Science Without Religion is Like an Ocean Without Water
by Ilia Delio
Science and Mysticism
Teilhard de Chardin was a scientist who thought of science as a process; he found joy in exploring the unknown mysteries of matter. In a small essay on the “The Spiritual Power of Matter,” he tells the story of two travelers in the desert, one seeks spiritual truth by leaving the world, the other is lured by matter as the realm of the Absolute. To survive, he must wrestle with Matter and see what it reveals. In the same way, Teilhard thought that the researcher wrestles with the world, and comes to understand it in a way that someone who simply gazes on it never can.[i] Should he return to society, he will find that many of its beliefs and claims do not hold up. For he has found a point d’appui, a place of support, in matter, away from the claims of the world and culture. Now that he knows God immediately, he can no longer return to his former life. Experience is a better teacher than abstract beliefs. In a commentary on this parable, Thomas King states:
Teilhard was challenged to wrestle with matter, and he did. This sets his mysticism apart from other mystical traditions. St Ignatius could gaze at the stars alt night and be at prayer, and so he advised other Jesuits that they could contemplate God in a blade of grass. Teilhard would sympathize with these passages in so far as they suggest an immanent God, but he would not go along with the quiet contemplation. His retreat notes make it evident that throughout his life he had difficulties with Ignatian prayer. When the traveler in the parable first encounters Matter, Matter tells him, ‘Your salvation and mine depend on the first moment’. The first moment is a moment of choice: which mysticism will he choose? His alternatives could be seen in terms of a distinction that the medieval philosophers made a distinction between intellectus and ratio. The intellectus rests passively, gazing at what is before it; while the ratio is the active power of discursive thought to search, abstract, refine and conclude. The medieval philosophers saw the intellectus as the basis of mysticism; and would-be mystics were advised to hush the busy ratio (mind) in order to gaze quietly. But in presenting a mysticism centered on research, Teilhard set the ratio (reason) at the center of the mystical. Here the mystical act involves the synthesizing work of the mind as it gathers facts and strives to form them into a wider synthesis.
Science was not a given set of truths about the universe, for Teilhard. Science, like the mind itself, is a process, always probing into the unknown. Scientific research is a form of mysticism, a constant exploration into the infinite potential of matter in search of its secret life. King writes:
As scientists struggle to make sense of their findings—or, rather, as reality’s elements order and reorder themselves in the scientist’s mind until they fit—they are groping towards a unity and a form that will be new. The ‘fibers of the unifying universe’ come together in the scientist’s mind, which is essentially process. The scientist’s call to the love of God, to adoration, involves his or her research activity, an activity which is a participation in the universe’s thought-fibers.[ii]
Teilhard’s mysticism is intellectually creative because it is the power of the mind or thought that pushes evolution forward toward greater complexity and unity. One begins with a world that is not understood and comes to know God at the point where experience lights up the fire of knowledge. Mysticism sets reason at the center of the mystical. Mysticism is not a matter of contemplating a truth already established but lay in the very act of discovery. That is, the mystic creates a new truth because the knower is a unifier. The mind searches its depths by extending beyond itself. “Each time the mind comprehends something, Teilhard wrote, “it unites the world in a new way.”[iii]
The Primacy of Thought
Thought undergirds evolution, according to Teilhard, because without real thought, the process of evolution cannot go forward. To think is to unify, to make wholes where there are scattered fragments; “not merely to register the fragments but to confer upon them a form of unity they would otherwise (that is, without thought) be without.”[iv] Thinking is a spiritual act. To think is to take a long, deep, hard look at reality where the knowing process becomes more than the vision itself. Thinking requires use of the intellect, as well as judgment, consciousness and connectivity to the object of thought. It is not a mere accumulation of information but the synthesizing of information into ideas and insight. Thinking is the work of the spirit, not only the human spirit but God’s Spirit; it is the dynamic engagement of the mind with the world as we know it. If knowledge is essential to the direction of evolution, then attentiveness and intelligence must be brought into encounter with physical reality. The mind creates by perceiving the phenomena of reality and, in doing so, continues the fundamental work of evolution. Each time the mind comprehends something it unites the world in a new way.[v] Teilhard said: “To discover and know is to actually extend the universe ahead and to complete it.”[vi]
Teilhard spoke of two types of knowledge: one is an abstract and timeless knowledge of “the world of ideas and principles” which he instinctively distrusted. The second is a “real” knowledge that is in constant development–the conscious actuation of the universe about us. The first type of knowledge leads to geometry and theology, while the second leads to science and mysticism; mysticism not based on possession of a complete truth from heaven but part of the ongoing process of earth.[vii] He warned against any abstract knowledge that is divorced from physical reality, since abstract knowledge is a faded reality compared to boundless presence. Abstract knowledge is conceptual understanding that undergirds a will to power since only the individual can hold concepts. Such knowledge cannot further evolution nor can it deepen love because it is isolated in the knower. It forms individual ideas but leaves the physical relational world adrift. Even among physicists, Teilhard notes, the advent of quantum physics and the non-deterministic nature of reality has led to the imposition of the investigator’s mind on shifting patterns of phenomena.[viii] The imposition of mind on nature thwarts the energy of evolution.
