Some of you may have seen Brian Cox’s magnificent recent series Universe, broadcast on BBC 4. The program on black holes was mind-bending, as Cox explained how all the workings of space-time cease completely at the event horizon of these “monsters,” which swallow up all neighboring stars and even smaller black holes. Located at the heart of galaxies, they are the super-controlling, sculpting forces in the universe, like weird holes in its fabric. Then near the end of all the overpowering imagery, the camera unexpectedly came to focus on a beautiful, roofless ruin of a Gothic cathedral, set in green fields, as Cox walked through it. It then zoomed in to a vault under the old nave where Cox was sitting, and from where he proceeded to sum up all that had been presented about black holes. No reference was made to the ruined cathedral. The image was simply allowed to speak for itself, which it did, eloquently: you can’t hold together in your mind both the awesome power of a super massive black hole and the notion of a Personal Creator of it all. These monsters even swallow up God! The findings of science are completely discrediting faith and its interpretation of reality. Christianity with its worldview is no more than a beautiful ruin from the past.
It was so pointed that, after the program ended and the symbolic meaning of the ruined church dawned on me, I felt challenged. It also made me feel greatly impatient with the Church, which doesn’t seem to be taking important questions seriously, namely:
Where is the place of Christ in the universe story, – its past, present and future?
Where is the place of Christ in the evolution story, its past, present and future?
That is, does Christ have a place at all?
If faith is to remain credible for much longer, these answers must be found and widely proclaimed, and if the Church doesn’t address them soon it could indeed follow the fate of the ruined church above, at least in the lives of the younger generations. Many a child will have found a dinosaur among their presents on Christmas morning, but can Jesus and dinosaurs coexist in a child’s head? Or in an adult Christian head, for that matter? What world view can accommodate both and make sense?
The Church has for too long evaded the challenge to its worldview from science. Just as it was resistant to a sun-centered world view, condemning Copernicus and Galileo, it is quietly uncomfortable with the new cosmology and anthropology. However, as Alfred North Whitehead said in 1925, “Religion will not regain its power until it can face change in the same spirit as does science. “
For too long science and faith have inhabited different worlds, that is, different mind-sets. It is not enough to claim that there is no theoretical conflict between the two. Theology must show it is capable of living in today’s culture of science and of relating its transcendent faith truths to that world. That is to say, theologians as human beings must show they can live passionately in both worlds and can unite them in a new, meaningful and inspiring synthesis. Too few theologians have wrestled with matter as scientists do.
Even far back, as a young nineteen-year-old in UCD studying Arts in the late 1960s, I had an uneasy feeling that my beautiful faith was somehow not part of the modern world. Perhaps the late-night debates between my dad and older brother, as to how to reconcile the theory of evolution with the Genesis account of creation, made me feel less secure about faith at an intellectual level.
And then, providentially, I attended a talk at the French society one evening about someone called Pierre Teilhard de Chardin. I listened, spell-bound, and found myself filling up with hope and joy! Here was someone who was tackling the science-faith issue head on. His vision of reality, woven into a single physical-spiritual whole, was amazing and utterly inspiring. I suddenly stopped feeling old-fashioned because of my faith. Teilhard instead was making me feel like a space-age Christian! I went on to read two of his major works, The Divine Milieu and The Human Phenomenon, which underpinned my faith for the rest of my life. He saved me from a dualistic, debilitating world view.
His ideas? In the broadest of brush strokes: it’s all about the significance of consciousness.
The power of the original atoms created in the big bang to associate positively with each other formed the matter of the universe.This positive energy, the ability to relate, to combine, is the basis of everything at every level. At the highest level it may be described as love-energy.
Eventually, the dawn of life brought about ever greater complexity in matter. The growth of consciousness through ever more complex organisms has been the goal of the universe all along.
Evolution is the rise of consciousness, and humans are the universe now grown conscious of itself. Evolution is continuing, with a long way to go, and as humans, we are now responsible for where it is going.
Christ is organically related to the universe, was always going to be incarnate from the very beginning, and is more than a Savior of souls (although he is that too). He is the present and future path which evolution needs to take.
“Everything that rises, converges.” The risen Christ provides the omega point, the necessary point of a converging evolution, in whom all become one through the positive energy of love, divinized, while still retaining individual personhood. It is a unified vision of the whole of reality. Science and faith reinforce each other. The Triune God’s work is one.
