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 second installment. Part 1 can be found here.
Part 2 – Don’t Co-exist, Coalesce!
The second hopeful resource that Teilhard brings to our unsettled political times is his unshakable conviction that evolutionary progress will unfold its ultimate triumph in the realm of the personal. While our postmodern temperament has a well-engrained tendency to regard the world through a filter of distrust, in which the bits and pieces inevitably appear “random” and disconnected—certainly impersonal—Teilhard encourages us to see our planetary home as a coherent and increasingly compassionate whole, steadily plying its way along its irreversible evolutionary trajectory. In the big picture, there is nothing to suggest that evolution has gone off track. But there is plenty to suggest that we are entering a critical new phase in which some old-order planetary survival strategies are giving way to a new and more intentional sense of mutual interdependence.
Early on in Teilhard’s The Human Phenomenon, in the course of a powerful philosophical reflection on “The Ways of Life,” (HP 65-68), he acknowledges that one of the characteristics of life as it voraciously emerges on our young planet is its “indifference toward individuals.” The evolutionary trajectory over its inaugural billions of years has been far more skewed toward collective survival than individual wellbeing— “Life is more real than lives,” as Teilhard unflinchingly observes, (HP, p. 67). But that pattern may now be starting to shift as human beings, more and more consciously awakening to he sway of Omega (the ultimate convergence of all things in love) willingly embark on the next leg of the evolutionary journey that will transform them from individuals into persons.
How’s that again? We typically use these terms interchangeably, but for Teilhard they denote distinctly different, progressive evolutionary stages. An individual lives as an autonomous unit, subject to the old-order laws of “survival of the fittest” and planetary indifference. A person has come to understand himself or herself as belonging to greater relational field in which individual autonomy defers to a flowing give-and-take that allows the whole unit to function at a much higher order of coherence: a whole greater than the sum of its parts. In this greater whole both unity and differentiation are preserved; meanwhile, the symbiotic union between the whole and the part drives the evolutionary dynamo toward even more powerful expressions of consciousness and love—or in other words, ever more firmly into the realm of the personal. When we are fully there, Teilhard boldly predicts, yet another cosmic threshold will have been crossed as “the world’s indifference to its elements will be transformed into an immense solicitude—in the sphere of the person.” (HP 67)
“But we are not there yet,” he cautions. The journey toward this next evolutionary benchmark is still barely underway, and at the stage we’re at, three steps forward are still regularly matched by two steps back. Yet for all the bumps in the road, the vision of that higher collectivity he first glimpsed in the trenches of World War I guided Teilhard like a pole star throughout his life, both galvanizing his imagination and enflaming his heart. It can do the same for us, even in our own sad and distrustful times.
A cautionary note, however: for Teilhard, oneness does not equate simply to some sentimental proclamation of “fellowship” or “let’s all just get along.” It is firmly grounded in his master evolutionary principle, the Law of Complexification/Consciousness. According to the law, every new benchmark of consciousness as it manifests here on earth is accompanied by—or in other words, correlative with—the emergence of a higher, more articulated physical form (Teilhard calls it an “arrangement”) that serves as its vehicle. This implies, if I catch his drift correctly—and in distinct contrast to the model commonly promulgated in most schools of spiritual enlightenment today—that the breakthrough to what is now popularly called “nondual consciousness” will not come as the result of a series of individual enlightenments, but in the emergence of a new organic body of humanity, a mystical body of humanity. This new organic whole will display the signature “differentiation-within-unity” that Teilhard variously refers to as ”cephalization” or centration. It will have a “head,” i.e., a distinctly recognizable command post or seat of consciousness, around which its diverse components will self-organize— in a fashion not unlike like St. Paul’s stunningly prescient vision in 1 Corinthians 12 of the “many members of the one body of Christ:”
Indeed, the body does not consist of one member but of many. If the foot were to say, “Because I am not a hand, I do not belong to the body, that would not make it any less an part of the body. And if the ear were to say, “Because I am not an eye, I do not belong to the body, “ that would not make it any less a part of the body. If the whole body were an eye, where would the the hearing be? If the whole body were hearing, where would the sense of smell be? As it is, there are many members, yet one body. The eye cannot say to the hand, “I have no need of you,” nor again the head to the feet, “I have no need of you”…if one member suffers, all suffer together with it; if one member is honored, all rejoice together with it.”” (1 Cor 12: 14-26)
This new organic body of humanity, its corporeity primarily carried in the noosphere, will guide and shape—is already guiding and shaping—the emerging consciousness of humanity. It is serenely undisturbed by the rise and fall of political tyrants and the final paroxysms of religious and nationalistic tribalism. The rising scent of our common humanity is already in the air, and as we consciously join hearts across the antiquated boundaries of the nationalities and denominations that once defined our identities, the blue biosphere of our planet earth is being superseded and suffused with the gold and scarlet of our common human heart coursing toward its Omega.
I offer this Teilhardian vision as a source of renewed hope in a world that seems, at the moment, to be moving aggressively toward an intensified retrenchment and fragmentation. The downturn cannot last, Teilhard would have us see; the evolutionary current has already swept us beyond it. And indeed, we can already see moving beneath the troubled waters the unmistakable harbingers of this dawning human oneness. We see it in the worldwide demonstrations that spontaneously broke out on January 21 in solidarity with the women’s march in DC. We see it in the outpouring of concern for refugees and dispossessed in Syria and elsewhere, in the snowballing movement of churches and city governments to declare themselves sanctuary zones, and in the skillful, understated way that the other governments of the world have so far largely been able to work together to contain the Trump administration like a giant oil slick. The gathering body of universal compassion is not about to let itself be dismantled! And there is indeed reason for hope that the rising star of human oneness, announced by Teilhard nearly a hundred years ago, has by now reached sufficient stability in its noetic orbit to carry us through this present rough patch and onward toward Omega. At any rate, that is where we need to place our hope and our best efforts: in the continued, patient cultivation of our common humanity.
We will see in the next blog why this is not simply wishful thinking, but already an empirical reality.