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Our Current Experience of the Via Negativa (REVIEW ESSAY)

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Duluth, Minnesota (OpEdNews) May 11, 2020: As an exceptionally gifted youngster, between the ages of five and sixteen, the subsequently famous and prolific thirteenth-century Italian Dominican theologian St. Thomas Aquinas (c.1225-1274) who, with the help of a team of four secretaries who took dictation from him, wrote his various 52 treatises in Latin many of which have not yet been published in complete English translations (and probably never will be) lived as a Benedictine oblate in a Benedictine monastery, where he received an excellent education and learned the Benedictine practice of lectio divina and contemplation. Subsequently, he joined the upstart Dominican order. But all praise to the Benedictines for training the subtle doctor of the Roman Catholic Church in contemplation!

Now, for the creative 1992 550-page book Sheer Joy: Conversations with Thomas Aquinas on Creation Spirituality (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco), the now-former Dominican the Reverend Dr. Matthew Fox (born in 1940) translated 52 of Aquinas' works in Latin (listed on pages ix-xi) and creatively assembled selected passages from them (each with a superscript numeral and a footnoted source [for a total of 2,247 footnotes]) into four conversations between Fox and Aquinas about creation spirituality that really do sound conversational:

(1) "First Conversation: On the Via Positiva" (pages 57-187, with 761 footnotes);

(2) "Second Conversation: On the Via Negativa" (pages 189-243, with 239 footnotes);

(3) "Third Conversation: On the Via Creativa" (pages 245-382, with 665 footnotes);

(4) "Fourth Conversation: On the Via Transformativa" (pages 383-515, with 582 footnotes).

In Fox's "Introduction" (pages 1-55, with 142 end-notes), he explains the four paths of creation spirituality that he has worked out in his other publications. As Fox operationally defines and explains the four paths, the Via Positiva and the Via Negative are pre-moral because we undergo them (page 322). Readers engaged in peace and justice activism should read the "Fourth Conversation: On the Via Transformativa" to learn how the two Dominican foxes discuss God's peace and justice and compassion.

Fox's remarkable 1992 book is now scheduled to be reissued by Ixia Press, an imprint of Dover Publications, later this month.

But in 1993, Fox and the Dominican order parted company. Fox had been a Dominican in good-standing for thirty-four years roughly four years more than Aquinas had been a Dominican in good-standing before he died. Even though Matthew Fox and the Dominicans parted ways in 1993, none of his teachings have been officially declared to be heretical by the Roman Catholic Church. For the record, he strikes me as an orthodox Roman Catholic theologian in Sheer Joy. Whatever else may be said about this book, it is not explicitly and unequivocally heretical with respect to the orthodox Roman Catholic tradition of thought.

But a word is in order here about the so-called four paths of creation spirituality. Fox himself aligns the so-called Via Negativa with what St. John of the Cross refers to as the dark night of the soul the traditional purgative way. Consequently, Fox's account of the Via Negativa strikes me as the most conventionally traditional of his accounts of the so-called four paths. Because of our current Covid-19 catastrophe and the collateral economic catastrophe, many of us are currently experiencing the Via Negativa.

The other two conventionally traditional paths are the illuminative way and the unitive way. It seems to me that Fox's Via Positiva and Via Creativa both include certain aspects of the illuminative way. At least in terms of the intentionality of peace and justice activists included in Fox's Via Transformativa, they may, in effect, deliberately aspire to the unitive way.

But Fox's account of the so-called Via Transformativa strikes me as the path on which most people today who are interested in peace and justice begin their spiritual journeys -- if, that is, they actually undertake a spiritual journey (rather than getting stuck in peace and justice activism).

Nevertheless, Matthew Fox's book Sheer Joy is a massive tour de force as a two-way conversation between Fox and Aquinas. However, in my estimate, an index or two would have strengthened the book immeasurably. One index could be devoted to the scriptural references that Aquinas makes when he quotes certain biblical statements. Another index could be devoted to certain key words in the text such as contemplation and to certain names such as Aristotle (known as the Philosopher), St. Paul (known as the Apostle), Dionysius the Aeropagite, St. Augustine of Hippo, and Plato and Platonists.

To explain why I say that Fox's book Sheer Joy is a massive tour de force, I want to invoke the title of T. S. Eliot's 1919 essay "Tradition and the Individual Talent." There are two individual talents at work in this book (1) Aquinas' awe-inspiring talent, and (2) Fox's deeply knowledgeable talent. As to tradition, well, it's everywhere in this book, including in Fox's perceptive "Introduction." Hence, massive.

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Thomas James Farrell is professor emeritus of writing studies at the University of Minnesota Duluth (UMD). He started teaching at UMD in Fall 1987, and he retired from UMD at the end of May 2009. He was born in 1944. He holds three degrees from Saint Louis University (SLU): B.A. in English, 1966; M.A.(T) in English 1968; Ph.D.in higher education, 1974. On May 16, 1969, the editors of the SLU student newspaper named him Man of the Year, an honor customarily conferred on an administrator or a faculty member, not on a graduate student -- nor on a woman up to that time. He is the proud author of the book (more...)

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