You are here

The Christian Phenomenon

1940

Axes of Belief

To those who only know it outwardly, Christianity seems desperately intricate. In reality, taken in its main lines, it contains an extremely simple and astonishingly bold solution of the world.

In the centre, so glaring as to be disconcerting, is the uncompromising affirmation of a personal God: God as providence, directing the universe with loving, watchful care; and God the revealer, communicating himself to man on the level of and through the ways of intelligence. It will be easy for me, after all I have said, to demonstrate the value and actuality of this tenacious personalism, not long since condemned as obsolete.

The important thing to point out here is the way in which such an attitude in the hearts of the faithful leaves the door open to, and is easily allied to, everything that is great and healthy in the universal. In its Judaic phase, Christianity might well have considered itself the particular religion of one people. Later on, coming under the general conditions of human knowledge, it came to think that the world around it was much too small. However that may be, it was hardly constituted before it was ceaselessly trying to englobe in its constructions and conquests the totality of the system that it managed to picture to itself.

Personalism and universalism: in what form have these two characters been able to unite in its theology? For reasons of practical convenience and perhaps also of intellectual timidity, the City of God is too often described in pious works in conventional and purely moral terms. God and the world he governs are seen as a vast association, essentially legalistic in its nature, conceived in terms of a family or government. The fundamental root from which the sap of Christianity has risen from the beginning and is nourished, is quite otherwise. Led astray by a false evangelism, people often think they are honouring Christianity when they reduce it to a sort of gentle philanthropism. Those who fail to see in it the most realistic and at the same time the most cosmic of beliefs and hopes, completely fail to understand its mysteries. Is the of God a big family? Yes, in a sense it is. But in another sense it is a prodigious biological operation—that of the Redeeming Incarnation.

As early as in St. Paul and St. John we read that to create, to fulfil and to purify the world is, for God, to unify it by uniting it organically with himself. How does he unify it? By partially immersing himself in things, by becoming 'element’ and then, from this point of vantage in the heart of matter, assuming the control and leadership of what we now call evolution. Christ, principle of universal vitality because sprung up as man among men, put himself in the position (maintained ever since) to subdue under himself, to purify, to direct and superanimate the general ascent of consciousnesses into which he inserted himself.

By a perennial act of communion and sublimation, he aggregates to himself the total psychism of the earth. And when he has gathered everything together and transformed everything, he will close in upon himself and his conquests, thereby rejoining, in a final gesture, the divine focus he has never left. Then, as St. Paul tells us, God shall be all in all. This is indeed a superior form of 'pantheism' without trace of the poison of adulteration or annihilation: the expectation of perfect unity, steeped in which each element will reach its consummation at the same time as the universe.

The universe fulfilling itself in a synthesis of centres in perfect conformity with the laws of union. God, the Centre of centres. In that final vision the Christian dogma culminates. And so exactly, so perfectly does this coincide with the Omega Point that doubtless I should never have ventured to envisage the latter or formulate the hypothesis rationally if, in my consciousness as a believer, I had not found not only its speculative model but also its living reality.

Existence Value

It is relatively easy to build up a theory of the world. But it is beyond the powers of an individual to provoke artificially the birth of a religion. Plato, Spinoza and Hegel were able to elaborate views  which compete in amplitude with the perspectives of the Incarnation. Yet none of these metaphysical systems advanced beyond the limits of an ideology. Each in turn has perhaps brought light to men's minds, but without ever succeeding in begetting life. What to the eyes of a 'naturalist' comprises the importance and the enigma of the Christian phenomenon is its existence-value and reality-value.

Christianity is in the first place real by virtue of the spontaneous amplitude of the movement it has managed to create in mankind. It addresses itself to every man and to every class of man, and from the start it took its place as one of the most vigorous and fruitful currents the noosphere has ever known. Whether we adhere to it or break off from it, we are surely obliged to admit that its stamp and its enduring influence are apparent in every corner of the earth today.

It is doubtless a quantitative value of life if measured by its radius of action; but it is still more a qualitative value which expresses itself—like all biological progress—by the appearance of a specifically new state of consciousness. I am thinking here of Christian love.

Christian love is incomprehensible to those who have not experienced it. That the infinite and the intangible can be lovable, or that the human heart can beat with genuine charity for a fellow-being, seems impossible to many people I know —in fact almost monstrous. But whether it be founded on an illusion or not, how can we doubt that such a sentiment exists, and even in great intensity ? We have only to note crudely the results it produces unceasingly all round us. Is it not a positive fact that thousands of mystics, for twenty centuries, have drawn from its flame a passionate fervour that outstrips by far in brightness and purity the urge and devotion of any human love? Is it not also a fact that, having once experienced it, further thousands of men and women are daily renouncing every other ambition and every other joy save that of abandoning themselves to it and labouring within it more and more completely? Lastly, is it not a fact, as I can warrant, that if the love of God were extinguished in the souls of the faithful, the enormous edifice of rites, of hierarchy and of doctrines that comprise the Church would instantly revert to the dust from which it rose.

