TEILHARD DE CHARDIN AND T€E RELIGIOUS PHENOMENON
UNESCO: International Symposium on the Occasion of Centenary of the Birth of Teilhard deChardin
Ewert H. Cousins, Fordham University, New York, 16-18 September 1981
According to Teilhard de Chardin, the human community is undergoing a radical transformation of consciousness. We are evolving from a state of tribal-national awareness to global consciousness. Through a process which he calls "planetization," the forces of evolution have shifted from divergence to convergence.' When mankind first appeared on the earth, groups diverged into separate tribal units. However, the spherical shape of the earth, the increase in population and the rapid development of communication in recent times have caused consciousness to converge and intensify. Out of this process, global consciousness is emerging.
What role will religion play in the process of planetization? Can Teilhard's concept of religion help us understand the religious phenomenon of our time?....
The Religious Phenomenon
In an unprecedented way, diverse religious groups are meeting in an atmosphere of harmony.... Both World Council of Churches and the Vatican have official agencies for dialogue with other religions....
The most striking aspect of this religious convergence is that it is not primarily on the level of dogmatic beliefs, moral prescriptions or ritual, but on the level of spiritual experience. Throughout the world there is a thirst for spiritual values, a focusing on that inner dimension of the person called by certain traditions “the spirit.” This spiritual core is the deepest center of the person. It is here that one is open to the transcendent; it is here that one experiences ultimate reality. Once this core is awakened, it must be cultivated and made the center of one’s life.....
In the United States... thousands have turned to the teaching of the East, the practice of meditation.... [W]e are witnessing a religious ferment, a welling up and convergence of spiritual energies which seems to be activated by the process of planetization that Teihard describes.
Paradoxically, at the same time that the spiritual energies of religions are converging, the modern world is being secularized..... In Teilhard's terms, does it represent a form of human energy which in its roots is spiritual and which must be channeled into the human phenomenon in its process of planetization?
Teilhard's concept of religion helps us understand the religious phenomenon of our times in both its ecumenical and secularizing trends. His concepts of the convergence and complexification of consciousness clarify the meeting of religions. His understanding of the spiritual power of matter makes it possible to see the process of secularization in a spiritual light. Yet his thought is not merely-a-harmonious synthesis... but the call of a prophet ringing out across the future, challenging the religions to be active forces in our time to harness and direct human energies at this critical moment in history, so that the secular will reach fruition in the spiritual and the spiritual will encompass and activate the energies of the secular....
Teilhard's Concept of Reliqion
An extensive study of Teilhard's religious thought has been made by Henri de Lubac, The Religion of Teilhard de Chardin.' ...
The key-to understand Teilhard's concept of religion is the universe, specifically the intimate relation between God and the universe, expressed
in his doctrine of the cosmic Christ. ...God is the focus of the world. He sees God's presence in the world through the mystery
of Christ. This is not merely the historical Jesus, but the universal Christ, which he understands as the "synthesis of Christ and the universe.
This presence of Christ in the universe is not static, but dynamic; for Teilhard identifies the Omega of evolution with the Christ of revelation. In his comprehensive theory, evolution proceeds through the spheres of matter, life and consciousness. This process requires a center which is also its energizing goal. The center, which he calls Omega, is present throughout the process but transcendent to the process. It is the divine presence, active in the universe bringing it to its fulfillment. In the essay MJ Universe, he states the proposition: "Christ is Identical with Omega." ...
By identifying Christ and Omega, Teilhard. intimately relates the divine to the physical universe and to 'human. endeavor,-. Religion, then, for Teilhard must be seen in this context.
- On the level of belief, religion accepts the doctrine of the cosmic Christ, with all that it entails: namely the threefold faith, stated above, in the personality of God as the focus-of the world; the incarnate Christ; and the Church as a force in evolution.
- On the level of experience, religion involves a cosmic mystical awareness of the presence of God, acting throughout the universe.
