Teilhard, the Personal, and the Developmental Soul

This piece by Cynthia Bourgeault is the fifth in a series beginning with “A Surprising Ecumenism“, her response to Evangelical Fundamentalism and Catholic Integralism in the USA: A Surprising Ecumenism“, an article published by La Civiltà Cattolica. The second is “Abortion, Pro-Life, and the Secular State: A Modest Proposal“, the third is “When Does Life Begin?“, and the fourth is “The Developmental Soul“.

But what about Psalm 139?

The biggest challenge in wrapping one’s head around this Wisdom notion of a developmental soul – at least for traditionally reared religious folks – is that it seems to fly in the face of that well-loved Biblical assurance that God is personally and intimately invested in the creation of each and every human being: “For you yourself created my inmost parts; you knit me together in my mother’s womb”, the psalm’s text assures. In the face of this apparently explicit assurance that each human soul originates in God and reflects God’s personal handiwork, the alternative version – that developing a soul is the principal business of this life and that not all human lives will get there – seems bleak and impersonal. What could possibly be the advantage of looking at things this way?

The advantage is that it might – just might – knock us out of a cul de sac of sloppy and sentimental thinking based on an antiquated metaphysics that is no longer supported by science.

You may have already noticed how some of this sloppiness has slipped into some of the comments generated by this blog series. There is a strong tendency to use the terms “life”, “soul”, and “human person” interchangeably, as if they are equivalent. They manifestly are not. “Life begins at conception”, some of you have passionately reiterated – but not so: according to contemporary scientific models, life is already well underway at the time of conception; it is a property already shared by sperm and egg since it belongs as a general condition to the biosphere. Nor is the soul created at conception, if the developmental road map is to be taken seriously; soul is the fruit of the journey, not the seed.

What is created in that “ignition” moment at conception – and yes, it is a pivotal moment – is the individual human life, the temporarily separated spark of divine consciousness that will have the option, with tenacity and luck, to return to the divine fullness having realized a very different kind of substantiality within the cosmos.

The Wisdom teaching is clear: below a certain threshold, death brings an end to this temporary sense of individuated selfhood. The “soul” is not destroyed (since it has not yet come into being in the first place); the individual essence components are simply reabsorbed back into the biosphere. As Jesus himself expressed this ancient teaching in the Gospel of Mary Magdalene, “All of nature with its forms and creatures exist together and are interwoven with each other. They will be resolved back, however, to their own proper origin, for the compositions of matter return to the original roots of their nature…

Above this threshold – with the crystallization of what we have been calling “second body” or soul in the true esoteric sense of the term – this dissolution does not take place (not immediately, at any rate). The individuality thus formed as the fruit of “conscious labor and intentional suffering” can hold his or her personhood within a wider spiritual cosmos which is not affected by the dissolution of the physical (earth-plane) body. This attainment is always viewed as being for cosmic servanthood, not for personal glory.

Teilhard and the Personal

Interestingly, Teilhard de Chardin arrives at a remarkably similar assessment from his scientific perspective. There is indeed a dividing line, he feels, and it is integrally related to some threshold of consciousness crossed in the human species. As he writes with astonishing power toward the end of The Human Phenomenon (p. 194):

Certainly the human being appears to disintegrate just like the animal. But here and there the phenomenon functions in reverse. Through death in the animal the radial [energy] is reabsorbed into the tangential. In the human, the radial escapes the tangential and is freed from it. There is an escape from entropy by a sudden reversal toward Omega. Death itself is hominized.1

Yes, the Wisdom tradition would agree, that is precisely what happens. But whereas Teilhard would at first appear to be according this “escape from the law of entropy” to all humans, the developmental model would assert that it in fact occurs to only some of them: those who, in the course of their lives have acquired/developed a soul – or, to put it in Teilhardian language, who have passed from mere individuals to becoming persons.

But is Teilhard in fact conferring this blessing on the entire human species? You have to admit, his “but here and there” is quite a teaser!

We know from elsewhere in The Human Phenomenon – and in fact, throughout his work – that Teilhard draws a very clear distinction between an individual and a person. For him the two terms are not synonymous, but more like progressive stages of a human journey. The individual is simply an autonomous human unit operating in accordance with biological necessity. The person has developed the gift of genuine interiority (in a way that dovetails closely with that Boros quote I shared with you in the last post). This interiority, moreover, is not individualistic or isolationist but is simultaneously the awareness of belonging to a greater whole. It is grounded in a dawning sense of a deeper human collectivity, which is at the same time a new evolutionary emergence.

