Social Justice without Cosmic Theology is Blind
Religious disaffiliation has been on the rise since the late twentieth century. The term “spiritual but not religious” is now increasingly a way for primarily younger generations to define themselves. Last week I was taken aback by an undergraduate response to my question, what is the role of religion in culture? The student answered by saying that institutional religion is no longer relevant; rather, social justice has become the new norm of religion. Among the new saints she named was Greta Thunberg. Working together to end racism or greening the earth is now much more attractive than attending Sunday Mass. While the work of social justice is important, indeed at the heart of Gospel, is it the heart of the Gospel? If one accepts the New Testament as a completion of the Old Testament, then the answer would be “No”; the heart of Scripture is not a green earth or ending racism (although these contribute toward a new earth) but a new creation, a new humankind, where the bonds of love define the interdependent goodness of life, where God is all in all. I think many advocates of social justice could identify with this goal; however, social justice cannot achieve this aim without a new metaphysical framework.
The term “metaphysics” refers to the principles (meta-) underlying nature (physis) hence metaphysics is related to cosmology or the whole order of nature. Ancient philosophers were keenly aware of the cosmos in developing their metaphysical ideas. The development of metaphysics influenced how the quest for knowledge would proceed. Epistemology is the area of philosophy that concerns the study of knowledge. Ethics flowed from an understanding of existence, first on the level of metaphysics, and then on the level of epistemology. One acted in accord with the order of the whole or cosmic order because the human person is a microcosm of the macrocosm. Ancient Greek philosophers, such as Aristotle, developed ethics not as a critique of history but in accord with the larger macrocosmic order, that is, ethics concerned the virtues and choices that contributed to the harmony of the spheres.
The Judeo-Christian tradition inherited the insights of Greek philosophy upon which theological ideas were constructed. Scripture became interpreted in light of Greek metaphysics and made sense in terms of a cosmological scheme. Theologians such as Thomas Aquinas and Bonaventure wrote theology precisely as a construct of cosmology. Both scholars studied astronomy, physics and astrology at the University of Paris (in addition to Scripture, rhetoric, etc.) and wrote their summas of theology as comprehensive works, beginning with God, creation, humankind, the church and sacramental life. Ethics was embedded in their larger theologies and never extrapolated in isolation. Bonaventure’s Breviloquium is a brief summa of theology based on the four principle areas defined by Peter Lombard. The word that Bonaventure often used in his theological discourse was congruentia or “fittingness”; for example, he would write, “it is most fitting that the human person is the noble center.” It was “fitting” in so far as the cosmology of his day (the Ptolemaic) cosmos was geocentric and the human as image of God was the most appropriate center of such a world order. The twentieth century religion scholar, Raimon Panikkar, wrote that “theology, like philosophy, is not a particular science. It is related to the whole. This is to say that the very name of God is a cosmological notion. God is God for the world, the Creator is creator of the creation . . .God has a cosmological aspect just as the cosmos has a divine aspect. In short, a theology without cosmology is a mere abstraction of a non-existing God; and a cosmology without theology is just a mirage. Cosmology and theology are intrinsically knit together” (Rhythm of Being, 187-88).
The philosophy of ancient thinkers that filtered into the patristic and medieval ages was known as “natural philosophy” because the basis of philosophical reflection was nature. This was true for Aristotle, as it was for Thomas and Bonaventure. The rise of scholasticism, as a system of logical thinking, and the advent of mathematics and technology, eventually transformed natural philosophy into modern science. However, the principles underlying the connection between theology and philosophy remain the same: without the big picture of cosmological order and the principles that sustain cosmic order [“meta-physics”], neither epistemology nor ethics has any real goal. The integral relationship between cosmos and personhood is so fundamental to the heart of theology that the late Pope John Paul II wrote in 1988: “Theology without science is blind and science without theology is lame” (Letter to George Coyne, 1988).
Yet, renewing theology as a correlate of cosmology has come under attack in recent years. In a recent book entitled, An Ecological Theology of Liberation, Dan Castillo writes, “ecological cosmology is ill-equipped for adjudicating or even surfacing the complex and often conflicted relationships that constitute historical reality” (p. 5) Mary Midgley points out that ecological cosmology “undermines ethics and praxis” (p. 6). Other scholars, such as Lisa Sideris, claim that cosmological visions, such as Teilhard’s, evoke expressions of wonder that are powerless to critique or correct environmentally destructive attitudes and patterns of behavior. This is the type of thinking that ensues when theology becomes detached from science and where ethics becomes detached from metaphysics.
