Last week we addressed the need to reinterpret our traditional beliefs and identified the need for guidelines, ‘principles’ which can be applied as we begin this journey.
The Teilhardian Approach
The insights of Pierre Teilhard de Chardin have provided a basis for our search for “The Secular Side of God”. Teilhard’s unique approach to the nature of reality provides insights into the fundamental energies which are at work in the evolution of the universe and hence are at work in the continuation of evolution through the human person. His insights compromise neither the theories of Physics in the play of elemental matter following the ‘Big Bang” nor the essential theory of Natural Selection in the increasing complexity of living things, but rather brings them together in a single, coherent process.
While expanding and integrating these two powerful explanations of nature into a single vision, his was one of the first to include the undeniable phenomenon of ‘reflective thought’, the ‘knowledge of consciousness’ which makes the human person both unique in the biological kingdom and yet rooted in the cosmic scope of evolution. This uniqueness, unfortunately, has been often addressed by science as an ‘epi-phenomenon’ or just as a pure accident. Teilhard instead places it firmly on the ‘axis of evolution’, that of increasing complexity, thus affording us a lens for seeing ourselves as a natural and essential product of evolution. Understanding evolution, therefore, is an essential step toward understanding the human person, how we fit into the universe, and how we should react to it if we would maximize our human potential.
Principles of Reinterpretation
Teilhard’s unique approach to evolution is addressed in more detail in the eight posts, “Looking at Evolution” January-April 2015”. His approach offers a basis for principles which will be valuable in our search for reinterpretation and relevance of traditional religious thought:
– Evolution occurs because of a fundamental characteristic of matter and energy which over time organizes the ‘stuff of the universe’ from very simple entities into ever more complex forms. This principle continues to be active in the appearance and continued evolution of the human person.
The Principle: We grow as persons because of our potential for growth, which comes to us as a particular instantiation of the general potential of the universe to evolve
– All things evolve, and the fundamental thread of evolution is that of increasing complexity
The Principle: The increasing complexity of the universe is reflected in our individual increase in complexity, which in the human manifests itself as personal growth
– The basic process of physics by which evolution occurs consists of elements of matter pulled into ever more complex arrangements through elemental forces. When added to the elements and forces described in the Standard Model of Physics, the phenomenon of increasing complexity completes the Standard Model by adding the characteristic which makes evolution possible. This process continues to manifest itself today in the evolutionary products of human persons and the unitive forces of love which connect us in such a way that we become more human.
The Principle: Just as atoms unite to become molecules, and cells to become neural system, so do our personal connections enhance our personal growth
– Adding the effect of increasing complexity to the basic theories of Physics also unites the three eras of evolution (pre-life, life, conscious life) as it provides a thread leading from the elemental mechanics of matter through the development of neural systems in Natural Selection to the ‘awareness of awareness’ as seen in humans.
The Principle: This ‘thread’ therefore continues to be active in every human person in the potential of our personal ‘increase in complexity’, which of course is our personal growth.
– This addition points the way to understanding how evolution continues to proceed through the human person and his society. The neurological advancement in living things evolves the central neural system (the brain) in three stages:
- Reptilian: Basic instinctual life sustaining functions: breathing, vascular management, flight/fright reaction
- Limbic: Appearance of instinctive emotional functions necessary for the longer gestation and maturation of mammals
- Neo-Cortex: Appearance of the potential for mental processes independent of the stimuli of the ‘lower’ brains.
The Principle: Human evolution can be understood as the increasing skill of employing the ‘higher’ neocortex brain to modulate the instinctual stimuli of the ‘lower’ brains.
– This skill is the subject of nearly every religious and philosophical thought system in human history. Understanding the nature of the reality which surrounds us is a critical step, which must be followed by decisions of how to react to it if we are to fulfill our true human potential.
The Principle: Finding the core of a religious teaching involves understanding how the teaching can lead to increasing this skill.
– “We must first understand, and then we must act”. If our understanding is correct, then an action appropriate to the understanding can be chosen. If we act in accordance with what is real, our actions will contribute to both our personal evolution (our process of becoming more whole, more mature) as well as the evolution of our society. As Teilhard puts it,
“Those who spread their sails in the right way to the winds of the earth will always find themselves born by a current towards the open seas.”
Or, As Richard Rohr puts it, “Our lives must be grounded in awareness of the patterns of the universe.”
The Principle: Authentic religion helps us to be aware of and cooperate with the creative energies which effect the universal phenomenon of evolution
Richard Rohr sees our growth as human persons as taking place in a series of Order > Disorder > Reorder. As he sees it, “Most conservatives get trapped in the first step and most liberals get stuck in the second”. His insight is that healthy religion is all about helping us get to the third, ‘Reorder’. In this third stage we begin to demand that teachings must be both relevant and capable of helping us find the basic human threads of growth, the
“ tides in the affairs of men, which, when taken, lead us to new life, but when omitted, all our voyage is bound in shallows and miseries” (apologies to Shakespeare)..
The Next Post
This week we looked at principles of reinterpretation that were derived from Teilhard’s insights. Next week we will consider other principles that we will employ as we examine religious teachings for their relevance to human life.