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Ludwig Ebersberger {*}

Structure and Dynamism of the Cosmos

Changes in the conception of the world
and in spirituality:

Kant, Darwin, Einstein and Teilhard de Chardin

German Version

 

From: Christ in der Gegenwart, No. 33/05, S. 269f.
webmaster's own, not authorized translation

 

Exactly 250 years ago - in the year 1755 - the ground rocked in Portugal - an event as innumerable others before. But with one peculiarity: It happened on All Saint's Day at the hour of mass. In Lisbon alone 30 churches collapsed and the rubble buried the gathered faithful. The earthquake, the following great fires and the Tsunami-waves claimed tens of thousands of casualties.

Was it God's punishment for the "idolatry" of the Catholics' veneration of the saints? In fact, there were voices that intimated such or similar things. But not even three weeks later the earth quaked also in Boston, a centre of American Puritanism, and damaged 15.000 houses. And the interpretation as "Allah's revenge" was pointless for the big Al-Mansur-Mosque in Rabat had likewise collapsed.

Now one had recourse to the "original sin". Voltaire, infuriated at the utmost, answered with his famous poem "About Lisbon's Catastrophe or: An Examination of the Axiom 'Everything is Good'" and with it triggered worldwide discussions that have not fallen silent until today and at present, in the commemoration year of Auschwitz, Armenia, Dresden and Hiroshima and the latest natural disasters in south-east Asia are even heading for new peaks.

That event (Lisbon earthquake) had met with a new sensibility which now began to ask the question of "man's justification before God", on behalf of which only shortly before wars had been waged, also in the opposite sense. Leibniz had already triggered fierce debates with his theodicy (1712), in which he described this world as the best of all possible worlds - the first big treatise on this theme since Job, and in beginnings with Augustine and Thomas of Aquinas.

For meanwhile the conceptions of the world had thoroughly changed. Formerly one had imagined the cosmos as basically consisting only of our earth which was thought surrounded by a system of globe shells moved by angels, on which sun, moon and stars were fixed and immediately beyond of which heaven began. Now, however, the view had opened for the immense vastness of the universe, in comparison with which our earth appeared only as tiny dust particle. And also the mechanics of the universe seemed explained, since Newton (1687) had discovered that the course of the stars and the fall of an apple from a tree follow the same natural law.

 

Lisbon 1755 - an Earthquake Shakes Theology and Faith

The mechanistic conception of the world was born. All matter was now imagined as consisting of optionally small particles that had to do nothing else but according to Newton's gravitation law to move to and fro and around each other. The world had become a machine, with which to God according to the now spreading interpretation called "deism", befitted only the role of its "maker" or "first mover".

But one did not stop there. Already at the end of the eighteenth century Laplace stated to Napoleon, he "had no need of that hypothesis". For everything that happens, be it in the past, present or in the future, were in the sense of a stringent "determinism", as it were, from eternity unchangeably laid down by the laws of mechanics, and at least theoretically also calculable. With it God was now also no longer needed as "clock-maker". From now on the interpretation of almost all scientists up to Max Planck and Albert Einstein remained deistic as far as they kept to the belief in God - at times mixed with elements of a pantheism that was rightly named "polite atheism" by Schopenhauer.

But also the faithful who were loyal to the church began to wonder whether not only nature but also fate was blind, whether there too no spirit or god had a leading function. A pessimism arose that was eloquently expressed by Schopenhauer: "Look at this world of poor beings under the respect that they only exist for some time by devouring each other - and you will admit that a god who got the idea to change itself into such a world must really have been troubled by Satan." As the work of a demon it was "the worst of all possible worlds", any form of optimism had therefore to be condemned as "not only absurd but also truly infamous thinking, as "bitter mockery of the nameless sufferings of mankind".

That cultural pessimism came into fashion which while cursing the world enjoys it and henceforth ruled over art and literature and so also over the highly educated middle classes, as far as they had not devoted themselves to that naively rationalist faith in progress (Fortschrittsoptimus) which likewise does not "need" God and the chimerical character of which becomes apparent today by its running an inexorable amok against almost all our natural foundations of life. Or one settled in a comfortable since not obliging to anything agnosticism according to the motto, "How could God, if he existed, call us to account for something that we neither know nor will ever be able to know?"

It can unfortunately not be ignored that theology had powerfully collaborated on the origin of that pessimism already since the late Middle Ages. So for example the Franciscan friar Wilhelm of Ockham (1285-1349) called the "philosopher with the razor", - regardless of his (as such modern) conceptions in the so-called 'universalia argument' - cut every relation of the natural human drives and primeval longings to the Ten Commandments, which had been dictated, as it were, arbitrarily by God and could have run also quite differently.

The Catholic theology, admittedly, has never wholly accepted that, but it nevertheless caused a lot of confusion, particularly since especially in circles of reformed theologians one really tried to outdo each other by not possibly conceding to man a single tiny thread of good in its own right out of concern to pinch off something of God's greatness and majesty. Man was even denied the control of his own free will, because whatever happened had already been predestined in God's omnipotence and prescience - a determinism which was in no way inferior to the mechanistic world view.

God's creation however was degraded to a spitefully arranged place of punishment and atonement for Adam's sin, where - apart from the inner drama in the individual's soul - nothing essential happened, and which basically only waited for the final catastrophe. In Christ, however one no longer saw "the salvation of the world", but only the saving anchor for the single soul in the shipwreck of this "fallen" creation. Every inner worldly vision was given up, even decried; all human hope was projected into the hereafter. The universality that had still been intact at the time of Thomas Aquinas and the dynamism of Christian faith were lost. They were replaced by a kind of laager mentality which in all areas of life and knowledge only defended the status quo and regarded new scientific findings only as disruptive factors.

It is understandable that one had more and more difficulties with theodicy. All the more so as the then ruling logic obliged to the assumption that God, though he was omnipotent, was as infinite perfect being nevertheless "unable" to create an imperfect world, and thus only man was possible as cause of all evils. He alone must therefore be guilty of all the misery, pain, sickness, death and, of course, also of earthquakes. That obviously overtaxes every imagination and also every natural feeling of justice.

 

The Crossroad from Naught into Being

The real dilemma however lies, as we know today, still a whole stage deeper and consists of two components.

First in that respect, that the world was regarded as static, i.e. as "finished" and unchangeable from the beginning. But every static world view is inevitably pessimistic. Schopenhauer's philosophy as well as Buddhism which both proceed from a static conceptions of the world show that quite clearly. But would not a dynamic world view - i.e. the conception of Creation as a world in the process of development- at once and radically change that, even lead to totally different possibilities of a "justification" of God and not only not reduce his greatness and glory in our eyes, but even heighten beyond a measure never known up to now? Why should God not have been able to create, if not an imperfect but still a developing world - and that in a quite "perfect" way?

All human pains, all privations, all our sufferings, and even death could be regarded as our own part in the creation of the world as well as of our individual Ego, and then our life on earth could be seen as its consciously experienced and as answer to God deliberately co-designed phase. Then Jesus' death on the cross had no longer to be understood as expiation, i.e. as a juristic act - what is assuredly rejected not only today by many theologians, among them for example also Eugen Biser - but as love death, as an act of God's solidarity with the nameless sufferings of his creation on its burdensome way out of Nothingness into Being, which - according to Teilhard de Chardin - is a Way of the Cross. Biser asks, "If man had been created as immortal being, would then the world not be comparatively empty of love?" Both see Christianity 'still in children's shoes'.

Secondly in that respect, that man who has become critical today with every attribute by which we usually praise God - his "infinite mercy", "love", "omnipotence", "patience" -at once associates just the opposite: the "severe judge", "eternal hell punishment", God's "impotence". As one of the first philosophers, Duns Scotus (13/14 century) probably dared openly to say, that every "arguing" about God will at once and inevitably lead into insolvable contradictions. He was followed by Raimund Lullus and above all by Nicholas Cusanus who saw God as "Coincidentia Oppositorum", i.e. "contradictions falling into one".

Is God therefore a "contradiction in itself"? For many people the main hindrance to believe in God today lies just here! But where danger is there the saving powers will grow as well. Here too Hölderlin's beautiful word of consolation stands the test, and to be precise in both respects

 

Immanuel Kant

Exactly in the same year in which the Lisbon catastrophe marked the spiritual change to the modern age, Immanuel Kant's "Allgemeine Naturgeschichte und Theorie des Himmels" ('General Natural History and Theory on the Universe') appeared, by which for the first time a physical theory of the origin of the world was introduced. Taking as its starting point a most subtly spread cosmic mist or dust it explains the origin "of the whole universe", including galaxies, suns, planetary systems and moons according to the laws of mechanics. A theory that, even though within limits, is valid still today. With it a door was opened for a dynamic conception of the world. Charles Darwin followed and put also the world of living beings into a continuum of development.

