

The first path is the Via Positiva, it is the way of affirmation, thanksgiving and ecstasy, where God will be found in awe, wonder and the mystery of nature.

AFFIRMATION – of our inherent goodness is the theology we must construct to replace a theology that has harped on our inherent sinfulness. There is power in what we hear. We’ve probably all sat on the sidelines of a soccer game or a basketball game and heard the differences between positive encouragement and berating. When a mistake or missed opportunity happens and the coach yells, “it’s ok, you’ll get it next time, you’ve got this” it is completely different from hearing the coach yell, “What’s wrong with you? What on earth were you thinking? Stop day-dreaming or I’m going to pull you out of there!"

Religion and our spiritual language must shift as well from “you are miserable, rotten sinners and it is all because of you that Jesus had to die on a cross.” To “you were created beautiful, your soul is inherently good, you are worthy, God looks at you and smiles.” Mistakes are then not because we were bad to begin with. Instead, mistakes happen, and we screw up, yes, but they become opportunities to learn on this journey we call life.

THANKSGIVING – Religion is better at encouraging us to be thankful, but thankful that Jesus was willing to die for our sins. Thankful that God saved a “wretch” like me. Do you know how hard it has been to find thanksgiving offertory songs that are simply about giving thanks for the wonder of life and living?

Sadly, the church has never emphasized finding God in the beauty of the world around us. That is one of my biggest criticisms of Christianity, because the awe and wonder we find in nature brings us to a deep, deep sense of gratitude. What if the church had encouraged us to simply be grateful for life, beauty, art, music, love, sliced bread and ice cream? What if the church had revered nature and all of creation as a pathway to experience the Creative Flow of the Universe?

It is even hard to find scripture passages that speak of the beauty and wonder of nature. Fox says, “Praise flows from beholding the awe of our being here.” So I chose Psalm 148 as our scripture because it is a song of praise to God by all of creation.Here is just a portion:

Praise God, sun and moon;
praise God, all you shining star!
Praise God, you highest heavens;
and you waters above the heavens!
Let them praise the Name of YHWH
by whose command they were created.

A few weeks ago, on a trip to Washington state with my son, Jordan, I was constantly in awe of the world around me – whales and mountains, eagles and beaches, deer and waterfalls, and huge cedars. Even the whole cycle of decomposition had me pausing in wonder. Stopping and taking time to deeply experience the awe brought a deep sense of my place in the universe and a deep sense of gratitude for being alive. In that space there is really no room for pettiness. All the little things that we worry about, or get irritated by (did the toilet paper roll get put on the right direction, did someone cut me off on the highway, did someone not like my sermon) really don’t matter. It’s no wonder that studies show that 20 minutes in nature can significantly reduce stress hormone levels!

ECSTASY – even the word seems a little sinful, racy, and scandalous. The traditional model of Christianity has not ever promoted pleasure as a path to the Divine. In fact, anything pleasurable was seen as a path to hell.

Do you remember when religion forbade you from doing certain things like playing cards, going to movies, joining Brownies, dancing, listening to non-religious music, drinking, having sex for anything reason other than making children? In fact, the litmus test for Catholics as to whether or not something was a sin was, “Did you take pleasure in it?”

But, as Fox asserts, if “creation is a blessing and a constantly original one, then our proper response would be to enjoy it. Pleasure is one of the deepest spiritual experiences of our lives. Ecstasy is the experience of God.” 

That great mystic and Catholic saint, Julian of Norwich, called those who dwell on sinfulness “foolish.” Fox says, “This creation-centered mystic actually invented the word “enjoy” in the English language. Joy beyond measure is part of everyone’s potential experience. It is part of recovering an erotic God who plays, takes pleasure, births, celebrates, and feels passion.” 

What if we allowed ourselves to relish in pleasure as a gift filled with the Creative Energy of the Divine. What if we allowed it to fill us, to foster a feeling of love, to recognize that experience as a blessing? Then perhaps instead of grasping for more and more, as this society encourages us to do, we would grasp less and be filled more by the enjoyment of little things. Birds chirping or a beautiful piece of music could fill our emptiness. Time hanging out with friends could feed our souls. Making love or enjoying a sporting event, making dinner as an act of love for family, can fill us with joy. 

I know this was a lot to absorb. Distilled, we are invited to follow the Via Positiva and reconstruct our theology around three things:

  1. the goodness of creation, including the goodness of our very selves,

  2. feeling awe and wonder, especially in nature, which develops a deep sense of gratitude in us,
  3. remembering that the Creative Energy we call God is within those moments where we truly feel a deep pleasure.

Love & Light!