Reviewed by Jeanne Torrence Finley
My review of Marie Noonan Sabin’s Evolving Humanity and Biblical Wisdom: Reading Scripture Through the Lens of Teilhard de Chardin [Liturgical Press Academic: 2018] is up on the Englewood Review of Books:
Teilhard de Chardin, paleontologist and Jesuit priest (1881-1955), wrote about evolutionary science, spirituality, and the expansion of human consciousness. Although the Vatican suppressed his writings during his lifetime, today his vision continues to be appreciated by scientists, religious scholars, and spiritual seekers. In Evolving Humanity and Biblical Wisdom Marie Noonan Sabin brings Teilhard’s vision into conversation with scripture texts related to wisdom. With an interdisciplinary background in literature and theology, Sabin uses her interpretative skills in intellectually challenging ways that will fascinate some readers with knowledge of academic biblical studies but may mystify those without such a background. Though prior knowledge of Teilhard’s complicated thought would increase appreciation of Sabin’s work, her clarity and conversational style could well inspire Teilhard beginners to delve deeper into his thought.
Sabin begins by introducing Teilhard’s foundational insight that humanity is still evolving, naming some biblical roots of his vision, and reflecting on “how these Scriptures reveal and support the ideas of evolving humanity.” Then she devotes Chapter 1 to the Book of Job to illustrate Teilhard’s notion that God changes. In Chapter 2 Sabin examines first-century ascent literature for metaphors about expanding human consciousness. In Chapter 3, Sabin considers Wisdom personified as the divine feminine and how it comes to transformative expression in the person of Christ.
The central core of the book (Chapters 4-7) is devoted to a reading of the gospels through Teilhard’s evolutionary lens. Presenting Mark as a midrash, Sabin begins with a quote from Teilhard that “speaks of our need to ‘disclose’ God ‘ever more fully.’” She finds in the structure of Mark “a similar premise,” explaining, “Mark presents divine mystery as a parable or riddle whose meaning is not obvious but hidden, needing to be disclosed. Above all, he dramatizes Jesus the Christ as himself the ultimate riddle of divinity hidden at the core of humanity” (70). Sabin connects the transformations presented in Mark’s gospel with “Teilhard’s view of transformation as God’s way of creation” (71).
For example, the three seed parables in Mark 4 illustrate that “God’s word is intended to grow and germinate and multiply in human understanding” (56-57). Rather than making “simple comparisons,” they relate “the kingdom to a sequence of actions” in which each analogue echoes other scriptures “that give it a further layer of meaning.” Sabin argues, “This juxtaposition of different scriptural views is typical of midrashic commentary, which often jars the biblical reader awake like exposing contradictory voices within the tradition” so that readers “must then grapple with how to interpret the tradition for their own time”(58).
Sabin treats God’s Wisdom in Matthew as “reactualized for the present hour.” She finds in Luke God’s Spirit (Wisdom) as the divine energy that creates the future. Her reading of John’s gospel discovers consonance between Teilhard’s concept of evolving humanity and the affirmation that God’s Wisdom has been made flesh.
In Chapter 8, Sabin turns “the Word made flesh” into “the flesh made Word” to describe humanity’s evolution toward a unifying consciousness. This final chapter, her most explicit comparison of Teilhard’s vision and biblical Wisdom, relies heavily on her interpretation of John. She explains that although Teilhard saw human evolution as too slow a process of growth for any generation to notice, he still believed human beings were “moving toward the ‘Ultra – Human’ as a way to suggest human beings stretching–not beyond their real limits, but beyond their conventional expectations” (138).
Sabin says that Teilhard saw “‘the eternal feminine’ [Wisdom in the OT and NT] as the ‘unitive’ element in the universe–that is, as the disposition to attract, and be attracted to, the Other.” She explains, “In that relationship of mutual attraction he found the creative energy of the universe–a creative energy scientifically evident in the realm of physics, chemistry, and biology, psychologically evident in the realm of human love, and mystically evident in the realm of divine love. He saw scientific truth as analogy for the spiritual: in each instance, attraction leading to union, and union to a new creation. With Dante, he saw Love as ‘the force that moves the sun and other stars’” (138).
Sabin concludes that “Teilhard came to see that attracting and sustaining divine Love everywhere . . . . Through his work he tried to raise human consciousness of this divine love, which he perceived not only as a sphere enveloping human existence (‘the divine milieu’) but also as a magnet, calling humanity into a divinely transformed future (‘the Noosphere’). He saw it as a future in which human beings would collectively merge with, and reflect, that divine love, so that All would be One” (138-39).
My only disappointment is with Sabin’s “Further Reflections,” a three-paragraph final section in which she asks, “Does this study of Wisdom have practical implications for Christians living today?” In terms too general she answers yes: “I think it compels us to reconsider our present spiritual state in relation to both our past and our future.” She thinks that reading Jewish wisdom through Teilhard’s lens should help us value our roots in the Jewish wisdom tradition and understand that “their expressions of Wisdom, along with our own, are still evolving” (154-55). In regard to the future, she hopes this study will help us see a “trust towards a transformed future” in biblical texts, recognize our “incompleteness,” and develop “a praxis of empathy that is rooted in our longing to work towards the evolution of the wholeness of humanity” (155).
From a scholar who is so deeply engaged in the study Teilhard de Chardin and in the biblical Wisdom tradition, I expect more recognition that we live in an age of tremendous anxiety about the future of humanity. It’s true that Teilhard could be optimistic about the human potential because he took a long view of both evolutionary science and evolutionary spirituality, but even in the twentieth century he was criticized for being overly optimistic. What about now as we have an increase in overt racism, xenophobia, lack of empathy, greed, abuse of power, political and cultural division, and the threat of extinction of life on earth?
Even though I wish that Sabin’s work had entered into conversation with the current state of the world, I found in Evolving Humanity and Biblical Wisdomthe invitation and tools to see scripture through Teilhard’s lens and to grapple with the meanings of both his vision and biblical wisdom for our time.
Jeanne Torrence Finley is a regular contributor to FaithLink, a weekly United Methodist curriculum on current affairs, and to Ministry Matters. The author of Three Simple Rules for Christian Living, she has been a campus minister, pastor, and college English teacher. Currently she is writing a book with Noel Paul Stookey—the “Paul” of Peter, Paul, and Mary—about his faith journey, solo music, and social activism. Connect with her on her website and blog, Tell It Slant.