If liberation ecology has failed to take hold of the people, it is not because cosmological theology is irrelevant or “other-worldly” (as Castillo claims); rather, it is because theology has lost sight of cosmology and the complexities of nature that science studies. Theology is now so out of sync with modern science, theologians are frantically anticipating a train to arrive through a critique of history while, in fact, the train has sped off with humanity and its present and future course is being conducted by artificial intelligence (AI). According to Robert Geraci, a religion scholar at Manhattan College, the Judeo-Christian tradition of salvation is an underlying motive of American technology. AI engineers understand that creativity is the basis of transcendence, which has made AI the fastest evolver of planetary life today. Theologians are still waiting for the train of justice to arrive when, in fact, a robotically-driven vehicle will soon be flying them to Mars.
Teilhard de Chardin was a big picture thinker, one who saw his work in line with the early Greek philosophical tradition. He was committed to renewing a cosmological theology that could ultimately provide a vision for human action. Ed Vacek writes that Teilhard reframed the ethical project by transforming autonomous agency into responsive cooperation, the requirement of conformity into creativity, and a focus on self-fulfillment into building both the world and–most provocatively–God. His primary concern was to redeem the meaning of Christianity after science had exposed our insignificance relative to time and to space. Human and religious concepts have existential and pragmatic truth for us if they are coherent with the meaning of the evolving universe.
By taking the God-world creation as a unified relationship and the science of evolution as our basic description of reality, Teilhard formed a description of evolution as the emergence of wholeness that is at once divine, cosmic and human, so that all life—animal, plant, bacteria—is constantly being recapitulated at every stage of evolution. Christ is the symbol of this dynamic cosmotheandric wholeness. Teilhard described evolution as a process of Christogenesis or the movement of all existence toward the fullness of Christ. Sanctification, for Teilhard, means freely participating in this stream of life that is ascending towards fullness. Fullness is a relational term which describes being incorporated into God’s evolving world. As Teilhard writes: “We are spiritualized by being carried along by the spiritualization of all things. We are united to Christ by entering into communion with all life. We will be saved by an option that has chosen the whole.”
Because of his emphasis on the whole, Teilhard was a harbinger of ethical currents that are taking prominence in our time such as globalization, solidarity, ecology, and the common good. Each of these terms makes clear that the ethical task refers to building communities, the whole human race, and the earth itself. Advocates of social justice can recognize their actions in these terms. But Teilhard saw human activity within the broader scope of evolution and this is where advocates of social justice sometimes fail. Without a big picture, we are little people.
Advocates of social justice demand immediate responses and resolutions but this demand for immediate action actually undermines the way life processes work. Unjust systems form over time. They are products of social stratification and relationships that have excluded the poor, the earth, black people, and all those left out of the stream of progress. The operative word here is “system,” which is not an accumulation of discrete entities but an organization of relationships. Part of the underlying problem is the way we have understood systems as closed and fixed, and the way we have understood the human person as a composite of body and soul, matter and form, where matter is understood as substance, and substance is essence. According to these old categories, largely based on Aristotelian philosophical ideas, “white” persons have an implicit essential character of ontological superiority to “black” persons; similarly, the human person created in the image of God is ontologically superior to dogs, trees, fish and water. How we understand the human person and the community of persons is how we understand culture and society.
Karl Rahner, the brilliant Jesuit twentieth century Catholic theologian, defines the human spirit as the capacity for the infinite, the absolute horizon of being we call “God.” Heidi Russell, a theologian at Loyola University, builds on Rahner’s anthropology and uses the quantum concept of wave-particle duality to describe the human person. Whereas the particularity of human existence can be likened to a particle, the field of possibilities of existence can be likened to the spirit. Spirit and body are complementary descriptions of the same reality or “correlative constituents of the same reality.” We have never existed as isolated, autonomous individuals. Rather, we have always existed as interrelated centers of activity. We are systems within systems or wholes within wholes. Because the human spirit is the openness to infinite possibilities, the human is spirit, that is, one lives in a perpetual reaching out towards the Absolute, in openness to God. This openness to God is not a contingency which can emerge here or there at will in the human but is the condition for the possibility of that which the human is and has to be, even in the most forlorn and mundane life. The only thing which makes one a human is that one is forever on the road to God, whether one is clearly aware of the fact or not and whether one wants to be or not. To be human is to have potential for the infinite. Because every single person (indeed, everything that exists) is oriented to God, whether explicitly or implicitly, the full actualization of life is always before us.
