Cynthia Bourgeault on Teilhard

In 2016, Cynthia Bourgeault offered a five week online course on Teilhard via the Spirituality & Practice website (a wonderful resource, I should add). Titled “Teilhard for Our Times,” the course provided an introduction to the main themes of Teilhard’s thought. I can highly recommend taking it; the course is still available, although not in its original real time version where participants and Bourgeault were able to share their thoughts and reactions online after each session.

Here’s the text from the course’s first of fifteen sessions as an example of Bourgeault’s accessible approach to introducing Teilhard’s ideas:

Session 1: A Voice Crying in the Wilderness

Some twenty years ago now, the well-known cosmologist Brian Swimme (author of The Universe Story) made a pilgrimage to New York City to seek out Thomas Berry, that venerable patriarch of the ecological movement. Swimme was deeply troubled by the continuing rate of destruction of our planet and wondered what words of wisdom Berry might have to offer.

To Swimme’s great surprise, Berry pondered the question silently for a few moments, then pulled down a book from among the thousands on his bookshelf and handed it to his visitor. It was a well-worn copy of The Human Phenomenon by the Jesuit priest and paleontologist Pierre Teilhard de Chardin.

Swimme was initially disappointed — he recalled a quick read-through of the book back in his Jesuit high school days, but had found nothing there to intrigue him. What’s more, Teilhard’s strange blend of science and mysticism was decidedly out of fashion among the cosmologists and evolutionary scientists Swimme now worked with. Why was this old stuff back in his face again? But Berry’s next words stopped him dead in his tracks.

“I fully expect,” said Thomas Berry, “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.”

Wow! That’s quite the statement about a person whose work is still a largely unexplored spiritual terrain. Although the scene is slowly shifting, Teilhard remains a brilliant singularity whose unified cosmic vision has been fully embraced neither by the Church nor by the scientific community, those institutions he served so faithfully his entire life. In his own era, Teilhard was definitely a voice crying in the wilderness, a visionary decades ahead of his time whose fate, like most visionaries, was to be universally misunderstood and rejected. His fellow scientists scratched their heads. The Catholic Church exiled him and forbade the publication of his writings during his lifetime.

But unease came from the other quarters as well. To those steeped in traditional “perennial philosophy” metaphysics, his vision seemed to fly in the face of foundational assumptions. Rather than seeing spirit and matter as opposing substances (with the spiritual journey envisioned as an escape from matter), he saw spirit and matter as two phases in a single evolutionary dynamism. And as for the sweeping global changes that most spiritual pundits rail against — urbanization, globalization, even the population explosion and nuclear energy — he responded, “Bring it on!” He seemed to be taking his cues from a completely different roadmap, and the leap was simply too great for most people to follow. After an initial flurry of interest in his work in the sixties (his death in 1955 ended the publication ban on his works), his name largely faded from view.

But as the decades rolled on, people began to notice that his many of his wild ideas were in fact beginning to materialize. There was a flurry of interest in the social media a few months ago when someone noted how a passage in The Human Phenomenon essentially predicts the internet. And while this may be reading in a bit, the underlying truth remains: Teilhard envisioned the planet in the conditions we now actually find ourselves in — dynamic, interwoven, vibrant, crowded — and he offered a roadmap for dealing with this accelerated rate of change not with fear and paralysis, but with hope. In deep time, he insists (i.e., the fourteen billion years that the universe story has been unfolding) the ground has been rising steadily to meet our feet, and there is no reason to lose either our way or our nerve. As the unfolding of the 21st century confirms more and more of what he saying, people are coming around for another look.

His work may initially feel a bit intimidating, loaded with unfamiliar terms and challenging intellectual leaps. But fundamentally his ideas all radiate out from a central vision — sometimes called “The Teilhardian synthesis” — which is clearly set forth and not that difficult to unpack. Over the course of this e-course I will be doing just that: breaking his vision down into bite-sized chunks so that you can wrap your mind around it. I think you’ll find that it’s worth digging for.

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