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Teilhard De Chardin
Pierre Teilhard de Chardin is one of the few people who can legitimately claim a place in the history of both Darwinian science and Christian theology. Born in 1881, Teilhard was both a Jesuit priest in the Roman Catholic church, and also a scientifically-trained paleontologist and geologist who participated in the discovery of the first fossil specimens of the hominid Homo erectus, then popularly dubbed "Peking Man" due to its discovery in China, whose precise relationship to present day homo sapiens, or indeed any other subsequent hominids, remains a matter of scientific debate). Yet Teilhard also maintained a constant interest in matters prompted by his scientific work, but more speculative and theological in character. These writings would bring Teilhard into some conflict with the official guardians of Roman Catholic orthodoxy, and the Vatican denied him the imprimatur or official permission required to publish his work. But on Teilhard's death in 1955, his work -- primarily the central statement of his thought in The Phenomenon of Man -- was issued posthumously and was assessed not as an official theological statement on behalf of the Roman Catholic church, but as one man's own speculative and philosophical inquiry which may indeed have flirted with heresy by the church's own definitions. But how did Teilhard justify his placement of the Christian God at the center of the scientific process of evolution? I hope, after a summary of Teilhard's basic ideas, to contextualize Teilhard's post-Darwinian theological speculation by asking this question with specific reference to traditional Roman Catholic theology, then of post-Darwinian philosophical thought. I hope to show that if we understand his thought in terms of how it derives from evolutionary intellectual ancestors (so to speak) within the phylogeny of ideas, then Teilhard's conception of the role played by Christ and God within the evolutionary process comes to seem closely supported by the theological background of his own work. His specific invocation of Darwinian theory may be novel, but the ultimate theological speculation is actually more orthodox than Teilhard's reputation might give us cause to suspect.
First it is necessary to give some description of how, precisely, Teilhard defines God's role in the process of Darwinian evolution. The difficulty here is that Teilhard has developed a special vocabulary to hypothesize the divinely-ordained process which he sees behind evolution. The basic statement of his belief in The Phenomenon of Man is that "evolution is the hand of God…gathering us back to himself," and indeed "gathering" seems to be a favorite term of his for describing God's action in evolution, as when he lays out syllogistically the principles that "Evolution = Rise of consciousness, Rise of consciousness = Union effected, The general gathering together in which…the totality of thinking units and thinking forces are engaged -- all this becomes intelligeible from top to bottom as soon as we perceive it as the natural culmination of a cosmic processus of organization" (Phenomenon 243). Teilhard posits the historical point which he calls Alpha, where the fact of God's creation has instilled within matter itself the ability to attain greater levels of organization and complexity. This Alpha state eventually strives upward in complexity and self-awareness towards the "Omega point" of reunion with the divine. Between that lies the operation, and indeed the purpose, of evolution. As Teilhard puts it in The Phenomenon of Man:
Only one reality seems to survive and be capable of succeeding and spanning the infinitesimal and the immense: energy -- that floating, universal entity from which all emerges and into which all falls back as into an ocean; energy, the new spirit; the new god. So, at the world's Omega, as at its Alpha, likes the Impersonal. (Phenomenon 258).
The reference to an "impersonal" divinity here perhaps points us to the way in which Jesus Christ, that very personal God, sits oddly at the heart of Teilhard's cosmology, a fact to which I will return. For now we should observe that, in scientific terms, Teilhard sees the evolutionary process itself as first "divergent" in which organisms take a wide variety of forms to explore all available possibilities, only thereafter to become "convergent" by focusing on a single factor so that the impulse toward greater complexity which had resulted in life itself will now bring into being first consciousness, then reflective consciousness (Denack 217). The ability of humans to contain all of existence, even abstractions, within this process of thought is what Teilhard terms the "noosphere," deriving from the classical Greek word for "mind" -- what Teilhard means is the overall sphere of human thought as it illustrates the process of divinely-ordained evolution to greater forms of overall complexity and connectedness. As Teilhard sees the ultimate convergence with God at the Omega point:
Conquered by the sense of the earth and human sense, hatred and internecine struggles will have disappeared in the ever-warmer radiance of Omega. Some sort of unanimity will reign over the entire mass of the noosphere. The final convergence will take place in peace.(Phenomenon 288).
It is this continuation of an evolutionary meliorism into the field of human intellectual effort that ensures that the Omega point, as Teilhard sees it, is a kind of consummational summum bonum which seemingly takes the place of more traditional Christian eschatology.
But is Teilhard's decision to place God and Christ at the heart of the scientific process of evolution really justified? Within the context of mainstream Roman Catholic theology, I think it is definitely not as odd as it might sound. The two most significant theologians within the Catholic tradition are probably Saint Augustine and Saint Thomas Aquinas -- their writings still remain the bedrock of Catholic doctrine. Now obviously Augustine is a fourth-century writer, and qualifies more as an early church father than a theologian per se -- Augustine is theologically important for stressing certain aspects of Christian thought (such as the concept of Original Sin) such that his own opinions would ultimately be codified as church dogma. But Michael Ruse summarizes Augustine as being part of a "venerable strain of Christian thought which regards creation less as a miraculous one-shot affair and much more of an unfurling that will take considerable time" (Ruse 338). From a theological standpoint, Augustine was more likely to be emphasizing the potential for God's action in the world even at the present time, and to emphasize a sense of progress inherent in the Christian religion. He was not primarily thinking scientifically, and as Ruse summarizes Augustinian notions of evolution avant-la-lettre:
Augustine in particular saw God, who Himself stands outside time, as having created everything in an instant but in the form of "seeds" of potentiality, which will then develop through time. This is not evolutionism; it is not even evolutionism by another name or in anticipation; but it is a theological position which finds law-bound evolution a congenial world picture. (Ruse 338).
In other words, there is nothing in Augustine to discourage Teilhard's view, and much to encourage it.
This strain in Augustine is amplified to a certain degree in the more comprehensive statement of Roman Catholic theology, the Summa Theologica of the great medieval Scholastic, Saint Thomas Aquinas. Aquinas' cosmology actually seems to contain a prefiguration of Teilhard's noosphere, for as Jan Aersten summarizes Thomist thinking on the subject:
Aquinas argues that it is desirable for each thing to be united to its principle or source, since it is in this union that the perfection of each thing consists. For this reason circular motion is the most perfect motion, because its terminus is united to its beginning. Only by means of intellect is a human being united to its principle. Consequently the ultimate end for human beings consists in this union. "Therefore, a human being naturally desires to know"…perfect knowledge is knowledge of the first cause. Now the first cause of all things is God. Therefore, for us the ultimate end is to know God. (Aersten 31).
It is not hard to see how Teilhard might have viewed his own cosmology as a quite natural elaboration upon this central element of Aquinas' theology, and ultimately that of the Roman Catholic church in its adoption of Aquinas as a central codifier and thinker.
Although the Roman Catholic tradition depends less upon the obsessive close reading (or misreading) of scripture among Protestant sects, it is worth noting that Teilhard is not above offering scriptural justification for his ideas. In defining the role of Christ, Teilhard notes in The Phenomenon of Man that
Christ, principle of universal vitality because sprung up as man among men, put himself in the position (maintained every since) to subdue under himself, to purify, to direct and superanimate the general ascent of consciousness into which he inserted himself….And when he has gathered everything together and transformed everything, he will close in upon himself and his conquests, thereby rejoining, in a final gesture, the divine focus he has never left. Then, as St. Paul tells us God shall be all in all. This is indeed…[continue]
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