The events of recent weeks have thrown the world into a heightened state of volatility. Fear of the Coronavirus has created global unrest, while a vaccine for the virus eludes researchers. Environmental warming continues to show its effects, most recently in the devastating tornado in Tennessee. In his new book, Until the End of Time, physicist Brian Greene declares that there is no purpose to the universe; it’s just “particles obeying their quantum-mechanical marching orders.” What, no purpose? We are just particles in the universe having bad karma? There is no meaning to anything? How utterly unhopeful.
But we do hope. It is the main impulse of life. Why do we awake to a new day anticipating that things will improve? What accounts for the hope which lies within us? If life was simply about random particles interacting with no purpose or meaning, death too would be meaningless. Yet, Teilhard de Chardin noticed that there is something else going on in the universe. He thought deeply about these questions and came to some of his greatest insights in the trenches of World War I. Serving as a stretcher bearer, surrounding by wounded and dying soldiers, Teilhard realized that the destruction of war signaled something breaking through in the world, something not yet realized but coming to birth. This was not naïve optimism but a realization that war is destructive but not final. The violence of war is horrific but out of the rubble life finds ways to rise up again.
We treat death as an evil, a surd, yet death is integral to life. “Things perish with a passing over in which the sacrificed individual also flows in the river of life. . .each is a blood sacrifice perishing that others may live,” philosopher Holmes Rolston writes. On the level of nature, death functions as part of the dynamic flow of open systems. Life breaks down, it flows into the wider stream of activity and is taken up in new ways. In the 1960s meteorologist Edward Lorenz discovered the science of chaos theory, recognizing that systems open to the environment undergo a breakdown of order due to the emergence of new order within. The term “strange attractor” refers to a basin of attraction that can spontaneously arise within a system and lure the system into a new pattern of order known as a fractal. The repeated addition of fractals eventually gives rise to new patterns and the emergence of new properties. Chaos is about new order emerging in existing order. Systems breakdown because something new is being formed.
Death and life mark the dynamic process of evolution. Life moves from simple to complex organisms where relationships increase and consciousness rises. There is really nothing in nature to warrant this dynamic flow save the open nature of systems themselves. Teilhard identified the power of change as Omega, the ultimate energy of wholeness, centration and fecundity. God is Omega, the ultimate depth of all that exists; yet God is more than anything that exists. God is the future fullness of life to which we and all life are drawn. Everything is in movement and oriented toward ultimate life because God is love and love is ultimate wholeness-in-movement and the future toward which we are moving.
It is because this power of divine love is at the heart of life that evolution requires more than mere matter to explain its direction toward wholeness and self-reflective consciousness. The creation story in Genesis does not begin with humans but with the most fundamental feature of the universe—light. Not just physical light but metaphysical light, psychological light, emotional light, spiritual light. Light is a synonym for consciousness, and consciousness, philosopher Philip Goff claims, is the inner dimension of matter itself. Panpsychism, which proclaims the fundamental reality of consciousness, opens a new window on Anselm’s ontological argument: God is that than which no greater can be thought, the ultimate horizon of consciousness itself. God is the ultimate depth of consciousness which is present at the heart of matter from the “beginning.” In this respect God and matter belong together; it is incarnation all the way back to the beginning. Religion is the depth dimension of matter. Since institutional religion consolidates this depth dimension into paradigms of transcendence, religion is at the heart of evolution. Religion and evolution belong together, Teilhard wrote: “The religious phenomenon, taken as a whole, is simple the reaction of the universe as such, of collective consciousness and human action in process of development.” Religion has a cosmic and biological function long before it has a human function; and without a viable religious depth dimension evolution cannot proceed towards its capacity for greater wholeness.
If we doubt that religion and evolution belong together, we can trace the emergence of religion in human evolution through the rise of axial consciousness. Whereas pre-axial religion is cosmic, mythic, ritualistic and communal, axial religion is individual, solitary and transcendent. World religions, including Christianity, are first axial religions. All of them developed a set of doctrines, rituals and beliefs based on the human person as individual in pursuit of transcendence. Western Christianity compounded axial religion by consolidating it into a religion of the empire, thus injecting fundamental Christian principles into all areas of human life, including politics, economics and science.
