Rereading Teilhard in a Changing World



The Cone and the Mandala
The undisputed merit of Teilhard de Chardin is that of having attempted to enter into a vital dialogue between Christianity and the modern world. Implicitly, he was saying that the presentation of the Tradition as unconditioned by temporal influences had to give way in reality to a Tradition situation within an historical process, open to possible and unexpected results. “At the center of my interests – he wrote to Leontine Zanta – is the effort to establish and propagate around myself, a new religion (a better Christianity, we could say) in which the personal God stops being the great Neolithic of the past in order to become the soul of the world.” At this point, Teilhard can speak of a ‘new covenant’ among faith, science and culture, thereby reuniting the human knowledge that had been isolated into separate units, cut up into small pieces. Part and parcel of this confrontation with modernity, there was also an openness to dialogue with lay thought such as Marxism in which the ‘principle of hope’ went together with a social praxis of liberation. He went still further. He had in some ways anticipated the paradigm of gender in theology. In fact, the discovered in the Marian cult the need to feminize God (Yahweh) who had been horribly masculinized, thereby overcoming a certain “Neolithic paternalism”. Because of his thought, we know that Teilhard was isolated and ostracized. Therefore, we have good reasons today to rediscover the value of what he has left to us as his heritage. There is above all in Teilhard the intuition of an ascending cosmic process toward union with God from where he engages in a vast reflection and an unrestrained desire to embrace everything. His point of view is mystical. The entire cosmic, biological and social becoming is pictures by the French Jesuit as a cone, whose base is constituted of the original, elementary matter (‘stuff of the universe’). The successive sections of the cone represent the different stages of the evolutionary process, whereas the summit is the Omega Point, the highest degree of complexity and consciousness toward which the universe is striving in its evolution. Elsewhere, Teilhard illustrates the entire evolutionary phenomenon looking at the cone from the top down. The Omega Point, the point of convergence becomes the center of a series of concentric circles, much like the Tibetan mandala, the Hindu yantra, and the rose window of the Romanesque and Gothic churches. He adds to this mystical perspective a third one of another order. As we know, he places the foundation of all his research on evolutionism, accepted as the true and proper myth of reference. In the long run, time has not been wasted; Today, sixty years after his death, we can reread his contribution enriched by a period of sedimentation. The critical reading that follows expresses this project and takes into account certain directions that are fundamental for our subsequent theological and religious reflection, namely, ecological and animal perspectives, followed by post-colonial, pluralistic and epistemological perspectives.


