So, I watched Michael Curry’s wedding sermon. It was the very expressive, love-emphasising sermon I expected it to be, quoting the Bible and Martin Luther King, “we must discover the redemptive power love. Love is the only way!” There was one surprise though. Apart from quoting Martin Luther King, and the Bible at length as you would expect, there was one other person he quoted, the French Jesuit priest Teilhard de Chardin, whom he referred to as one of the great minds of the 20th Century. I have actually spoken about him here before, though over two years ago so I doubt you all remember.
Teilhard de Chardin was an academic. A philosopher, a theologian, and a scientist. Michael Curry drew out one of Chardin’s analogies about the power of fire: when we discovered the ability as human beings to utilize the power of fire, that is when the human race shifted gear. It paved the way to the Bronze Age - the ability to heat environments, and thus move into colder climates. Technological advancement is born of fire; the industrial revolution, and the automobile, all made possible because of fire. The scale of that gear shift made possible when we recognised and utilized the power of fire, will be comparable to the scale of that gear shift when we learn to recognise and utilize the power of love. Teilhard de Chardin, then, was a Roman Catholic rebel philosopher, writing in the 1920s and 30s. He was censured by the church, because despite being a Roman Catholic, he didn’t for instance believe in the doctrine of original sin. His life’s work revolved around the relationship between science and technology, and his Christian faith, how that interplay would unfold over the coming centuries, and what that would mean for the human race. Even though he is writing in the 20s, 30s, well before the personal computer, the mobile phone, and the internet, he predicted the emergence of these things, and speculated on where it would ultimately lead us.
This morning then, I’ll be considering Teilhard de Chardin’s ideas. But before we get to that, let us invoke the purpose of our coming together. As Michael Curry re-emphasised it, it’s about the power of love, it’s about allowing the way of love to impact upon every dimension of our lives. We can’t compartmentalise, the way of love, Jesus’ ‘Kingdom come’, is for the whole self, and the whole human race.
Teilhard de Chardin is set apart from most religious thinkers due to his positive attitude towards technology. Much of the time, though perhaps less so in the last decade, religiously minded people have been characterised as being cynical concerning the apparent benefits of technological progress. We might look around us and see children on mobile phones, or find ourselves frustrated that we are expected to access information and services increasingly online. For my generation, and younger generations, those born since 1980, the average amount of time we spend in front of a screen is 8 hours a day. And the operative word there is ‘average’. There are some who spend far more time than this, closer to 16 hours a day. The youngest generation, Generation Z, or as they’re sometimes referred to, the iGeneration, those born since the mid-1990s, are predicted to spend more time in front of screens over the course of their lifetimes than they do anything else, including sleep. There was a huge generational gulf in terms of life experience between the WW2 generations and the baby boomers. That gulf is now widening and accelerating faster and faster with each subsequent generation. So much so, it’s really no exaggeration to say that millennials, when compared to the baby boomer generation, are living on a different planet. The pan-generational space of mutual concern and experience is narrowing fast.
Teilhard saw that the world was on the cusp of rapid cultural and social change brought about due to technology and science. Even though he died in the 1950s, he saw this stuff coming. His concern was to find an approach to technology and science through his Christian lens which positivised it, but more than that, saw it as part and parcel of God’s unfolding plan. But of what God do we speak? Teilhard, being a scientist and a Darwinian, did not so much hold God to be within some metaphysical realm – out there somewhere – but rather more akin to the Spinoza God, being in some sense synonymous with the totality of nature and the cosmos. But as nature and the cosmos was in Teilhard’s view still in the process of becoming, still new, with its potential not yet realised, God too is within a process of becoming. Instead of viewing God in the traditional sense, as the governor of creation, or as the one who brought creation into being, this view sees the fully realised God as the goal of the cosmos. You can see why, with a view like this, why he was censured by the Catholic Church during his lifetime.
So, from our subjective vantage, though things seem to be more fractured and divided perhaps, if we think back to how things were a few centuries ago, or a few decades ago, or even a few years ago (though compared to that, things now seem more divided) Teilhard believed that if you look through a wider lens, or thorough a future-orientated lens, there is actually more of coming together that is discernible - tighter states of being emerging. God then as a concept to Teilhard doesn’t make much sense in our contemporary age. The cosmos as a whole is mostly unintelligible, but as a destination, as a way of describing what the universe is converging towards, towards more unity and complexity and consciousness, to understand that destination as God, perhaps this is more intelligible, and believable even.
I think then, that the reason Michael Curry is bringing Teilhard de Chardin up is because he is conscious of the fact that he was talking to a mostly secular audience, the British audience tuning in on their television who have by and large turned away from the God of Christianity. Teilhard is not making the same rehearsed claim that faith is just about believing – and so you’d better believe! – quite the opposite. He’s saying today disbelief probably makes more sense than belief, but what if instead of thinking of God in terms of belief or disbelief, we think in terms of the destination: Kingdom Come, love as wholly realised. Is that not a vision we can all join together in?
So, this kind of philosophical speculation is one facet of Teilhard. Another facet is love itself, which he returns to over and over as a theme. Love is the most powerful universal energy. Love which works more and more for greater and greater communion. Love which inspires in us the need for perpetual discovery (that’s why I included that poem by Ted Hughes. That poem in particular is one in which he tries to articulate where poetic inspiration comes from, seeing, as he does, the fox as representing the renewal of the poet’s imaginative powers). Love of the other is about giving the other attention. To the other person, or to nature itself, we give our attention, and it envelops us, and we cannot help but move that attention towards respect and care. Love which is in process throughout the cosmos moving us towards that future point, in which love might be fully realised. We can call that point God, or as he liked to describe it, the Omega Point, or the cosmic Christ.
The internet can be used as an example of this, when the online community shares in positive concern, a lot of good can emanate. Although for the most part it has so far lacked common passion and solidarity, the power within the shared network of consciousness which is the internet has yet to awaken to anything like its potential. Teilhard believed that the communion of love would be realised through such networks, and in time impact upon the world at large in profound ways. The yet unrealised possibility of love across such networking was his faith. A day will come, he believed, when humanity becomes something more, more alive, more conscious, more creative. A global love. A love for all humanity, a love for the world. A love for God. This emerging network of love, in Teilhard’s view, has to be personalised. As an object of devotion, the internet may at times appear to be our detractor, sucking time and energy. To Teilhard though, it is the means to the ultimate end. It is the road to God. Quite a claim. Even if we hear this claim with scepticism and doubt, uncertain and confusion, Teilhard de Chardin is ever the optimist. He knows God is before us, and one day we shall meet.