Creation Spirituality

By Steve Doepel

“If you look at the disasters happening on our planet, it’s because the cosmos is not understood as sacred… a way out of our difficulty is a journey into the universe as sacred.” These are the words of Professor Brian Swimme, a trained mathematician, who teaches Evolutionary Cosmology in San Francisco. He is at the forefront of a movement that integrates science and spirituality and his approach is deeply inspired by the ideas of Teilhard de Chardin and the theology of Creation Spirituality. This is an ancient way of thinking that was all but neglected by the Christian Church for over a thousand years, but which was re-invigorated in the late 20th Century.

One of its most well-known proponents is Matthew Fox, the former Dominican priest who became an Episcopal priest following his expulsion from the Dominican order in 1993. He was heavily influenced by the progressive French theologian Marie-Dominique Chenu, who is also credited with being the grandfather of liberation theology. Creation Spirituality draws inspiration from the medieval mystical philosophies of Hildegard of Bingen, Thomas Aquinas, Saint Francis of Assisi, Julian of Norwich, Dante Alighieri, Meister Eckhart and Nicholas of Cusa, as well as the wisdom and prophetic traditions of Jewish scriptures. Creation Spirituality is also strongly aligned with recent ecological and environmental movements and embraces numerous spiritual traditions around the world, including Buddhism, Judaism, Sufism, and Native American spirituality, as well as a focus on “deep ecumenism” or interfaith dialogue. It represents a radically different way of thinking and living and a move towards ecological sustainability, greater democracy and greater respect for minorities. It also broadens our ideas about the divine.

Since the time of Augustine (5th Century) the Catholic Church’s theology has been dominated by notions of fall and redemption, which stresses the idea of original sin, the place of evil in the world and the role of Christ as redeemer. It displaced an earlier emphasis on creation-centred spirituality, which is only now starting to recover some lost ground. The Church’s theology has been psychologically centred in that it has encouraged us to focus on humanity as the central point of creation, not on creation itself. This lack of balance had led to a level of self-absorption, to the detriment of the rest of creation and ultimately to humankind.

So could Creation Spirituality have some significance and meaning for us today? It is an approach that looks at creation as a source of wisdom, and in this way re-interprets Christ’s message in a different light. It sees wisdom in other approaches that are also inspired by creation: indigenous religions, Buddhism, Taoism, Zen and Judaism. It can be said to be a feminist approach, where wisdom and eros have a greater emphasis than knowledge and control. Matthew Fox cites numerous reasons for adopting a Creation Spirituality approach, including: the looming ecological crises, unemployment (misemployment), religious and psychological awakening, the importance of science, the need for justice and liberation, the lack of feminist and right brain thinking, growing militarism and consumerism, and an emerging level of despair that afflicts many people in the 21st century. He believes that only a creation-centred spirituality can adequately address these pressing issues; only an emphasis on ourselves as co-creators will provide an approach that will enable us to focus our energies on these issues in a way that will assist us to overcome them.

Matthew Fox has also outlined 12 principles of Creation Spirituality:

  1. The universe is fundamentally a blessing.
  2. In Creation we experience God in all things and all things in God.
  3. God is beyond all words and images.
  4. Through spiritual practice (meditation and silence) we find our true selves.
  5. Our inner work is a four-fold journey of awe, uncertainty, creativity and justice.
  6. Every one of us is a mystic.
  7. Every one of us is an artist; our creativity is our prayer and praise.
  8. Every one of us is a prophet, and our work is to interfere with injustice.
  9. We rejoice in the Diversity that is the nature of the Universe.
  10. The basic work of God is compassion.
  11. There are many wells of faith and knowledge of Divine wisdom.
  12. Ecological justice is essential for the sustainability of life on Earth.

E F Schumacher, a German economist, wrote that there are two sources of wisdom: nature and religion. But as our appreciation of nature has been through the lens of science, and because religion was for so long at war with science, this aspect of nature was neglected, and hence western religion almost entirely forgot the creation tradition. It has been kept alive only by artists, poets, scientists, feminists, and political prophets. So what is necessary to foster a creation-centred spirituality? Matthew Fox describes the four paths: the Via Positiva (the positive way), the Via Negativa (the negative way), the Via Creativa (the creative way) and the Via Transformativa (the transformative way), that we can use to gain a better understanding of what it means to live with a creation-centred spirituality.

