April 20, 2023 – How Can The Reinterpretation Of Religion Make Use Of Teilhard’s ‘Lens of Evolution’?

   How can we use Teilhard’s ‘lens of evolution’ to recognize religion’s potential as an evolutionary tool?


Today’s Post


Last week we recognized the waning influence of religion in Western societies and addressed the need to rethink traditional beliefs in terms of human life to tap into their wellsprings of insight and recover their relevance.  We identified the concept of ‘reinterpretation’, first proposed by Maurice Blondel, and expanded eloquently by Teilhard de Chardin as the essential step for such relevance.  This week we will take a first step toward this goal by setting the stage for such new insight.


The Process of Reinterpretation


From the earliest days of human thought, humans have attempted to understand the workings of their environment, to make sense of it, and to better relate to it.  The whole of human history, from both science and religious viewpoints, contains a record of such activities.  Human artifacts such as legal and moral codes document our attempts (in Teilhard’s words) to “articulate the noosphere”.

This articulation always involves searching and growing, which in turn requires the readiness to replace previous, outworn concepts with ones more consistent with a constantly expanding grasp of the universe.

With religion, according to Blondel, such ‘replacement’ consists of discarding all the superstitious, anthropomorphic, and otherworldly statements of belief, much like Jefferson did in forging his assertion of human equality based on his reinterpretation of the Gospels.   In the resulting perspective God becomes the ‘core’, the “ground of being”, the ever-present agency which underlies everything as it ‘comes to be’.

In Blondel’s process of interpretation, this leads to new artifacts.  Statements can be made from the new perspective which emerges from our understanding that we are embedded in a process of ‘coming to be’.  To Blondel, it makes a difference that we see ourselves as ‘dynamic’, not static.  We are ‘becoming’.

Teilhard expands and refines this approach by seeing the essential act of ‘becoming’ through his ‘lens of evolution’.  From his perspective, this ‘becoming’ can be quantified by the increasing complexity of the ‘stuff of the universe’ over time which underpins the evolution of the entire universe.   His insight provides the single thread which unites the three eras of universal evolution (pre-life, life, human life), and which is the key to explaining how humans ‘naturally’ emerge.

Teilhard understood that the evolutionary energy by which cosmic particles unite to increase complexity is just as present in the human activity of love as it is in the uniting of electrons and protons to become atoms.

He decomposed our individual and collective evolution into four steps:

– we always begin with a certain plateau of understanding in the first step,

–  we then address those things which don’t work under our previous worldview in the second.,

– then in the third step we strip out those perspectives,

– and finally in the fourth step we go on to find a better vantage point, and eventually build new constructs.


Principles of Reinterpretation


So, if we can agree on the process, what about the guidelines?  What signposts can we follow when we go about ‘stripping our conventional artifacts’?  What principles do we employ when we take on the very difficult job of attempting an objective perspective on our subjective inner prejudices and attitudes?  Many of these perspectives are so fundamental as to be nearly instinctual.  We didn’t consciously develop them; they come with the subconscious acceptance of the beliefs and practices of parents, teachers, and society in general during our formative years.  Overcoming them, therefore, requires us to lose the comfort and security of well-worn beliefs and begin a risky search for replacements.

The first step, therefore, is to follow thinkers like Blondel, Teilhard, Sacks and Rohr along this arduous path.

Blondel notes that all of us are to some extent already on this path.  The simple realization that we must constantly attempt to see others objectively and to transcend our ego and self- centeredness if we are to have deep relationships with them, is a first step along this path.  This need for overcoming ego is a basic tenet for nearly every religion.  It is therefore a basic ‘principle of reinterpretation’.

Therefore, when we set out along the road to reinterpreting our traditional beliefs, we must be armed with such principles.  As we will see, application of these principles to the many, often contradicting statements of Western religion will permit us to recognize the ‘core’ that Teilhard identifies and uncover their relevance to our lives.


Teilhard’s Approach to Interpretation


Teilhard’s ‘lens of evolution’ has guided us thus far in our search for a universal perspective on ourselves.  Teilhard’s unique approach to the nature of reality provides insights into the fundamental energies which are at work in the evolution of the universe and hence, as products of this same evolution, are at work in our own personal evolution as well.  His insights compromise neither the theories of physics in the play of elemental matter found in the ‘Big Bang” nor the essential biological theory of Natural Selection in the ongoing evolution of living things.  Instead, they bring them together into a single, coherent, continuous process which unites the pre-life, life, and human life eras of cosmic evolution.  These insights also show how the ‘knowledge of consciousness’ which makes the human person unique in the biological kingdom is rooted in the cosmic scope of evolution.

This uniqueness, unfortunately, has been often addressed by science as an ‘epi-phenomenon’ or as just a pure accident.  Teilhard instead places it firmly on the ‘axis of evolution’, that of increasing complexity.  Doing so thus affords us a lens for seeing ourselves as a natural and essential product of evolution.

As Teilhard saw it, such a comprehensive understanding of evolution is therefore an essential step toward understanding the human person, how we fit into the universe, and how we should relate to it if we would most completely activate our human potential.


The Next Post


This week we took a first look at Blondel’s suggestion of ‘reinterpretation’ as a method of recovering the relevance of religion to human life.

Next week we will look at some different approaches to how our perspective of the basic things in our lives can change: how we can ‘reinterpret’.