Pittsburgh church's seminar to offer 'radical' view on Christianity and the Cosmic Christ

| Saturday, June 22, 2013, 8:34 p.m.

Matthew Fox and Andrew Harvey have been called mystics, prophets, heretics.

Fox, a former Catholic priest the Vatican expelled for his views on feminism, sexuality and the priesthood, and Harvey, the follower of a Hindu guru who studied with a Tibetan mystic, will bring their “radical, relevant Christianity” to Pittsburgh next weekend.

The two, whose teachings are controversial for many mainstream churches and theologians, will lead a seminar June 28-30 at the First United Methodist Church in Shadyside.

“We hope to get church people and non-church people excited about the Cosmic Christ and Historical Jesus. ... Our species is in trouble; we've got it in us to change,” said Fox, who became an Episcopal priest in 1993 and founded University of Creation Spirituality in Oakland, Calif. He advocates “goddess” worship and started the Cosmic Mass, replacing pews and hymnals with dancing and DJs, to enliven worship.

Harvey, a lifelong follower of a 13th-century Muslim poet and founding director of the Institute for Sacred Activism, believes the world needs to return to “the words of the mystics and ... the nonviolent philosophies of Gandhi, Nelson Mandela and the Dalai Lama.”

Their views are diametrically different from those of traditional churches.

“It's radically different from conservative Christianity,” said the Rev. Jeff Miller, pastor at the Harvest Bible Chapel in Wexford. “Our church would adhere to scripture. ... All those different ideas get their authority from somewhere else.”

Will this “radical, relevant Christianity” play well in Pittsburgh, a former mill town where some consider a shot and a beer to be a mixed drink?

The Rev. Gail Ransom, director of Christian education at Shadyside's First United Methodist Church, thinks it will.

“Our church is very open,” she said. “We are progressive but still a mainstream faith.”

The church in 2010 hosted Khandro Rinpoche, the highest-ranking female Tibetan Buddhist teacher, and a year later joined a network that welcomes gay and lesbian churchgoers.

“We have a lot of diversity in our church — race, economic status, even Christian perspective,” said Lynette Jacobs-Priebe, 40, of Oakmont, who married her husband, Eric, in the church 10 years ago. “Part of the appeal is (Fox's) inclusiveness. It's a real celebration of diversity.”

Young professionals could be attracted to Fox and Harvey's “Bay Area” version of religion, experts said.

“It's still California and the culture doesn't change,” said Carl Raschke, professor of religious studies at the University of Denver.

Their message has “a certain variety of leftist liberal Christianity melded with spirituality,” said Alexander Riley, a cultural sociologist at Bucknell University in Lewisburg.

Fox, listed No. 25 on Watkins Mind Body Spirit magazine's 100 most spiritually influential people for 2013, was a guest on an ecumenical radio program hosted by Pittsburgh diocesan spokesman the Rev. Ron Lengwin in the 1970s.

“He was New Age back then ... experimenting with various forms of religion,” said Lengwin, who doesn't recall specifics of the interview.

Officials with the Western Pennsylvania United Methodist Conference, the church's administrative body that includes Pittsburgh, said the program appears to fit with those allowed at churches.

“Quite often, churches will do programs that are ecumenical or given as a way of surveying other religious practices. First UMC Shadyside has had a long history of ecumenical and theological reflection,” said the Rev. Dawn Lynn Check, spokesperson for the conference.

The program is meant to challenge church members and force them to think about their beliefs, organizers said.

“The purpose of the seminar is to transform the way we think of the church in relationship to our culture,” Ransom said. “We are members of a cosmic community, held together by a benevolent force.”

Craig Smith is a Trib Total Media staff writer. Reach him at 412-380-5646 or csmith@tribweb.com.

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