MLK, Chenu & Aquinas on Non-Dualism and the Body Politic

A non-dualistic attitude toward matter and body results in a non-dualistic attitude toward the body politic.  Democracy or an effort at fairness and justice, a spirituality of “dancing Sara’s circle” vs. a spirituality of “climbing Jacob’s ladder,” results from a consciousness of incorporating matter, spirit and history in the body politic.

Photo of M.D. Chenu. Used with permission from Matthew Fox.

One example of that is Aquinas’ insistence that the common good is more divine (divinius est) than personal liberties.  So important was this insight to Martin Luther King Jr. that he cites Aquinas in his iconic Letter from Birmingham Jail.  Laws contrary to the common good need not be obeyed but should in fact be protested.    

There are laws that supersede those made by men.  Laws like justice and fairness and compassion and treating one another with decency—laws that do not always make it into human-made law books, especially in the South during Jim Crow days.

Chenu emphasize how “some mystical traditions within and without Christianity consider multiplicity and diversity to be a radical weakness.”  History is considered something negative.  For Neoplatonists life on earth is an exile.  We merely ‘put in our time’ on earth much as a prisoner puts in his time.  We are ‘doing time’ one might say.  Time becomes a wound through which our life pours out.

Thomas Aquinas. Stained glass window in the Franciscan Monastery in Washington DC. Photo by Lawrence OP on Flickr.

Aquinas thinks the opposite—that history and multiplicity are “a work of wisdom.”  Diversity is a blessing and history is an invitation to co-create and it is because God’s goodness cannot be represented effectively in one single creature that he created multiple and diverse things in such a way that whatever is lacking in one creature in representing the divine goodness may be made up for by another. (Aquinas)

Humanity is not the most excellent thing in the universe—the universe is.  “It is the entire universe which shares perfectly the goodness of God and represents it more than any one creature by itself.” (Aquinas) And “humanity is a partner of God in the continuing building up of the world….Humanity, the co-creator, is unthinkable apart from history and it is through humanity that the universe receives a historic dimension.” (Chenu)

Evolution is not a stumbling block but an invitation to construct a world of justice and peace.  “But to do takes body (justice) and spirit (love) working in mutual harmony as body and soul do.” (Chenu)


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. 200-212. 

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

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

Banner Image: Scene from Selma movie, re-enacting the March on Washington. Photo by History in HD on Unsplash

Queries for Contemplation

 Is the non-dualism of body and soul, justice and love, what is meant by Jesus’ advice that we “love one another as you love yourself?”  Is this what constitutes MLK’s invitation to build a “beloved community—that we co-create a new history instead of flee from history?

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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8 thoughts on “MLK, Chenu & Aquinas on Non-Dualism and the Body Politic”

  1. Richard E Reich

    Matthew, Today you begin by saying: “A non-dualistic attitude toward matter and body results in a non-dualistic attitude toward the body politic.” You show that Aquinas’ insisted that “the common good was more divine than personal liberties. So important was this insight to Martin Luther King Jr. that he cites Aquinas in his iconic Letter from Birmingham Jail. Laws contrary to the common good need not be obeyed, but should in fact be protested.” So there are laws that supersede those made by humans, because they are moral laws or if you don’t like “laws,” try moral virtues–and thus there is a time for civil disobedience. You say of Neoplatonism: “For Neoplatonists life on earth is an exile. We merely ‘put in our time’ on earth much as a prisoner puts in his time. We are ‘doing time’ one might say. Time becomes a wound through which our life pours out. Aquinas thinks the opposite—that history and multiplicity are “a work of wisdom.” Diversity is a blessing and history is an invitation to co-create…” And today you ask us: ” Is the non-dualism of body and soul, justice and love, what is meant by Jesus’ advice that we “love one another as you love yourself?” I’ve always thought that it was another way of saying, “Do unto others, as you would have them do unto you.” But if I was Ramana Maharshi I would say it means that the other is myself, for we are One…

  2. Avatar

    “What is meant by Jesus’ advice?” is the query. Why don’t we ask Him.
    Excerpt of Comment written and posted elsewhere.

