Honoring Thomas Aquinas’s Non-Dualism & Proto-Feminism

I opened an e-mail early this morning, from a woman leader who is very committed to women’s rights, including the ordination of women. She asked me to make the case for attending our summer workshop in Orvieto, Italy, on Thomas Aquinas. I am happy to make that case. 

A bust of Aristotle at the Old Library of Trinity College in Dublin, Ireland. Photo by Sonse. Wikimedia Commons.

In my major study on Aquinas, Sheer Joy: Conversations with Thomas Aquinas on Creation Spirituality, I devote several pages in the Introduction both to Aquinas’s “clay feet” where he cites the mistaken biology about women by Aristotle, and to his being a precursor of the feminist movement. I call him a “proto-feminist.” Why do I do that?

The late Catholic feminist theologian Dr. Rosemary Ruether has written how the foundation of Patriarchy is dualism: the dualism of matter vs. spirit, soul vs. body, and all that follows from that, culminating in male dominating female. Much of that dualism is traceable to Plato and the Neo-Platonists including, in the Christian tradition, St. Augustine who was a Neo-Platonist. He said such things as “the soul makes war with the body,” and “spirit is whatever is not matter.”

William Blake, who was a painter and printmaker as well as a poet, depicted the dualism of “The Good and Evil Angels” in a watercolor painted in 1795, now in the Tate Gallery. Photo from the William Blake Archive. Wikimedia Commons.

Aquinas spent his entire adult life putting distance between himself and such dualism, insisting that “we ought to cherish the body” and “celebrate the wonderful communion of body and soul.” That is why he was so eager to bring Aristotle into the corpus of Christian theology, in preference to Plato. And he paid a great price for doing so. Upon his death, he was condemned three times by bishops of Paris (where he taught for many years) and of Oxford—for teaching about the “consubstantiality of body and soul,” that is to say, non-dualism.

Aquinas rejected Augustine’s understanding of spirit as “whatever is not matter,” and instead defined spirit as “the vitality in everything.” Thus a blade of grass contains spirit and a tree, a fish and all creation.

Moving beyond dualism: Eden Amadora describes what it’s like to embody the Divine Feminine in the modern world. Video by Eden Amadora. 

By committing himself to non-dualism, Aquinas pulls the rug out from under the foundation of Patriarchy itself (as Ruether has defined it). Therefore, he is a champion of all those women and men who want to move beyond dualism and take a stand with the spirituality of matter.

This movement has exploded in our time with the help of science. By proving that matter and light are one and the same, science has undone dualism once and for all, if we listen.


See Matthew Fox, Sheer Joy: Conversations with Thomas Aquinas on Creation Spirituality, pp. 36-48, 149-156.

And Fox, The Tao of Thomas Aquinas: Fierce Wisdom For Hard Times, pp. 57-64.

And Rosemary Ruether, “Patristic Spirituality and the Experience of Women in the Early Church,” in Fox, ed., Western Spirituality: Historical Roots, Ecumenical Routes, pp. 140-163.

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

Banner Image: An art installation at the Middelheimmuseum in the Netherlands, depicting the unity of Heaven and Earth. Art by Adrien Tirtiaux, photo by Funkyxian. Wikimedia Commons. 



Queries for Contemplation

What implications do you see in moving from defining spirit as “whatever is not matter,” to a non-dualistic mindset regarding women’s rights? And also regarding the future of the survival of Mother Earth and her many astounding creatures? And about the marriage of science and spirituality?


Recommended Reading

Sheer Joy: Conversations with Thomas Aquinas on Creation Spirituality

Matthew Fox renders Thomas Aquinas accessible by interviewing him and thus descholasticizing him.  He also translated many of his works such as Biblical commentaries never before in English (or Italian or German of French).  He  gives Aquinas a forum so that he can be heard in our own time. He presents Thomas Aquinas entirely in his own words, but in a form designed to allow late 20th-century minds and hearts to hear him in a fresh way. 
“The teaching of Aquinas comes through will a fullness and an insight that has never been present in English before and [with] a vital message for the world today.” ~ Fr. Bede Griffiths (Afterword).
Foreword by Rupert Sheldrake

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

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 


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5 thoughts on “Honoring Thomas Aquinas’s Non-Dualism & Proto-Feminism”

  1. Avatar
    Jeanette Metler

    Shakespeare in poem 116, speaks of TRUE LOVE, being a LOVE that does not diminish… even though Father Time… known as Death… stalks all that lives… causing the physical material form of things to decay and return to the formlessness of spirit . This TRUE LOVE is like the North Star, a lit lighthouse that guides oneself through all the obstacles that one encounters and experiences… in the transformational processes of both life and death… as the embodiment of the light of TRUE LOVE.

    Through the wisdom unfolding within the evolution of some of the world’s religions, spiritual pathways, sciences and the arts… this truth has slowly emerged… that all of creation embodies light… which when converged with, through being and living in sacred relationship with… invokes a deep and True Love, for the all and the everything… both in the form of matter and the formlessness of spirit; that even death itself cannot diminish.

    My Mother, whom is palliative, going through the transformational processes of the end of life in form and matter… into the eternal light and formlessness of spirit… offered this poem, to remind me of the light of this TRUE LOVE that we embody; which binds us together as ONE… which we can never be separated from… even as we walk through the valley of the shadows of life and death, form and formlessness, matter and spirit.

  2. Avatar

    Beautiful and Truthful DM today about the non-dualism/Unconditional Love/LOVING ONENESS of the Divine Feminine, especially about what this means for valueing the Sacredness of women (and the feminine within men). I especially loved the representation, explanation, and embodiment of the Divine Feminine by Elena Amadora in the enclosed video of the DM (elenamadora.com).

  3. Avatar

    Elizabeth Schrader Polczer dove deep into the earliest existing texts of the Gospels and their wording about Mary Magdalene. She compared all existing text copies and fragments and found that Mary Magdalene was both controversial to the early disciples (especially Peter) and the early church, even through circa A.D 200. Mary seems to have been known as a gifted and maybe favorite student of Jesus, and also as the person who was the first christological witness to Jesus’ Ascension, the first confessor of faith (Tertullian also said so), but several texts were visibly altered to change her name to “Martha” and/or awkwardly pluralized, adding another woman and downplaying both into generic, unimportant “just some women”. Peter became the official confessor and inheritor of the Christian church’s authority. Mary “the Tower” (the possible meaning of “Magdalene”) was usurped by the male Peter “the Rock.” Instead of Mary/Sophia being the recipient of Sacred Wisdom from Jesus/Logos, sharing wisdom with Peter, she was downgraded and marginalized — deliberately.
    Mary Magdalene, the Apostle to the apostles, Wisdom-Teacher to mystics, was kicked to the blurry generic background. And women were “put in their place” by the “official” church-MEN.

  4. Avatar
    Martina Nicholson MD

    I am reading “Sheer Joy,” and loving it. I love that you are setting it as a dialogue, and helping us to see that St. Thomas was so eager to learn, “as an animal is hungry for food.” I feel his love for creation, and his love for God. Also, how clearly he was seeing, without having things in the way, pertaining to the age of doubt, rather than enlightenment. Today I got a posting from a friend who is a physician who also teaches “the Healer’s art” course at UCSF medical school. Dr. Rachel Remen brought this course to help medical people learn about many things which were not taught in medical school, about grief, loss, mystery and awe, and our intention to help our patients who are suffering. They are adding a section on death and dying, to try to help students have a context and language for dealing with death. Connecting the body and mind and spirit in the coherent WHOLE of creation is the right way for us to look at human life. We are spirit, having a human experience. And that automatically gets us past dualism, I think.

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