- On the level of morality, religion calls mankind to further the evolutionary process by taking, responsibility for the earth, the future and the evolutionary process itself.
- For Teilhard, then, religion is primarily on the level of human consciousness and human action, rather than in institutions or belief systems, except insofar as these manifest and give direction to the former.... Teilhard expresses his understanding of how religion is related to energy and the evolution towards Omega:
"Religion, therefore, was not developed primarily as an easy way out, to provide shelter from the insoluble or intrusive difficulties met by the mind as it became active. In its real basis, it is biologically (we might almost say mechanically) the necessary counterpart to the release of the earth's spiritual energy: the human being by his appearance in nature, brings with him the emergence, ahead of him, of a divine pole to give him balance."
Teilhard's concept of religion... is directly concerned with the universe and its evolution towards the divine. The religions of the world represent the highest development of human consciousness in that direction. In view of Teilhard's specific theory of evolution through planetization, the encounter of religions represents the most advanced stage in the convergence of consciousness....
The Convergence of Religions
The convergence of religions should be viewed from the standpoint of Teilhard's theory of the evolution of consciousness. According to Teilhard, consciousness emerges out of a process that has its roots in the geosphere and the biosphere....
"In any domain," he says, "whether it be the cells of a body, the members of a society or the elements of a spiritual synthesis--union differentiates. From subatomic particles' [DUST?] to global consciousness, individual elements unite in a center-to-center union, which releases creative energy leading to more complex units. ... In this process the elements do not lose their identity but rather have it intensified by the union. ... The more 'other' they become in conjunction, the more they find themselves as 'self'."9
At this point in history, the forces of planetization are bringing about an unprecedented complexification of what Teilhard terms the noosphere, or sphere of consciousness, through the convergence of cultures and religions.
Teilhard himself saw the convergence of world religions as a phase of the complexification of the noosphere. In How I Believe, he examined Oriental religions, confessing his attraction for them: "The great appeal of the Eastern religions (let us, to put a name to them, say Buddhism) is that they are supremely universalist and cosmic. Never perhaps has the sense of the Whole, which is the life-blood of all mysticism, flowered more exuberantly than in the plains of India. Although drawn to Eastern religions, he resisted their form of monism: "For the East, the One is seen as a suppression of the multiple; for me, the 0ne is born from the concentration of the multiple." This .difference of perspective and attitude led him to turn back to the West.
In this essay he deals next with humanist pantheisms which are devoted to the universal progress of mankind. He was drawn by these, too, but discerned their limitations. He turned then to Christianity, and at first was dissatisfied with the impression it gives of not being concerned with the earth and human progress. In the universal Christ he finds a solution, which integrates the divine and 'best of the human.' He states: "The universal Christ, as I understood the name, is a synthesis of Christ and the universe....
...he sees the three currents flowing together: “In the great river of mankind, the three currents (Eastern, human and Christian) are still at cross-purposes. Nevertheless there are sure indications which make it clear that they are coming to run together.” For Teilhard these ‘currents converge in the universal Christ: “A general convergence of religions upon a universal Christ who fundamentally satisfies them all: that seems to me the only possible conversion of the world, and the only form in which a religion of the future can be conceived.”14....
...the central element in this new complexified religious consciousness is sympathy or empathy for the values of the other religions. For example, the Christian does not look on the other religion merely from his own theological perspective; rather he enters into the very structure of consciousness of the other religion and grasps its distinctive values from own perspective. From this perspective, he also views his own tradition, both sympathetically and critically. Then he returns to his Christian consciousness, but now enriched by his expanded horizons and with the spiritual energies that he has activated by a center-to-center union with the other mode of consciousness.
In the present generation of Christian theologians, this empathetic religious consciousness is appearing in a way not found in Teilhard himself
or the theologians of his time. Raimundo Panikkar described it under the term “dialogic dialogue” to distinguish it from the dialectical dialogue,
which is concerned with defending oneself and refuting the claims of other religions. l6
In his book The Trinity and the Religious Experience of Man, he has established a dialogic dialogue between the Christian understanding
of the Trinity and the religious experience of Hinduism, Buddhism, Judaism and Islam....