In brief these paths describe ways of knowing and experiencing the divine. The Via Positiva, or Cataphatic Way (stating what God is), assumes that we can know and understand God by studying creation (nature) and revelation through prayer, reflection, and religious experience. This is what the New Testament writers do, and this is often how those of us brought up as Christians develop our initial understanding of God in childhood. By connecting with nature we learn that life is a blessing and we learn to have a basic level of trust and faith in the world around us and in all of creation. We also learn to have an openness to experiencing those things around us that we don’t yet understand or are unfamiliar with, which are so important on the path to wisdom. This familiarity includes death, because a creation-centred approach teaches that all things have their cycles of life, death and transformation. Rather than being feared, death is just another stage of this transformation, and Fox cites the hospice movement as an example of people who are treating death in just such a wholesome way.

A creation-centred spirituality encourages us to imagine God in all things and all things in God, rather than me here and God out there. This dualistic view separates God and creation, whereas Creation Spirituality unites them with an image of a maternal God. The dualistic view also separates time into before and after death, where Creation Spirituality focuses on the present. It says each moment should be viewed as sacred, not seen as a period of waiting for the end times. Creation Spirituality, like Zen, says we are perfect the way we are. We don’t have to wait till we die to gain perfection, or strive to be one of the ‘beautiful people’. Our beauty and lovability lies just as much in our imperfections and faults as in our strengths (perhaps even more so). Fox says instead of offering perfection Creation Spirituality offers ‘cosmic hospitality’. Creation offers us an abundance of riches (blessings) for which we can only respond with gratitude. Br David Steindl-Rast says, “in our English language there is no such thing as being half full of thanks or gratitude: we are either thankful or grateful or we have not experienced the Via Positiva.”

The Via Negativa, or Apophatic Way (stating what God is not), assumes that language and understanding alone are incapable of describing God and we are left with statements that describe what God is not. This is stepping into the unknown, or what one anonymous Christian mystic from the fourteenth century described as the “Great Cloud of Unknowing“. It is a move from the more literal and concrete descriptions used in the Via Positiva to a deeper understanding of the Divine, free from the abstractions and distractions of language and thought.

The Via Negativa high-lights our fears of darkness and silence, and encourages us to have times when we can turn off the lights, sounds and images that animate our lives. At some point we benefit from periods where we can surround ourselves with ‘nothingness’, and let go of our ‘busyness’. Fox says that even Carl Jung admitted that it took a creation-centred mystic to teach him the value of letting go. We can do this most effectively by taking some silence, focussing on our breathing (the rhythm of our bodies) and by concentrating on what is most immediately present to us.

This letting go means that we must be able to let go of, or detach ourselves from, even the most precious things in our life: our possessions, our ego, our identity, even our friends and family, and especially our attitudes, so that our spirit can run free. It can mean that we have to release ourselves from trying to change those aspects of the world that we don’t like or want to change, especially those closest to us. And Fox reminds us that another name for letting go is forgiveness. It also means that sometimes we have to sink into our pain, but Fox reminds us that while our painful times can be devastating they are never superficial and they can be the most affirming experiences of our lives.

The Via Negativa can be highly informative and instructive. Its value is in its ability to recreate the tension between saying and unsaying, emotional affectivity and detached silence. The Via Negativa gives rise to silent meditation, centering prayer, and other forms of content-less practices. Its most important effect, however, may be its effect on our psyche, because we are able to hold seemingly contradictory and paradoxical truth claims. It is a state of consciousness that recognizes how emptiness, letting go, and deconstruction foster new understandings of reality. It offers us a pathless wilderness, where we move away from what can be grasped by categories and names into an unknowing, where the divine is mysterious and silent. It disrupts our thoughts and our mind’s attempt to create order. This is why Christ taught in parables, using paradoxes to bypass our logical minds, and why Zen uses koans to confuse and bewilder our thinking.

