Non-dualism: Chenu & Aquinas on Passions as the Seat of Virtues

We have been considering non-dualism as championed by MLK Jr and Pere Chenu, feminist writer Rosemary Ruether, Thich Nhat Hanh and many more. 

“Under Pressure” – anger and terror of witnessing the world’s injustice, love “dar(ing) us to care for the people on the edge of the night.” Queen and David Bowie, video by Nichts Nichts.

Non-dualism includes incorporating our desires (love) and moral outrage (anger) into our values and virtues, what we choose and what we stand for.  Anything less than that is dualism and is, in Dr. King’s words, “strange and unbiblical.” 

As Rabbi Heschel teaches, “the source of evil is not in passion, the throbbing heart, but rather in hardness of heart, in callousness and insensitivity.”

Indeed, it is to passion that the prophets address themselves.  

We are stirred by their passion and enlivened imagination…It is to the imagination and the passions that the prophets speak, rather than aiming at the cold approbation of the mind. 

Chenu tells us how Aquinas insists that our passions are actually the subjects of virtues or the “seat of virtues” and calls this a “radical opinion on the nature of the human unity [that] was not popular in his day.”  In so doing, Aquinas took on St. Augustine and the entire dualistic tradition of the West.  “Significantly, his opinion never wavered on this subject throughout his lifetime.”  

“… in the final analysis…our loyalties must become ecumenical rather than sectional; every nation must now develop an overriding loyalty to mankind as a whole.” Martin Luther King, Jr.’s speech opposing poverty, racism & militarism, one year before his assassination. Democracy Now!

This non-dualism was at the heart of the three condemnations of Aquinas ten years after he died.  The issue was “Aquinas’ position on the consubstantiality of soul and body, spirit and matter.”    

While his canonization in 1323 “removed the cloud of suspicion, intellectually Aquinas’ holism never took hold.”  The main issue, which is with us still today, was the oneness of human existence.  

This holism vigorously opposes the traditional position of a dualism of body and soul, a position originating with Saint Augustine (you do not find it in the Bible) and in fact favorable to a certain Christian spiritualism which has endured right down to our own day.

And, I would add, patriarchy.

For dualists, one must “transcend matter with its limitations” to be  spiritual.  But, says Chenu, “to admit that God creates is implicitly to confess that matter is divinely willed and therefore good.”    

Thus, in the dynamic unity of the human reality, the instincts, the sensuality, and the tensions which are at the root of the passions are all authentic elements of the virtuous life; they share in the dignity of reason and love, and therefore in the human—and divine—value of our lives.


Adapted from M. D. Chenu, “Body and Body Politic in the Creation Spirituality of Thomas Aquinas,” in Matthew Fox, ed., Western Spirituality: Historical Roots, Ecumenical Routes, pp. 194f., 198-200. 

And Fox, Christian Mystics, pp. 325, 332.

To read the transcript of Matthew Fox’s video teaching, click HERE.

Banner Image: “If You Are Neutral in Situations of Injustice, You Have Chosen the Side of the Oppressor.” Desmond Tutu quote on protestor’s sign at Black Lives Matter protest, Manchester, England, 2020. Photo by Sushil Nash on Unsplash

Queries for Contemplation

Do you agree with Heschel that the source of evil is not in passion but in hardness and callousness of heart?  And with Chenu and Aquinas that virtues are to be found in our passions for love and justice?  What follows from that?

