« Read Jessica Roemischer's introduction to the piece
« Read Part I: Comprehensive Compassion
This article first appeared in Issue 19, “Can Enlightenment Save The World?”
Click for more information.
What Is Enlightenment: Pierre Teilhard de Chardin was a great thinker who had a profound influence on your own understanding. Can you tell us a bit about Teilhard—who he was, and what you believe his most significant contributions were?
Brian Swimme: He was a French Jesuit paleontologist who lived from 1881 to 1955. His most important achievement was to articulate the significance of the new story of evolution. He was the first major thinker in the West to fully articulate that evolution and the sacred identify, or correlate. Teilhard de Chardin in the West and Sri Aurobindo in India really arrived at the same basic vision, which is that the unfolding of the universe is a physical evolution and also a spiritual evolution. I think that’s his principal contribution. On the one hand, you have this awesome tradition about God or Brahman, and on the other, you have this tradition about evolution—and adherents of each view tend to be very critical of the others. Christians said, “Evolution, that’s horrible!” And scientists said, “Theism, that’s horrible!” Aurobindo and Teilhard brought them together. So I think of them both as geniuses who synthesized the two visions. Teilhard attempted to get beyond the fundamental subjective/objective dualism in much of Western thought. He began to really see the universe as a single energy event that was both physical and psychic or even spiritual. I think that’s his great contribution: He began to see the universe in an integral way, not as just objective matter but as suffused with psychic or spiritual energy.
Also, in my thinking, the central idea of Teilhard is his law of “complexification-consciousness.” He identifies this as the fundamental law of evolution. He sees that the whole process is about complexifying and deepening intelligence or subjectivity. The entire movement of the universe in its complexification is simultaneously a movement further into the depths of consciousness, or interiority. He saw the whole thing as a physical-biological-spiritual process. He was the one who saw it all together. You could summarize his thought simplistically and say that the universe begins with matter, develops into life, develops into thought, develops into God. That’s his whole vision, right there. Now clearly, this God that develops—it’s not as if God is developed out of matter. God is present from the very beginning, but in an implicit form, and the universe is accomplishing this great work of making divinity explicit.
WIE: What was Teilhard’s vision of the nature and role of the human being in evolution?
Swimme: His view was that the birth of self-reflexive consciousness in the human was a crucial moment in the earth’s journey. And he stated that the discovery of evolution by humans represents the most dramatic change in human mentality in the last two million years. You think of the Bill of Rights, the journey to the moon, the great religions, all of these incredible things—he thought all of these were secondary compared to this discovery of evolution by human consciousness. He saw it as “the universe folding back on itself.” There are all these creatures that live in nature, and then suddenly you have this one creature that looks nature back in the eye and says, “What exactly are you up to?” That switch he saw as fundamental.
He explored this idea further by speaking of—and I love this idea—the earth as a series of envelopes. First you have the lithosphere, or the surface layer of rock, and then the atmosphere develops, and the hydrosphere, and the biosphere. But his understanding is that in our time, there’s another layer being added, and that is the “noosphere”—a layer generated by human thought. It’s not possible to understand the earth unless you see it in terms of these layers. The way in which this has captured the contemporary imagination is in the development of the internet—it’s almost like the sinews of the noosphere.
WIE: Wired magazine did an article on Teilhard a while ago that makes this point. But they went a bit too far and seemed to equate Teilhard’s noosphere with the internet, suggesting that his vision was simply a precognition of the internet.
Swimme: Yes. I guess there are different ways to reduce his thought down and miss parts of it, and one would be to say the noosphere is the internet. But of course, Teilhard would say that, like everything else in the universe, it has a physical as well as a spiritual dimension.
WIE: What is the significance of our becoming aware of the process of evolution?
Swimme: Teilhard gave a great analogy. Our moment of waking up as a species is very much like what happens in the individual at around two years old. I don’t know the exact time, but there comes a moment when the young child gets depth perception for the first time. So in their phenomenal field, there’s a rearrangement of the phenomena into the third dimension as opposed to a two-dimensional map. He said that the species is going through that right now—we’re discovering a depth of time. Before, we saw everything in terms of this much smaller space, and now, “Wham!” the universe as a whole opens up in the depths of time.
