by ILIA DELIO
There are two questions that occupy my thoughts and I hope I can tie them together here. The first is the question of ethics or, better yet, why we have many committed people involved in social action but no significant changes in politics, culture, education or religion; and the second is whether or not our actions make any difference to God. In my mind these two questions are related but my challenge here is to articulate the connections to better understand why ethics needs evolution.
I often begin my discussions these days with technology because it is our fastest game changer. In a mere fifty years we have gone from phones on the wall to computers in our hands and soon we will have implanted chips and computer glasses. The speed of invention and delivery is both fascinating and frightening because we are not sure where we are going with our technologies or what we shall become. But the fact is we are addicted to them to the extent of being existentially dependent on them. What is it about technology that has come to define modern life? I asked this question to my class a few weeks ago and one young woman said that technology has come to replace religion. Years ago, she said, people would pray and hope for better things to come, for new things to happen. Now she said with a touch a button anything we want is at our disposal. Has technology come to usurp the place of religion? Do younger generations use technology as a means of transcendence? And if we have transferred our religious sensibilities on to technology, are we aware that constant computer use is changing our capacity to remember, to think and to love? Is our ability to act ethically changing as well?
For the ancients, to observe the stars and wonder at the vastness of the heavens evoked questions of meaning and purpose [giving rise to philosophy and theology]. The physical world had a central role in shaping people’s lives. Remi Brague speaks of the cosmologization of nature. To be human was to be drawn upright to contemplate the stars, to observe the movements of the heavens so that the wisdom of above could govern the wise person below. The harmony of the spheres and the order of nature was the book of ethics for the human person. Knowledge was to lead to wisdom so that the wise person would act in harmony with the whole of nature. This confluence of action between the cosmos and human endured up to the rise of modern science where the discovery of heliocentrism and the movement of the earth disrupted the relationship between macrocosm and microcosm. As a result knowledge was detached from the outer world of the heavens and placed in the self-thinking subject.
To know how to act was to impose an activity of the mind on the outer world. Ethics became detached from cosmos and focused on the moral law within, as Kant described. As a result choices for the world were not necessarily consistent with nature, since the physical world was, in a sense, a construction of the human mind. Modernity brought with it a strange disconnect from nature; the human was both observer of nature and distinct from nature. While scientists mastered the space of the cosmos, humans lost a spiritual connection to the cosmos. Knowledge became a means to power rather than a path to love; we forgot that we were made upright to contemplate the stars. By disinheriting the cosmos, we became lost in space and we have been drifting for the last two centuries in an expanding universe.
Part of the cosmic drift is due to the fact that the scientific mastery of space pushed God out of the cosmos. For some, God landed in the human heart of inner spiritual piety; for others God retired into heaven and governed from above or simply disappeared altogether. Ethics suffered the consequences of divine cosmic displacement. Immanuel Kant probably said it best when he exclaimed, “two things occupy me, the starry heavens without and the moral law within.” Do we act ethically because God is in our midst or do we act ethically because we shall be rewarded in eternal life? What motivates our actions? Does God care what we do? Does it matter how we vote or reduce carbon emissions or care for the poor? Does it make a difference if we criticize others or malign their reputations? Do our actions make any difference to God? Those who hold to the Thomistic-Aristotelian position would say, no, they do not. We are related to God in so far as we participate in God; however, God is not really related to us. Although we will have to give an account of our lives at the final judgment, our actions do not impact God’s life. We do good in this life so as to merit an eternal reward in the next life.
However, Teilhard de Chardin thought otherwise. For one, he held that God and nature belong together; they are mutually affirming opposites. Second, Teilhard believed that creation was essential to God; that it contributed to God what God lacked in his divinity, namely, materiality. 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.” Hence, God and creation have a real relationship and thus what takes place in the physical world makes a difference to God. Critics of Teilhard chastise his poetic spirituality, naïve optimism, and pantheistic prose; scholars of Teilhard recognize his deep grasp of the philosophical shifts brought about by modern science. He addressed the artificial separation between revealed theology and natural theology beginning with the cosmos, in the same way that the Greeks began with the whole of experience. By highlighting an inner spiritual depth to physical evolution, Teilhard cosmologized religion, broadening its biological function. The true function of religion is “to sustain and spur on the progress of life.” Thus, the religious function increases in the same direction and to the same extent as “hominization,” that is, the emergence and growth of religion corresponds to the growth of humankind.
