An Excerpt from Rediscovering Teilhard’s Fire

An Excerpt from Rediscovering Teilhard’s Fire

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Read the rest of Rediscovering Teilhard’s Fire (Kathleen Duffy, editor) by purchasing the book at

Is Darwinism Sufficient?

Darwinian biology provides a relatively simple explanation of life’s diversity, and the notion of natural selection can also say why many organisms eventually acquired a high degree of sentience and a capacity to experience pain. From an evolutionary point of view such attributes give organisms an adaptive advantage over those less generously endowed with feelings. The capacity for suffering can serve the cause of survival and reproduction by allowing an organism to be informed when it is in danger. Were it not able to feel pain an organism could easily acquiesce in its own extinction. Today some scientific naturalists, in particular those impressed by Darwinian explanation, claim that the survival of genes is the ultimate reason why suffering occurs in the life-world. The intensity of suffering is often excessive, but to the evolutionary naturalist such overkill is not surprising in a purposeless universe.

But can Darwinian naturalism account fully for the emergence of either sentience or suffering, especially since these can be actualized only if there first exist subjects that can feel? Subjectivity, if it is indeed an aspect of nature, also needs explaining. And, given the abstract, public, and objectifying method of acquiring scientific understanding, one must ask whether modern science, including Darwinian biology, can tell us anything about the inner worlds of actual subjects. Science has no formal access to the mysteriously hidden world of subjectivity (animal as well as human), even though evolutionary biology makes no sense unless sentient, struggling subjects are assumed to exist. Scientific method limits its attention to what is objectively or publicly accessible, and so it always leaves out any focus on the insideness of suffering organisms. It is only by a nonscientific, “personal” empathy rather than by an objectifying method of study that scientists can attribute sentience and suffering to organisms at all.

As Teilhard rightly asserts, however, the subjectivity or insideness of sentient life is as much a part of nature as rocks and rivers. Science cannot see subjects as such, but this does not mean that subjects are not part of the cosmos. Natural selection can help explain why nervous systems become more complex and hence why sentience and suffering can become more intense in the course of natural history. But no science as such can get inside of subjects or explain why subjectivity has found its way into nature in the first place.16

Moreover, according to Darwin sentient subjects have to struggle for existence. Struggling, of course, is an instance of striving, but it is only subjects that can strive or aim intentionally at achieving a goal. According to philosopher Michael Polanyi living beings can be identified as alive only because they are centered and striving, able either to succeed or fail in the attainment of their goals. That is, living beings act according to the “logic of achievement.”17 Living beings, unlike nonliving, exert effort, and it is only because of our own personal experience of striving, succeeding, and failing that we can recognize, by way of personal rather than scientific knowing, that other sentient beings are also subjects able to strive, struggle, and suffer.18 Since conventional science has no room for subjects in its maps of the world, it has no way of accounting in a founda20onal way for suffering either. Darwinism, insofar as it is scientific, presupposes but does not account for subjectivity, sentience, and striving.19

One of the important contributions of Teilhard to the discussion of suffering in evolution is that he held on stubbornly to the obvious fact of subjectivity, or insideness, and made it an integral aspect of his vision of nature. He even wanted to expand the scientific method beyond its usual meaning so that it would embrace both the inside and outside of nature. I believe this was a strategic mistake, but it is only fair to point out that his reason for doing so was to ensure that empirically minded thinkers would not leave out any aspect of nature, including what cannot be fully objectified. Teilhard cannot be blamed for seeking a wider empiricism than modern science practices.

In any case, the scientistic requirement that subjectivity be banished from a truly enlightened picture of nature is impossible to obey consistently. Even contemporary gene-centered Darwinism, for example, cannot cleanse from its own discourse oblique references to subjectivity. Instead it simply displaces the implicitly acknowledged subjectivity of living beings onto clusters of genes intent upon accomplishing their own aims. In neo-Darwinian writings the logic of achievement remains obvious in spite of almost desperate evolutionist attempts to exorcize it from an enlightened view of nature. Matt Ridley, for example, employs the category of subjectivity when he says we must “think of genes as analogous to active and cunning individuals.” 20 [Emphasis added] Ridley knows that biologists should ideally avoid all reference to subjects, but in biology’s contemporary discourse genes are endowed with intentionality and even personality. “A gene has only one criterion by which posterity judges it: whether it becomes an ancestor of other genes. To a large extent it must achieve that at the expense of other genes.”21 [Emphasis added] Genes, Ridley goes on, form strategies to ensure their survival.22 Here the logic of achievement shows up in what is supposed to be purely scientific understanding.

