Understanding Teilhard, Part IV: Space and the Universe

Updated: Sep 5


Ascension of Christ, Salvador Dali, 1958

Editor’s note: this essay is part 4 in a series on Teilhard, beginning here.

The human world of today has not grown cold, but… is ardently searching for a God proportionate to the new dimensions of a Universe whose appearance has completely revolutionized the scale of our faculty of worship.

-Teilhard de Chardin, The Heart of the Problem

I began this series by sharing the initial impression of Teilhard de Chardin that I’d gleaned from Dan Simmons’ Hyperion series of science fiction novels: that Teilhard called upon humanity to travel throughout space, subdue the universe in the name of God, and thereby draw closer into ultimate union with Him.


It turns out that the first and critical part of this impression—through no fault of Simmons’—was false. Actually, Teilhard frequently speculated that all space travel was impossible.


In one essay in The Future of Man, Teilhard—after voicing his doubts about the technical feasibility of combating degenerative aging—speculated that “journeying between celestial bodies” was also impracticable. Remarkably, Teilhard was not talking about traveling to another galaxy or even to Alpha Centauri, but simply traveling “to Venus.” Again, in The Phenomenon of Man, Teilhard is explicit. He not only doubts that humans can travel between solar systems, but even that we could ever navigate through “interplanetary space.”


This error cannot simply be chalked up to the times in which Teilhard lived. In 1929, Teilhard’s younger contemporary, the Marxist futurist J.D. Bernal, wrote that space travel was inevitable. As Bernal correctly explained:


Ultimately it would seem impossible that [space travel] should not be solved. Our opponent is here the simple curvature of space-time—a mere matter of acquiring sufficient acceleration on our own part—which, sooner or later, must be practicable.

In general, Bernal traveled in the wake of Teilhard—who circulated his Christian futurist ideas years before Bernal popularized his own secularized version of futurism. On space travel, however, Teilhard sadly lagged behind Bernal, who wrote the above quotation twenty-six years before Teilhard wrote The Phenomenon of Man. Teilhard seems to have remained doubtful about space travel his entire life.


The Luna 2 rocket, 1959

As mentioned earlier, Teilhard died in 1955. Just four years later, the Soviet probe Luna 2 became the first manmade object to reach the surface of the moon. Had Teilhard lived to see this milestone, he would have been only 77.


If Teilhard had lived to be 87, he would have seen the Apollo 11 astronauts reach the moon’s surface.


Having now read Teilhard extensively, I think I can say confidently that—if Teilhard had lived even four more years and learned of the Luna 2 success—he would have at first been startled and incredulous. Yet, once he had been satisfied that the reports were not a Soviet hoax, and that the probe had in fact reached its destination, he would have quickly worked out the probability of the Apollo missions and the now-inevitable success of a manned mission to Mars. This would have required a significant revision to his cosmic worldview.


But Teilhard did not live to see Luna 2, let alone the Apollo missions. How then did Teilhard think humanity would fulfill its divine function to “complete cosmic evolution”?


Teilhard’s Omega point theory


Famously, Teilhard described the conclusion of cosmic evolution as “the Omega point.” An Omega point is, simply put, any future state in which life has resolved the threat posed by the heat death of the universe and thereby finally triumphed over entropy itself. One might naturally expect that Teilhard—especially with his constant talk of “the cosmos” and “the universe”—believed that space travel was a necessary prerequisite to reaching the Omega point.


Yet, disappointingly, Teilhard’s specific vision of the Omega point was actually something like the following: humanity will create some kind of transuniversal wormhole here on Earth and thereby “[leave] Earth and stars to lapse slowly back into the dwindling mass of primordial energy.”


Because the Omega point represents the successful conclusion of evolution, this achievement will result in finally ushering all of the saved into the full presence of God. [1] In his essay The Formation of the Noosphere Teilhard says that consciousness “will break through the material framework of Time and Space to escape somewhere toward an ultracenter of unification and consistence, where there will finally be assembled, and in detail, everything that is irreplaceable and incommunicable in the world.”


Teilhard’s vision of the Omega point is a phenomenal letdown because it seems to contradict so many of the themes that run throughout his own writing—from his zeal for research and discovery to the specifically cosmic scale of his vision. While I cannot blame Dan Simmons' science fiction novels for my misimpression of Teilhard, I think I can justly blame Teilhard himself. Anyone who reads, at random, a few pages of Teilhard’s writing on eschatology is likely to come away thinking that Teilhard was an ardent advocate of space exploration. For someone so pessimistic about traveling even within our own solar system, Teilhard often had a funny way of choosing his words.