“For many, evolution still means only transformism […] They truly are blind who do not see the scope of a movement whose orbit, infinitely transcending that of the natural sciences, has successively overtaken and invaded the surrounding fields of chemistry, physics, sociology, and even mathematics and history of religions. Drawn along together by a single fundamental current, one after the other all the domains of human knowledge have set off toward the study of some kind of development…. Evolution is a general condition, which all theories, all hypotheses, all systems must submit to and satisfy from now on in order to be conceivable and true. […] Evolution is a light illuminating all facts, a curve that all lines must follow.” 
Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, French Jesuit priest and scientist, lived from 1881 to 1955, and spent a great deal of his life working as a palaeontologist in China. Living mostly in an expat scientific community, he was keenly aware that Christianity did not appeal to many of his colleagues and friends. Pragmatic by nature, they found it too other-worldly, demotivating of their human passion to discover, understand and shape this existing material world. Teilhard devoted a great deal of his thinking to finding a way to overcome their distaste for Christianity, producing a great body of writing. However, in the Vatican, rigid-minded theologians were resistant to the idea of evolution, and throughout his entire life he was forbidden to publish his writings. Publicly known only after his death, the writings were published by friends. This silencing he bore with saintly patience and humility, free of resentment.
Teilhard has provided a whole scaffolding of thought which he hoped others would develop further. He has shown where the answers to the questions above are to be found. His insights are critically important, but over the fifty plus years since I heard that inspiring talk I have yet to hear the word evolution breathed in a church setting. The Genesis accounts of how the world and human beings came to exist are read out periodically as the liturgy requires, with no attempt at commentary, explanation or contextualisation. Maybe a great many people still take them literally? This is disheartening and disappointing on the part of the Church. Answers have and are being worked out, but the Church doesn’t seem to get the urgency of finding and developing them for general consumption, despite our emptying churches, devoid of young people. It is presenting “too small a Christ”, to use Teilhard’s expression, a Christ that no longer catches the imagination, no longer occupies center stage as he once did in a smaller, Greek version of the universe.
However, I was overjoyed recently to discover that there is a Teilhard Project underway in the United States, led by Frank and Mary Frost, to produce a two-hour TV documentary on Teilhard and his thinking, and which will hopefully air next autumn. That, in turn, led me to discover the Center for Christogenesis, again in America, founded by Ilia Delio, a Franciscan theologian, dedicated to promoting and developing Teilhard’s ideas. They organize monthly zoom talks and discussions on aspects of Teilhard’s thinking by eminent speakers. Delio’s many books, built around Teilhard’s insights and developing them in the light of today’s sciences and spiritualities, are inspiring, and paint an exciting vision of how Christianity might reinvent itself in the next millennium.
Speaking on a recent podcast, Delio explains:
“Why a Center for Christogenesis? Because it brings a conscious awareness that Christ is still in formation. And that Christ does not belong to Christians, by the way. As Raimon Panikkar reminds us, there is a Christophany, a Christic dimension to every part of life, every person, which means there’s a divine depth dimension to every living creature, and Christogenesis is awakening to that divine depth dimension of all life, and of our lives, towards the renewal of life on earth.
The Centre for Christogenesis is an endeavour to integrate science and religion, towards an integral wholeness in which we ourselves are spiritually transformed, so that we can participate creatively in the unfolding of a new world via new structures and relationships, grounded in love. Christogenesis is the birthing of Christ in evolution. Evolution is an unfinished process, and Christ is an unfinished person, and therefore that divine love incarnating our lives, and the livingness of things in the universe, is the building up of Christ, or the ‘birthing’ of Christ.
We who are conscious beings in this evolutionary process are called to a conscious birthing of this power of divine love within us, that the world itself may move more fully towards a fullness of life within the embrace of divine love. We have the power to create a new world.
Do we have the desire and the will to do it? I think only if we work together is this vision really possible.”
Delio, and others with this new holistic, relational and unifying approach, renew my conviction that it is possible to be a space-age Christian, that is, to feel comfortable as a Christian in a science based culture. They fill me with hope! – a very welcome gift in these grey times for the Church.