Fotografia di Bruna Bonino

2. An ecological perspective
A number of commentators dub Teilhard as a forerunner of a religious ecological vision. His writings reveal the methodological approach of trans-disciplinarity as an epistemological foundation for arriving at a conception and communication of a unity vision of the universe. Underneath it all was Teilhard” desire to go beyond a dualistic reading of reality with all the consequences that derive from it. In his own words: “The material of the universe (…) is woven from only one piece.” This means that there are not two distinct natures – matter and spirit – but only different aspects of one unique reality that has an external component that is material and an internal component that is immaterial. The structure of the world is, therefore, unitary and continual. Every element finds its place within one great chain of being that moves along on an upward course. Such a vision has an immediate, practical consequence. He does not refuse the saeculum, but stays faithful to the earth and accepts life in its fullness. Teilhard expresses himself in this way: “It seems that there are only two attitudes possible for mankind: to love Heaven or to love the Earth. Now a third way has been discovered: go toward Heaven through the earth. A true communion with God exists through the world”. Elsewhere he writes: “In the past, a Christian grew up with the impression that in order to reach God, he had to abandon everything. Today we discover that one can save himself outside of the universe and within the extension of the Universe”. However, we can ask if Teilhard’s point of view of man’s role in the universe is truly ecological. According to him, the living and intelligent matter at a certain point of its evolution becomes hominized, giving place to an evolution that is necessarily psychic, irreversible and teleological. This is the long event of homo sapiens. However, up to this point, the passage made by Teilhard seems to be a step back from the non-dualistic openness that we explained above. In his vision, man re-acquires the central role that he possessed in Biblical cosmogony (Gen 1-3), in the Ptolemaic universe and in the Vitruvian image of the Renaissance, which are all products of anti-ecological anthropology. It is not by chance that in his intensely poetic work, Hymn to Matter, he says that man must claim and possess matter for it gives in “only to violence.” These words echo those of Francis Bacon, one of the fathers of the scientific method that led humanity to a mechanical vision of the world. Indeed, according to this English intellectual, nature must be enslaved, “put into irons” and “be obliged to serve” making the task of man in nature to force “it with torture to reveal its secrets.” What a difference between the Hymn of Telhard and the praise of all creation of St Francis of Assisi! Where is the fraternity and sorority with the sun, moon and other elements? In Telhard, nature becomes matter, a generic substance endowed with mass, located in space, on which the technical-scientific expertise must work. Furthermore, Teilhard himself had written in 1946 (one year after the bombardments of Hiroshima and Nagasaki) some reflections on the atomic bomb in which he did not see a nuclear force to be a menace to humanity and the planet that risks to fall into a destructive phase. On the contrary, for him it was an event that gave rise to the “taste of super-creation”. “Blinding light”, “unusual splendor”, “a formidable shock” – these were the expressions he used to reveal his explicit admiration. He adds: “Man has discovered himself to be sacred, not only in his actual forces but also in his method that would allow him to dominate all the forces that surround him”. Further on, he seems to have affirmed that he would not stop to discuss the morality or the justification of such an action (of liberating atomic energy in order to produce a bomb). In all honesty, we cannot follow Teilhard along that kind of route. We must choose a completely different way. We wish to recall in this regard what Gregory Bateson affirmed, especially in the writings of the last period of his life. The idea that accompanies his work is the need to not interfere with the intrinsic wisdom of living systems. Here is what he wants: that man enter into a non-manipulative relationship with himself and with nature so that he comes to accept to be part of a greater process that includes the whole living world and inanimate world, in order to understand himself as being part of a greater wisdom that must be protected from the hypertrophic intellect of man (which the Greeks call hybris). Pascal himself said: “The heart has reasons that the reason does not understand.”


Fotografia di Bruna Bonino

3. An Animal Perspective
It appears clearly that the vision of Teilhard follows criteria that are rigorously hierarchical within the natural world, at whose summit we always fin the human being. The image that predominates is that of the pyramid. But, as Fritjof Capra has recalled, “the import aspect of stratified order in nature is not the transfer of control, but rather the organization of the complexity”. Within an ecological perspective, the image of the pyramid is literally rejected and replaced with that of the tree with all its ramifications (or of the rhizome, as G. Deleuze and F. Guattari affirm, with its reticular and plural evolution) meaning that we find ourselves face to face with a network of processes that present models of multiple organization, characterized by complex and non-linear lives, along which are propagated signals of information among the various levels, with interchange in an ascending and descending direction, creating a system of interconnection that is non-hierarchical, within which man is located. This is not enough. Giorgio Agamben, speaking of the place of man in the world, has elaborated the concept of anthropological machine (referring to the distinction coming from Ancient Greece between bios and zoe, the qualified life, present in the superior faculties of man on the one hand, and the naked undifferentiated life on the other hand). The anthropological machine is that dispositive by which we can verify the production of the human by means of the opposition man/animal and human/inhuman. Humanity is defined by means of the subtraction and exclusion of that which, thought belong to life and to the very life of man, is not considered human. Man becomes man by separating himself from the animal (an animal lives outside but also inside of him), by affirming his superiority over other species and thus has the right to consider other animals as objects placed under his own absolute domination (today merchandise for the multinationals in the agroalimentary sector). Using the world of Isaac B. Singer, Nobel prize for literature: “In their comparison all are nazis; for animals Treblinka continues into eternity.” This is the specism (a term coined in the seventies of last century to fit in which such words as racism, sexism or classism that attempt to describe the human attitudes that are signed by discrimination toward non-human animals). Even the Teilhardian anthropology, in what concerns the relationship of man/animal, seems to follow a specist direction. Take for example this affirmation: “The analysis of the sciences and of history are much more often exact; but they remove absolutely nothing of the divine omnipotence nor the spirituality of the soul, nor the supernatural character of Christianity, nor the superiority of man over animals.” We ask ourselves: why continue to affirm the superiority of man over the other animals and not consider them instead as beings created to live with us, in relationship, sharing the same earth, the flow of life and in the end death? Even in this case we begin to hear today new signs of openness in a animalist and antispecist direction, found in contemporary theology debat. It is not by chance that they speak of animal theology. Eugen Drewermann, for example, states that “it is no longer possible to reject the idea that there is one vital current that has made possible and continues to develop us as human beings”, for life is nothing “if not a gigantic eternal exchange, without an end.” From this point of view and others like it, how can we not be sensitive to the dominion that today, in the globalized world, extends its methods of control and administration over the whole of life: human populations, above all, but also animal nonhuman species, seeds and agriculture, entire ecosystems an even over the earth and the space.

