The Anthropic Principle and the Cosmic Christ:
A New Approach to the Grand Project of Teilhard de Chardin

The old conflict between science and religion has taken some surprising turns as of late. Instead of the old situation of their being at loggerheads, we find a rather strange, one-sided courtship going on.

On the one hand, following the footsteps of Einstein, more and more scientists appear to be less and less reticent when it comes to invoking the name of God. But, on the other hand, we find the general run of theologians, edgy about being accused of venturing into fields where their own competence is in doubt -- having been burned by such romances in the past -- understandably reluctant to keep company with their suitors.

Nowhere is this tendency more marked than when we consider two especially controversial areas in the scientific and theological disciplines.

In the realm of empirical sciences, we have cosmology, with its recent and still on-going debate over the possible existence of a so-called "anthropic principle" which in one way or another makes the claim that the universe appears, to all intents, to have been purposely designed with the object of human life in mind.

In the theological realm we have not only the hesitancy to invoke any kind of "natural theology", but in addition, what I see as an off-shoot of this same timidity, and aversion to sticking one's head out of the crowd and advancing the cause of anything that smacks of a "Cosmic Christ".

But there can also be no doubt this hesitancy also reflects, the age-old debate between what have become known as the "low christology" or "christology of ascent" with its emphasis on the on-going quest for the "historical Jesus", as contrasted with the "high christology" or classical "christology of descent" as exemplified in the classical confessions of faith. That this situation has also affected the erstwhile popularity of the writings of Teilhard is quite obvious today, based as it was on his admitted life aim of promoting "the ever-greater Christ". From its apparent foundation on a classical high christology, Teilhard would seem to be calling for a still higher christology.

That this latter kind of thinking has fallen on hard times is hardly a secret, with historicism or historical consciousness now holding an almost canonical status among scholars in the humanities, while it seems that the theoretical has become almost exclusively the prerogative of the sciences. The result is, at least in this case, we have a very peculiar situation, not one in which science and religion are back to a loggerheads confrontation, as of old, but one in which theologians and scientists, each studiously trying to remain on their own proper track, end up passing each other while travelling in opposite directions, almost completely unaware of what the other is up to, like proverbial "trains in the night."

It will be the purpose of this paper or essay to explore this phenomenon and to suggest that perhaps it is time that one of these trains, the theological one, might possibly be reversed -- if never an easy tack with railroad trains, it is no easier for "trains of thought" -- with the aid of the so-called "Anthropic Principle", and that in this way the general direction of human thought might be advanced on parallel tracks.

But first, for the sake of theologians to whom this paper is addressed, a bit more on the anthropic principle itself.

The Anthropic Principle

Known more precisely as the "Anthropic Cosmological Principle", according to Reinhart Breuer (The Anthropic Principle: Man as the Focal Point of Nature, Birkhauser, 1991) the concept first took shape under the rather obvious and seemingly redundant observation of the astrophysicist and cosmologist Brandon Carter "that what we can expect to observe must be restricted by the conditions necessary for our presence as observers."

However, even in this so-called "weak" form, the principle goes contrary to what has long been the most fundamental tenant of cosmology, namely the so-called "Copernican cosmological principle", which holds that the human race does not hold any privileged position in space. (See Joseph Silk, The Big Bang, Revised and Updated Edition, New York, W. H. Freeman, 1989, p. 17.) While the primary purpose of this "Copernican cosmological principle" is to emphasize the isotropy or homogeneity of the universe, allowing astronomers and cosmologists to assume that what prevails in our part of the cosmos also applies elsewhere, the philosophical overtones of the concept are unmistakable. We are no longer talking simply about our physical location in the universe but rather our ontological significance.

This philosophical shift in perspective becomes especially obvious in another statement of Carter (as quoted by Breuer, page 8), namely "...that our location in the universe is necessarily privileged to the extent of being compatible with our existence as observers." In turn, this phenomenon is interpreted by the physicists John Barrow and Frank Tipler, whose massive treatise The Anthropic Cosmological Principle (Oxford University Press, 1986) is regarded as the most authoritative work on the subject, to imply a certain inevitability; thus "The observed values of all physical and cosmological qualities are not equally probable but they take on values restricted by the requirement that there exist sites where carbon-based life can evolve and by the requirement that the Universe be old enough for it to have already done so." (Barrow and Tipler, op.cit. page 17.)

