Richard Lischer is professor of homiletics at Duke Divinity School. He is the author of The Preacher King: Martin Luther King Jr. and the Word that Moved America (Oxford University Press).
This article appeared in The Christian Century, April 9, 1975, pp. 352-357. Copyright by The Christian Century Foundation; used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at www.christiancentury.org. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted and Winnie Brock.
The conventional and provisionally accurate assessment of Teilhard recognizes him as a master synthesis-builder, one whose vision of the whole included an easy coalition of science, religion and poetic imagination.
Twenty years ago, on April 10, 1955, Pierre Teilhard de Chardin died, bequeathing to his friends the critical task of sorting through hundreds of manuscripts on theology, mysticism, philosophy and evolution whose publication the Roman Catholic Church -- and Teilhard’s vow of obedience to it -- had forbidden. As his books and papers continued to find their way into the English language, it became clear that no single category was sufficient to contain his thought. Twenty years after his death, it is still too early to speak of Teilhard’s place in modern thought, for not all the returns are in. However, the conventional and provisionally accurate assessment of Teilhard recognizes him as a master synthesis-builder, one whose vision of the whole included an easy coalition of science, religion and poetic imagination.
But one significant ingredient of Teilhard’s synthesis is often overlooked -- namely, the political organization of humanity as it enters into the last phase of its life on earth. Teilhard was not a political person; yet in describing the ascent of humanity he employed the political categories that he felt were most compatible with the idea of evolutionary progress. Teilhard wandered, absentmindedly and often naïvely, into dialogue with communist socialism and wrote about that perennially favorite subject of both Christianity and Marxism: the future.
Critics have disagreed as to the presence and extent of utopianism in Teilhard’s vision of the future. To some, his eschatology represents a blatant and outdated scientism, a remnant of 9th century optimism; to others, it seems an urgent and timely reinterpretation of the Pauline Christ who will be all in all. My purpose is not to debate two of the major planks in his theological platform -- i.e., evolution and progress -- but to lay to rest the mistaken impression that the whole of his eschatology is utopian. In fact, it can be argued that Teilhard’s is a two-stage eschatology, progressing from a presentation of scientific and socialist principles worthy of any secular millennium to the abandonment of earth in humankind’s union with the Omega-God.
The Penultimate Noosphere
In Teilhard’s view of evolution, the particular consciousness or mind proper to each organism develops in a purposeful and progressive way until a multiplicity of factors, all included in the creative action of God, causes it to "boil over" into the self-conscious reflection which is humanity. This is the first threshold of consciousness: the human creature not only knows; he knows that he knows. Human rationality gradually creates a web of thought, symbolized by the vast communications network that covers the earth, which Teilhard called the noosphere. It is the earth’s mental crust.
The penultimate phase of the noosphere, as predicted by Teilhard, corresponds in principle and in many details with Karl Marx’s predicted communist society of the future. Primary among these is the socialization of consciousness, which in Teilhard’s words facilitates "the direct intercommunication of brains through the mysterious power of telepathy." The crossing of this threshold, as in Marxism, occurs only when the pattern of necessity is first recognized and then rationally organized by human freedom. With this in mind Teilhard set great store in the liberating powers of telecommunications, mechanization and computer technology -- all of which he saw as the anticipation of a humanized world.
According to Marx and Teilhard, the socialization of consciousness will dissolve the barriers that separate physical and mental labor, allowing the Marxian individual of the future to hunt in the morning and philosophize after dinner, and enabling the Teilhardian "man in the street" to do research in physics or biology. Such freedom of diversification for the sake of the community leads to the confluence of all sciences into a single natural science of man the knower and man the object of knowledge. In the new community the profit motive and the quest for security will have been forgotten, as the Marxist and Teilhardian individual strides toward fuller being rather than well-being. Only when humanity has emerged from its adolescent prehistory and reached the maturity of socialization, writes Teilhard, will "this consciousness be truly adult and of age" (Science and Christ [London: Collins, 1968], p. 83).