4. Post-colonial perspective
Many persons believe that in many ways Teilhard de Chardin was a prophetic figure, but at the same time we have to admit that he was also a man of his epoch. He wish fundamentally a European of the first half of the twentieth century. A French citizen (when French was still a colonial power, an official of the Legion of Honor and, above all, a scientist who was strongly signed by an evolutionary way of thinking. If it is true that, before reaching the Omega Point, cosmic evolution will develop for “many millions of years” (as he said in The Human Phenomenon), et therefore will be developing something totally new, it is also true that the judgement on the part of Teilhard concerning the present phase of the noosphere (la sphere of thought, the network that is always more complex that englobes the earth, produced by the interaction among human beings) turns out to be a westernizing judgement of the planet. The enthusiasm for progress and, in particular, for progresses in the sector of science, technology and world, reveal an implicit exaggerated consideration of the West and its history that is presented as progress tout court for the human race. Now with the distance of some years, that model has been criticized in the light of post-colonial studies especially in the last ten years. This has happened because of the failure of universalizing models of reference placed in the’ center of critical research that are the results of the confrontation between cultures in relationships of subordination. This has been proven to be a Eurocentric position. According to some post-colonial authors, all humanisms – despite their intention – have been imperialist, for they spoke for the interests of a class, of sex, of a race and of a genome. In this regard, the new humanism foreseen by Teilhard (oriented, however, toward ‘a cosmic beyond – the human future’) is based on a model of civilization born in Europe that reflects the presuppositions stemming from that context. In reality, it is a historical construction and as such is contingent and variable and certainly not universal. Even more: given the global crisis at hand, it is no longer possible to identify the Omega Point with the destiny of the West, otherwise the Omega Point would become a point of exhaustion and of involution, just as it is described by the American author Don DeLillo in his novel called precisely Omega Point.

5. A pluralistic perspective
As a corollary to the Eurocentrism, we can add as well the Christiancentrism of Teilhard. Teilhard, according to the souvenir of Henri de Lubac, appeared to be an authentic religious, a fervent believer and a true son of the Catholic church within which he wanted to remain until the end of his life. As a matter of fact, the ascending evolutionary movement described by him (cosmogenesis, biogenesis, psychogenesis) finds its summit in Christogenesis. With the appearance of man, evolution stops from being passively undergone, reaching the phase of autoevolution and, eventually, this arrives at its goal with the apparition of Christ. He becomes there the center of evolution and also its end, the Omega Point. The incarnate Logos, who had been until now the invisible motor of evolution, now manifests himself in a visible form on the evolutionary axis. Christ, according to Teilhard, becomes the guide, the fulfilment and the perfection of everything. With the event of the incarnation, we have the full divine immersion within matter and from this center comes the plan of the whole evolutionary process. The incarnation promotes in this way the Christification of the whole cosmos. In this passage (of his writings) we read about the profound engagement of Teilhard to renew Christianity, by putting it in a direct relationship with the contemporary world and opening it up at the at the same time to unforeseen possibilities. But what can this discourse about Christification of the cosmos have to say today to a world in which religious pluralism and interreligious dialogue have become obligatory? In a letter (to François-Albert Viallet, who had been for a long time a privileged dialogue partner before becoming a Buddhist monk), Teilhard wrote that we are leaving an age of religions and are entering into the age of the religion. The idea of a confluence of religious traditions into one alone is the consequence of the conviction of a progressive process of unification of the noosphere. The question is whether or not this confluence will be the result which will lead to a super-religion that will absorb and annihilate the others. Is this the logical evolution of the Christian substance? Or is it not a longed for development of “postreligional” ( J.M. Vigil), that recognizes that all religions are human constructions with a foreseeable future in which are found both a beginning moment as well as a concluding moment, a dawn and a sunset. This does not mean the death of spirituality that constitutes the deep level of the relationship of man with the mystery of life and of death, but rather the end of religion understood as institution, as a historical product; having done its job, it can leave. Teilhard is said to have affirmed that the difference between today and 10.000 years from now with will be like the difference between a monkey and a man. If we want to draw out from this phrase its prophetic power – or that cited at the beginning of this article in which the Jesuit explicitly speaks of his desire to propagate a new religion in the world – it is possible to do a reading in the direction of a post-religious paradigm, as an adequate expression to describe the socio-cultural transformation of great depth and proportion in which the multiplicity of languages weave together and criss-cross the society.