But today, as physics - thanks to Einstein - already undertakes to follow up the genesis of the whole material world up to the first billionth part of a second after the Big Bang, absolutely nothing at all has remained about which can still reasonably be talked without including the relations of this temporal, and that means evolutionary reality [Gewordensein - something that has come into being]. A new dimension of thinking and knowledge has opened, has even become a categorical condition of our human comprehension of reality.

Kant and Einstein became pioneers also in the question "God - a contradiction in itself?" In his critical writings - published since 1781 - Kant proved that this inconsistency is not at all confined to the question of God, but will generally arise when we approach the boundaries of our human capacity of imagination and comprehension. And he demonstrated that this already applies to the most elementary foundations of our perception of the world, such as room and time. Are they limited or unlimited? Either is unimaginable. Or matter - are its smallest parts uniform in themselves or structured? Here too we are overtaxed. Or for the will of man - is it free or determined? Theologians and scientists are still today arguing about that, and to be precise, among themselves as well as against each other.

 

Albert Einstein

But first one to some extent refused to admit those new insights. Einstein had still to come, whom we remember this year even twice: he died fifty years ago (1955), and exactly a hundred years ago (1905) he succeeded in his great revolutionary breakthroughs.

Einstein first with his theory of relativity put room, time, matter and energy into an entirely unimaginable, only mathematically understandable dynamic connection as figures of a uniform basic reality which were convertible into each other. At the same time the study of some still unsettled qualities of light led him not only to a scientific confirmation of Kant's findings but also to an approach leading ahead: to the realisation of the model character of every human thinking and imagining.

Since Newton it had already been controversial whether light was a radiation of particles or an undulating motion. Since the two conceptions strictly exclude each other, only one of them - so one thought - could be the "true one". But Einstein showed that each of the two models has its own truth, according to the experiment that is being made. and with it set the beginning of a truly stupendous change of paradigms. Ten years later the physicist Niels Bohr put it into the words, "Contraria sunt Complementa" (contradictions complement each other). Until then however had applied: Apart from "true" or "false" there is no third. A sentence that caused discord and mischief as no other did; indeed the constraint coming from it to produce always false alternatives really marks the blind spot of the whole Western culture handed down to us.

In the same context Einstein also overturned the last dominant pillar of the mechanistic cosmic system: the imaginable cause-effect-structure, the "principle of causality" and with it determinism as well.

Already in the seventeenth century Leibniz had stated as creed: "Everything in nature happens continuously and not by leaps. When you deny that, there will be gaps in the world which would overthrow the great principle of the 'causa sufficiens' (sufficient ratio) and force us to have recourse to miracles or plain chance for the explanation of the phenomena."

But just that happened. Einstein's findings made that development irreversible which Max Planck (1899) had initiated with his discovery of an exact, absolutely valid limit of the divisibility of all energy (Planck's constant "h") and which forced to the conclusion that no coherent process in the lowest structures of matter exists: nature makes only leaps there. The gaps resulting with it however rip up the cause-effect-structure and allow only predictions in the sense of statistical probabilities (for example: when and where will the next leap happen?). It is like a game of dice: Nobody knows what the next cast will bring. But the more often you throw the more exactly a law becomes apparent: the average will more and more approach the value 3.5.

In the same sense the whole cosmic happening turned out to be a gigantic game of dice, whereby on each next higher level that resulted in the course of evolution - on the nuclear, atomic, molecular, biological, bio spherical, ethological, sociological etc. - new patterns of interaction will appear with which in each case a new game will start. God's dice are therefore rolling on all levels of the cosmic stages. The single event is indeterminate but great laws are always carried out in the whole - as if God granted freedom in the single event, but on the whole nevertheless always achieved his aims.

 

Chance Or Miracle?

It took almost twenty more years till one gave in to the dictate of the facts and accepted that indeterminism - though gnashing one's teeth. So Planck was never able to admit those consequences of his own discoveries. And Einstein even dedicated the entire rest of his life to the useless attempt to find a way back to determinism and thus to the deistic god. Leibniz had seen rightly. Only chance or miracles can "explain" the processes below the h-barrier.