In this way it opens us up to images that are beyond what we already know or experience, and beyond what we can easily imagine. It is also where East meets West, as this tradition is found in Judaism, Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, Taoism as well as Christian mysticism. In Judaism there is no word for the name of God, only the tetragrammation YHWH and in Islam depictions of sentient beings are forbidden.

Sometimes we need more time in the cloud of unknowing… to explore our image of the divine using the Via Negativa which means avoiding the language we have previously used (whether negative or positive) and to find real goodness in ourselves.

While the Via Positiva is an experience of the divine as the delight, awe and wonder of creation, and the Via Negativa is an experience of darkness, letting go and letting be, the Via Creativa is about discovering the divine within ourselves by being co-creators, and the Via Transformativa is about mediating our creativity by being compassionate and just to all creation.

When discussing the Via Creativa Matthew Fox equates creativity with the Hebrew word dabhar, which may be translated as God’s creative energy, or the force that created the cosmos. So in this sense whenever we create something we are joining with this divine energy or that creative force. Our understanding of the universal creative process that lead to each of us, that is our cosmology, is now understood in western culture mainly in terms of science. But for most of human history our cosmology had a mythological importance. Without a myth of creation we have lost our connection to our cosmology. Our understanding of creation becomes impersonal and holds no meaning for how we live. But for many people, particularly in the third world, their cosmology still provides some connection to the environment and some guidance for the way they live. A big question then for us is how we can maintain a cosmology that is both scientific and mythological.

Science has helped humankind enormously and has changed our lives in ways we could never have imagined. As with art it is one of the greatest sources of creativity. Einstein recognised this when he said, “The purpose of art and science is to keep alive the cosmic religious feeling”. But as well as being constructive, art and science can also be destructive, even demonic, so they have to be kept in check somehow. While they help us to give birth to new ideas, they also require that we cooperate with the dabhar energy, that is we work with it, not just try to control it for our own purposes. In this way we create something bigger than ourselves, something greater than we could even imagine. But to be passionate enough to be creative in this way requires us to have the courage to trust in our own creative abilities and not simply say I can’t. Not trusting ourselves can lead us to become a victim, negative or depressed. In today’s world there are many voices which are telling us that ‘by yourself you can’t but with this new shampoo you can’. By trusting in ourselves we confirm our belief that ‘we can’ and we liberate ourselves, create meaning in our lives and overcome boredom and superficiality. This trusting attitude allows us to more fully appreciate the beauty that is all around us – it inspires and motivates us and it leads us to be grateful for what we have.

Fox recommends creating art as a form of meditation. He calls this the primary spiritual practice, because: it educates the right brain as well as the left; it has the benefit of increasing our awareness; it emphasises the acceptance of feelings and thoughts without judgement and it relaxes the body and mind. And it requires that we learn to let go. Thomas Merton said, “Art enables us to find ourselves and lose ourselves at the same time. The mind that responds to the intellectual and spiritual values that lie hidden in a poem, a painting, or a piece of music, discovers a spiritual vitality that lifts it above itself, takes it out of itself, and makes it present to itself on a level of being that it did not know it could ever achieve.”

Fox reminds us that to be creative we must be able to connect with the child within us, because the child has not learnt to be afraid of letting go and is very trusting. The tendency to be creative is fundamentally maternal, and has long been neglected in our patriarchal culture, which can become sadistic or masochistic. An overly patriarchal culture deprives people of their creative power because it seeks to control them and render them powerless.

Mystics are people who are generally set apart. This is partly because they encourage a creation tradition, which encourages a dialectical approach (this and that) rather than a dualistic approach (this or that). Dualism seeks to control conflict and deny tension and difference while the dialectic approach acknowledges conflict because it is a source of love, imagination and creativity. Mechtild of Magdeburg said that we are given two wines to drink: the white wine of bliss, harmony and ecstasy and the red wine of pain, suffering and loss. To live fully, spiritually we need to drink of both. So she is telling us that a healthy spirit relies on having the courage to fully experience both the pains and the pleasures that our little life offers us.

Path IV, the Via Transformativa provides the direction and criticism that enables our creativity to be used compassionately. Without this direction creativity results in racism, sexism, adultism, militarism and impersonal capitalism. So to ensure that our creativity is always benevolent we must have a priority for compassion, even above contemplation. But it is not a compassion which looks only to those lesser than ourselves. It is a compassion which views everyone as being equally valued, whether we like them or not.

So in our quest to be creative we must be open to criticism because it can be our greatest friend. But we also must be aware that we may have a role in offering criticism to help direct the creativity of others, albeit with great sensitivity and discretion. Fox calls this being a prophet, whose main role is to ‘interfere’ with the way things are. To do this we must maintain a healthy level of scepticism about the way the world operates and we must trust our inner feelings of righteous anger and moral outrage, which are so often shaped (either softened or magnified inappropriately) by the voices around us. This takes enormous courage and it will earn us no friends. Gandhi acknowledged this when he said that our task is to prepare ourselves for ‘mountains of suffering’.

Our creativity shouldn’t just be used to satisfy our creative urge. It must be used with loving awareness of all of our emotions – positive and negative. Fox believes that anger is often overlooked as a positive force. It can energise us into action, and with active imagination it can be used artistically and constructively, for example to finally outlaw war. Those who would benefit the most from this are the poor and oppressed, because they are the ones who war affects the most. These are also the people who are often the most connected to the earth, who often have little more than their imagination intact, who remain grounded by their cosmologies, most in touch with their humility and therefore have the most to teach us. Creation spirituality, which is the theology of the oppressed, is key to a fundamental change. As so many people, especially the mystics, realise consideration of the poor and the outcast, the anawim, is key to creating a just society.

Why are the poor and oppressed always so neglected? Part of the reason is that our current theology is what may be called a futuristic eschatology, ie the belief that our destiny is determined by what happens to us in the next life. Creation Spirituality is what is called a realised eschatology, meaning that it focusses on our current existence, which is our primary sacrament. It requires that we develop awareness and wakefulness, and it puts the responsibility for this squarely on ourselves not on anyone else, including those who are ordained. It is therefore a non-clerical tradition.

Because everyone is responsible for their own awakening, the creation tradition also insists on the notion of interdependence, ie that we are all co-dependent on each other and yet uniquely responsible for ourselves. It is a basic requirement for all relationships and leads inevitably to notions of equality and justice. Fox also speaks about the importance of erotic justice, which means getting in touch with our feelings about how justice is metered out. What are our feelings towards people treated unjustly, the imprisoned, the unemployed, the homeless. An erotic justice flows from a panentheistic theology, that is one where we appreciate that the divine is in all and all is in the divine. This is where the biggest challenge for us lays, that is to have the imagination, courage and compassion to acknowledge that our ‘enemies’ are also our friends, who deserve our love and assistance as much as anyone else. This is where the greatest transformation is possible. Like Gandhi, we do not define justice making as winning or losing but as loving people into transformation; this love includes absorbing their hatred and asking ourselves if we are strong enough to love even the lowest among us. If our friend is in need and our enemy is equally in need can we help both equally?

Creation Spirituality also asks us to question our images of the divine. Are these images our own or do they come from somewhere else? As Eckhart said, “what is true cannot come from the outside in but must come from the inside out and pass through an inner form”.

To what end should our creativity be put? The fullest expression is in the transformation of our society. But this must be achieved with compassion, which for Creation centred mystics, is the fullest expression of the spiritual journey.

So how do we foster a creation centred approach in our own lives? We meditate on the wonder that is creation, we learn to let go, we acknowledge and foster our own creativity and we try always to act with a sense of justice and compassion. We accept the inevitability of paradox and we make room for humour. But more importantly we slow down and take time for silence so that we can develop our awareness of who we are and how we are right at this moment.


  • I feel closer to what language can’t reach.     Rainer Maria Rilke
  • Love winter when the plants say nothing.     Thomas Merton
  • Be you lamps unto yourselves.     Buddha
  • If we could learn to learn from pain even as it grasps us….     Adrienne Rich
  • I think that is one of the most important things we are learning from the tribal peoples of the world. We are learning to address the river and be addressed by the river.     Thomas Berry