of the Cosmos
An interview with
Brian Swimme on
Pierre Teilhard de Chardin
by Susan Bridle
In our reading and wide-ranging research for this issue of What Is
Enlightenment?, we found the name of the mid-century French Jesuit
priest and paleontologist Pierre Teilhard de Chardin popping up again
and again. His visionary writings, we discovered, have been an important
source of revelation and inspiration for many scientists, ecologists,
futurists, and theologians who are now grappling with critical questions
about the state of the earth and the human being's place within it. When
we read excerpts from Teilhard's The Human Phenomenon, The Divine
Milieu, and The Future of Man, we immediately understood why.
Brian Swimme has been a student of Teilhard's work for many years.
Himself a scientist with an abiding interest in the interface of science
and spirituality, Swimme's own passion and understanding have been
deeply influenced by Teilhard's ideas. Who better to bring to life
Teilhard's vision, we thought, than he? Swimme describes his discovery
of Teilhard in his Foreword to Sarah Appleton-Weber's new translation of
The Human Phenomenon:
There are days in New York City where you never see the sun but only
feel its presence in the blasts of hot air that sweep through the
concrete canyons and in the heat waves that radiate up from the asphalt.
When my clothes finally became heavy with my own sweat and I was lost
for the third time I was tempted to hide out in some air-conditioned
hotel, but all I had to remember was my own misery and that was enough
to keep me going. I had recently resigned as a professor of mathematics
and physics and was now on a search for wisdom, and a number of people
had pointed me toward New York, most notably [Aurelio Peccei], the
founder of the Club of Rome, that seminal gathering of planetary
thinkers and visionaries. On his deathbed, when asked who of all the
brilliant minds he had worked with he would most recommend, Peccei had
said simply, "Our best hope is Thomas Berry."
By the time I made it to Berry's Riverdale Research Center and was
invited into his library, I could not have had higher expectations. He
listened carefully as I tried to explain my misery and confusion over
the destruction of the planet and what to do about it. After a long
pause, and without saying a word, Thomas Berry pulled a book from the
thousands on his shelves. With stern visage he tossed across the table
Teilhard de Chardin's great work, The Human Phenomenon.
My disappointment was instantaneous. This was old stuff. I had come all
the way across the continent to receive a book I had read back in my
Jesuit high school? Even worse, some famous scientists had objected to
Teilhard's ideas, and I brought that up. Thomas Berry just smiled, and
broke into easy laughter.
"Teilhard was the first to see the universe in a new way, so I suppose
it's inevitable that he would be criticized. If you're bothered by what
a few scientists have to say you should read some of the theologians!
Fundamentally the difficulty is one of scale. Any attempt to understand
Teilhard that does not begin with the entire complex of civilizations as
well as the vast panorama of the evolutionary universe is doomed to
failure, for it is simply too small to grasp what he is about. Surely,
similar situations have occurred in the history of science?"
My mind raced with thoughts of Albert Einstein and Niels Bohr and the
revolutions they initiated and how these could not be contained in the
world of classical physics, but he had only asked the question in a
rhetorical way. He was soon to bring our brief meeting to a close, but
not before he uttered a most unforgettable statement: "To see as
Teilhard saw is a challenge, but increasingly his vision is becoming
available to us. I fully expect that in the next millennium Teilhard
will be generally regarded as the fourth major thinker of the Western
Christian tradition. These would be St. Paul, Augustine, Thomas Aquinas,
He smiled again, aware of so much that needed to be said by way of
explanation, but also aware that I would be incapable at this time of
taking it in. He pointed to the book he had put in my hands. "Begin with
Teilhard. There's no substitute for a close reading of his work."
I would read on my own and once a week discuss the ideas with Thomas
Berry; I would be regularly amazed by how much of the world's
intellectual history it seemed necessary to refer to. He drew constantly
not just from physics and biology but also from philosophy, poetry,
linguistics, music, and above all world history and cosmology. As the
months went by I began to suspect that the fundamental categories of my
mind were undergoing some sort of change. The unexamined assumptions
that had been organizing my experiences in the world were now writhing
under the pressure from Teilhard's massive and penetrating cosmology . .
Swimme's intense contemplation of Teilhard's work culminated in a
profound spiritual experience that overcame him one day while walking
with his four-year-old son in a forest just north of New York City. It
was an epiphany of the mystical fire at the heart of Teilhard's vision,
a timeless moment of living recognition of the creative, blazing,
flaring forth of the cosmos—a vision that remains very much alive within
him today. At the end of our conversation about Pierre Teilhard de
Chardin and his ideas, Swimme admitted with a laugh, "Good old Teilhard.
