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The Divinization of the Cosmos
An interview with Brian Swimme on Pierre Teilhard de Chardin
by Susan Bridle
This interview was re-edited and reprinted with a special introduction for our 15th anniversary edition.
Click to read the new interview or to view the full issue.
In our reading and wide-ranging research for this issue of What Is Enlightenment?,
we found the name of the mid-century French Jesuit priest and paleontologist Pierre Teilhard de Chardin popping up again and again. His visionary writings, we discovered, have been an important source of revelation and inspiration for many scientists, ecologists, futurists, and theologians who are now grappling with critical questions about the state of the earth and the human being's place within it. When we read excerpts from Teilhard's The Human Phenomenon, The Divine Milieu,
and The Future of Man,
we immediately understood why.
Brian Swimme has been a student of Teilhard's work for many years. Himself a scientist with an abiding interest in the interface of science and spirituality, Swimme's own passion and understanding have been deeply influenced by Teilhard's ideas. Who better to bring to life Teilhard's vision, we thought, than he? Swimme describes his discovery of Teilhard in his Foreword to Sarah Appleton-Weber's new translation of The Human Phenomenon:
There are days in New York City where you never see the sun but only feel its presence in the blasts of hot air that sweep through the concrete canyons and in the heat waves that radiate up from the asphalt. When my clothes finally became heavy with my own sweat and I was lost for the third time I was tempted to hide out in some air-conditioned hotel, but all I had to remember was my own misery and that was enough to keep me going. I had recently resigned as a professor of mathematics and physics and was now on a search for wisdom, and a number of people had pointed me toward New York, most notably [Aurelio Peccei], the founder of the Club of Rome, that seminal gathering of planetary thinkers and visionaries. On his deathbed, when asked who of all the brilliant minds he had worked with he would most recommend, Peccei had said simply, "Our best hope is Thomas Berry."
By the time I made it to Berry's Riverdale Research Center and was invited into his library, I could not have had higher expectations. He listened carefully as I tried to explain my misery and confusion over the destruction of the planet and what to do about it. After a long pause, and without saying a word, Thomas Berry pulled a book from the thousands on his shelves. With stern visage he tossed across the table Teilhard de Chardin's great work,
The Human Phenomenon.
My disappointment was instantaneous. This was old stuff. I had come all the way across the continent to receive a book I had read back in my Jesuit high school? Even worse, some famous scientists had objected to Teilhard's ideas, and I brought that up. Thomas Berry just smiled, and broke into easy laughter.
"Teilhard was the first to see the universe in a new way, so I suppose it's inevitable that he would be criticized. If you're bothered by what a few scientists have to say you should read some of the theologians! Fundamentally the difficulty is one of scale. Any attempt to understand Teilhard that does not begin with the entire complex of civilizations as well as the vast panorama of the evolutionary universe is doomed to failure, for it is simply too small to grasp what he is about. Surely, similar situations have occurred in the history of science?"
My mind raced with thoughts of Albert Einstein and Niels Bohr and the revolutions they initiated and how these could not be contained in the world of classical physics, but he had only asked the question in a rhetorical way. He was soon to bring our brief meeting to a close, but not before he uttered a most unforgettable statement: "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 generally regarded as the fourth major thinker of the Western Christian tradition. These would be St. Paul, Augustine, Thomas Aquinas, and Teilhard."
He smiled again, aware of so much that needed to be said by way of explanation, but also aware that I would be incapable at this time of taking it in. He pointed to the book he had put in my hands. "Begin with Teilhard. There's no substitute for a close reading of his work."
I would read on my own and once a week discuss the ideas with Thomas Berry; I would be regularly amazed by how much of the world's intellectual history it seemed necessary to refer to. He drew constantly not just from physics and biology but also from philosophy, poetry, linguistics, music, and above all world history and cosmology. As the months went by I began to suspect that the fundamental categories of my mind were undergoing some sort of change. The unexamined assumptions that had been organizing my experiences in the world were now writhing under the pressure from Teilhard's massive and penetrating cosmology . . .
Swimme's intense contemplation of Teilhard's work culminated in a profound spiritual experience that overcame him one day while walking with his four-year-old son in a forest just north of New York City. It was an epiphany of the mystical fire at the heart of Teilhard's vision, a timeless moment of living recognition of the creative, blazing, flaring forth of the cosmos—a vision that remains very much alive within him today. At the end of our conversation about Pierre Teilhard de Chardin and his ideas, Swimme admitted with a laugh, "Good old Teilhard. I've never recovered from that day."