Twentieth century science revolutionized our world and in doing so, left institutional religion in the dustbin of history. We have changed because our fundamental understanding of reality has changed, and yet we are more adrift today than a hundred years ago. This is where the religious dimension of evolution plays a significant role. Without a viable religious dimension to cosmic evolution, science has nowhere to go, no real aim. Science has been operating on principles of evolution for over a century, while religion has simply ignored evolution, as if it just a theory. The Catholic Church in particular has held a politically correct position with regard to modern science, seemingly open and interested and yet protective of its core doctrines so that they cannot be radically altered. Yet a God who is not related to evolution is not a God of evolution. We simply cannot cut and paste medieval theology and cosmology onto the 21st century or smooth out the theology of Thomas Aquinas to fit the new science.
One of the biggest obstacles to planetary wholeness is religion and it is a tricky issue. Religion plays a significant role in people’s lives and no one wants to disrupt or disturb this role. It works to some extent; it comforts, heals, reassures and safeguards our welfare. Yet without a renewal of religion for a world in evolution, evolution has no compass, no cosmic GPS system, leaving us subject to the blind forces of nature. And this leads to the most volatile situation of all, a world created for wholeness yet spiraling downward because there is nothing to guide it, no organic purpose or meaning.
Pope Francis wrote his encyclical Laudato Si’ in 2015. Hailed as a landmark document, numerous groups have held conferences, wrote books, created educational materials and other efforts to promote his vision of integral ecology. But it will never work—not in a million years (or maybe in a million because by then things will have changed). The Church cannot talk about the environment without changing its own environment. How can a Church steeped in patriarchy, sexual abuse, exclusion of the LGBTQ community, and the rejection of women from priesthood actually proclaim an integral ecology? There is something deeply amiss. Is the Church luring us to a vision it cannot itself enact or practice? A Church grounded in integral wholeness can only be an open systems Church, a Church open and engaged with the wider environment; a Church ready to sacrifice and change its structures in order to move into new life-giving patterns of religious energy. Vatican II called the Church to aggiornamento, to open its windows to the world. But the air has become so stifled within it is now time to take down the walls of the fortress, to release the Spirit of life into the world, to breathe new life into a new pattern of Christian life in evolution.
We can ignore the fundamental drive of evolution and what modern science has been telling us for the last hundred years. We can make believe we still live in a three-tiered universe and aim for the reward of heaven. We can feel good about ourselves by going to Church, practicing centering prayer, giving to the poor, building homes for the homeless and feeding the hungry. We have made religion into a self- serving, self-saving enterprise: do good, avoid evil and practice the golden rule. But in doing so we reduce religion to a self-service counter in the same way that Brian Greene has reduced the universe to interconnected particles leaving the whole of earth life without depth, breadth or future.
We have entered a new axial age of consciousness, the second axial age, one that is communal, ecological, cosmic, informational, interbeing. It is no longer about the human person in need of salvation; now it is about being part of a dynamic whole where deep interconnectedness marks our lives. Since the actions of one affects the many, so too the salvation of one is the salvation of the many. We are either saved together or not at all. Technology has advanced this new age of consciousness at a rapid speed; the train of human evolution has left the station and institutional religion is not on it. Teilhard realized almost a hundred years ago that “any religion which focuses only on individuals and heaven is insufficient.” People are looking for a religion of humankind and of the earth which gives meaning to human achievements. . . .a religion that will kindle cosmic and human evolution and a deep sense of commitment to the earth.” He spoke of the need for a new religion that could activate and energize us for a forward movement of love. Traditional religion is too tied to old cosmologies, he said, to have any real effect for the planet. God has been too small to nurture in us a zest for new planetary life.
So we are confronted with a very big decision that we may not realize on a daily basis. Do we want to maintain our old religious doctrines, practices, rituals and beliefs even though these cater to our individual needs, while we are swept away into a technologically-driven, second-axial posthuman existence? Do we really think religion will slow this process of change or perhaps temper it with a set of moral values? This can easily make religion into a form of escapism. But there is no escape from where we are going. We are created for wholeness of being and our planetary life will not rest until it rests in wholeness, the dynamic interconnectedness of being where death, life, flow, information and personalization prevail. To resist the forces of evolution is to create a downward spiral of unraveling, which is what we are encountering today. Our present systems were built on the needs of the individual, but they are battling against the forces of change. Nature is pushing on, to evolve into interplanetary life but human structures resist this convergence and are struggling to remain independent. One of the greatest forces of resistance today is religion.
