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Another split in Michael Fox's cosmos

Oakland, Calif.

In a converted piano warehouse in this urban setting, the University of Creation Spirituality is emerging. Rebel theologian Matthew Fox has a new vision: He speaks of a postmodern university, a place where technology and faith unite, where working people come to talk about spiritual quests.

Across town in the green hills swaddling the campus of Holy Names College, the Sophia Center has emerged from the ashes of Fox's old program, the Institute of Culture and Creation Spirituality. Its director, Jim Conlon, also has a vision: He speaks of "a spirituality for the new millennium."

But there will be no collaboration between the two programs, no faculty teaching at both places, no students studying at both places, no shared mailing lists. This was, according to most accounts, much like a bitter divorce, and the feelings months later are still raw. The two programs are now competitors for students who once would have found only one place to study creation spirituality -- the old ICCS program at Holy Names college.

Fox's converted warehouse is still unfinished, though the program got last minute accreditation at the master's degree level through the New College of San Francisco. Earlier in the summer, Fox said he hoped for at least 50 students paying $7,500 each to study with him and a faculty including former Gov. Jerry Brown, the Body Shop's founder, Anita Roddick, and eco-theologian Brian Swimme, among others. Body Shop is a national chain of cosmetics stores. The school attracted a total of 33 students, 25 full-time, including four scholarship students from developing countries and two homeless students.

The Sophia Center, enjoying the benefits of its bucolic location, access to the library and other resources of an established, accredited college, was vague about its numbers. Conlon would say only that enrollment was "somewhere in the 30s." Students pay $375 per unit. They will study with Rosemary Radford Ruether, Joanna Macy and Br. David Steindl-Rast, among others.

Conlon could provide no other information on minority enrollment or finances, other than to say about 70 percent of all Holy Names students are receiving some manner of financial assistance. He said no one at the school would have any more specific information.

The faculty who have left Holy Names College to teach at the fledgling university -- 13 in all -- did not want it to be that way. They still do not understand what happened to them at Holy Names College in the months after Fox announced plans to open the new school. They are excited about the new program, but drained and hurt by their final experiences at the college.

Different stories

What happened? The answers, gleaned during recent interviews with Fox, current administration at Holy Names and faculty at both institutions, differ sharply.

According to Judie Gaffin Wexler, Holy Names vice president for administrative affairs, college administrators followed routine procedures.

The Western Association of Schools and Colleges performed a regularly scheduled review of Holy Names in the spring of 1995, and in the wake of that review, Wexler and college president Mary Alice Muellerleile undertook a campus-wide review of programs.

Neither administrator had been at Holy Names when Fox founded the ICCS. Fox has always had an annual contract authorizing him to make decisions about faculty and curriculum, subject to the approval of college administrators. For years, Fox said, his decisions had been rubber-stamped, but with the WASC review, that ended.

The WASC visit, administrators said, prompted them to take a closer look at a number of programs, including Fox's. They decided it needed more stringent standards for tenure, curriculum and financing.

In the fall of 1995, Fox told Conlon he wanted to appoint a female faculty member to codirect the program with Conlon. Wexler said the administration had to turn down the suggestion. "The budget was set. There was no money. [He] said he could raise the money, but you just don't do things in the middle of the year. We were in the process of looking at the whole program then," she said.

Relationships between Fox and Conlon chilled after that, although Conlon will not speak ill of Fox. Fox said he was shut out of all future discussions about ICCS and that Conlon attended secret meetings, but Wexler said there were no secret meetings.

Controversy has followed Fox for years. During the 1980s, he was formally investigated by the Vatican for his popular writings on ecology, ritual, feminism and earth-based spiritualities. He was silenced by Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, the Vatican's orthodoxy watchdog, for a year in 1988.

In 1993, after a protracted and bitter dispute with brother Dominicans in Chicago over Fox's refusal to return to his home province in the Midwest, he was dismissed from his order.

And in 1994, he said he chose to make "a lateral move" to the Episcopal church and was eventually accepted as a priest in that denomination.

In his new book, Confessions, Fox said Wexler told him, "It is time to institutionalize ICCS." Wexler insists that the ICCS was not singled out for reform. New plans for ICCS were part of a campus-wide effort to strengthen academic standards, she said

Rave Mass technology

Meantime, Fox was becoming increasingly fascinated with the Rave Mass, a high-technology program from the Church of England. His enthusiasm was not shared by his faculty, including Starhawk, the witch whose faculty membership caused an uproar in Rome in the early days of the ICCS program.

In words echoed by other faculty members, Starhawk wrote in a December letter, "I mistrust the focus on technology and ritual. ... Bombarding people with sound and images can certainly produce a trance, but it doesn't necessarily produce a transformation."

At his new Ritual Center, Fox held a Techno-cosmic Mass of the Angels on Sept 29, attracting nearly 500 people. The center, he said, had to turn away 200.

Another liturgy, a Techno-cosmic Mass of the Body Sacred, featuring Body Shop's Roddick, was scheduled for Oct. 27, according to spokesperson Michael Mansfield.

