The Christology of Pierre Teilhard de Chardin
I wrote this essay in 1967 at Chicago Theological Seminary. It is published in the book Society, Spirit & Self: Essays on the One Dance, in the collection on spiritual transformations, part of the theme of demythologized Christianity. The thinking of Fr. Pierre Teilhard de Chardin (1881-1955) has influenced me for the past fifty-four years. Here is my first attempt to capture some of the basics of his thought. It appears that he was driven to merge his scientific observations with a theological interpretation.
A Christological formulation is central and paramount to the whole of de Chardin’s meta-scientific cosmology. To witness to this centrality, de Chardin’s Christology will be placed within the context of his cosmogenesis (the evolution of the cosmos.) First, his doctrine of God as Creator will be briefly dealt with; then his theory of the creation of the cosmos as beginning and continuing process through the stages of matter, Life, Thought, and Hyper-Consciousness will be discussed; then his eschatology, and finally the ethics implied in this schema.
De Chardin’s Christology (although almost always discussed in non-traditionally-theological language) will be seen as present and active throughout every aspect and process involved in his theory of cosmogenesis, a theory which he did not presume to call metaphysics, ontology, or speculative philosophy, much less theology, but rather spoke of as a “hyper-physics,” or even simply as “an attempt to see and to make others see what happens to man and what conclusions are forced upon us, when he is placed fairly and squarely within the framework of phenomenon and appearance.” (The Phenomenon of Man, p. 31) In other words, he writes as one humbly observing the facts (however humbling his observations are for his reader), and he respectfully leaves the task of academic philosophical discourse (whether metaphysics, ontology, or whatever) on and about his vision to others. This is not to say, however, that de Chardin did not at times (was not forced to) elaborate his thought “philosophically” because, as a self-conscious pioneer-visionary, the man was forced to go beyond the purely “scientifically orthodox” terminology and formulations, and into the highly speculative and oft times poetic realms of discourse. Even so, his thought is notably marked by a rigorous logic which sometimes leads to amazing conclusions and syntheses but is nevertheless coherent and necessary – at least in appearance. It is precisely here as well as in following through on the rich implications of his thought that the work of others who come after de Chardin lies in untangling and reassembling his well-informed outline of “the phenomenon of man.”
Before de Chardin’s cosmogenesis as such is analyzed, let us attempt to gain a very generalized appreciation for his whole theoretical effort.
The life work of de Chardin appears very much to be of one stuff – not only in the sense that his being was an integrated union of the two main functions of the paleontologist and the religious visionary, but also his intellectual life suffered no duality. This is grasped best, perhaps, if we see de Chardin working as a self-avowed naturalist who saw the universe as one self-enclosed Process. For de Chardin there was no realm of the natural along side of the supernatural; thus, his cosmology does not contain the essential dualism between matter and spirit that we would rightly expect from Thomism. But rather for de Chardin, matter and spirit are two aspects of the same uni-verse: “related variables” of the same nature.
What de Chardin has in fact written is a natural history of the universe in process which includes past, present, future, and that which is beyond all space-time. What his research has shown him is that by extrapolating from the actuality of the most recent phenomenon in the cosmos—human consciousness—we can become informed of the process that has led up to this new creation and the process that can be projected by extending the “graph” of evolutionary movement into the far distant future.
De Chardin’s primary emphasis is very decisively upon the nature of human consciousness, and from that nature he is informed of the nature of cosmogenesis itself. He describes this consciousness in the following terms which will be dealt with later: reflection; individualization; centeredness; the within of things; personalization; involution; convergence; loving. From these few statements, we shall move immediately into de Chardin’s “system.”
For de Chardin the universe was and is being created by God. By this, he means that the world is the work of God, that all things depend freely upon God, that creation itself is good. God, then, is the First Cause, the Prime Mover (and as we shall see, Cause itself, for there is no moment when God creates and a moment when second causes develop.) Because creation is a transcendent act, one can never place it on the same level as phenomenon nor can it be conceived as intervening and breaking the chain of phenomena; God makes things make themselves. We must not, therefore, limit our vision of creative activity to the beginning of things because the beginning of things is not a phenomenon. From the phenomenal point of view, the beginning of time cannot be grasped. As Pierre Smulders writes, “Because pure non-being is not a reality and outside of the world there is no time, there is then not a ‘moment’ when no creature existed.” (The Vision of Teilhard de Chardin, p. 67) Thus God “creates and shapes us through the process of evolution.” (The Future of Man, p.79) The creative action of God does not suppress the laws that exist in creatures. In fact, the creative action of God lies hidden in the very actions of creatures themselves. In this way we see that all of creation is utterly dependent upon God. Creation is coextensive with the totality of duration and hence it is a transformation of phenomena. This is a view of creative transformation of phenomena, i.e., an act in which the created pre-existent grows into a totally new being.