The lesson is that science cannot completely disregard subjectivity, try as it might. Evolutionary biology is right in saying that suffering is adaptive, but it cannot by itself account for the mystery of interiority. It cannot tell us why subjects able to sense, struggle, and suffer came into the universe at all. This breakdown in consistency carries over into Darwinian attempts to explain fully why human subjects engage in religious striving, why they cannot help looking for appropriate theodicies, and why religions are so persistent. Religious persons are themselves instances of striving that can be located in an unbroken evolutionary succession of struggling subjects—going all the way back to the most primitive instances of life. Religious subjects strive to find pathways beyond evil, suffering, and death.23 Thus religion is a most concentrated instance of life’s perpetual striving. And, since all striving arises from within the hidden world of subjects, one may conclude that Darwinian biology cannot carry us inside the world of religion any more than it can take us inside any kind of subjectivity. Evolutionary accounts rightly note that suffering and religion can be adaptive, but the actual subjective experiential content of suffering and religion is no more reducible to adaptation than the words on this page are reducible to ink and paper. Darwinian processes may still be operative at some level in the worlds of feeling, thought, and faith, but evolutionary science can tell us very little about what is really going on in these worlds.

Teilhard and Theodicy after Darwin

However, if a Darwinian account of suffering is inadequate, what shape must a religious theodicy assume in an age of evolution? It seems to me that theodicy cannot remain exactly the same after Darwin as it was before. Science has now demonstrated that there have been millions of years of struggle and suffering in life prior to our own emergence as a distinct species. This fact, it seems to me, raises significant questions about the one-sidedly anthropocentric focus of classical theology’s treatment of suffering. Suffering is a characteristic of all of life, as Buddhism makes clear, and so any convincing theodicy must take into account the larger biological domain, not just that of humans and their struggles. Any theodicy that remains oblivious to the pre-human evolutionary trail of striving, pain, disease, predation, and extinction is leaving out something essential to a theologically rich understanding of God, creation, and redemption. What happens in the wider cosmic drama and life-story must now be made integral to any careful theological treatment of life’s suffering.

Above all, this will mean that the theme of expiation, where guilt must be paid for by suffering, cannot plausibly function any longer as the foundation of theodicy. As the Book of Job had long ago complained, the idea that suffering exists in order to expiate guilt has no applicability wherever suffering is innocent. And Christian interpretations of Jesus’ suffering as substitutionary satisfaction for human sin provide no answer to why animals or infants suffer and what the meaning of this suffering might be.24 The expiatory understanding of suffering, nevertheless, still influences much religious thought and popular spirituality. When Christians look for meaning in suffering they are still under the spell of ancient mythic theodicies that interpreted suffering as the outcome of free human acts of rebellion, beginning with the spoiling of an original cosmic perfection. Such an emphasis will be exposed as inadequate, however, as soon as theology and theodicy connect religious belief with the whole story of suffering in evolution.

Teilhard’s thought is especially relevant to this project because it views suffering in the context of an unfinished creation rather than exclusively in terms of expiation. In the wake of Darwin and contemporary cosmology it is difficult, Teilhard often points out, to conceive of any time in the past when the cosmos had attained perfection.25 Logically speaking, then, the cosmos would have been imperfect from the beginning. There would always have been a dark side to the cosmos.26 Consequently, no loss of primordial perfection could ever have occurred, and thus any reason to expiate an imagined initial transgression would be ruled out. The cosmological assumptions that undergird the need for expiation, self-punishment, resentment, and victimization have now been overturned.

Theodicies centered on the idea of expiation have, of course, been influenced especially by the biblical story of Adam and Eve and their expulsion from paradise. This narrative is an expression of what philosopher Paul Ricoeur calls the “ethical vision of existence” which attributes the cause of suffering to human guilt.27 The ethical vision assumes that wherever suffering exists it must have been caused by human acts of disobedience. Guilt must be paid for in the sterling of suffering in order to balance the books. Consequently, as Teilhard observes, a tendency toward scapegoating has come into human history—and still exists—as the tragic underside of the expiatory strain of Christian theodicy.28 One of the sad consequences ofhis kind of theodicy is that it inevitably leads people to expect punishment and/or look for culprits wherever suffering shows up, no matter how innocent the suffering really is.29 What is intended to provide an answer to the theodicy problem ends up contributing even more misery to the cumulative history of suffering. Teilhard is deeply disturbed by the narrowness of such a perspective:

In spite of the subtle distinctions of the theologians, it is a matter of fact that Christianity has developed under the over-riding impression that all the evil round us was born from an initial transgression. So far as dogma is concerned we are still living in the atmosphere of a universe in which what matters most is reparation and expiation. The vital problem, both for Christ and us, is to get rid of a stain. This accounts for the importance, at least in theory, of the idea of sacrifice, and for the interpretation almost exclusively in terms of purification. It explains, too, the pre-eminence in Christology of the idea of redemption and the shedding of blood.30

Teilhard is not denying that life is sacrificial. What he is questioning is the entrenched religious habit of associating pain primarily with expiation. For Teilhard the fact of suffering, along with all other kinds of evil, gains a foothold in a more fundamental cosmic “fault,” namely, that God’s creation is still unfinished. Therefore, what needs explaining, even more than the fact of suffering, is why God would create an unfinished universe to begin with. Teilhard’s answer is that any other kind of initial creation would be theologically inconceivable. An initially finished creation would be frozen everlastingly in a finalized state, with no room left for more being. Such a product would be dead on arrival, for in its fixed completeness it would have no room for a future, freedom, or even life. Above all, it would not be truly other than God. It would not be a world at all.31

The idea of an initially finished or perfected creation, it needs to be emphasized, is not incidental to the expiatory version of theodicy. Cosmology, contrary to those theologians who dismiss its importance, does indeed make a great difference theologically. The idea of a static universe, for example, allowed theology for centuries to assume that God’s original creation was perfect and complete, and that this primordial perfection was then violated by an “initial transgression.” If a perfect creation existed in the beginning and then became defiled by human guilt, it is tempting to look for someone or something to blame for such a breach. And then it is also easy to picture redemption as a return to paradise, and to understand all suffering as penalty for an original fault. For if one assumes an originally perfect creation then the initial transgression that messed everything up will seem so momentous as to require a proportionate penalty. Before geology, evolutionary biology, and Big Bang cosmology came along it was much easier for theology and spirituality to suspect that suffering is essentially punishment than it is afterwards.

Yet no matter how tidy and appealing this Adamic vision may initially appear to be as an answer to the question of suffering, it has all too readily accommodated the history of self-righteous acts of blame, witch-hunting, and other kinds of revenge. The inner logic of an expiatory understanding, after all, is to demand that things be made right once again, and suffering can easily be understood as an essential part of restitution. In a pre-evolutionary universe, setting things right is likely to imply the restoration of a perfection that once was and is now no more. It is by going back to the perfection of the cosmic past, rather than forward toward a radically new creation that the expiatory religious imagination is inclined to envisage redemption.

However, as Teilhard’s many writings imply, the fact of an evolving, and hence unfinished, universe, alters dramatically the cosmic context in which theology and theodicy must now function if they are to be believable. If the universe, as Teilhard emphasizes, is still coming into being, if it is even now being drawn toward a new future from its original condition of fragmentation and simplicity, it could never have existed in any initial state of perfection. The universe, in a sense, does not fully exist even yet, so how could it have been fully actualized in the past? Teilhard’s synthesis of faith and evolution makes it clear that in the absence of any past state of completed creation the idea of restoration is no longer applicable. What reason, therefore, would there be for theodicies of expiation, or for the sad human history of scapegoating violence, if there has never existed a perfect universe in principio?

Teilhard proposes an alternative cosmological framework, one that is fully supported by science, to serve as the context for theology’s reflections on the meaning of suffering—and here I am talking about all of life’s suffering and not just our own. In a universe that is still unfinished—one that is even today emerging from the “nothingness” of primal multiplicity—the attribute of perfection can be applied only to a future cosmic unity that will occur in the everlasting care of a God who calls the universe into being from up ahead in the future. The logic of evolution has now permanently closed off the path of restoration and expiation. Evolution places in question all theodicies that have nourished themselves on nostalgia for a lost paradise. It leaves no legitimate room for resentment that paradise has been lost since creation has never (yet) been a paradise. Both the biblical logic of promise and the pattern of evolution have together barred the door to our ever returning to Eden. Henceforth our attempts at theodicy must purge themselves of all motifs of expiation and place life’s suffering and sacrifice in the context of hope for future fulfillment.

