Over the course of the following weeks we will be posting three related blogs by Cynthia Bourgeault on the topic of “Teilhard for Troubled Times.” Here is the first installment.
Part 1 – Deep Hope Flows Over Deep Time
I don’t know what kind of divine nudge it may have been that prompted me in January 2015 to challenge the students in my Wisdom network to a deep dive into Teilhard, but the response was electric, to say the least. Over the ensuing eighteen months we collectively chomped our way through The Human Phenomenon, The Divine Milieu, and The Heart of Matter in both online formats and on-the-ground Wisdom schools and retreats. Students who really caught the Teilhard bug read even more widely, exploring the entire range of his canon from the magnificent early mystical upwellings in Writings in Time of War to the profound final synthesis in The Christic, completed less than a month before his death.
So the cornerstones were all in place by November 2016—and not a moment too soon, I might add.
Without straying too far into politics, I can simply report that within the circles I mostly travel in, the response to the upset election victory of Donald Trump has been one of shock, disorientation, and a gathering sense of doom. Not only does it appear that the progressive social and environmental values that have set the political agenda for nearly six decades are being systematically deconstructed; the even more fundamental moral values—truthfulness, compassion, integrity, conscience— now seem themselves to be under attack. In a brave new world of “alternative facts,” “fake news,” and a rising tide of belligerence and vulgarity it seems as if human consciousness is going backwards. How could this have happened, and how do we come to terms with a future that suddenly feels much darker and more precarious?
It is just here that Teilhard enters the equation, offering a vastly broader and more hopeful perspective in which to search for a new moral resolve. Writing in a historical era whose traumatic upheavals eerily foreshadow our own (and in whose unresolved anguish lie the roots of so much of our post-modern skepticism and despair), he is yet able to paint a bigger picture where there is still room for optimism and coherence. As I’ve drawn out these Teilhardian “waypoints” before a variety of audiences, I have found that people are deeply comforted and encouraged by his perspective. Amidst the welter of analysis (sociological, historical, psychological, political) being thrown at our present situation by the secular intelligentsia, there is simply not enough breadth and depth of vision to reveal the deeper processes from which hope emerges. That is precisely the missing piece Teilhard is so powerfully able to bring. Over these next three blogs I would like to call attention to three points in particular, all foundational pieces of the so-called “Teilhardian Synthesis,” that have already proved to be powerful starting points for reorientation and renewed hope as our planet begins to regroup.
First of all, Teilhard reminds us that “deep hope flows over deep time.” From his perspective as a geologist and paleontologist, he reassures us that evolution has not changed direction; it has always been and always will be “a rise toward consciousness” (HP 183), moving irreversibly toward its consummation at the Omega point. But its span is measured in eons, not decades. When we try to “cinch up on the bat” too tightly or lose sight of the cosmic scale, the result is anguish. If we measure human progress only by our usual historical benchmarks—the last eight years of Obama initiatives, the eighty years of FDR social safety nets, the not-yet 250 years of the American democratic experiment—or for that matter, the “mere” 2500 years of Western civilization; we are still only catching the inevitable play of what Teilhard calls tatonnement, or “trial and error,” part of the necessary play of freedom. Even the emergence of human consciousness itself, he reminds us, reaching its present configuration a mere 125,000 years ago with the stunning debut of homo sapiens, was preceded by a 10,000-year ice age, in which it appeared that all that had been gained prior to that point was irreversibly lost. It wasn’t. No sooner had the ice receded than the first irrefutable paleontological manifestations confirm that human beings were now using fire and tools— unmistakable evidence that beneath the ice and apparent desolation, the evolutionary journey was still unperturbedly marching forward.
Perhaps that feels like a false hope. Perhaps it is bought at the cost of all sensitivity to individual suffering and pain, by setting the scale at so vast a magnitude that human lives register as no more than as tiny pixels. Teilhard was accused of exactly that in his writings after World War II when Europe, still reeling from the horror of the holocaust and Hiroshima, was overwhelmed by personal and collective remorse. He was accused of false optimism, of an indifference to personal suffering. But Teilhard was by no means indifferent. His life-transforming vision of the oneness of humanity came in the midst of serving as stretcher bearer in the bloody trenches of World War I, and his writings on human progress rose from the untold depths of personal suffering he endured in faithfulness to a vocation and a Church that actively blocked his path. He knew personal suffering only too well, and he looked straight into the face of the sorrow, the horror, and named it as such. The haunting prayer woven into his reflection on faith in The Divine Milieu makes clear that it is no cheap optimism he is dispensing here, but a wrenchingly honest acknowledgement of our human predicament:
Ah, you know it yourself, Lord, through having borne the anguish of it as a man: on certain days the world seems a terrifying thing: huge, blind, and brutal. It buffets us about, drags us along, and kills us with complete indifference. Heroically, it may truly be said, man has contrived to create a more or less habitable zone of light and warmth in the midst of the cold, dark waters—a zone where people have eyes to see, hands to help, and hearts to love. But how precarious that habitation is! At any moment the vast and horrible thing may break in through the cracks—the thing we try hard to forget is always there, separated from us by a flimsy partition: fire, pestilence, storms, earthquakes. Or the unleashing of dark moral forces—these callously sweep away in one moment what we have laboriously built up and beautified with all our intelligence and all our love. ~ Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, The Divine Milieu, p. 112
But he knew that to capitulate to anguish was to lose the thread, and this he would not permit. The deeper ley lines of resilience and hope were alive and well for him, safely sealed within the deep, telluric memory of the earth itself and the Christic impulse beaconing from the future. But the road rises on the other side of despair. Allowing oneself to be engulfed in either anger or grief amounts to a fatal loss of moral nerve and hence a betrayal of the evolutionary task entrusted to our species.“
I want to conclude by making clear that I do not see this “deep hope” as an excuse to relax our vigilance in stewardship for the planet earth. Teilhard does not permit himself to be used that way; his sense of the oneness of the earth and of its dynamic interwovenness pervades everything he sees and writes. But he realizes as well that Mother Earth has an intelligence and a resilience that meets us far more than halfway, and that frantic efforts to “save the earth” are likely to be more about saving our own skins. Over the millennia our planet has endured meteor strikes, the rise and fall of sea levels, ice ages, the continual shifting of tectonic plates, the appearance and disappearance of species. We homo sapiens may indeed become one of those “lost species” if in our greed and arrogance we bring about planetary conditions that no longer support the uncomfortably tight tolerances in which human life is actually sustainable. But even if that unthinkable should occur, evolution itself will not be derailed. The earth itself, infinitely adaptable, will continue on, and the species that inevitably arises to replace us will bear in its cosmic memory the trousseau of all that consciousness has attained in this evolutionary go-round.
For sure, we need to fall on our knees every morning and beseech our mother Earth to help carry us through this latest dark time of human greed and destructiveness. But our real task at this evolutionary cusp is not to lose sight of what is coming to us from the future, the vision of our common humanity that is indeed “groaning and travailing” to be born. That will be the subject of my next blog.