How I Believe by Pierre Teilhard de Chardin

Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, How I Believe (New York: Harper & Row, 1969). Translated by Rene Hague. Written in Peking in 1934.

In this little book, the scientist and priest, Père Teilhard first describes the stages of his faith apart from the specificity of the Christian revelation, that is, the stages of intellectual synthesis that brings him to the place where he can choose between the different currents of world spirituality. He climbs from apprehending the universe as a whole to apprehending the reality of spirit (the universe is not merely material but is also conscious and moving toward consciousness), to apprehending that this implies the immortality of spirit, and finally to apprehending that ultimately spirit is personal.

In this very interesting chapter he recognizes that spirit is not the “relaxation of our individual reflective and affective center, but rather … the concentration of that center.” The rejection of the idea of a personal universe is based on a spatial illusion, he insists. “The cosmos cannot, as a result of its convergence, be knit together in some thing; it must, as already happens in a partial and elementary way in the case of man, end upon some one,” a supreme personality, since spirit is consciousness. What then happens to each of us, in that case? What aspect of spirit—we might say, what part of me—is immortal in the convergence of spirit as the whole of the universe? Remembering what spirit is, it is that which is unique to me, “my personality, that is, the particular center of perceptions and love that my life consists in developing—it is that which is my real wealth.” If spirit is a personal center, then it is that “which cannot be abandoned by the center in whom all the sublimated treasures of the universe converge.” “This transmission of my self to the other is demanded … by the successful fulfillment of the universe.” But am I, what is me, lost in this transmission? This conclusion is an illusion, Teilhard says. “Our personal qualities … coincide with the substance of our being, for they are woven in their fibers by the consciousness we have of them. What must be retained in the consummation of the universe is nothing less than the properties of our center: and it is accordingly this center itself—it is precisely that by which our thought is reflected on itself—which must be saved.” He concludes that “in the supreme personality we shall inevitably find ourselves personally immortalized.”

Pantheism, he says, is a materialist illusion (the idea that the threads of our individual being are lost in a vast ocean of being). “Like us, [the whole] is essentially a center, possessing the qualities of a center.” The only way in which a center can be formed and sustained is not by breaking down the lower centers but by strengthening them in its own image. True union differentiates the elements it brings together—this is the law of all experience. “For the human monad, fusion with the universe means super personalization.” So Teilhard takes us from “at first a vague intuition of universal unity” to a “rational and well-defined awareness of a presence.”

If we “can now distinguish in the cosmos a higher sphere of person and personal relationships,” perhaps “appeals and indications of an intellectual nature may well build up around [us] and have a message for [us],” for “a presence is never dumb.” If that is so, it is time to recognize that our conclusions so far represent “no more than an infinitesimal element of a vastly wider and more certain process, common to all men,” and that it is time to emerge from our individualism and confront the general religious experience of mankind with the intention of involving ourselves in it. “The streamlet of my own private inquiries has just flowed” “into the great river of religions,” and so I must therefore plunge resolutely into it. Why? Because religion as a whole is simply the reaction of “collective consciousness and human action in process of development” to the universe as such. “At the social level, it expresses the passionate faith in the whole.” “Religion … is related to and co-extensive with, not the individual man but the whole of mankind.” In religion, an infinity of human inquiries is accumulated and given proper direction, and is gradually and infallibly organized. “How could I fail to associate myself with that accumulation?”

But the waters are disturbed and swirling in many directions. “To which of these apparently opposed currents am I to surrender myself, if the stream is to carry me to the ocean?” The only thing that can decide me, he says, is “the harmony of a higher order which exists between that religion” and his own faith “summed up in the worship of a personal and personalizing center of universal convergence.”

 He reduces types of possible faith to three: (1) Eastern religions, (2) humanist neopantheisms, and (3) Christianity.

Pantheism was born in India, and “it is there again, when the expectation of a new religion is growing more intense, that in our days the eyes of modern Europe are turned.” But Teilhard realized that “by the same words the East and I understand different things. For the Hindu sage, spirit is the homogeneous unity in which the complete adept is lost to self, all individual features and values being suppressed. All quest for knowledge, all personalization, all earthly progress are so many diseases of the soul.  Matter is dead weight and illusion.” For the East then, the one is seen as a suppression of the multiple; whereas for Teilhard the one is born from the concentration of the multiple. “Matter is heavily loaded, throughout, with sublime potentialities” (because matter is always also conscious; the two are inseparable). “Thus, under the same monist appearances, there are two moral systems, two metaphysics and two mysticisms.” He speaks, he says, “of the Eastern religions as they should rightly be regarded in virtue of their fundamental concept of spirit, and not in the form they assume in fact in the varieties of neo-Buddhism, under the influence of an approximation to western types of mysticism.” Hinduism also changed in the twentieth century by its contact with the West (consider, for example, the transformation of yoga—from a severe form of asceticism to what it is today—and how this changes how Hinduism sees itself).

The humanist pantheisms of the West about which Teilhard speaks is “an extremely youthful form of religion” with “little or no codification” (apart from Marxism), “a religion with no apparent god, and with no revelation,” in which “the supreme value of life consists in devoting oneself body and soul to universal progress—this progress being expressed in the tangible development of mankind.” He calls it, “the religion of evolution.” “They set out eagerly … toward faith in spirit … but … they hold back from investigating whether … this spirit must be seen by them as endowed with immortality and personality. Much more often than not they deny it these two properties … This very soon produces a feeling of insecurity, of incompleteness, and of suffocation.”

 But Christianity is also problematic. In emphasizing heaven, it seemed to have no connection to the earth. It looks upon the soul as a transient guest in the cosmos and a prisoner of matter. (In other words, it succumbs to the heresy of Docetism.) “For such a Christian, accordingly, the universe has ceased to extend the primacy of its organic unity over the whole field of interior experience.” Christianity “has never developed the sense of the earth, or else it has allowed this sense to lie dormant in it.”

Then to Teilhard the Universal Christ was revealed. The Universal Christ, he says, is a synthesis of Christ and the universe. It is an inevitable deployment of the mystery of the Incarnation. The Christian’s dearest belief, he says, “is that Christ envelops him in his grace and makes him participate in his divine life.” Thus, in spite of his Roman Catholicism Teilhard discovers Orthodox Christianity on his own terms, for what he is talking about here is the doctrine of glorification, or divinization. Only, he asks the question traditional orthodoxy has failed to ask: “How exactly is the divine power to put the universe together in such a way that it may be possible for an incarnation to be biologically effected in it?” If the incarnation is to have taken place, how must the universe actually be constructed?

He says that “if we Christians wish to retain in Christ the very qualities on which his power and our worship are based, we have no better way—no other way, even—of doing so than fully to accept … the world as a coordinated system of activity which is gradually rising up toward freedom and consciousness. The only satisfactory way of interpreting this process … is to regard it as irreversible and convergent. Thus, ahead of us, a universal cosmic center is taking on definition, in which everything reaches its term, in which everything is explained, is felt, and is ordered. It is, then, in this physical pole of universal evolution that we must … locate and recognize the plenitude of Christ. For in no other type of cosmos, and in no other place, can any being, no matter how divine he be, carry out the function of universal consolidation and universal animation which Christian dogma attributes to Christ. By disclosing a world-peak, evolution makes Christ possible, just as Christ, by giving meaning and direction to the world, makes evolution possible.”

Teilhard considers the idea staggering that there can be “a being capable of gathering up all the fibers of the developing cosmos into his own activity and individual experience.” But he claims he is simply transposing into terms of physical reality the expressions of the church’s faith. The creed, he says, imposes a particular structure on the universe. “I tried to place at the head of the universe … the risen Christ.” “Now I realize that, on the model of the incarnate God whom Christianity reveals to me, I can be saved only by becoming one with the universe … Unlike the false monisms which urge one through passivity into unconsciousness, the ‘pan-Christism’ which I am discovering places union at the terms of an arduous process of differentiation. I shall become the other only by being utterly myself. I shall attain spirit only by bringing out the complete range of the forces of matter. The total Christ is consummated and may be attained only at the term of universal evolution … And I hold this ‘world-soul’ no longer simply as a fragile creation of my individual thought, but as the product of a long historical revelation, in which those whose faith is weakest must inevitably recognize one of the principal lines of human progress.”

In the end, Teilhard says he identifies this Universal Christ with the Christ of the gospel. When he considers the magnificent cosmic attributes lavished by Paul on the risen Christ, and the significance of the Christian virtues, he does not think he is innovating when he extends Christianity to cosmic dimensions. His individual faith in the world and his Christian faith in Christ seemed to inexhaustibly fructify each other causing both to never cease developing and growing in profundity.

In the end Teilhard expresses the hope that in the great river of humankind, the three currents of Eastern, human and Christian thought are beginning to run together. “The East seems already almost to have forgotten the original passivity of its pantheism,” “the cult of progress is continually opening up its cosmogonies ever more widely to the forces of spirit and of emancipation,” and “Christian is beginning to accept man’s effort.” (Whether this is still true today we would have to ask ourselves. As Christianity moves eastward and south, Eastern religions have continued to change toward the universal Christ. As Christianity leaves the West, it is questionable whether Western pantheism has made the same progress. Christian has embraced society, true, but it has often done so by turning its back on spirit.) “A general convergence of religions upon a universal Christ who fundamentally satisfies them all: that seems to me,” Teilhard says, “the only possible conversion of the world, and the only form in which a religion of the future can be conceived.”

The mathematical physicist and cosmologist Frank J. Tipler and physicist David Deutsch  both write about the final singularity of the universe as having the characteristics that Teilhard ascribes to evolution, namely convergence, consolidation, recapitulation and intelligence. If matter is conscious as philosopher Christian de Quincey argues, then Teilhard’s personal faith in the world is sound. The Christian dogma of the incarnation with its corollary doctrine of the theosis (divinization) of creation is the only current among the world’s religions that embraces spirit (consciousness) and matter in a way that is compatible with these contemporary scientific and philosophical views of the cosmos.

Matter is not lost  or denigrated by spirit but becomes present to spirit and its reality becomes full.

At the same time, Christian doctrine goes further than Teilhard does in this tiny book, for not only does the universe end with all matter becoming a single unified consciousness (spirit) in which every living thing is resurrected at the recapitulation and transfigured into the likeness of Christ’s glory, but time becomes eternity, the same eternity from which the universe begins and that accompanies the universe to its consummation, an eternity which the present of Jesus Christ always is. That which is eternal is God; time is eternity’s unfolding (in enthropy) and enfolding as life evolves into ever greater and more unified consciousness. The divinizaton of matter, however, is not just matter’s becoming self-aware, but its realization of its eternity. For us, this is unimaginable. As Teilhard says in his epilogue, if God cannot show this to us, “it is exclusively because we are still incapable, by reason of the present phase of the universe, of a higher degree of organization and illumination,” though it seems to me that there are mystical states that do realize this, at least intuitively.

Pierre Teilhard de Chardin was not a physicist but, as a biologist (actually a paleontologist) who saw the truth that modern physics now confirms (and extends), he was a spiritual pioneer to whom we ought to pay  attention.

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