Recommended Reading

Western Spirituality: Historical Roots, Ecumenical Routes

In this book, Fox gathers scholars from various cultures and traditions such as Helen Kenik, Jon Sobrino, Nicolas Berdyaev, Rosemary Ruether, M. D. Chenu, Mary Jose Hobday, Ronald Miller, Monika Hellwig, James Kenney, Justin O’Brien and others to approach creation spirituality from many traditions and many angles. 
“An exciting and important book…a pleasant alternative to the oppressive burden of the fall/redemption tradition.” ~ New Review of Books and Religion 

Christian Mystics: 365 Readings & Meditations

As Matthew Fox notes, when an aging Albert Einstein was asked if he had any regrets, he replied, “I wish I had read more of the mystics earlier in my life.” The 365 writings in Christian Mystics represent a wide-ranging sampling of these readings for modern-day seekers of all faiths — or no faith. The visionaries quoted range from Julian of Norwich to Martin Luther King, Jr., from Thomas Merton to Dorothee Soelle and Thomas Berry.
“Our world is in crisis, and we need road maps that can ground us in wisdom, inspire us to action, and help us gather our talents in service of compassion and justice.  This revolutionary book does just that.  Matthew Fox takes some of the most profound spiritual teachings of the West and translates them into practical daily mediations.  Study and practice these teachings.  Take what’s in this book and teach it to the youth because the new generation cannot afford to suffer the spirit and ethical illiteracy of the past.” — Adam Bucko, spiritual activist and co-founder of the Reciprocity Foundation for Homeless Youth.


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11 thoughts on “<strong>Non-dualism: Chenu & Aquinas on Passions as the Seat of Virtues</strong>”

  1. Richard Reich-Kuykendall
    Richard Reich-Kuykendall

    Matthew, Today you ask us: “Do you agree with Heschel that the source of evil is not in passion but in hardness and callousness of heart?” As Rabbi Heschel teaches, “the source of evil is not in passion, the throbbing heart, but rather in hardness of heart, in callousness and insensitivity.” Indeed, it is with passion that the prophets speak. And it is to the imagination and the passions that the prophets speak, rather than to the intellect. Then you ask us if we agree with: “Chenu and Aquinas that virtues are to be found in our passions for love and justice?” Yes, and Chenu tells us how Aquinas insists that our passions are actually the subjects of virtues or the “seat of virtues.” Non-dualism was at the heart of the three condemnations of Aquinas ten years after he died. The issue was “Aquinas’ position on the consubstantiality of soul and body, spirit and matter.” This holism vigorously opposes the traditional position of a dualism of body and soul, a position originating with Saint Augustine, or with his “Aquinas,” who was Plato–who definitely held a body, spirit dualism. Dualists therefore must transcend the flesh in order to be spiritual, but Chenu says, “to admit that God creates is implicitly to confess that matter is divinely willed and therefore good. Thus, in the dynamic unity of the human reality, the instincts, the sensuality, and the tensions which are at the root of the passions are all authentic elements of the virtuous life; they share in the dignity of reason and love, and therefore in the human—and divine—value of our lives.” Thank you Matthew for dealing with the dualism between flesh and spirit that has driven so much asceticism for the last 1,700 years, and I can’t thank you enough for your book: Sins of the Spirit, Blessings of the Flesh !!!

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    The theological battle rages on. St. Augustine is ‘bad for the world and wrong’, while St. Aquainis is ‘good and correct in his interpretations’. Why are we being drawn into this ‘dualistic’ battle of right and wrong? And yes, the divisiveness this creates is not in the spirit of love or the living truth. Most of the Christian population do not care about this and other ‘hair splitting theological arguments’ and for non-Christians of other faiths it is overwhelmingly a non-issue.

    How would we ‘turn out’ and how would the world turn out if we were to just focus on Christ and his words alone and let them grow in our hearts, while being watered by Grace and being led by the Spirit. Do we not trust God to do the job? Enough already. — BB.

    1. Richard Reich-Kuykendall
      Richard Reich-Kuykendall

      Bill, Today you write: “The theological battle rages on. St. Augustine is ‘bad for the world and wrong’, while St. Aquinas is ‘good and correct in his interpretations’. Why are we being drawn into this ‘dualistic’ battle of right and wrong?” It seems here you want a both/and instead of either/or. Would you hold to your position with the theology of Jehovah’s Witnesses or Mormon’s ? I know that every one can BELIEVE they are right, but that doesn’t mean they are. The same with the relation ship between Plato and Augustine and Aristotle and Aquinas. If you start with a poor philosophical base such as Plato’s dualistic view of humans, it will end in a dualistic theology. Now there is NOTHING wrong with dualism per se, we live in a world of dualisms–up and down, in and out, darkness and light, male and female, etc. There is a place for dualism but its not in spirituality and mysticism.