My only wish is that a great many more people would discover how Christianity would explode with renewed meaning and relevance if it embraced evolution and today’s vast cosmic vision. In the words of Hopkins,
“…AND the fire that breaks from thee then, a billion
Times told lovelier, more dangerous, O my chevalier!”
We Christians can evolve and learn to give Christ his true, whole, organic place as the ultimate goal of consciousness, precious pearl of this amazing, black-holed universe. Teilhard has led the way. Some are following…
“His purpose He set forth in Christ,
As a plan for the fullness of time,
To unite all things in Him,
Things in heaven and things on earth.”
 Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, the Human Phenomenon, ed. and trans. Sarah Appleton-Weber (New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 1999), p 152.
 G.M. Hopkins The Windhover. To Christ our Lord.
At some point, one cannot proceed successfully as a truth seeker, much less as an awakened truth knower while embracing institutional forms of religion and their authorities as one’s primary reference point. Even the Teilhard’s, Merton’s and others allowed themselves to stay affiliated with same in a way that hindered them. Doesn’t jive with Christ’s invite “to leave all for my sake,” or Paul’s exhortation to “throw off the weight of everything that hinders and entangles,” in order to better “run the race marked out for us.” We have one short life to live on earth, one task to perform and race to run for Christ. Do so unhindered, so as to finish your race as a front runner in a fettered field, however gifted, reluctant to attain full stride.
Thanks for this fine essay on Teilhard and, with his influence on Ilia Delio and others, hope for the church. At least one other exponent of a religiously based hope is Richard Rohr, His recent book, The Universal Christ, is very wise and realistic. The mystical tradition, he shows, is rich in spiritual food in harmony with the evolutionary perspectives expressed above.
One of the giants of science was Einstein. Many of his ideas were accepted and then many were rejected or modified as new scientific data or mathematical conclusions were accepted. This in fact is how evolution in science works. What are the avenues of religious evolution? Theology offers that option, but can it enhance the evolution of our beliefs in an organizational structure like the Roman Church? This organization is not a democratic one and may never become one. The Roman concept of “one” as defined in the churches manifesto denies diversity. Paul defended against that idea in his letters. According to Astrophysicists homo sapiens will evolve into a new species within a period of the next 1,000 years. What will these new living species be like and what will they believe? I am in hope that what Jesus offered that “justice will bring peace” and that might be accomplished as defined in Mathew 25. Only scientific evidence will answer that hope! This will describe a level of a new and higher intelligence.
Thank you, Geemapox. Yes indeed, I’m a fan of Richard Rohr too.
Joe, you’ve raised a very interesting point! Should truth-seekers stay with the Church or not? Was Teilhard in particular right to do so?
I think that Teilhard (et al) was wise to hang in there with the Church. Why? Because ‘everything that rises converges.’ And as his truthful vision rose, it converged with the other absolute, love. He stayed with the Church out of love for Christ, and to try and fashion a new dress for His down-at-heel Bride looking shabby after two thousand years.
This dogged faithfulness of his, this humility, heroic obedience and ability to suffer is the mark of an authentic prophet in the biblical mould. It increases my trust that Christ was with him. In my view he is not only a scientist and visionary but a saint. He waited for the Church to grow to be able to accept him, and maybe that time is now.
Awakened truth-knowers also need community, if they are not to become an enlightened elite split off by themselves. If they want to share their truth, – and they must surely wish to do so- may they please stay with the Church and share it with the rest of us truth-seekers! Teilhard used to quote the writer Antoine de St Exupéry, ‘If you want to bring about change in the house, you have to live in it.’ I am grateful that Teilhard hung in there. It makes me trust him more than if he had left.
Thank you, Joe, for making me realise this.
Being a truth-seeker can become a trap that draws one further away from what Jesus taught. It requires a battle with nearly 1800 years of man-made conclusions which are frequently in conflict with Jesus’s vision of walking humbly with God and washing each other’s feet. By baptism we are all called to be servants. Instead, we have allowed ourselves to be driven to fame and wealth. And so has our church!