Anything much beyond this description of God’s action can only be got from a description of evolution itself: that is to say, a description of the new emergent being that has and will come about through cosmogenesis. In other words, for de Chardin, God is finally known as He has been, can be, and will be seen within human space-time history and even beyond it.
The movement of this history can be depicted as a spiral with its coils moving upwards to a single point. The entire spiral has a common axis or pole, just as each successive circle has a common center. This model represents the movement in the universe toward increased unification and complexification as these are directed and energized by a common pole or center. The process broadly speaking can be described as the transformation of matter into spirit with the central, energizing force for this transformation the self-same force in which human love participates, i.e., the attraction of centers for one another.
For de Chardin, this “centration” of all phenomena of the cosmos is of crucial importance. Just as in the centered atom, the natural granule of simple, elemental matter, it is this “being centered on itself” aspect of all things that makes for the process of involution, or matter moving back onto itself. This is to say that because of a closed chemistry (a circumscribed arena for limited chemical interaction) and the play of large numbers in space and time, Life was created on this planet.
Thus, geogenesis (the evolution of the earth) became biogenesis (evolution of life) because of the very curvature of the earth: the planet is round and, therefore, centered and thus all its processes move in on themselves without escape.
With the creation of Life, there developed an interiorization of matter centered in organisms which constituted the “within” of the universe – for here there was freedom, a selective responsiveness to the “without of things” which was determined. Thus, a metamorphosis had taken place in the creation of complexity within a living organism out of the diversity and simplicity of matter.
Because of the curved layer of the biosphere on the planet and the natural forces at work in biogenesis, Thought developed within living organisms. This Thought became reflection when organic consciousness acquired the power to turn in on itself; for the first time Life was thoroughly individuated as a “center in the form of a point at which all the impressions and experiences knit themselves together and fused into a unity that is conscious of its own organization.” (T P of M, p. 165) Thus the noosphere (the layer of self-consciousness on the planet) was created and centered as part of geogenesis and biogenesis.
The gradual perfection of this consciousness (hominization) develops through human socialization, civilization. This is because knowledge is the natural object of conscious reflection. To be conscious is to know and to know that you know. Because of this, knowledge implodes upon itself to unite mankind. “Object and subject marry and mutually transform each other in the act of knowledge; and from now on man willy-nilly finds his own image stamped on all he looks at.” (T P of M, p. 32) In the centered consciousness, the person, and the universe, come into being as a unity. From this, we see that cosmogenesis is both Personal and Universal. Thus in “thinking the world” we confer upon the world a unity it would otherwise be without. Human knowledge is the conquest of matter put to the service of mind; therefore, increased knowledge is increased power which is increased action which is increased being.
The Evolution of the Cosmos is now taking place within human consciousness. Because the noosphere is a whole which is closed and centered, individual consciousness is being brought by this super-concentration into association with all the other centers surrounding it. In this way, humankind will inevitably converge in a Hyper-Personal Collectivity of consciousness which will include all the individual centers of consciousness in complete harmony and unity with one another (while maintaining their “personality.”) This unity will be held together necessarily by another center of the entire Collection. This center de Chardin calls the Omega point, and it is here that his theory reaches “the end of the world.” Here beyond space-time, all the Universe will be completely Personalized. This is what he points to as the Christian Parousia. At this stage beyond all the other stages that lead to it, the personal consciousnesses of mankind will be utterly fulfilled (totally differentiated while in total union.)
De Chardin gives the Omega four primary attributes: its autonomy; its actuality in the present moment; its irreversibility; and its transcendence. It is the second aspect, its present actuality, which will now concern us.
