Did Teilhard de Chardin Ever Ask the Beasts?

A couple of months ago, Chris and I went to hear Fordham theologian Elizabeth Johnson’s keynote address at the annual meeting of the American Teilhard Association, an organization dedicated to promoting the work of the French paleontologist and Jesuit priest Pierre Teilhard de Chardin (we sometimes have unusual ideas about what makes for an enjoyable Saturday afternoon). Johnson’s argument, a variation on the thesis of her latest book, Ask the Beasts: Darwin and the God of Love, was that Teilhard, despite having worked out an impressive synthesis of Catholic doctrine with an evolutionary understanding of the origins of life on Earth, was held back by an anthropocentric mindset that kept him from fully appreciating the inherent dignity of nonhuman life and the irreducible value of the natural world. Although Johnson conceded that his thought can be “grown forward” in ways that transcend this limited perspective, she nevertheless maintained that Teilhard, like most Christian thinkers throughout history, espoused a worldview in which creation is ultimately subordinate to humankind.


Elizabeth Johnson, CSJ at American Teilhard Association Annual Meeting; May 3rd, 2014

Teilhard’s oeuvre is formidable, both in terms of the quantity of his output and the density of his prose, so the fact that I’ve read a few of his books by no means makes me an expert on his views. Yet even though Johnson went out of her way to praise what she saw as Teilhard’s strengths, I had a sense that her characterization of him as someone who failed to recognize the intrinsic worth of the other residents of our planet – animal, vegetable, and mineral – was somewhat unfair.

In the weeks after the talk, I worked my way through Teilhard’s Future of Man, a collection of essays that develop his ideas about how homo sapiens, far from representing the terminus of evolution, is actually still in the process of growing and developing, no longer by way of “natural selection” but now through its own conscious action upon itself. As I read the book, I came across a number of passages that further convinced me that while Teilhard’s attention was mostly trained on humanity, his perspective was in fact broader than Johnson implied.

Unfortunately, no transcript or video of Johnson’s remarks at the ATA meeting is available. Since I want to be careful not to mischaracterize her views, I’ll focus instead on two quotations of hers from sources that are available: one from Ask the Beasts and another from a talk on the book given at Boston College last July.

Here’s Johnson, during the Q&A following her lecture at BC (at around 80:45 in the video):

There’s a great movement in theology today – I speak the name of Tom Berry and Brian Swimme calling on Teilhard and so on, in taking the cosmos and the power of the cosmos and getting that into our spirituality, making us understand that. And what I am trying to do is to say – my criticism of Teilhard and of Tom Berry is that they are still focused on the human person, and the plants and animals are left out in many ways. Not deliberately! It’s the era that people live in. And that – what I was trying to do very explicitly is to say, those insights are wonderful, and we need to apply them to the rest of life on our planet. In other words, cosmos is one thing, and it’s beautiful and it’s mystical – it lifts you up! – but I want to say, get down and dirty with biology.

And here she is on pg. 11 of Ask the Beasts:

Teilhard de Chardin[‘s]… scientific and religious passions fuse in ‘a mystic’s vision of holy matter,’ a sense that God is working in the evolutionary world which is pressing forward toward final convergence in the Omega Point, which he identifies with Christ. In view of the ultimate purpose of the evolutionary trajectory that has produced human life, his interpretive model sanctifies human endeavor that builds the earth toward that final destiny. Teilhard’s orientation of evolution to its eschatological future remains valuable, though criticism perdures that it credits the natural process with a too clear, almost linear sense of direction, and subsumes the natural world into human destiny. For all the nuance now needed, his work, poetic and pervaded with deep spirituality, has made a lasting contribution not least by integrating science with faith at a time when the two existed in watertight compartments.

Criticism about Teilhard’s alleged belief that evolution proceeds linearly may indeed perdure, but as far as I can tell it does so without justification. For one thing, Teilhard did not think evolution was like one of those drawings where the monkey gradually stands up straighter and straighter and becomes less and less hairy until it finally turns into a human. He subscribed to the scientific consensus that evolution is a divergent process whereby simpler life forms give rise to a wide variety of more complex life forms (and that “similarity to humans” is not the only criterion by which we can call one creature more “complex” than another):

Formerly ‘instinct’ could be treated as a sort of homogeneous quantity varying (something like temperature) on a scale running from zero to the point of Reflection representing human thought. Now we have to accustom ourselves to seeing things differently. It is not along a single line that Consciousness has emerged and is increasing on earth, but along an immense fan of nervures, each nervure representing a particular kind of sensory perception and knowledge. There are as many wave-lengths of consciousness as there are living forms. (Future of Man, pg. 227)

This is followed by an intriguing footnote:

i.e., in seeking to grasp the interior world and associative faculties of an animal it is not enough to try to diminish or decenter our own picture of the world: we have to modify our angle of vision and our way of seeing. Failing this we fall into the anthropomorphic illusions which cause us to be amazed at the phenomena of mimetism, or by mechanism arrangements which we ourselves could only carry out with the full aid of science, whereas the insect or the bat seems to have acquired the skill directly. (227)

Examples of seemingly preternatural talents in the animal kingdom abound. Dolphins can use echolocation to perceive the size and shape of objects that are concealed from their sight, and can communicate this information to human trainers. When I learned about this ability, I was amazed; how can dolphins pull this off when humans would require advanced technology to accomplish the same thing? What would it be like to have this kind of sixth sense?

Teilhard would say that we shouldn’t imagine it to be like wearing a pair of goggles hooked up to a sonar device. Animal consciousness is not just human consciousness with certain abilities subtracted and others added on. The subjective experiences of other creatures may very well be entirely orthogonal to our own. When Teilhard criticizes “amazement” in this footnote, he is not saying we shouldn’t be awed by the wonders of nature. In a sense, he is criticizing those of us who are not awed enough by nature, and who assume that the human mind is the best reference point for understanding animal minds. Some anthropocentrism!

To be sure, Teilhard did think that humans were objectively the most advanced organisms in the known universe because of their capacity for reflective thought. Yet he did not think that natural selection was destined to produce homo sapiens per se, although he did believe it would tend over time to produce conscious, self-aware creatures of some sort:

It is perfectly possible that in the general spectrum of Life the line ending in Man was originally no more than one psychic radiation among countless others. But it happened, for some reason of hazard, position or structure, that this sole ray… among the millions contrived to pass the critical barrier separating the Unreflective from the Reflective…

Because it did so (and although in a sense, I must repeat, this ray was only one attempt among many) the whole essential stream of terrestrial biological evolution is now flowing through the breach which has been made… [T]here has occurred, at a first ending of time, the breaking of the dykes, followed by what is now in progress, the flooding of Thought over the entire surface of the biosphere. (pp. 227-229)

In a later essay in Future of Man, Teilhard once again writes about this metaphysical fungibility of humans and other hypothetical rational creatures in a passage about the “Noosphere,” his term for the network of cognitive interactions among human beings, which he believed was growing into a kind of “super-organism” with the advent of modern communications technologies (some read Teilhard as having successfully predicted the invention of the Internet with his talk of the Noosphere):

It is, of course, perfectly legitimate to regard all the biological stems composing the Biosphere as proceeding equally, each according to its own orientation, in the universal direction of considered thought. But what is even more certain… is that if a given Phylum X, shall we say, preceding the anthropoids, had succeeded in passing the barrier separating reflective consciousness from direct consciousness, Man would never have come into existence: instead of him, Phylum X would have woven and constituted the Noosphere. (pp. 283-284)

Although Teilhard is in principle open to the idea that some animals are subjects of mental experiences, he is also convinced (perhaps wrongly) that, as an empirical matter, no other creatures have in fact “succeeded in passing the barrier separating reflective consciousness from direct consciousness.”

Ask the Beasts charges Teilhard with “subsuming the natural world into human destiny,” and it is true that most of Teilhard’s work is concerned with situating humankind in an evolutionary universe. But as Johnson admits, this is largely a function of the era in which he lived. His Jesuit superiors forbade him from publishing many of his writings during his lifetime, a period when the theory of evolution was still viewed with a great deal of skepticism by the institutional Church. Teilhard’s project was to illustrate how an evolutionary worldview is compatible with Catholic doctrine on subjects like free will and sin, and so his emphasis on humanity should not be read as an attempt to justify the reckless domination of nature.

There are many who do try to justify such domination though, and Johnson is performing a great service by identifying the philosophical and theological errors involved in these arguments. When I asked her after the ATA keynote about what she thinks Pope Francis should say in the encyclical on the environment he’s said to be drafting, she replied that he ought to insist that nature is good and beautiful apart from its practical uses, and avoid even caveated claims that “it’s all here for us.”

There is certainly a sense in which the Church’s and Teilhard’s ideas about “the beasts” are anthropocentric, but it seems to me that a distinction needs to be drawn between a benign or even salutary sort of anthropocentrism that sees human beings as the stewards of creation and a more pernicious sort of anthropocentrism that would license humans to do with creation as they wish. Johnson, in advocating for a strict anti-anthropocentrism that rejects any “focus on the human person” as inappropriately narrow, blurs the distinction between the two and makes it appear as if Teilhard and/or the Church share in or are even partly responsible for the mindset that is leading us toward ecological ruin.

According to the description of Ask the Beasts on the publisher’s website, Johnson wants theologians “to look out of the window, so to speak, as well as in the mirror.” It would be wonderful if Francis were to use his first solo encyclical as an opportunity to underscore the urgency of the threats posed to the global ecosystem by global warming, deforestation, and the like, and to articulate clearly that plants and animals have more than just utilitarian value. And – who knows? – he might even consider the work of his fellow Jesuit Teilhard de Chardin as he brainstorms what he wants to say. If he looks closely enough, I think he’ll find Teilhard to be a more helpful resource than he might seem at first glance.

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