The Peking Man site at Zhoukoudian in Beijing. (Image: Xiquinhosilva via Flickr/CC BY 2.0)
Today China is at the center of attention since the outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic from Wuhan. But in the 1920s French paleontologist and Catholic priest Pierre Teilhard de Chardin (1881–1955) moved around the deserts and plains of China in search of Peking Man or Homo erectus, who lived around 750,000 years ago and whose remains were discovered in the fossils near Peking, today’s Beijing, in the 1920s.
But the Jesuit’s mystical and theological understanding of man and creation made him a prophet for our times as we grapple with the pandemic. His Mass on the World itself is enough to make him the all-time greatest mystic scientist whose precocious views did not find favor with a theological thinking that could not accept an earth theology and creation spirituality.
Mass on the World, as its very name indicates, was a Eucharist song Teilhard de Chardin offered in a Chinese desert without any Eucharistic elements we normally associate — there was no chalice, no paten, no host, no wine, no altar. Yet it has become the greatest Eucharistic song in history because Teilhard said: “I, your priest, will make the whole earth my altar and on it will offer you all the labors and sufferings of the world.”
For Teilhard the whole earth was its altar and therefore a prophecy for the whole of humankind about how to see and think about the earth. Every Catholic looks with reverence at the altar where the Eucharist is offered. Taking the analogy to the earth, we were supposed to have the same approach to the earth, which God gave us to live with an abundance of life as promised by Jesus.
Instead human beings, in their unbridled lust for money, plundered it and polluted it in such a way that made it impossible for all living beings to have oxygen-filled clean air to breathe. But when the angel of death passed by our doors, all of a sudden our skies became clean, stars began to be sighted in abundance, waters became clean for species to return, and all remained indoors without inflicting various inhumanities on fellow human beings if they were out with business as usual.
When Teilhard offered that Mass in the Chinese desert, it was indeed a prophesy that if we do not care for our common home the earth, then the Peking Man who evolved into this stage of a human being would be wiped out with all the money amassed and the scientific progress made in leaps and bounds to the stage of artificial intelligence. Where is all that in front of an invisible tiny virus and its breath-snatching form Covid-19?
The Teilhardian view of the creation loudly proclaims like the Native American Chief Seattle that the earth does not belong to human beings, rather human beings belong to the earth. But human beings over the centuries took the Biblical dictum that God has created everything for them as a license to plunder the creation which God Himself found beautiful.
Teilhard de Chardin’s Phenomenon of Man and theory of evolution all indicate that we human beings must humbly accept that we belong to the earth and the whole of creation as Teilhard did: “I know myself to be irremediably less a child of heaven than a son of earth.” Coronavirus is a warning that we need to belong to the earth as human beings instead of being the mere advanced shapes of Peking Man.
This takes us to the Teilhardian vision of evolution, which has four significant stages: Geosphere, Biosphere, Noosphere and Christosphere. In Geosphere the earth was a mere landmass without any life but in Biosphere life appeared. Yet the most significant aspect of life, Noosphere, which had mind and intelligence emerged after millions of years.
In Noosphere human forms came into existence like Peking Man, but it must have taken further millions of years for them to become human beings with a mind that has the ability to think and a heart to desire. It is here all the troubles began with the looting of the earth and the pillaring of fellow human beings. Cain was born and Abel’s blood cried out for justice and that horrible question echoed around the mountains of the earth: Am I my brother’s keeper?
But Teilhard de Chardin has an answer to it in the last stage of evolution: Christosphere. This is the ultimate goal of humankind to reach through his trials and travails, through his thoughts and actions “through their vision of truth or despite their error” as this prophet says in the Mass on the World. Christosphere is the ultimate stage where human beings will be ideally human and humane without the disturbing question of Cain.
The coronavirus pandemic has forced all people and nations to forget and forego the man-made differences of caste, creed, religion, region and race to face the pandemic in a united way, except for a couple of diehard perverts and chauvinists, because all are facing death universally and equally. Paulo Coelho reminds us through his alchemist: “Usually the threat of death makes people a lot more aware of their lives.”
But Teilhard de Chardin asks us to go one step further, saying not only that we become aware of our lives but also become conscious of our lives in relation to the lives of other living beings in creation. He wants us to understand that we are of the earth and for the earth, to build in this land a home for all, as the encyclical Laudato Si' reminds us.
Only then will Christosphere become a reality on earth permeated with the love-energy of Jesus transforming our minds and hearts to make us fully human, if not fully then at least in a substantial measure. Then human beings will collectively desist from creating weapons that can destroy human beings, either biological or nuclear. Even war as an institution will come to an end and our models of growth will change.
Teilhard de Chardin’s mystic vision through his Mass on the World in a Chinese desert and through his paleontological insights was telling us that the coronavirus is a warning to care for our common home, the earth, and the whole of creation as human beings permeated with the love of Christ enfolding all human beings as the children of our loving Father whose will we are supposed to do on earth.
At this juncture, when we are faced with the pandemic in true repentance for all that harm we did to the earth and fellow human beings, we can only say heeding his prophecy in the Mass on the World: “Radiant Word, blazing Power, you who mould the manifold so as to breathe your life into it; I pray you, lay on us those your hands … Remould it, rectify it, recast it down to the depths from whence it springs.”