I was first introduced to the Jesuit paleontologist and philosopher Teilhard deChardin in 1985 while working as a press aide for the Culinary Institute of America(CIA) in Hyde Park, New York. This famous culinary school was founded on the site of a former Jesuit seminary, St. Andrews-on-the-Hudson, where Teilhard and other Jesuits had been interned. Working in the press office involved giving visitors tours of the institute, and I soon discovered that visiting the famous Jesuit’s grave was one of the highlights, particularly for international travelers. In fact, Teilhard’s relatively obscure and very modest gravesite is regularly located andvisited each day.
This early discovery initiated a lifelong interest in and commitment to better understand the life and work of this brilliant and enigmatic man. I next encountered Teilhard in the mid-90s when I was a graduate student at Rensselaer, a technological university in upstate New York. While at Rensselaer, I worked with other graduate students to produce Computer-Mediated Communication Magazine, one of the Internet’s first “e-zines.” Early adopters likened Teilhard’s concept of the noosphere—a global brain or intelligence that enveloped the Earth—to the Internet and specifically, to the World Wide Web. I continue to find Teilhard’s life and work powerful, inspiring, and critical to our understanding of the currentnews and information environment—our newsphere.
It has been more than 50 years since Teilhard’s death, and knowledge of the writing, work and remarkable life of this accomplished Jesuit scholar continue to evolve. In many respects, Teilhard’s vision for humanity—an organic unity created through recognition of a divine force behind both creation and evolution and an understanding of the role, responsibility, and power of individual human beings—still remains elusive. According to his biographers, Teilhard was dejected and discouraged at the end of his life when in late 1948, he failed to convince Pope Pius XII and other church authorities to allow him to publish the manuscript that would become his masterpiece, Le Phénomène Humain (The Human Phenomenon). The Jesuit order also forbade him from accepting a prestigious appointment at the Collège de France, a position Teilhard coveted. At this time, Teilhard also grew distant from his longtime friend and companion, Lucille Swan.
Yet Teilhard never relinquished his ultimate vision: He never left the Church so he could freely publish his work, nor did he renounce his vows to marry Lucille. In fact, it is in remaining steadfast in his beliefs and commitments that his ferocious tenacity, ironclad will, and intelligence are most evident. “What would we do without our enemies?” he asks; and it is precisely here that he gives witness to his belief in the organic processes of life and their evolutionary nudge: “Exterior emergencies or shocks are indispensable to force individuals out of their natura laziness and set routines—and also to periodically break the collective frameworks that imprison them.” Sometimes those “exterior emergencies or shocks” are literally just that—a hurricane, tsunami, earthquake or an extended blackout. More often they are more subtle and personal, such as a job loss, heartbreak, or a chronic illness. Teilhard suggests moving with these challenges, and more than that, to not only see their natural place in the order of things, but to actually welcome these evolutionary challenges: It is how he lived his life.
Teilhard’s belief in cosmic convergence is all the more poignant because he lived a life of personal evolution: He was the ultimate boundary pusher. One can only imagine how different his life story might have been had he renounced his vows and left the Society of Jesus. Yet he never perceived leaving as an option because he believed his relationship with the Church encompassed his relationship with his God. Thus he ferociously worked within the system he knew at great personal cost. Quite simply, leaving the Jesuits would have been the ultimate breach of faith, and Teilhard was the truest of believers.
Teilhard’s lofty and yet unrequited lifelong goal was to reconcile science and religion.9 Teilhard’s work uncovering the fossils of the Peking man, the first known Homo erectus and a vital missing link between apes and humans, distinguished him as one of the leading scientists of his time: His diligence, tenacity, and forbearance helped popularize and disseminate Darwin’s theory of evolution, which begged for proof. Teilhard was also a devoted member of the Society of Jesus, an intellectually rigorous and hierarchical order within the Catholic Church, whose leaders firmly held a literal interpretation of the Bible and its teachings on original sin and creation. As a child living in Auvergne, France, Teilhard conceived a philosophy of unification he initially called “le Tout” or “the All,” which was drawn both from his own observations and from a reading of Henri Bergson’s Creative Evolution. He believed in an “evolutionary force that brought constant change to living things,” and everything evolved toward a greater complexity and spiritual unity—an Omega Point—and he spent his life trying to convince others of this truth. Key to “joining” this emerging collective intelligence, which Teilhard define as the noosphere, is abandoning judgment. Gratefully, this is a process that unfolds most often over a lifetime but it is also a skill that can be actively practiced.
Teilhard’s gift was his organic understanding of the unification of all beings. “See or perish,” Teilhard advises. This brief admonition sums up his lived experience. To see as Teilhard saw—a World War I stretcher-bearer, a devout Jesuit priest, a tireless scholar and archeologist—meant constantly searching for a unified reality. One cannot fully integrate knowledge or possess ontological wisdom without having first lived an experience: the warrior must witness death, the priest mustrecite his prayers, the paleontologist must dig in the dirt—all activities in the physical realm, to actualize and access the spiritual realm. This is the lived experience, the life to which Teilhard gave witness. It is man as “the axis and arrow of evolution.” Teilhard carefully distinguishes between seeing and perceiving, and he acknowledges that the human drama of war heightened his senses:
Undoubtedly it was during my wartime experience that made me aware of this still relatively rare faculty of perceiving without actually seeing, the reality and organicity of large collectives, and developed it in me as an extra sense. Perception is the foundation of Teilhard’s cosmology, his grounding of the human experience, and the premise upon which he builds his explanation of the evolutionary process. In his introduction to The Human Phenomenon, Teilhard states, “The whole of life lies in seeing,” and he attributes the forward movement of history to “the elaboration of ever more perfect eyes.” When perception is the cornerstone of the human condition, then the continual refinement of one’s vision is key to human evolution and survival. Expanded and expansive vision is “the mysterious gift of existence,” according to Teilhard, who believed that it was “always possible to discern more”; thus “to see more and to see better is not, therefore, just a fantasy, curiosity, or a luxury.” This line of thought places human agency at the center of the evolutionary process and humanity as the key to unlocking the mysteries of the universe.
Teilhard was greatly influenced by the writing and thinking of Charles Darwin and Henri Bergson. From Darwin, he appropriated the concepts of time and change, common descent, natural selection, and survival of the fittest. From Bergson, he embraced the notion that human evolution is creative and paradoxically and simultaneously random yet purposeful. In The Human Phenomenon, Teilhard identifies human beings “in their totality” as the key to understanding the evolutionary process, which, he states, occurred in four stages: pre-life, life, thought, and survival. He believed an evolutionary force brought constant change to living things, and he attempted to explain how this works on both micro (individual) and macro (global) levels. Teilhard saw the universe as a single organism, with an inside and outside, subject to two kinds of forces: “the measurable force of physics and a force residingin human thought.” The future of evolution, according to Teilhard, was the Omega Point, “the ultimate site of convergence through evolution.”
Teilhard’s personal goals and his intentions for his fellow scientists and philosophers—indeed for all humans—were highly ambitious. He believed that a true understanding and representation of the human condition (his human phenomenon) demanded an integration of the physical and the spiritual dimensions, which had heretofore been separated. He identified the place of spirit within the physical realm and called for a closer study of the relationship of spirit and matter:The time has come for us to realize that to be satisfactory, any interpretation of the universe, even a positivistic one, must cover the inside as well as the outside of things—spirit as well as matter. True physics is that which will someday succeed in integrating the totality of the human being into a coherent representation of the world.
Throughout The Human Phenomenon, a poetic yet detailed summary of his cosmology, Teilhard identifies two different kinds of energies, tangential and radial, and he describes how they work to change the world. “We certainly feel the two opposing forces combine in our concrete acts,” says Teilhard, but he readily admits that fully understanding the spiritual power of matter is “the most difficult of all readings to perform.” The challenge of this task, however, is neither beyond him nor beyond the scope and complexity of his writings, and his explanation of how spiritual forces work both individually and collectively forms the foundation ofhis ideas about unification, the noosphere (collective consciousness), and evolution. Teilhard describes this spiritual energy in a voice that echoes his reverencefor both its power and for the knowledge of its existence in a prayer he composed on New Year’s Day 1932 while traveling with members of the Yellow Cruise, an archeological expedition to China: “Above and beyond us, a supreme energy exists, one that we must well recognize—because it is superior to us—the magnified equivalent of our intelligence and our will.…
Of this universal Presence, which envelops us all, we first request to reunite us, as in a common living center, with those we love and who are starting, though far away from us, this new year.”
It is this spiritual energy, the combination of both radial and tangential energies, that works in concert to both create and elevate consciousness: This is the site of evolution and a close approximation of how spirit and matter combine. It is the union of tangential (outside or matter energies) with radial (inside or spirit energies) that forms the collective consciousness and explains how it evolves. Teilhard termed this union and this space the “noosphere.”