The journey from individual to person is the essence of what Teilhard means by “hominization”. If this key Teilhardian term is understood to designate not simply the evolutionary appearance of the species homo sapiens, but rather the interior journey within each member of this species as he or she moves toward becoming a person, then we have a model which is essentially in line with the great Wisdom lineage of which Teilhard is our most recent powerful spokesperson.

“An immense solicitude – in the sphere of the person…”

As a biologist, Teilhard knew only too well that the biosphere is characterized by an extravagant wastefulness. Living organisms come into being in astonishing profusion, only to vanish just as quickly. In a powerful philosophical reflection on “The Ways of Life”, tucked into an early chapter in The Human Phenomenon, he designates the three core characteristics of life as profusion, ingenuity, and indifference toward individuals (p. 67):

So many times art, poetry, and even philosophy have depicted nature like a woman, blindfolded, trampling down a dust of crushed existences. In life’s profusion we find the first traces of this apparent hardheartedness. Like Tolstoy’s grasshoppers, life passes over a bridge of accumulated corpses…Life is more real than lives, as it has been said…

Here lost in number. There torn apart in the collective…The dramatic and perpetual opposition in the course of evolution between the element born of the multiple and the multiple constantly being born in the element.

Perhaps this perspective might be of some dark consolation as we step up to the plate and ponder the apparent “heartlessness” of a model in which many individualized essences do indeed “spontaneously abort”, failing to transform that initial individualized essence into a soul that will be cosmically viable beyond the womb of this life. This is, as Teilhard points out, simply the universal condition of the biosphere and, insofar as one remains firmly planted in that realm, its laws will continue to hold sway, no matter how hard we stamp our feet and emote about the “personal” nature of each newly conceived human life. The individual is not yet the personal. That belongs to another sphere.

But, says Teilhard, the value we are obliquely intuiting here does in fact exist; we are simply looking for it in the wrong place, assigning it to the wrong level of consciousness (p. 67):

Insofar as the general movement of life becomes more ordered, in spite of periodic resumptions of the offensive the conflict tends to resolve itself. Yet it is cruelly recognizable right to the end. Only from the spirit, where it reaches its felt paroxysm, will the antinomy clear; and the world’s indifference to its elements be transformed into an immense solicitude – in the sphere of the person.

“We are not there yet,” he cautions. And yet he does hold out for us here a pathway of hope, and a way of potentially resolving the fierce impasse around the personal so categorically invested in the newly conceived fetus. By Teilhard’s standards a fetus is a human individual, but it is not yet a person. And in tasting the difference between the two (and the developmental ground to be covered here which is the true meaning of being “pro-life”), we may finally be able to move forward.


  1. This passage is filled with Teilhard-speak; my apologies. Tangential energy is for him the physical energy routinely measured by science. Radial energy corresponds to what most esoteric maps would call “psychic” energy: the finer energy of consciousness as it expresses itself in attention, prayer, will, or, for Teilhard, increasing self-articulation and complexification. Omega is his evolutionary endpoint, identical with Christ; “hominized” means transformed in the direction of becoming more fully human in its highest sense: coherent, conscious, compassionate.
16 replies
  1. Ron Starbuck
    Ron Starbuck says:

    I am wondering how you or we –– might explain the “Subtle Body” that retains a memory from one life to the next and our continuity of consciousness in some form.

    We do remember. We may drink from the waters of Mnemosyne that pour forth. Our consciousness-spirit-soul-self, whatever metaphor you might wish to use, retains a “subtle memory” of something more. A God size hole or subtle emptiness perhaps, one we fill through servitude – as did Christ – kenosis.

    We may see this as mystery that moves in and with and through us – the indwelling spirit. The same spirit that prays in and with and through us, even when we may not know how to pray on our own. Our human or spiritual knowledge in this life cannot adequately explain this mystery – we just don’t have the words.

    I do find comfort in the following scripture. It seems that there is wisdom in this as well – we can live in this mystery – we are fully known by this mystery.

    1 Corinthians 13:9-12 – New Revised Standard Version –– Anglicized (NRSVA)

    9 For we know only in part, and we prophesy only in part; 10 but when the complete comes, the partial will come to an end.
    11 When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child; when I became an adult, I put an end to childish ways.
    12 For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face. Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known.”

