Planetization and New Spiritual Paradigms for the Earth:Explorations in Dialogue With

Planetization and New Spiritual Paradigms for the Earth:Explorations in Dialogue With

«Planetization and New Spiritual Paradigms for the Earth:Explorations in Dialogue with

Pierre Teilhard de Chardin and Raimon Panikkar»


Ursula King[1]


It is a great honour to participate in this joint conference on Pierre Teilhard de Chardin (1881-1955) and Raimon Panikkar (1918-2010) during the 2015 Milan Expo which is held on the theme “Feeding the Planet – Energy for Life” – a great topic congenial to both thinkers. Commenting on the ideas of these two outstanding Catholic universalists is also a daunting task, since it is impossible to do justice to the thought of two most remarkable human beings in such a short time. Both have left a vast corpus of writings dealing with many important themes in science, philosophy, theology and spirituality, and countless people around the globe have been inspired by their life, vision and thought.

Both men belong primarily to the twentieth century, although Teilhard’s roots reach back into the nineteenth, and Panikkar’s life stretched to the end of the first decade of the twenty-first century. Their lives overlapped by 37 years but they never met in person. Panikkar’s work first emerged into wider public awareness only after Teilhard’s death, but in later years comparisons were made between the two great thinkers, and Panikkar himself occasionally refers in his books to some of Teilhard’s thought in passing. However different, both thinkers share certain similar perspectives, especially when they refer to a threefold dimension of reality as “cosmic, human, and divine” which Panikkar often names “cosmotheandrism”.The idea of “theandrism”, of an integral relationship between the divine and the human, is found as far back at Maximus the Confessor (c.580-662). It is an ancient theme in Christian theology, closely connected with the understanding of the Incarnation, whereas the explicitly listed “cosmic dimension”, also present in nascent form in earlier texts, has by now acquired a new, rich meaning through the contemporary still growing knowledge of the complex evolution of the entire cosmos and all life.

So what is the meaning of this threefold cosmic-human-divine reality in Teilhard de Chardin and Panikkar? How significant is their vision within an evolutionary world? Both thinkers are well aware of the epic of evolution, and the impact of evolutionary becoming on all realms of human experience and self-understanding. Both were deeply influenced by the developments of modern science and the emergence of a new Earth consciousness, as also by what Teilhard perceived as the accelerating process of “planetization”. What does this mean for humanity’s further self-evolution and its understanding of Spirit? Will the new Earth consciousness lead to a new Earth community, and to new spiritual paradigms? In other words, will humans be able to discover the great wisdom of the Earth? Can they detect a spiritual significance and purpose in the dynamic process of evolution?

I will return to these questions later, after I have briefly presented Panikkar’s and Teilhard’s ideas and discussed some of their most salient insights. Before I do so, I want to say something about my personal connection to these two thinkers. I first encountered Teilhard de Chardin’s ideas when I was a philosophy and theology student in Paris in 1962; since then I have spent many years studying his works and writing on him. I never met him personally, but over the years I met and interviewed many people who were either personally related to him or knew him well as a colleague, personal friend, or member of the Jesuit order. As we have heard much about Teilhard this morning I will not say more about him now, but come directly to Panikkar.

Panikkar was a thinker bridging many different worlds: his Indian and Spanish background, his education in different countries, his research in several disciplines, and his teaching, travels and life experience in Europe, India and America. He first attracted considerable attention through his 1964 book The Unknown Christ of Hinduism, towards which he later took a critical, revisionist stance in an enlarged edition of 1981, now superseded by a completely revised text published in Italian in 2008.[2] Shortly after reading this book in its original 1964 version, I met Panikkar personally in Delhi, at the Indian Philosophical Congress Meeting in December 1965, and we remained in contact ever since, until he passed away in 2010. For many years he moved between India and the USA, where he taught first at Harvard University(1966-1971) and then at the University of California, Santa Barbara (1971-1987), before returning to live again in Spain, though travelling extensively until his very last years.

Panikkar’s works cover such wide-ranging perspectives in theology, philosophy and the comparative study of religions that no single author could possibly cover them all equally well. Who could capture all the facets of the daring vision of this foremost intercultural and interreligious thinker who wrote in several European languages for over fifty years? Some good studies on particular aspects of Panikkar’s thought exist, but they are far too numerous to be mentioned here. I only draw attention to the multi-faceted discussions in the volume edited by Joseph Prabhu (who knew Panikkar well),The Intercultural Challenge of Raimon Panikkar,[3]but it is far from up-to-date.

For those interested in the theology of religions and interreligious dialogue, one of the most comprehensive studies comes from the Finnish theologian Jyri Komulainen (who only met Panikkar once), An Emerging Cosmotheoandric Religion? Raimon Panikkar’s Pluralistic Theology of Religions.[4]It also critically discusses many other topics of Panikkar’s large oeuvre within the context of a dialogue of cultures and civilizations and the challenges of pluralism. The publication of Panikkar’s Opera Omnia in some 20 volumes is well under way in Italy, and Orbis Books in the USA is publishing an English edition.

Let us now look more closely at Teilhard’s and Panikkar’s cosmic vision and spiritual paradigms.

Pierre Teilhard de Chardin’s Cosmic Vision

Our experience of the whole natural world or the biosphere is today very much related to the experience of one planet in terms of our scientific knowledge, but also in terms of our perception of the living world as a great, wondrous, and ever so vulnerable habitat threatened by many a disaster. Teilhard de Chardin realized earlier than most that we all live on one and the same planet; we form one humanity, however different and torn apart. We share a common destiny and a common responsibility for the future of life on earth and for our own, human future. Teilhard often referred to “the sense of the earth” or “the spirit of the Earth” or even “Mother Earth” whose wisdom he admired. His first essay “Cosmic Life” (1916) is dedicated “To Terra Mater, and through her to Christ Jesus, above all things”.[5] Inspired by the work of the Austrian scientist Eduard Suess who first suggested the term “biosphere” in 1875 and wrote a multi-volume work onThe Face of the Earth (1883-1909), Teilhard used the title of this book for along article he contributed to Les Etudes in 1921[6] where he described this face of the earth as one of mountains, continents and oceans. He gave as a reason for using these words “that they admirably express and resume the results reached by geological science in the last half-century. The earth has a physiognomy, a countenance, a face.”[7]

It is important to remember, even in connection with understanding his key concept of the noosphere, that Teilhard de Chardin’s consciousness of the immensity of the earth and its peoples, their common origin and destiny and their place in nature, was deeply rooted in and nourished by his geological and biological studies, his extensive travels in North Africa and Asia, especially in China, but also by his experience of the global war of the trenches. I cannot say more about this here but have discussed this in detail elsewhere.[8] But this planetary sense of the Earth provides the roots and overall context of Teilhard’s cosmic vision.

The indispensable key for unlocking the experiential and mystical quality of Teilhard’s entire oeuvre is his late autobiographical essay “The Heart of Matter” 1950)[9]; a further elaboration of this mystical vision is found in “The Christic” (1955),[10] completed shortly before his death.

In “The Heart of Matter” (1950) Teilhard describes a divine “diaphany”, a “shining through”, a luminous transparency of divine presence, energy and power in all living things. He singles out three components as the defining characteristics of this vision. These are the “cosmic – human – christic” elements which provide several parallels with Panikkar’s “cosmotheandric experience”S.[11]These three elements represent a great vision. I will discuss each element separately, although all three are closely interlinked and interdependent.

1. The Cosmic or the Evolutive: Teilhard understood by this the overwhelming appeal of matter, the haunting beauty of the natural world, the immensity of cosmic evolution, the exhilarating dynamism of the forces of life. From a young age he had been aware of a strong attraction to nature, of seeking and finding a sense of plenitude in his discovery of the wonders of the earth, but also a sense of well- being, a wholeness of body, mind and spirit, making him feel part of a much larger reality. The discovery of evolution—not as an outward mechanical process, but as a dynamic, living pattern in an evolutively unfolding universe - brought a tremendous breakthrough in his psychological, intellectual, and religious life. It tore apart the rigid divisions of the traditional dualism between matter and spirit by making him realize that these were not two separate realities, but two aspects of one and the same reality, blazing matter disclosing the fire of spirit. The understanding of the meaning of evolution occurred to him through his scientific excavations at the time when he was undertaking his theological studies at Hastings (in the South of England, situated by the sea and endowed with many cliffs full of fossils). It had a radically transforming effect on his entire outlook; he later spoke of the “revolutionary effect that this transposition of value…produced upon my understanding, upon my prayer and action.” [12]

These nature experiences strongly reverberate through his first war essay “Cosmic Life” (1916) which bears the motto “There is a communion with God, and a communion with earth, and a communion with God through earth.”[13] This essay describes his awakening to the cosmos, the mystical experience of nature as a sense of oneness and cosmic consciousness. Through much searching and wrestling he eventually discovered the presence of God and the formation of Christ’s body in all of nature.

With extraordinary insight and great poetic gift Teilhard celebrated the spiritual power of matter, source of all energy, and crucible of spirit. His powerful attraction to matter—matter ensouled, divinized, and holy—culminates in a hymn of praise to “The Spiritual Power of Matter”. The heart of matter, the heart of reality is infused with divine power and presence, it is “the hand of God, the flesh of Christ”.[14] That is why Teilhard could embrace the universe in an act of communion and union, praising matter in a hymn of exultation as the matrix of spirit: “I bless you, matter . . . I acclaim you as the divine milieu, charged with creative power, as the ocean stirred by the Spirit, as the clay molded and infused with life by the incarnate Word.”[15]

2. The Humanor the Convergent: Together with his cosmic sense Teilhard developed a strong sense of the human. This first emerged in full during his experience of the Great War of 1914-18. His grasp of the “human phenomenon” on earth was subsequently greatly enhanced through his life in China and his travels around the world. It was soon after the First World War that, in analogy to the term “biosphere”, he coined the new word “noosphere” in collaboration with his philosopher friend Edouard Le Roy. This concept, so closely related to our understanding of the globe as a planet – a “sphere” - points to an important spiritual reality: it describes a layer of interactive thinking and interdependent action, and ultimately of collaborative love among people and human groups around the globe. It is an invisible, yet real layer enveloping our planet like the living forms of the biosphere or the atmosphere in which we live and breathe.