Omega is not simply a hypothetical concept which de Chardin places at the end of cosmogenesis to tie everything up neatly – far from it. It is rather one with God as Creator and one with the animating, guiding force that directs cosmogenesis. This bring us back to our initial statement that for de Chardin “Christological formulation is central and paramount” to the whole of his cosmology. Omega is Christ, and cosmogenesis is Christogenesis. And because the creation is continuing within the universe at this very moment, Christ is present.
If the world is convergent and if Christ occupies its center, then the Christogenesis of St. Paul and St. John is nothing else than the extension, both awaited and unhoped for, of that noogenesis in which cosmogenesis – as regards our experience – culminates. Christ invests himself organically with the very majesty of his creation. And it is in no way metaphorical to say that humans find themselves capable of experiencing and discovering this God in the whole length, breadth, and depth of the world in movement. To be able to say literally to God that one loves him, not only with all one’s body, all one’s heart and all one’s soul, but with every fiber of the unifying universe – that is a prayer that can only be made in space-time. (T P of M, p. 297)
Omega, then, is the Prime Mover Ahead calling all to Himself – the Good Shepherd. Christ is the All in All, He is the final fulfilment of that which is presently fulfilling: The Personalization of the Universe.
It is with a concluding discussion of the third aspect of Omega, its irreversibility, that we will move into ethical considerations, especially the nature of human freedom in relation to cosmogenesis.
To repeat, what de Chardin has developed is a necessary and inevitable cosmogenesis which is in fact already a fact. The Christian has evidence of this reality: “For a Christian believer it is interesting to note that the final success of hominization (and thus cosmic involution) is positively guaranteed by the ‘redeeming virtue’ of the God incarnate in his creation.” (T P of M, p. 307)
Now that humanity has become conscious of the movement which carries it onwards, it has more and more need of finding, above and beyond itself, an infinite objective, an infinite issue, to which to dedicate itself.
And what is this infinity? “The effect of twenty centuries of mystical travail has been precisely to show us that the Baby of Bethlehem, the Man on the Cross, is also the Principle of all movement and the unifying Center of the world; how then can we fail to identify this God not merely of the old cosmos but also of the new cosmogenesis, this God so greatly sought after by our generation, with you, Lord Jesus, you who make him visible to our eyes and bring him close to us?” (The Hymn of the Universe, p. 138)
Here we have in prayerful, confessional form de Chardin’s own affirmation of the unity of person of the Christ of the Cross and the motivating power of all Evolution. Nowhere in his writings does he attempt any kind of establishment (by proof-texts or any other means) of the continuity between these two Persons, but it is beyond question that he understood his own work as “one who attempts to see” the whole phenomenon of man as critically informed by the “living reality” of his speculative model, i.e., the Christ of the Christian dogma. “In one manner or the other it still remains true that, even in the view of the mere biologist, the human epic resembles nothing so much as a way of the Cross.” (T P of M, p. 311)
But what we ought here to be more concerned about is the nature of a human being’s free capacity to choose for or against the Omega. De Chardin himself is not entirely clear on the meaning of the inevitability and “irreversibility” of the Omega. At one point in reference to movement toward Omega, he says without qualification: “Assuming success – which is the only acceptable assumption – under what form and along what lines can we imagine progress developing during this period?” (T P of M, p. 277) And later in the Postscript he says: “As regards the chances of cosmogenesis, my contention is that it in no way follows from the position taken up here that the final success of hominization is necessary, inevitable, and certain.” (T P of M, p. 306) The most economical way of reconciling these two statements seems to be to suppose that inherent in the first is the assumption that only by assuming the success of Omega can we then theorize about its nature; and in the second the not so well hidden implication that it is only by way of Christian revelation that a man can finally know that Omega is certain, never with phenomenological descriptions of evolutionary tendencies. Surely this must be considered as one manifestation of a hidden evangelism for the Gospel that runs through all de Chardin’s writings.
Given this understanding it can be said that human freedom in relation to Omega is of the same nature as that of the decision for or against the Christ in the New Testament: a man either decides with eternity or against it. For de Chardin, if he decides for Omega, he will work for the increase of human consciousness on this planet. His ethic will be one grounded in an ultimacy of the nature of the “last things” (eschatology.) With this final resolution of his relationship to the cosmos, the believer is free to unite with his neighbor in love and to work in the transformation of the spiritualized matter of the earth into pure spirit. In this way, man participates in the universe of process in its own reflective-self-recreation.