Wednesday, August 30, 2006

The organ made for seeing God...

Every once in a while I pick up some book or another by Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, much like my former logic professor occasionally picks up something by Wittgenstein, as a sort of test. Teilhard's thought is deep, but too often obscure to me, making demands on my attention that I am not yet ready to meet. I can concentrate on small sections at a time, but if I read too much, or for too long, I get lost in a sea of meaningless words; words which may have had meaning for him but whose meanings are inaccessible to me.

But in a sea of meaningless words, from time to time a gem emerges. The other day I was reading a fragment, concisely titled "Note on the Physical Union Between the Humanity of Christ and the Faithful in the Course of Their Sanctification," from a collection of previously unpublished essays, and stumbled on one of my favorite Teilhard quotes:

The organ made for seeing God is not (if you get to the bottom of the dogma) the isolated human soul; it is the human soul united to all the other souls under the humanity of Christ.

This quote is found in the context of a discussion on what Teilhard calls the "permanent eucharistic union," a union which "explains the fundamental union between the eucharist and charity, between the love of God and the love of our neighbor." The context speaks to the way in which our "eucharistic" relationship with God through Jesus informs all of our other relationships, as we grow through that relationship sanctified.

The relational implications of sanctification are very interesting to me, as is the connection which, through this, Teilhard sees "between the eucharist and charity." After all, it stands to reason that as our very substance is - at least according to this theology - fundamentally changed by our sanctifying relationship with God, that change should permeate all of our interactions. But even more interesting than this is the fact that Teilhard seems to be arguing that the connection between our relationship with God and our relationship with others goes both ways.

In arguing that the "isolated human soul" is not the organ made for seeing God, Teilhard argues that we have no relationship with God outside of the context of a community. And here, in fact, there are layers of community which all come together to place us in a context wherein we can experience some contact with God.

The first form of community is most obvious, and most clearly what Teilhard means. This community is an entirely human community. When Aristotle, in his Politics, noted that human beings are "social animals," it wasn't exactly breaking news. Even then it was common sense that human beings are by nature political, in the best sense of the word. You never see a human being entirely isolated from a social context. Rather, we are born into communities, born into cooperative relationships, born into a social context within which our every thought and action takes place. At no point are we entirely autonomous, entirely removed from a social context.

As such, people who argue for a "just me and Jesus" theology have fundamentally misjudged human nature, and as such have misjudged what is possible for humans, even and especially in terms of our relationship with God. It may or may not be possible to have a personal relationship with God; that is, a relationship which constitutes a meeting of persons. That depends on whether or not God is personal, a person. But, whether that is possible or not (and, as I said, its possibility rests on the nature of God, a nature which is mysterious to us - though I'd at least like to think that God is in some way personal), it is decidedly not possible to have an individual relationship with God. This is impossible not because of anything in or about God, but because of our very nature. Simply put, we may be persons, but we are not pure individuals.

I may often feel alone, but there has never in my life been a moment in which I have been truly alone. I have always, always operated in a social/political context, existing in relationship with other persons. I was born into a family, which Aristotle noted is the first and primary political unit. Since then I have added many new social/political contexts to that primary unit, going to school or church, meeting with friends, etc. I have lived in a number of different social/political environments. But I have always, in some way or another, responded to someone other than just myself when I think or when I act, when I emote or react to those emotions.

We are by our very nature interconnected and interdependent, and this nature carries over into our relationship with God. Teilhard sees this written into the very fabric of the universe. It is a part of nature, and that nature, which elsewhere Teilhard calls consmogenesis, reflects the will with which God continually creates the universe. So here he can say, axiomatically and without additional arguing, that we are not designed to see God as individual souls in isolation from each other, but only in a community of united souls.

As such, while our relationship with God should impact our relationship with others, so too our relationship with others impacts our relationship with God. If we in some way cut ourselves off from our community, we also cut ourselves off from our ability to experience the presence of God. If we follow Teilhard's reasoning (which he does not always make obvious) this is not because of the nature of God, whose presence does not change, but rather because of our own nature. We are not fully ourselves when we are not in community, and as such do not possess the full range of our abilities, including our ability to "see" (by no means literally) God.

But this way of viewing the quote in question, which focuses only on human nature and human communities, is not the only way to view the quote. I don't know French, and do not have access, then, to the specific French words which Teilhard used when he wrote this fragment. But the specific language of Rene Hague's translation, which should be a decent indication of the language which Teilhard himself used, strikes me:

The organ made for seeing God is not (if you get to the bottom of the dogma) the isolated human soul; it is the human soul united to all the other souls under the humanity of Christ.

Here I have used bold type to draw attention to the shifting way in which Teilhard speaks of the souls here in question. He goes from speaking of the isolated human soul - that unnatural entity which is, divorced from a social/political context is not even properly speaking fully human - to the way in which that soul, no longer isolated, is "united to all the other souls." This category, which completes the context within which one can see God, is not limited to human souls.

Perhaps this was an unintentional slip. After all, we are here dealing with a fragment written perhaps in January 1920 (when it was found it was not even dated, but has since been dated to then) and not published until 1969, after his death. But the language certainly doesn't seem careless. Perhaps, then, Teilhard is speaking of a context broader than just the human social/political context. Perhaps he is saying something more than just that human beings need to bond together in a spiritual community, a social/political cooperative group designed to help facilitate our experience of God. Perhaps he is saying that human beings need to be mindful of their relationship with all forms of life in order to have a proper relationship with God.

If theological ethics begins with theology, which far from describing God (as though that were even possible) describes instead our relationship with God, then perhaps it speaks beyond our relationship with God and our relationship with humans to our relationship with all forms of life. We know that in a very physical way we depend on a much broader context than we generally acknowledge. Our life is sustained by all of the lives which surround us, as we exist in an interconnected and interdependent relationship not only with all other humans, but with all that exists in nature.

Perhaps, then, Teilhard is saying that our relationship with God depends on and is connected to our relationship with absolutely everything else, our connection to and unity with "all other souls." If so, and if he is right, then how we act in this world matters far more than we thought it did, and there are far many more moral objects (that is, entities with moral standing, even if they are not, properly speaking, moral agents, since it makes no sense to say that they engage in moral behavior) than we generally imagine.

This idea, then, could serve as a theological ground for both environmental ethics and animal rights, along with informing interpersonal and communal relationships in human communities.

No comments: