Previous First Next
Theologians throughout the ages have attempted to straddle the worlds of belief and non-belief, of faith and reason. Thomas Aquinas was banned by the Catholic Church for his writings on this and then given sainthood not long after his death. In the last century, Catholic monk Teilhard de Chardin was told not to publish his thoughts on bridging these two worlds, but not long after he died, a friend published his works, (according to Teilhard’s wishes) and some gave him credit for contributing to the liberal ideas expressed at Vatican II. I find these philosophical thought experiments interesting, and although many do not, and even though I can show they ultimately don’t lead to a conclusion, I also hope to show that having the discussion has brought the people who hold those opposing beliefs closer together so we can work on the common goals.
Chardin became a Catholic monk not long after the turn of the 20th century and then began writing about his thoughts about spirituality. He was rewarded by being sent to a remote monastery in China. That’s sarcasm in case you didn’t catch it. He was also a paleontologist and his work with hominid fossils brought him a degree of fame. Evolution was a big challenge to the church at the time, and here was one of their own making strides in that area. As a contemplative and peaceful man, outwardly it appeared he was at peace with this. We can only speculate how it felt to him to have to choose between expressing his most important thoughts openly and keeping his job and position in the Church that he loved.
Teilhard tried to harmonize evolution and creation by saying that God does the creation thing while evolution builds the physical world. The two are not separate, but happening together all the time. God created and continues to create the world, and evolution is the mechanism that moves that creation forward. Our conscious is part of that evolution, so we have become co-creators with God. There isn’t one without the other, just as exhaling and inhaling are needed for there to be breath.
For him, this helped to solve the problem of evil in the world. The existence of evil is used as an argument that an all loving and all knowing God does not exist, because if one did, it would not allow such pain and suffering. Teilhard said that God does not will that suffering occurs. God is not intervening in the world on a regular basis to cause people pain because of something they did. Rather, God sets the world in motion toward the end, which is a world without suffering, but it is not possible to create that world without going through the suffering. We are part of the creation as it is occurring so we are experiencing what is required for it to happen. Since we are part of it, it becomes our job to prevent or at least reduce suffering, and we evolve skills and strategies to do just that.
I think it’s pretty clear why his ideas were not accepted by the Church. He disrupts the prescribed need to get you to go to confession every week. Less clear is why he decided to remain a monk his entire life and accept their condemnations of his writings and not be able to have them published until he was dead. He obviously wanted his ideas shared even knowing we would never be able to ask a follow up question.
To the scientifically minded, it should also be clear that none of his work comes close to qualifying as a scientific hypothesis. Although there is a certain logical flow to it, he makes assumptions about a need for a creator and endows that creator with attributes that are pulled straight from his theology classes, not his paleontology.
His posthumous following is thus peopled mostly by those who don’t accept the controls of religions, but still desire some sense of a supernatural to give meaning to our existence as well as those who are not too concerned with the rigors of scientific proofs. Many of these followers would consider themselves pantheists, but Teilhard often stated that a Christian sojourner is not a pantheist. He was firmly a Christian and being in the world didn’t mean his life in the world was divorced from his life in Christ. The Christian symbolism of the cross signified this connection and that was meaningful to him.
On pg 116 of the Divine Milieu, he says, “Pantheism seduces us by its vistas of perfect universal union.” But the Divine Milieu is about God and the world, not one or the other, so Teilhard is always working to keep that aspect in his writing, even while acknowledging that evolution is obviously happening and can be observed by us every day and confirmed using our powers of reason and logic. We evolved with animal traits, but we find individual fulfillment in the divine. I would have loved to ask him why he did not find fulfillment in participating in the discovery that we are connected to nature in ways that we have not been aware of before.