How we live in ongoing actualization of personal identity is how we live as interrelated systems of life. Concepts like autonomy, ontology and individualism are illusions and incompatible with biological life. These old concepts belong to the past, where fixed substances and closed systems defined reality. Now scientists indicate that most biological life operates as open systems. Open systems are always in flux; they can be influenced by the environment and can change accordingly. The human person is better thought of as a complex dynamical system of interrelated flux and flow than a billiard ball bumping into another billiard ball. In complex dynamical systems, relationships comprise structures [and not the other way around]. Nature is oriented toward the wholeness of life because living entities work better together than apart, and it is precisely the communal nature of life that makes wholeness foundational for flourishing life.
Relationship is an operative word: Who or what I am related to? How do I live in relationships? What happens when relationships no longer support life? Biological life has built-in mechanisms of re-rerouting relationships toward optimal life. Relationships can change in complex systems based on surrounding influences such as the environment or spontaneous catalysts, as well as the history of the system. Because relationships within a system are always in tandem with the environment, relationships are never binary but always complex – triadic so to speak—in so far as relationships between entities are always mediated by another relationship (a symbolic “third”) which influences the entities and shapes their futures together. On the human level, embodied experience generates the deep and pervasive networks of metaphors and analogies by which we elaborate our understanding of the world. To consider the human person as a life system is to connote personhood as open, emergent and capable of hybridization, aspects of personhood that are subsumed or lost in the more substantial notion of personhood (for example, the Boethian definition of person as “an incommunicable substance of rational nature”). Personhood is not only an emergent process but is itself a process of emergence. Beatrice Bruteau writes that a person is the creative activity of life as it projects itself to the next instant.
So what does all this mean in terms of social justice? First of all, social justice is based on the fact of difference, such as the difference between the haves and have-nots or black and white. But underneath these apparent differences lie the greater reality, that we are all deeply interconnected, whether we want to be connected or not. How to realize this reality is, I believe, at the heart of social justice. I do think it is worth protesting against the injustices that pervade our society; however, protest alone can lead to no other than a furthering of injustice because it is a binary relationship of opposition. Opposition and revolution have never done much more than deepen the cycle of violence. The term “cancel culture” reflects this idea: the good of one act is cancelled by the evil of another. Binary structures of relationship are inherently oppositional. Thus, the only way forward is by considering our intrinsic relationality and thus acting out of mediating relationships, that is, acting out of systems of complexity. What this means on a practical level is that opposing parties must find a third relationship together that transcends either party. By orienting their energies toward this third relationship, the possibility of transformation over time can create a new entity that transcends the previously divided entities. For example, a number of years ago Christian and Palestinian [Muslim] Middle Eastern students came together and formed an orchestra, in which the making of music together began to heal the deep divisions among them.The orchestra transcended the differences between the Muslim and Christian without dissolving each identity and bound them together in a new unity. This type of creative engagement is needed in our sharply divided world.
Cybernetics and systems thinking indicate that the operative principle throughout nature is creativity. Where there is creativity, there is transcendence. Even Darwin’s notion of survival of the fittest is being jettisoned for creative, cooperative living. Opposing structures are brought together through mediating principles that synergistically and collaboratively give rise to new creative events or structures that transcend the individual entities.
It would not be a stretch to read the New Testament as an open system whereby God is acting in the world through mutuality, forgiveness, nonviolence, compassion and peace, reconciling relationships through the building up of love in the universe, exemplified by the Christ event. Transformation into a higher form of conscious life, however, requires suffering and death (which are the basic pillars of evolution), letting go of individual control for the sake of a new future together. A greater good does not come about by cheap grace. To paraphrase Dietrich Bonhoeffer, costly love is making a new future through mercy, forgiveness and sacrifice. There can be no movement toward a new level of existence, however, without a transformation in consciousness, a change in mind and heart.