We are at the dawn of a new Christian theological consciousness.... Its theology of redemption, for example, has been developed for centuries without taking--into account the Hindu and Buddhist experience of liberation. In a global environment, this can no longer be tolerated. The task of the Christian theologian now is not to write a summa from the standpoint of Western culture, but to draw into a new complexified consciousness the totality of the religious experience of mankind.
...a more complexified form of religious consciousness emerges. In this complexified consciousness the Christian may perceive the mystery of Christ in Buddhism and the Buddhist may perceive Buddha nature in Christianity....
Spiritual Meaning of the Secular
While the encounter of religions intensifies the spiritual, the secular trend in modern culture eliminates the transcendent from life, focusing on material values, finite goals and human effort. It criticizes traditional religion for being other-worldly, unconcerned about human needs or development. world, but he sees the transcendent embodied within the world. With the secularists, Teilhard affirms the value of this this world, but he sees the transcendent embodied within the world. He discerns spiritual-power-in-matter, a sacramental reflection of God throughout the universe and human endeavor, with the entire evolutionary process moving toward greater union with the 'cosmic Christ. His affirmation of God's immanence is so strong that he has been criticized by Christian theologians for being pantheistic. I believe that this is unwarranted, for his vision harmonizes with major strands of the Christian tradition: for example, with the theophanic universe of the Greek Fathers and the Franciscan awareness of God's presence in material creation.
In Christ in the World of Matter, Teilhard employs a number of images to express the presence of the divine in the physical world. He describes a picture of Christ whose outlines blur and expand to fill the universe.19 He refers to a lamp whose "pedestal and shade were made of diaphanous sea-green glass, and the bulbs were so ingeniously placed that the entire mass of crystal and the designs which decorated it were illumined from within."20 In the context this becomes an image for the way the cosmic Christ shines through matter, illumining the entire universe.
In Spiritual Power of Matter, Teilhard sings a hymn to matter: "I acclaim you as the divine milieu, charged with creative power, as the ocean stirred by
the Spirit, as the clay moulded and infused with life by the incarnate Word."21
In The Phenomenon of Man, he speaks of the significance of secular enterprises for building the earth and for its ultimate religious meaning. For example, he sees that "religion and science are the two conjugated faces or phases of one and the same complete act of knowledge --the oniy
one which can embrace the past and future of evolution. so--as to contemplate, measure and fulfill them.
His finding the presence of Christ in matter and in human enterprises flows from his doctrine of the cosmic Christ which we explored above in dealing with his concept of religion.
Teilhard sees "a Christ who is no longer master of the world solely because he has been proclaimed to be such, but because he animates the whole range of things from top to bottom. As animating the whole range of things, this universal Christ energizes the human community to its fulfillment.
As the other side of this phenomtnon, human effort should focus on the same goal. In this way the concerns of the humanists, the social servants, the political reformers, the research scientists have a religious orientation even though the individuals involved may not be aware of it. On the other hand, the explicitly religious person, whether a formal member of a church or not, should be dedicated to authentic secular concerns. It would be simplistic, however, to see Teilhard's contribution as merely a religious recovery of secular values in our time. The issues are much more complex, rooted in his notion of planetization.
In order to see them in perspective, I will sketch my own understanding of the evolution of religious consciousness, drawing from Teilhard's theory of the noosphere and Karl Jaspers' theory of the Axial Period.24 I believe that Teilhard's general theory of the evolution of consciousness can be nuanced
by Karl Jaspers' description of the transformation of consciousness that occurred in the first millenium B.C.