Summary and Conclusion

Teilhard’s great synthesis invites theologians to think out more consistently what it means for theodicy if the universe is unfinished and the world is still being created. Because science rules out any past moment of created perfection, Teilhard is proposing that sadness over the imagined loss of paradise be supplanted by a common hope for new creation that can energize human action. The cosmos and life are still coming into being, so our religious aspirations can now veer away from a pining for the past and extend themselves irreversibly toward an eschatological fulfillment in God’s future. It is only up ahead that our native longing for perfection can conceivably be satisfied. The biblical theologies of promise and hope can now live quite comfortably alongside a scientific understanding of nature. In a universe that is still being created we can only look, along with Abraham, the prophets, Jesus and Paul toward the horizon of the future. It is from there that we expect the coming of God and new creation.

Unfortunately, however, the temptation is strong to enshrine as eternally normative some imagined past epoch of perfection, whether in cosmic or human history, rather than open ourselves to the refreshing novelty of God’s future. Nostalgia can easily become a substitute for hope. Any past victory in life’s ascent or in human history is only an intimation or analogy of what is to come, but nostalgia can turn such fragmentary glimpses of the future into absolutes that we must at all costs restore. Thus the spirit of Abrahamic adventure into the wide openness of the future can give way to a religiosity whose entire energy is bent on recovering some idyllic past moment, whether in religious, natural, or secular history, as though it were the goal of all becoming.

An earnest encounter by theology with Teilhard’s interpretation of evolution forbids such idolatry. At the same time, Teilhard’s thought can lead theodicy to decentralize the expiatory interpretation of suffering that adheres most readily to a pre-evolutionary understanding of the universe. A vivid awareness of evolution no longer permits our theodicies to overlook the possibility that a great portion of life’s suffering has been tragic and innocent, having nothing at all to do with guilt. Sentient striving and failure have existed for many millions of years prior to human emergence. A sense of our human solidarity with the suffering of all sentient life, therefore, can no longer permit an understanding of suffering, including human suffering, as primarily punishment.

Therefore, going far deeper than the Darwinian understanding of suffering exclusively in terms of adaptation, Teilhard’s approach shows that the meaning of suffering—at the very least—is that of turning the story of life, especially in its recent mode of human sensitivity and striving, irreversibly toward a new future, one in which there is room for hope that all suffering will be healed and all tears wiped away. Instead of looking for culprits and scapegoats, or indulging in interminable acts of expiation, hope seeks companionship and community on the cosmic journey into an uncertain future that will ultimately be taken up into the eternal love of God. By participating in a “great hope held in common”32 we numb the roots of violence and gather our energy cooperatively toward the ushering in of new being. In an evolutionary setting we can believe more readily than ever before that the age of expiation, as the Letter to the Hebrews also implies, is altogether a thing of the past.33

Consequently, theodicy from now on should not try to force the fact of suffering to fit a cosmography that allows pain to be taken as punishment. Instead, it should inquire, along with Teilhard, why an all-good and all-powerful God would create an unfinished, imperfect universe to begin with. Could it be, as Teilhard seems to hold, that a truly loving God has no alternative? Could an initially finished cosmos really be distinct enough from God to be called a creation at all? In any case, an unfinished universe is the one we have, and it is one that still has a future. It is a universe in which there is room for “more being” and hence for hope. A still evolving universe turns theodicy away from nostalgia for an imagined state of cosmic perfection allegedly existing in the remotest past.34 Theodicy after Darwin and Big Bang cosmology may now take advantage of an entirely new setting in which, following Teilhard’s account, the universe is pictured as still emerging into being, rather than having been completed in the beginning. There is no need any longer to think of the universal perfection to which human hearts always rightly aspire as though it were something that has ever existed on the plane of natural or human history. Instead we may now hope that the universe that is still coming into being may attain a fully actualized state of perfection in the future, and that our own strivings, strugglings, and sufferings—along with our joys and creations—will in some way be taken into the everlasting bosom of the God who awakens the world to becoming more.

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1 Some writers do not attribute “suffering” to nonhuman animals, but instead attribute to the latter only “pain.” However, I consider the distinction somewhat arbitrary and unnecessarily anthropocentric.

2 This essay considerably revises, adapts, and expands ideas first presented in my Sophia Lecture given at the Washington Theological Union in 2004. An abbreviated version of that lecture appears in “What If Theologians Took Evolution Seriously?” New Theology Review 18 (November 2005), 10-20. A more recent development of the theme of suffering and evolution appears in my book, Is Nature Enough? Meaning and Truth in the Age of Science (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006).

3 Nora Barlow, ed., The Autobiography of Charles Darwin (New York: Harcourt, 1958), 88-89.

4 However, as we now realize, viruses and other kinds of disease, such as hypertension, can invade organisms painlessly, so life’s warning systems, like other evolutionary adaptations, are not perfect. See John Hick, Evil and the God of Love (Norfolk, England: The Fontana Library, 1968), 333-38.