Obviously, once one has reached even such a carefully qualified conclusion, it is but a very small but significant step to asserting the same principle, as did Carter, in its strong or most explicit form, namely, that the universe "must be such so as to admit the creation of observers within it at some stage" or as Breuer himself concludes: "The structures of the universe and the particulars of its construction are essentially fixed by the condition that at some point it inevitably produces an observer."(Ibid. page 8) Barrow and Tipler appear to fully endorse this same conclusion, also employing the emphatic word "must."(Op. cit. page 28) So it is that they and other commentators on the subject, using various formulas, reiterate in any number of ways, or in similar but more popular turn of phrase, assert that we seem to live in a "designer" universe, one that appears to have been specifically tailored or "fine-tuned" to produce life such as ourselves.

Of course, there are those, not just among the scientists, but even perhaps more among theologians and philosophers, who will instinctively shy away from any theory that shows signs of exuding any odors suggesting a return to concepts reminiscent of any so-called "God of the gaps." No doubt the implications of the idea of an Anthropic Principle, with its allusions to a "designer universe" smells like a warmed-over version of such discredited ideas that end up making God look like an incompetent watch-maker who has to come back periodically to repair the works. Unfortunately, the arguments, as presented one-by-one in any systematic exposition of the principle, like that in Barrow and Tipler's book, may reenforce this impression, particularly when it comes to the biological realm with its assessment of a whole series of critical steps in which the evolution of life might have turned out, if it had perchance occurred at all, quite differently than it has -- indeed, this could very well be the case on planets yet undiscovered or unexplored. Curiously, the final argument used by Barrow and Tipler appears to make the claim that intelligent life like ours is unique to our planet, and from that standpoint, to also imply that it is unique in the whole universe. I would argue quite the opposite: that a universe as vast as ours that was designed to produce intelligent life must have undoubtedly produced it or will do so, elsewhere as well.

However, and this bears being kept constantly in mind, when we turn to the beginning of the evolutionary process, to the "moment of creation" as it were (the initial "Big Bang") we are talking about anything but an otherwise orderly process in which there is an otherwise unexplained "gap" here and there. We are, instead, face-to-face with the fundamental question of all existence and the old philosophical conundrum of "why there is anything rather than nothing." In other words, the fundamental argument in favor of the anthropic principle is not how the universe happened to turn out in a way that has been favorable to the appearance of intelligent life, but rather the fact that there is a universe, any kind of universe, in the first place! This becomes most evident in the face of the most widely accepted theory of its origin, that of the Big Bang -- the slightest variation in the rate of its expansion would have resulted in either a big fizzle (a premature gravitational collapse) or a big bust (an infinite dispersion of energy throughout, or more exactly along with, space).

This same all or nothing dichotomy applies to all the rest of the stages of evolution as well. We are not talking about an altogether predictable development of things plus a fortuitous happenstance now and then (like the improbable appearance of water to give things a boost in our direction). We are dealing with the occurrence of the whole phenomenon of evolution in the first place. This will become move evident when we discuss the concept of teleology in the section to follow.

The only thing more specific still lacking in these general assertions of the principle, both in its weak and strong forms, is an explanation of the word "anthropic". As the term appears in many of the scientific arguments, ranging from the broadly cosmological evidence to the more specifically biological realm, it is specifically intelligent life, such as ourselves, but not exclusively ourselves, that is meant.

Teleology and the Logos

At this point in our discussion, I propose to take up three more specific statements and/or variations of the principle as developed by these or other authors. And with these three, to explore what I consider to be their more specifically (and perhaps surprisingly, at least to some) christological overtones.

The first of these variations is what philosopher E. E. Harris (Cosmos and Anthropos: A Philosophical Interpretation of the Anthropic Cosmological Principle, Humanities International Press, 1991) calls -- in the manner of Barrow and Tipler's WAP and SAP -- the "TAP" or "teleological anthropic principle." Contrary to the reluctance of the others to invoke this dreaded term (although Barrow and Tipler devote a long chapter to the history of various cosmological and/or "teleological" arguments for the existence of God) Harris feels that there should be no reticence about or apology for using the term. In fact, if an understanding of evolution has taught us anything, it must be that "design", at least in the sense recurring patterns, is of the very nature of things, and that the evolutionary process itself assumes the role of a "designer". This is not to imply that Harris is trying to promote an atheistic understanding of the principle, but simply to stress, on the one hand, that the element of "teleology" is of the essence of the anthropic argument, and that those who admit the latter must, by logical necessity, admit the teleological aspect as well, without prejudice towards whatever else this term may imply.

