Chenu, Aquinas, Teilhard on the Holiness of Matter in History

Chenu admires Aquinas for the importance he gives to matter.  Remember Aquinas tells us that this is why he preferred Aristotle to Plato, because Aristotle “does not denigrate matter.” 

Theology of matter, technical civilization and Christian spirituality by M.D. Chenu.

Chenu talks about the “continuous incarnation” and the “continuous creation,” meaning it is not just Christ who took on flesh but we all do.  Incarnation goes on and on.  It is continuous.

Chenu says of Aquinas: 

In contrast to his contemporaries who condemned him for his ‘materialism,’ Saint Thomas believed that the genesis of history was accomplished through the development of the species and of the individual by and in matter.  Matter is the principle of individuation. An individual does not become a person except in a body; one’s own personal ‘incarnation’ is at the same time the principle of individuality, sociability, and historicity.

With incarnation comes responsibility.  Today our responsibility extends to Mother Earth and to creation itself.  Chenu put it this way: 

Creation fails when humanity fails….Bonhoeffer has said as much in his Ethics wherein he declares: ‘It is a matter today of taking part in the reality of God and of the world in such a way that I never experience the reality of God without that of the world and vice versa.’ 

Barry Harvey reflects on Bonhoeffer’s writing in one of his last prison letters that he had “come to know and understand more and more the profound this-worldliness of Christianity.” Wipf and Stock Publishers

Teilhard de Chardin, Jesuit poet, priest, scientist and mystic, who like Chenu got in trouble with the Vatican that forbade most of his books from being published in his lifetime, also celebrates matter. Says he:

Till the very end of time matter will always remain young, exuberant, sparkling, newborn for those who are willing.

Teilhard sounds very optimistic here. He is not whining about how matter runs down and dies and renders us tired. Quite the opposite!

He is saying that matter is always young and “will always remain young”–matter is always new. That is one of the spiritual insights derived from evolution and from observing life. Life, “matter,” is constantly being created. But, as Teilhard points out, this perspective accrues to “those who are willing.”

“Teilhard’s Challenge to See the Heart of God in the Heart of Matter.” Dean Malcolm Young of Grace Cathedral, San Francisco.

Individuals remain spiritually young when they remain open and willing to join forces of youthfulness and renewal and hope. 

Notice that evolution for Teilhard is not an obstacle to faith. Quite the opposite, it offers insight on the deeper dimensions of Spirit at work in history.  

That magic word, ‘evolution’ which haunted my thoughts like a tune: which was to me like unsatisfied hunger, like a promise held out to me, like a summons to be answered.  


Adapted from 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. 204. 207

And Matthew Fox, Christian Mystics, pp. 220, 226.

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

Banner image: Thomas Aquinas (by Sandro Botticelli, Wikimedia Commons); Marie-Dominique Chenu (from the cover of A Coming of God into Time and History: The Theological Project of M-d Chenu Op) and Pierre Teilhard de Chardin (Wikimedia Commons)

Queries for Contemplation

How do Teilhard, Chenu and Aquinas inspire you to love matter and find ever-present newness and youthfulness in matter and in evolution and in your own incarnation into the cosmos? 

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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20 thoughts on “Chenu, Aquinas, Teilhard on the Holiness of Matter in History”

  1. Richard E Reich

    Matthew, Today you begin by saying that “Chenu admires Aquinas for the importance he gives to matter. Remember Aquinas tells us that this is why he preferred Aristotle to Plato, because Aristotle ‘does not denigrate matter.’” More than this, Chenu talks of “continuous incarnation” which means that we too are incarnations of the Cosmic Christ. And with incarnation comes responsibility. Today our responsibility extends to Mother Earth and to creation itself. Chenu put it this way: “Creation fails when humanity fails….” Teilhard de Chardin, Jesuit priest, scientist and mystic, who the Vatican forbade most of his books from being published in his lifetime, also celebrates matter. Says he: “Till the very end of time matter will always remain young, exuberant, sparkling, newborn for those who are willing.” Nor is evolution for Teilhard an obstacle to faith. Quite the opposite, it offers insight on the deeper dimensions of Spirit at work in history. Teilhard writes: “That magic word, ‘evolution’ which haunted my thoughts like a tune: which was to me like unsatisfied hunger, like a promise held out to me, like a summons to be answered.” I agree with Aquinas, Chenu and Teilhard on the issue of matter. I hold a view that human nature is embodied spirit or as Chenu has continuous incarnation–a wholistic approach to human nature.

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    Matter is light, the source of all existence. That being said, matter without Spirit is dead. Just go to the graveyard. You will have better results talking to the Spirits of your loved ones than their bodies buried six feet under.

