Finding inspiration in, but also being critical of, Teilhard de Chardin's thought

(Geoffrey Edwards) #1

I believe we need to engage in a discussion of Teilhard de Chardin’s thought as it cuts through some of our other discussions. This is both difficult (because much has been written, and spoken, about his writings and thought) and easy (because much has been already said!). A lot of people think they understand his thought (I have sometimes thought so myself), but I think he is not so easy to understand . Also, there has been a lot of criticism for the details of his science, especially in the area of evolutionary biology - the Dawkins and Dennett’s of the world are not kind in their remarks about his work. He is also deeply grounded in the Christian worldview, even if his ideas are thought of as heretical by some, and this casts his thought into very specific modalities with which I am sometimes uneasy. Paradoxically, our modern understanding of mind and spirit is coloured by Teilhard de Chardin’s ideas, even though much of it is dismissed by a range of people for diverse reasons, by both scientists and theologicians.

I’ve thought about a reading project for “The Phenomenon of Man”, but I’m not sure that is the best way to go. I think I prefer the more open forum discussions which have become the norm here, although I think we might organize a Cosmos Cafe session on Teilhard’s larger vision, but perhaps after we’ve tossed his ideas around for a while. What do other folks think?

I’ve looked up some videos on his ideas. There are several videos, but many of them disappointed me. The one I prefer is the 60 minute Thomas Berry interview, which I found much more nuanced and perhaps closer in spirit to our ongoing discussions on Infinite Conversations :

Berry points out that the original French title of Teilhard de Chardin’s book “The Phenomenon of Man” represents the book better - “The Human Phenomenon”. He later links Teilhard de Chardin’s ideas to those of other writers such as Tillich or the scientist and writer, Ilya Prigogine, who wrote about the self-organizing properties of the universe (e.g. “Order Out of Chaos” - itself a remarkable book in my opinion).

Later in the presentation, Berry goes onto a more critical stance in dealing with Teilhard de Chardin’s writing, particularly his tendency to be Anthropocentric. I found Berry’s remarks about ecology really interesting and insightful. At one point Berry suggests that we have to figure out what the Earth needs as a sustainable vision, and figure out where the human fits within this, rather than the other way around. As he says, “the trees have to vote… and the birds have to vote”. He also says that Economics is a part of Ecology, just as Religion is a part of Ecology… with an implicit Teilhard de Chardin-like foundation which views matter as “luminous” and having a “psychic life”.

One of my difficulties with Teilhard’s vision is his idea of an “omega point” as the destination towards which the universe is evolving. I think this supports a return to absolutism of a different kind, but I find I am allergic to all forms of absolutism (I have an absolute dislike of absolutism :slight_smile: ). On the other hand, I am also interested in how Teilhard’s thought can serve to bring different religious viewpoints together.

(Ed Mahood) #2

Very good selection, Geoffrey. Thank you. It’s always invigorating to watch an interview with someone who knows what he is talking about.

I think this is an excellent idea for a couple of reasons. First, this approach would enable us to maintain a multiperspectival stance on many of themes that have arisen in the various recent CCafé discussions. Second, it allows for a kind of parallel processing of thoughts and ideas while avoiding the pitfalls of a serial approach (let’s read this before moving on to that). At the same time, it doesn’t preclude, as you suggest, perhaps zeroing in on Teilhard at some point precisely to look at what he’s saying, perhaps in light of everything else. And third, provides everyone interested with the opportunity to become exposed to and familiar with some of his thinking before committing to a specific part of his overall work (which is, incidentally, how I view @patanswer’s primary contribution to the planned Sri Aurobindo reading(s). Not every swim in the pool need to be a shock therapy treatment.

“The Divine is intrinsic to Creation,” Berry says at one point, highlighting Teilhard’s own understanding of the process. Teilhard’s view of “matter as ‘luminous’ and having a ‘psychic life’” is very close to Young’s description of the evolutionary process, which in turn, resonates with Aurobindo. The human emphasis ties in well with Gebser, of course, but also with Young and Aurobindo again, but would also provide a bit more foundation to our recent CCafe session on the Human Potential. Teilhard’s shift from Redemption to Creation fits in well with a lot of what we discussed in relation to Stan Tenen’s work at the Meru Foundation. How similar and how different these different views are, how they complement and contradict each other, and where possible synergies lie would certainly be worth exploring.