Teilhard’s puzzling ambivalence about space and the universe


Of course, Teilhard’s view that space travel is impossible has since been conclusively proven false. Not even the most bearish critic of space exploration today would deny that human beings are capable of traveling to other planets. In retrospect, Teilhard would have done well to heed his own ironic warning in Cosmic Life: “It is dangerous to challenge science and set a limit to its victories, for the hidden energies it summons from the depths are unfathomable.”


Christ Pantocrator, Viktor Mikhaylovich Vasnetsov, c. 1890

Yet, for two reasons, Teilhard’s vision of the Omega point is even more puzzling than disappointing. First, Teilhard's description of the Omega point reveals a certain internal incoherence. It seems incredible that Teilhard thought human beings would never travel to Mars, but that we would one day be able to “break through the material framework of Time and Space.” Besides—if humans did attain the ability to transcend time and space— why wouldn’t some of us use that ability to spread throughout the vast and beautiful universe we already inhabit and prevent its death? Doing so would allow for the “complete cosmic evolution” of this very universe in the fullest sense.

Secondly, Teilhard’s specific vision of the Omega point seems inconsistent with the Bible. While the general concept of an Omega point is biblically sound, most Christians familiar with biblical eschatology would expect a Christian Omega point to involve the renewal of this universe—not an abandonment of the universe in order to escape to a higher plane of existence.


In Romans 8:21, for instance, Paul writes that “the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to corruption and obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God.” To give another specific illustration of this expectation, Revelation 22:2 says that the Tree of Life in the New Jerusalem will provide leaves “for the healing of the nations.”


Teilhard might retort that I am being insufficiently literal in my reading of Revelation 21:1, which introduces the New Heaven and the New Earth by saying “the first heaven and the first earth had passed away.” On Teilhard’s view, this is literally true.


Teilhard and the heat death


Without question, Teilhard’s most critical insight is his insistence that any worldview which purports to give life meaning must address the heat death of the universe.


In 1854, decades before Teilhard was born, physicists first realized that the universe itself is dying, and is on track to eventually eradicate all life within it. While physicists’ specific model of the universe’s end has changed—it has been settled in basically its current form since 1998—the essential significance of that initial discovery has remained the same.


Ever since it was first discovered, the heat death has been a source of existential despair for most people who have seriously considered it. Charles Darwin, who was in middle age when the heat death was discovered, wrote that “it is an intolerable thought that [mankind] and all other sentient beings are doomed to complete annihilation.”


In contrast, nihilists—who, after all, have been with us since the Epicureans—have historically welcomed the heat death as a vindication of their views. Bertrand Russell quipped that “I think it is almost a consolation.”


Teilhard put the general mood about the discovery well: “Since physics has discovered that all energy runs down, we seem to feel the world getting a shade chillier every day.” Teilhard offered a fuller analysis in his essay The End of the Species:


Is it not this presentiment of a blank wall ahead, underlying all sorts of tensions and specific fears, which paradoxically (at the very moment when every barrier seems to be giving way before our power of understanding and measuring the world) is darkening and hardening the minds of our generation? As psychiatry teaches us, we shall gain nothing by shutting our eyes to this shadow of collective death that has appeared on our horizon. On the contrary, we must open them wider. But how are we to exorcise the shadow?

Any worldview that does not attempt to answer the heat death, Teilhard observed, is useless. The heat death specifically refutes Marxism, he says, which has no answer to it and therefore “can neither justify nor sustain its momentum to the end.”


Teilhard de Chardin

To put the problem in contemporary language, any worldview which purports to give a meaningful account of human life—but which cannot account for the heat death—is a LARP. In Teilhard’s words, “Omega must be independent of the forces with which evolution is woven.”


Could the right tentative answer consist, in part, in having no answer? I sometimes imagine that Jesus’ response to modern questions about the heat death would be Matthew 6:34: “Sufficient for the day is its own trouble.” Even if Jesus were willing to give us a more specific answer, however, this one is at least immediately true in the sense that I must get up for work tomorrow and not simply occupy myself thinking about the heat death.


