When ancient people sought to convey divine reality, they looked to the heavens for words or images of majesty, grandeur and power. From Psalm 19.1: “The heavens declare the glory of God.” One of my childhood memories is reclining on the trunk of our family car, with my head propped up by the rear window, looking at the blue sky and the formation of clouds–thinking Someone had a great idea.
The Christian church post-Constantine consolidated power and stifled dissent. When someone began to think “outside the box” by proposing that the universe is more vast than previously thought, the church was intolerant. Ironically, Nicolaus Copernicus (1473-1543) and Galileo Galilei (1564-1642) have endured as great minds who have helped the church think bigger about the cosmos.
This week we visited our son, who is making plans to work at the south pole for several months. When he points “up” the heavens, he points in a different direction than those of us in the northern hemisphere. “Up” for heaven is an archaic by-product of the time when people thought the earth was flat. Our minds have moved well past that ancient metaphor for heaven, but our language hasn’t caught up.
Pierre Teilhard de Chardin (1881-1955), another voice the church sought to silence, helps me think beyond this earthly existence. I don’t grasp the noosphere, but I’m encouraged by the direction of his thought. My favorite resource for thinking about “the beyond” is a novel written by Scott Peck, In Heaven As On Earth. The key principle of the afterlife, in Peck’s novel, is “freedom.”
Joe, Ernie, Don and I meet on Friday mornings for an hour. It’s not unusual for a group of old guys to gather around a table at a restaurant for coffee, biscuits, and tale-telling. We bring our own coffee since we’re in four different counties in three different states. We meet via Zoom.
I asked the group for some people and/or books that have been helpful resources for their journeys. I’ll share quotes from Friday’s list and a wee bit of commentary. First up is Sallie McFague (1933-2019), who taught at Vanderbilt Divinity School for 30 years, including several years as Dean.
The subtitle of her 2013 book, Blessed Are the Consumers is “Climate Change and the Practice of Restraint.” Ecology was one of her strong interests. She wrote that the challenge for the world’s religions was to transform our consumerism by restraint: Restraint at all levels, summed up in the Golden Rule (a variation of which most religions take as their central practice), is the one thing needed now….”
We are seeing the results of our slow response to warnings of science that were echoed by McFague.
Tripp Fuller’s Homebrewed Christianity featured a 6-minute audio presentation of McFague reading the conclusion of Blessed Are the Consumers. You can listen by clicking the link below the graphic.
We have the daunting, exhilarating privilege to live in a difficult, challenging era that is both confusing and clarifying. An essential skill for this moment is to be attentive to little things, such as our daily habits, while being mindful and attentive to big things, such as loving our neighbor. A gentle, almost imperceivable act of kindness can be a fulcrum for big change.
To a friend whose congregation is struggling with “theological” issues, I said, “These are difficult times, painful but clarifying.” For a community of faith or a political party in times of great confusion and division, the easy path is to think small and act big, as in Dobbs. The tougher path is to think big (as in human rights and inclusiveness) and take small, steady steps forward.
I’m encouraged by seemingly simple yet transformative steps, like the ancient faith community that cultivated “glad and generous hearts.” They discovered–in their own difficult, challenging era– the essential ingredient for great love: joyful generosity. That ingredient, and the great love that flows from it, is available to us today. Think big, be simple. Cultivate a glad and generous heart.
From Teilhard’s The Human Phenomenon (p. 142): Through commerce and the transmission of ideas conductivity from one to another has been increased. Traditions have been organized. A collective memory has developed. However thin and granular this first membrane must have been, from now on the noosphere has begun to close in on itself, encircling the Earth.
The words “a collective memory” reminded me of Carl Jung’s concept of the “collective unconscious,” which was Jung believed is “inherited from the past collective experience of humanity.” He believed, for example, that archetypal images can be passed from one generation to the next just like eye color, hair color, etc. I wondered if Teilhard (1881-1955) and Jung (1875-1961) collaborated.
They never met, but I found this: Carl Jung was reading Teilhard de Chardin during the last days of his life. According to Miguiel Serrano, when he visited Jung on May 10, 1961, “On the small table beside the chair where Jung was sitting, was a book called The Human Phenomenon by Teilhard de Chardin. Serrano said Jung remarked, “It is a great book.” Jung died on June 6, 1961.
Yesterday, I received an ethnicity update from Ancestry.com, showing estimated ethnicity fairly balanced between England, Northwestern Europe, Sweden & Denmark, Scotland, Wales and Ireland. The Irish 15% may account for my enjoyment of Celtic music.
Elie Wiesel was once asked why he didn’t hate the SS troops that inflicted suffering on his concentration camp during World War II. He said that in synagogue he learned that we are all descendants of Adam and Eve–therefore we are all brothers and sisters.
From Teilhard’s The Human Phenonenon (pp. 151-152): It was not until well into the nineteenth century…that the light finally began to dawn, revealing the irreversible coherence of everything that exists. Showing the interlinking of life–and soon after, of matter. … That time and space are organically joined together so as to weave together the stuff of the universe.
Teilhard’s gift to us is his grasp of the universe’s coherence and humanity’s connection with the universe: Studied narrowly and apart from everything else by anthropologists and legalistic minds, the human being is a trivial, even insignificant, thing. Human individuality, too pronounced, masks the totality from our sight, so that as we consider the human our minds tend to fragment nature and to forget the depth of its connections and the boundless horizon it has…. (The Human Phenomenon, p. 6).
My friend Ernie, whose love and respect for the universe was a catalyst for these posts about transcendence, immanence, and Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, said this:
Once one can lift eyes away from the daily news as crafted by our news media and consider our very existence, it is such an exhilarating and glorious gift to be gifted this brief existence of sentient life, a single entity among trillions on the path of steady evolution. It’s just amazing if you stop to ponder it, really.
Here’s tomorrow’s question: Is there coherence, connection and consistency with your worldview, philosophy of life, faith, values and/or politics?
Pierre Teilhard de Chardin (1881-1955) was ordained a priest in 1911 at age 30. During World War I, he was cited for bravery as a stretcher-bearer in a combat infantry unit. He spent much of his life as a paleontologist on archaeological digs. With the heart of a poet, he wrote about the coherence of faith and science. He submitted to the authority of his Jesuit superiors and to the Vatican. He was “edgy” enough to be eventually told he could neither teach nor publish his writings.
Sarah Appleton-Weber’s “Editor-Translator’s Introduction” to The Human Phenomenon says: “The very nature of Teilhard’s book is to develop a homogeneous and coherent perspective….” Quoting Teilhard, “Truth is the total coherence of the universe in relation to each point of itself…. The truth of the human being is the truth of the universe for the human being….”
Teilhard describes the human/universe coherence: “If we are to see ourselves completely and to survive, it must be as part of humanity, with humanity as part of life, and life as part of the universe.” Teilhard helps me deal with the conflicts I experience within myself, with the stresses of family and community life, and with incoherent voices in politics, religion and international relations.
Yesterday, I began reading Sarah Appleton-Weber’s 2003 translation of Pierre Teilhard’sThe Human Phenomenon. Appleton-Weber (1930-2013) wrote: This translation is dedicated to the memory of Ida Treat Bergerer, paleontologist, journalist, and writer, who was my teacher at Vassar College and in whose home in 1952 I first saw a photo portrait of Teilhard and first heard his name.
Brian Swimme’s Foreword mentions his mid-career “search for wisdom” that directed him to Aurelio Peccei’s statement that “Our best hope is Thomas Berry.” Swimme expressed to Berry his “misery and confusion” about the destruction of the planet. Berry gave him Teilhard’s The Human Phenomenon, saying: To see as Teilhard saw is a challenge but increasingly his vision is becoming available to us. I fully expect that in the next millennium, Teilhard will be regarded as the fourth major thinker of the western Christian tradition. These would be St. Paul, Augustine, Thomas Aquinas, and Teilhard.
Swimme’s Foreword concludes:
…what is needed now for the universe’s unfolding story is not a new galaxy or a new star. What is needed now is a new form of human being.
Begin your study of Teilhard with the confidence that … the creative intelligence of the universe … is always present in subtle ways. … and … swooped into your life with the aim of transforming you into a power that can participate in our great work of building a vibrant Earth Community.
How we can meaningfully speak today about transcendence? Traditional religious language spoke of transcendence in spacial terms, as in heaven “up there.” In his 1979 book A Spirituality Named Compassion, Matthew Fox suggested we think of transcendence as “future.” Ever since, my understanding of transcendence has been “welcoming the future” (in an Isaiah 43 sense).
Traditional religious metaphors about transcendence have become less frequently used by much of today’s population. I remember a well-meaning friend seeking to comfort the adult child of a just-deceased parent, saying, “He’s in a better place.” The grieving one’s blank stare made it clear that the old spacial understanding of transcendence had lost its currency.
I see transcendence as the way we connect with others in the broadest sense–humans and all creation (including creation’s source, however understood). Transcendence is getting past my self-centeredness and tribalism through what I call a “Jesus-flavored panentheism.” In spite of Christians’ failures (mine being at the top of the list), I agree with my friend Don that the gestalt of Jesus is worth pursuing.
I see faith as the way we experience the immanently transcendent. In the next few posts, I’ll try to unpack my understanding of the practical meaning of these two words.
My engineer/scientist friend Ernie knows his way around the cosmos. He has helped numerous people grasp its history. Correction–make that our history. I objectified the universe, referring to our home as “it,” like a static thing in a museum, rather than our dynamic, evolving home. The James Webb telescope is sending us images of solar systems that are no longer existent. Lots can happen in a few billion years.
A few months ago I listened via Zoom to Ernie’s presentation about where earth fits into the history of the universe, and where humanity fits into the history of earth. My mind and my emotions were stirred when Ernie mentioned the unimaginable privilege we have to exist as sentient beings in the vast scope of the space and time represented by the universe.
Genesis 1 is a “great liturgical poem” about creation. Reflections about sentient beings are prominent in Buddhist thought. Sentience is a topic addressed by various doctors of philosophy. As I scratched the surface of this theme, I kept returning to two words, privilege and gratitude. As sentient beings, we have great opportunity to make a difference in this fleeting moment in our corner of space.