Jaspers discovers an axis at this "point in history which gave birth to everything which, since then, man has been able to be." Jaspers goes on to claim that "this axis of history is to be found in the period around 500 B.C., in the spiritual process that occurred between 800 and 200 B.C.. It is there that we meet
with the most deepcut dividing line in history. Man, as we know him today, came into. being. For short we may style this the 'Axial Period'. 1'25
In Greece, Israel, Persia, India and China, consciousness was transformed without discernible influence of one area on another. In China Confucius and Lao-tze taught, and the schools of Chinese philosophy came / into being; India produced the Upanishads and the Buddha; in Persia Zoroaster described the struggle between Good and evil; in Israel the prophets--Elijah, Isaiah and Jeremiah--spurred their people to moral awakening; in Greece, Socrates, Plato and Aristotle ushered in critical reflective thought.
The great religions of the world, as we know them today, are a product of this transformation of consciousness; for Hinduism, Buddhism, Taoism, Confucianism and Judaism were' shaped in this period, and the transfomation of Jewish consciousness became the base for the later emergence of Christianity and Islam. In the Axial Period consciousness evolved from mythic awareness to critical reflection. In this period individual self-reflective consciousness, as we know it, was born.
In the previous period, primitive consciousness was embedded in the cosmos, in the life processes and in the collectivity of the tribe. In the Axial
Period; philosophers and spiritual teachers appeared, calling the public to use intellect to free themselves from collective consciousness, from
the physical world, from myth and ritual. Although in the Post-Axial Period primitive forms of consciousness survived, they were largely subliminal, appearing
in dreams-and art,- preserved in rituals and in the substratum of myth found in the sacred-texts of the religións-of the Axial Period. In contrast, the distinctive consciousness of the Axial Period was non-mythic, critical, self-reflective and individualistic.
With the awakening of reflective subjectivity, the individual coüld 'täke a' stand against the collectivity, become a distinct moral and spiritual self, and embark
on an individual spiritual journey.
The spirituality of all the great religions presupposes this Axial consciousness. A striking example of this is found in monasticism--one of the most distinctive forms of spirituality which developed in the Axial Period in Hinduism, Jainism and Buddhism and which emerged later in Christianity. It is interesting to note that monasticism did not exist among primitive peoples because the structure of primitive consciousnes could not sustain it. Primitive consciousness was embedded in nature and the life cycles of fertility and was fused with the collectivity of the tribe.
The spirituality of primitive peoples--a rich, sophisticated spirituaiity--took shape within the horizons of this cosmic consciousness, expressed itself in rituals and articulated itself in myths. With the transformation of consciousness in the Axial Period, the monk emerged; a marginal person, who separated himself from the community, from material goods and from the fertility cycles, practicing poverty and celibacy as a wandering beggar or the member of a monastic community that shared his radical lifestyle. It was only with the emergence of the individual, self-reflective, critical consciousness of the Axial Perjod that such a path was opened, and even here, because of its radicalness, for only a proportionally small number.
The result of the Axial Period, then, was a form of consciousness which released enormous spiritual-energies that shaped the great religions: It freed the human spirit from nature, allowing individuals to discover the image of God or the atman-within- their-subjectivity. It made possible an individual spiritual journey leading to personal enlightenment or union with God. It awakened individual moral conscience which could stand in judgment over the state and even the religious establishment. It brought forth / philosophical reason, which could criticize myth and seek truth through dialectical processes.
At the same time, it alienated man from the earth, from his rootedness in the geosphere and biosphere, and ultimately led to secularization in the West.
I believe that we are presently going through a Second Axial Period, which Teilhard discerned although he did not use the term. 'Like the first, this period has been developing for several centuries, and has reached a critical point in the twentieth. And like the first, it is effecting a radical transformation of consciousness. While the first produced individual, self-reflexive consciousness, the second period is producing global consciousness.'.The consciousness of the Second Axial Period is global in two senses:
(1) in encompassing the entire human community on the planet in all of its historical experience; (2) in recovering its rootedness in the earth. We have already seen how the encounter of world religions reflects the first sense of global, with its corresponding form of complexified consciousness described by Teilhard.
