Teilhard de chardin: a big thinker for a big universe

The great medievalist scholar Etienne Gilson once wrote of Bonaventure:

“You can either see the general economy of his doctrine in its totality, or see none of it, nor would a historian be led by the understanding of one of the fragments to desire to understand the whole, for the fragments are quite literally meaningless by themselves, since each part reaches out into all the rest of the system and is affected by the ramifications leading to it from the synthesis as a whole” (The Philosophy of St. Bonaventure, p. 436).

What Gilson wrote of Bonaventure could also be said of Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, S.J. who saw himself in the lineage of the Greek Fathers of the early Church.  Teilhard was such a broad, integrated thinker that you either see the economy of the whole of his thought or none of it. Like the early Greek Fathers, he developed a cosmic Christology based on natural philosophy (science), Scripture (especially the writings of St. Paul) and faith in Jesus Christ.  His theological vision emerged out of a deep, prayerful reflection on the dynamic relationship of God and world with an understanding of evolution beyond Darwinian natural selection.  According to Teilhard, evolution and creation, cosmos and the history of salvation are not contrasts but complementary aspects of the one process of reality. Within his “Weltanschauung” three levels of perception may be distinguished: physics or phenomenology, metaphysics or hyperphysics, and mysticism. The object of perception, for Teilhard, is always the entire reality.  He thought of the cosmic Christ like a tapestry of divine love incarnate unfolding across the vast dynamic expanse of evolution. To grasp his ideas one must follow the threads of his tapestry as they begin in the integrated union of faith and science.

There are some scholars today who cannot see Teilhard’s big picture and maintain instead that he was a proponent of eugenics and Nazism. In their view Teilhard’s seemingly anthropocentric ideas belie a flourishing earth community because he paints the human person as a superior to all other aspects of biological life.  Nothing could be further from the truth.  Teilhard was not thinking in terms of Sally or Sam but the underlying principles that could bring Sally and Sam together.  His system of thought is more like the grand plan of a great cosmic cathedral rather than what kind of stones should be used or where to get the cement.   To understand Teilhard is to think in big and broad terms because he was trying to bring into a new single focus the dynamic presence of God in an expanding universe.  Al Gore expressed appreciation of Teilhard in his book Earth in the Balance where he said that Teilhard helps us understand the importance of faith in the future. “Armed with such faith,” Gore writes, “we might find it possible to resanctify the earth, identify it as God’s creation, and accept our responsibility to protect and defend it.”

Teilhard’s brilliant insights were born out of a sharp scientific mind and a deep Ignatian spirit.  He was first and foremost a scientist and he wrote about theological matters as a scientist not as a trained theologian.  In his words: “I never leave for an instant the realm of scientific observation.”  Profoundly misunderstood and labeled by critics as a charlatan, Teilhard realized that the real path to truth must begin with concrete reality.  He wrote his opus, The Phenomenon of Man, not as a work of metaphysics, still less as a theological essay, but simply as a scientific treatise.   Yet, anyone familiar with modern science would find his talk of an imperceptible psychic “within” of matter or spiritual energy or a teleologically directed evolution as scientifically suspect.  Teilhard was well-aware of such suspicions and genuine perplexity as to his methods; he encountered them and wrestled with them all his life long.  Elizabeth Sewell noted in her book, The Human Metaphor, that Teilhard’s greatest contribution may be methodological.  What Teilhard contributes is a renewed scientific methodology that connects science with logos, cosmos and eros, in a way that impacts the whole psycho-social order and the course of evolution.

It is precisely his renewed scientific methodology or his approach to a “science charged with faith” that enabled Teilhard to see a new role for religion in view of evolution.  His insights on consciousness and the “withinness” of matter seemed far-fetched in his day and yet quantum physics is beginning to realize the “hard problem of matter,” namely, that one cannot think of matter apart from consciousness; that is, consciousness is fundamental to matter.  Teilhard took his insights one step further by indicating that if consciousness is fundamental to matter, then religion is fundamental to evolution because religion is transcendent energy that gives form to the free energy of the earth.  In his essay “How I Believe” he indicates that most people think of religion as a “strictly personal matter.”  However, he rejected this view from an evolutionary perspective: “To my mind, the religious phenomenon, taken as a whole, is simply the reaction of the universe as such, of collective consciousness and human action in process of development.” He goes on to say that, at the social level, religion expresses faith in the whole, manifested in individual thought or self-consciousness.   If we are to progress or evolve, we must release ourselves from religious individualism and confront the general religious experience, which is cosmic and evolutionary, and involve ourselves in it. The purpose of religion is to enkindle a zest for life.

Although he saw himself as a scientist, Teilhard also realized the need for a new philosophy and metaphysics, new structural principles that could support the integration of faith and evolution.  He worked to develop a philosophy of love based on the dynamics of evolution using a phenomenological method of experience.   One can follow his connections between love as a force of attraction and the complexification of matter in evolution.  His insights on love as the prime energy of the universe, following the law of complexity-consciousness, are woven throughout his writings and provide a metaphysical basis to his personalizing universe.  “The physical structure of the universe is love,” he wrote.  It is in the framework of a love-centered universe that one must consider his comments on science, eugenics, and the socio-political movements of communism and fascism.   While he rejected the destruction of these movements, he was fascinated by the capacity of humans to coalesce into a unified system of power.  He wondered why Christianity could not tap into the same power of unification so that the whole evolutionary flow of biological life could be drawn into greater unity. Teilhard’s insights were always within the wider scope of evolution as cosmic personalization, that is, convergence of the multiple into a greater center of unity with a corresponding rise in consciousness.

While Teilhard was a trained paleontologist, he did not agree with Darwin’s theory of evolution.  In his view, Darwinian evolution did not adequately account for novelty and transcendence in nature.  He felt that the ‘phenomenon of evolution’ is “something very different from and more than a mere genesis of animal species.”  Does this mean that he disregarded animals? Absolutely not.  Rather he saw the emergence of different species within a larger flow of cosmic and biological life. He was inspired by the French philosopher Henri Bergson and his notion of creative evolution.  Bergson posited an “elan vital” or a vital impulse in nature, which led Teilhard to develop his concept of Omega. God is in the midst of the whole shebang.  Again, to posit a supernatural presence at the heart of nature departs from classical Darwinian evolution and thus to interpret Teilhard through a Darwinian lens is to miss out on his cosmotheandric architectonics.

Teilhard was quite critical of the “wooden scholasticism” of his age and saw a church entrenched in legalism and dogmatism.  He worked tirelessly toward a new theological vision consonant with evolution.   He witnessed the mass movements of communism and national socialism as perversions of evolution’s urge toward greater consciousness and convergence.   But he also saw that they represented the capacity to coalesce, to aggregate into a more unified power.  Nothing should deter us from realizing cosmic personalization or movement towards the fullness of Christ, he indicated: “Eppur si muove!”

Teilhard died a lonely man in New York City on April 10, 1955.  Misunderstood, rejected by the Church and silenced by his superiors, he worked until the very end. He believed that a new synthesis of science and religion could give rise to a new religion of the earth, one that would kindle faith in the world, faith in God and faith in the future.  He lived in this unwavering hope.  May we do the same.

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