I was raised Catholic, but it didn’t take me too long into my late adolescence to realize it wasn’t for me. There was so much belief, blind faith and not a lot of evidence. Isn’t that the point of religion, really? When I was 17 or so I was told by a priest that I shouldn’t be reading a book by Pierre Teilhard de Chardin. I was still a practicing Catholic at the time, but I was stunned when this former physics teacher of mine at Collège St-Jean in Edmonton, told me that I wasn’t ‘intellectually prepared’ enough to read de Chardin. According to the Gaiamind website (gaiamind.com):
“Pierre Teilhard de Chardin was a visionary French Jesuit, paleontologist, biologist, and philosopher, who spent the bulk of his life trying to integrate religious experience with natural science, most specifically Christian theology with theories of evolution. In this endeavor he became absolutely enthralled with the possibilities for humankind, which he saw as heading for an exciting convergence of systems, an “Omega point” where the coalescence of consciousness will lead us to a new state of peace and planetary unity. Long before ecology was fashionable, he saw this unity he saw as being based intrinsically upon the spirit of the Earth: ‘The Age of Nations is past. The task before us now, if we would not perish, is to build the Earth.’ ”
Methinks my former physics professor was slightly disingenuous about his motives for telling me I wasn’t ‘intellectually prepared’ to read de Chardin. Anyone still steeped in Catholic doctrine would have to reject de Chardin. It’s easy to see that from the above quote. de Chardin’s work contradicted the Catholic Magisterium and many of his books were censored by Rome. He basically rejected the whole Biblical account of creation in Genesis. His Le Phénomène Humain published posthumously strayed far from the dogma of the Church. So, fearing the loss of yet another young adherent to the Church, my Oblate physics teacher was really imploring me to avoid reading heresy. But it was too late. I was already on a road to greater intellectual curiosity. I read works by ethologists such as Konrad Lorenz. I read popularizations of anthropology such as Robert Ardrey’s The Territorial Imperative. I read The Origin of Species. Later, at Simon Fraser University, I would quote Ardrey in an anthropology paper to be told that my professor that he was a charlatan. What can I say, I was a newbie.
In any case, my point here is that de Chardin opened my eyes to thinking about the world and the universe in very different ways from what is contained in Catholic doctrine. Biblical accounts taken literally made no sense to me whatsoever. I read the Bible over and over again and continued to be mystified by the language, the smiting of one’s enemies, and the gnashing of teeth. It took me some time to realize that taken metaphorically, the Bible makes much more sense than it does literally. de Chardin led the way in my awakening on this front. I don’t subscribe to Biblical accounts of creation any more than de Chardin did and I can definitely relate to his view of the cosmos.
For de Chardin (and science, for that matter) there is ‘immortality’ in the universe in the sense that matter and energy are not lost, but are constantly ‘reconfiguring’ and ‘reconstituting’ themselves. As the saying goes, we are the stuff of stars. The matter that makes up my body has always existed and always will. The particular configuration of matter that is me is transitory, but the matter that is me is eternal and immortal. So, in a sense, I ‘believe’ in immortality. Humans, however, aren’t generally satisfied with such an abstract idea of immortality. No, we want something more tangible such as the soul upon which to hang our hopes of individual immortality. We really want to be ‘ourselves’ eternally, as if our deaths never happened, cavorting and enjoying ourselves in heaven with our earthly companions and with God overseeing everything like a cosmic party host. This is a picture of God as very human like and of humans as very god-like. For de Chardin, God has no specific connection with the human species.
For de Chardin, God is the universe, the Omega as he called it. That is a far cry from the story of creation in the Bible, but if our denial of death is as profound a drive as Ernest Becker suggests, the fall from grace symbolized by the eating of the forbidden fruit and the subsequent split of humans into our symbolic and material selves whereby our symbolic selves are immortal and our material selves are mortal makes more sense. Our bodies are our own worst enemies. They die. They betray us at every turn. They are fundamentally evil. It’s our symbolic side that is good, pure and immortal. So the story of creation in the Bible is idiomatic. It metaphorically concretizes the goodness of the power of the universe, the abstract power we cannot understand and from which all life emanates, and the badness of matter which at every turn bleeds and dies. The interesting thing here is that people get caught up with the Bible’s literal explanations and don’t, as de Chardin did, see the story of the unfolding universe in the Genesis code. How long we will need to bend to metaphor and idiom rather than face the reality of the universe full face is anyone’s guess. More on this later.