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The Gods of Spinoza & Teilhard de Chardin

Derek Harrison compares radically alternative visions of the absolute.

“I saw eternity the other night.
Like a great ring of pure and endless light.”
– Henry Vaughan

Vaughan’s simile is an attempt to reach for an image for something that is not easily put into words. He is to be admired for trying to make visual a concept that, because it escapes the finite world of space-time, escapes the normal range of our human understanding as well. With words like ‘great’, ‘pure’, ‘endless’, and ‘light’, Vaughan could just as well have been describing the traditional Western idea of God. In the end, however, the simile does little to advance any satisfactory understanding of either eternity or God beyond offering some of the accepted imagery of a mystical approach.

This has been a major problem for those who seek to understand God without recourse to the metaphors and narratives of holy books. Scriptures and commentaries on scriptures, whether believed or not, can present God in human terms for human understandings, but they cannot go beyond that. Thus the problem of ineffability has dogged speaking and writing about God for anyone who wants to take the matter beyond the beliefs promulgated by one or another religion.

For theologians, most of whom work within the paradigms of particular theologies, understanding God is a challenge, but not an insurmountable one. For philosophers it is not as easy. Among many others, theirs is the task of putting forward an idea of God that can be both grasped and argued without relying on scriptural assumptions. We need to be careful here and remember a distinction that goes back as far as Anselm’s Ontological Argument (1078 AD): that it is one thing to understand an idea, and another to know whether that idea represents something that exists as part of the world in which we live. It is not hard for anyone to grasp the idea of, say, purple unicorns; how one could go about proving that such creatures exist anywhere, or have ever existed, is another matter. Similarily, it would be helpful if both atheists and theists could agree on just what it is that they are respectively denying or affirming. It may be a step in that process of co-ordination to consider some ideas about God from two philosophers who had a great deal to say on the matter: Baruch Spinoza (1632-1677) and Pierre Teilhard de Chardin (1881-1955).

Spinoza and Teilhard

They make an odd pairing: the Jewish philosopher who made some of his living as a lens-maker, and the Jesuit priest who spent much of his time studying rocks; but there are commonalities – the most obvious of which is the wide variety of names they have been called and the extent to which their work has been so widely and differently interpreted. Spinoza is variously identified as a rationalist, a monist, a pantheist, a materialist, a determinist, a stoic. None of these is wrong, and none is complete in itself. He has also been called “the most impious atheist that even lived,” and found guilty of “abominable heresies” and “monstrous deeds” (taken from the Hebrew ritual by which he was excommunicated). Then there are those who consider him “saintly,” or in Bertrand Russell’s phrase, “the noblest and most lovable of the great philosophers,” and “supreme” in ethics. Novalis’ phrase about him is the most telling of all: “God intoxicated.”

In view of the more negative assessments of him, it is understandable that Spinoza chose not to publish his works while he lived. Teilhard de Chardin did not have a choice in the matter. Not only was he suspended from a teaching post and then barred from further teaching, he was also repeatedly denied permission to publish his work, and his vow of obedience to his Jesuit order must have prevented him from publishing regardless. But as with Spinoza, his writings were quietly circulated among friends, and released for publication after his death.

Teilhard’s reputation is equally varied, encompassing words that are not usually found together: seer, scientist, mystic, passionate thinker, traveller, explorer, a “seeker in love with all of life.” More recently, he has been interpreted as having predicted the emergence of the internet. Julian Huxley called him a ‘neo-humanist’, which might be taken as an odd designation by those who see humanism and religion as intellectual opposites. More recently, the former Pope Benedict XVI linked Teilhard with St Paul in sharing “a great vision.” Huxley would have agreed, saying that he “forced theologians to view their ideas in the new perspective of evolution and scientists to see the spiritual implications of their knowledge.” That kind of praise is hardly to be found in Peter Medawar’s 1961 review of Teilhard’s best-known work, The Phenomenon of Man. Writing that the book makes a “feeble argument” is the least of Medawar’s criticisms; it is also a “bag of tricks,” “nonsense,” a “willful misuse of words.”

Spinoza, Teilhard and Pantheism

In the cases of both Spinoza and Teilhard, we can conclude from this range of reactions that they must have been doing something right. Those and other reactions also cause us to ask: What exactly are they doing in their respective approaches to the problem of God?

Here we find two more significant commonalities, both concerning what they were not doing. One has to do with pantheism; the other with a personal God.

To the modern mind, Spinoza is most often thought of as a pantheist – someone who equates God with the world. He would not have appreciated that identification: “It is a complete mistake on the part of those who say that my purpose… is to show that God and Nature… are one and the same,” he wrote in a letter To hold, as Spinoza does, that the universal laws of nature and the universal laws of God are one and the same is not pantheism, because although the laws of nature should be identified with the will of God, nature in a material or corporeal sense is not what he means by God. “All is in God,” he wrote; but that is not the same as saying that all is God. “The world is not God,” he wrote further (quotes from Ethics, Part I, 1677). Instead, the world as we know it might better be thought of as a subset of God. Spinoza’s God is transcendent.

As with Spinoza, pantheism at first seems to be asserted as a part of Teilhard’s cosmology. In a letter written during his service in the First World War, he writes: “I can see, in sudden, clear, vivid impressions, that my strength and my joy derive from seeing… the fusion of God and the world, the latter giving ‘immediacy’ to the divine, and the divine spiritualizing the tangible.” Elsewhere he mentions a fellow priest who worries about “seeing me fall into pantheism.” Such references were, however, among his earlier thoughts. By the time his philosophy had ripened in The Phenomenon of Man he could conclude that “many a system of pantheism had led us astray to the cult of a great All in which individuals were supposed to be merged like a drop in the ocean.” Still, he was not done with the matter. At the end of the same work, he claims to want to put an end to any fears that arise regarding pantheism and evolution taken together, and so argues in favor of what he calls a ‘very real pantheism’ “in the case of a converging universe such as I have delineated… for if, in the last resort, the reflective centers of the world [that is, self-aware minds] are effectively one with God, this state is obtained not by identification (God becoming all) but by the differentiating and communicating action of love (God all in everyone).” Clearly, this concept of ‘pantheism’ is very different from what is usually meant by the term.

Spinoza’s God

Spinoza denies, and Teilhard modifies, pantheism. So what exactly are their views of God?

For Spinoza, it is important first to separate Scriptural understandings of God from metaphysical ones. The narratives of the Bible are written in a way that is meant to move man to devotion; doing so requires an appeal to imagination over reason. The God presented by Scripture is not contrary to reason, he says, but only if the presentation is not taken literally. Still, Spinoza never makes it easy for us. At one point he identifies his view with the ancient Hebraic tradition, and at another with St Paul; but he also distinguishes it from the Christian perspective, which sees God as the extraneous cause of all things. Spinoza’s God is immanent – the cause of all is in all – at the same time that Spinoza’s universe is objective.

Spinoza’s God comes to us from the long traditions of scholasticism and neo-Platonism which had informed much of his study. To understand his concept of God, it is important to distinguish between ‘substance’ and ‘mode’, both ancient concepts in philosophy. ‘Substance’ means the underlying reality, the essence; while ‘mode’ refers to the transient and the individual – the particular species, object, body, thought, emotion. Everything we know to exist must exist as a mode, a modification of substance; and modes have properties, or ‘attributes’: hot, yellow, 6ft tall, mass of 5kg, etc. And so Spinoza’s definition of God is: “By God I mean a being absolutely infinite – that is, a substance consisting of infinite attributes, of which each expresses eternal and infinite essentiality.” Further: “Existence of this kind is conceived as an eternal truth, and, therefore, cannot be explained by continuance or time.” So his God has infinite attributes and is eternal. We are mistaken, he says again, if we think of the essence of God in terms of human attributes: “neither intellect nor will pertains to the nature of God” (Ethics, Part I.) If we were to insist on seeing God in our own terms, Spinoza argues, then triangles might equally argue that God is triangular, or circles that God is circular.