The political expression of this social consciousness bears a poverty of definition in comparison with Marxist and socialist programs for the future. Though Teilhard offered no political blueprint, his entire philosophy of convergence and his aversion to bourgeois individualism undoubtedly favored some form of socialism. Throughout his life, his confidence in the principle of socialization or, as he called it, "totalization" continued in tension with an equally firm distrust of empirical communism. When he was not discoursing on "the only means of overcoming communism," he was, paradoxically enough, praising socialization and proposing the superficial outline of a Christian-Marxist synthesis.
The tension between political reality and universal ideal was heightened in Teilhard’s lifetime by the appearance of phenomena with which Karl Marx never had to come to terms: regimes claiming to be proletarian dictatorships. In the face of these, Teilhard’s enduring confidence in the principle of human collectivization represented a victory for the ideal and led him away from sociopolitical analysis toward geopolitical prediction. The prophet in him held to many socialist principles -- the supranational unity of all humanity, a world language, racial synthesis and eugenics, and the abolition of war. This "pan-organized world," moreover, would hold to the same morality and ideology, so that humankind might one day find itself thinking the same thoughts and unanimously ratifying a single set of values. But what would the common denominator be: scientific law or Christian principles?
The Totalitarian Detour
Teilhard, like Marx before him, entrusted the leadership of socialization to an elite. As a young man Teilhard doubted the feasibility of a philosophy of collectivism. "It seems to me," he wrote in 1915, "that once you pass from individual consciousness to collective phenomena you fall back into the inevitable, into blindness" (The Making of a Mind: Letters from a Soldier-Priest 1914-1919 [Collins, 1965], p. 64). To avert the onset of blindness, Teilhard envisioned an elite of seers, composed of all races, classes and nationalities, whose mission it would be to consolidate universal belief in the grandeur of humanity’s future. Two Teilhardian assumptions made these vanguards necessary: his belief in the inferiority of a disorganized and socially unaware humanity and his assumption of functional and possibly biological inequality of the races. The former led him to disparage the "mass of humanity" as "profoundly inferior and repulsive," needing "to be kept on leading strings." The organic relation of all people does not, Teilhard claimed, dissolve the hierarchic structure of nature.
The latter belief in the inferiority of certain peoples led him to advocate some form of eugenics to deal with "unprogressive ethnical groups. Teilhard concluded that the mandates of progress and Christian charity would require society to give priority to those who demonstrate a capacity for development rather than to "life’s rejects" (Human Energy [Collins, 1969], pp. 132-133). It is difficult to reconcile this presumably rhetorical commendation of progress-at-any-price with either the gospel or his own prediction of a loving "conspiration" of humankind. It should go without saying that Christian love finds its most significant vocation among life’s outsiders -- the poor, the brokenhearted, the captive and the blind. Similarly, any great civil society, and especially one claiming a basis in Christian love, can measure its greatness only by its willingness and ability to care for its least productive members. Otherwise it will be neither civilized nor Christian, and it will surely be less than great.
Although Teilhard believed that a society based on love rather than compulsion could evolve from the totalitarian excesses of Nazism, communism and fascism, he did not offer by way of explanation anything more than biological principles, which he transferred to psychic and social planes. For example, his theory of the round earth’s compression of people as a leading factor in socialization appears to be more a poetic conceit than a serious scientific explanation. Just as the individual’s reflection leads naturally to self-centeredness, the curve of the earth might just as well lead to pulverization and a new multiplicity. Indeed, the earth’s compressive force is leading to just that -- in the forms of overpopulation and dehumanization through overcrowded living and working conditions. Moreover, people flee to the cities and arrange themselves in great clusters of physical complexity, called high-rise apartment buildings, in order to escape the unguarded mutuality of old-style relationships.
Or let us consider a biological "law" laid down by Teilhard. By insisting on the moral value of increasing natural and social complexity, he overlooks a historical trend which has been identified by many, most notably Reinhold Niebuhr: the more organized and highly structured the group or state, the greater is its hypocrisy and abuse’ of power. But Teilhard’s long-range optimism with regard to totalitarian arrangements -- that is, that they are only transitory biological heresies -- does not do justice to this dark side of socialization (although it does help explain his popularity among Marxist intellectuals). His optimistic stance carries with it the danger of a quietistic indulgence of repressive regimes, a quietism which assumes the apparently natural inexorability of human liberation through the lengthy process of humanity’s coming of age.