It is a phenomenon of capital importance for the science of man that, over an appreciable region of the earth, a zone of thought has appeared and grown in which a genuine universal love has not only been conceived and preached, but has also been shown to be psychologically possible and operative in practice. It is all the more capital inasmuch as, far from decreasing, the movement seems to wish to gain still greater speed and intensity.

Power of Growth

For almost all the ancient religions, the renewal of cosmic outlook characterising the modern mind has occasioned a crisis of such severity that, if they have not yet been killed by it, it is plain they will never recover. Narrowly bound to untenable myths, or steeped in a pessimistic and passive mysticism, they can adjust themselves neither to the precise immensities, nor to die constructive requirements, of space-time. They are out of step both with our science and with our activity.

But under the shock which is rapidly causing its rivals to disappear, Christianity, which might at first have been thought to be shaken too, is showing, on the contrary, every sign of forging ahead. For, by the very fact of the new dimensions assumed by the universe as we see it today, it reveals itself both as inherently more vigorous in itself and as more necessary to the world than it has ever been before.

More vigorous. To live and develop the Christian outlook needs an atmosphere of greatness and of coherence. The bigger the world becomes and the more organic become its internal connections, the more will die perspectives of the Incarnation triumph. That is what believers are beginning, much to their surprise, to find out. Though frightened for a moment by evolution, the Christian now perceives that what it offers him is nothing but a magnificent means of feeling more at one with God and of giving himself more to him. In a pluralistic and static Nature, the universal domination of Christ could, strictly speaking, still be regarded as an extrinsic and super-imposed power.

In a spiritually converging world this ‘Christic’ energy acquires an urgency and intensity of another order altogether. If the world is convergent and if Christ occupies its centre, then the Christogenesis of St. Paul and St. John is nothing else and nothing less than the extension, both awaited and unhoped for, of that noogenesis in which cosmogenesis—as regards our experience— culminates. Christ invests himself organically with the very majesty of his creation. And it is in no way metaphorical to say that man finds himself capable of experiencing and discovering his God in the whole length, breadth and depth of the world in movement. To be able to say literally to God that one loves him, not only with all one's body, all one's heart and all one's soul, but with every fibre of the unifying universe—that is a prayer that can only be made in space-time.

More necessary. To say of Christianity that, despite appearances to the contrary, it is acclimatising itself and expanding in a world enormously enlarged by science, is to point to no more than one half of the picture. Evolution has come to infuse new blood, so to speak, into the perspectives and aspirations of Christianity. In return, is not the Christian faith destined, is it not preparing, to save and even to take the place of evolution?

I have tried to show that we can hope for no progress on earth without the primacy and triumph of the personal at the summit of mind. And at the present moment Christianity is the unique current of thought, on the entire surface of the noosphere, which is sufficiently audacious and sufficiently progressive to lay hold of the world, at the level of effectual practice, in an embrace, at once already complete, yet capable of indefinite perfection, where faith and hope reach their fulfilment in love.

Alone, unconditionally alone, in the world today, Christianity shows itself able to reconcile, in a single living act, the All and the Person. Alone, it can bend our hearts not only to the service of that tremendous movement of the world which bears us along, but beyond, to embrace that movement in love.

In other words can we not say that Christianity fulfils all the conditions we are entitled to expect from a religion of the future ; and that hence, through it, the principal axis of evolution truly passes, as it maintains? Now let us sum up the situation:

i. Considered objectively as a phenomenon, the Christian movement, through its rootedness in the past and ceaseless developments, exhibits the characteristics of a phylum.

ii. Reset in an evolution interpreted as an ascent of consciousness, this phylum, in its trend towards a synthesis based on love, progresses precisely in the direction presumed for the leading-shoot of biogenesis.

iii. In the impetus which guides and sustains its advance, this rising shoot implies essentially the consciousness of being in actual relationship with a spiritual and transcendent pole of universal convergence.

To confirm the presence at the summit of the world of what we have called the Omega Point, do we not find here the very cross-check we were waiting for? Here surely is the ray of sunshine striking through the clouds, the reflection onto what is ascending of that which is already on high, die rupture of our solitude. The palpable influence on our world of an other and supreme Someone ... Is not die Christian phenomenon, which rises upwards at the heart of the social phenomenon, precisely that? In the presence of such perfection in coincidence, even if I were not a Christian but only a man of science, I think I would ask myself this question.

Peking, June 1938-June 1940

P. Teilhard de Chardin, The Phenomenon of man (New York: Harper Perennial ModernThought, 2008), pp.292-299. With an Introduction of Sir Julian Huxley.