Out of methodological dictates the natural sciences decided in favour of chance. But the miracles returned. First in the form of the "anthropic principle" (1961) with which Leibniz' "pre-stabilized harmony" suddenly celebrated resurrection. One had met the question what preconditions natural laws are to bring along, in order that life and finally also human consciousness can result, and had found out that already the relation of the strengths of the four cosmic basic forces to each other alone is tuned to this aim with an exactness reaching over forty times the power of ten, so that - if one wants to maintain the fiction of pure chance in order thus to escape the conclusion that irresistibly obtrudes itself, namely that of an intelligent creator, nothing else will remain but to leave our real universe, and to search for "parallel" universes which lie outside of a number that goes towards infinite. But until today not even the smallest trace of them has appeared.

A little later the next shock followed in the form of the chaos theory which in its consequences forced to introduce the term "self-organisation of matter". What however since the word "organization" remains without any sense without the insinuation of aims of organization at once poses the question: What are these aims, and who sets and realizes them? Does perhaps matter itself do it? And if so, has itself given itself this ability? But de facto influences which produce sense - be it by the "all-whole", by the own autonomous "Ego" or by God personally - can on the basis of natural science neither be proved nor excluded on the sub-quantum-level. Even case-hardened reductionists among the physicists talk today of a "non-causality" of the quantum leaps. Could you then not equally speak of "spontaneity", and instead of "self-organisation" of "potencies" of the matter?

 

Pierre Teilhard de Chardin

Here now Teilhard de Chardin takes his starting-point, that highly disputed Jesuit Father, geologist and successful palaeontologist who is also particularly commemorated this year and whose life shows remarkable parallels with Einstein's life. Both were in the mid-twenties when they in the same year (1905) got their first fundamental ideas. Both dealt, each in his way, with general problems. And the day of their death fell almost within the same week: on 10 and 18 April 1955.

Already in 1905, that is at a time when this could only be taken for complete nonsense, Teilhard demanded indeterminism, i.e. a momentum of liberty and spontaneity "underneath the things" and also believed the mathematical physics capable of some day advancing to it as the "true behaviour of matter". As that was really in the offing - as explained - at the same time already by Einstein. Also the quantum-wave-dualism of light and with it the model character and the mutual complementing co-operation of the different human ways of thinking and imagining were already familiar to him at that time. "Like the meridians near the pole", he wrote later, "sciences, philosophy, and religion converge… but without melting into each other."

"Spontaneity" he classed with the things that he named the "inner dimension of things", i.e. with that area of reality that can directly only be perceived introspectively - that is by observation and analysis of our own world of feelings - the valuation and classification of which had been started by Empedokles and continued over Augustine, Hume, Schelling, Schopenhauer up to Sigmund Freud and C. G. Jung, but until a short time ago was considered as "unscientific" - quite so as if our feelings and impulses did not belong to this world.

In his main opus "The Phenomenon of Man" (1941), which he wants to be understood "solely as scientific work", Teilhard gets rid - with a scientific-theoretical awareness that one would have liked to wish many of his critics - of all narrowing guidelines of a thinking that is orientated toward existence (i.e. ontological, essentialist resp. reductionist), and that - although it is totally unbiblical and in the Book Exodus (20, 4-5) expressly and in the strictest possible way forbidden - had intruded into Christianity from Hellenism and had blocked for 1500 years until far into the 17th century, every scientific progress. "He did not try to detect a system of ontological and causal relations", but orientating only towards the "phenomenon" (i.e. towards the relations between the perceptions) he tried to trace out and to make understandable - within the newly discovered temporal lines of the universe - a network of relations which is related to man.

Here he replaced all ontological sham knowledge by axiomatic hypotheses ("primordial options"), on which he built his edifice of thoughts. One of them says, translated into modern mode of speech: To the potencies of matter to produce thinking and consciousness corresponds at the inside an affectivity that is directed at their realization, which can only happen in an evolutionary process of unification of elements to higher and higher organized systems of centred complexity.

Perhaps just here - in the ability to build up centred systems - lies the greatest of all mysteries of the universe. For even the most primitive cell shows already a whole cosmos of organization in which myriads of atoms and molecules co-operate by devoting themselves to uniform aims of function and life!

 

Love Each Other Or You Will Perish

These creative processes - so Teilhard's second hypothesis - organically continue in the human area of interaction, which Teilhard names "noosphere". Here too every step leads into the direction of a higher degree of organization, to a plus of centredness, consciousness and freedom. The history of mankind is really characterized by the fact that time and again and in a succession that becomes swifter and swifter new systems of unification were formed: language, writing, typography, then telegraphy - as it were, as a global, with the speed of light working nerve system - and now also telephone, broadcasting, television, internet ..., with a permanent growing global cross-linking of all fields of life.

