After a million years of reflection, there is a dynamic meeting in the consciousness of man between heaven and earth at last endowed with motion, and from it there emerges not simply a world that manages to survive but a world that kindles into fire! ~ Teilhard de Chardin, Activation of Energy, 280
I remember first coming across the name Teilhard de Chardin five years ago in a Foundations of Christian Mysticism course that the Dominican Center hosted in Grand Rapids, MI. His name sounded mystical in and of itself, like an exotic French 50 year old bottle of wine, the subtleties of which my un-refined Bota-Box palate would never differentiate. Like all things French, I immediately assumed I wouldn’t “get it,” and so a couple of his works sat untouched collecting dust in my study for several years. However, during my first year in the Living School at the Center for Action and Contemplation, I experienced Teilhard as the critical key that unlocked all that was theologically tangled and seemingly unresolvable for me between Christianity and its relevance to my peers and future generations.
Midwifed by Cynthia Bourgeault’s masterful introduction and insistence that we were capable of comprehending him, I began a journey to read as much of his works as I could get my hands on. Like any good wine enthusiast, I’ve been swirling and slowly sipping his words…and little by little the subtleties are making themselves known, forming a larger vision of creation and the world that is downright intoxicating.
If you and I were sitting next to each other at a bar for an evening of wine tasting and you asked me to make my best Teilhard pitch, this is what you would most likely hear me say (accompanied, no doubt, by a multitude of wild hand gestures and one or two more colorful words):
Since the time of the enlightenment, humanity has lost its place in the family of things. Our neurotic human souls are crying out to once again find our meaning in the meta-story, to sense ourselves as belonging…not just to one another, but to the whole of the cosmos. We’ve lost our place, and religion has lost its message of hope by becoming bogged down by theology that is not only incompatible with what we know about the cosmos, but in some critical ways psychologically damaging to the collective human soul as well. From the moment we discovered that our earth and humanity were not the center of the universe, to the post-modern age of dissected fractal meaninglessness that has haunted us of late, the intelligent human soul seeking to be faithful to the Christian tradition has had to develop something of a split personality. On the one hand holding the unwavering belief in the devotional heart that insists by experience that the Christian Tradition contains mystical and transformational truth, and on the other hand the unshakable belief in the luminous human spirit of exploration within the sciences which resulted (until now) in a drastically different picture of the universe.
Teilhard presents a message of the world for which humanity desperately hungers: the convergence of matter and spirit through the lens of evolution. As a scientist and theologian, he paints the picture of a universe that is still in the process of becoming, the body of Christ still forming. As such, our theology can at long last rest in the future instead of some paradise lost, freeing up all the energy thus far employed in the prison of our collective shame. Even though Vatican II acknowledged that our understanding of the universe must now be evolutionary, we are still collectively holding on to the religious paradigm that at one time things were perfect and that humanity wrecked it all through “original sin”. Through the lens of evolution, however, all things are still in motion. Creation isn’t “finished”…which means, frankly, humanity didn’t ruin it by eating a piece of fruit.
Right about here, between tasting the Pinot Noir and the highly anticipated—by me, anyway—Grenache, you would stop me and ask the inevitable question:
“Wait a minute, wait a minute….If the universe isn’t the finished “clock” we’ve made it out to be, and if humanity didn’t break the clock… then what’s the meaning of the Incarnation? Isn’t the whole point of Christ that God sent him to fix the damn clock? Isn’t the whole point of Christ that he is the “redeemer”?”
Teilhard’s evolutionary lens elevates the idea of Christic redemption into another dimension. Teilhard declares, “Cosmogenesis…culminates in Christogenesis,” or as present day Teilhardian scholar Ilia Delio interprets it, “Christ the redeemer IS Christ the evolver.” To Teilhard, Christ had to be present and infused into matter from the beginning and exist organically or could not exist at all. Christ is the catalyst of creation that was embodied by the person of Jesus, fulfilling the incarnational and personal message of Love. Jesus as Christ demonstrates the directional potential of the convergence of evolution, which Teilhard calls Christ Omega, and elevates humanity’s awareness that we have a conscious choice in the matter. In his poetic and mystical The Hymn of the Universe, Teilhard declares, “Through your own incarnation, my God, all matter is henceforth incarnate.” Far from being a pantheistic statement, Teilhard outlines a panentheism: A God inextricably interwoven into a matter while still infinitely beyond it, calling creation onward from the future towards its fullest potential and convergence into Christ Omega.