6. An Epistemological Perspective
We have already discovered a problematic aspect underlying the whole vision of Teilhard is the form and foundation that he attributes to evolution. For it is not an hypothesis, a theory or a system. He writes in The Human Phenomenon : “Much more: [it is] a general condition to which all theories, hypotheses and systems must submit and satisfy in order to be intelligible and true.” This manner of interpreting evolution requires deeper attention. Evolution does not appear here as data elaborated by knowledge, as one among many ways of perceiving reality: idea rerum, ens rationis, a conceptual construction by means of reason and language and something that does not exist outside of the human mind. (‘”Everything that is said is said by someone”, H. Maturana and F. Varela”), one modality to map out a vast and unknown territory (to use a favored image of Bateson), but is accepted sic et simpliciter as a dogmatic principle, as an absolute truth. Thereby, science and religion support one another and one explains and justifies the other. Where does this kind of vision lead? Raimon Panikkar denounced evolution as a further form of cultural colonialism, as the result of the Western fixation to classify everything, which, in order to not give rise to a vicious circle, it has never dreamed of classifying (and therefore calling into question) the very criterion of classification. Here is how Panikkar explains it: “Evolutionary thought – I underline the fact that the thought and not a simple evolutionism of the species – leads us to a cultural monomorphism in grand style, being even cosmic, as Teilhard de Chardin holds. Humanity would be moving along together, in the same direction. Of course, there are meanderings and spaces of ‘cultural’ liberty but the Omega Point, as the polar start (or that of the Magi), would be visible on the horizon for everyone (…) Therefore, a blind alley within the dominant culture is insurmountable. If you believe that it is the only true cosmology, then there is no need to deceive oneself about cultural interfecondation.” There is more: can it still be proposed that evolutionary thought is something indisputable in the light of the reconsideration, today in movement, of the criteria of certitude and objectivity assigned to the sciences? The mutation of the status of knowledge, both scientific and religious, seem to go in another direction from those proposed by Teilhard: it invites to a voyage, to research, it opens to a plurality of visions, it refines (our sensitivity for differences and reinforces our capacity to tolerate what is immeasurable)” ( J-F Lyotard). We are truly opening up to a religious knowledge in its very essence (the original mythos, that which the first human community began to talk about). Profoundly renewed of its epistemological prejudices, it can develop a narrative knowledge, a discreet faith that is humble – without dogmas, without truths, without doctrines – that recognizes itself to be incapable of exhausting the infinite course of the world that is homing and about which it is speaking.