    Have you seen the astral body, the causal body. They are there but not unlike evaporated water, they cannot be seen with the ‘physical eye’. To be experts at and be debating ‘temporal’ physical matter at the expense of our everlasting nature is divisive and a waste of time at best unless it can be translated, much like a parable, in layman’s terms. A feast for the intellectuals, creates separation and tastes like sawdust in the mouths of everyone else. — BB.

    1. Richard Reich-Kuykendall
      Richard Reich-Kuykendall

      Bill, You write today: “To be experts at and be debating ‘temporal’ physical matter at the expense of our everlasting nature is divisive and a waste of time at best unless it can be translated” –sounds like a visit to the doctors to me! They are experts in “temporal” physical matters and often cannot translate what’s going on in a way that you understand.

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    Right on, and well said by Matthew, and those he quotes…. It’s interesting how closely these daily meditations often mirror and compliment those by Richard Rohr and the Center For Action and Contemplation.

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    The light side of this dark night of the soul that humanity is encountering, is the transformation of religion evolving into spirituality; in which emerges communion, through relationship with. It’s a worldly paradigm shift within the collective consciousness of humanity, bringing into focus the reality of our interconnectedness, inter-reliance and interdependence with the diverse expressions and manifestations of the Divine essence and presence incarnate in the matter of all existence. We are being awakened to a new way of perpetually discovering the reality of all of creation being holy ground; which is expanding our perspective from an intellectual understanding of this reality, into a heart based experience of communion and union with this reality.

    This movement is initiated by the Divine eternal, universal, cosmic Holy Spirit of the essence and presence of infinite LOVE, embodied within all matter, the mystery and beauty inherent within the all and the everything of creation… in holy communion with… one to the other. Our response of taking hold of this reality in a sacred way, matters. It is not to be grasped as a possession, but rather held lightly, openly, reciprocal in its receiving and giving through the sacredness of communion, union and relationship with… known as the Beauty Way!

    1. Richard Reich-Kuykendall
      Richard Reich-Kuykendall

      Jeanette, Today you write: “The light side of this dark night of the soul that humanity is encountering, is the transformation of religion evolving into spirituality..” Thank God/dess for the evolution of religion into spirituality, because Lord knows, humanity has been going through a Dark Night of the Soul from day one. Remember in the mythical beginning it said, “In sorrow you shall bring forth children” and “In the swear of your brow you shall eat your bread, till you return to the ground–for out of the dust you were taken and unto dust you shall return.”

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    The Spirituality in Creation is the invisible Life, in living matter. All Life forms follow Life, by simply Living. A wise person said “If we ask Life a thousand times, of what purpose does Life have” The answer would be the same, each time. TO LIVE. Lifeless matter has a purpose in supporting Life as water and soil have. They both are teeming with billions of Living Life forms. This allows for God’s transcendence as other than Life. And yet for living things Lifeology or the study of a loving, living Triune, Family of God with the loving, living triune, families of all living species, whose image of Life, we are made in. This Truth, sets us all free to evolve into the fullness of Everlasting Life, on Earth, as it is in Paradise. Life is the one universal Truth, all living things experience. We do this by living, moving and enjoy, having our being. Life frees us from fear and worry. Living and imitating Life’s unconditional service to us, is our following the Tree of Life. Life gives us the power to help each other in our daily struggles. Two of our two basic needs, grown Food for our bodies and unconditional forgiveness for our unjust activities are the Sacraments that provides us with our Physical and Spiritual well being.

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    I remember being an assistant librarian, my first job after graduating from university in 1965. While putting returned books back on the shelves I was struck by the title The Phenomenon of Man by Teilhard de Chardin. I took it home, read it, and was fascinated by his ideas and ultimately bought all of his books. Today’s Meditation aligns Teilhard with Aquinas, Chenu, Eckhardt, Boff and Matthew – enlightened ones excommunicated by an institutional church stuck in its dark life-less system of orthodoxy.

    1. Richard Reich-Kuykendall
      Richard Reich-Kuykendall

      Gwen, Thank you for your comment !!! And I like that you write: “Teilhard with Aquinas, Chenu, Eckhardt, Boff and Matthew – enlightened ones excommunicated by an institutional church stuck in its dark life-less system of orthodoxy.”

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    These ideas sparked my body awake! Thank you for doing the hard work of sifting through all those holy texts, picking out the ones that make sense, then giving us a dropper-full gently in our tea. These are a few of the quotes that reached through my ignorance:
    “Matter is the principle of individuation.”
    ‘It is a matter today of taking part in the reality of God and of the world in such a way that I never experience the reality of God without that of the world and vice versa.’ (loved the unintended matter pun)
    “That magic word, ‘evolution’ which haunted my thoughts like a tune: which was to me like unsatisfied hunger, like a promise held out to me, like a summons to be answered.”
    Makes the idea of constant birthing more clear, too. Very grateful!

