by Ilia Delio, OSF
The volatility of the news is a good indicator of the unstable forces that are impacting our world today. A drop of 850 points on the NASDAQ and it seems like we are treading on a global land mine. Be careful where you walk or what button you push–you may lose everything. The recent sex abuse crisis in the Catholic Church has destabilized the credibility of the Church and perhaps made faith in a loving God ever the more fragile. Who can we trust? How are we to think in these troubled times and, more so, what are we to think about? What should we hope for?
Teilhard de Chardin lived through the chaotic suffering of the twentieth century; yet he had a vision of hope that the world was in formation through the trial and error of human events. As a stretcher-bearer in World War I, he was immersed in suffering and death and yet he perceived a source of unity, a luminous light piercing through the cracks of destruction. This light-piercing love for Teilhard was the presence of God-Omega. Love is the core energy of life, the most powerful and yet unknown energy in the world, he said. How does one caught in the grip of destruction come to perceive a deep presence of love at the heart of life? Victor Frankl, an Austrian neurologist and psychiatrist who survived the horrors of the Holocaust, sought an underlying meaning to his experience in his book Man’s Search for Meaning. Amidst the atrocities of human evil, Frankl pondered the value of faith and came to the insight that “faith is trust in ultimate meaning” —even in the face of the greatest human terrors. Faith is knowledge born of love. If Frankl was correct, then while scientists can tell us how things work and philosophers can ponder what we are, it is faith that gives us ultimate meaning and purpose. Faith is not blind trust but flows from a deepened understanding and belief that undergirding our experiences is a depth of meaning that eludes the physical eye.
Do Not Despair
Like Frankl, Teilhard was not overcome by the horror of war and the immensity of human suffering. Instead of retreating into cynicism or despair, he sought a deeper meaning to the chaos of human life. He was a scientist, yet he did not extol science as the panacea for our troubles; rather he believed that faith and religion could organize life into a greater whole by giving life ultimate meaning and purpose. His was not a blind or naïve faith but a thinking faith born of the heart. “The heart has its own reasons that reason does not know”, Blaise Pascal wrote. A thinking heart is a heart full of wisdom. Teilhard held that the type of knowledge that could evolve us into greater wholeness was not the intellectual knowledge of science but the knowledge of wisdom; wisdom is knowledge deepened by love.
Teilhard’s position on faith and reason baffles the modern mind, for we are culturally convinced that faith and reason are opposites. Knowledge is power, Sir Francis Bacon wrote, and faith is a crutch for the weak-minded. By placing an unbridled emphasis on reason alone, the modern person assumed the mantle of knowledge as the supreme gateway to happiness. The German philosopher Frederick Nietzsche described the will to power as the main driving force in humans, leading to achievement, ambition, and the striving to reach the highest possible position in life. In his “Parable of the Madman,” Nietzsche lamented the death of God by saying “We have killed him—you and I. We are his murderers. Now we must fill in this cavity left by the death of God. We ourselves must become gods if we are to live in a world without God.” Yet underneath Nietzsche’s godless world is an unbridled world of power. Without faith, knowledge is blind, and blind knowledge can easily lead to the terrors of uncontrolled power.
Teilhard’s Unity of Faith and Reason
Teilhard held that the mind’s ability to unify knowledge begins with faith. Faith, he said, means attending to the intelligible universe and making wholes out of the partial fragments of our experience. As we attend to our experiences and reflect on them, our minds draw the fragments of our experiences into greater unity. Such faith requires vision, awareness, judgment and response; it requires the knower to be open to conversion and transformation. Saint Augustine wrote: “ I believe in order that I may understand, and the more I understand, the more I believe. “ Faith, therefore, is related to thought. “To think is to unify“, Teilhard wrote, to make wholes where there are scattered fragments. This making wholes out of the fragments of experience is the work of the spirit, both the human spirit and God’s Spirit. The relationship between God and world is such that God’s Spirit is entangled with the human spirit, so that the dynamic engagement of the mind with the world is intertwined with the mind of God.
The fourth century Cappadocian Father, Gregory of Nyssa, said that the real is essentially not material but immaterial, pointing to a type of material idealism. God did not create matter through an act of will, he said; rather, God creates all beings out of thoughts. What is experienced as matter is actually the combination of elemental thoughts or logoi which exist in the mind of God. Everything is composed as immaterial qualities that exist in the mind of God. To encounter “things” is to encounter the mind of God. Similarly, the Irish philosopher, George Berkeley, wrote that the infinite mind of God stabilizes objective reality so that sensory experience of the world is rooted in the infinite Mind of God. These concepts of the mental world as the real world stand in contrast to scientific materialism in which only physical matter constitutes reality. David Bohm, who was a physicist and contemporary of Einstein, posited a view of quantum reality in which observer and observed are merging and interpenetrating aspects of one whole reality; for Bohm, there is no division between observer and observed giving rise to the idea that the real eludes the physical eye.
“The Omega Center seeks to renew the deep relationship between faith and reason so that we may regain a sense of belonging to the whole by having faith in the world and faith in God, trusting our experiences of the world and thinking the world into a new unity emerging up ahead.”
Teilhard’s ideas on faith and thought, grounded in the intimate presence of God-Omega, can be interpreted in light of material idealism. To believe, he said, is to effect an intellectual synthesis so that thinking, born of faith, is essential to the direction of evolution. Every time the mind engages an idea, it continues the work of evolution by uniting the world in a new way. Thinking is not mere information gathering but the synthesizing of ideas and insights into new wholes. Thinking therefore is a spiritual act. It is the work of the spirit, not only the human spirit but God’s Spirit; it is the dynamic engagement of the mind with the world as we know it. Each time the mind comprehends something it unites the world in a new way; it participates in the generation of the divine Word flowing from God, creating a new unity through the entangled spirit. Teilhard said: “To discover and know is to actually extend the universe ahead and to complete it.” As we think and unify ideas into new horizons of meaning, God is creating through us. It is by way of thinking, therefore, that we become co-creators with God, engaging in new possibilities for the world. We pursue knowledge not to control life but to organize it into a greater unity and a deepening of love.
Our present fragmented world has lost sight of the deep relationship between faith and reason. We live in an age of information overload where fake news and sensational stories supercharge human emotions and fuel ideologies. The Omega Center seeks to renew the deep relationship between faith and reason so that we may regain a sense of belonging to the whole by having faith in the world and faith in God, trusting our experiences of the world and thinking the world into a new unity emerging up ahead.
Ilia Delio, OSF is a Franciscan Sister of Washington, DC and American theologian specializing in the area of science and religion, with interests in evolution, physics and neuroscience and the import of these for theology.
Ilia currently holds the Josephine C. Connelly Endowed Chair in Theology at Villanova University, and is the author of seventeen books including Care for Creation (coauthored with Keith Warner and Pamela Woods) which won two Catholic Press Book Awards in 2009, first place for social concerns and second place in spirituality. Her book The Emergent Christ won a third place Catholic Press Book Award in 2011 for the area of Science and Religion. Her recent books include The Unbearable Wholeness of Being: God, Evolution and the Power of Love (Orbis, 2013), which received the 2014 Silver Nautilus Book Award and a third place Catholic Press Association Award for Faith and Science.
Her most recent book “A Hunger for Wholeness” was published in 2018.
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Reading for an evolutionary age
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