Like you, Geoffrey, I stumbled over his notion of an “Omega Point” (as well because I share your absolute dislike for absolutism, but also) because of its closed nature. Young specifically, Gebser implicitly, and Aurobindo intrinsically are all “open system” thinkers. There is direction and even “progress” (though we need to be careful with this term) in the thoughts they are advancing, but no teleological end. I’m not exactly sure why Teilhard thinks he needs this, and this could be one theme that could be worthwhile revisiting not only from Teilhard’s own perspective, but in light of what we’ve absorbed from our related thematic discussions.

(john davis) #3

How can we update Teilhard, when Silicon Valley and Wall Street, continue to arrest our development? I hope we could take up this challenge in our next Cafe, by reflecting upon the fast/slow dynamics we are working out in this forum. I believe a meta-reflexive turn would pay off by asking each of us what I asked Jore in the last forum.

" What do you know now that you didnt know before the Infinite Cafe?"

I might remind us of our own most recent origins as a forum. Where did our group come from? Where could our group be going? How does the group self-organize? I think this almost invisible self-organizing is happening but we can do better at pointing out the dynamic reference points that get lost in the forward momentum. It requires slow mind to make this happen. We need group access to the fourth dimension.

As we are as a group prone to leap ahead I wonder if we might be missing something that is very close by? Berry’s interview took place in the '80s (The start of the New Age-that Gnostic explosion). He passed away a decade ago. Teilhard died in 1955 ( after the great wars of the last century, but before Vietnam). I think we can reflect upon their careers as they were mavericks in their own day but they are both in need of updates.

Going beyond Teilhard, as Berry recommends, will take some effort, as the old school Darwinisms, have more or less arrested us, in our mental deficient phase of development. Premature cognitive commitment is epidemic among the dominant mainstream and they make the big bucks. The idea that humans are all about optimizing genetic codes is about as dumb as it gets. Most of what humans are engaged in has nothing to do with the Human Genome Project.

There are big differences between humans and other animals and we have already crossed a threshold. We can appreciate Teilhard’s pioneering efforts and we also need to do what Berry and Holmes suggest. We must give to the child an Integral world. This will not happen if we are hypnotized by the dangerous fascination with algorithm and mechanism.

" Religion takes its origin in the deep mystery of what we see, hear, touch, taste and savor." Berry

" The evolutionary epic is an adventure in the love of life and in increasing freedom in one’s environment, entwined in biotic community. Such a world might even be the best of all possible worlds."-Homles Rolston

And with all of these maps and visions, what does our cafe society what to have happen?

(Ed Mahood) #4

There are some worthy ideas here that we could certainly kick around.

I think we all pretty much agree that mainstream (academic) thinking took a seriously wrong turn a while back. Yes, existentialism and nihilism started us veering off course, but things really got disoriented, in my mind at least, when postmodernism decided to go down the rabbit hole, leaving everything up to the technofetishists and -utopians and the deficient-rational materialists. We are only now starting to dig ourselves out from under the rubble.

What I find fascinating about our little group is the fact that we’ve, more or less, gone very much back to the roots, so to speak, to perhaps pick up the scent of a more reasonable and rewarding path to follow. The vast majority of thinkers we are engaging are pre-rabbit hole: Myers and James (via Kelly et al.) late 19th century; Aurobindo, early 20th century; Gebser (our ever-present companion), ca. 1950; Young, late 70s; and now Teilhard, mid 20th century. Interest has also been expressed in, say, Tillich (a worthy religious contribution perhaps), also mid 20th century; and there has been more than one voicing of a vote to take a closer look at Whitehead, too. I think this is very significant, particularly in the context you have outlined for us.

None of these writers/thinkers is quickly digestable. Jore’s film has certainly reinforced the rising swell of techno-scepticism in the group, too. We all agree we can’t do without, but we also agree that the directions the Kurzweils and Kelleys are howling for may not be our best option. That direction is obsessed with speed, but I think we all realize that a good dose of slow is in all our best interests, not to speak of what it may mean for the “child and Integral world”, as you phrased it.

