Econoeisis: A New Contemplative Paradigm

Ilia DelioAs we linger through the summer months with a blast of heat waves across the nation and a rise in COVID-related deaths, the question of sustainability looms large. Recently I was part of a conference sponsored by Creighton University and the Catholic Coalition for Climate Change.  The conference was entitled “The U.S. Catholic Church: Laudato Si, Creation Care and Climate Crisis” focused on Pope Francis’s 2015 encyclical, Laudato Si,’ highlighting the Pope’s impassioned plea to care for our common home.  I myself wrote a book in 2009 with Brother Keith Warner OFM and Pamela Woods, entitled Care for Creation: A Franciscan Spirituality of the Earth.  However, I have begun to wonder if the term “care for creation” is misguided in that it can represent a static paradigm where the noble human center is given the task of tilling the garden with care.  Insights from the fields of biology and physics tell a different story.  We humans are not created uniquely by God; we emerge from a long process of evolution. The biological systems which have given birth to our lives are not merely physical systems of inert matter; rather, they are systems where conscious life and the dynamics of energy are fully operative.  Peter Wohlleben’s, The Hidden Life of Trees, tells the inside story of tree life.  He writes:  “When you know that trees experience pain and have memories and that tree parents live together with their children, then you can no longer just chop them down and disrupt their lives with larger machines.”  Similarly, Merlin Sheldrake in his book Entangled Life: How fungi make our world, change our minds and shape our futures tells the story of the living dynamics of fungi in such a way that human identity is radically challenged.  Robin Wall Kimmerer, author of Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge and the Teaching of Plants says it best: “The awakening of ecological consciousness requires the acknowledgment and celebration of our reciprocal relationship with the rest of the living world. For only when we can hear the languages of other beings will we be capable of understanding the generosity of the earth and learn to give our own gifts in return.” Care for creation is a mutual relationship between all living things, a relationship of all life-being in love.

The Pope’s encyclical is noble in its aim but stifled in its anthropology. The human person is described as unique and special, even if we emerge from evolution.  The distinction of the human person, according to the encyclical, is our ability to reason and our intelligence, as the Pope writes: “Human beings, even if we postulate a process of evolution, also possess a uniqueness which cannot be fully explained by the evolution of other open systems . . . .Our capacity to reason, to develop arguments, to be inventive, to interpret reality . . .are signs of a uniqueness which transcends the spheres of physics and biology.” The Pope goes on to say that this human distinction presupposes a “direct action of God and a particular call to life and to relationship on the part of “Thou” who addresses himself to another “thou”; yet, the text continues in a ambiguous way by saying that “God wills the interdependence of creatures,” that is, “creatures exist only in dependence on each other, to complete each other, in the service of each other.” The heart of the text is a medieval metaphysical paradigm of participatory being where the transcendence of God undergirds the interdependence of all creatures.   The Church simply does not embrace the Big Bang cosmos and the story of human evolution as the story of revelation.  Thomas Berry wrote:  “The reason for aversion to the story of an emergent universe is that the story has generally been told simply as a random physical process when it reality it needs to be told as a psychic-spiritual as well as physical-mental process from the beginning.” The Church wants to promote “care for creation” by holding together creation and nature; nature and scripture; the human image of God (reason, will) and creaturely dependence:  heaven and earth are unreconciled as a single reality.  Yet, God is One, so where there are two independent realities, there cannot be one God.   Something is off—big time.

Teilhard’s Vision 

Teilhard de Chardin knew that the separation between science and religion lay at the root of our contemporary moral confusion. The historian Lynn White lamented that the fusion of Neoplatonism and Christian spirituality induced an unhealthy other-worldliness, as he wrote:  “Christianity made it possible to exploit nature in a mood of indifference to the feelings of natural objects.”  He went on to say that “the roots of our environmental problems are religious and the remedy must be religious as well. We must rethink and re-feel our nature and our destiny.”    Teilhard sought to bring together Christianity and evolution precisely because the core of Christian faith is the incarnation.   God is not found apart from matter but in and through matter.  The radicality of Christian faith is the claim that God has become flesh/sarx/materiality.   God and matter are not opposed to one another, they are united.