Yet we cannot unsee the evidence that the universe is on track to end all life, and—insofar as we have a serious worldview—it cannot simply take no account of this fact. Perhaps the most faithful application of Matthew 6:34 to this problem is to say that, so long as we know there are plausible resolutions of the heat death, we can have rational confidence that existence is meaningful without trying to choose between those resolutions now.


In Phenomenon, Teilhard wrote that—although the heat death or other smaller catastrophes could wipe out our species in theory—"we have higher reasons for being sure that they will not happen [to humanity].” Assuming we do not find Teilhard’s specific version of the Omega point plausible, however, what other answers to the heat death can Christianity offer?


Christianity and the heat death


William Lane Craig—who likely understands physics better than any other living theologian—once said somewhere that, although all the scientific evidence points to the universe being on track to end in a heat death, “God will roll up the scroll of history before that happens.”


While I admire and am indebted to Craig, this answer is inelegant and intellectually unsatisfying. For one thing, it seems unbiblical for exactly the same reasons as Chardin’s version of the Omega point. Craig’s view all but requires that this universe is not redeemed and therefore seems to mean that verses like Romans 8:21 are false.


An illustration from William Lane Craig's video "The Fine Tuning of the Universe" illustrating the extent to which the gravitational constant of our universe needed to be finely-tuned for life to exist.

Additionally, Craig’s answer is asymmetrical and unwieldy, and therefore seems out of step with what we know of God from both the Bible and natural theology.


Consider that God created a universe which, from its very inception, was finely-tuned to bring conscious agents into being. As far as we can tell, God did not need to rejigger the mechanics of the universe after it had cooled down enough for the first electrons to form.


Given that the beginning of this universe was so singular and elegant, without any need for readjustment, can we really expect God to stage some kind of ham-fisted intervention at the universe’s penultimate moment? It would be lopsided and awkward to think that the God who began the universe with one effortless stroke of creativity will end it with an ad hoc suspension of the processes that He began.


Craig’s suggestion almost mirrors certain folk versions of Young Earth Creationism. According to a certain naïve strain of Young-Earther, either God or the devil has deliberately crammed the universe with false appearances of age, causing scientists to be massively deceived about the universe’s past. If Craig is right about cosmic eschatology, scientists are being equally deceived about the universe’s future.


Teilhard’s basic answer—by which I mean the general concept of an Omega point and not the details of his specific theory—is the only graceful solution. According to an Omega point eschatology, God intended his creation to one day take control of the cosmos and engineer the defeat of the heat death.


In this way, an Omega point preserves elegance and symmetry throughout the whole story of the universe. It means that the universe’s initial conditions—precisely because they made intelligent life possible—also prefigured entropy’s ultimate defeat. These finely-tuned conditions contained the seed of both our own creation and the universe’s own eventual redemption by God. In this way, they beautifully reflect the dual role of the Logos as both Alpha and Omega.


An Omega point eschatology also coheres with Revelation. The New Heaven and the New Earth of Revelation 21-22 is dynamic rather than static, and is presented as the setting of a cosmic epic. As C.S. Lewis repeatedly urged in his fiction, it is the beginning rather than the end of a story.


New Jerusalem Coming Down, Marlan Yoder

Specifically, the New Heaven and the New Earth retains a fundamental dimension of contingency and of work yet to be accomplished. This is borne out repeatedly in the text of John’s revelation. In Revelation 21:24-27, the New Jerusalem is treated as not yet having fully inaugurated its conquest: “the kings of the earth will bring their glory into it, and its gates will never be shut by day.”


More persuasively, the New Jerusalem contains a “tree of life.” In Eden, Adam and Eve were evidently not intrinsically immortal, but had access to immortality only by virtue of “the tree of life” and its fruit. The tree’s presence in the New Jerusalem has, at least, a similar significance. At a minimum, the tree is clearly an instrument of some work yet to be accomplished: Revelation 22:2 states that the tree’s leaves will “heal” the nations.


Although I am not dogmatic in my interpretation of these last chapters of Revelation, my inclination is to think that the New Heaven and the New Earth is a state in which biological death has been defeated and the Last Resurrection has occurred, but the heat death of the universe has not yet been conquered. This explains how the new creation can represent both the immolation of death and, as Revelation suggests, the beginning of a new revelation and a new adventure.


It would be elegant and intuitive to suppose that there could then be a third fundamental covenant which rearticulates the first two, but with a corresponding increase in scale. The first covenant was national in scale. Christ's second covenant has always been planetary in scale, but only incidentally. The Christian mandate spans the entire anthroposphere: when there are humans on other planets, then it will be our duty to make disciples of them as well. Perhaps the third covenant will extend beyond the anthroposphere and encompass the totality of space-time.


