Where are we headed? Pierre Teilhard de Chardin’s The Phenomenon of Man

img_0078I approached January 2017 with dread. Some of my friends said they felt despair.  It seemed the world, the entire world; not just the United States, had truly chosen the path to annihilation. Our self-preservation plan, it seems to me, is strangely cannibalistic as it seeks to eliminate as many players as it can in order to keep a few alive. The ultimate in capitalism? Not sure. It might just be the human tendency.

On January 3, 2017, I was finishing up Pierre Teilhard de Chardin’s The Phenomenon of Man. Teilhard de Chardin was born in France in 1881. He became a Jesuit, and deepened his spirituality through his interest in science. He was a geologist and renown paleontologist. On many occasions he was silenced for his thoughts on evolution and original sin. He wrote The Phenomenon of Man in 1940, but was prohibited from publishing it. It eventually made its way to publication in 1955 after his death.

fullsizeoutput_19Certainly, evolution was not a new concept during Teilhard de Chardin’s life. What he added to it was purpose: the universe started something and it will indeed finish it. Where does man fit into this process? Man is the ultimate torch carrier.  The torch is greater and greater consciousness. Teilhard’s views were silenced by a church orthodoxy unable to open to a vision of God as cosmic. Science and spirituality, however, were harmoniously united in Teilhard’s mind so that he could not help but speak to the expansiveness of it all.  His evolution was “neither chaotic or continuous” (112), but one that “ramifies” (113). And so in The Phenomenon of Man he details all these vibrant, and in many cases, once vibrant branches on the “tree of life.” If there is any question as to why some species die off he explains not just with the skill of a scientist, but with the love of a spirit who recognizes and honors animals that exhaust their abilities, encumbered, in some degree by their own evolutionary drive for greater efficiency through simplification:

“Let us take a close look at the great horde of Pliocene animals — those limbs developed to the last degree of simplicity and perfection, those forests of antlers on the heads of stags, of lyre-shaped horns on the starred or striped foreheads of antelopes, those heavy tusks on the snouts or the proboscidians, those canines and incisors of the great carnivores… Surely such luxuriance, such achievement, must precisely serve to condemn the future of these magnificent creatures, marking them for an early death, writing them off — despite their psychic vitality — as forms that have got into a morphological dead end” (157).

Reading Teilhard gives one somewhat of a bi-polar experience. There are times when you find yourself on the verge of declaring we have reached the Omega point;  and then he suggests, there are mere buds on the tree of life whose growth will no doubt occur in a future way beyond the duration of our present life-time. Life will go on long after I’m gone?

Teilhard traces the evolutionary process in order to get to man. With man a new stage begins. The nervous system has been evolving from little more than a blob to a complex system, which finally develops within the skin of man to enable tool making and fire.  To light the world with fire is at the same time to begin the long ascent to consciousness.  Thought, reflection and a refinement of consciousness are what set man apart from the rest:

“Admittedly, the animal knows. But it cannot know that it knows: that is quite certain. If it could, it would long ago have multiplied its inventions and developed a system of internal constructions that could not have escaped our observation” (165-166).

The trajectory from here is rather paradoxical because evolution moves from outside our skin to inside. I do not believe Teilhard de Chardin draws an absolute boundary between inside and outside, but he clearly sees them as distinct, and in evolutionary terms, what goes on in the inside appears to be a more significant achievement.  Always honoring science he references our inventions, and our creativity as manifestations of a consciousness that is within man.  It is this consciousness within man that is the light of the world, and which eventually joins with all consciousness. It is consciousness, then, that is eternal.

Interestingly, at the time of his writing he sees a new age emerging:

“The age of industry; the age of oil, electricity and the atom; the age of the machine, of huge collectivities and of science — the future will decide what is the best name to describe the era we are entering (214).”

Certainly, we are all familiar with this age of oil, electricity and the atom. And by now, we are aware of both the benefits and the dangers that go along with this age. in fact, our awareness is such that for many today, there is a feeling we are witnessing the end of this age, which is not only the end of a particular type of light/energy we bring to the world, but threatens an absolute end of that light.  For Teilhard de Chardin, the difference, perhaps the heightened anxiety, is found not in the outside changes, but rather in how we as humans understand it all:

“In the final analysis it is, if I am not mistaken, that we have become conscious of the movement which is carrying us along, and have thereby realised the formidable problems set us by this reflective exercise of the human effort.”

Many of us are aware of where we are headed. We have awakened? This awakening is not only an internal awareness of the fragile nature of life; it is rather an awareness backed by science, that is, we know where we are headed if we do not change our behavior toward the very source of our life. It is here in the darkness with our eyes wide open where we are the most vulnerable.  Science is telling us our future. We are a civilization founded on science. What must we do? There are only two choices according to Teilhard de Chardin:

“Between these two alternatives of absolute optimism or absolute pessimism, there is no middle way because by its very nature progress is all or nothing. We are confronted accordingly with two directions and only two: one upwards and the other downwards, and there is no possibility of finding a halfway house” (233).