Teilhard always warned against the illusion that evolution was at its end with the human individual and would in the future be contented with submitting itself to our private benefit. Rather today we stood just at that extremely delicate place where the "evolution of Homo sapiens, after it had until now been expansive, changes into a phase of compression" that inevitably brought along the vital compulsion to the "planetisation" of mankind. In the same way he insistently warned against banking here only on a social order obtained by outer compulsion. "Love each other or you will perish", Teilhard already said at a time when one had hardly any premonition of population explosion, destruction of nature, ruinous exploitation of the resources of this earth, and when nuclear armament race was only an object of science-fiction.

Today we witness that single, elemental, unrepeatable moment in the history of mankind, as it begins to realize that it will - from now on irrevocably and for all the coming times - stand under the progressive constraint to unification. Everywhere having come up against limiting factors it is in the interest of its survival forced on ways which to go will already in the near future demand all its strengths, i.e. will challenge it in its totality, and thus also in its religiousness and - in its strongest power: love.

 

Jesus Christ: Embodiment of All Integrative Forces

Teilhard's most important message for today is probably found here:

  • For what could still promise a future, if not the re-conversion of Christianity to God's creation, and the return to a religiousness which knows that we can perceive, love and serve God only in and through this world?
  • How was future possible at all, if not by a gradual change of the world - carried by the confidence in the "sense" of our world and existence and by a passionate will of integration into an organism that is capable to survive and that embraces all human beings and all material conditions of our existence including the biosphere?
  • And who else could be thought as head and organization centre of this organism, if not Jesus Christ - the eternal Logos Incarnate and the quintessence of all integrative forces of man?

The Christian virtues faith, hope and love are therefore no longer only to be regarded as preconditions of our individual salvation, but from today and for ever, so to speak, as conditions for life - in the quality of natural laws.

For only the belief that "something of our efforts will survive" in which we ourselves will share, can sufficiently motivate man to undergo the efforts lying before him. "Man will never agree to labour like a Sisyphus."

Hope is for everything developing the central motivation. Could in a world without it "development" happen at all? Refusal, even already pessimism - Karl Popper names it "irresponsible" - is not only betrayal of God but also betrayal of four billion years of life history, betrayal of all that has developed, of all that we perceive around us and that carries our life, betrayal of all that has happened up to now, betrayal of all that has been achieved by labouring and suffering, betrayal of all that we love, yes, betrayal of fourteen billion years of cosmic events.

Love is the precondition for both of them. In its highest forms it can only be personal. Love for the collective - the central illusion of Marxist socialism - fails here. Teilhard argues against it, "Where man meets anonymity, it kills love already before its birth"; and he relates the growing unification of the universe to St Paul's word about the growing and completing of Christ's body.

Teilhard is here in no way isolated but in the centre of Christianity's best traditions. The Bible speaks of Christ as "redeemer of the world", Thomas Aquinas of the striving of "all things" after "God's goodness" - they too can only jointly return to God. "Being is being one" it says in Thomas, "to create means to make one" (créer, c'est unir) in Teilhard. Two sentences which are not less important for the understanding of structure and dynamics of the universe than Einstein's equivalence formula: E = mc squared.

Now we have at last to stand up to those fatal, world forgetting restrictions of a religiousness that is exclusively reduced to forgiveness of sins, a religiousness scarcely appealing to modern people. But as long as in today's awareness Christianity continues to figure de facto only as conglomerate of rivalling societies for achieving individual-private forgiveness of Adam's sin, as long as it does not find a way out of its static patterns of thought and is unable to see itself consistently as a developing institution - Bible and church history in fact deal with nothing else! - so long it will be unable to break that indifference and to participate in shaping the future in an adequate way.

The question remains to be asked how long one actually will think one could afford to go on tabooing Teilhard, and simply leaving aside those immense spiritual and mystical treasures which he made accessible to religion by taking possession of the new areas of human thought and recognizing, and by which the Christian faith would at once regain its universality, instead of digging up it and taking it into service for the religious renewal and the new-evangelization of our civil society - a renewal so yearned for and actually so necessary for our survival?

 

    {*} Ludwig Ebersberger, Dr. med., born in 1920, studied medicine (State examination in 1948), psychology and philosophy, worked up to his retirement in the social medical service, at last as medical director, scientific adviser of the German Teilhard Society; publications to scientific theoretical and interdisciplinary themes, last: "Faith crisis and crisis of humankind" (2000)

 

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