A God understood in such metaphysical terms is not what we think of as a personal God. And at this point it is fair to ask: How, exactly, are we to know this metaphysical God?

The answer lies in understanding Spinoza’s basic theory of knowledge, which places intuition well above both experience and knowledge gained through reason. But his definition of intuition is at first not very helpful: Intuition “proceeds from an adequate idea of certain attributes of God to an adequate knowledge of the essence of things” (Ethics, Part V.) Intuition is best understood in terms of conceptions following necessarily from the nature of God, as opposed to conceiving things relative to certain times and places. Anything understood as following from the nature of God must be known sub specie eternitatis – from the perspective of eternity. Spinoza writes, “Eternity is the very essence of God in so far as this involves necessary existence… wherefore our mind, in so far as it conceives itself and the body under the form of eternity, has to that extent a knowledge [ie, an intuition] of God.”

However, this knowledge of God is more than metaphysical intuition, because it also involves right behavior and in the end, love. For Spinoza wisdom is the ‘intellectual love of God’, which is eternal because the mind is eternal, and, “The highest endeavor of the mind, and the highest virtue, is to understand things by this third kind of knowledge” – in other words, to know, or have an intellectual love of God. As we become conscious of God, we become more perfect and more blessed; and blessedness is itself the condition of the love of God. The path to love is almost circular: the more we gain knowledge as from an eternal perspective, the more we are able to love that which is immutable and eternal, and so the more we know – and the better we can function in a world that can, if not correctly understood, lead us away from God.

With thoughts like these, Spinoza reaches the high point of his Ethics. He has delineated both what is required, and what it means, to be a lover of God. ‘Intoxicated’ is not a word he would likely have chosen. Still, in context, it fits.

Teilhard’s God

Intoxication can result from a variety of causes. Teilhard de Chardin comes to the discussion of God from a different direction, in a different time.

Teilhard’s life was not at all like that of Spinoza. He was widely travelled and had many friends; admired in both scientific and theological circles; the recipient of numerous awards. It cannot be argued that he owed any major part of his thinking to Spinoza, but some compelling similarities beyond those already mentioned can be found in spite of their biographical and contextual differences. This is due in part to the sheer volume of Teilhard’s writing. While Spinoza’s philosophy was expressed mainly in three books, the first French edition of Teilhard’s books and essays required thirteen volumes; there were also letters and diaries. Among all the scientific works, and those that can be loosely grouped as philosophical/theological, The Phenomenon of Man is the most widely read and studied. In the opening paragraph of that book, Teilhard wants to make clear that the work will be neither metaphysical nor theological. His thrust is scientific. “I am a little too absorbed by science,” he wrote to a friend, “to be able to philosophize much.”

Although it is impossible to know how the theory of evolution would have affected Spinoza’s metaphysics, there is no question that it is central to Teilhard’s thinking. His decades of scientific studies led him to see the entire universe in a process of becoming: cosmogenesis replaces cosmology, and the proper point of view is sub specie evolutionis – seeing the world as evolving. Among the many neologisms Teilhard found it necessary to evolve in order to develop his ideas, noosphere (from the Greek noos, intellect) is the central one. The noosphere envelopes the globe and consists of thought: it is the totality of consciousness on Earth. Further, the noosphere is the result of the world’s evolution from lithosphere through biosphere to the development of a new, thinking layer. This progressive development of ever more complex, more intense, and increasingly unified (co-ordinated) mental activity moves us toward ever higher levels of what he calls ‘hominization’; ultimately meaning higher levels of consciousness for the universe. Man as a phenomenon is the universe and its processes becoming conscious of itself; evolution reflecting on itself in a gradual but steady social convergence on knowledge marked by increasing complexity at the same time as it moves toward unity.

