One person I deeply admire for his spiritual leadership—and qualities of courage and trust that we indicated yesterday are necessary for it—is St. Thomas Aquinas.
Though I have been studying his work since I was fifteen years old–and was marinated in many of his writings through my years of study as a Dominican—it is only recently that I have awakened to how brave he was, how magnanimous and courageous.
Indeed, he stood up to and digressed from the entire patristic tradition so grounded in Platonism and Neo-platonism’s dualism that it was. In this sense, in his insistence on Aristotle over Plato (because Aristotle “does not denigrate matter” as he put it) Aquinas was truly committed to a non-dualistic view of the world. This renders him a feminist or at least a proto-feminist since, as feminist theologian Rosemary Ruether puts it, the heart of feminist philosophy is non-dualism.
The issue of dualism vs. non-dualism was so significant an issue in Aquinas’s day that this was the number one charge against him when three bishops, following his death, condemned his teaching of the “consubstantiality of body and soul,” that is to say, matter and spirit.
In contrast to Augustine’s definition of spirit as “whatever is not matter,” Aquinas defines spirit as “the elan (vitality) in everything”—from a blade of grass to a tree, from a horse to a galaxy, from music to poetry to love-making.
And he declares: “We ought to cherish the body [and] celebrate the wonderful communion of body and soul.”
Spirit is everywhere—and especially in our creativity where the “same Spirit who hovered over the waters [we would say the fireball] at the beginning of creation hovers over the mind of the artist at work.”
Spirit is alive and well in human creativity. How important it is that we use it for good and in defense of Mother Earth, not in the killing of Earth.
Aquinas, who wrote twelve books commenting on the works of Aristotle—and not a single book on Plato (or Augustine), would have been ecstatic about the new discoveries of science for he insisted: “The most excellent thing in the universe is not the human but the universe itself.”
Here we see his sense of pre-modern and indeed indigenous consciousness: That we belong to the whole and we derive our reality from it. Or as he put it, “the greatest thing about the human person is this: That we are capable of the universe.” Little did he—or anyone in the last 8 centuries—know how vast and amazing the universe is since it was only two summers ago that we learned it was two trillion (!) galaxies big, each with hundreds of billions of stars.
But he did know—and the modern era in its narcissism forgot this—that we belong to it; and not it to us. The same is true of the Earth.
Queries for Contemplation
Are you on a quest for non-dualism as Aquinas was? Is that not the meaning of becoming a mystic, overcoming the dualism between God and us…and between the rest of nature and us? (Cf. Meister Eckhart: “In breakthrough I learn that God and I are one.”)
The Tao of Thomas Aquinas: Fierce Wisdom for Hard Times
A stunning spiritual handbook drawn from the substantive teachings of Aquinas’ mystical/prophetic genius, offering a sublime roadmap for spirituality and action.
Foreword by Ilia Delio.
“What a wonderful book! Only Matt Fox could bring to life the wisdom and brilliance of Aquinas with so much creativity. The Tao of Thomas Aquinas is a masterpiece.”
–Caroline Myss, author of Anatomy of the Spirit