According to Teilhard, an accelerating movement towards greater unification is spreading across the earth like an invisible spiritual membrane through the rise of consciousness. He realized that, in spite of the turmoil of war, humankind is drawing more closely together within the ongoing process of evolutionary becoming to form a new, greater unity. This is a new, complex synthesis of a higher order wherein the earlier evolutionary processes of divergence are superseded by processes of complexification and convergence which produce something new altogether whose ultimate outcome or spiritual summit Teilhard called “Omega”.

He wrote extensively on the significance of the human phenomenon, not only in his magnum opus The Human Phenomenon (1938-40), but in many passages throughout his works. These express the significance of the human being within the overall development of the universe. He was much concerned with the urgent problem of human action and with the kind of choices humanity faces, as also with the question of what spiritual energy resources are needed for maintaining and developing the dynamics of the noosphere. He often pointed out the need to feed the zest or ardour for life, and for developing an appropriate human energetics to do so.[16]

The greatest spiritual resource is represented by the powers of love, understood in a deeply Christian incarnational sense. The theme of love, also linked to the unitive element of the feminine mentioned as another important aspect of his thinking in “The Heart of Matter”, is so central in his thought that his entire work can be rightly called a metaphysic and mysticism of love. Teilhard de Chardin was convinced that we must study the powers of love as the most sacred spiritual energy resource in the same way that we study and research everything else in the world. As he wrote in 1934: “The day will come when, after harnessing the ether, the winds, the tides, gravitation, we shall harness for God the energies of love. And, on that day, for the second time in the history of the world, man will have discovered fire.”[17]

3. The Christic, or centric: This third dimensions expresses a particular perception of the Divine which focuses on a Christic element as an energizing divine presence or centre, “a fire” in all things which he described as both a “heart” and a “divine milieu”, a centre and an all-pervading environment. Teilhard’s experience of the Divine is closely linked to the cosmos and centred on the cosmic Christ, incarnate as heart and centre of every element and reality in the universe. Christ is a “God with us”, described in a 1918 essay as “The Soul of the World”.[18] Teilhard’s powerful perception of the pervasive, immanent presence of the Divine within the universe is developed in greater details in his book The Divine Milieu.[19]

The divine presence in the world is this mysterious “milieu” radiating like an “atmosphere” throughout all levels of the universe, through matter, life and human experience. We are immersed in this milieu; it can invade our whole being and transform us. Teilhard called it also a “mystical milieu” and a “divine ocean” in which our soul may be swept away and divinized. All realities, all experiences, all our activities, all our joys and suffering have this potential for divinization, for being set on fire through the outpouring of divine love.

For Teilhard the essence of spiritual practice is to establish ourselves in the divine milieu, to become part of it, to live and die in it. Thus we can find plenitude and fullness of being, which lead us to the Omega point, identified with “Christ-Omega”, the incarnate flesh of Christ in matter.

To be surrounded by and live in the divine milieu is celebrated in the hymn-like offering of all human experiences, of toil and pain, and of the earth itself, in “The Mass on the World”.[20] To say “a Mass on all thing” had been Teilhard’s prayerful meditation practice in the trenches of World War I when he was unable to celebrate the Catholic Mass, wherein bread and wine are offered up on the altar of a church. In 1923, when he was on an expedition on the Yellow River in China, he was in a similar situation. Instead of saying Mass in a church, he symbolically offered the entire cosmos to God at the moment of sunrise. Thus he left us his great visionary and inspirational prayer of “The Mass on the World”. This celebrates the magnificent grandeur, power and beauty of the divine milieu, the milieu that Teilhard loved so intensely, the ambience in which he lived, worked and died.

His deep, Christ-centred mysticism is already vividly expressed in an early, intensely lyrical essay written in 1916, during the First World War, entitled “Christ in the World of Matter”.[21] On the walls of a church where he had gone to pray, there was a picture representing “Christoffering his heart”. Suddenly the outlines of this isolated, individual figure of the human Jesus shown in the painting were melting away, radiating outwards towards infinity so that the entire universe was vibrant with movement, energy, and life: “All this movement seemed to emanate from Christ, and above all from his heart.” He writes, “I will not dwell on the feeling of rapture produced in me by this revelation of the universe placed between Christ and myself . . . I live at the heart of a single, unique Element, the centre of the universe and present in each part of it: personal Love and cosmic Power.” It is God who is “the heart of everything” and that is “why even war does not disconcert me”.[22]