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Teilhard, the Personal, and The Developmental Soul (blog by Cynthia – part 5)

This is a continuation in a blog series by Cynthia Bourgeault. Below is the complete list of blogs currently in this series: 

A Surprising Ecumenism… (part 1)

Abortion, Pro-Life, and the Secular State: A Modest Proposal (part 2)

When Does “Life” Begin? (part 3)

The Developmental Soul (part 4)

Teilhard, the Personal, and The Developmental Soul (part 5)

Fullness of Life: A brief poetic interlude before the final run-up on a conclusion (part 6)

Healing the Elephant in the Womb (part 7)


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 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.

light explosion

You may have already noticed how some of this sloppiness has slipped into some of comments generated in 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 roadmap 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 and 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 expresses 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.


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!

The Human Phenomenon by Teilhard de ChardinWe 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 blog.) 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.


As a biologist, Teilhard knows 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 characteristic life as profusioningenuity, and indifference toward individuals:

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 (p. 67)

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 “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:

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. (p. 67)

“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.


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4 thoughts on “Teilhard, the Personal, and The Developmental Soul (blog by Cynthia – part 5)

  1. G’day again,
    I have five lines of inquiry that are pursued purely in an effort to grasp what you’ve presented. I’m quite new to this perspective.
    1. I may be wrong but it seemed as if the presented issue of abortion was implied to be in regards to circumstances in which the safety of the mother was in question, however, the overwhelming majority of abortions are far more to do with the convenience of the mother. I was a little confused by the premise you presented. Were you referring to all abortions or those that presented significant risk to the mother?
    2. Doesn’t distinguishing between the “human individual” and the “human person” present a hierarchy of significance? In other words, couldn’t these terms be translated as “Sub-human” and “Human” and therefore create the possibility of what happened in WW2 as a culling solution to future over population or would the opposite be true given that the “human person”, having developed a soul, would be willing to give up their bodily existence on behalf of giving the “human individual” further opportunity to also develop a soul? Or does the “human individual” get further opportunity for soul development after death?
    3. Could you comment on the seeming unfairness of humans being given seemingly drastically higher and lower opportunity to develop a soul within their life times (examples: people born with various intellectual disability, levels of educational opportunities, people with less time on the whole, and during, for the pursuit of spiritual evolution, etc.) It kind of seems like this is a good theory of development for those born in the right place and time yet not so good for those without such beneficial circumstances.
    4. Would you classify the “human individual” as a child of God but not a son or daughter of God due to their not developing a soul within their lifetime?
    5. How does the concept of hell (as defined by separation from God) fit into this… or doesn’t it?
    Sorry for all the questions. Again, I’m new to this way of seeing things and just wanted to get my head around it.
    Kind regards,

  2. Sorry for all these comments. I’m wondering if you might point me in the right direction as far as being able to discuss all these things with people. The last few months have been a journey. This new way of seeing and understanding, this paradigm shift, has/is very deep and very challenging. In many ways it feels like being in a washing machine or rolling around in the whitewash of a massive wave. I’ve experienced liminal space before but nothing on this scale. I’ve found myself reacting and then recovering and then getting lost and then being found, being pushed and pulled in all kinds of directions as this way of seeing flickers like a faulty fluorescent light and my mind gets it’s head above the surface only to fall back into the old way of seeing. And there’s literally nobody that I can talk to about this stuff because it’s so new and different. There are shards of light getting through and my consciousness is slowly growing spacious enough for these, quite confronting yet also wonderful and exciting, perspectives to take root and begin growing. I’m just wondering if there’s an internet group or something where I can discuss and ask questions?

    • Hi Craig, Thank you for your thoughtful, heart-felt reflections and comments. We do have an engaged and accessible world-wide Wisdom Community Network. Take a look on our site and reach out to those Wisdom leaders who resonate with the kind of Wisdom conversation you’d like to have.

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