Teilhard never spoke of creation because he wanted to avoid the idea that creation is gratuitous.  In Teilhard’s view, creation is not gift; rather it is God’s dynamic life self-actualizing itself in and through the rise of conscious materiality.  He advocated a “metaphysics of union,” a creation of an evolutionary type, according to which the order in which things appear temporally is the very order in which they are created; as he wrote in 1917, “Every new union to be effected increases the absolute quantity of being existing in the universe.” For Teilhard, divine creation is not, as in Thomism, a kind of logical relay in which anything whose concept does not involve a contradiction can be brought to exist ex nihilo. In Teilhard’s view, organisms, species, and even ecosystems emerge in the course of time only because they have been made possible by the conditions that preceded them: “All things are born from what existed before them.” God’s role, in large measure, is “to make things make themselves” and what Teilhard wants to show is that self-making nature makes God by bringing God to birth. God undergirds the radial energy that builds ever more complex organisms from simpler ones. Following the ascent of complexification, Teilhard was convinced that he saw a direction to the evolutionary process towards supreme complexity, a personal center in which the uniqueness of all psychical centers is intensified—an Omega Point. “True union,” says Teilhard, “does not fuse the elements it brings together,” rather it renews their vitality. In one of his signature phrases, “union differentiates.”

Teilhard’s metaphysics of union requires a more dynamic concept of the material world than what was assumed by the ancients or even by the early modern scientists, a concept more in keeping with the deliverances of the sciences that peer ever more deeply into the microscopic and subatomic worlds. He denied the existence of matter conceived as something lacking in consciousness or spontaneity. He is famous for positing both a “within” and a “without” of things, envisioning multiple levels of mentality or experience as a function of the complexity of organisms. If the idea of God making things make themselves challenges traditional thinking in theology by attributing genuine creativity to the creatures, Teilhard’s peculiar panpsychism—or better, panexperientialism—is a challenge to rethink the dominant paradigm of a merely behavioristic approach to physics, biology, and psychology. What Teilhard brings to the questions of the relations of religion and science is a refreshingly new principle which can be stated this way: concepts of God and of the world are corelative, they have implications for each other. As he wrote to Fr. Pierre Leroy in 1951, a reform is needed in the very concept of God.

The key to Teilhard’s understanding of the God-world relationship is creative union.  He did not hold to a separate doctrine of creation but saw creative union as the integral core of creation which includes the mysteries of incarnation and redemption.  Creative union is the union of God and creation in evolution.  He wrote:  “This theory came to birth out of my own personal need to reconcile, within the confines of a rigorously structured system, the views of science respecting evolution (which views are accepted here as being definitively established, at least in their essence) with an innate tendency which has driven me to seek out the presence of God, not apart from the physical world, but rather through matter and in a certain sense in union with it.”  The incarnation in the general sense of immersion of God in the evolutionary process is coextensive with the total space-time continuum.   God is found in and through matter.  In his “Hymn to Matter” he wrote:

A Being was taking form in the totality of space;
a Being with the attractive power of a soul, palpable like a body, vast as the sky;
a Being which mingled with things yet remained distinct from them;
a Being of a higher order than the substance of things with which it was adorned yet taking shape within them.
The rising Sun was being born in the heart of the world.
God was shining forth from the summit of that world of matter whose waves were carrying up to him the world of spirit.

While classical theology viewed creation as a free act of God, either by way of desire (Bonaventure) or intellect (Thomas), Teilhard saw creation as integral to God.  He believed that without creation, something would be absolutely lacking to God, considered in the fullness not of his being but of his act of union.  Evolution towards greater unity rests on the involvement of God in creation:  the One flows from the many.  The involvement of God in evolution through creative union means that everything happens as though the One were formed by successive unifications of the multiple. God reveals himself everywhere as a universal milieu because God is the ultimate point upon which all realities converge.  The evolutive God rises up from the world of increasing consciousness, for if God had not emerged from the world, God could not be for the world.