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    Yes, they and many past and present mystics, prophets, saints, artists, indigenous people, women, children, ‘ordinary good people,’ justice workers, sacred beautiful Mother Nature/Earth, our sacred co-evolving multidimensional~multiverse Cosmos… inspire me to be aware/conscious of God’s Loving Presence in my heart and among us in Loving Diverse Oneness….
    ????

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    All of the created material plane is the lived imagination of the creator. Being of one substance with that imaginative presence of the divine, matter is the divine artist’s means of expression. Each conscious mind is a partitioned point of perception of that divine mind, through which God creates and experiences meaning.

    Jesus was also a partitioned being. He was in human form, but he had an awareness and consciousness that transcended the material plane. This is the point where I agree most with the discussions above. Jesus didn’t come as a sacrifice for our sins to propitiate God for our awfulness. God came to speak to us and let us know that each individual person is a manifestation of God. As such god knows every aspect of our being, our experience, and our reality. God understands why we fail because God is within each of our failures. God fully understands God’s purpose for us in this grand statement of being. Thus, our forgiveness is implicit in God’s statement of being. God’s love for us is equivalent to God’s love for God’s self.

    1. Richard Reich-Kuykendall
      Richard Reich-Kuykendall

      Dana, Today you write: “All of the created material plane is the lived imagination of the creator.” This sounds a lot like the Hindu concept that all reality is but the dream of the God Vishnu–part of the Hindu “trinity”–Brahman (the creator), Vishnu (the sustainer) and Shiva (the destroyer / transformer).

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    Organized Roman Catholicism established a set of Theological Truths over a thousand years ago, in a world of primitive science and steeped in dualism. Ever since then, mystics have been required to “round the square peg” and shave off, bend and whittle their mysticism to fit the “Officicial Theology.” Dualism was enforced.

    It’s also especially important to remember: mysticism was an ancient “Mystery religion” — that is, extremely SECRET, shared with only a chosen few. It stayed a mystery religion within Judeo-Christianity. Its Truths were tucked into the Bible in hints, scattered and veiled. Few people were “let in on the secret.” It was thus (they hoped) “safely contained” against heresy and distortions by the ignorant. Mysticism may have preserved a sacred revelation and its theological teachings, but it was treated like a “dangerous explosive chemical” held extremely cautiously within their otherwise serene texts.

    People hunger for the life-breathing core of mysticism that they’re once again being allowed to taste. They NEED — the Whole reintegrated within themselves. Extreme immersion in dualism, in a split-personality of body/matter vs. soul, intellect/ego vs. intuition/integration creates a debilitating Soul-sickness. Mysticism offers a healing alternative.

    1. Richard Reich-Kuykendall
      Richard Reich-Kuykendall

      Melinda, Mysticism is not a religion. Mysticism crosses all religious and spiritual boundaries. There are Hindu mystics, Jewish mystics (Kabbalah), Muslim mystics (Sufis). And just prior to the time of Christ as well as for a couple of hundred years after him, there were Gnostic religions and Mystery religions that had elements of mysticism–and yes, these had secrets that only the initiated could know. And what was true then and now is that, as you say: “People hunger for the life-breathing core of mysticism that they’re once again being allowed to taste.”

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        To be more specific “Neoplatonic mysticism”. As I’ve been saying for over a year, this specific “neoplatonic” mysticism is a hidden mystical revelation/theology within several parts of the Bible It’s more openly visible in Plotinus, Sufism, the Upanishads, and diverse Christian mystics such as Augustine and Eckhart. It is distinctive within each of those cases, recognizable if you know what to look for. As I’ve also said, it traces back through the mystery religion tradition, probably all the way back to ancient Egypt’s doomed monotheism. It was a religion at that point, and I’d say Plotinus’s Enneads could be considered a religion. Does it count as one if its supreme god is called “the One?” Plotinus believed so.

        1. Richard Reich-Kuykendall
          Richard Reich-Kuykendall

          Melinda, Today you write: “To be more specific ‘Neoplatonic mysticism.’ As I’ve been saying for over a year…” Yes, your earlier statement makes more sense knowing you were not referring to mysticism in general, but Neoplatonic mysticism, which, yes, you have been writing about for some time. As you may have guested this is not a Neoplatonist web site, it is rather a Creation Spirituality website and one of the things that we agree on in Creation Spirituality is that Neoplatonism is more of the same of Plato and Augustine which we’d rather not focus on. We focus on the creation mystics like Hildegard of Bingen, Meister Eckhart, Thomas Aquinas, Julian of Norwich, and others. I wonder, have you done a search on-line for Neoplatonist sites? You are welcome to comment here all you want, I just wanted you to know how Creation Spirituality feels about Neoplatonism…

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