True knowledge, according to Teilhard, must engage physical reality because reality is the basis of who we are. Discovery of the world is ultimately self-discovery, and the openness of the self to the infinite is the openness to God. The human’s evolving consciousness must be seen as integral to the physical world and the physical world must be seen as integral to the human’s desire to know. As a scientist and believer in physical reality, Teilhard rejected knowledge divorced from experience. Abstract knowledge is sterile and lifeless, he thought. Rather, knowledge must deepen and make whole that which is real and, in turn, lead to greater unity of the real. Faith begins with trust in the ultimate goodness [or love] of matter. In this respect, faith and thought belong together; the one who believes “forms an intellectual synthesis.” It is not so much an inner spiritual experience detached from the real but a whole-hearted surrender to the ineffable depth of matter, that is, a faith in matter itself. Although we may think of faith as separate from reason, it is the basis of reason. To have faith is to commit oneself to that which is not seen but believed, and to believe invites one to understand. Faith and reason are two sides of the same reality, according to Teilhard, and are built into the fabric of evolution.
In this respect, Teilhard saw that the work of the scientist is a spiritual pursuit of the secrets of nature, a mystical quest of the unknown. Just as the Christian spiritual journey is one of purgation, illumination and union, so too, the scientific endeavor is the relentless pursuit of matter’s mystery. One must pass through the difficulties of failed experiments and hypotheses until one reaches a breakthrough that opens up to new insights. The success of a scientific endeavor can lead to a major discovery that can be ultimately transformative for humanity or planetary life. Teilhard spoke of scientific truth as “the supreme spiritual act by which the dust-cloud of experience takes on form and is kindled at the fire of knowledge.”[ix] As the scientist struggles to make sense of one’s findings, s/he is searching for new truths, grasping for new horizons of insight. The fibers of the unifying universe are seeking to come together in the scientist’s mind. He called the work of science, “dark adoration,” because the mind is drawn to a power hidden of matter. Thomas King states: “This supreme spiritual act is an act of dark adoration, homage to the unifying Power. Drawn back to the moment of adoration, the scientist feels a holy mission to continue the process.”[x] To enter the world of matter disturbs the mind because one is confronted by the unlimited potentials of matter, the basis of discovering new insights never before imagined or conceived Scientific work is “troubled worship” in so far as one is disturbed by the unknown.[xi]When the mind opens up to matter, we lose our sense of control, everything becomes muddled, and rightly so. The scientist, whether explicitly or implicitly, finds oneself in the midst of nature’s elusive organization. The experience of matter leads one to new understandings of matter’s hidden life, yielding new horizons of insights and new realities. Science is an ongoing journey of evoking the secrets of matter through observation and determination, forming these into new insights and furthering the overall process of evolution. This relentless pursuit of questioning matter is a type of love or passion for the real. We might think of scientific research as creative evolution driven by love. It begins with a world not understood and comes to know a depth of mystery at the moment when the dust of experience lights up with the fire of knowledge.[xii] To think and discover, in Teilhard’s view, is to be an artisan of the future.
While scientific research is often described in reductionistic terms, the observation and measurement of empirical facts, scientific research is a form of devotion, a relentless pursuit of matter’s potentials, exploring the infinite secrets of matter. Scientific research is driven by a passion or thirst for the real, which is why reducing science to mere empirical knowledge or treating it as a highly technical field otherwise irrelevant to the overall quality of life thwarts the fact that science is the basis of philosophy and, in turn, theology. We need to retrieve the integral relationship between science and religion in order to make sense of our rapidly evolving world. Teilhard thought that science and religion are two phases of the one and the same complete act of knowledge; that is, knowing matter in its depth, breadth and organization is an integral act of knowing on the levels of both science and religion. Teilhard saw the insufficiency of science by itself to bring about a new type of superconsciousness or a higher level of thought on the level of interconnected, planetary life. “It is not tête-à-tête or a corps-à-corps we need; it is a heart to heart,” he wrote.[xiii] To contribute to the overall welfare of planetary life, science needs to acknowledge the essential role of spirituality and mysticism in the pursuit of knowledge. It is the power of the mind that pushes evolution forward toward greater complexity and unity, but it is the power of love that draws life onward toward more unitive life. Thought can lead us to create new horizons of insight, but love draws all together and leads us into the future.
[i] Thomas M. King, Teilhard’s Mysticism of Knowing (New York: The Seabury Press, 1981), 27.
[ii] King, Mysticism of Knowing, 29.
[iii] Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, “The Spiritual Power of Matter,” in Hymn of the Universe, trans. Simon Bartholomew (New York: Harper & Row, 1961), 36.
[iv] King, Teilhard’s Mysticism of Knowing, 36.
[v] King, Mysticism of Knowing, 36.
[vi] King, Mysticism of Knowing, 35.
[vii] King, Mysticism of Knowing, 40.
[viii] King, Mysticism of Knowing, 5.
[ix] Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, Activation of Energy, trans. Rene Hague (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1963), 9.
[x] Thomas King, S.J. “Scientific Research as Adoration: Pierre Teilhard de Chardin SJ (1881-1955),” The Way 44/1 (July 2005): 21-34 at p. 29.
[xi] King, “Scientific Research as Adoration,” 29.
[xii] King, “Scientific Research as Adoration,” 29.
[xiii] Teilhard de Chardin, Future of Man, 75; W. Henry Kenny, A Path Through Teilhard’s Phenomenon (Dayton, OH: Pflaum Press, 1970), 138.