Reaching for Oneness
Fifty years before the Internet, a French Jesuit priest predicted a shift from biological evolution to theological evolution. That God, through technology, would wrap the earth inside a "thinking skin."
This article appeared in the Spring 2000 issue of Spirituality & Health.
From the beginning of my pilgrimage in the Church I must have longed unconsciously for a way to integrate three dearly held convictions: faith in God, love of the world, and confidence in the future. In mid-career I discovered the writings of Teilhard (pronounced “Tayahr”) and spent two years in part-time graduate theological studies at Catholic University in Washington, D.C., devouring his translated works. Of all my heroes, he stands among the tallest.
A stretcher-bearer decorated for bravery in the fiercest battles of World War I, Teilhard became a scientist and a soaring mystic. In his lifetime he was renowned as a research geologist and achieved fame as a loyal Jesuit, and yet he was held in suspicion by orthodox science, considered a bit daft, and scorned by the Church hierarchy as a threat to tradition. What got him crossways in the Church was his uncompromising “evolutionary” worldview. And what diminished his acceptability in scientific circles was his mystical sense that Christ is the energy and the goal of all creation.
In 1916 (at age 35) he wrote, “The world is still being created, and in the world it is Christ who is reaching his fulfillment. When I heard and understood this saying, I looked around and I saw, as though in an ecstasy, that through all nature I was immersed in God.”
Such a vision anticipates the momentous turning point through which the human pilgrimage now passes — the immense sea change in the ocean currents of human experience that exert opposing pressures. They pull the world into oneness for the earth’s preservation and tear it apart for fear of losing the old boundaries that mark out distinctions — our personal, religious, national, cultural, economic separations. The UN, the Internet, and international finance are part of the fusionist current. The savagery of Serbian ethnic cleansing is part of the dread-driven counter-current. But, for our hope, it is clear which current commands the world’s majority allegiance. Rush Limbaugh, in his sneering contempt for all who differ with his strident partisanship, speaks only for the trailing edges of reactionary American sentiment.
Long before “globalism” became apparent, Teilhard saw the sea change coming. In the 1930s he wrote about what he called “the planetization of mankind” — the “rebounding” and “unfolding” of humanity on itself. Evolution is creating a new and uniting level of consciousness that, though fiercely resisted, will irreversibly bring into being a “oneness” for which the world is built in the purposes of God — and for which the human spirit longs in its nearly universal hope of peace. He insisted on the principle that “union differentiates.” “True union, the union of heart and spirit, does not enslave, nor does it neutralize the individuals which it brings together, it super-personalizes them,” he wrote. Every deep and trusting and forging relationship in human experience ratifies the principle. By such a bracing and embracing love, human beings are freed to blossom into our distinctive selves.
But Teilhard was no airy optimist. He faced squarely the power of evil, though he offended Jesuit orthodoxy in defining it. He said that there is but one evil, and he named it “disunion.” I believe he meant the very thing that contemporary science now affirms, that the cosmos is essentially a pulsing interconnectedness, all entities needing relationship and intimacy for their fulfillment — from atoms to people to stars. What this worldview says is that evil consists of those impulses of fear and arrogance that tear asunder the fabric of created oneness, and that the grace of forgiveness is the energy for rebinding what sin and evil sunder.
Teilhard held the Church mainly responsible for whatever “credibility gap” existed between religion and modern humanity. His view was that the world was not growing cold toward religion, but warm. For him the problem was the juridical, uninspired, and ecclesiastically burdened projection of the Gospel. By its rigid dogmatism and its apparently unconscious need to control the minds and behavior of free humanity, he wrote, in 1919, “To more and more people Christianity appears invincibly inhuman and inferior.” He held that that world is actually growing more open to religious questions because spirit has been present in matter from the start of creation, and evolutionary forces work to bring spirit to the fore, erupting into vigorous visibility with the emergence of reflective consciousness in the human species. No doubt he would explain the New Age phenomenon of our time as the predictable outcome of the relative failure of conventional religion to nourish the hungering spirits of a humanity built for spiritual fulfillment in vital relationships — with God, with one another, and with the living earth.
He exulted in his companionship with Christians and non-Christians alike across the world, men and women with “a passion for building the earth.”
He admitted that the “new religion of the world” (as he termed it in a 1933 essay) may be confused in its dogmas, “but it is perfectly clear in its moral orientation: the priority of the common good over individual interest, a vigorous faith in the value and potential of human activity, and a reverence for all forms of research.”
Long before evolution was ever dreamed of as the mechanism of God’s continuing creation, the second-century bishop of Lyons, Irenaeus, said, “The glory of God is [humanity] fully alive.” In a world social order struggling to come to terms with its new global character and groping painfully for the structures of justice and peace, it seems to me that the Gospel has not been abandoned, but only undiscovered as the mainspring for building the kind of world in which all humanity can be “fully alive” — a world of compassion and nonviolence toward the earth and all the life that fills it. Such a vision does not press the world’s reluctance, except where fear overrules the human longing for love. But Teilhard gave voice to the saving possibility that even fear may one day yield to the Love that hugs the world to its divine heart — that day, for the second time in the history of the world, when humanity will have discovered fire.