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        God is not asking us to focus on heros and villians and to take sides with preachers. That is akin to eating fruit from ‘the tree of good and evil’ instead of from ‘the tree of eternal life’. With grace and Spirit we need to follow a path in which God’s truth is revealed in a life saturated with love. Feed the flock accordingly. — BB.

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    Wow! I am in agreement with the views of this deeply definitive meditation. I want to focus on Aquinas and his intuitive (higher mind) statement about the consubstantiality of spirit and matter. Here reason takes us to the door of intuition. It gets tricky to verbally describe the oneness of spirit and matter. A mystic like Aquinas is telling us that everything is spirit vibrating differently. We have to imagine spirit being consubstantial with matter and this of course includes the earth, wind, fire, sun and entire cosmos.

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    Imagination… imagine a nation… with the wisdom of the Magi… a new age of the image of I AM… that genuine spark of the Divine within all.

    Intuition… into I and you and you and I, see… that union of the Divine within, as one unit.

    Passion… pass not by this vision of union, of the spark of the Divine within all, but rather pass this I AS, this I IS on, setting this aflame.

    Justice… let this spark of the Divine within, become the just is, that melts the ice of just I, into the flowing waters of just us. Drink from the cup of this juicy new wine.

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    I agree that evil comes from hardness of heart, and there are plenty of Biblical references about this evil, which splits us into any convenient dualistic category of “otherness” and thus allows us to feel and be superior to that “other”—whether the otherness is based on race, gender, age, religion, etc., etc. I think the resistance to oneness, interbeing, or however unity is described, is based on the fear of having to give up the exclusiveness of imagined superiority.

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    Of the various types of unitive “mystical” experiences, the “Neoplatonic” one, is a complicated one of unification of/transcending of duality within nonduality (impossible to explain in a few words).
    The “problem” with Neoplatonism is that its mystical experience and Path were framed by Augustine within dualism for a dualistic audience. The larger, nondualistic, unitive mystical experience was too much to wrap his head around, so he framed it within his prior body-hating dualism. That’s a fundamental flaw, a misunderstanding of “Neoplatonic” mysticism. Unfortunately, HIS interpretation was embraced by the Church, with an emphasis on dualism and body-soul separation.

    This isn’t a frivolous, esoteric quibbling over trivialities in theology, like counting how many angels you can squish together on top of a pin. This is about HOW the entire message of Biblical mysticism, Jesus’s words, Eckhart and other mystics is framed, WHAT (all) messages they’re actually perceived as conveying, and WHO gets to frame that message. If “Neoplatonic” mysticism is held hostage within a dualistic, misogynistic, authoritarian aristocracy, its message will be/has been fundamentally corrupted. If it’s only (or mainly) identified with Augustine’s dualism but denied or silenced in Eckhart, it is caricatured, and its authentic complexity is erased. If it’s confined to one religion only, it is stolen away from others.
    Neoplatonism is much bigger than that.

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    Being open to the Presence of God’s Spirit of Divine Love in our hearts and among us in our daily lives and in Sacred Mother Nature leads us to Compassion and Passion in the healing and transformation of our personal and social lives with one another, integrating our human and Divine natures in the Sacredness of the Present Moment in the evolution of our unique eternal souls within God’s Loving Diverse Oneness….
    ????

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    On the ‘separation’ of body and spirit we rejoice in the awakening of the realization taught by the buddha that ‘form is emptiness and emptiness form’ a dual mind abhors such simplicity seeking to establish itself a firm foothold on the contrary assertion. In the end – or the new beginning, we sing “gate, gate, peragate, perasamgate, bhodi svaha” !

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