Teilhard ultimately discovered what Francis of Assisi discovered in the thirteenth century; the material world is filled with God.  God is present in the sun, the leaves, the soil, the dry earth, the fish, the water, the grains of sand, the wind and the rain, the birds of the air and wolves that roam the forests – every aspect of nature is God-filled or Christic.  The God of Jesus Christ is deeply embedded in the interstitial systems of nature. This whole process of emergent evolutionary life is ecopoeitic, self-making, self-organizing life, moving toward something more because God, Love itself, is at the heart of the universe.  Nature is holy and intelligent; nature feels the pain of abuse.  Nature is not a random physical process under the domain of a heavenly God; nature is where God is actively dwelling and rising to new levels of conscious life.  As God breaks through the limits of matter into higher realms of energized matter-spirit, divinity dawns with the light consciousness:  Christ is born from within.

Praying in an Unfinished Universe

How do we pray to a dynamic God who is in evolution?  What does contemplation mean in this unfinished process of psychic-spiritual-material life? I would like to qualify the meaning of contemplation by speaking of econoeitic union, precisely because contemplation is a first axial development of conscious union with God.  For the ancients, contemplation meant raising the soul to its higher identity by centering the mind on the God above.  Since all things flow from God, all things long to return to God. In order to regain its divine status, the soul must liberate itself from its earthly bonds: “I was without,” Saint Augustine wrote, “while you were within.”  First axial contemplation is the return to God through spiritual inwardness, as the soul ascends from multiplicity toward unity in God.

Teilhard wrote for a new age of conscious-material life, the second axial period of ecological, evolutionary life. Econoesis (a term I coined, which can also be called, “matrnoeisis”) means literally “mindful relationality” (from (nous or mind and eco or household relationships)” or “minded matter.”  Just as Francis of Assisi saw God’s love in every creature, econoiesis connotes conscious interbeing life and mindful creative union. What do I mean here?  Insights from quantum physics and biology today suggest that every aspect of nature is mindful and bears within its own sense of agency.  Everything actively engages everything else; all systems are entangled.  Nature does not need humans to direct its flow of information; it is quite capable of doing so without us.  The infinite depth and breadth and beauty of nature, however, is numinous, the dynamic presence of God.

For centuries, we were taught to find God in the realm of the spirit which was distinct and above matter; now we are to find God in the very stuff of matter. “Matter is the matrix of spirit,” Teilhard wrote.  God, who is Spirit, is not separate from matter but the infinite depth and breadth of matter.  God is infinitely alive in every star and grain of sand.  In his essays on Science and Christ Teilhard wrote, “I allowed my consciousness to sweep back to the farthest limit of my body to ascertain whether I might not extend outside myself….I realized that my own poor trifling existence was one with the immensity of all that is and all that is still in process of becoming.”    He continues by saying, “. . .beneath the ordinariness of our most familiar experiences we realize, with religious horror that what is emerging in us is the great cosmos.”  Teilhard discovered that he was in the earth and of the earth. He claimed that anyone who has had such an experience needs to live with his whole heart in union with the totality of the world.  He wrote of “holy matter” saying that without matter we would be ignorant of self and God.  In his direct experience of the cosmos and the earth, Teilhard believed he found an “Absolute” that drew him and remained hidden.

I was thinking about Teilhard while meditating by the seashore.   I felt the warmth of the sun and listened to the waves rushing on to the shore.  I saw a small bird walking along the shoreline and for a moment, I saw myself.  I was the bird wobbling across the sand, just as I was the ocean waves spilling over the shoreline.  In fact, for a moment, there was no discernible “I.”  The waves, the sand, the small bird, the clouds and air and sun, all were me and I was, briefly, a small moment of this cosmic life. To contemplate for Teilhard is to creatively unite with the power of matter; to be touched and cared for by matter; to be loved by matter, by the sand and the ocean and the sun. Econoeisis means to arrive at a primordial consciousness of surrender where individual identity ceases and merges with all that it touches, experiencing the power of matter through the senses of listening and feeling the energies of matter-life, allowing the energy of tree matter to affect the energy of my matter so that tree matter, sun matter, wind matter, all matter is my matter, diffracted by the differences of being.