Muellerleile is adamant that the Rave Mass was out of line with the college's expectations and that Fox placed too much emphasis on it. "We had no reservations about him teaching how to do it, but the institution could not have the rave be its ritual since it has its own" Catholic ritual, she said.

She also said she doubted whether Holy Names could properly provide the "enormous technology, hardware, software and maintenance" necessary for production of a Rave Mass.

Fox's changing interests and the college's drive to improve academic standards signaled a certain change in the shape of ICCS. In December the college hired a mediator to work out details of the new program with the faculty. At issue was who would control the curriculum, who would teach and who would determine the future of the program. An irreparable split began that day and has never healed.

An ad hoc committee of ICCS faculty met in January and February with college officials to work out a plan for ICCS's future. Simultaneously, in February, Fox announced he would open a new university and a Ritual Center.

The ad hoc committee wanted a collaborative arrangement between the two programs. Many faculty members, most of whom taught part time, wanted to teach at both places.

"I said they could teach at both places, but could not develop curriculum at both," Wexler said. Faculty were given a March deadline for stating whether they wished to continue to teach at Holy Names College.

"They fired the faculty," Fox said. Wexler said no one was fired. However, most of the faculty members were not invited back to teach. Wexler says some missed the deadline and others indicated a conflict.

Marlene DeNardo, who taught at ICCS 10 years and was the woman Fox had wanted to appoint as codirector, said, "It was a power question. Anyone who was on Matt's brochure wasn't invited back. We were disempowered in a very visceral way."

In a letter to Conlon, faculty member Luisah Teish added, "The entire situation seems politically unbalanced and spiritually unclean."

In February and March, students met and sent a letter to the administration and held rituals with and for the faculty.

Tribal loyalty

Dodie Donnelly, who has remained at Holy Names College, said involving the students disrupted the whole program and was meant to mask the shortcomings of some faculty members who could not meet tenure standards.

She said it was clear that faculty couldn't teach at both places. "It was tribal loyalty. ... These were people who were exacerbating the situation. They would have continued divisive activity [by teaching both places."

But for some, the choice was not so clear. Starhawk will not teach at either school this fall.

In early December, foreseeing the bitter split ahead, she wrote, "We like to believe that ICCS is a group of empowered, creative individuals working collectively and cooperatively. ... However, we are also working in the framework of an academic institution that has its own rules and regulations, and which is a hierarchical structure. ... Add to this mix Matt Fox's enormous influence because of his vision and his ability to draw people into the program, and we've got a good recipe for conflict."

After the announcement of faculty selection, things soured between the two groups. The college changed the ICCS locks when a staff member's desk was rifled. Wexler said the incident was simply incentive to have all locks on campus changed for security.

Fox claims his mail was intercepted and filed a complaint with postal officials. He said the college refused to forward his calls. His lawyers wrote to the college and demanded they cease using Fox's name or the ICCS materials to recruit students for the new program.

Fox is convinced Holy Names officials acted under the influence of "the long arm of the Vatican." Wexler shrugs off the suggestion as too farfetched to merit discussion. "No one from the Vatican ever talked to us about Matthew Fox," she said.

Conlon, Wexler and Muellerleile all said they wish Fox well in his new program. However, the mailing list, student projects and other materials will remain the property of Holy Names College, they said.

The Sophia Center launched its new program with a summer tutorial led by world religion authority Huston Smith.

The new curriculum will include feminist spirituality, Buddhism, tribal religions, Tai Chi, dance, eco-theology, the new cosmology and the creation mystics.

"Sophia was the feminine face of God ... the inclusive presence of the divine leading to transformation," Conlon said of the center's namesake.

Benefits of chaos

Conlon believes a greater good will emerge from the conflict surrounding the new center. "One of the great insights of modern science is chaos theory," he said. "You look at the evolutionary process not through moral accusation but of the turbulence and transformation of the universe."

Muellerleile is less lofty in her assessment. The program will have to draw enough paying students to meet its expenses, she said. If it proves academically and financially sound, it will remain a viable part of the college. If not, it will die a quiet death.

Fox, meantime, has bold plans for his new university and succeeded in earning accreditation for his master's program.

He said he will never seek accreditation for a doctoral program. It is his dream, instead, to offer a program appealing to working people who are trying to integrate spirituality and work. His theology on the issue is articulated in his latest book, The ReInvention of Work. Just as Holy Names College was the living laboratory in which he redefined creation spirituality, so the new Creation Spirituality University will become his testing ground for a new theology of work.

He has made a total sweep in his quest. Creation, his much-beleaguered magazine, has been reborn in a slick, high techology-influenced format that he hopes will appeal to a wider audience. Fox said he had grown tired of supporting the magazine's losses with his lecture fees.

A large room in the bookstore basement near the university, the Ritual Center will not only house the Rave Mass, but will host many new forms of worship. Fox wants it to be the kind of place where people from the streets feel comfortable.

Fox has secured a small loan from the Episcopal church for his new liturgies.

The ICCS program was attended largely by mature adults in search of renewed spiritual life. Fox hopes his new program reaches beyond to minorities, the disenfranchised and the young.

For the time being, the campus on the hill and the university in the city have an uneasy truce.

National Catholic Reporter, November 1, 1996