So, yes, I think we’ve got a cud to chew on here. I’m up for it.

(john davis) #5

Thanks Ed and I think we are planning a visit by Lisa and perhaps Erin Manning and after our conversation with Jore I am encouraged that our gatherings have created a vibrant listening space for people who are very much alive!

I think we have a lot to read, and I believe, in the good old fashioned book report. If someone wants to do a presentation go for it. It will be difficult for any of us to read well a huge tome except when spread out over a long period. I see little point in reading large books badly. I read The Phenomenon of Man decades ago and there is a new translation out that I would like to look at but I am getting a bit overwhelmed.

TJ’s Human Cycle is an excellent example of what a good report can be. Not all of us are able to attend the Cafe due to time constraints but with the videos made available we could still keep the ball rolling.

I am delighted that we are dipping into the deep end of the pool with Sri Aurobindo soon but I confess I dont like Tillich all that much but that’s okay. I will support whomever wants to focus on him as I might change my mind. ( I read him decades ago) Maybe a book report like TJ did? With highlights. I think the cafe is good for intimate encounters with our idiosyncratic tastes. This is a different kind of gathering than the monthly book club like Globes. The Cafe can be lean and mean and more topical. I would like to protect that capacity and cultivate it more.

Then we would not have to read something we are not up for but we could read a summary. I admit I do not like the forum to turn into a lecture hall. I am passively absorbing lots of information on YouTube and what I appreciate about the Cafe is that I can integrate this information by putting my guesses and hunches into my own words and getting feedback and and then making corrections. It needs a leisurely pace and good manners, which I am pleased to say, I believe we are good at. We have so far avoided the hype of Facebook and the polarity responses. Information is fast, but integration is slow. Thats what I like about Cosmos. We can be fast and slow at the same time!

I think reading all of Extended Mind is too daunting but reading a chapter was very catalyzing. Whitehead and Bergson and William James wrote dazzling short pieces that we could practice with and absorb in one or two cafes. My main interest is exploring theories about the The Others Mind ( both human and other than human). The I that is We. And also doing the occassional experiential process such as we did with Maps of Time, etc.

The Revolution will not be televised!

(Geoffrey Edwards) #6

I think the reason I didn’t want to propose a group reading of Teilhard is that I suspect that most of us have read him already. He forms part of our background, our “foundational” readings, if you like. However, I was discussing aspects of his point of view with someone recently (my Jungian analyst), and he was asking whether anyone has written a kind of update of Teilhard, and I had to say, I don’t think so. So this got me to thinking that it might be useful to at least think through how this could be done. So maybe what I am proposing as a kind of outline of what a revised Teilhardian message might look like - unless I am mistaken, and someone has done this already. The thing is, I think we here at I-oo-C (Infinite - limiscus - Conversations) have a very specific understanding that is emerging from our diverse readings/thinkings/writings/conversations that is different from most of what I encounter “out there” in terms of critical stances. So we kind of need our own update of Teilhard anyways.

One of the things I learned from reading Whitehead (but which I knew already from reading Feynman and e.e. cummings) is that everything is connected to everything else. Feynman does this particularly well - in quantum electrodynamics, they have a practice of “summing over infinities”, which sounds wild, but in fact, only a few terms in the infinite series contribute, the trick is in knowing where to stop. I think we have developed a kind of group process for doing our own “summing over the infinities”. As @johnnydavis54 suggests, we read together certain writers (i.e. first order terms), do inidividual book summaries (“book reports”) on texts that are less central but still important (second order terms), and then individually read and bring in other texts to be considered (3rd order terms). What makes a text a first order contribution? A few things - it has to carry a level of importance to the larger issues of the group, it generally is a text that is difficult to read individually, and it tends to be a text we all or most of us want to read. And as @johnnydavis54 eloquently says, we are already close to our saturation point in terms of reading projects - tackling another major work is probably not possible for the group as a whole at the current time. Still, our exercise in summation is bearing fruit, we seem to be converging towards some kind of a “result”.