In the second sense, the religions of the world must cultivate an awareness of our rootedness in the earth, as Teilhard discerned that the noosphere was rooted in the geosphere and biosphere. Like Teilhard we must recognize the value of the secular; but, as he so wisely saw, this secular energy must be grounded in spiritual energy so that it will not run riot and destroy life on our planet.
Teilhard sketches the profile of the saint at this phase of history. He is not the one who undertakes severe asceticism to free himself from matter and to gain mastery over matter. Rather he is the one who activates all the energies of the earth and the human sphere to direct them to the / fulfillment of the total cosmic process:
"The saint, the Christian saint, as we now understand him and look for him, will not be the man who is the most successful in escaping from matter and mastering it completely; he will be the man who seeks to make all his powers--gold, love, or freedom--transcend themselves and co-operate in the consummation of Christ, and who sorealizes for us the ideal of the faithful servant of evolution."26
According to Teilhard, religion should energize and activate human creative potential in the building of the earth and the development of the human community.
But this must be an integrated development, which respects the earth and our total ’environment. It is here that Pre-Axial consciousness should be integrated into Axial consciousness. Primitive peoples have a sense of belonging to nature, of being in harmony with natural processes, of respect for the earth as sacred and for the total environhent as a divine gift.
In the face of our ecological crisis, this consciousness should be reactivated and made part of the reflexive consciousness of the Axial period. Teilhard, I
believe, was aware of the need for this integration, although he expressed it in the Axial language of science: rather than the Pre-Axial language of myth.
Thus the Second Axial Period challenges the religions to bring about a new integration of the spiritual and the material, of sacred energy and secular energy into a total globa-human energy. From the standpoint of spirituality, this means that we must recover the pre-Axial modes of cosmic and collective consciousness, without relinquishing the subjective, reflexive critical awareness of the Axial Period. This integration will produce a remarkably cornplex form of consciousness in which the-spiritual energies of religion will be integrated with the physical energies of the secular.
Although I believe that Teihard himsel had not personally achieved the / complexified consciousness of the Second Axial Period in the sphere of the
meeting of religions, he did achieve that complexification in an extraordinary degree in the integration of physical and spiritual energies. 27
In the context of Teilhard's concept of religion, he approaches the integration of matter and spirit from the doctrine of the cosmic Christ. This is, of course, because he was a Christian and viewed the issue from his Christian standpoint. Yet in the Second Axial Period all of the world religions will have to face this issue in a new way. For all the religions are confronted with the common problems of our planet: nuclear holocaust, the pollution of our environment, the depletion of natural resources and the just distribution of the earth's goods.
In the converging context, the different religions will face these issues from their own perspectives and with their own resources. They will .not speak of Christ as Teilhard did; yet they nay discover in their own traditions a dimension of reality that converges with what Teilhard meant by the universal Christ. In other words, the way in which the religions relate to these concrete problems must be through the complexified religious consciousness that is emerging in the
dialogue of religions.
In the context of the Second Axial Period, Teilhard's thought has its special meaning for the religious phenomenon of our tirnes.He is a prophet--calling us to a moral awakening--unprecedented in human history--to take collective responsibility-for the future, for the survival of life on ourplanet, for the evolutionary process itself. But more than this, he is a spiritual guide; for he shows us the way by pointing out the stages of the spiritual. journey. From Teilhard's perspective, the spiritual journey is / not embedded in the cosmic processes as it was in the Pre-Axial Period, nor is it a journey away from the cosmos as in the First Axial Period; rather the cosmos itself is on the spiritual journey.
Geogenesis, biogenesis and noogenesis are stages of a single cosmic-spiritual journey. The religious phenomenon of our time represents a stage of enlightenment along this spiritual journey, when in the Second Axial Period consciousness becomes truly global by encompassing the planet and assimilating its roots in the a earth.