Teilhard was deeply aware of this reality and devoted himself to bridging faith and evolution. In his view, Christianity can be one of the most vital resources for planet earth because its basic faith claim is that God has entered into materiality. The God of evolution is in evolution. He thought that God and world form a complementary whole, that God affects the world and the world affects God, and that one cannot exist without the other. What would the world look like if we practiced Christianity as an unfinished religion in an unfinished universe? What if God’s becoming depends on deep relationality, co-constructive meaning, integral systems dynamically engaged with the environment? What might worship look like? What form would prayer or meditation take? What would a Church that actually preached and proclaimed a God at the heart of integral emerging wholeness look like? For without a God of evolution, we have an evolution without God – leaving our dark, blind world thrown to the winds of greed and power.
I guess the question is, how far do we want the Church or institutional religions to ignore modern science and its implications for our lives? Should we lobby for a God revolution or a revolution of religion before we lobby for a green earth?
Teilhard’s religion of the earth is a radicalization of the core tenets of Christianity. In an unfinished universe where spacetime continues to unfold, nothing is complete or fully formed; everything is forming. Everything is open to completion, including the Church. This open process of ongoing life is symbolized by the Christ event. Life, death and resurrection are three dimensions of life’s openness to completion in God, and God’s future fullness in the whole of life. Everything must die so that everything may live in a new integral (cosmotheandric) wholeness. In his essay on “Kenosis and Nature” Rolston writes:
This whole evolutionary upslope is a calling in which renewed life comes by blasting the old. Life is gathered up in the midst of its throes, a blessed tragedy, lived in grace through a besetting storm. . . .In their lives [all creatures] beautiful, tragic, and perpetually incomplete, they speak for God; they prophesy as they participate in the divine pathos. . .they share in the labor of the divinity. . . The Spirit of God is the genius that makes alive, that redeems life from its evils. The cruciform creation is, in the end, deiform, godly, just because of this element of struggle, not in spite of it. There is a great divine “yes” hidden behind and within every “no” of crushing nature. God, who is the lure toward rationality and sentience. . .is also the compassionate lure in, with, and under all purchasing life the cost of sacrifice. . .the aura of the cross is cast backward across the whole global story, and it forever outlines the future. [I]
The whole evolutionary process is a via dolorosa where suffering, struggle and death are the wages of a universe in evolution, oriented toward the flourishing of life. Death is the most liberating force of life and without it we cannot evolve into new levels of complexity-consciousness. However, there are different forms of death. There is the death of brokenness, a type of death that resists the wholeness of life for reasons that are sometimes difficult to comprehend. Such death can be spiritual, emotional, psychological or physical. Then there is the mystery of death, the untimely death due to accident, violence or illness, the sudden death that leaves loved ones abandoned without reason or cause. While death comes in many forms, all forms of death are part of the stream of life for every death, in some way, contributes to ongoing surge of life.
The type of death Jesus proclaimed was a spiritual death, the death of the isolated self for the sake of greater life. “Anyone who wishes to save her/his life will lose it,” he said, “and anyone who loses her/his life for the sake of the Gospel will save it.” Francis of Assisi too spoke of death as “sister.” “Blessed are those who endure the first death,” he wrote, “for the second death will do them no harm.” He spoke of death not as a radical rupture but as a transformative process, letting go for the sake of new life. I wonder if Pope Francis has reflected on the insight of his namesake. For a Church that cannot die, cannot live, and a Church that is not alive cannot promote life.
It is time for the Church and all world religions to lay down their well worn doctrines, to consolidate their spiritual paths for a world in evolution, and to yield to a new religion of the earth, one that can gather spiritual energies into a new collective hope. Only if religions work together for the good of the earth can we begin to organically grow our lives of deep interconnectivity with a vital religious dimension oriented toward the future. How do we go forth? By accepting death as part of life. We hold on to what we cherish, what gives life, we let go for the sake of greater life, and we hope that in our dying and rising we may move toward the fullness of life.
To resist death is to resist life. The irony is that the denial of death has led to all forms of greed and power, deadly forms of consumption and consumerism that have plundered the planet and alienated the poor. To deny death is to fear life and we fill the hole of our fears by grasping for things and holding on to them with adamant self-righteous. Yet, the more we hold on with a firm grasp to what is not life, the more quickly we die, for that which we grasp ultimately cannot give us life. Only care for another humanizes us, which is why the death of the isolated self for the sake of greater life requires faith in the power of being loved, in the power of God. For where there is God there is love and where there is love there is no fear, because the one who lives in love, lives freely and celebrates life as belonging to another.
[I] Holmes Rolston, “Kenosis and Nature,” in The Work of Love, ed. John Polkinghorne (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm Eerdmans, 2001), 59-60.