Another background writer I know Johnny and I share is Gregory Bateson, and there maybe several others. It might be useful to come up with a list of works we think are key as “foundational or background texts”.

While I think this is certainly true, I think we also have been reading some of our contemporaries. Sloterdijk is certainly in this group, as is Tim Gold and other writers that have come up. In my own reading I find myself drawn to understand the foundations upon which modern ideas rest - I have gone back to read Plato and Descartes, for example, Hobbes and Locke and so on, on my own initiative, just to make sure I am grounded appropriately. I do think this is important, but the reason for doing this is to rethink the present and the future. I think we agree on this. In a slow time kind of way…

(john davis) #7

That’s a great idea, Geoffrey. I do love Bateson and could do a spin on his influential work. He was one of the great system theorists.

Your focus on Teilhard has brought back memories of going to a flea market and finding a thin volume called The Divine Milieu and buying it. I was profoundly out of step with my peers who were into Trotsky and Adorno. I also recall, sitting in a cafe, and over strudel, quizzing a Heidegger scholar about theories of mind. I quoted Teilhard," We are riding on a swarm of the undefinable." He became more humble for a moment. Looking back, I am rather proud of that, as I felt I was breaking out of the constraints of Frankfurt School, which was the rage back then, in the late 70’s. Post modernism was not on anyone’s mind yet, the New Age had not begun, and the Gay movement was just starting to stir.

So Teilhard was a light in that darkness and I am grateful that I persevered in that direction, even if it felt like I was swimming upstream. So, thanks for reviving those memories through your thoughts about him.

I think Berry gives a great update on his shortcomings and re-directs attention to meaningful shifts towards planerization, rather than globalization. The tendency to globalize, is intrinsic in Teilhard, as he was moving towards his Omega, individualism seems subtracted. Planetarization,in contrast, as a set of communal invocations, was put on the map by Berry. He is a magical thinker, resonating with the felt sense of that communal call.

But we are still in the grips of a deficient Mental Science, which tends to globalize and resist the call. We are still in the grips of corporate power grabs and we are wisely paying attention to this dark side, for we have been so dazzled by the techno display, that we have given away our power to a handful of madmen in high places who have no clue about anything except profit margins and will ruthlessly crush opposition. Berry’s call may have been heeded by many but it will take more than a Village to defeat Wall Street.

So going back to the fundamental texts is exhilarating and we can use our experiences now in ways that we couldn’t back then. We can resist the Myths of Modernism. As we move from first person to second to third and become aware of the levels and lines and quadrants, for example of Wilber’s Integral model, we can see through these models as products of the efficient Rational that can be made useful as we move towards the Intergral-aperspectival. Many of us intuit that this next phase is right around the corner, but which corner?

We will need efficient Magical/Mythical ( Berry)and Wilber’s efficient Rational, as stepping stones to a level where all levels dissolve into Undifferentiated Spirit. We are, in our devotion to our group study here, doing some of the heavy lifting and the steep climbing.

Yes, Ed, we need those wise men and women on the porch rocking back and forth who can also get up and dance the Fox Trot and the Waltz, the Tango and the Twist. We need Hip Hop and Ballet. We need to reorganize around art and dance, and slow and fast integrate us, as we move towards the beat of very different kinds of drummers, unto your Body rocking-

(Marco V Morelli) #8

Well, I guess it’s time to admit that I’ve never read Teilhard directly and only have a second-hand familiarity with his work (i.e., the ‘noosphere’ and ‘omega point’ ideas). However, when we first read Gebser, I imagined that we would circle around to Teilhard and even Aurobindo and then other root integral thinkers, as we sort of update them all, and combine their insights in novel, elegant ways.

So I, for one, would be up for reading of The Human Phenomenon…but I’m in no rush. If I commit to any more reading groups, it will be fiction! In the meantime, I’m happy to read book reports or key essays (e.g., for Café talks) or watch YouTube videos. It’s nice to sit with Thomas Berry’s slow, deep, knowledgable mind translating the significance of Teilhard to integral thought.

And speaking of slow time, one day (not soon, however) I will share where the “madrush” moniker comes from. I’m glad to have a crew willing, able, and happy to go deep. It all starts with a toe in the water. :slight_smile: