July 19, 2006

One must go beyond Teilhard

Donald Goergen
Teilhard challenges both modern science and traditional religion. He provides a basis for a cosmology and anthropology which is both modern and Christian. Teilhard's thought is also significant for Christology, and in many ways is a Christology. Yet his most enduring contribution may be to mysticism and spirituality. His phenomenological starting point, with its correlation between the "within" and the "without," enables him to value both interiorization and socialization. It is no surprise that someone like Roger Garaudy suggested Teilhard as a good starting point for dialogue between Christianity and Marxism.(4)
Teilhard's world-affirming mysticism of action moves us in the direction of a spirituality which does not remove us from the world. At the same time, his divinization and pantheistic cosmic sense provide a basis for dialogue with Eastern mysticism, which Teilhard himself did not pursue. Teilhard's new mysticism is strangely both Eastern and Marxist. It is this spirituality, for Teilhard so thoroughly Christocentric, which deserves serious and critical consideration. The studies to which we have referred here contribute to this. But this new era in Teilhardian scholarship has only begun...
Teilhard speaks of two types of mysticism and two types of pantheism which he describes in various ways, one such way being the "road of the West" and "the road of the East." This particular expression is unfortunate since the two mysticisms are not to be identified. with West and East as such. Much of the "road of the East" can be found in Western mysticism, and likewise the "road of the West" can be found in Eastern mysticism. These represent two types of mysticism or spirituality which are well developed by Ursula King. For Teilhard the future of mysticism lies with "the road of the West" (which does not mean with the West).
For Teilhard, one of the contributions of the West to the mysticism of the future is modern science. This recalls Thomas King's discussion of Teilhard's mysticism as a mysticism of knowledge, and of knowledge of the world. There are two points within Ursula King's research that I would like to emphasize. The first hearkens back to the work of Thomas King, and the second looks toward the work by K. D. Sethna to be discussed next.
I mentioned above that Teilhard's major contribution will be in the area of spirituality. Thomas King has presented Teilhard's thought as mysticism. So likewise does Ursula King. Teilhard must be seen as having definitely contributed to the study of mysticism. Yet it is agreed that Teilhard's mysticism is a new mysticism, even if not altogether new. Thomas King describes this new mysticism as a mysticism of knowing. Ursula King describes it as a mysticism of action (pp. 216, 221). Ursula King also presents this particular mysticism as the mysticism of the future. It is not so much that Teilhard's mysticism is the new mysticism of the future but that he provides the direction for this new mysticism. Thus a thorough study of the spirituality of Teilhard is central to a study of the future of spirituality.
Secondly -- and this is a point on which Sethna's work will challenge us -- not only must Teilhard himself be surpassed, but to what degree will Christianity itself as we now know it also be surpassed? Teilhard himself spoke of meta-Christianity. What did he really mean? One of the provocative chapters in Ursula King's book concerns the very evolution of religion. The religions of the East and of the West themselves will evolve and the future of mysticism lies exclusively with neither.
K. D. Sethna's The Spirituality of the Future: A Search apropos of R. C. Zaehner's Study in Sri Aurobindo and Teilhard de Chardin is a provocative work. Mr. Sethna was born and educated in Bombay, India, and is now a member of the Sri Aurobindo Ashram in Pondicherry. The Spirituality of the Future, 314 pages, published by Fairleigh Dickinson University Press in 1981, is what the title says -- a statement about the future of spirituality along Teilhardian and Aurobindonian lines, and a response to R.C. Zaehner's 1971 study of Sri Aurobindo and Teilhard entitled Evolution in Religion (Oxford: Clarendon Press).
Read along with Toward a New Mysticism by Ursula King (who has also written of the contrast between Teilhard and Sri Aurobindo), The Spirituality of the Future presents an intellectual and spiritual challenge. Obviously the book is specialized. If someone has no background in the thought of Sri Aurobindo, the book will be more difficult. Also, since the book is a response to Zaehner, the flow of the text can be disrupted by the effort to expound Zaehner's position first. Sethna's style, however, is lucid and the research significant. There are two theses which Sethna argues well and with which many may disagree -- one concerning Teilhard, and one concerning the future.
First, Sethna is critical not only of Zaehner but of many Catholic expositions of the thought of Teilhard. These Catholic studies attempt to save Teilhard for the church by pointing to his continuity with tradition, especially with the Greek fathers, as if Teilhard's pantheism is Christian. As Teilhard has come to be more and more acceptable within Catholicism, Sethna, from outside Catholicism, seriously challenges his orthodoxy. Sethna argues that the pantheism of Teilhard is truly a pantheism unacceptable within Roman Catholicism. In fact, one of the major limitations in the thought of Teilhard flows from the unfreedom within his church (keep in mind the post-Vatican I, pre-Vatican II period within which he lived) which prevented him from going fully where his spirit was leading him. Teilhard's Catholicism stands in the way of Teilhard's spirituality, which is pantheistic in a sense fully in accord with Indian Vedanta. Teilhard was critical of Eastern thought without realizing how Eastern his own thought was.
Second, because of this constraint which prevented Teilhard from freely developing his own intuitions, Teilhard's spirituality is not the spirituality of the future, although the core Teilhardian intuition and spirit do provide the right direction. But one must go beyond Teilhard, or go where Teilhard was going without letting himself go there, and that is in the direction of the Integral Yoga of Sri Aurobindo.
Now that there is greater freedom and objectivity we ought to reconsider the question of Teilhard's pantheism which he himself carefully presented so as to make it orthodox. Yet Sethna cannot decide what is orthodox for Christianity. From within the church there can be a growth in consciousness as well. What may not have been seen as possible within the century after Vatican I may indeed become possible within the century after Vatican II. A reassessment of Teilhard, however, cannot be done apart from a profound dialogue with the East.
But, however one assesses Teilhard, orthodox or not, and his potential for the future, we must in the West take the thought of Sri Aurobindo more and more seriously. Sethna is not the first to point to the similarities and contrast between Pierre Teilhard and Sri Aurobindo. I myself have had the opportunity to team -- teach a course on these two spiritual thinkers with a man from the Ashram. We must remain open to the contributions of the East. (A good introduction to Sri Aurobindo is Morwenna Donnelly's Founding the Life Divine.(2) Eventually, however, one will want to read Aurobindo's own Synthesis of Yoga and the two volumes of The Life Divine.)
Jerome Perlinski, general secretary of the Teilhard Foundation here in the United States, has edited The Spirit of the Earth, a collection of eight essays specifically prepared for the Teilhard centennial, 148 pages, published by Seabury in 1981. Father Goergen, O.P., author of The Sexual Celibate and The Power of Love, resides in Madison, Wisconsin, and is engaged in writing a book on Christology.

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