Teilhard de Chardin: the Outcast Reformer

“The day will come when, after harnessing space, the winds, the tides, and gravitation, we shall harness for God the energies of love. And on that day, for the second time in the history of the world, we shall have discovered fire.”   -Pierre Teilhard de Chardin

Check out the American Teilhard Association for lots more info on Teilhard than I’ll be able to squeeze into this post.

Most of Teilhard’s writings can be downloaded for free from Archive.org.  The essay “How I Believe” is an excellent introduction to Teilhard’s thinking, and is found in a collection of short works called “Christianity and Evolution” which is available here.

The quote below is from “How I Believe”:

I believe that the universe is an evolution; I believe that evolution proceeds toward Spirit; I believe that in man, Spirit is fully realized in person; I believe that the supremely personal is the universal Christ

One of the goals of this blog is to put to rest the idea that one cannot believe in both God and evolution by explaining this worldview and its consistency with the teachings of the New Testament.

And by the way none of this has anything to do with “Intelligent Design”.  I will write a full post on that at some point, but that concept is nothing like what Teilhard envisioned and I hesitate to even bring it up.  But I know that it will come up at some point, so I’ll talk about it in another post.

The essay “How I Believe” begins by describing how Teilhard arrived at his position regarding evolution.  It may seem like two conflicting worldviews to many, but for those of us who do not believe that Genesis 1 must taken literally in order for us to believe in God and in the salvation of Jesus, there is no conflict at all.  The difference between the two views is not one of essence, but of perspective.

Teilhard states,

Situated thus by life at the heart of two worlds with whose theory, idiom and feelings intimate experience has made me familiar, I have not erected any watertight bulkhead inside myself.  On the contrary, I have allowed two apparently conflicting influences full freedom to react upon one another deep within me.  And now, at the end of that operation, after thirty years devoted to the pursuit of interior unity, I have the feeling that a synthesis has been effected naturally between the two currents that claim my allegiance.  The one has not destroyed, but has reinforced, the other.  Today I believe probably more profoundly than ever in God, and certainly more than ever in the world.

I am not going to be able to do any kind of justice to the work of Teilhard de Chardin in a single blog post.  What I want to do is briefly introduce a couple of his ideas that have formed a foundation for my own perspective.

Teilhard saw the universe as an evolutionary progression, constantly building upon itself as its components increase in complexity.  If the beginning was a Word, a thought, an idea from the mind of God himself, then what we’re now participating in is the development of that idea on its way toward full fruition. Our individual consciousnesses are themselves components of this larger whole.  After my initial reading of Teilhard he had me imagining the entire array of individual human consciousnesses throughout the whole of time playing their unique roles as something equivalent to individual psychic neurons in a developing mind the size of the universe.

Teilhard’s thinking is on that kind of scale.  He saw that every bit of the universe is a component of some other, larger component.  Even humans, and even human consciousness.  None of these bits and none of these components are at ever at rest.  Everything in the universe is in constant motion.  Time and consciousness are likewise components of the universe, and are likewise in motion.

In Teilhard’s view the Biblical term “body of Christ”, when referring to believers, refers to the sum total of consciousnesses that have reached their ultimate expression in Jesus himself, the “head of the body.”  That was a fundamental part of his theology.

To look at this In more detail, Teilhard envisioned an evolutionary progression that proceeds from physical matter (atoms, rocks,  galaxies), through life (plants and animals) to consciousness and conscious self-awareness.  Each of these conceptual levels transcends, but entirely includes, the levels “below” it.

The transcendence from one level to the next can be described in terms of functional complexity.   Physical matter is described by the laws of physics, and its motion or “behavior” is governed by forces like gravity, pressure, heat and other physical, measurable forces.  Teilhard referred to the physical elements as the “Physiosphere.”

Plant life represents a step upward in complexity from the elements.  Plants use the physical and chemical properties of physical matter to process energy from soil, water, air and sunlight to self-organize, to grow, and to make more of themselves.   They are entirely composed of and dependent upon the physiosphere, and yet their organization of matter transcends the mere physical.  Teilhard referred to plant and animal life as “biosphere.”