  2. Dorota Porada Gaukstad
    Dorota Porada Gaukstad says:

    Your writing has definitely made me try to find a better way of expressing the importance and sanctity of every life that I believe in. I think the best way I can put it is this:

    Every life is a manifestation of Divine presence but most importantly Divine unconditional love…. even one cell has an ability to “feel” and respond, has its little “consciousness” or feeling of existence or experience of existence… it feels fear and pain, it’s trying to survive so it’s aware of its existence, it’s trying to avoid dying ….to terminate/ end life brings pain and suffering even if in microscopic way…. if you have love you have compassion…. for me the way is love of God in everything – then you don’t hurt any creation and take life- if you do it – is your motivation that counts and then gratitude that something has offered its life for you… and you feel the pain, sorrow of life ending…., so the presence of God and His love makes the miracle of Life sacred… That’s why it doesn’t matter to me if it’s fetus, individual human, developed or not developed soul doesn’t make any difference in loving, protecting and feeling with Gods creation and Him. Death is necessary but it should come spontaneously… and if not- that motivation is everything …

  3. Sandra
    Sandra says:

    I prefer Thomas Merton’s belief, born of deep experience and thought, that Christ lives in our very being “Always and everywhere human life is ontologically suspended from the life of God” and “even our natural life is rooted in the divine life of our Creator” because of the Incarnation. (New Man pp.142,143)

  4. John A Davies
    John A Davies says:

    Wow… amazing… can’t say i grasp all the technical understandings.. but the freedom that wells up within me in the sentiment of justice in everything returns to the source of its arising is just mind blowing… It just opens wider than wide for me the gift of proposition that being willed into existence offers… Individual vs personal is the best simplicity i have ever heard and gives me fresh inspiration on image & likeness… And everything is there to win, win if i have the eyes to look properly… Life vs individual just makes so much sense and makes in roads for me into the great question “how should a human/humans live”. I can see we should be less focused on and stuck in “abortion” as a moral issue (tho of course it is) and more aware of how bigger is the problem of abortion throughout out our own and everyones existence… Puts a whole new light for me on the term “its later than we think”…and the thought of escaping the planet is not a guaranteed thing…. Not sure i am on the same page but certainly feel i am in the book somewhere so to speak… But so grateful for your work Cynthia.. you help me so much… x

  5. Lawrie Okurowski
    Lawrie Okurowski says:

    We are of God, at once immediate and eternal. We are even before “In the beginning” so how and when are we begun? Through Divine fruition (Love) we are both breathed into our physical life and then breathed out of it ……. Who are we to take another’s breath?

  6. William Ryan
    William Ryan says:

    As I read this, it is not in opposition to the patristic tradition and its teaching on the nature of spirit and soul, nor Genesis and its use of imago dei and “likeness”. For me the sense of personhood and soul development is the growing capacity of a rootedness of personal consciousness in Divine Spirit within, in-dwelling and all-dwelling, so that there is no separateness, thus the dissolution of the personal “I”. Soul/personhood is therefore extension and expression of the essential Unity from which all things arise and return. With some human travelers does personal consciousness fizzle and disappear as “aborted souls” in that process? Origen felt otherwise, as well as a good share of the world’s believers and spiritual adherents, that is why he had a notion of transmigration of souls, rebirth, and universal salvation? In that sense personal consciousness cannot fall out, fizzle, or fall short of God. As a parent, as a psychotherapist and spiritual director, and a former student of Zen Buddhism, I know that children are not born as blank slates, but come into this life with their own ko-an, their own life cross or dilemma to resolve, and is there any reason to not allow for a cosmology in which “oneing” and integration takes place over multiple lifetimes and realms of existence? Orthodox Christians pray for the conversion of Lucifer, and his eventual salvation, the most separate and alienated consciousness of all.

  7. Fred Macon
    Fred Macon says:

    Cynthia, this is especially difficult for me since a core assumption for me is that regardless of where we are in the inner and outer journey, “nothing can separate from the love of God”. Indeed, because of the goodness of the Divine, there is always hope for every individual.
    At the same time, I am seeking to keep an open heart and mind, since over the years you have always been a wonderful and insightful teacher.

    • Cynthia Bourgeault
      Cynthia Bourgeault says:

      Hi Fred

      It’s interesting how quickly you and several other posters here jump to the assumption that the soul is our only means of connection with the deep relational field that is the divine milieu, and that without it, we “fall out of the love of God” into some dark, impersonal, hopeless oblivion. And note how we tend to equate hope with individual personal continuance. My whole point–which I develop in the next installment (now posted) is precisely the point you’re making: that NOTHING can fall out of the love of God. And it doesn’t require a fully developed personal consciousness assured of its own immortality to know this. That’s just an old theological habit that I’m encouraging us all to move beyond.