I've never recovered from that day."
WIE: Pierre Teilhard de Chardin was a great thinker who had a
profound influence on your own understanding. Can you tell us a bit
about Teilhard—who he was, and what you believe his most significant
BRIAN SWIMME: He was a French Jesuit paleontologist who lived from
1881 to 1955. His most important achievement was to articulate the
significance of the new story of evolution. He was the first major
thinker in the West to fully articulate that evolution and the sacred
identify, or correlate. Teilhard de Chardin in the West and Sri
Aurobindo in India really arrived at the same basic vision, which is
that the unfolding of the universe is a physical evolution and also
a spiritual evolution. I think that's his principal contribution. On the
one hand, you have this awesome tradition about God or Brahmin, and on
the other, you have this tradition about evolution—and adherents of each
view tend to be very critical of the others. Christians said,
"Evolution, that's horrible!" And scientists said, "Theism, that's
horrible!" Aurobindo and Teilhard brought them together. So I think of
them both as geniuses who synthesized the two visions. Teilhard
attempted to get beyond the fundamental subjective/objective dualism in
much of Western thought. He began to really see the universe as a single
energy event that was both physical and psychic or even spiritual. I
think that's his great contribution: He began to see the universe in an
integral way, not as just objective matter but as suffused with psychic
or spiritual energy.
Also, in my thinking, the central idea of Teilhard is his law of "complexification-consciousness."
He identifies this as the fundamental law of evolution. He sees that the
whole process is about complexifying and deepening intelligence or
subjectivity. The entire movement of the universe in its
complexification is simultaneously a movement further into the depths of
consciousness, or interiority. He saw the whole thing as a
physical-biological-spiritual process. He was the one who saw it all
together. You could summarize his thought simplistically and say that
the universe begins with matter, develops into life, develops into
thought, develops into God. That's his whole vision, right there. Now
clearly, this God that develops—it's not as if God is developed out of
matter. God is present from the very beginning, but in an implicit
form, and the universe is accomplishing this great work of making
WIE: What was Teilhard's vision of the nature and role of the
human being in evolution?
BS: His view was that the birth of self-reflexive consciousness in
the human was a crucial moment in the earth's journey. And he stated
that the discovery of evolution by humans represents the most dramatic
change in human mentality in the last two million years. You think of
the Bill of Rights, the journey to the moon, the great religions, all of
these incredible things—he thought all of these were secondary compared
to this discovery of evolution by human consciousness. He saw it as "the
universe folding back on itself." There are all these creatures that
live in nature, and then suddenly you have this one creature that looks
nature back in the eye and says, "What exactly are you up to?" That
switch he saw as fundamental. He explored this idea further by speaking
of—and I love this idea—the earth as a series of envelopes. First you
have the lithosphere, or the surface layer of rock, and then the
atmosphere develops, and the hydrosphere, and the biosphere. But his
understanding is that in our time, there's another layer being added,
and that is the "noosphere"—a layer generated by human thought. It's not
possible to understand the earth unless you see it in terms of these
layers. The way in which this has captured the contemporary imagination
is in the development of the Internet—it's almost like the sinews of the
WIE: Wired magazine did an article on Teilhard a while ago that
makes this point. But they went a bit too far and seemed to equate
Teilhard's noosphere with the Internet, suggesting that his vision was
simply a precognition of the Internet.
BS: Yes. I guess there are different ways to reduce his thought down
and miss parts of it, and one would be to say the noosphere is
the Internet. But of course, Teilhard would say that, like everything
else in the universe, it has a physical as well as a spiritual
WIE: What is the significance of our becoming aware of the
process of evolution?
BS: Teilhard gave a great analogy. Our moment of waking up as a
species is very much like what happens in the individual at around two
years old. I don't know the exact time, but there comes a moment when
the young child gets depth perception for the first time. So in their
phenomenal field, there's a rearrangement of the phenomena into the
third dimension as opposed to a two-dimensional map. He said that the
species is going through that right now—we're discovering a depth of
time. Before, we saw everything in terms of this much smaller space, and
now, "Wham!" the universe as a whole opens up in the depths of time.
Teilhard also had this phrase called "hominization." Hominization is the
way in which human thought transforms previously existing practices and
functions of the earth. Let me give you an example. The earth makes
decisions all the time; it makes choices. And in a broad sense, this is
called natural selection. But when you throw human thought in there, it
explodes into all of the decisions we're making all over the planet.