Teilhard also had this phrase called “hominization.” Hominization is the way in which human thought transforms previously existing practices and functions of the earth. Let me give you an example. The earth makes decisions all the time; it makes choices. And in a broad sense, this is called natural selection. But when you throw human thought in there, it explodes into all of the decisions we’re making all over the planet. Human decision has “hominized” the natural selection process—for good and ill. Everything that has existed up until now is going through this process of hominization. Another example would be—look at young mammals and the way they play. They mess around with each other and hide and chase, and we hominize that by creating this whole vast industry of sports and arts and entertainment. Everything seems to go through this explosion when it’s touched by the human imagination. Teilhard’s ultimate vision of what is taking place with the human is the hominization of love. You see, he regarded the attracting force of gravity as a form of love, and the way in which animals care for one another as a form of love, and so the hominization of love would be focusing that and amplifying it to make it a monumental power in the future evolution of the earth. That is his most famous phrase: “The day will come when we shall harness for God the energies of love. And, on that day, for the second time in the history of the world, the human being will have discovered fire.”
WIE: How does our becoming aware of the evolutionary scale of time help the “universe develop into God” —as you said earlier—or further the invocation of God through human consciousness?
Swimme: He had this sense that a deep change at the level of being—a change of heart, a change of mind, a change of actual body—can take place in the human who learns to see the universe as suffused with divine action. And he made a huge deal out of this word—“see.” His sense of spiritual practice would be to develop those qualities that are necessary for us to truly get it, to truly see where we are. One thing he would speak about is how we tend to be overwhelmed by large numbers, and so he would say we have to develop a capacity to see the patterns in the large numbers. As we develop this capacity, rather than being crushed by the immensity of the universe, we’ll suddenly, instead, resonate with the universe as a whole as the outer form of our own inner spirit. That was his cry, for humans to develop these capacities.
He also had an interesting view of spiritual traditions in general about this. He seemed to say that eternity is easier than evolution. The idea of awakening to eternity he regarded as very, very significant in human history—but not as difficult as awakening to the time-developmental or evolutionary nature of the universe.
WIE: What do you mean by “awakening to eternity” in this context?
Swimme: How at any moment we arise out of eternity, moment after moment. To escape the illusion of transience and to see into the absolute moment—Teilhard regarded this as a great mystical event in the life of an individual, as well as in the human journey. But he said that a deeper and harder achievement and challenge before us is to awaken to the time-developmental nature of the universe. The whole journey is this moment—it’s not just the year 2000—this moment is also the birth of the universe itself. But more significantly for this particular discussion, it’s also the moment of the “absolute future.” The challenge before us is the absolute future calling to the present. This is really his mysticism. He would say that by learning to see, by becoming alert and awake in this universe, you feel the call and the presence of the unborn God asking for, or guiding us into, the type of creative action that gives birth to the next moment in a process that he called “divinization.”
WIE: This is something that we’ve been thinking about a lot in putting together this issue of the magazine. Often in the Eastern traditions, the focus is solely on the “awakening to eternity” that you were just describing. Yet in Teilhard’s work, there is another call. There is a call for the perfection of the absolute to be manifest in form—for there to be greater and greater complexity, greater and greater order, greater and greater perfection, in form, in time, in space, in matter. Teilhard seems to bring together the absolute and the manifest in a truly nondualistic vision that does seem unique.
Swimme: That’s right. I love his orientation and his view of the traditional religions. He says that the future of the spiritual traditions on our planet will be determined by the degree to which they enhance the divinization process. And he makes the point that one of the difficulties is that, up until the present moment, we have tended to see ourselves inside of these traditions. But now, he says, it’s the universe that is our home. So it’s a way of valuing them but seeing them from the proper perspective of the ultimate context—which is the universe as a whole.