Certainly this takes thinking about evolutionary theory in a very different direction from traditional notions of natural selection. For Teilhard, to speak of evolution is to speak of an “ascent toward consciousness” or a “psychical transformation.” It is easy to see why connections have been made between Teilhard’s ideas and the development of the internet. What is more interesting here is the direction of the evolutionary process of complexification. Teilhard sees human evolution as converging on a final human state: evolution is heading toward a culmination “in some sort of supreme consciousness.” The culmination of absolute organised universal consciousness is Point Omega (or the Omega Point) the other most important of Teilhard’s ideas.

Julian Huxley rightly understands the Omega Point as the point of the unification of the noosphere; and he is also right to point out that Teilhard sometimes seems to mean by it a sort of ‘emergent divinity’. “Here his thought is not fully clear,” Huxley writes with some justification; and it should be noted that Teilhard admitted to doubts of his own. It seems fair to wonder if both his doubts and his lack of clarity are partly a result of a tension between his Christian theology and his evolutionary focus. His use of words like ‘Christogenesis’ in writing about the Omega Point was not likely to find favor with atheists or agnostic scientists, and his whole line of thought, developed in essays with titles like ‘The God of Evolution’, would not be pleasing to the guardians of Catholic doctrine.

The reader of The Phenomenon of Man finishes the book without being entirely clear about the nature of the Omega Point; but something of its nature can be deduced from putting together the various ways in which Teilhard writes about it, from various sources. Consider the language of ‘My Litany’, in which he writes of “the essence of all energy/the cosmic curve/the heart of God/the issue of cosmogenesis… Focus of ultimate and universal energy/Center of the cosmic sphere… heart of evolution.” Elsewhere he refers to the “super Soul above our souls,” the “soul of souls,” “that mysterious Center of our centers” (this last phrase was elsewhere applied specifically to God). If most of these descriptions seem vague and generalized, this ‘supreme consciousness’ is furthermore anything but anthropomorphic. Consider the way Teilhard speaks of what at some point he calls the “evolutionary All… the still unnamed Thing which the gradual combination of individuals, peoples and races will bring into existence” – it “must needs be supra-physical.” The only reality capable of spanning the infinitesimal and the immense, he claims, is energy: “So, at the world’s Omega… lies the Impersonal.” Moreover, “If by its very nature it did not escape from the time and space which it gathers together, it would not be Omega.” Omega has four attributes: autonomy, actuality, irreversibility, and transcendence; but not, apparently, personality. Finally, writing of the end of the world near the end of The Phenomenon of Man, Teilhard puts the two names together in one sentence, when he writes of “the overthrow of equilibrium, detaching the mind, fulfilled at last, from its material matrix, so that it will henceforth rest with all its weight on God-Omega.”

In fact, Omega already exists “at the very core of the thinking mass.” How can we know it? Here Teilhard argues for a “supernatural intuition” that requires a “conjunction of reason and mysticism.” But we don’t have to wait for that: humans are capable of discovering and experiencing God in the entirety of the world in movement; in the breadth and depth and length of it. This is accomplished through love – the same emotion that we saw in Spinoza, although differently developed and valued.

Omega Points

Intoxication is normally associated with loss of control, or it is seen as a kind of stupefaction, certainly as something other than intellectual. None of those meanings should be applied very far with respect to the thinking of either Spinoza or Teilhard. With both of them it is better to think of intoxication in connection with such matters as knowing through intuition, a clear sense of the divine in all things, a hint of mysticism, and love. They were themselves not just lovers of God, each in his own way; they also reasoned that loving God was fundamental to our full, continuing human development, and, most importantly, to understanding what ‘God’ means. Metaphysical and scientific approaches are not likely to be poetic, and that term is not normally applied to their writing; but to the extent that it is possible for the human intellect in this stage of its development to do so, it can be said that they saw eternity.

© Dr Derek Harrison 2015

Derek Harrison teaches philosophy at St John Fisher College and Monroe Community College in Rochester, New York.


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