Academic journal article Journal of Ecumenical Studies

Biological Evolution and the Universality of Spiritual Experience: Pluralistic Implications of a New Approach to the Thought of Teilhard De Chardin

Academic journal article Journal of Ecumenical Studies

Biological Evolution and the Universality of Spiritual Experience: Pluralistic Implications of a New Approach to the Thought of Teilhard De Chardin

Article excerpt

There are two strands of thinking in theology and in the philosophy of religion that seem to interact only comparatively rarely. One of these is that which arises from the recognition that spiritual experience seems to be a natural part of what it is to be human and is not limited to people of any particular religious tradition or even to people who have a religious faith in the ordinary sense of that term. The other strand is that which attempts to deal with the spiritual implications of naturalistic thinking about biological complexity and especially about evolution in its neo-Darwinian form.

The name most commonly associated with the first of these strands of thinking is that of Alister Hardy. (1) Largely as a result of his and his successors' work, it is now widely recognized that spiritual experience is remarkably common, not only in cultures still strongly influenced by traditional religious frameworks but even in the most secularized of cultures. The name most commonly associated with the second of these strands of thinking is that of Pierre Teilhard de Chardin. (2) His legacy is, however, rather more controversial than Hardy's. While there are still ardent Teilhardians to be found, the majority of theologians who accept the broad thrust of his positive attitude toward evolutionary theory often, in practice, tend to distance themselves from his actual work.

For some, this tendency to distance themselves from Teilhard has less to do with substance than with style. What they see as valid in his perception seems to them often to be hidden rather than illuminated by what Peter Medawar--in a famous and devastating review--once referred to as Teilhard's use of a kind of "tipsy, euphoric prose-poetry." (3) For others, however, the problem is not only one of style. They are suspicious both of the teleological character of his interpretation of evolution and of the way in which he sometimes tries to move logically from the character of the empirical world to what is essentially a theological understanding. This approach--reminiscent of other forms of the kind of natural theology to which Teilhard's Roman Catholic tradition remains attached--stands in contrast to the approach that tends to dominate the current dialogue between science and theology, in which this type of natural theology is often looked upon with distrust. It would have been better, many think, if Teilhard had not aimed for some kind of logical proof but had simply argued that his theological vision was consonant with his scientific understanding.

We shall return to the issue of theological responses to evolutionary understanding below, but not simply in terms of the assumptions that are prevalent within the current dialogue between science and theology. For, as I shall argue in what follows, not only are aspects of that dialogue significantly illuminated when approached in terms of questions that arise from Hardy's legacy. In addition, as I shall note, when approached in this way, the teleological aspects of Teilhard's understanding--at present eclipsed within that dialogue--in practice come back into view.

The first thing to note in this context is that the status of revelatory spiritual experience is understood rather differently in different faith traditions. For the Buddhist, for example, enlightenment does not involve a personal God but comes from within each person by processes that can be cultivated by the right kind of meditative technique. In contrast, for most followers of the Abrahamic traditions, it is possible to know the divine reality fully only through response to the way in which a personal God has revealed the divine nature through prophetic inspiration or historical acts. Within the Christian tradition, for example, many are ambiguous about the Fourth Gospel's notion that the divine Logos (Word) "enlightens everyone" (Jn. 1:9). The universalist implications of this phrase are emphasized only rarely within the Christian community, and religious experience or knowledge that arises through intrinsic human qualities is generally seen either as a dangerous diversion (the Barthian Protestant view in its earlier forms) or at most (as in the Thomist tradition of natural theology) as a sort of useful preamble to the truth revealed by God through prophetic inspiration and historical acts. …

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