While Teilhard realized his oneness with the cosmos, his was not a passive resignation.  Nature is not simply life but dynamic and creative life, open to more being and consciousness.  We are not simply to rest in nature; we are to unite with nature and become something more with nature, more conscious, more being in love, more nature.  All of nature longs to become something more:  “We know that the whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time.”  Saint Paul writes (Rom 8:22).  Life has been building ever more complex structures through the ages.  We are one of its constructions; a constitutive member of the ever vital networks of life.  We are called to continue building the earth in continuity with what life has been doing for billions of years; God is seeking to rise up through this magnificent process of interdependent life.  We do not go to God directly; we go to God through and with the earth, Teilhard said.  It is the earth that gives us the energy to “ascend,” to grow in higher consciousness of God, or rather, God grows in higher consciousness and spirit in us.  To touch the earth is to touch God.

Econoeisis is awareness of divine energy present in every aspect of creation, from the grain of sand to the highest mountain and tallest tree, and every leaf and the vein of every leaf of every tree.  “The whole creation is pregnant with God,” Angela of Foligno wrote.  We are not to care for creation; we are to lose ourselves in creation, in the psychic-spiritual matter of nature, receiving matter-nature within ourselves, so that the outer world is within and the within is the outer world.  To truly know ourselves, we must go beyond ourselves.  We are the world in its becoming.   Teilhard found a spiritual power in matter and realized matter puts us in touch with the energies of love.  Together with all interbeing creatures of the earth—with fungi, bacteria, trees, mycelium, earthworms, bees, chickadees—all creatures great and small, we find ourselves touching and experiencing the hidden God of love.

We are to see ourselves as earth members caring for other earth members.  Perhaps this is what Pope Francis means by “care for the earth.”  We are to be earth-carers and earth-bearers by listening to the power of love coursing through the stars and air and water and our own lives, drawing us all into a single heart of love.  This power of love is the power of God shaping the earth into the Body of Christ, the light shining through all matter as the dawn of unspeakable beauty. Teilhard’s contemplation, according to Martin Laird, means to become a “human energetic,” a new center of energy entangled with other energies of life.  The contemplative energetic does not arrive at truth; rather, one discovers truth as it unfolds through the creative process of entangled matter.  The contemplative energetic does not rest in God; one creatively gives birth to God through the entangled energies of matter where God is drawing matter into the spiritual energies of love.  By creatively uniting with matter (and thus the divine energies of love) we are true to nature in all its splendor, birthing the earth which has birthed us, into a new whole.

Nature is the mother of all human becoming and longs to become something more in and through us.  We are the voice of nature that lifts the silent beauty of the sky and trees into the splendor of God’s glory.  All of nature longs to be brought into the fullness of Christ—to radiate the brightness of divine glory.  To be entangled with nature means that I am the tree and the sun and the wind and the rain that gives voice to the glory of God.

Econoesis invites us to find God in matter by experiencing the Absolute in the ordinariness of earth-life-matter creatures-cosmos.  To contemplate God is to creatively unite with matter, to let matter touch us, speak to us, hold us and embrace us, lifting us up through the energies of love. To “care for creation” is not what we do for creation; rather, it is how we love creation.  Do we love the trees, rabbits, deer, the fish, stars and wildlife?  Better yet, do we allow ourselves to be loved by all of nature?  Mary Oliver said it so well when she wrote:  “My work is loving the world.”  This is what I mean by “care for creation,” that “my work is loving the world,” as the poet reflects, “which is mostly standing still and learning to be astonished,” astonished that I am loved by the smallest of creatures, the tiny earthworm, the delicate petal of a flower, the conifer tree that rises high above me.  Only in love will I become an artisan of the earth’s future.

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