  8. Trey Everett
    Trey Everett says:

    This is very interesting Cynthia. Thanks for all your work with this difficult subject matter. One thing that came to mind (and emotions and body) as I finished reading/contemplating this last essay was the “I hope I make it” terror. Growing up in a Christian conservative fundamentalist culture I remember praying and hoping that I would one day make it to heaven. As time moved on and I became a more open, welcoming person (labeled liberal by more conservative folks) I lost that terror of making it to a better place after this journey on this physical plane. To my mind “all” were moving on to a much better place and we as human beings had no worries of “not making it” even if many of us never became a “true human being.” After reading this last essay I felt that unwelcome terror feeling arise after many years of being dormant. I found myself thinking, “Wow. This is really neat what Cynthia is spelling out. Wait! this means some/many won’t move on. Hold on, what about me?!” I have no argument for or against what you’re saying here Cynthia, I just wanted to point out that old fear arising. Do you have time to address this? Again, thanks for all your work and insight. Peace.

    • Alice MacLean
      Alice MacLean says:

      Dear Trey
      I understand completely about reconnecting with the fear from earlier teaching which I share.
      I would say that from reading and pondering the teachings in the blog that you are a seeker after the truth
      I am comforted by this quote ( forget the source)
      ” God in his infinite mercy
      Looks not on what we have been or what we are but in what we desire to be”
      From my encounters with my fellow human beings it seems to me that most of us do indeed desire that very much at a deep level.
      Don’t be anxious , you are being cared for more than you could ever imagine .

  9. Dorota Porada Gaukstad
    Dorota Porada Gaukstad says:

    Correct me if I’m wrong but The Divine encompasses ALL – material and non- material and that ALL is ONE in the Divine thus everything is interconnected. There is nothing outside the Divine. Divine is beginning of everything and is involved in everything…. I will risk the word, LIFE , if it’s bacteria or human being in my belief has, what you call the temporarily separated spark of divine consciousness, and that makes LIFE sacred no matter on which level, how many cells, individual or person. The Sanctity of Life comes as a respect for expression of God’s unconditional love that suffice everything. Now how the life evolve and what becomes of it it’s a different discussion for me. When death comes spontaneously it is different from death that we bring upon Life, whatever life form it might be, an animal, human individual, person , with developed soul or not. We choose actively to end a life which contains as you called it, a spark of Divine consciousness…. that’s the point for me … the presence of Divine consciousness is the main point… respect for it and love for the Divine. Billions of lives starts and ends every minute and everyone of them should be respected because of Divine presence …. For me the discussion if it’s human individual or a person has no relevance – it’s Life… it’s Divine presence – spark of Divine consciousness …..if spontaneous death comes then it comes but if we choose to end a life, any life, we should be aware of extinguishing the spark of Divine consciousness by our choice and if we do where motivation comes from is most important . The miracle of Life is mind-blowing, the depth of perfect harmony and synchronicity and exactly all connections …. Maybe working with incurable and dying people , working with death gives even more awe – breath taking view on the miracle of Life manifested in the material sphere from Divine Love …. and yes there’s no need for separateness or individuality eventually when we comprehend/grasp it spiritually and feel One and merge with the Divine. If it’s sentimental then I’m sentimental….

      • Dorota Porada Gaukstad
        Dorota Porada Gaukstad says:

        I wrote : “we should be aware of extinguishing the spark of Divine consciousness by our choice”, as per se you can’t extinguish the spark of Divine consciousness, the better form to describe it is “extinguish ” the form of life Divine consciousness choose to be.

  10. Deborah Foster
    Deborah Foster says:

    Puts body/soul/spirit in a new and helpful perspective. And we do have our inner/outer work cut out for us. Not just “Jesus saved me so I’m good to go”. As St. Paul indicates, we participate. And we do so on many levels. Lots to consider here. Thanks again Cynthia.

  11. Barb Miller
    Barb Miller says:

    What I have noticed in my own experience of reading or hearing scripture is that as my learning and understanding grow and deepen, the scriptures expand and open up accordingly. Meanings take on a new depth and draw me into intimacy. Psalm 139 is one of my favorites. I’ve worked with it several times in creating meditation areas at church. I did not see it as a contradiction to wisdom teaching but as an expression of the intimacy available to us when we are vulnerable to it. I see it as encouraging our continued journey. Being birthed into another realm while physically in this one. While Wisdom teaching may seem heartless, to me the annual death and resurrection of a simple flower garden is a profound testament to th paradox that is Love within the cosmos.

  12. frank salyers
    frank salyers says:

    The Hominized or Developed Soul is indeed what Jesus refers to in the Communion Meal. Let US be One. What is there to fear? We will maintain Christ Consciousness but only in another “shared” form. What’s not to like. It may take Eons & Eons to get to the Omega point but there is joy in the Journey if we accept our intentional suffering as a “Shock” to wake the hell up.

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