Teilhard held that God is at the heart of cosmological and biological life, the depth and center of everything that exists. The basis of his ethics is the vision of the whole with God emerging at the center. God is within and ahead, the field of infinite possibilities; God’s invitation (grace) activates or motivates our choices. God does not determine what is good for us; rather God invites us to make choices. Our nature is already endowed with grace and thus our task is to be attentive to that which is within and that which is without—mind and heart—so that we may contribute to building up the world in love. Every action can be sacred action if is rooted in love and, in this way, both Christians and non-Christians can participate in the emerging body of Christ.
Teilhard argued that the work we do throughout our lives to improve our world is the primary exercise of our Christian faith. Since God is involved in evolution, our love for God requires cooperating with God’s activity in building up the world. Sanctification means freely participating in this stream of life that is ascending towards fullness, that is, being incorporated into God’s life in this evolving world. As Teilhard writes, “We will be saved by an option that has chosen the whole.” Illuminating Teilhard’s ethics, Ed Vacek writes: “The moral upshot is that human activity is now necessary for the building of the world. No carpenter, no house. Without human beings, God cannot accomplish what God wants to accomplish.” God uses and depends on our thoughts and affections in figuring out how to build the earth. “Put more sharply,” Vacek writes, “the will of God is not an antecedent plan to be discovered by us, but rather it is a plan to be co-created through the exercise of our own minds and hearts.”
For Teilhard, centeredness and interiority are necessary for moral action because what we do makes a difference to God. Our worldly successes and failures make a difference to God. Whereas most biological evolutionists see human activity as, fundamentally, serving the propagation of genes, Teilhard sees this activity as contributing religiously to the pleroma of Christ. That is, part of God’s perfection is to be related to all that is good. If God could not be really related to what goes on in creation, God would be less than perfect. Our lives and our work therefore fill out God’s relational self. Thus, God receives into God’s self the good that occurs in creation. Put poetically, Teilhard says, God “penetrates everything.” God thereby is also changed by the activities of creation, so the traditional doctrine of the immutability of God is no longer appropriate. That is, when God relates to the world, a real relation in God is created.
The greatest significance of our work is that it affects God’s own relational life. When we contribute to the building of the world and to developing ourselves, we make a positive difference to God’s life. Teilhard’s emphasis on the future has the salutary feature of making us responsible for the future. This orientation toward the future is missing in natural law which advocates a moral order based on the divinely ordained good; however, natural law does not support an ethics for an unfinished universe. It provides a blueprint for rightness rather than promote a concrete reality of becoming. The formula of natural law seems unnatural in view of evolution because it presumes a fixed law of nature despite the fact that nature changes. Teilhard’s ethics is for people who are on the move. He proposes an ethics based on evolving into a future of more life, more being and more consciousness, what he called “ultrahumanism.” He does not seek to maintain the status quo but 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. In short, Teilhard holds up the future as the basis of ethics in a world of change.
Teilhard’s ethics for a world in evolution is not a willy nilly playground of ideas. Rather his ethics must be seen in the wider scope of Christogenesis. Our lives have meaning and purpose; we are created to participate in something that is more than ourselves, that is, we are made to contribute to the fullness of Christ and thus to help bring about the unity of all things in God. Teilhard’s vision is one of cosmic personalization. Just as the cells in our bodies make a difference to our bodily function, so too our lives make a difference to the function of the world. We either help build this world up in love or we tear it apart. Either way, we bear the responsibility for the world’s future and thus we bear responsibility for God’s life as well.
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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