Teilhard’s theology places humanity once again in the critical center of things, not as we once thought in our Ptolemaic universe, but as the “arrow pointing the way”: the directional thrust of evolution itself. In humanity, evolution is now moved into the subtle energies of consciousness, which Teilhard calls the noosphere, and is now a choice. Evolution, in other words, is entirely up to us. In this theological paradigm, the role of sin and human suffering transitions from a punitive one to a collective ascensional force in the process of evolution. For Teilhard, suffering as embodied by the passion of Jesus Christ, represents the energetic exchange that if consciously borne, can further our course in evolution into Omega.
No longer the result of the distant actions of an ancestor’s temptation in the Garden of Eden, this perspective on sin as a frictional byproduct of creation creates a much more subtle relationship to the problem of evil: one of active responsibility. Unlike the individual responsibility that has been thus far characterized in Christianity by a quest for salvation in the afterlife, Teilhard depicts the salvation of the whole of creation as happening now, mediated by the actions of the human collective. We have a conscious choice in the furthering of evolution in our suffering, which Teilhard describes as a cosmically necessary ingredient in creation, and our participation in this choice affects not just our individual lives, but the outcome of the whole evolutionary story.
Teilhard’s theology is one that at long last moves Christianity away from the foundations it has uncomfortably rested on thus far in the metaphysics of duality, with it’s static schism between matter and spirit. Instead, Teilhard places our Christian paradigm on a creative, unfolding and non-dual metaphysics: something much more akin to the ecstatic mandala of the Christian Trinity, the thrust of the Incarnation, and the comprehension of the cosmos as an interconnected whole of quantum physics. Teilhard portrays a deeply hopeful and globally inclusive Christianity that restores humanity into a participatory role as the mediators of the salvation of creation. It is the collective human species that is now forming the body of Christ, with religion once more (or perhaps at last becoming) the animating force for this “zest for living” and belief in humanity, as we continue to consciously evolve into the zenith of creation’s potential in Christ Omega. Like a prophet in the wilderness, Teilhard widens the lens and challenges us to foster, “No longer simply a religion of individuals and of heaven, but a religion of mankind and of the earth—that is what we are looking for at this moment, as the oxygen without which we cannot breathe.”
(At this point in the wine tasting, we’d be starting in on a dessert wine. The bar would have emptied out by now of its more raucous counterparts. The solitary glow of the candle in front of us would draw our gaze as I gave you my closing Teilhard spiel.)
These are some of the reasons why I believe Teilhard’s theology is the theology of the future. On a personal level, he has become for me a beloved teacher, facilitated the discovery of a lifelong vocation, and has inspired me with a zest for the world that is proving contagious. While recently on a trip to Nashville, a musician friend told me, “Whatever you’re smoking, Brie…I want some. I want to see humanity like you do.“ I told him my drug of choice is the mystical vision of Christianity and the World found in the writings of a man named Teilhard de Chardin. In my opinion, Christianity has always held this life-giving, hopeful message in its mystical heart. Like a puzzle containing an image we simply couldn’t decipher, we’ve been trying to put the pieces of Christian theology together without an appreciation of the cosmic whole, resulting in some forced incompatible fits and the scrambling of the image’s graceful shape. Teilhard helps us to see the luminous, all-encompassing vision of what this puzzle can form. Perhaps now we can start moving some of the pieces around so that all of humanity can see it too.
If Teilhard were a 50 yr old fine French wine, and I desperately wanted you to try him, I would use his own words on the label. On the front of the wine bottle I would place an image of the World, not in its typical spherical form, but a World in the shape of a heart on fire…with the following words on the back:
Let there be revealed to us the possibility of believing at the same time and wholly in God and the World, the one through the other; let this belief burst forth, as it is ineluctably in process of doing under the pressure of these seemingly opposed forces, and then, we may be sure of it, a great flame will illumine all things: for a Faith will have been born (or reborn) containing and embracing all others—and, inevitably, it is the strongest Faith which sooner or later must possess the Earth. ~ Teilhard de Chardin, The Future of Man, 268
. Teilhard, Christianity and Evolution, 81.
. Ilia Delio, Christ in Evolution, 76.
. Teilhard, Pierre Teilhard, ed.King, 115.
. Teilhard, Hymn of the Universe, 24
. Teilhard, The Phenomenon of Man, 220-221
. Teilhard, Phenomenon of Man, 226.
. Teilhard, Activation of Energy, 247.
. Teilhard, Activation of Energy, 240.