Mr. Kennish, we must never forget the teachings of Jesus, Paul and John–and the exemplary lives of the early Christians. Still, the Church was given the Holy Spirit, who has guided the Catholic tradition through the millennia of truth and error, sin and sanctity. Newman in his century showed that change in teachings can be fruitful. (Newman also opposed declaring papal or ecclesiastical infallibility.) The Vatican ultimately endorsed Galileo, and Teilhard is now approved by many, as are the once censured Aquinas and Eckhard. Saint Joan of Arc was burned as a heretic. The disastrously stupid papal bull that permitted slavery for the sake of church imperialism has been condemned, as has been the Spanish and other Inquisitions. The Protestant Reformation is now considered salutary by many straight Catholic thinkers. Franciscans were and are not condemned for teaching the Incarnation of Jesus did not have to happen to forgive Original Sin but to embody and exemplify the love of God for all people and other creatures. Many more revisions of and alternative teachings can be listed. God gives all people minds and free will, and the word “judicious” does not mean “judgmental.” Let us love one another, trust but verify, and avoid sweeping generalities.
To John Kennish:
Even as we try to walk humbly with God, what do we do when scientific truth-seekers discover the scary dimensions of the universe and the awesome power of black holes?
We have to try, surely, to incorporate them into our mental world, the same world that holds the values of Jesus. That is why I followTeilhard de Chardin, because he shows that applying the concept of evolution to the truths of the Christian faith enables us to see them in a whole new perspective, and to better hold onto that faith in the face of serious challenge.
We need this approach if we are to continue credibly offering the faith to new generations. With this approach even black holes need not be a threat to faith in Jesus, in whom ’not one thing had its being but through him.’
Thank you for your excellent points, which remind us of how the Church is a learning community, and that it often learns the hard way.
I read this article with mixed feelings. It think it’s because it left me with the sense that its writing is motivated more by interest in the institution rather than interest in the wellbeing of the people.
I have several friends who, after dedicating decades of their lives to the life of the Catholic Church, have been left with very deep wounds – trauma even. They have expressed the pain of feeling at best, let down, and at worst betrayed, citing matters that are well known and so do not need to be repeated here. In this day and age, promoting an attitude of ‘saintly patience and humility, free of resentment’ in response to institutional injustice or harmful ignorance does not, in my humble opinion, show love for the people. I think of my friends as I write this. Good hearted people with a deep love for humanity and creation and a desire for a just world, who need the space and support to heal.
There are many communities of faith whose way of moving in the world demonstrates an attitude that all people are created in the image of God. I’m thinking of Quaker as well as Progressive and Reform Jewish communities that I have personal experience with. These groups, or the ones that I have been connected with in any event, are inclusive and action-oriented. They have moved with the times and welcome everyone to participate. This is the very same quality that I typically find attractive in Sr Ilia’s work, as well as other folk whose names have been mentioned in the posts. My hope is that all people find the connections that enable them to live their fullest lives, and not to be at all surprised if the connection comes from an unlikely source.
Thank you to the C4C for the variety of articles and perspectives.
Thanks, Hilda. I think it’s important not to confuse the institutional church, those along tribal or denominational lines, with the broader sense the church universal. The former term is static, the latter is organic, and has a dynamic flow to it along evolutionary lines. Flow cannot work within a static model, which is why new models and paradigms must develop via death to the old. The old wineskins (forms) can’t hold the new wine (unitive consciousness). All they can do is obstruct progress. Though I respect the decision of those like Teilhard and others to stick with the old system, to bring it along, I disagree. We score no eternal points in suffering for suffering’s sake.That’s a form of moral masochism bred by institutional religion. Jesus himself stepped away from the Judaic system when his message found no place there, and to do anything less, implied he, is an unhealthy compromise. When the horse is dead, it’s time to dismount. My opinion is not law, but it holds, that many are unwilling to fully give up their identification with religious form and thus short-circuit their own efforts unknowingly. The priestly position, like that of Teilhard, Merton and others is typically to compromise, as glass half full types tend to do. The prophetic voice, as seen in the Baptist and Christ, cuts to the chase without compromise, which is not popular. We have too many soft priestly voices today, and not enough virile prophetic ones.
Hilda, thank you for sharing this. I am a gracefully aging non-academic Secular Franciscan excited and anxiously trying to understand and be able to speak about the work of Teilhard de Chardin and Ilia Delio.