In conclusion, I would like to observe how appropriate it is for this symposium to be held at UNESCO, for the United Nations is the concrete symbol
of and the pragmatic agency for developing the global consciousness that Teilhard described. On October 24, 1975, on the occasion of the 30th anniversary of the founding of the United Nations, a conference of leaders from the world religions was held at the United Nations in New York. The planning
of this conference was directly influenced by Teilhard's thought, in an attempt to activate the two dimensions of global consciousness described above.
In a joint statement read at the conference, the religious leaders affirmed:
"The horrors of current and possibe wars, -the destruction of the earth through the abuses of technology; -and -the vastness of -problems con-
fronting the human condition require the rededication of-all peoples; in an -awakened sense of the unity of the human spirit.,-to enhance co-operation toward the building of a peaceful and just world...
"The crises of-our time are challenging the world religions to release a new spiritual force transcending religious ,cultural and national boundaries into a
new consciousness of the oneness of the human community..and so putting into effect a spiritual dynamic toward the / solutions of world problems.
"We affirm a new spirituality, divested of insularity and directed toward a planetary consciousness....
"In conclusion, the delegates of the conference "One Is the Human Spirit" propose that the time is ripe for the religions of the world to bring together in concert their several visions in aid of the United Nations in its endeavor to build a better human society. To this end, we strongly
recommend that the United Nations consider the creation of an agency that will bring the much-needed resources and inspirations of the spiritual
traditions to the solution of world problems.28
1. 'Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, Le Phe)nomene humain (Paris: Editions du Seuil, 1955, pp. 268-269.
2. 'Henri de Lubac, La Pensge religieuse du Pere Teilhard de Chardin
(Paris: Aubier, 1962); English translation by René Hague, The Religion of Teilhard de Chardin (New York: Desclge, 1967).
14. 'lTeilhard, Cornent je crois, in1p. 292; English translation by Bernard P Harper andRow, 1965)-,-p.150;
this issue cf. Ursula King, Toward a New I4ysticism: Teilhard de
Chardin and Eastern Re7 igions (New York: Seabury Press,
"Raimundo Pani kkar, Myth, Fai th and Hermeneutics (New York: Paul ist
241-245; cf. also The Intrareligious Dialogue (New York:
17Panikkar, The Trinity and the Religious Experience
Orbis, 1973); The Unknown Christ of Hinduism (London: Darton, Longman and
I8Hans Waldenfels, Absolute Nothingness: Foundations
a Buddhist-Christian Dialogue (New York: Paulist Press,
Christ dans la matière, in Hymne de 1 'univers (Paris:---
Editions du Seuil, 1967),
48; English translation-by -Simon Bartholomew, Christ in the World of Matter, in Hymn of the Universe (New York: Harper and Row,1965),p.47.
23. Teilhhard, La Puissance spiritue1 1 e de .1 a matière,-in Hymne de l'univers,p.73; trans.,p.70.
"Teilhard,Le Phénomene humain, p. 317; trans. '%eilhard, Christoloqie et évolution, i,n Cornent je -crois,-p. 108; 285.
trans.,89.Page 25 24*
24Karl Jaspers, Vom Ursprung und Ziel der Geschichte (Zürich: Artemis, 1949), pp. 19-43.
25.bid., p. 19; English translation by Michael Bullock, The Origin and Goal of History (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1953), p.1.
26Teilhard, Introduction à la vie chretienne, in Comment je crois, i.pp. 198-359; trans., p. 170.
27 From the Joint-Statement of Spiritual Leaders Attending Spi ritual Summit Conference "One Is
the Human Spirit", held under the auspices of -the Temple of Understanding, read at the United Nations, October 24, 1975.
The complete text of the statement is printed in Most of All,They Taught Me Happiness, by Robert Muller (Garden City, New York: Doubleday, 1978),
Although the recommendation to establish a special agency
has not been implemented, it remains a concrete symbol of the global
religious consciousness-described -in-this paper.-