In The Phenomenon of Man Teilhard wrote.
It is, in point of fact, only by following the ascension and spread of the whole in its main lines that we are able, after a long detour, to determine the part reserved for individual hopes in the total success. We thus reach the personalization of the individual by the "hominization" of the whole group [Collins, 1959, p. 174].
Considering the communist means of "hominization," many have concluded that the detour is too long. No butterfly will emerge from the cocoon of violence and repression. Can Teilhard’s belief in one’s right to develop one’s personal qualities via democracy be reconciled with his equally firm belief in the principles of totalization? Or does the totalitarian detour bypass humanity’s destination of personal freedom?
The answer may lie in the strength of Teilhard’s Christian presuppositions. He begins his theology with a trinitarian model of the interrelationship of persons and, only on that basis, proceeds to apply his dictum "union differentiates" to the whole spectrum of organic life. Using the example of two lovers, Teilhard shows how each discovers a heightened sense of identity and personhood through self-forgetting love for the other.
On the social plane this concept suggests that organized human unification, while doing away with selfish individualism, will eventually set free higher forms of personal expression. While Teilhard’s later naturalistic definition of humanity (as a function of evolution) threatened human freedom and responsibility, his fundamental concern for persons never allowed him to acquiesce in the violence which necessarily accompanies any process of totalization. Because he did not realize that only coercion causes all people to think and act in uniformity, he believed that the "bourgeois spirit" of comfort and security could be abolished without hatred or violence.
This trust in the power of collectivism to protect the interests of the person sounds as naive in Teilhard’s writings as it does in Marx’s. But theologically Teilhard prepared for personalization and did not allow the neutral idea of evolutionary success, which is admittedly strong in his thought, to override the specifically Christian idea of personal union in love. Teilhard’s belief in totalization without coercion may have been naïve, but his understanding of the bankruptcy of violence (as a means of personalization) made him, in this respect, wiser than all the Marxists.
The Future of Religion
Teilhard’s renunciation of the traditional means of socialization led him to a theological vision of the future in which the noosphere does not succumb to a Marxian process of atrophy and dehistoricization. The communist future will appear as the denouement of history and historical dialectics, but the development of the noosphere, because it is essentially Christian, retains its motive principle; for even in its extreme phase, the noosphere’s perfection lies ahead of it.
According to Teilhard, the true religion, which is Christianity, emerges by means of evolution and reveals itself not as the final stage, but as the only religion capable of continuing development. While Engels in both Anti-Dühring and Dialectics of Nature viewed the evolution of religion from local gods to monotheism as a preparation for the scientific abolition of God, Teilhard adhered to the same sequence and to the same supercession of the anthropomorphic residue of earlier times, but with a difference. Far from being a stags through which humanity passes in adolescence, the adoration of a Savior God is essential to the maturation of human nature. Primitive needs are not outgrown but refined in the Catholic Church until, by its guidance, they are satisfied in the ultimate monotheism, in worship of the Omega-God of evolution.
The revelation of Omega’s grace instills in humanity the appetite for more-being and thus draws the race ever forward. Awareness of this divine action will increase until the noosphere, without being consummated, will have evolved into what Teilhard called the theosphere. In that time "there will be little to separate life in the cloister from the life of the world. And only then will the action of the children of heaven (at the same time as the action of the children of the world) have attained the intended plenitude of its humanity" (Le Milieu Divin [Collins, 1960], p. 40).
The supercession of religion which Teilhard envisioned bears a close resemblance to communist notions of secularization. In both conceptions the inclination to worship an Other is absorbed by the noblest and most religious aspirations of humanity, with the result that the imposition of religion as a "third thing" between the individual and the possibilities of his self-perfection is abolished. Just as Hegel predicted the supercession of religion by philosophy, and Marx by a new society, so Teilhard absorbed Christianity into a new science of humanity and a new religion of science. Such a synthesis will spell not the end of religion but, as Tillich envisioned it, the end of religious alienation: "There will be no secular realm, and for this very reason there will be no religious realm. Religion will be again what it is essentially, the all-determining ground and substance of man’s spiritual life" (from Theology of Culture, edited by Robert C. Kimball [Oxford University Press, 1959] p. 8).
Hence Marx and Teilhard agree in their prediction of the absolute totality of the future society but differ in their attitudes toward the role of Christianity in its ultimate achievement. The totality in Marxism is achieved by society’s reconstitution of Christianity; in Teilhard the same alienation of the secular from the sacred is overcome, and the same totality is erected -- but by extending the influence of Christianity into all sciences, social movements (including communism) and other agencies of human perfection. If there is no provision for the church’s opposition to technological excess, it is because, in Teilhard’s vision, humankind’s advanced psychic sympathy will have made such abuses impossible.
Nor will it any longer be incumbent upon the church to guard against becoming an ideological spokesman for science; for science, as the agent of humanization, will have entered into a synthesis with all else that contributes to human spirituality. In a world in which uniformity will reign in all areas of life and thought, the church, as mediator between science and belief, history and revelation, and ultimately between humanity and God, will no longer be necessary. For having developed the "plenitude of its humanity" (omega with a small "o"), humankind will have come to the brink of Omega and the end of history.
Before exploring the Omega, it is necessary to question Teilhard’s critique of the church and his unqualified advocacy of science. Whenever he criticized the church, it was the church’s retardation of scientific progress which came under heaviest attack. Teilhard seems never to have considered the terrifying implications of his alternative. He seems never to have asked whether the church’s support of all that is thought to be progress, including weapons research, always and in all spheres leads to a more complete realization of humanity. Many would suggest that whenever Christianity provides an uncritical imprimatur for any secular endeavor or world view (e.g., capitalism or socialism), it risks degeneration into ideology.
Teilhard’s view of religion, with its requisite cosmology (evolution) and belief in progress, threatens to render Christianity as unintelligible to the non-Western mind as Teilhard says the medieval faith is to the modern scientific mind. Such a judgment is borne out by a new generation’s rejection of the myth of progress. There is a close relationship between this rejection and the growing infatuation with unhistorical forms of religion, whether Christian biblicism or Oriental mysticism. Teilhard’s new version of the old interdependence of faith and cosmology brings with it an ideological exclusiveness which is foreign to the essence of Christianity.
Even if an uncritical relationship between the church and science does not totally ideologize Christianity, we still have history’s word that the ambiguous nature of many scientific achievements argues against the church’s unqualified sponsorship of them. The answer to the historic problem of the church’s intransigence toward scientific progress ‘does not lie in a Teilhardian religion of science.
The rubble of man’s exhausted powers of self-transcendence, including his ability to plan his own future, must eventually form the walls of his new prison. No amount of bravado concerning humanity’s absolute future -- e.g., the Marxist "kingdom of freedom" -- can satisfy the individual’s and the race’s desire to escape total death. The appetizing prospect of an open future may leave a bitter aftertaste unless it is understood as God’s absolute future, whose perfection cannot be identified with or transcended by another social, political or scientific project.
Unlike the Marxian future, as represented by the vacuous "Noch-Nicht-Sein" of Ernst Bloch, the absolute future of Teilhard de Chardin possesses an already existing reality whose personal character influences every phase of human development. The Teilhardian man neither strives toward the absolute future (God) as an unknown form of human transcendence nor builds it in the way the communist "makes history." He is united with it in love.
Teilhard’s principle of creative union demands an I-Thou relationship at all levels of existence. Although Marx and his followers use this principle as a basis for social and economic interdependence, they reject its applicability to the ultimate question of humanity’s relationship to God. The Marxian man suddenly finds himself called by a mysterious vacuum or related to the exigency of his own needs and possibilities’ rather than to another Person. Teilhard, on the other hand, was consistent in applying the concept of creative union -- i.e., his idea that the union of any two entities produces greater differentiation of the parties united enabled him to speak of the completion of personality in union with a supremely personal God.
Just as creative union has produced a greater definition of the terms united, so the final involution of human consciousness will have brought humankind to its natural acme of personalization. Teilhard made it clear, however, that without the presence of another personal being -- God -- this human perfection would not endure as a utopian realm of freedom but would yield to the psychophysical compression that formed it and disintegrate "in self-disgust."
