What would Teilhard say? Evolve or be annihilated

In 1953, Pierre Teilhard de Chardin wrote an essay on "The Agony of Our Age: A World That Is Asphyxiating," in which he pointed out that after eons of slow expansion, the human species has entered a phase of compression. Every part of the globe is inhabited by the human species and we are all now confronted by a new reality on this Earth.

The internet and mass media have made the world even smaller by providing instant news every moment of the day. What we see is a wellspring of humanity competing for limited resources and land. This flood of sheer humanity, Teilhard wrote, is seeping through every fissure and drowning the rest of us. We are becoming enervated both intellectually and physically, from lack of solitude and of nature.

We find ourselves in a disagreeable closeness of interaction; a continual friction between individuals who are alien or hostile to one another; a mechanization of persons in the corporate collective mentality of big business; and the increasing insecurity of daily life with constant threats of terrorism and violence invading our waking hours. There are too many us in too little room, Teilhard wrote:

The truth is, it is just like a train in the rush hour — the earth is coming to be a place on which we simply cannot breathe. And this asphyxiation explains the violent methods employed by nations and individuals in their attempt to break loose and to preserve, by isolation, their customs, their language and their country. A useless attempt, moreover, since passengers continue to pile into the railway carriage.

Instead of being exasperated by these nuisances from which we all suffer, or waiting vaguely for things to settle down, would we not do better to ask ourselves whether, as a matter of solid experiential fact, there may not possibly be, first, a reassuring explanation of what is going on, and secondly, an acceptable issue to it?

He goes on to say that we are witnessing an explosion in the biosphere that has suddenly been released from the rest of the living mass and is now piling up, to the point of being crushed on the closed surface of the Earth. In order to escape the asphyxiation that threatens us, the remedies proposed are either a drastic restriction of reproduction or a mass migration to another planet. Since the latter is unlikely at this point and the former does not ensure a sustainable future, Teilhard said we must look for the relief without which our zoological phylum cannot now survive, not in a eugenic reduction nor in extraterrestrial expansion of the human mass but in an "escape into time through what lies ahead." The one thing we hold together is the future and we must allow this reality to engage us together.

The fact is, we have not accepted evolution as our story. We treat evolution as a conversational theory or something that belongs to science, as if science is something separate from us and outside our range of experience. Politically, we have fiefdoms and kingdoms; socially, we have tribes and cults. Religiously, we have hierarchy and patriarchy. There is nothing that sustains, supports or nurtures human evolution.

By evolution, I mean simply that change is integral to life, that we are not static or fixed, but, as Teilhard often wrote, we are moving. We are becoming something that is not yet seen or known. To live in evolution is to let go of structures that prevent convergence and deepening of consciousness and assume new structures that are consonant with creativity, inspiration and development.

Evolution requires trust in the process of life itself because, from a faith perspective, there is a power at the heart of life that is divine and lovable. In a sense, we are challenged to lean into life's changing patterns and attend to the new patterns that are emerging in our midst. To live in openness to the future is to live with a sense of creativity and participation, to use our gifts for the sake of the whole by sharing them with others. From a Christian perspective, to live in evolution is to make wholes out of partials, to risk, get involved, challenge the entrenched and fixed by finding new models of practice and beliefs that energize life in God.

There is something about this word evolution that frightens people, as if evolution renders us less human or less special as human. We do not talk in terms of evolution nor do we think in terms of evolution. Our everyday lives are conceived as static and fixed, as if it has always been this way and should always remain this way. But this type of thinking is completely erroneous.

A trip to the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History will help relieve the delusion of a fixed species. In a large exhibit on human origins, the museum set up life-size reproductions of all species that preceded the human species and led up to our emergence. It is sobering to see our predecessors such as Homo neanderthalensis, Homo naledi and Homo australopithecus all sharing similar features and characteristics with us, Homo sapiens.

The truth is, evolution is not a series of radical leaps from one species to another but a gradual emergence of traits, along with genetic mutations and adaptations that result in new genetic identities and traits. The process of evolution reveals nature to be in a constant flux of openness to new forms, new relationships and new processes that not only sustain but optimize life in the face of environmental changes, especially climate change.

Evolution reveals that nature is much more interactive, creative and adaptive than the human species alone can attest. There is a constant urge in nature to transcend toward higher levels of complexity (degrees of relationship) and consciousness. Teilhard thought that evolution is the fundamental process of all aspects of life, leading him to assert that every system, if it is to survive, must now conform itself to evolution.

I am completely amazed how many people resist evolution, even though they buy wholeheartedly into the technological culture. We have our smart phones, iPads, iPods and computers, and with these devices we can access different worlds at the click of a button. Yet we treat technology as if it is something we create simply for our use. Gordon Moore, cofounder of Intel Corporation, predicted in the 1960s that the computer chip would grow exponentially; that is, every two years we would evolve to a new level of computing power — which is exactly what has happened.