He says, “Christianity alone therefore saves, with the rights of thoughts, the essential aspiration of all mysticisim: to be united (that is, to become the other) while remaining one's self.” All punctuation is from the original. This axiom is sometimes expressed by him as “union differentiates”. That is, the essential aspiration of all mysticism to be in union with others, with God, with the world, and yet to be able to be one's self. Teilhard stresses that diving into Christian theology will not cause you to lose yourself, whereas other forms of mysticism or modernism will, “If you suppress the historical reality of Christ, the divine omnipresence which intoxicates us becomes, like all the other dreams of metaphysics, uncertain, vague, conventional—lacking the decisive experimental verification by which to impose itself on our minds, and without the moral authority to assimilate our lives into it.”
None of this works for me. On the contrary, I do find “decisive experimental verification” in metaphysics. They are not vague at all. I can only wonder if Teilhard and I sat down, if we might find we were talking about something different or of the same thing in different terms. But he didn’t leave behind experiments for me to repeat, so I can not verify his findings. Instead, we have physics, which can describe how I came from stars and stars came from hydrogen which was left over after an expansion from a compressed amount of energy. When those explanations fail to explain what came before them, I can still use the same methods to define the boundaries of what I know and what might be true. This “omnipresence” “intoxicates” me. Although there is much left unknown, there is certainty in the mathematical proofs of what we do know so I can “assimilate” that into my life. When combined with biology, we can begin to understand the basis for our morality.
But I didn’t go to the trouble of summarizing his work here just so I could shoot it down. I don’t need to accept his entire thesis to see that he made a contribution, he moved forward the conversation about how we relate to a vast cosmos full of unanswered questions. Teilhard de Chardin was an accomplished scientist and a devout Catholic monk. Many on either side see this as irreconcilable. He could be dismissed as a scientist troubled with cognitive dissonance who came up with some new age answers to explain his faith, or as a man of faith who felt the need to explain his discoveries of the origins of humans in terms of that faith. But as Yuval Harari said in his book Sapiens, it’s in our cognitive dissonance where we find understanding about our cultures.
The question of whether or not Teilhard accomplished his goal of reconciling science and faith, is perhaps the wrong question. What can be shown is that he lived through two World Wars, a time when the future of civilization was very much in doubt, and during a time when churches were struggling with the new theory of who we are and where we came from that began with Darwin, then, not long after he died and his writings began to be absorbed by the culture, the Catholic Church convened a Council, where they said this:
159. Faith and science: "... methodical research in all branches of knowledge, provided it is carried out in a truly scientific manner and does not override moral laws, can never conflict with the faith, because the things of the world and the things of faith derive from the same God. The humble and persevering investigator of the secrets of nature is being led, as it were, by the hand of God in spite of himself, for it is God, the conserver of all things, who made them what they are." (Vatican II GS 36:1)
This statement from the Vatican was a big step from 1859 and they have made greater strides since. Not everyone is coming along on those steps, but that is true of any discipline or culture. The question itself has not changed. That is, the question of how we reconcile the feelings we have of connectedness, of mystery, with the answers that we are getting from research and data, knowing that the data leaves much still unanswered. The amount and complexity of the data has changed, but the question remains.
Having sent probes above the clouds, where gods used to dwell and not finding them, having peered as far into space as the limitations of the speed of light will allow us, and finding nothing, the answer that there is a god out there that made all this is becoming increasingly less likely. Having gone beyond the Newtonian physics of cause and effect, into the quantum world, and still being unable to find how the electronic pulses in our brains translate into complex concepts, we are starting to wonder if there is a limit to how much we can know about ourselves. We’ve managed pretty well without answering either of these questions. Countless gods have been fought over until no one was left to believe in them. Science moves at its own pace, providing us with information, while civilizations move as they need to in order to survive.
All of this has involved a lot of pain and suffering. One of the most important things I take away from Teilhard is that God is not going to do all of the work of alleviating that suffering. A purely scientific approach to these questions would say there is no god at all and it is completely up to us to address the suffering in the world. No matter where you stand on that question, I think we can all see that it’s time to put the question of faith vs science somewhere off to the side and find more ways to work together on alleviating the suffering and less time arguing about where it all comes from.