Teilhard For Troubled Times – Part 1

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.

4 Total Articles

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New Creation is the Center for Christogenesis online magazine dedicated to deepening our awareness of God, Cosmos, and Humanity in a scientific age.

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A love letter to Ilia and Peirre Teilhard de Chardin Dear Ilia, I am so grateful to have found your books, your website, the Omega community and you, the prophet. Of course none of this was accidental. It all started with a car accident on my 21st birthday in 1968. I was driving alone at night, back to my job as a junior housemistress in a rural boarding school in Australia. Only my knee was badly injured in the accident but when I regained consciousness in the ambulance, I was aware of a terrible pain in my chest (bruising from the impact against the steering wheel before seat belts) as I struggled to breathe, it crossed my mind that I might be dying. I remember clearly thinking ‘what did the nuns teach us to do when one is dying?’. I was feeling pretty panicky by now and said the ‘Our Father’ as I was praying I relaxed with great relief because I knew from that moment (since never waived in my whole body conviction), that I actually, after all that teenage angst and doubt , did believe in God and more importantly that he/she believed in me. It was the greatest birthday gift I could have wished for . However it took about 15 years of ‘unfolding’’ to recognise the giftedness of this experience. The freedom of discovering that “faith” is not a noun but a verb of growing and becoming has given me licence to come and go, explore here and there, on and off. From Liberation theology, to the feminist project, sojouning with protestant friends and projects in social justice and ecological activism to Francis’ Laudato Si, the testament in scripture and finally home to the cosmic Christ and Teilhard de Chardin. Recently I get quite giddy, or ‘tipsy’, in awe and wonder at evolutionary creation and sometimes can cry at the privilege of being part of it. When I see an ant, busy about its business, or a weed struggling between the paving stones, I say to them,’even to be one of you would have been a great gig in this universe!, but to be chosen to be human through chance and natural selection, at this time of internet and DNA, to live in this country of security and more than my needs, to be a woman, a mother, grandmother and to have reached this consciousness of ’ unbearable wholeness’ and all that that means takes my breath away, like a car crash! Just one question. I don’t believe in “supernatural” any more. Is that heresy? The more I read about evolutionary biology and ponder on its implications for an evolutionary chistology, the more it seems to me that from the sub atomic to the cosmic scale, natural creativity, interconnectivity, communication networks, diversity, regeneration: have it all in hand. Thus the concept of ’super-nature’ is a tautology. I hope humanity can redeem itself, so that homo sapiens can continue to evolve into communities of healing and peace, but if not, then the infinite impulse will mourn the suffering and loss, but life is’ immortal and love is eternal’ (Bede Jarret) Resurrection goes on in the now, on the cusp of creating the future. Many thanks for your website. People like me need your company and inspiration. Patricia
Patricia Devlin
Monasterevin, co.Kildare.Ireland, AK
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