The Influence of Teilhard
Teilhard de Chardin clearly had an enduring influence on Thomas Berry. As a paleontologist Teilhard found himself drawn towards the vision of a unified evolutionary process in which the human participates in the ongoing developmental unfolding. Cosmic evolution was for Teilhard the most fitting historical context within which to understand any temporary occurrence, especially the horizon of human activity. He called humans to a deeper level of seeing into the great sweep of time in which we dwell.
In the opening passage of his major work, The Human Phenomenon, Teilhard observed:
Seeing. One could say that the whole of life lies in seeing—if not ultimately, at least essentially. To be more is to be more united—and this sums up and is the very conclusion of the work to follow. But unity grows, and we will affirm this again only if it is supported by an increase of consciousness of vision. That is probably why the history of the living world can be reduced to the elaboration of ever more perfect eyes at the heart of a cosmos where it is always possible to discern more. Are not the perfection of the animal and the supremacy of the thinking being measured by the penetration and power of synthesis of their glance? To try to see more and to see better is not, therefore, just a fantasy, curiosity, or a luxury. See or perish. This is the situation imposed on every element of the universe by the mysterious gift of existence. And thus, to a higher degree, this is the human condition.8
Berry appreciated the significant contribution of Teilhard's "consciousness of vision." He affirmed Teilhard’s re-orientation of human consciousness within evolution rather than seeing consciousness as an aberrant development located within humans alone. Moreover, he took from Teilhard the powerful insight that the history of the human is the history of the cosmos, and that history is not finished in some past creation story, but has continued as cosmogenesis, an ongoing creative process.
Berry appreciated Teilhard's evolutionary awareness of the uniqueness of our moment as an awakening. Teilhard wrote:
In every age human beings have believed themselves to be at a “turning point of history.” And as part of a rising spiral, to some extent they have been right. But at certain moments this impression of transformation is felt much more strongly—and is particularly justified. And it is not exaggerating the importance of our contemporary existences in the least for us to say that there is a fundamental change of course for the world under way in us, and it threatens to crush us. . . . This Earth, billowing with factories, throbbing with enterprise, vibrating with hundreds of new radiations—this great organism ultimately only lives because of and for the sake of a new soul. Beneath the change of age there must lay a change of thought. . . . Yet where are we to look for and locate this kind of renewing and subtle alteration, which without appreciably modifying our body has made new beings of us? Nowhere else but in a new intuition that totally alters the physiognomy of the universe in which we move—in other words, in an awakening.9
Teilhard's "new soul," his "change of thought," and the "awakening" contain the germs of the historical perspective that so preoccupied Thomas Berry. Here also is the sense of struggle with fundamental change even as it threatens to "crush" us. In elaborating the character of awakening, Thomas Berry has drawn out the inner workings of mythic forces and concomitant sensitivities that call for both individual and institutional change. Finally, Berry provided creative historical analysis to the new cosmology in ways that expand Teilhard’s thought into ecological concerns.
In the spirit of the Hymn of the Universe, Berry notes as well the powerful reality of sacraments embodying the elements of nature and the liturgical cycle reflecting the great seasonal movements of Earth. In addition, there is promise in the emerging alliance of social justice and environmental justice. For Berry, these are all sources of transformation so that humans might respond more coherently to the growing environmental challenge.
However, Berry observed that our desire for action may require even deeper contemplation of the roots of these problems. This is why he pointed us toward the universe story as a comprehensive context for responding to our ecological role in the modern world—a world that is being ravaged by industrial production and extraction. For Thomas, universe emergence as the story of our time can evoke in humans awe, wonder, and humility. At the same time, as a functional cosmology, it can encourage the “great work” of ecological restoration and environmental education so needed in our times.
8. Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, The Human Phenomenon, trans. Sarah Appleton-Weber (Brighton, UK: Sussex Academic Press, 1999), 3.
9. Ibid, 148-9.