Wednesday, January 2, 2013

Teilhard, Christians, atheists


It is altogether fitting and proper to begin the new year with a post on Pierre Teilhard de Chardin. His ideas were recently featured on the public radio program On Being, which explores scintillating ideas in religion, science, ethics, and culture through interviews by Krista Tippett. The thoughts of people influenced by Teilhard de Chardin reminded me of his deep effect on me when I read him decades ago. At the time I was trying to be an atheist but still intensely connected to my Catholic upbringing.
Host Krista Tippett gives this summary of Teilhard de Chardin:
A world-renowned paleontologist, he helped verify fossil evidence of human evolution. A Jesuit priest and philosopher, he penned forbidden ideas that seemed mystical at the time but are now coming true — that humanity would develop capacities for collective, global intelligence; that a meaningful vision of the earth and the universe would have to include, as he put it, "the interior as well as the exterior of things; mind as well as matter."
Teilhard’s The Phenomenon of Man thrilled me with its marriage of science and spirituality, and that it was authored by a Catholic priest satisfied my desire to stay inside Catholic thought. I felt safe in the bosom of Catholic theology, even while I was trying to be an atheist! The irony occurred to me then too.
When I read Phenomenon of Man I was electrified with excitement over Teilhard’s mind-expanding vision as he traced the rise of consciousness from inanimate matter through the living species, from the less to the more conscious, culminating in humans and a collective, global intelligence. He introduced the idea that thinking humans form a layer of consciousness he called the noosphere, a concept far ahead of his time that in retrospect seems to have foretold the World Wide Web. I was mesmerized by his exposition of the evolution of consciousness.

But the end of the book let me down with a disappointing thud. He stuffed his exhilarating concepts into the Christian frame by calling the Omega Point "Christ." A deflating return to what I’d rejected in grade school—that we have the one, true faith. Back to Jesus Christ dominating spiritual reflection. Back to the same old Christian claim of exclusive access to God. His loyalty to Christian thought appears sadder in light of the fact that the Vatican censored his ideas. His books did not appear until after his death.

Teilhard’s intoxicating synthesis of evolutionary science with spiritual reality spoke a prophetic wisdom that far surpasses Christian limits. It stirred me profoundly. I learned to ignore Teilhard’s Christian finish from commentaries by others who also were awed by his synthesis and easily ignored that Christian note. They were not still wrestling with Christian claims as I was. I add that I do not remember at the time reacting strongly to the English translation of Teilhard’s title. Today the use of “man” to mean humanity stabs me with irritation, as my awareness of its insult to women has grown over time.

From Teilhard I learned to think about The Within of things. Jung’s theology—called “depth psychology”—also spoke of inner realities unacknowledged in the outer world, but Jung focused on the emotional/spiritual health of the individual. In fact, he called the process of becoming aware of our unconscious motivations “individuation.” In addition, Jung directly addressed the problem of Christian literalism and myopia. He affirmed and explained both my dissatisfaction with Christian dogmatism and my dissatisfaction with atheism.

From Teilhard and Jung I learned to consider the dichotomy of inner and outer, the interior of reality and its exterior or what our outer senses can register. They let me appreciate spiritual reality free of both religious and atheist dogma.
May the new year nudge my readers toward the same.

1 comment:

Shirley johnson said...

Thank you, Jeanette. Your words came at an appropriate time for me, nourishing my own thinking at this time.