Wednesday, 17 December 2014

Teilhard de Chardin’s Universe

Loeb sci american s

No reflection about the nature of the Universe can be complete without including the thought of Pierre Teilhard de Chardin SJ, the French Jesuit philosopher, paleontologist and geologist. As a paleontologist, Teilhard participated in the discovery of Peking Man, while - as a philosopher and naturalist - he elaborated a profound analysis of evolution in his most famous work, The Phenomenon of Man. Not only does Teilhard endorse evolution and reconcile it with his religious beliefs, but he argues for it being a principle that governs not only life, but all of matter: from its earliest moments and forms trough the emergence of life and consciousness and beyond to future, social forms of thought, along an axis of increasing complexity and interconnectedness.

Instead of looking at Teilhard’s scientific and philosophical work, I would here like to think about how he understood the nature of the Universe as a Christian - a Christian who contributed to science at the highest level and whose philosophy (suppressed by the Catholic Church during his lifetime, but having received some endorsement from Pope Benedict XVI) is yet to see the widespread recognition it merits.

Among Teilhard’s writings, the richest and most in-depth source about his understanding of the universe is the beautiful book of reflections, meditations and prayers: Hymn of the Universe, which I recommend in full wholeheartedly. In one of its earliest chapter - “Fire over the Earth” - Teilhard presents his vision of cosmogenesis and its daily persistence in being matter:
“In the beginning was Power, intelligent, loving, energizing. In the beginning was the Word, supremely capable of mastering and molding whatever might come into being in the world of matter. In the beginning there were not coldness and darkness: there was the Fire. This is the truth.

So, far from light emerging gradually out of the womb of our darkness, it is the Light, existing before all else was made, which, patiently, surely, eliminates our darkness. As for us creatures, of ourselves we are but emptiness and obscurity. But you, my God, are the inmost depths, the stability of that eternal milieu, without duration or space, in which our cosmos emerges gradually into being and grows gradually to its final completeness, as it loses those boundaries which to our eyes seem so immense. Everything is being; everywhere there is being and nothing but being, save in the fragmentation of creatures and the clash of their atoms.

Blazing Spirit, Fire, personal, super-substantial, the consummation of a union so immeasurably more lovely and more desirable than that destructive fusion of which all the pantheists dream: be pleased yet once again to come down and breathe a soul into the newly formed, fragile film of matter with which this day the world is to be freshly clothed.”
Teilhard then turns to God with the following words of invitation into, and already recognition of presence in, his own life:
“Radiant Word, blazing Power, you who mold the manifold so as to breathe your life into it; I pray you, lay on us those your hands — powerful, considerate, omnipresent, those hands which do not (like our human hands) touch now here, now there, but which plunge into the depths and the totality, present and past, of things so as to reach us simultaneously through all that is most immense and most inward within us and around us.

May the might of those invincible hands direct and transfigure for the great world you have in mind that earthly travail which I have gathered into my heart and now offer you in its entirety. Remold it, rectify it, recast it down to the depths from whence it springs. You know how your creatures can come into being only, like shoot from stem, as part of an endlessly renewed process of evolution.”
Finally, Teilhard identifies all of what is positive in the universe with Jesus’ body, and - in a stunning move of insight - all of what is suffering and death with His blood: a beautiful recognition of the being-by-non-being dynamic of the Trinity:
“Over every living thing which is to spring up, to grow, to flower, to ripen during this day say again the words: This is my Body. And over every death-force which waits in readiness to corrode, to wither, to cut down, speak again your commanding words which express the supreme mystery of faith: This is my Blood.”
In the next chapter - “Fire in the Earth” - Teilhard revisits God’s presence in the Universe, and speaks about it as a fire permeating it at the macro and micro scales:
“Not with sudden crash of thunderbolt, riving the mountain-tops: does the Master break down doors to enter his own home? Without earthquake, or thunderclap: the flame has lit up the whole world from within. All things individually and collectively are penetrated and flooded by it, from the inmost core of the tiniest atom to the mighty sweep of the most universal laws of being: so naturally has it flooded every element, every energy, every connecting link in the unity of our cosmos; that one might suppose the cosmos to have burst spontaneously into flame.”
And he proceeds to derive from this extreme-encompassing presence of God a tension flowing from His simultaneous intimacy and transcendence:
“All of us, Lord, from the moment we are born feel within us this disturbing mixture of remoteness and nearness; and in our heritage of sorrow and hope, passed down to us through the ages, there is no yearning more desolate than that which makes us weep with vexation and desire as we stand in the midst of the Presence which hovers about us nameless and impalpable and is dwelling in all things. Si forte attrectent eum [“so that people might seek God, even perhaps grope for him and find him” (Acts 17:27)].”
Teilhard then speaks about an interconnectedness among all that is not restricted to the Universe, but that places God at its center and attributes to Him its unity:
“Now, Lord, through the consecration of the world the luminosity and fragrance which suffuse the universe take on for me the lineaments of a body and a face in you. What my mind glimpsed through its hesitant explorations, what my heart craved with so little expectation of fulfillment, you now magnificently unfold for me: the fact that your creatures are not merely so linked together in solidarity that none can exist unless all the rest surround it, but that all are so dependent on a single central reality that a true life, borne in common by them all, gives them ultimately their consistence and their unity.”
The final, extensive passage that I would like to share with you from Teilhard’s writings (still from the same “Fire in the Earth” chapter) contains an explicit comparison between his, Christian view of the Universe and a number of alternatives:
“What I experience as I stand in face of — and in the very depths of — this world which your flesh has assimilated, this world which has become your flesh, my God, is not the absorption of the monist who yearns to be dissolved into the unity of things, nor the emotion felt by the pagan as he lies prostrate before a tangible divinity, nor yet the passive self-abandonment of the quietist tossed hither and thither at the mercy of mystical impulsions.”
However, instead of dissociating himself from monist, pagan and quietist world views, as may seem to be the case at first, Teilhard goes beyond their rejection:
“From each of these modes of thought I take something of their motive force while avoiding their pitfalls: the approach determined for me by your omnipresence is a wonderful synthesis wherein three of the most formidable passions that can unlock the human heart rectify each other as they mingle: like the monist I plunge into the all-inclusive One; but the One is so perfect that as it receives me and I lose myself in it I can find in it the ultimate perfection of my own individuality; like the pagan, I worship a God who can be touched; and I do indeed touch him — this God — over the whole surface and in the depths of that world of matter which confines me: but to take hold of him as I would wish (simply in order not to stop touching him), I must go always on and on through and beyond each undertaking, unable to rest in anything, borne onwards at each moment by creatures and at each moment going beyond them, in a continuing welcoming of them and a continuing detachment from them; like the quietist I allow myself with delight to be cradled in the divine fantasy: but at the same time I know that the divine will, will only be revealed to me at each moment if I exert myself to the utmost? I shall only touch God in the world of matter, when, like Jacob, I have been vanquished by him.”
The above synthesis of disparate positions other than his own shows both a basis for dialogue with those who hold them (having recognized beauty, goodness and truth in each) and a going beyond each. It is not so much a rejection as an evolution of each into a single, richer whole, that Teilhard then makes explicit:
“Thus, because the ultimate objective, the totality to which my nature is attuned has been made manifest to me, the powers of my being begin spontaneously to vibrate in accord with a single note of incredible richness wherein I can distinguish the most discordant tendencies effortlessly resolved: the excitement of action and the delight of passivity: the joy of possessing and the thrill of reaching out beyond what one possesses; the pride in growing and the happiness of being lost in what is greater than oneself. Rich with the sap of the world, I rise up towards the Spirit whose vesture is the magnificence of the material universe but who smiles at me from far beyond all victories; and, lost in the mystery of the flesh of God, I cannot tell which is the more radiant bliss: to have found the Word and so be able to achieve the mastery of matter, or to have mastered matter and so be able to attain and submit to the light of God.”
Teilhard sees presence in the Universe as rich and complex to the point of self-contradiction, where “the most discordant tendencies [are] effortlessly resolved.” It is “a continuing welcoming [...] and a continuing detachment” lived in the bosom of “the One [who] is so perfect that as it receives me and I lose myself in it, I can find in it the ultimate perfection of my own individuality.” It is a presence in “the magnificence of the material universe,” a being smiled at by the God who permeates it and a game of discovering matter through God and God through matter. It is a vision that is able to recognize the good, the true and the beautiful, wherever it may be, and one in which the encounter with the Universe and with fellow humans is always also an encounter with God.