Animals are also part of Teilhard’s biosphere.  With animals there is clear volition and intent.  Animals are also strictly under the laws of physics, chemistry, and biology, but the activity of animals is best described by the psychology of Behaviorism.  Stimulus and response and a number of other foundational principles of Behaviorism, coupled with the apparently innate or “instinctive” actions shown by individual species from birth, do an excellent job of explaining the day to day activities of animal life.

Humanity is just as a subject to the principles of Behaviorism as any other animal, just as we are subject to the laws of physics and chemistry and biology.  What separates us from other animal species is our capacity for abstract thought, which opens up all the mental capacities for language and communication, planning and problem solving, idea generation and creativity.  In other words, human self-aware consciousness, which Teilhard called the Noosphere, after the Greek word “nous”, meaning “mind”. Consciousness develops within its physical foundation in biosphere and physiosphere, but it is a qualitative leap above these spheres.

Teilhard’s conceptual framework for organizing physical reality in this way was based on complexity.  He felt that as matter interacts with other forms of itself, it increases in complexity, and increases in its level of consciousness.

There are mystic traditions that believe that even inanimate matter contains minute amounts of consciousness, including traditions in China where Teilhard spent many years, but so far I have not found whether Teilhard ascribed to this idea.  However it is clear that animals besides humans are conscious, alert and aware, but how far back along the life-form chain does this go?  As you get to simpler and simpler organisms it gets harder and harder to know whether there is actual consciousness there.

I believe this is what he was referring to.  In his view matter’s natural motion is to become more complex, and as complexity increases, so does the level of consciousness.  From single-celled animate life forms all the way up through humanity, this progression is clearly evident.

What is the process by which complexity increases?  I will leave physiosphere and biosphere complexity to the physicists and biologists, for my purposes I’m interested in the growth of consciousness in humans.  Conscious awareness is the tip of the spear in earth’s aeons-long progression from a cooling ball of rock to some guy on the internet banging on a keyboard.

Teilhard had a contemporary, a fellow Frenchman named Jean Piaget, a child psychologist who was working on the answer to that question even as Teilhard was describing the phenomenon.  I have no idea if the two were aware of each other.

Piaget deserves his own post, but I’ll briefly describe the process he identified by which an individual conscious mind evolves from infancy to adulthood.  A mind makes progress by learning, and Piaget described two types of learning: assimilation and accommodation.

Assimilation is when we learn something new, and assimilate it into our current understanding of the world. Accommodation happens when we must modify our internal structures of understanding to accommodate new information that doesn’t fit into the existing worldview.

A classic example is a child who knows that the family pet is a dog.  When he sees a different kind of dog, he correctly calls it a “dog” even if it is a completely different breed.  Maybe the family pet is a big Retriever and the new dog is a small Poodle, but they’re both dogs. Now the child has “assimilated” new information about dogs into his existing worldview.

The next four-legged furry animal with a tail that the child sees is a cat.  The child says “dog” but is informed that no, this kind of animal is a cat.  When the child understands the differences between dog and cat, like a meow instead of a bark, climbs trees, etc., the child has “accommodated” his worldview to fit the new information.

Sometimes the accommodations are incremental, and knowledge slowly builds as the assimilation and accommodation work together like a pair of feet walking forward.  But sometimes big accommodations are required, and those don’t always happen.

During Teilhard’s lifetime the Catholic church as was unable to make the accommodation necessary to accept the work of one of the most brilliant and farsighted men they’ve ever had in their ranks, although in recent years that has been slowly changing.  Much of Teilhard’s work wasn’t published until after his death in 1955.

When the assimilation/accommodation learning engine is applied to human society, sometimes the old generation has to die out before accommodation can take place and new information can be accepted.

Sadly, as in Teilhard de Chardin’s case, some of the pioneers are long gone as well before their work reaches wider acceptance.

3 thoughts on “Teilhard de Chardin: the Outcast Reformer

  1. Pingback: Making Sense of Love and Law | Notanist

  2. Pingback: Jean Piaget and the Algorithm of Human Learning | Notanist

  3. Pingback: Perspective | Notanist

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