by WILLIAM THOMPSON-UBERUAGA
One of Teilhard de Chardin’s most appealing works, at least to this author, was The Divine Milieu, a kind of modern reformulation of the classical mystical journey from purgation to illumination to union. Yes, the divine milieu will plunge us into the purgative, into the cross. All authentic love is costly. Per crucem ad lucem, or Deformatio Christi formavit nos – favorite expressions of Augustine in his exquisite Latin. In his Pensées 66 Chardin suggested that as we enter into this divine milieu we will find ourselves moving into God without leaving the world, at “the confluence of all the forms of beauty … the ultra-vital, ultra-perceptible, ultra-active point of the universe.” And we will simultaneously “experience in the depths of our own being … the plenitude of all our powers of action and of adoration.”
The pulsing, surging, poetic quality of Chardin’s rhetoric was one of his special gifts, and I suspect one of the key reasons for his influence and appeal. The attractive beauty of the truth becoming luminous in his prose attracts us readers and draws us into that divine milieu. If we follow the combined insights of the traditional wisdom of the religions and before that of our cave-painting paleolithic ancestors, we might perhaps say that we are always and everywhere within that divine milieu, which of course Chardin was also arguing (it is our milieu). Chardin was looking at that milieu, it seems, in more dynamic and “evolving” terms: We are moving into it, to plunge into it, etc. And I think he was suggesting in his observations on love that it is perhaps the “personalizing” and “totalizing” power of love which most deeply forms that divine milieu, in its origins and in its movement forward (Pensées 72). All of this is, so to speak, our “primary field.”
It is a grand illusion to imagine that we do not dwell in this primary field. But alas, it also seems to be what we do imagine. So we speak about reconnecting, needing to link up, finding our way (back) to something lost, etc. It is as if we dwell in another, or perhaps in multiple (sub)milieux, various kinds of “secondary fields,” some of which may have their positive role, as long as they are humbly aware of their subalternate status, and others of which are simply harmful and need to be “left behind.” Michael Polanyi’s “Focal Awareness” of any particular moment may well be an awareness within one or another of these subalternate, secondary fields; but always, somewhere, is the “tacit dimension” of the primary field, whose luminous light might be very tacit indeed, like a very distant galaxy billions of years in the distance, whose lights so far only very dimly shine through.
Chardin’s writings have been described as utopian in the bad sense, a kind of fantasy literature, because they are too overladen with a positive, forward moving philosophical substrate of evolution toward the higher and better. Johannes Metz, in reaction to this trend (whether he had Chardin only or fully in view, I am unsure) wanted to give more emphasis to the biblical category of the “apocalyptic,” because it made room for a radical caesursa, a break, a devolution, almost a “wiping clean” and “starting again.” Metz’apocalyptic rhetoric was likewise pulsating and evocative, but he was seeking to point toward the aporiae of suffering and evil, especially of a catastrophic kind (the Holocaust, for example).
Gregory Baum, in his recent theological biography, The Oil Has Not Run Dry, similarly wrote that “already in the 1960s I failed to be persuaded by Pierre de Chardin’s evolutionary interpretation of the Christian message: the New Testament does not tell us how human history will end – in fulfillment or catastrophe” (57). He is writing in the context of a discussion about the demonic in history, focusing upon the Nazi Holocaust.
These reservations about the forward pull of the Chardinian vision are introduced here as a cautionary note. His writings on suffering and evil, noted strongly in his little classic, The Divine Milieu, and to some extent elsewhere, need a careful hearing. Those much more learned than I in Chardin’s writings may be able to point to dimensions manifesting a sensitivity similar to Metz’ and Baum’s. Ilia Delio has pointed to his Pensées 21 (in Hymn of the Universe, where we find them in English) in her Making All Things New (93-97), where Chardin writes eloquently of the “potential energy” in suffering. It need not be all waste and emptiness, he believed. “If all those who suffer in the world were to unite their sufferings so that the pain of the world should become one single grand act of consciousness, of sublimation, of unification, would not this be one of the most exalted forms in which the mysterious work of creation could be manifested to our eyes?”