But this growth in computing power has changed us significantly. If you were born before 1985, you might remember the phone on the wall with a cord. One could only walk so far with the phone in hand. I remember when the first cellphone went public. It was about a foot long and weighed a few pounds but it was completely novel.

Then came the laptop computer, another unbelievable innovation of human ingenuity, and then the anticipation of holding a palm-sized computer in hand. When I heard about the cellphone-computer back in the early 1980s, I thought it seemed incredible, if not impossible. Would we really be able to talk to someone and then send them a message, too, all with the same device?

Now, some people might say, these devices just make phone calls easier or communication faster. Technology shows us that evolution is a result of where our minds are and what we focus on. Mind and matter are woven together. If I dream of something and I focus my mind on the object of my dream and I create this object and make it real, then I can merge with the object of my dream and what was once a dream is now a reality. This is the human dimension of evolution.

Technology is an extension of biological evolution, indicating that human nature has an infinite capacity to imagine new things. And what we imagine, we find a way to create, and what we create is what we become. Our world is now smaller than ever because we are wired together — and while this affords new growth, it has also bred more competition and consumerism. Our attention spans are limited and diverted by extending our waking selves into our devices. The amount of information we are confronted with each day has exploded into an exhausting level of confused ideas because we do not know how to make sense of the copious information that is flooding our overworked brains. Essentially, we do not know how to think as people in evolution.

The challenge of evolution is essentially stifled by two main systems: religion and education. Religiously we have faith systems confined to old cosmologies and entrenched doctrines. In education, we are still operating on the scientific principles of the German university, where objective knowledge and specialization are not to be confused or mingled with subjective experience or spirituality.

We are educated to think as closed-system specialists, and we are religiously sheltered by medieval dogma. From these two main systems arise all other systems in the world. If we are thinking out of old boxes and praying to old Gods, it is no wonder that evolution frightens us and we resist its forces.

But I do not see this challenge of evolution unilaterally across age groups. Digital natives tend to be entrepreneurial and more creative. The post-millennial "digital native," a term coined by Marc Prensky in 2001, is emerging as the globe's dominant demographic. Digital natives, or those born after 1985, are wired differently from analogues, or those who grew up with wall phones and black-and-white television. Digital natives think like their networks and social media sites; they think in terms of connections and communication rather than across lines of ontological distinctions.

There is a greater sense among the post-millennial generation that things can change, that the world can become a better place and that we must use our gifts to help create this new world. This is evolutionary thinking. Resistance to evolution comes primarily from the older, "analogue" generations who fear being connected, that is, being closer together as different tribes of people, different religions, different cultures, different languages and different worldviews.

Yet, evolution is pressing in the direction of convergence and globalization and the political forces of the world are resisting this change at a high price. Anti-evolutionists want to remain stable, fixed, tribal and nationalistic. They want to avoid convergence, which includes shared space, shared resources, shared policies and shared power. Teilhard warned that we must converge by way of evolution or we will annihilate ourselves.

This is our threshold moment and we need to get on board with evolution. And if we get nothing else straight about our present moment, it should be this: Stability is an illusion. The only real stability is the future. Our moment of evolution requires revolution, and one of the main forces that must make a complete turnaround is religion.

At a U.N.-sponsored conference in 1975, a group of religious leaders drew on Teilhard's ideas of planetization in their statement calling on world religions to come together to harness the spiritual energies of the Earth: "The crises of our time are challenging the world religions to release a new spiritual force transcending religious, cultural and national boundaries into a new consciousness of the oneness of the human community and so putting into effect a spiritual dynamic toward the solutions of world problem."

Not much has changed among world religions in 47 years. Of course, one could name all that has taken place in the Catholic Church since Vatican II, but the fact is we still profess the Nicene Creed composed in the fourth century. Today, the church suffers from internal forces of resistance, as Pope Francis seeks to update the church's presence in the world.

We are all complicit in the present forces of devolution by which we are thinning out our resources and draining our energies to converge. Our refusal to see, our inability to hear the new sounds of a new world arriving, and our refusal to rearrange our comfortable lives are taking their toll. We suffer the sin of fixity and stability. And the price to pay for this sin will be high because the tension of our current political situation is such that, at some point, the rope tautly drawn between big money and corrupt power structures will snap. We will not be able to hide in our glass houses because we will all be gasping for the little air left to breathe.

Thomas Berry summed up the problem of our age in a single sentence: "We will go into the future as a single sacred community or we will all perish in the desert." We are starting to feel the effects of perishing in the desert.

We must consolidate our efforts and come together for that which lies before us, the future, into which we are being fearfully but irresistibly drawn. This is the true test of our faith in the Almighty God who rules heaven and earth, because this God is the future.

[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 16 books, including Making All Things New: Catholicity, Cosmology and Consciousness (Orbis Books, 2015), and the general editor of the series Catholicity in an Evolving Universe.]