5 See Charles Sherrington, Man on His Nature (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1951), 266.

6 Richard Dawkins, River Out of Eden (New York: Basic Books, 1995), 131.

7 Ibid., 133.

8 Among recent attempts to understand theologically the suffering of sentient life, John Hick’s Evil and the God of Love is impressive, but even his theodicy is not deeply informed by evolutionary biology.

9 Biologists often employ teleological language in their characterization of evolutionary adaptations, but for them this is not indicative of any wider purpose in nature. However the question of teleology in life is still being debated: see Michael Ruse, Darwin and Design: Does Evolution Have a Purpose (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2003).

10 Here I am following the broad usage of the term by sociologist Peter Berger in The Sacred Canopy (Garden City: Anchor Books, 1990), 53ff.

11 See Robert Hinde, Why Gods Persist: A Scientific Approach to Religions (New York: Routledge, 1999); Walter Burkert, Creation of the Sacred: Tracks of Biology in Early Religions (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1996); Pascal Boyer, Religion Explained: The Evolutionary Origins of Religious Thought (New York: Basic Books, 2001).

12 See, for example, E. O. Wilson, Consilience: The Unity of Knowledge (New York: Knopf, 1998).

13 Loyal Rue, By the Grace of Guile: The Role of Deception in Natural History and Human Affairs (New York: Oxford University Press, 1994), 82-107.

14 Boyer, Religion Explained; Scott Atran, In Gods We Trust: The Evolutionary Landscape of Religion (New York: Oxford University Press, 2002); Daniel Dennett, Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon (New York: Viking, 2006).

15 Atran, In Gods We Trust, 15.

16 One could also ask whether the neo-Darwinian notion of adaptation has fully explained why life has had a tendency to complexify at all, especially since simple forms of life, like bacteria, have proven to be quite adaptive and persistent in time without ever becoming complex enough to suffer sentiently.

17 See Michael Polanyi, Personal Knowledge (New York: Harper Torchbooks, 1962), 327ff.

18 Ibid.

19 So resistant is subjectivity to objectification that some philosophers of mind even deny that it has real existence. See, for example, Paul Churchland, The Engine of Reason, The Seat of the Soul (Cambridge, MA: Bradford Books, 1995) and Daniel Dennett, Consciousness Explained (New York: Little, Brown, 1991). For a critical discussion I recommend especially Alan Wallace, The Taboo of Subjectivity: Toward a New Science of Consciousness (New York: Oxford University Press, 2000).

20 Matt Ridley, The Red Queen: Sex and the Evolution of Human Nature (New York: Penguin Books, 1993), 92-93.

21 Ridley, 94.

22  Ibid., passim.

23 See John Bowker, Is Anybody Out There? (Westminster, Md.: Christian Classics, Inc., 1988), 9-18; 112-43.

24 For a rich discussion of traditional themes of expiation and satisfaction see Gerard Sloyan, The Crucifixion of Jesus, History, Myth, Faith (Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress Publishers, 1995), 98-122.

25 This point is insinuated in many of Teilhard’s writings, but I find it most explicit in Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, Christianity and Evolution, trans. RenÈ Hague (New York: Harcourt Brace & Co., 1969).

26 Ibid., 40.

27 Even in the Adamic myth, however, the figure of the serpent represents the intuition that evil is more than a human product. Paul Ricoeur, The Conflict of Interpretations: Essays in Hermeneutics, ed. Don Ihde (Evanston, Ill.: Northwestern University Press, 2004), 294-95.

28 Ibid.

29 See Teilhard de Chardin, Christianity and Evolution, 81.

30 Ibid.

31 Here I am summarizing a theme that recurs especially in the essays in Christianity and Evolution.

32 Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, The Future of Man, trans. Norman Denny (New York: Harper Colophon Books, 1964), 83.

33 Gerd Theissen, The Open Door (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1991), 161-67.

34 John Hick, in a manner similar to Friedrich Schleirmacher, tries to salvage the notion of an original human perfection by redefining perfection to mean having the possibilities for development. Evil and the God of Love (New York: Harper & Row, 1966), 225-41. But the very definition of perfection is the “full actualizing of possibilities.” And from all the evolutionist can see, humans have always been part of a universe in which life feeds on life and in which suffering and death are pervasive, one in which the world’s possibilities are still far from fully actualized.