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“Arrogant Autonomy (or) Loving Excentration”

One of the books on my “intend-to-read shelf” after our move is the paleontologist, philosopher, and Jesuit priest Teilhard de Chardin’s The Future of Man. I’m not sure where or how I acquired it, probably in a used book sale, as its previous owner’s name appears inside the cover. Its title drew me, given our present bleak time politically, as leaders and electorates in various parts of the world challenge my usual optimism.

I haven’t read Teilhard since my youth, though I was happy to discover his insight well represented (with due credit) in one of J. Philip Newell’s books on Celtic Christian thought. In college I believe I read The Phenomenon of Man and am certain I read The Divine Milieu, because I humorously parodied (and analyzed) it in a paper, “The Divine Mildew.” I also attended a conference of the Teilhard de Chardin Society, which promoted his thinking about a future evolution of the human soul.

I recently read that longer lived people tend to challenge themselves physically or mentally, and reading the first essay, “A Note on Progress,” tells me that this book will surely extend my life by a year. As I read and re-read the chapter, I confess my broken knowledge. Yet Teilhard’s erudition is made tenable by exquisite phrasing and enlarging metaphors. It is from this chapter that I take the title of this post.

Neither my two-volume OED nor searching the internet revealed a definition of “excentration.” “Centration” means a focus on one aspect of a situation that neglects other possibly relevant aspects, so I suppose “excentration” means considering all relevant aspects, and given the context, Teilhard is referring to the need to attend to the larger picture of things as they are. “Loving excentration” must mean a compassionate, even altruistic consideration of all things (a philosophic version of public radio’s “All Things Considered”!). Thus it is inclusive and holistic.

As it turns out, I could’ve saved myself this effort by simply checking again J. Philip Newell’s references to Teilhard in his book, Christ of the Celts: The Healing of Creation, p 103:

Teilhard coined the concept of excentration as his way of saying that we find our true selves outside of ourselves or that we find our true center in the heart of one another and at the heart of all life.

“Autonomy” Thomas Merton considered to be the delusion/idol/sin of the modern human being, so “arrogant autonomy” could mean such delusion/idol/sin that unapologetically focuses on me or the self. I believe this could be expressed in everything from personal aggrandizement and personal success to personal salvation. It could also be extended to a tribe, race, nation, or species.

“A Note on Progress” suggests that our present view of a seemingly static reality belies the inexorable flow of evolution, one that has evolved human consciousness but is evolving still as we, through science, become more acutely aware of our place in history and our place in the universe.

“Plato and Augustine are still expressing, through me, the whole extent of their personalities,” Teilhard writes, later extending that understanding to Christ: “Christ, as we know, fulfills Himself gradually through the sum of our individual endeavors.”

At the same time we have become aware that the choices we make “will have repercussions through countless centuries and upon countless human beings,” not to mention “an entire Universe.” That he wrote this in 1920 makes it ever more prescient and prophetic about our own time of globalization, 24/7 news and communication, the internet, and climate change.

I wish that sentiment about repercussions had been included on the opening screen of U.S. voting machines last November.

The professor who introduced me to the writings of Teilhard de Chardin in a course on Process Theology once wryly commented in another context that major thinkers stopped talking of progress after World War II.

But in “A Note on Progress” Teilhard footnotes that progress is not “necessary or infallible” (emphasis his) but rather, “is offered and awaits us, analogous to that which the individual cannot reject without falling into sin and damnation.” And here I don’t think he means damnation at the hands of an angry god, but rather, at our own hands.

A more realistic and more Christian view shows us Earth evolving towards a state in which Humanity, having come into the full possession of our sphere of action, our strength, our maturity and our unity, will at last have become an adult being; and having reached this apogee of our responsibility and freedom, holding in our hands all our future and all our past, will make the choice between arrogant autonomy and loving excentration.*

This will be the final choice: revolt or adoration of a world. And then, by an act which will summarize the toil of centuries, by this act (finally and for the first time completely human), justice will ensue and all things be renewed.

In other words, we need to grow up, not just individually, but as a species. This, to me, is not just the Christian task, but more broadly, the spiritual quest.

Visit Chris Glaser’s Blog Progressive Christian Reflections

*I have changed “Man” to “Humanity” and “his” to “ours” in this paragraph.

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