The genesis of a great idea can lie dormant for a very long time before ascending into consciousness. For the philosopher, scientist, and theologian Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, it was germinated in the mud of Verdun, France, where, as a stretcher bearer in World War I, he carted the dead and wounded from the front lines. Like Edgar Mitchell, Teilhard had the ability to intuit a greater meaning from his immediate circumstances, to see out beyond the literal front lines to the outlines of a global consciousness.
Journaling during a brief furlough from his duties in war, Teilhard reflected on the paradoxical pressures that soldiers felt between the respite from fighting and the tension of being on the front lines.
Our future continues to be pretty vague, both as to when and what it will be. What the future imposes on our present existence is not exactly a feeling of depression; it’s rather a sort of seriousness, of detachment, of a broadening, too, of outlook. This feeling, of course, borders on a sort of sadness (the sadness that accompanies every fundamental change); but it leads also to a sort of higher joy. . . . I’d call it “Nostalgia for the Front.” The reasons, I believe, come down to this; the front cannot but attract us because it is, in one way, the extreme boundary between what one is already aware of, and what is still in process of formation. (Teilhard de Chardin 1965, 205)
What was being stirred up in Teilhard’s imagination was a profound shift of attention. The months on the front altered his perception. Decades later, he would acknowledge how the concentration of bodies, “the atmosphere of the front,” and the loss of boundaries between “natural” and “artificial” and between “physical” and “moral” inspired within him an epiphany. The human million, as he described it, had within itself a “psychic temperature” and an evolutionary throb. The isolated human being, like an unattached cell, was predisposed to join with others and become a more complex entity, “to coalesce into physical relationships and groupings that belong to a higher order.” Grounded in his scientific knowledge of biological evolution and now acting with a spiritual sixth sense, Teilhard’s capacity for observation was magnified. He described this as a “gift or faculty of perceiving without actually seeing, the reality and organicity [sic] of collective magnitudes . . . what emerged into my field of perception was literally a new universe” (King 1996, 60–61).
Decades before Edgar Mitchell gazed down from the sky and saw a singular planet, Teilhard looked up from the planet’s physical core and saw a web of psychic coherence, like a thin mist, rising above human consciousness. His mind had been rewired to see unity from multiplicity and diversity as elements that make up a larger whole. “Yes,” he wrote in The Phenomenon of Man, “from now on we envisage, beside and above individual realities, the collective realities that are not reducible to the component element” (Teilhard de Chardin 1959, 247).
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