Physical models of the Omega Point


Although physicists have anticipated the heat death since 1854, for most of that time, they have displayed remarkably little interest in asking themselves whether it might, in principle, be solvable. By introducing the concept of the Omega point, Teilhard became perhaps the first systematic thinker to suggest that the heat death might yield to the power of intelligence. But it would be over a hundred years before any physicist would try to develop a real mathematical model to explain how this might work.


In 1979, the late Freeman Dyson became the first physicist to attempt to develop a concrete model by which intelligent life could defeat the heat death and allow the universe to sustain itself indefinitely, known as “Dyson’s eternal intelligence.” Different fundamental models of the universe's shape continue to compete with one another, and Dyson’s version of the Omega point was based upon an “open universe” model. In the 1980s, the physicist Frank Tipler developed an analogous mathematical model of the Omega point for a “closed universe.” Unlike Dyson, however, Tipler explicitly credited Teilhard with originating the general concept of an Omega point.


In 1998, it was discovered that the expansion rate of the universe is increasing rather than remaining fixed or slowing down, as many physicists had previously supposed. This discovery exploded both Dyson and Tipler’s mathematical models. That leaves us back where Teilhard started: with conjecture and speculation.


Corpus Hypercubus, Salvador Dali, 1954

If we are to speculate about a future Omega point, we might begin by asking why over a century passed before any physicist even attempted to develop a model explaining how an Omega point might work. The answer may, in part, lie in Western physicists’ view of themselves as pure scientists rather than engineers. When science is exalted as pure and unadorned discovery, someone who imagines an untested solution to some problem is by definition not doing science.


It could also be due in part to the philosophical supposition that, as Ray Kurzweil has put it, “Intelligence is just a bit of froth, an ebullition of little creatures darting in and out of inexorable universal forces.” Both of these premises are of course antithetical to the Christian conception of cosmic dominion as articulated by Teilhard.


In contrast, Dyson and Tipler’s models were both driven by a shared personal eccentricity. While not himself a Christian, Dyson was by his own account influenced by Christianity. Dyson observed that he shared with Christianity the basic conviction “that mind and intelligence are woven into the fabric of our universe in a way that altogether surpasses our comprehension.”


Tipler was also not a Christian when he developed his own Omega point model, but he was friends with the Lutheran theologian Wolfhart Pannenberg—who praised Tipler’s work on the Omega point—and was deeply interested in religious questions. This did not stop Tipler’s model of the Omega point from drawing praise from some staunchly atheistic physicists, including David Deutsch. Eventually, Tipler converted to Christianity outright. By Tipler’s own account, this occurred under Pannenberg’s influence.


Driven as we are to speculation, what starting points might we have for a future Omega point model? Unsurprisingly, two starting points come from Dyson and Tipler.


Dyson once speculated—independently of his completed “eternal intelligence” model—that it is “conceivable that by intelligent intervention, converting matter into radiation to flow purposefully on a cosmic scale, we could… change the topology of spacetime.”


In 2000, physicist Martin Rees suggested that this speculation might come to fruition despite the increasing expansion rate, saying that life may evolve “to a state where it can influence the entire cosmos, perhaps even invalidating [the] forecast” that the expansion rate will continue to increase. Dyson himself reiterated the suggestion in 2002, wondering: “Could it happen that life will dominate the universe to such a degree as to achieve mastery over the geometry of space and time and create a habitat in which life can survive forever?” The following year, science writer James N. Gardner wrote that “At the very least, this possibility is widely recognized by most cosmologists to be within the realm of possibility.”


While Dyson's original Omega point model was invalidated by the discovery of the increasing expansion rate, Dyson had always assumed that the universe would naturally continue to expand. In contrast, Frank Tipler’s original model had depended upon a “Big Crunch” eschatology. That is, Tipler had supposed that the universe would naturally start to contract in upon itself and that this process could be manipulated by intelligent life to bring about an Omega point. The discovery that the expansion rate was increasing discredited Tipler's model by invalidating this basic “Big Crunch” premise.


