by ILIA DELIO
Modern science has revealed new information about the human person, from cosmology to neuroscience and cognitive psychology; however, we still think of ourselves as rational, concrete subjects, individual in nature and unrelated to one another, except by chance, accident, or good-fortune. This understanding is a particularly western one with philosophical roots that date back to the ancient Greeks. Christianity adopted Greek philosophical principles in its development and formed a theological understanding of God and world according to such principles. Stepping back and surveying the historical landscape, it is not unreasonable to suggest that religion and, in particular, the monotheistic religions with their ancient philosophies and static cosmologies, lie at the core of social injustice. This would require much more than a blog to expound but for now I am suggesting that old philosophical principles upon which unyielding theological beliefs have been formed undergird social injustice. If social justice is to realize a new world with God at the center, then we need a new type of religion. As Albert Einstein quipped, you cannot solve a problem with the same conditions that created it.
If social justice is to realize a new world with God at the center, then we need a new type of religion.
If we drill down to the depths of nature, we see that we are wholes within wholes, communicating information across complex fields of energy. The physicist David Bohm spoke of fundamental reality as an implicate order which has endless depth and movement. He wrote: “As humans and societies we seem separate but in our roots we are part of an indivisible whole and share in the same cosmic process.” On higher-ordered levels of nature, we are beginning to see that systems in nature do not work on principles of competition and struggle but on cooperation and sympathy. Peter Wohlleben’s book The Hidden Life of Trees is a radical disclosure of nature’s social justice. Wohlleben, a forester by training, found a tree cut down centuries ago was still alive. How was this possible since without leaves, a tree is unable to perform photosynthesis, which is how it converts sunlight into sugar for sustenance? The ancient tree was clearly receiving nutrients in some other way—for hundreds of years. What scientists have found, Wohlleben writes, is that neighboring trees help each other through their root systems—either directly, by intertwining their roots, or indirectly, by growing fungal networks around the roots that serve as a sort of extended nervous system connecting separate trees.
Wohlleben pondered this astonishing sociality of trees and wondered about what makes strong human communities and societies. Why are trees such social beings? Why do they share food with their own species and sometimes even go so far as to nourish their competitors? The reasons are the same as for human communities: there are advantages to working together. American forest ecologist Suzanne Simard found that primeval forests, that is, “natural” forests undisturbed by man as opposed to “plantation” forests managed for commercial benefit, have a layer of fungus called mycelium under the top soil, which connects individual trees with each other. This layer forms a kind of dense “social” network, that Nature magazine dubbed the “wood wide web,” which trees use to exchange nutrients and food, to “support” those sick or weak and to “inform” each other of threats.
The hidden communal life of trees is reflective of nature’s wholeness. What we can say, broadly speaking, is that nature is a communion of subjects functioning on principles of wholeness which include mutual cooperation, sympathy, and synergy. In distinction to the natural world, humans have become individual consumers, self-absorbed individuals who relate to one another as foreign objects. Nature works along lines of cooperation and organization while humans work individually, according to principles of competition and power. Nature is like a weaver, constantly threading together the myriad layers of energy fields whereas humans are like individual atoms bumping into one another. Biological nature lives in harmony with the cosmos, whereas humans have come to live acosmically.
Refocusing God and World
Pierre Teilhard de Chardin realized that the gap between science and religion lies at the core of our systemic dysfunction. Religion has become fossilized while science has discovered an entirely new universe other than that of Aristotle or Thomas Aquinas. Nature reveals a luminous thread of justice coursing throughout its systems, while religion sputters around on a circular road, like moss in a stagnant pond. Teilhard struggled to redefine Christianity as a religion of evolution. Despite the long history of the universe, evolution continues in a direction of increasing complexity, suggesting a force in nature that resists entropy and empowers newness. He named this principle of wholeness in nature as Omega and identified Omega with God. God is not found through opposition to matter (anti-matter) or independent of matter (extra-matter) but through matter (trans-matter). We take hold of God in the finite; he is sensed as “rising” or “emerging” from the depths, born not in the heart of matter but as the heart of matter. Teilhard believed that without creation, something would be absolutely lacking to God, considered in the fullness not of his being but of his act of union. He proposed that union with God “must be effected by passing through and emerging from matter.” While God is in the world and the world is in God, God is more than the world. God is the absolute whole of unlimited possibilities; hence, God is the world’s future.
Teilhard was concerned with the evolution of justice. Rather than positing an idealism of the common good, he realized that the heart of matter is consciousness which expresses itself in love-energy. God is entangled with nature in a way that divine consciousness seeks to raise unconscious matter to new levels of consciousness and thus new levels of love. Our task is to wake up to the truth of our reality (and by “truth” Teilhard means that which glues life together and renders it fecund). This waking up requires interiority and centeredness. Hence the first step toward justice is focusing the mind on higher-ordered levels of love. Life in evolution requires living inward and moving outward, that is, living from an inner unified space of conscious awareness and presence whereby we see the divine light shining through every aspect of our world—even the ugly parts—because nothing is outside the embrace of God’s love. Life in evolution means that we are moving, we are becoming something new, not just individually but collectively because we are unfinished and God is doing new things.
Faith in the World
To participate in the world’s becoming we must have faith in one another and faith in the world. This is what it means to have faith in God. That is, a common faith among all world religions must include faith in humanity, faith in the world, and faith in the future as our common bond. As early as 1916 Teilhard wrote in an essay: “There is a communion with God, and a communion with earth, and a communion with God through earth.” The human being must be seen as “an element destined to complete himself cosmically in a higher consciousness in process of formation.” What constitutes the “good” is everything that brings “growth of consciousness to the world.” What is best is what assures the highest development of consciousness and thus the spiritual growth of the earth. A new morality of growth is one that will foster and catalyze evolutionary change, a growth into a new formation of being, a deepening of what we are together in which care for another humanizes us. In Teilhard’s view, religion should empower the evolutionary process by inspiring us to take responsibility for the earth and for the future and the evolutionary process itself. In this respect, religion must be primarily on the level of human consciousness and human action, rather than in institutions or belief systems, except insofar as these manifest and give direction to the former. A rightly understood faith in the future, and the idea of a possible awakening of a higher state of consciousness, are both seen as necessary for preserving in human beings the taste for action.
We are responsible for the future.
Teilhard’s vision of a new religion of the earth means that a spirituality for the individual alone is no longer enough. In his view, the West “has not yet found its formula of faith” which answers the needs of the present. Religions need to recalibrate their vital centers with the cosmos. We need to find a way to harness the mystical currents of the established religious traditions and refocus them on gathering the human community into a common spiritual center so that cooperation and working together for the future may be enkindled. We are responsible for the future. Teilhard spoke of an ethics oriented toward the future, which means nurturing the values that gather us in, bond us together, create a global consciousness and a cosmic heart. These values are not fixed; rather they must be continuously discovered and discerned. The future is our reality; it is our common good. The future is the basis of ethics in a world of change. Integral to this emerging future is the development of personhood and self-actualization. Justice is the work of humanization and personalization and therefore it is mutual in nature. We can only build the world together if are becoming persons together.
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. and the inspiration behind the Omega Center website. Please see our page dedicated to sharing Ilia’s background and expansive volume of work HERE.
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