In the Beginning was Fire
We learn from the astronomers, astrophysicists and the cosmologists that the universe probably began about 13.7 billion years ago in a “Big Bang”, what Brian Swimme and Thomas Berry refer to as a “Flaring Forth” of cosmic matter that eventually evolved into the universe we know today. Cosmologists argue that every particle of matter, including the physiological particles that constitute the physical being of each one of us, was present in that initial moment of the “Big Bang”.
What is not clear is whether at that moment consciousness was present? Was matter already conscious? Or potentially conscious? To paraphrase Brian Swimme, at what point did the universe learn to “sing opera”?
The bible tells us in Genesis that the “Spirit hovered over the waters”. So there is a firm conviction in the biblical mind that consciousness was present from the very beginning, in some inchoate form that is unknown to us. The divine and the material world were intertwined from the beginning it would appear.
A Used Book Find
In one of my rambles across the city yesterday I popped into a second-hand bookshop where I was hunting around looking for a biblical commentaries. I have a high regard for some of the older non-Catholic biblical scholars, people like Lightfoot, Hoskyns, Dodd, and Nineham, as well as Catholic scholars like Meier, Brown, Murphy and Fitzmeyer.
This particular second-hand bookshop happens to be a favourite repository for books that once reposed on the shelves of clerical libraries. But yesterday there was nothing. However, I spotted a copy of Teilhard de Chardin’s, Hymn of the Universe, in a hardback edition and in excellent condition. It was once owned by The Hospital Library Council (1937-1967) in Dublin, a voluntary organisation that supplied library trolleys to Dublin hospitals (could you imagine that happening now!!).
This particular copy still had its library docket in the a pocket on the inside cover. The book had had four readers in its Hospital Library lifetime. two in 1967 (it was published in 1965) and two in 1971. After that the book disappeared into the holdings of the National Library and eventually found its way to my little second-hand bookshop. Needless to say I purchased it for the modest sum of some small loose change in my pocket.
It is an excellent book because unlike some of Teilhard de Chardin’s other books, it offers a beautiful reflection on evolution, cosmology, and the story of the universe. It offers a glimpse into Teilhard’s own spiritual life and the thinking which enabled him to integrate his cosmological insights with his deep religious faith. He understood that much of what we call religious doctrine is ultimately a metaphor and poetic account for the world of being and its relationship to the divine. His poetic imagination allowed him to see that biblical language, doctrinal language and religious language generally, are simply our inadequate attempts to give voice and image to our consciousness of reality. The ultimately real is beyond the language of the sciences and religion. T. S. Eliot once remarked that “Christianity is always adapting itself into something which can be believed.” This statement might not find favour with the Vatican but it is a fairly accurate assessment of the task of Christian theology in the contemporary world.
In the Beginning ….
Here are some quotes from some early pages of Hymn of the Universe:
Fire, the source of being: we cling so tenaciously to the illusion that fire comes forth from the depths of the earth and that its flames grow progressively brighter as it pours along the radiant furrows of life’s tillage. Lord, in your mercy you gave me to see that this idea is false, and that I must overthrow it if I were ever to have sight of you. …
In the beginning there were not coldness and darkness: there was Fire. This is the truth. …
So, far from light emerging gradually out of the womb of our darkness, it is the Light, existing before all else was made which, patiently, surely, eliminates our darkness. As for us creatures, of our ourselves we are but emptiness and obscurity. But you, my God, are the inmost depths, the stability of that eternal milieu, without duration or space, in which our cosmos emerges gradually into being and grows gradually to its final completeness, as it loses those boundaries which to our eyes seem so immense. Everything is being: everywhere there is being and nothing but being, save in the fragmentation of creatures and the clash of their atoms.
From Teilhard de Chardin, Hymn of the Universe (1965), London: Collins, pp. 21-22.