Ilia Delio, OSF, Ph. D.
Connelly Endowed Chair in Christian Theology
Thoughts on Human Origins
I am a Catholic Franciscan Sister who has been deeply influenced by the French Jesuit scientist, Pierre Teilhard de Chardin. For me, the story of the human person begins with the evolution of biological life. The human person is not a ready-made fact but the outflow of billions of years of evolution, beginning with cosmogenesis and the billions of years that led to biogenesis. To realize that humans are part of larger process which involves long spans of developmental time. This understanding brings a massive change to all of our knowledge and beliefs. Teilhard de Chardin described evolution as a movement toward more complexified life forms which, at critical points in the evolutionary process, qualitative differences emerge. At some point, evolution reaches a reflexive state which generates the idea of evolution: “There is only one real evolution, the evolution of convergence, because it alone is positive and creative.” The human person is integrally part of evolution in that we rise from the process but in reflecting on the process we stand apart from it. Teilhard defines reflection as “the power acquired by a consciousness to turn in upon itself, to take possession of itself as an object. . . no longer merely to know, but to know that one knows.” The human person “is nothing else than evolution become conscious of itself.” Or we can say, “the consciousness of each of us is evolution looking at itself and reflecting upon itself.” Thus the human person emerges from the evolutionary process and is integral to evolution. We are “the point of emergence in nature, at which this deep cosmic evolution culminates and declares itself.” The story of our human origins is a long and complex one marked by untold suffering, death and violence; yet there is a recurring pattern of increased consciousness and complexity, such that complex intelligent life has emerged through the meandering travails of nature. Viewing this process of emerging life impels me wonder how life continues to emerge. What accounts for the openness of life to more life? This is a question that fascinates me and one that is essential to our ongoing evolution with computer technology and artificial intelligence.
Reflections on the Age of Humans (the Anthropocene) The age of the Anthropocene might be seen as the obscene footprint indelibly marked on the earth by the excess of human consumption. The North American footprint, for example, is now about twenty-three percent larger than what the earth can regenerate, so that if everyone around the globe aimed to live the American lifestyle it would take around six planets. The Anthropocene marks a deep disconnect between humans and nature. We have forgotten our mother earth and abandoned our natural home. Some scholars identify the Enlightenment and Cartesian philosophy as a basis for our human hubris; others point to the rapid industrialization of the West and mass marketing as creating a sense of endless desire. Still others point to the failure of religion to keep pace with modern science, thus losing our cosmic axis mundi or a point of connection with the cosmic order, which characterized cultures with cosmic spirituality. I think the Anthropocene era reflects a radically disconnected type of person, now furthered by the constant use of computer technology and social media. Attention away from the earth towards something other than nature has crept into modern culture through the internet. The mind is now pulled into multiple fields of attention creating a terrestrial attention deficit. We have developed habits of earth inattentiveness and continue to treat the earth as a background to our human drama. Technology has to become integrated with ecology to help recreate the cosmic whole, in which evolution can advance toward planetary life.