Even the attraction of Omega does not override human freedom to reject the ultra-personal. Teilhard sounds one of his rare biblical notes when he admits the possibility of a gigantic rift in the noosphere between believers in Omega and unbelievers. Those who-refuse to cross the threshold will presumably join those who in their lifetimes rejected life and death in communion with Christ. In general, however, Teilhard depreciated the crises and the lack of human sympathy which, according to apocalyptic literature, will characterize the end, in order to integrate convergent evolution into the gracious salvation of God. Man’s inability to sustain his own transcendence and the possibility, at least, of eschatological dissidence, indicate that Teilhard did not share Marxism’s ultimate reliance upon the goodwill and cooperation of humanity. Hence at no stage in his system did Teilhard have hope in a nontheistic golden age to which the Christian might add, as icing on the cake, the eternal governance of God.
Theologically, the development of human potential will prove rather to be a massive cooperation in divine grace. It prepares for the gift of absolute grace, without which the earth, even at the apex of its self-illumination, would die, never to rise again. Just as each individual must arrive at his nadir of exhausted possibilities, at which point of death he is united to God, so also that portion of the human race which has achieved its historical limit must now find death and life in an ecstatic moment of self-forgetfulness. This Teilhard subsumes under the great signs of the end of history: Parousia, resurrection, judgment. As Parousia, the end-point of history uncovers him who has been present throughout its course of convergence. At the Parousia, Teilhard says, "the universal Christ will blaze out like a flash of lightning" to establish the organic complex of God and the world, the pleroma.
While using little of the traditional language of resurrection and judgment, Teilhard’s figure of an ecstasy in the noosphere retains two essential elements in the doctrine of the resurrection of the body. The first is the emphasis on the indestructible individuality of each member of the pleroma. The second is the physical interdependence of all flesh, which enables Teilhard to dwell upon the organic significance of salvation (and damnation) in him who will have manifestly filled all things: "Within a now tranquil ocean, each drop of which, nevertheless, will be conscious of remaining itself, the astonishing adventure of the world will have ended," and God-Omega will be all in all.
An Open Future?
The end of humankind, according to Marx and Teilhard, will be revealed both as a protraction and a reversal of the whole pattern of historical development. The former emphasis on continuity accords with that biblical tradition which stresses the eschatological judgment and transfiguration of historical persons, rather than the creation ex nihilo of demigods fit for paradise. It is a safe assumption that both Marx and Teilhard would therefore criticize any last-minute reversal of the universal laws which have paved the way toward the realization of humanity. Yet each in his ‘own way tolerates such a reversal. In Marxism the law of dialectical conflict atrophies in an unintroduced period of static harmony; and in Teilhard, cooperation in grace turns to absolute reliance upon God’s power to sustain and perfect that which has been germinating in the noosphere.
In both cases, whether by the gradual withering of the law or by the resurrection of the body, the reversals claim to have set free the highest quality of personal life. Only Teilhard’s claim is justified, however, because he has, first of all, recognized man’s need for an absolute and, second, understood why man cannot be an absolute for himself. It is in the nature of an absolute, says Teilhard, to perfect in man that which he is unable to accomplish for himself.
Equipped with a belief in God as humanity’s absolute future, Teilhard need not maintain a nervous silence with respect to the bogey of all finite, historical, and therefore false absolutes: death. An open future leaves personal death and natural entropy untouched and fails to protect humanity from the tedium as well as the possible terror of history. In a future which closes upon God, death is the last historical act of the individual and the noosphere. As such it will take its place alongside the rest of historical experience and await its transfiguration in One who has put all things, including death, under his feet.
When we question the validity of all utopias, and especially the Marxist "kingdom of freedom," we do so not in order to celebrate original sin or to revel in the "human condition." For, as Teilhard’s work proves, just as integral to the Christian human condition is the believer’s hope in an absolute future. By criticizing a premature absolute, such as communism, the Christian intends not to dampen human aspiration, but rather to avoid the petrifaction which hinders further development of love, justice and personal expression. A Christian witness to God, then, is vital to every utopia, for it must shatter the complacent self-deception of those who would erect upon some preconceived human possibility an absolute system of values.