Human decision has "hominized" the natural selection process—for good
and ill. Everything that has existed up until now is going through this
process of hominization. Another example would be—look at young mammals
and the way they play. They mess around with each other and hide and
chase, and we hominize that by creating this whole vast industry of
sports and arts and entertainment. Everything seems to go through this
explosion when it's touched by the human imagination. Teilhard's
ultimate vision of what is taking place with the human is the
hominization of love. You see, he regarded the attracting force of
gravity as a form of love, and the way in which animals care for one
another as a form of love, and so the hominization of love would be
focusing that and amplifying it to make it a monumental power in the
future evolution of the earth. That is his most famous phrase: "The day
will come when we shall harness for God the energies of love. And, on
that day, for the second time in the history of the world, the human
being will have discovered fire."
WIE: How does our becoming aware of the evolutionary scale of
time help the "universe develop into God"—as you said earlier—or
further the invocation of God through human consciousness?
BS: He had this sense that a deep change at the level of being—a
change of heart, a change of mind, a change of actual body—can take
place in the human who learns to see the universe as suffused with
divine action. And he made a huge deal out of this word—"see." His sense
of spiritual practice would be to develop those qualities that are
necessary for us to truly get it, to truly see where we
are. One thing he would speak about is how we tend to be overwhelmed by
large numbers, and so he would say we have to develop a capacity to see
the patterns in the large numbers. As we develop this capacity, rather
than being crushed by the immensity of the universe, we'll suddenly,
instead, resonate with the universe as a whole as the outer form of our
own inner spirit. That was his cry, for humans to develop these
He also had an interesting view of spiritual traditions in general about
this. He seemed to say that eternity is easier than evolution. The idea
of awakening to eternity he regarded as very, very significant in human
history—but not as difficult as awakening to the time-developmental or
evolutionary nature of the universe.
WIE: What do you mean by "awakening to eternity" in this context?
BS: How at any moment we arise out of eternity, moment after moment.
To escape the illusion of transience and to see into the absolute
moment—Teilhard regarded this as a great mystical event in the life of
an individual, as well as in the human journey. But he said that a
deeper and harder achievement and challenge before us is to awaken to
the time-developmental nature of the universe. The whole journey is this
moment—it's not just the year 2000—this moment is also the birth of the
universe itself. But more significantly for this particular discussion,
it's also the moment of the "absolute future." The challenge before us
is the absolute future calling to the present. This is really his
mysticism. He would say that by learning to see, by becoming alert and
awake in this universe, you feel the call and the presence of the unborn
God asking for, or guiding us into, the type of creative action that
gives birth to the next moment in a process that he called
WIE: This is something that we've been thinking about a lot in
putting together this issue of the magazine. Often in the Eastern
traditions, the focus is solely on the "awakening to eternity" that you
were just describing. Yet in Teilhard's work, there is another call.
There is a call for the perfection of the Absolute to be manifest in
form—for there to be greater and greater complexity, greater and
greater order, greater and greater perfection, in form, in time, in
space, in matter. Teilhard seems to bring together the absolute and the
manifest in a truly nondualistic vision that does seem unique.
BS: That's right. I love his orientation and his view of the
traditional religions. He says that the future of the spiritual
traditions on our planet will be determined by the degree to which they
enhance the divinization process. And he makes the point that one of the
difficulties is that, up until the present moment, we have tended to see
ourselves inside of these traditions. But now, he says, it's the
universe that is our home. So it's a way of valuing them but
seeing them from the proper perspective of the ultimate context—which is
the universe as a whole.
WIE: Teilhard is probably best known for his idea of the "omega
point." The term has become quite popular, but it seems that few people
really understand what he meant by it. Can you explain Teilhard's omega
BS: By the "omega point," Teilhard meant a universe that had become
God. He meant God in embodied form. He regarded the omega point
as two things. It's an event that the universe is moving toward, in the
future. But what he also imagined, which is difficult for us to really
conceive, is that even though the omega point is in the future, it is
also exerting a force on the present. When we think of the omega point,
in our Western consciousness it's hard to escape thinking in terms of a
line with the omega point at the end of the line. His thinking wasn't
that way; it was that the omega point permeates the whole thing. He
imagined the influence of the omega point radiating back from the future
into the present. In some mysterious way, the future's right here.
Teilhard regarded that the way in which the future is right here is in
the experience of being drawn or attracted, or in our "zest." That's his
word, and I love that so much. We—"we" meaning anything in the
universe—are drawn forward, and this attractive power is what begins a
process that eventuates in deeper or greater being. That attraction he
regarded as love, and it is evidence of the presence of the omega point.
When you experience that attraction, that zest, you're experiencing the
future. You're experiencing the omega point. You're experiencing God.