Teilhard coined the term “ultrahuman” to describe a new type of person on the level of interconnected mind, which he called “the noosphere.” This new level mind means living with an expanded awareness of community through greater unity of consciousness. Ultrahumanism, however, depends on the active engagement and development of the inner universe, that is, a life of contemplation or centering one’s life in the ultimacy of Being in love. Without a concerted effort towards higher levels of consciousness and freedom to choose beyond oneself, oppositions can lead entities to devolution and further destruction. Interior freedom is necessary for creating a new future together. Only when the level of mind (the noosphere) is aligned with the level of the heart (the inner universe) can the hyper-personal flow from two opposing entities through convergence, that is, by bringing together diverse elements, organisms, and even the currents of human thought. Teilhard wrote “The future universal cannot be anything else but the hyperpersonal” (Phenomenon of Man, 260). By this he meant that the union of minds on the level of the noosphere can lead to an increase in love.
Teilhard coined the term “planetization” to describe this new gathering of human energy through interconnected minds and hearts. He wrote: “The more mankind becomes conscious of the immensity and even more the organicity of the world around it, the more the necessity for a soul to make itself felt; that is, a soul capable of maintaining and directing the vast process of planetization in which we are involved” (Activation of Energy, 226). He sought to renew the world Soul envisioned by the ancient philosophers, as a spiritual unifying field of energy that gathers and binds together individual souls in the unity of the One. Without a unifying force, he thought, “something will explode if we persist in trying to squeeze into our old tumble-down huts the material and spiritual forces that are henceforward on the scale of the world” (Phenomenon of Man, 253).
Teilhard’s vision builds on the dynamics of evolution and the principles of deep relationality. He is not saying that we simply build the world we want; after all, no individual can define “the world of the good.” Rather, the world of the good emerges through creative and mutual engagement. Teilhard’s doctrine is congruent with the whole cosmic order of dynamism and change. It is a cosmo-theological vision and not a merely an historical one. God is doing new things; God is rising up through the emergence of new life. A God who is mere presence, a perfect God, cannot become more perfect. What we do, therefore, make a difference to God. Our worldly successes and failures make a difference to God. They are important to God and not just to us or to our posterity. God is the power within matter to become something new and the future of what the new creation will be. God is transcendent, the power of the future and yet immanent in all things. Teilhard says, God “penetrates everything.”
Whereas most biological evolutionists see human activity as, fundamentally, serving the propagation of genes, Teilhard sees this activity as contributing religiously to Christ’s perfection. That is, part of God’s perfection or fullness is to be related to all that is good. Where relationships are seen to be a genuine perfection, God to be perfect must be maximally involved with all creatures. If God could not be really related to what goes on in creation, God would be less than perfect. Our lives and our work fill out God’s relational self. The greatest significance of our work therefore is that it affects God’s own relational life. When we contribute to the building of the world and to developing ourselves, we make a positive difference to God’s life.
Teilhard’s emphasis on the future has the salutary feature of making us responsible for the future. We work for justice not to right the wrongs of history (which we can never do if we understand history as a process of change) but the work of justice is the work of creating a new future together; it is the work of Christogenesis. To continue to work for justice as an end in itself is paradoxically world-denying, for such work ultimately denies the reality of evolution and the principle of cooperative creativity. We work towards the fullness of God and God’s reign because we are part of the whole that includes God. When the whole is reduced to the individual parts of our lives, we can easily replace God with the self-driven ego and this is a recipe for destruction. Teilhard’s vision is “one single physical reality developing in the cosmos, one single monad” (Science and Christ).
Teilhard proposed an ethics for a people who are in transit. His understanding of evolution as a process of change and becoming implies that every human decision is incomplete; and his understanding of history means that norms may have to change as history develops. We are not responsible merely for history; we are responsible for evolution and, more so, for the evolution of God, which requires more than passing on a world no worse than the one we have inherited. Rather, an ethics of movement requires that we improve the world and if we are to improve the world, then we must improve ourselves: the inner world must align with the outer world, which is the work of spiritual conversion and transformation. God liberates when God becomes fully alive in the human person and in creation. If we want a different world then we must become a different people.
The engineers of artificial intelligence have grasped the reigns and principles of evolution. The train of homo sapiens has left the station and is bound for a new species of techno-hybridized life. Now it is time for the architects of Gospel justice to get on board and create new structures of relationships that can mediate new creative unities, neither black nor white, poor nor rich, male nor female but a new type of person, a christified species, rising up from the old and living a trans-personal cosmotheandric life, oriented toward the fullness of love, and hence, toward the future.
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