I have the sense that Chardin’s gaze is on the cosmos in its amplitude, galaxy upon galaxy, upon billions of galaxies. The evolutionary and anti-evolutionary movements of our humanly inhabited planet is not the entire “primary field.” The divine milieu is an infinite milieu, for Chardin. The evolutionary thrust of the cosmos is an indication of this milieu’s rootedness in the divine Ground, but the many secondary fields within that cosmos argue for the hesitations of a Baum and the interruptions and caesurae of apocalyptic. But for Chardin, and for perhaps all mystics, the primary field’s thrust is forward-moving, toward personalization and totalization (love). Suffering and evil are secondary, not primary. Although they are very real. But not the Realissimum of the mystics. They represent the “reality” of our movement into the plenitude of the Real.
But the pressures of the anti-evolutionary forces (evil in a large sense) within our “secondary fields,” whether of family, ethnicity, tribe, society, nation, church/religion, economy and politics, and the “pull” of the wounds of our personal and collective memories, not to mention simple human ignorance – all of these can work to overwhelm the grounding trust and confidence that comes with our rootedness within the primary field of the divine milieu. This grounding trust, which issues forth in our “fidelity” to the pull of love in Chardin’s ample sense, what the scholastic theologians called the fides qua, the fundamental “faith by which” we live, as distinguished from the fides quae, those “things” (doctrine, teachings, etc.) in which we believe – can undergo severe pressure from our side.
And if we lose trust, or “faith” in this deep down sense, then we also lose hope. It seems to me not accidental that St. Paul listed faith, hope, and love together (1 Cor 13:13; Col 1:4-5; 1 Thes 1:3). For Paul, love is the greatest of the three (1 Cor 13:13), for it is in this context the infinite and all-expansive love of divine agape as reflected in us humans. Perhaps by thinking of it as the greatest he is thinking of it as the source of faith and hope. In a way, love evolves into faithful trust and hope. Incipit exire qui incipit amare (Who begins to love begins to go out …), wrote Augustine, reflecting upon Ps 64:2 (Septuagint). Love “goes out” into trust and hope, we might say.
But without trust/faith and hope, can love flourish? If love (in our “supreme sense of Divine Love) is the grounding Realissimum, we believe it cannot be defeated. Our Christian belief in the resurrection of Jesus gestures toward this. And so it would seem that trust and hope, however dimmed, can break through. And perhaps the saints and mystics and sages and martyrs and prophets reinforce this belief. These are the primary places I would look. Institutions, important as they are, in the end reflect the “souls” which establish and use them. At some point, institutions yield to the souls. This is the insight of Jesus, of Plato, of Confucius, of Lao Tzu, and more.
Just now “down here” on our planet earth, it would seem that the primary field of the divine milieu is heavily suffused with the secondary field of distrust (lack of grounding faith), and so signs of a loss of hope too (fright, flight, and fight), especially in the religious, social, economic, and political arenas. For love, faith, and hope move together, and their distortions as well.
Might there be a special bond between the saints, mystics, sages, prophets, and martyrs (who witness to truth, goodness, and beauty), a bond which arises from their “connections” within the primary field of the divine milieu, which releases the love, trust, and hope upon which we all count, and which sustains us in times of massive distrust and increasing loss of hope? To some extent studies in the evolution of altruism in the areas of neuroscience, psychology, and sociology, and noted in a pioneer way by Pitrim Sorokin’s Ways and Power of Love, coalesce with Chardin’s scientific intuitions, in this regard. But this love field is a something whose extent bursts beyond all such studies. “In the communion of all of these, let us commend ourselves, and one another, and all our life, to Christ our God” (The Book of Common Prayer, Prayers of the People, Form 1, echoing the Byzantine Divine Liturgy).
William Thompson-Uberuaga, an episcopal priest, is an emeritus professor of theology, Duquesne University; past president of the Catholic Theological Society of America; author of numerous books, among which is Christ and Consciousness: Exploring Christ’s Contribution to Human Consciousness and Jesus and the Gospel Movement: Not Afraid to Be Partners. His Your Kin-dom Come: The Lord’s Prayer in a Global Age is forthcoming from Cascade Books.
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