Several weeks ago I met my first real Teilhard opponent. She was a religion scholar from Indiana University and was quite adamant that Teilhard was a naïve optimist with a radical anthropocentrism. His vision, she claimed, was ultimately harmful to a committed ecological presence. I was a bit shocked by the gross misinterpretation of Teilhard and though I tried to offer a more balanced understanding of his vision, she was clearly opposed to it. She had her own narrative on ecological wholeness and Teilhard simply did not fit in. And then it dawned on me. We are living together with a multiplicity of narratives, side by side, sharing conference space and coffee cups, assuming that the next person sees the world as I do, until we start to talk.
Language is one of the most characteristic marks of human evolution. As we evolved from homo neanderthalis to homo sapiens, our brain size increased and symbolic language centers emerged. We are a cognitive, linguistic species and symbolic stories are our trademark. The word “myth” describes symbolic stories that have powerful meaning. Myth is a combination of fact, fiction, and imagination. The gravity of the myth is its ability to shape lives by providing symbolic stories that provoke the imagination and kindle some type of action.
All religions are governed by myth which are so powerful and compelling that they override the insights of modern science. For all practical purposes, it really does not matter what science tells us. The Christian myth prominently holds the symbols of heaven and hell pictured in a three-tiered universe (as the ancients conceived the universe.) It also says that evil and death abound because of the sin of Adam and Eve. Who cares what modern science has to say about the slow work of evolution or the fact that Adam and Eve never existed as a single couple or that biologically a universal condition is not possible by a single pair of genes. Even more so who cares what biology has to say about death in the overall fecundity of life. We can flip to other myths such as the Thomistic medieval synthesis. This myth is extremely powerful today because it is offers a structured understanding of God, creation, and the human person. The metaphysics of St. Thomas is not to be reckoned with even though the philosophy is that of the ancient philosopher Aristotle and the medieval Islamic philosopher, Avicenna. Words like substance, form, matter, spirit are all woven into a beautiful myth of divine being providentially gracing the created order. Thomistic scholars are brilliant at forging medieval philosophy with concepts from modern science, rendering at times a plausible consonance between medieval philosophy and quantum physics.
The power of religious myth governs the hierarchical Church, academic theology and most of all, the person in the pew. While I see an increasing interest in the relationship between science and religion, I see little to no effort to shift the paradigm of Christian life in the direction of evolution. Modern science slips away in the face of religious myth—and we are losing our grip on reality. We are becoming increasingly tribalized, polarized, and entrenched in our political, social, and ecclesial positions because we have competing myths. We are, for all practical purposes, a species ripe for extinction, and artificial intelligence (AI) is getting smarter at accelerating the transition from homo sapiens to posthumans. AI offers a new compelling myth, especially for those who have abandoned religious myth. The AI myth says that chips are our destiny and technology can enable us to live longer, happier, healthier, and smarter. In the world of AI, however, we are not human persons—we are algorithims—informational matrices managed by hackers or robots. The AI myth says that we will be a radically new techno-being by 2050, if we do not extinguish ourselves through the progressive trends in global warming.
Elon Musk fears AI and his concerns are not to be undermined. AI technology has usurped human freedom, creativity, and the ability to dwell in the oikos, the household of nature. The aims of technology are the aims of religion, namely, to save ourselves from suffering through chips, to overcome death through digital immortality, and to attain a better, happier life. It does not matter that most human workers will lose their jobs to AI in less than twenty years or that AI will be affordable only to those with money. AI has replaced God in our everyday lives, which makes the Church of Google much more powerful than the Catholic Church.
Teilhard de Chardin had a depth of vision that anticipated the emergence of a new world, including the world of technology. He clearly saw that if we did not get on board with evolution as religious people, as Christians, Buddhists, Muslims, Jews, as political, social and cultural citizens, we would asphyxiate and ultimately annihilate ourselves. His vision is breathtaking in its cosmic scope and it is a vision that is at once theological, scientific, cultural, political, social, and technological. God is doing new things and what Teilhard sought to achieve was a new myth, a new religious story that could animate our lives, enkindle them with a zest for evolution, and for the emergence of the Christic, that is, the emergence of God through a greater consciousness of divine love binding the whole of life into a living community.
Our Omega Conference this July (20-21) on “Christianity as Planetary Faith” is not a nice idea for those who have a free Saturday. It is a wake-up call to the fact that without bringing science and faith into a fruitful engagement, without seeing that God is in evolution and not simply the author of evolution, that sin, death, salvation, and redemption take on new meaning in evolution. The whole point of the Risen Christ is our human capacity to become a new type of person who can do new things for a new earth, and without bringing these understandings into a new religious myth (or myths) that animates our lives and focuses our energies in a new direction, we face the possibility of extinction.
We have the capacity for a new world (“a new heaven and a new earth”) but we must choose how this new world will unfold. It will take a new theology, a new person, a new religion and a new church. Teilhard himself envisioned a new religion of the earth and his beautiful “Mass on the World” is a glimpse of how a new way of worship might enkindle new evolutive action.
The current threshold we stand on offers us no alternative but to become a posthuman or a humanoid (human-robot) species up ahead. Is this what we want for future generations? Synthetic humanoids operated robotically? If we want a different world, we must become a different people.
Join us in Kansas on July 20-21, 2018 and we will talk together, share our stories, and see how Teilhard’s ideas on planetization can guide us in the third millennium.