Teilhard de Chardin’s optimistic alternative is not one of believing without concern or regard for the world that it will all work out in the end. He makes it clear in book four: survival that getting to the Omega point is not  without its perils. There is a danger to our survival, but the danger resides in the inside and not, as one would think, on the outside. If Teilhard is a man of great faith in science and religion we now see him acknowledge the human psychological condition of, among other human traits, hubris. He cautions:

“When man has realized that he carries the world’s fortune in himself and that a limitless future stretches before him in which he cannot founder, his first reflex often leads him along the dangerous course of seeking fulfillment in isolation on the individual or group level.

“In one example of this — flattering to our private egotism — some innate instinct, justified by reflection, inclines us to think that to give ourselves full scope we must break away as far as possible from the crowd of others (237).

He is very clear in his belief that we must move together.

“Also, false and against nature is the racial ideal of one branch draining off for itself alone all the sap of the tree and rising over the death of other branches. To reach the sun nothing less is required than the combined growth of the entire foliage.

“The outcome of the world, the gates of the future, the entry into the super-human — these are not thrown open to a few of the privileged nor to one chosen people to the exclusion of all others. They will open only to an advance of all together, in direction in which all together can join and find completion in a spiritual renovation of the earth, a renovation whose physical degree of reality we must now consider and whose outline we must make clearer (244-245).

Our world today seems to have reactivated a drive within us toward isolationism. We fear all others. Our current immigration policy, refugee policy, and in general the constant fostering of resentment within our own borders, to give one example: urban against rural, is creating a false hope.  That there are only some people worthy of survival; that there are only certain people who deserve a future; that we can partition the world into parts that matter and parts that do not; that we can move forward by utilizing what worked in the past are all forms of egoism. In our hearts we know this is a great untruth. We know that survival does not depend on eliminating our neighbors, but rather it depends on all of us coming together and creating consciousness.  We do not need to be the same. Creativity rests on our differences and the tension between them, but it will ultimately die if we seek to eliminate, in any way, all those who we fear.

As I read Teilhard de Chardin, I felt a surge of excitement and hope knowing that we are moving forward no matter what:

“Having once known the taste of a universal and durable process, we can never banish it from our minds any more than our intelligence can escape from the space-time perspective it once has glimpsed.

On the one hand, this force of destiny comes as a relief. If I were worried about the destruction of the world, perhaps I no longer had to be concerned because who can stand in the way of evolution? Teilhard even goes so far as to bind us to evolution by telling us:

“If process is a myth, that is to say, if faced by the work involved we can say: “what’s the good of it all? our efforts will flag. With that the whole of evolution will come to a halt — because we are evolution. ( p232)

Yes, we are evolution, so why would we want to stop evolving? The footnote to this paragraph rules out the ability to think otherwise:

“There is no such thing as the energy of despair in spite of what is sometimes said. What those words really mean is a paroxysm of hope against hope. All conscious energy is, like love (and because it is love), founded on hope.”

I like this idea of conscious energy being, “like love” and “founded on hope.” But, I worry that Teilhard de Chardin, who achieved a level of consciousness that convinced him we were all one, and all moving in one direction, left out the dubious nature of the unconscious.

The Phenomenon of Man is meant to emphasize the basic goodness inherent in man and the fire that burns within him. Teilhard admits, in an appendix to his book dated 1948, he did not bother to write about all that could go wrong. Several times in his book he states we are moving toward the Omega point no matter what. He also writes about scientific advancement and all its glorious potentialities without ever mentioning how complex systems, when they are motivated by something other than truth and justice, are just as vulnerable to extinction as the saber-toothed tiger. He seems to regard the risk of evil as self-evident, and part of the package. Evolution cannot be contingent upon the probability of evil.

“Indeed, if we regard the march of the world from this standpoint (i.e., not that of its progress but that of its risks and the efforts it requires) we soon see, under the veil of security and harmony which — viewed from on high — envelop the rise of man, a particular type of cosmos in which evil appears necessarily and as abundantly as you like in the course of evolution — not by accident (which would not much matter) but through the very structure of the system. A universe which is involuted and interiorized, but at the same time and by the same token a universe which labors, which sins, and which suffers (313).”

His faith plays a role in his final analysis as he ultimately sees the path of evolution as the cross of Christ.

And so, I finished Teilhard de Chardin letting go of a world without evil, and thinking about how I was going to live in 2017 and beyond. I truly believe as he writes:

“Driven by the forces of love, the fragments of the world seek each other so that the world may come to being (264-265).

I love this, “the fragments of the world” — that is what we are as we come together, not to dissolve in one another, for this is something about which Teilhard de Chardin is clear, the fragments will remain as fragments, but will create something more than themselves.

In the end:

“For love to be possible there must be coexistence (269).”

It is only through the energy of love, working together, not necessarily fighting against a specific evil, but truly working together to create and build the earth, that we can begin to deflate the exaggerated fear that threatens our world.


All citations come from: Teilhard de Chardin, The Phenomenon of Man. Copyright 1959 in the English translation by Wm. Collins Son & Co. Ltd., London and Harper & Row, Publishers, New York.

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