Beatrice Bruteau, Pope Francis and global community

by Ilia Delio

View Author Profile

Join the Conversation

Send your thoughts to Letters to the Editor. Learn more

Last November Cynthia Bourgeault and I were having dinner, reminiscing about the recent death of Beatrice Bruteau. We both agreed that this brilliant woman had quietly departed earthly life and only a few people knew of her work. Beatrice was not a superstar or a household name, although she could have been. Rather, she was a contemplative scholar and wife who pondered the deep insights of Teilhard de Chardin and Sri Auribondo, among others. She had a unique combination of intellectual gifts — philosophy, mathematics, natural sciences, psychology — and she brought these gifts to bear on her penetrating insights on evolution and human becoming, which she described in several seminal books. Cynthia and I agreed that a posthumous festschrift was in order; hence, I am currently editing a book of contributed essays in honor of Beatrice Bruteau, which will be published by Orbis Books in 2016.

As I began to explore Bruteau’s ideas on evolution and transcendent personhood, I could not but think of Pope Francis’s new encyclical, Laudato Si’. The encyclical is multidimensional, spanning vast areas of science, politics, economics and technology. Relying on data from the natural sciences, especially in regard to global climate change, the pope anticipates dire consequences for the human community, especially the poor, if we do not undergo a radical conversion and began to rethink our consumptive patterns and reorient our patterns of relationship. According to studies on the ecological footprint, we would need about six planets to support the world population if everyone in the world were to live like a U.S. American. The pope clearly sees the consequences up ahead if we do not make a sharp turn toward interdependence and global community.

It is interesting that the pope quotes a wide range of thinkers, from Teilhard de Chardin to Romano Guardini, and builds on the green ecology of Benedict XVI and St. John Paul II. If Pope Francis’ encyclical were likened to a layer cake, the frosting would be rich and creamy with 21st-century ideas on global warming, economics and human ecology. Yet, it is disheartening that the encyclical does not mention a single woman theologian or spiritual writer, either present or past. In this respect, Pope Francis could have benefited from the insights of Beatrice Bruteau. I say this not as the editor of a new book on Beatrice but as one deeply inspired by her vision of the human person in a world of change. It is her vision that I would like to highlight here.

The Influence of Teilhard de Chardin

Beatrice is known as a Teilhardian scholar. Like Teilhard, she held that evolution is a process of convergence towards greater unity and complexified consciousness. The only way to think about anything, according to Teilhard, is to begin with evolution. Evolution is not background to the human story; it is the human story. It is neither theory nor fact but a “dimension” to which all thinking in whatever area must conform. In his Human Phenomenon Teilhard wrote:

For many, evolution still means only transformism, and transformism itself is an old Darwinian hypothesis as localized and obsolete as the Laplacean concept of the solar system or the Wegnerean theory of continental drift. They truly are blind who do not see the scope of a movement whose orbit, infinitely transcending that of the natural sciences, has successively overtaken and invaded the surrounding fields of chemistry, physics, sociology, and even mathematics and history of religions. Drawn along together by a single fundamental current, one after the other all the domains of human knowledge have set off toward the study of some kind of development. . . .Evolution is a general condition, which all theories, all hypotheses, all systems must submit to and satisfy from now on in order to be conceivable and true (emphasis added).

Teilhard and Bruteau realized that the new science impels us to adopt an entire new mindset, a “way of identifying self and others and perceiving the world.” For Bruteau, we must begin with a consciousness of life in evolution before any talk of economic, political, and social arrangements can be made. “Anything else,” she writes, is “premature, useless and possibly dangerous.” Evolution is the starting point for understanding all aspects of life.

Laudato Sí: Old and new thoughts

Although Pope Francis alludes to evolution and aspects of modern science, his understanding of the human person blends a Thomistic theology of creation (God as primary cause) and evolution. He follows the 1950 encyclical Humani generis where Pope Pius XII wrote that the human may come about through evolution with regard to the body but the soul is created immediately by God (36). Although the Pope maintains a theologically moderate position in the encyclical, there is no real synthesis between science and religion; rather, aspects of modern science are interspersed with traditional notions of creation and personhood. He follows what Ian Barbour called a dialogical model of science and religion in which dialogue within the disciplines of science and religion, as well as across disciplines, is needed for a comprehensive understanding of the ecological crisis. Teilhard de Chardin recognized, however, that theology and creation are deeply intertwined. Even Bonaventure held that creation is the first book of revelation, so that what we know about the natural world gives us insight into God and the things of God. The integral relationship between God and creation impelled Teilhard to go beyond dialogue to find a new synthesis between science and religion. Christianity, he said, is a religion of evolution because God creatively unites with space-time, energy, matter and empowers the physical process of evolution toward conscious wholeness in love.

Beatrice Bruteau and evolutionary personhood

Bruteau not only understood Teilhard’s vision of Christianity and evolution, but also she contributed her own insights to fleshing out a new evolutionary understanding of personhood. Fundamental to her ideas is the new science of quantum reality which basically tells us that interconnectedness lies at the core of all that exists. We are not individual substances but centers of activity or, as Bruteau wrote, we are “radiating centers” and not “gravitational centers,” sucking being into itself. Each particular person may be likened to a “particle” in which our “radiating centers” are “waves” of relatedness. At the most fundamental level, we are webs of energy, fields within fields, which means we are always connected to everything that comprises the “world.” We never act alone or think alone because the fundamental stuff of life is intrinsically relational; in our cosmic roots we are already one. The physicist Paul Dirac captured this deep connectivity when he said: “Pick a flower on earth and you move the farthest star.” Our thoughts and actions do something beyond what we can immediately perceive. We are not simply human beings; we are interbeings interacting in the great cosmic evolution of the Whole.

Although we are already One on the level of quantum reality, this Oneness is in movement. Evolution describes the dynamic impulse in life towards more being and consciousness; however, life does not evolve smoothly across species or even within species. Many factors impinge on evolution such as environment, genetics, history and climate change. That which essentially drives evolution, according to Teilhard, is consciousness. Evolution is the rise of consciousness. This insight influenced Bruteau’s thinking on humanity in evolution. Rather than accepting the human person as a given, she drew a distinction between an “individual” and a “person” based on the evolution of consciousness. That is, if evolution is the rise of consciousness, than an “individual” is an individuated existent with a less complexified consciousness of otherness whereas a “person” (from the Latin sonare meaning “to sound through”) is one who has a higher level of other-centered consciousness. A person is by definition a relational being and reflects a higher stage of self-reflexive consciousness and thus a higher level of evolution, since evolution is marked by a deepening of relationality and complexified consciousness. In other words, the human community may appear the same but we are at different stages of evolution.

Bruteau indicates that evolution evokes a whole new understanding of the human person. She writes: “We cannot look at or talk about a subject. To do so is to convert it into an object. We must rather noetically coincide with our self by experiencing our own existence interiorly.” Building on Teilhard’s primacy of love-energy, she indicates that a “person” is not an individuated being; rather, a “person” is the unbounded activity of freely projecting energies or what she calls “spondic” energy, a Greek word which means “libation.” Spondic energy does not originate out of thought or will; it is not the act of an individual. Rather, it comes from a deep, transcendent center, the still point where we are held in being by Omega. It originates spontaneously, arising only from itself; it is always free. A “person” is one who acts out of a spondic, self-gifting center; anything other than a spontaneous energy center of relatedness is not fully reflective of a person. To affirm another, she says, we need not sanction one’s behavior, especially if it is hurtful or evil, nor need we even like the person in the sense of personality or emotional attraction. “All these belong to the ‘individual,’” Bruteau writes, “not to the ‘person.’” She indicates that only persons can enter into communion consciousness; individuals remain external to one another. It is this transcendence of the person over the individual that makes possible the communion consciousness of the new creation in Christ.

The Trinity as cosmic model

Bruteau’s deep insights on evolutionary personhood flow from her profound insights on the Trinity. To be a person is to be a creative center of activity, always in the process of becoming and living towards the future. She expounds her ideas in her essay on “Trinitarian Personhood” where she writes:

Our ‘I,’ our personhood, is not a product of God’s action, something left over after the action has ceased. Rather it is God’s action in the very actuality of acting. ‘We’ are not a thing but an activity. This is why God’s activity of ecstatically moving out to us is an act of coinciding with our activity, just as our union with God will be our ecstatically moving out to God as an act of coinciding with God’s activity. . . . This activity which we are and which God is, is the act of creative freedom, of initiative, of self-originated self-giving.

Personhood is an ongoing activity that is dynamic in nature and crucial to the future of evolution. Like Teilhard, Bruteau held that the human person “is nothing else than evolution become conscious of itself.” A person is one in whom there is a higher level of integral consciousness marked by a deeper level of relationality. She calls this higher level “neo-feminine consciousness” and describes it as one of intellectual intuition and creative love. She writes: “This consciousness does not so much passively know other beings as they already are and have been . . . as it actively projects being towards others. It is creative in its intention to share life.” The level of neo-feminine consciousness is community-building because it orients one toward others, making something new for the future by relating to others through the energy of love or goodness: “The communal organism united by this consciousness will not stream about like a crowd, nor ingest and produce like an organization. It will radiate being-goodness in an unceasing circulating mutual indwelling, like the Trinity.”

Evolution calls us into a new type of wholistic consciousness, according to Bruteau, where things are first seen together and then as distinct within this togetherness. She distinguishes a wholistic consciousness from a partial consciousness or what she calls the “grid of partiality,” a consciousness of separateness and alienation from nature (and one another); a utilitarian way of thinking that turns the means into the end and forgets the original aim. In the words of Joan McIntyre, it is our loneliness as much as our greed which can destroy us. If we are to evolve into a more unified whole, we need a wholistic consciousness. Bruteau writes:

Perceived through the grid of wholistic consciousness, the world would appear as a pattern of inter-independence, complementarity, cooperation, friendship, and creative joy. Knowledge would be drawn from the level of which elements are synthesized, intelligibility being recognized as located in the Whole. In human relations and the moral and religious insights that guide them, we would work by “both/and” methods, rather than “either/or,” striving for inclusion of all and reconciliation of differences. We would find our delight in giving ourselves freely and totally to the creative processive Whole, in company with all who together compose it and are themselves creatively contributing to it, each in a unique way.

Evolution means that life is future-oriented and the future depends on the evolution of conscious energies. Bruteau writes: “The evolution of conscious energies is achieved by our own free creation of the Whole, which ever looks toward the future.” Here she follows Teilhard who realized decades ago that “nothing holds together absolutely except through the Whole, and the Whole itself holds together only through its future fulfillment.” As long as we insist on old, quasi-dualistic ideas on what is “physical” and “spiritual” (for example, “body” and “soul”) and do not see that we are fundamentally energy-turned-matter, we will continue to live on a lower level of evolution, as competitive individuals, spiraling downwards towards global destruction.

What can Pope Francis learn from Beatrice Bruteau?

Pope Francis has issued a clarion call for a new human community that builds on principles of deep ecology but he has yet to contextualize human ecology within the larger process of evolution. The way forward toward a sustainable future, however, must begin with evolution. Teilhard saw that evolution has ushered in a new principle of relatedness, and Bruteau expounds this principle of relatedness in terms of transcendent personhood; together they advocate that science discloses a radically new understanding of God and world where human consciousness plays a significant role in shaping the future. Just as old wine cannot be put into new wineskins, so too, old ideas cannot be put into a new understanding of the world. Although Pope Francis wants a unified world through a “liberation ecology,” it is not possible without a radically new understanding of the human person. The old ways of thinking including patriarchy, sexism and discrimination must come to an end. We humans are evolution-become-conscious-of-itself which means if we are to have any real sustainable future up ahead we must begin with the process of evolution by which every person on Earth is emerging out of a cosmic whole. On some level we are already One but we are to become conscious of what we are and respond out of centers of creative love; a conscious communion revealing the glory of God.

[Ilia Delio, a member of the Franciscan Sisters of Washington, D.C., is the Josephine C. Connelly Endowed Chair in Theology at Villanova University. She is the author of sixteen books and the general editor of the series Catholicity in an Evolving Universe. Her newest book is Making All Things New: Catholicity, Cosmology and Consciousness (Orbis Books 2015).]