What If Teilhard Had Been Allowed to Publish?

A Guest Post by Donald Rohmer

I’ve read that Teilhard de Chardin was forbidden to publish his work because it contradicted original sin and the resulting need for a redeemer. Teilhard struggled with the idea of original sin in the published, after his death, in Christianity and Evolution. In “Reflections on Original Sin,” he presents a theory of why original sin does not contradict evolution. I was unable to follow the argument, and probably would not have understood it even if my ebook had not dropped one or more lines of text at a crucial point in its development. But its substance is that “in this explanation original sin ceases to be an isolated act and becomes a state (affecting the human mass as a whole, as a result of an endless stream of transgressions punctuating mankind in the course of time).”

Publication of Teilhard’s groundbreaking work during his lifetime could have generated dialog between him and other scientists. Had he corresponded with zoologists, he might have had to account for the fact that the dark aspects of human nature, which we attribute to original sin, were already fully developed by the time evolution produced the earliest primates. Evolution has been driven by ruthless competition in which each individual strives, by means fair or foul, to make its genes the ones that determine the future of the species.

In A Primate’s Memoir, Robert M. Sapolsky describes some of his experiences in studying of a group of baboons to measure the effect that an individual’s status in the dominance hierarchy has on the level of stress hormones in the bloodstream. He quickly discovered that, before tranquilizing a baboon to take a blood sample, he had to make sure that any baboons who were his subject’s enemies were far away. If they came across their foe in a sedated state, they would kill him. Sapolsky’s description of baboon society made me think of a group of children left to develop without adult supervision. It’s a struggle for dominance, full of rivalries and jealousy.

Evolution has made us selfish by nature, but it has also given us the ability to rise above instinctive behavior. In one story, a male baboon whom Sapolsky named Isaac did not participate in the battles for dominance. He befriended the females, spending time with them in grooming behavior. But when a female in estrus was approached by a high-ranking male, Isaac meekly left her. He courted the younger females, who are less desirable because they are more likely to miscarry. He had a distinctive slope to his forehead, and a disproportionately large number of the group’s youngsters had that same feature. Isaac won the reproduction contest without engaging in violence, though he did sometimes have to push an old male out of the way.

In one anecdote, the dominant male had been so tyrannical that he was overthrown by a group of males, but a new dominant male had not emerged. The dominant female was in estrus. The two top contenders for the alpha male position battled over which would mate with her. When one of them was victorious and by her side, she left him and went to his rival, causing her spurned lover to attack his adversary and begin the battle anew. She repeated that behavior until both contenders were exhausted, and then she mated with Isaac.

Had Teilhard been able to discuss his ideas with other scientists, he might have concluded that the significance of the biblical creation story is not that humans are fallen, but that creation is good. In The Powers That Be, Walter Wink writes that Genesis was written while the Hebrews were captives of the Babylonians, whose creation story embodied the myth of redemptive violence so common in today’s entertainment, which tends to idolize violence as the only effective way to accomplish good in an inherently evil world. The god Marduk battled the Dragon of Chaos, brutally defeated her, and fashioned the universe from her carcass. Creation was an act of violence that vanquished evil and brought peace. In Genesis, good is prior to evil, not the other way around, and God is not violent. Violence is not essential to a harmonious universe.

Why does humanity, 3000 years after Genesis, still cling to the myth of redemptive violence? Could it be that we have focused on our helpless condition after “the fall,” and been too discouraged or lazy to do anything about it other than wait for a redeemer? I would argue that, rather than a redeemer, we need a role model, and Jesus is certainly that. His message is the clearest expression of what has essentially been the message of all religions: We are each a part of a larger whole, and the good of the whole is more important than our own individual good. By living that message to the point of death by crucifixion, Jesus taught us a lesson that today’s world must learn quickly if we are to avoid destruction by our powerful technologies. We must repent of (turn away from) following the selfish instincts bred into us by millennia of evolution. Religion based on attaining personal salvation does not provide sufficient motivation for accomplishing such an enormous task in the time we have left before we destroy ourselves by destroying our environment or through nuclear conflict. Even our unselfish acts are selfish to the extent that they are motivated by a desire for our own personal salvation. We have to shift our focus from saving ourselves to saving all of creation. I agree with Thomas Berry that Christianity needs a new creation story.

“The kingdom of God” is Jesus’s term for the next stage of evolution. He promised to help us if we try to achieve it, but we have to try. God has assigned us a crucial role in the unfolding of creation. If we succeed, it will be a glorious achievement. But our task has become urgent. The clock is ticking, and we’d better get busy before we run out of time. We’ve dawdled for far too long.

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