    Right now, as we read all about Jesus as prophet and us becoming prophets, are we not all saying yes in total agreement? But are we willing to take up a new Cross, the one we have avoided in the past, and walk the path to wherever it takes us? Reading of Jesus, even every day, and doing of Jesus are two separate paths. One path is intellectual, and one is experiential. We have to get out of our heads and into our hearts and lay the ‘rubber to the road’ so to speak. Are we willing to do that? Are we really listening?

    Do we consider Jesus to be in the past tense, as many do, or here in our presence, talking to us now? If we believe that Jesus is ‘lost to us’ until a final judgement, then consider that we ourselves are truly lost in this present lifetime. If we are truly by Jesus side and residing in His realm, there is no final judgement for us to attend. What we are waiting for, as the ever present and ever living God, has already arrived and is within our midst. This is the ‘Good News’. — BB.

    1. Richard E Reich

      Bill, You ask today: “Do we consider Jesus to be in the past tense, as many do, or here in our presence, talking to us now?” The ideas of the Cosmic Christ and panentheism both say he is ever-present…

  3. Avatar

    Yesterday I watched an interview between the journalist Jarreed Farar and the leader of the country of Greece, that took place at the recent Davo conference. This interview was empoweringly inspirational, giving me a new perspective of hope of what’s possible. The rest of the leaders of all countries can learn alot about how this governing leader of Greece has brought together the body of this country, for the common good of not only the people but the earth as well. This brilliant soul has responded to all the crisises we are globally facing, in the way that Mathew has spoken of today within the DM and inparticularly his included video clip. I think you may be able to watch it on U-tube, which I would highly recommend doing.

  4. Avatar

    Yes! Yes! … in answer to your questions Matthew! I love your quotes from M.D. Chenu: “… humanity is a partner of God in the continuing building up of the world… Humanity, the co-creator… “ Also, ‘evolution… is an invitation to construct a world of Justice and Peace… ‘, “… But to do takes body (Justice) and spirit (Love) working in mutual harmony as body and soul do.”
    God’s Spirit of Love~Wisdom~Truth~Peace~Justice~Healing~Transformation~Creativity~Beauty~Joy~Compassion~Oneness… Is A Loving Living Spirit Present within and among us, especially in our Sacred Mother Earth, in our Loving Diverse Oneness of our sacred multidimensional~multiverse evolving Cosmos of Divine Love….
    ????

  5. Avatar

    I agree with Richard that the directive of Jesus to love neighbor as self means there is no distinction between neighbor and self but that both are one, and I also used to think it meant the golden rule. The Jewish understanding of tikkum olaf also stresses the repair of the world, the community of all and not just the individual. Christianity as a whole has lost this concept, it seems. MLK’s vision of the beloved community is the same thing, and look at the push back he suffered from so many Christians. The flight from history, instead, is being codified in places like Florida with new laws forbidding any meaningful discussion of racism or injustice against the queer community both in lower and higher education. White supremacists, strengthened by Christian nationalists, are growing stronger and stronger. I am with MLK that we must resist bad laws and with John Lewis that we must make good trouble.https://www.myjewishlearning.com/article/tikkun-olam-repairing-the-world/

  6. Avatar

    Neoplatonism: definitions
    1) A historically popular (Roman) Catholic interpretation of a Hellenistic theology. A mythologized, deeply dualistic body-hating religious theology that partially affirms the soul while denying the body and the world: God fundamentally and willingly cut off from creation. A politically useful, NON-mystic’s interpretation of Neoplatonism (definition 2).

    2) A theology/ethical lifestyle/poetic celebration/RELIGION/MYSTICISM, the source of PANENTHEISM )and probably of MONOTHEISM), consisting of a specific CORE theology of beliefs, plus associated intuited religious ideas, implied ethics and lived (integrated) expressions, of its FUNDAMENTAL AFFIRMATION of a UNITY of mind/body/soul/world/One(God). and validated by/reflected in the Sacred Circle or flow between and through its internalized lived Path and its distinctive mystical revelation. Examples: Plotinus, Judaism (the Torah, Kabbalah), Christianity (Jesus’ teachings, the Logos, Eckhart, St. John of the Cross, etc,), Sufism, and the Upanishads. Frequently associated with meditation and ascetic practices for deepening prayer, enhancing focus and limiting distractions deemed unhealthy/detrimental to a worshipful, balanced, life-affirming Path, but which can be carried to egoic excess and harm (pride, dualism).

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