Accordingly, in his 2007 book The Physics of Christianity, Tipler reenters the discussion by suggesting a mechanism for causing the universe to contract. If life traversed the universe and annihilated “a substantial percentage of the baryons in the universe,” then:


[T]his annihilation would force the Higgs field towards its absolute vacuum, cancelling the positive cosmological constant, stopping the acceleration, and allowing the universe to collapse into the Omega Point… This means, in particular, that intelligent life from the terrestrial biosphere must move out into interstellar and intergalactic space, annihilating baryons as they go.

Tipler’s speculation has a certain poetry and biblical consistency to it because of its missional nature. In fact, Tipler argues that the process of annihilating baryons will itself provide the fuel for interstellar travel: “The baryon-annihilation process… provides the ultimate rocket propulsion mechanism.” This is, ironically, very close to my initial misimpression of Teilhard’s theology of space.


Illustration from Fr. Donald Goergen's course on Teilhard

A similar, if less detailed, scenario was sketched around the same time by Ray Kurzweil—often cited as the godfather of contemporary secular futurism. Kurzweil has written that once a civilization “begins to expand outward at at least the speed of light,”—something that Kurzweil suggests, together with some physicists, might be done using wormholes—“it will then overcome gravity… and other cosmological forces—or, to be fully accurate, it will maneuver and control those forces—and engineer the universe it wants.”


Kurzweil’s secularism, however, may be overstated, including by Kurzweil himself. For example, Kurzweil has commented positively on James N. Gardner’s “selfish biocosm” thesis: that our universe is finely-tuned for life because it was created by advanced beings in a predecessor universe who intended to bring about our existence. Gardner’s theory is not to be confused with the Moravec-Bostrom “simulation hypothesis,” in which our universe exists within a computer substrate, although Kurzweil is receptive to the simulation hypothesis as well. Kurzweil has acknowledged that his views have certain parallels with historic monotheism. [2]


At the beginning of this series, I noted that the philosopher of religion Eric Steinhart has written that many secular futurists “work within the conceptual architecture of Teilhard’s [Omega point theory] without being aware of its [Christian] origins.” As we can now clearly see, this relationship is no mere happenstance of intellectual genealogy. Those who strive for an Omega point invariably do so because they grasp, on some level, the conviction of Psalm 8: God has given human beings dominion over all the works of his hands. That is to say that the universe is not merely something which may or may not bend to our will. It is something over which we have been commissioned to take dominion.


Humanity will certainly never attain an Omega point without believing that we might. And as Teilhard correctly anticipated, all striving for the Omega point is ultimately driven by the divine mandate introduced into the world by Christianity.


As Teilhard wrote in his most famous quote, humanity shall systematically harness all the “energies” of the universe for God’s glory, including “space, the winds, the tides, [and] gravitation”—and eventually the ultimate energy in the form of love. This is, perhaps, the summation of all of Teilhard’s theology: the sacralization of the process of discovering and harnessing every energy in existence. In his essay The Mystical Milieu, Teilhard epitomizes this mission and longing in the following prayer to God: “By laying hold of the Earth I enable myself to cling closely to you… I must search, and I must find.”

Tree of Life; original AI-generated art

Ian Huyett is a litigation attorney and a commentator on law, religion, and technology for Staseos and other outlets. You can follow him at @IanHuyett.

Notes:

[1] If anyone charges that Teilhard was not concerned with the distinction between the saved and the unsaved, I would point them to his discussion of apocalyptic conflict in The Phenomenon of Man, in a chapter called The Ultimate Earth. There he speculates that: “Obeying a law from which nothing in the past has ever been exempt, evil may go on growing alongside good, and it too may attain its paroxysm at the end in some specifically new form. There are no summits without abysses… Refusal or acceptance of Omega? A conflict may supervene. In that case the noosphere [by ‘noosphere,’ Teilhard simply means the rational section of the biosphere], in the course of and by virtue of the process which draws it together, will, when it has reached its point of unification, split into two zones each attracted to an opposite pole of adoration…. Universal love would only vivify and detach finally a fraction of the noosphere so as to consummate it—the part which decided to ‘cross the threshold,’ to get outside itself into the other. Ramification once again, for the last time.”

[2] E.g. Kurzweil, The Singularity is Near, 389 (“Evolution moves toward greater complexity, greater elegance, greater knowledge, greater intelligence, greater beauty, greater creativity, and greater levels of such attributes as love. In every monotheistic tradition God is likewise described as all of the qualities, only without any limitation: infinite knowledge, infinite intelligence, infinite beauty, infinite creativity, infinite love.”).

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