Chris's Reviews > The Phenomenon of Man

The Phenomenon of Man by Pierre Teilhard de Chardin
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Aug 23, 2011

really liked it
Read in August, 2011

This was great reading in the first and third parts of the book…though the middle almost killed me with its technicality.

In the early 20th century, Pierre Teilhard became a forerunner in integrating evolution with a theistic worldview, but the greatest import of his work was that he took a dead-eye shot at predicting where naturalistic evolution was heading. Advancing beyond mere rosy humanism, Teilhard fervently believed in the eons-long progress of hominization—the coming to being of humanity. He expresses god-like patience by saying, “After all, half a million years, perhaps even a million, were required for life to pass from the pre-hominids to modern man—should we now start wringing our hands because, less than two centuries after glimpsing a higher state, modern man is still at [war] with himself?” This seems to be the real crux of the book. The spiraling paths of progress may not advance much in our lifetime, but the history of life in the universe has shown that progress is all the history of biological development has ever revealed. Speculate rather, how can there NOT be progress…unless life ceases to be altogether? We have no precedent for progress NOT being made in some corner of the universe. And while this development may appear to leave some species behind while focusing on a tiny growing tip of the universe, Teilhard develops the idea early that nothing in the universe is really detached from anything else. If we can accept that proposition, which he spends some time in constructing, then we can accept seeing (or being) an ostensibly forgotten tail, while the rest moves ‘ahead’. Absolutely no pun intended.

Teilhard writes to buttress hope in a ‘secret complicity between the infinite and the infinitesimal to warm, nourish and sustain to the very end…the consciousness that has emerged between the two. It is upon this complicity that we must depend’. Teilhard marvels at this ‘complicity’—what is it that causes objects in space, big and small, to attract to each other? He theorizes somewhat courageously that even the basic attraction of objects in the universe towards each other, to which we apply the name of gravity, is a type of materially evidenced ‘love’. This may sound romantic and completely absurd to our western sensibility, but as Dr. Sten Odenwald, astronomer at NASA's Goddard Spaceflight Center, stated on his website astronomycafe.net in reply to a question about our knowledge of gravity, “We don't really understand ANYTHING about our physical world at the deepest level, such as why does gravity exist?” Why couldn’t love, enlarged to subsume the law of mutual attraction that binds the universe together, seek also the unification and concord of human spirits? Would that really pose a problem in a cohesive theory of physical/relational life? To assume that love is merely an emotion, and that humanity is so different a phenomenon as the rest of nature, is to miss the mark. Teilhard boldly reasons, “The only universe capable of containing the human person is an irreversibly ‘personalizing’ universe.” And so the universe is, eo ipso, irreversibly personal. Shouldn’t that logically establish that human love has its root in a larger universal principle that has always existed, like everything else, from the beginning, in what Teilhard calls “an obscure and primordial way”?

Teilhard’s conception of an Omega Point of absolute human union (globalized love) is entirely pertinent in our culture of social networking. It represents the acme of human connections: relationship to the nth degree in what he calls the ‘noosphere’ (mind-sphere), a matrix of highly concentrated and involuted communication—or ‘inter-thinking’ as Julian Huxley put it in the intro. Modern globalization may be bringing us closer in the next century to Teilhard’s reckoning quicker than he could have imagined. When he adduced that ‘totalized love’ would be ‘impossible’ to envision by mere rational projection, it suddenly struck me, by all the signs of instant communication and complex social networking, as very possible indeed. Distance doesn’t dilute dreams…only our grasp of them. Once again, doesn’t all human progress signify the eventual emergence (evolution) of a perfect union? “A universal love is not only psychologically possible; it is the only complete and final way in which we are able to love.” This seems to me what we all want, what is woven into our religions and our highest technological/scientific aspirations, and yet some will laugh at it as if it was a silly dream. But nature has taught us to hope.

His views on the awakening human mind and self-awareness were certainly intriguing. I’ve always thought that the idea of a universe ‘groping’ towards consciousness and unified fulfillment through eons of evolutive progress is very romantic. The impression isn’t necessarily that God is waking up through a pantheistic becoming , but that the mind of God is somehow imprinted and bound together with the material/psychical world while extending beyond it (panentheism). The goal of awakening and full being is included in his Omega Point.

I was a little disappointed with the chapter “The Christian Phenomenon”, which seemed to toss his original ideas and intellectual tour de force into the catch-all, domestic doctrines of orthodox Catholicism. It was as if he was offering something truly novel, only to conclude with a unworthy bow, “The Church was right all along.” Uh, bait-and-switch anyone? Of course, knowing the history of Teilhard’s censorship by the church, this contriteness may have been what got the book in print after all. Now, I understand Teilhard’s trying to harmonize the symbolic content of religion with the flat data of science, but I’m pretty sure his work-a-day science did a good enough job paying tribute to his religious beliefs, possibly outstripping them a tad. By his own admission, his ideas weren’t meant to be taken as strictly science, but rather an ‘interiorisation of matter’, even leading some to wonder if he had been leading them “through facts, through metaphysics, or through dreams.” To which I think Teilhard would cheerily reply, ‘Yes.’ Criticizing any claim to pure objectivity he reminds us, “There is less difference than people think between research and adoration.”

I have a feeling that the thoughts and ideas introduced and reinforced by this book will be with me for a while. The more it sits with me, the more it makes a deeper change. As with every book I read, if you would like a copy of a few pages of great lines from the book, send me a message and I’ll get it to you. It’s great fodder for thought and discussion.
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