Christian Reflections on the Truth of Matter – Marie-Dominique Chenu OP (1948)

On one occasion Rodin was asked how he conceived his works before carving his ideas in stone. He answered simply: “I think in marble.” The bluntness of this response shows up the impudence—the immodesty, almost—of those who try to analyse in depth the mental processes of a genius; it also indicates the fundamental unity of every artistic work—a unity more profound than mere coherence—and the truth of every human enterprise. The man who put the question to Rodin not only failed to appreciate the greatness of artistic creativity; he submitted to the mind’s perennial temptation to reject the burdensome reality of matter, to refuse to regard it as something intrinsic to the work of the mind, to consider it a mere receptacle for the mind’s thoughts and visions.

But it is not only the intellectuals who are victims of the idealist illusion, for this error taints the very foundations of much of the spiritual life, both profane and religious. In the history of Christianity there are indeed many explicit condemnations of Manicheism, yet if we look closely we see behind the dogmas the lingering shadow of this ever-attractive dualism. The tensions between nature and grace are transposed to the psychological order, and the whole realm of matter is pushed to the side—excluded, not from salvation perhaps, but certainly from contemplation. Possibly the best measure of the authenticity of Christian philosophy is its balance in this respect, both in the interior life of the faithful and in the manner in which earthly realities are understood. However that may be, the surest sign of inauthentic “Christian” thought is this anti-evangelical tendency to push historical and physical realities and material cares into the lower spheres of the soul. This “spiritualism” is a kind of false modesty, and it is not at all to be identified with the contemptus mundi which must characterize every Christian life. Marx realized that there is no purely autonomous life of the spirit apart from matter, and consequently he proclaimed not only the fact but also the truth of economic necessity in the mystery of history. His bitter resentment against the idealism he found in “Christianity” drove him to the metaphysical idealism of Feuerbach. But this aberration of Marx must not lead us to reject the degree of truth in his vision of man. He is right in his humanism which maintains that the homo faber—the working man—has the right and the ability to be fully a man. The Christian who is true to the Gospel is willing to accept this insight of Marx.

Nevertheless it is a daring assertion which proclaims the philosophical and religious truth of matter. For this truth seems to detract from the “interior life” where freedom depends on the transcendence of the spirit and the awareness that human existence is something beyond things and objects, where, in the freedom of personal encounter, love mocks at the limitations of nature, where activity is something private and personal and exclusive, where faith is all the more free when surrounded by the constraints of social conventions and authoritarian decrees, where the spirit always retains its happy, innocent, childlike state. There is here a latent intolerance of the exterior world of things, of economic necessity, of the meaningless incidentals of day-to-day history, of great propagandas and of the restrictions and inquisitions of Moscow or of anywhere else! In the finest hour of the University of Paris, in the emancipated world of the Communes, Thomas Aquinas roused the anger and disdain of intellectuals and religious people by proclaiming the importance of matter in the metaphysics of the universe, in the constitution of man and in the evolution of society. And the subtle analysis he used to vindicate the interiority of consciousness and the freedom of the spirit, despite the limitations of matter, did nothing to allay suspicion . . . The delayed approval of his theology was destined to make it official rather than practically effective. For when the majority of clergy and laity believe in the substantial reality of Charity and Truth they believe, in fact, in the substantial reality of Ideas.

Certainly I would not, and could not, reject Augustine’s contribution to the Western world or to Christianity, for if one were to do that one should also reject St Anselm, St Bernard, Luther, Malebranche, Maine de Biran, even Thomas Aquinas! and Plato behind them all. We must find the whole and unique truth in disjointed sections as we would put together the varied pieces of a broken mirror. Our arms are too short to embrace the universe in a manner that would allow every facet its rightful place. In the words of Fr de Lubac, “conflicts in thought are the expression of the contradiction in the very stuff of the universe; the contradiction permits the movement of history which in turn strives to overcome the contradiction but never quite succeeds.” As Albert Béguin has recently said, each generation has the collective vocation to unveil and exalt some one human value, but in the intoxication of discovery one value must not be extolled at the expense of others. A simple solution is very probably a false solution. For tyranny is more simple than liberty.

Inspired by converging evolutions, our generation would seem to have the task of finally determining the human truth of matter in its historical dimension. For matter is impressing its importance in the many phases of man’s collective life and in the physiological life of souls.

It is significant that the first observable evolution was the transformation of tools and other media of production: the beginning was at the lower level, the technical level. The proof of this is that the first effect of this “materialism” was the burdening of man, individually and collectively, in the person of the worker. But though the machine began by producing the proletariat it has also proved to be a source of liberation, and not only on the technical level but in its ability to engender a community consciousness by the socialization of work. The unified demands of the worker against the exploitation of the profiteer only provide the framework of this community consciousness; what really emerges is a new sphere of freedom through the progressive sharing of both the responsibilities and the advantages of the common good. This is not a condescension; it is authentic freedom.

The dynamic energy henceforward operating in history is rooted in this technical determinism and in the awakening community consciousness. The close association of these two violently upsets established structures; more important, it reveals the true nature of the social phenomenon to be not simply a coalition of freedoms but something of authentic value which emanates from the common goals, aspirations, myths in the living organism. Yes, Marx was right in saying that “the social being determines the consciousness” before the consciousness of men finally determines their being. For it is not true that freedom consists in an escape from social life in a protest of solitude and of pure interiority. The amorphous grouping of the masses becomes a society of persons through fraternal awareness; yet this is a painful process, for the soul of the social body grows no more easily than that of the biological body. But the process must not be distorted in either case: growth must not be attempted in avoiding the economic and physical limitations which started it in the first place.

Man is body and soul: matter enters into the definition of man. Matter is not something juxtaposed to an autonomous spirit, and here again Marx is right against all forms of Cartesianism. Matter is not a fragile and compromising support for spirit, not a passing habitation in preparation for a definitive life. It is consubstantially “present” in man, and through it we can see the operations of the spirit. The evolution of the universe has a meaning only in the history of man, but the history of man is, in turn, written in the evolution of the universe. The many stages of creation are of a common stock. For God too thinks in marble. The resurrection of the flesh and the accomplishment of a new earth will resolve the temporary opposition of history and eschatology, of matter and spirit.

We must not deduce the truth of matter from metaphysics, for that would be nothing more than another ideology; we can observe the truth of matter in the concrete life of man—not only in his individual activity as Thomas Aquinas did in his time, but also in the economic values of man’s collective life, for we can see in these values one of the dynamic forces of history. This human revelation of homo faber is the noble accomplishment of our era. It is noble spiritually as well as temporally, for the humanizing of the working class through fraternal liberation can achieve the evangelical beatitude of the poor and the humble if it is effected by the grace of Christ. And the kingdom of God belongs to the poor and the humble.

[Original source: Marie-Dominique Chenu, « Réflexions chrétiennes sur la vérité de la matière », Esprit, mai 1948, p.884-888.] 
[Translation found in Marie-Dominique Chenu, Faith and Theology, trans, by Denis Hickey (New York: MacMillan, 1968), p. 112-115.]