You're experiencing your destiny.
WIE: What does it mean for the universe to become God?
BS: Because we're in the midst of this process, at the best we can
have crude images, metaphors. We have little glimmers and insights. The
image that I like is this: You have molten rock, and then all by itself,
it transforms into a human mother caring for her child. That's a rather
astounding transformation. Of course, it takes four billion years.
You've got silica, you've got magnesium. You've got all the elements of
rock, and it becomes the translucent blue eye and beautiful brown hair
and this deep sense of love and concern and even sacrifice for a child.
That is a deep transfiguration. Love and truth and compassion and zest
and all of these qualities that we regard as divine become more
powerfully embodied in the universe. That would be an image of how I
think about the universe becoming divine.
WIE: So it's a process of God becoming more and more explicit or
embodied in the forms of the universe?
BS: Yes, exactly. Teilhard also spoke in terms of "giving birth to
person." For example, your colleague Craig is there across the room. But
if you go back five billion years, all of the atoms in Craig's body were
strung out over a hundred million miles. The process, as mysterious as
it is, of matter itself forming into personality or personhood, is what
Teilhard regarded as the essence of evolution. Evolution isn't cold. He
saw the omega point as that same process of giving birth to or
actualizing this new, encompassing Divine Person—through not just all
the atoms interacting with one another, but also the ‘persons' of all
the humans and other animals. All of us together are part of this same
process, so that the entire universe becomes God's body. To really get
how radical Teilhard's view is, think about an animal and dissolve the
animal back in time in your imagination, back into individual cells.
There weren't any multicellular organisms until about seven hundred
million years ago. For over three billion years, there were just
single-cell organisms. If you get to know an animal well, the animal
really has a personality. But the personality is something that is
evoked by the cells of the animal. It's truly mysterious. The animal's
personality is real, but that personality is evoked by the cells. So in
Teilhard's view, the individual members of the universe are actually in
a process of evoking a Divine Person. We are actually giving birth to a
larger, more encompassing, mind-spirit-personality.
WIE: In one sense, that was no less true sixty-five million years
ago than it is now. But at the same time, humans are now becoming
conscious of our own evolution and our conscious participation in this
larger process. How do you think that has changed this process?
BS: Well, I think the difference is that while every member of the
universe participates in the construction of the cosmos, that
participation proceeds without a conscious reflection upon it. We, too,
are participating in constructing the cosmos, but we have the awareness
that we're doing that. That's the essential difference of being human.
We recognize this process as happening, and we can actually awaken to
the fact that we are actively doing it. We're not just doing it. We're
awakened to the fact that we're doing it.
This then calls for spiritual development so that we can find our way
between the two extremes of how we tend to respond to this. On the one
hand, we can be so overwhelmed by what that means, so frozen by the
responsibility, that we divert ourselves from really embracing that
destiny. And I think that happens a lot. Right now it's what our
civilization is about, for the most part. But the other extreme actually
is just as bad. We become so inflated with the thrill of that role that
we lopside into thinking that we are the real action of the
universe and that the human, and human enlightenment, is all that really
matters. But I think it's not that. It's rather that we're participating
in this huge, vast, intricate event, and we're a member of the
community, but we seem to be especially destined to reflect upon this
and to participate in it consciously. So I try to emphasize the fact of
uniqueness here—but at the same time there's an equality. There's both.
We're unique in our particular role. But on an ontological level,
there's an equality. We're not somehow superior to the moon or to the
phytoplankton or to the spiders or to anything else. Everyone is
WIE: What is the importance of Teilhard's understanding of
evolution and the role of the human being for our current planetary
BS: There are two points I'd want to make. First, Teilhard's
thoughts on evolution enable us to begin to appreciate the true
significance of our moment. It's extremely difficult for us to really
understand what it means to make decisions that will have an impact on
the next ten million years. Even if you understand the idea, it's only
at one level of your mind. So studying Teilhard's thought and his work
can be considered a spiritual practice for beginning to think at the
level that is required of humans today—to think in chunks of ten million
years, for example. It's so hard for people to get that.
The second thing I would say is that much of ecological discussion is
framed in negatives because the destruction is so horrendous that
anybody with any intelligence whatsoever, once she or he looks at it,
becomes gripped by just how horrible it is. One of Teilhard's great
contributions is that he enables us to begin to imagine that this
transition has at least the possibility of eventuating in a truly
glorious mode of life in the future, and his vision provides the energy
that we need for enduring the difficulties of this struggle. That, to
me, is extremely important. He can activate the deep, deep, deep zest
for life and existence that I think is required for true leadership in