7. Evolution and Elastic Time
One of the fundamental Teilhardian categories finds expression in the affirmation of the temporal dimension of the cosmos, in the conviction that time is constitutive of the universe and, consequently, that the cosmos is dynamic and evolutionary in irreversible way. Time becomes thus an essential coordinate in order to describe all living presences of the cosmos. For Teilhard it is a progressive time, signed, as we have seen, by the kairological event of the incarnation. The temporal and evolutionary dimension possesses, much like a arrow shot upward, only one direction. This is the characteristic that distinguishes the expression of temporality of Western thought. But this is not the only way of perceiving and conceiving the flow of events. Against such a vision we can oppose the presence of temporal pluralism. The temporal pluralism is based on the idea that there can exist different modes of living time, with different shifts and rhythms that multiply, fold, curve, shatter the flow of events, of the states of the soul, and even civilizations themselves. These are some of the richest acquisitions to which the West has arrived in modern and contemporary critical thought. We think in particular of Walter Benjamin and Ernst Bloch. Benjamin, instead of accepting the idea of history as linear time, empty and homogenous, proposes another, that of history formed by a loom of different times that are not necessarily tending toward progress, but which can represent creative processes that deviate with respect to the historical-evolutionary continuum, capable of breaking it and interrupting it. Benjamin writes in the Theses on Philosophy of History: “The conception of a progress of the human race in history is inseparable from that of a process of history itself as a journey of homogenous and empty time. The criticism of the idea of this process must be the basis of the criticism of the idea of progress as such.” Past and future must flow one into the other, freely, and by the interaction between the two, there can emerge that multiform matter on which uses the capacity, completely human, of thinking and projecting, in the present, individual and collective life. Bloch goes even further. He describes time as an elastic structure which is composed of historical matter. The rhythm and temporal passages on which events flow – found for example in the world of economy, art and technology of different civilizations – must be represented by means of a temporal multiplicity, for we can discover within the past’s numerous openings and escape routes, some of which are still unexplored but are full of future. Bloch introduced in this question the concept of “asynchronicity”: events of the past that are not definitively buried but can lie sleeping awaiting to be awoken. These are the seeds that bear the future, which did not have, in the period in which they were born, the opportunity to develop their potential but which await de become recognized and saved and are always disposed to mature. There is more. Within this discourse, Bloch introduces also the distinction between futurum and adventus. Just as the case of the past, so also the future is pregnant of different possibilities. On the one hand, there are those innovations that are nothing other than the mere declension in a future time of what is and of what has always been; here the future is the prolongation of the present and the past. It is futurum: it is, just to be clear, the future of futurologists and technocrats of progress and of innovations at whatever cost. It is not that which interests us. But if in the past one can express a nostalgia for the future, this awaits the occasion to concretize and free oneself from the weight of past time and from the memory of ‘always the same’. Here it is question of the answer that time offers to waiting and to hope of a different way of understanding life and the relationships among the living. Therefore, when the facts meet up with these expectations and hopes (and we are capable of recognizing them and expressing them) the future that is announced is not futurum but adventus. It happens, it comes to us (venit ad nos) bringing with it something new. It is plural time. It is our task to learn to discern and work with it, among possibility that are offered, a latent fecundity that can transform life.

8. History and Paradoxes
Rousseau affirmed, replying to those who criticized his ideas considered as not having a structure: “I would rather be a man of paradoxes than a man of prejudices”. We also want to conclude with a proposition of a paradox for our times. Within the plurality of temporary shifts, about which we have spoken, we like to think that today, a spark of adventus is guarded among the populations that are on the margin of historical progress, but are founded on the non-competitiveness among human beings and on the cooperation with other living forms that all share the global life of the Earth. A great and indispensable contribution is made to this by the spirituality and indigenous theologies. Or we can say that these seeds of adventus can lie hidden among civilizations that have disappeared, annihilated in the name of modernity. Mary Daly, a post-Christian feminist theologian, has spoken about this as an “archaic future”, referring to the epoch of the matrifocal societies and of the cult of the goddess – from the high Palaeolithic age it passed into the Neolithic and reached the Bronze age – in which flourished peaceful communities, founded on a substantial social equality. For her part, Ched Myers, a North American radical theologian, speaks of a “primitive future”, holding that in the Bible it is possible to read a criticism of the civilization in terms of a pathological regression rather than of progress in knowledge [consciousness?] and of human history (with the Neolithic domestication of plants and animals came the domestication of human beings and then their intrinsic pauperisation). These thoughts, when regarded closely, are not very paradoxical. Around two thousand years ago, in a isolated province of the Roman empire, certain words that were considered subversive and anarchical were circulating, speaking of love for one’s neighbor, of peace and of freedom. The one who had pronounced them was quickly put to death, in a way that was considered the most humiliating. Historians of the regime dedicated few lines to this personage; they were convinced that it was not useful to do deeper research (there were even those who contorted his name when speaking of him). At the time no one could have thought that those words would have spread into time and space. The thing, as we know, developed differently. We are sure to not make a mistake in saying that today the spark of adventus (that which Teilhard would have called ‘Christic function”) we can still find – in Teilhard and beyond Teilhard – in the populations and the civilizations that by their very presence witness to the hope of another possible world, very different from the crazy race of the global megamachine.

Translated from the Italian by Damien Isabell