It was over 20 years ago I first learned of the Franciscan John Don Scotus and the doctrine of The Primacy of Christ. (Christ was always going to be incarnate from the very beginning.) This was half-heartily accepted by the Church but is never spoken of. (You are only one of a few I’ve seen or heard mention it.) To me, it has makes all the difference in the world on how I view God and God”s infinite, unconditional love, and leads me forward on this quest.
To Lynda C:
You are right, Lynda, to say I am motivated by an interest in the institutional (Catholic) Church, but I do not set that against the well-being of the people, since that is its whole purpose (however poorly it may have achieved it at times).
With you and so many others I totally deplore how people were abused by clergy and how poorly it was dealt with, and I grieve for and with your friends who felt so wounded and betrayed. Anger is indeed the correct response indeed, not patient resignation in this case.
Why would I be concerned for the Church to reform and evolve? It’s because if I know and try to follow Christ today it’s because that Church is the local version of Christianity that made it happen for me, all my life up to now. I owe my faith, the most precious thing in my life, to this Church. It has now fallen underneath the cross of its own sinfulness, but for every six priests who abused, there were ninety-four who served faithfully and well. And I met only goodness in it.
The issue is, I think, without some institutional forms of Church, would Christianity have managed to survive up to today? I don’t think so. I don’t want to throw out something as valuable as the institutional Church, despite its human sins. Without the flesh and bones of an institution to somehow hold the Body of Christ together, would Christianity survive another millennium? Or would it dissipate into a thousand variations, dilute and evaporate? When something is valuable it needs an institution to protect and sustain it. So, rather than walk away from an institution that has stayed the pace for two thousand years, I would like it to reform, rejuvenate and re-invent itself and start presenting Christ with something like Teilhard’s and Ilya Delio’s approach.
I agree that whatever denomination or group people are following, let them keep following that, and whatever else gives them life. I am only discovering Ilya Delio and the Christogenesis center, and they really inspire me. I join you in your hope that all people find the connections that enable them to live their fullest lives, whatever the source.
To Joe Masterleo:
Lovely to get more observations from you, Joe.
Yes, indeed, the Church as the Mystical Body of Christ has a thousand faces and forms, and flows in all sorts of ways, and is dynamic…
So what do we do with ‘the old institutional Church’? As I said above, institutions have a serious and real purpose. I do think one can be individually a free spirit and still be part of it, while trying to help it evolve.
Of course I agree that no one should choose to suffer but sometimes one’s options bring some suffering with them. I think Teilhard (and others) was quite free in himself, but the whole purpose of his vision was to offer it to the Church so it could evolve and drop its static mind-set. And maybe it still will? Who knows?
Overall, we’ll probably have to agree to differ!
To Frank Massey:
Thanks, Frank. I’m delighted you are discovering Teilhard and Ilia Delio, as I myself continue to do.
Like you, I love the way Teilhard sees Christ in organic connection to the universe, in the tradition of Dun Scotus.
If you’re interested I have a set of three PowerPoints on Teilhard’s thinking. I was presenting Teilhard’s thinking in a quick and easy way on a few zooms, and they might be helpful as a bird’s eye view. Here is the link, which works only on a Google browser:
Hopefully, the “universal church” is “universal” enough to open its doors to those of many pagan belief systems. As someone who straddles both worlds I can tell you that the do indeed fit together well. The animistic spiritual system within many of these beliefs tether heaven and earth into a sacred whole shared by all.
Teilhard intuitively knew this. And while I cannot provide the direct quotes, I know there are several instances of his delight in creation, the offering of the elements as sacrifice for the mass, the realization that mass is the desert was just as acceptable to God. Triune gods are not unique to Christianity nor is the Mystical Body of God -both have been present for eons.
It is my firm belief that until the rift between all belief systems is healed and by this I mean East, West, Pagan and Atheist, we will continue to be meeting the unrest we see today. Theology, science, and politics must come to an understanding and an ability to unite the people that this is a new age of understanding. No longer are we an Axial people. We are post-Axial, 2nd Axil. Looking to connect. Right now we are connecting with outdated and inaccurate information. Fear is driving decisions and these decisions are driving our evolution.
We must do better
I have been introduced to this hopeful way of living in my faith only within the past year or two. In my childlike understanding of it, I am seeing evolution everywhere – isn’t your description of the church over the centuries an example of this? Isn’t the church also evolving? If so, I embrace that very hopeful idea.