At the same time, Harris appears to have another point to make, this time in contention with a fellow philosopher, John Leslie, whose own book, Universes (London: Routledge, 1982) suggests an out from a necessarily theistic conclusion by proposing an alternate theory; that our universe is but one (or only one of several) out of an infinite number of other attempted or aborted ones which failed to succeed. Harris finds this alternative explanation, much like the term "universes", self-contradictory. In this sense, at least one aspect of the basic insight of the Copernican cosmological principle still holds: the basic homogeneity of the universe in the sense that its fundamental laws hold true everywhere. And in that same context Harris proposes this unabashedly teleological statement of the anthropic principle: "There exists one, and only one possible Universe, designed with the goal of generating and sustaining intelligent observers." (See Harris, op. cit. page 28.)

But if this be the case, what then is the theological import? The universe be telling us, by its very structure, that there is a design that is inherent within it. In other words, there is an inherent rationality or order that permeates and gives shape and regularity to the whole universe. It was this aspect of reality that Stoic thinkers termed the "Logos" and which provided the theoretical foundation, not only for philosophy, but for science in the first place. Later philosophers (like Philo of Alexandria) considered it to be an aspect of the God-head in itself, and Christians began to see Jesus as an embodiment (an incarnation) of that same Logos. Indeed, although understood as personal (and in this sense, Christians are theists rather than devotees of an impersonal deity) still, we make no claim to know this divine person except as revealed in and through Jesus.

Approached in this way, although Christianity remains theocentric, for us, in our present state as inhabitants of planet earth, Jesus of Nazareth remains the definitive revelation of this Logos, the otherwise unknown God "in whom we live, and move, and have our being." True, for others, even on this planet, this may not be the case, and that this Logos remains impersonal, the Tao or the inscrutable "Way" of nature, or the Mana or the sacred force that animates the world. If so, so be it. The inner reality is the same, and must be so, even for the inhabitants of other worlds which for us, remain as other still unknown "islands" of live in space and time.

Might there be another "Third" or "Cosmic" nature to Christ as Teilhard de Chardin once proclaimed? I suppose it all depends on how we understand the term "anthropic" and its relationship to that particular "anthropos" who was Jesus of Nazareth. If "salvation" depends on that kind of repentance and conversion that hinges on our recognition of and belief in Jesus as the only name under which one can be saved -- as was once the common understanding of Christianity -- of course the answer is that this is clearly untenable today, even in terms of our knowledge of this planet and its history (as Vatican II admitted). How much more this would be the case in a universe filled with still uncounted inhabited worlds! From this old point of view, only multiple incarnations, both past and future, of the eternal Word would make salvation, understood in those terms, possible for all.

But this is not the only possibility, or so it would seem. Might it not be so much the message of as the fact of the incarnation has made the difference -- that the divine Logos at one point, even if only in one place in space and time, chose to make a fully anthropic personalization or realization of himself in this single specimen of humankind? Would this not be enough to make this divine-anthropic connection, this "inoculation" of the universe (as Teilhard once put it) with divine nature definitive once for all? Perhaps, but only to the extent that his human nature was cosmic in its dimensions -- which puts us right back to where we started!

Participation and Pleromization

Perhaps a fresh start is needed in approaching this (above) dilemma, one which might be suggested by a still more surprising interpretation, that known as the Participatory Anthropic Principle (or PAP -- no pun intended -- for short). Enter, at this point Niels Bohr, and the Copenhagen interpretation of the Heisenberg's Indeterminacy Principle. According to this prevailing theory of Quantum Mechanics, the state of matter or energy, perceived as either wave or particle, depends almost entirely on the determination of the perceiver. If this is so, then according to physicist John A. Wheeler (as summarized by E. E. Harris, op. cit. pages 6, 146-7, 155.) "... what is potential at the physical and biological levels of reality depends on human observation and knowledge to reach its full actualization." This is not to say, as some may wrongly suppose the anthropic principle to assert, that all reality may be no more than a figment of human imagination; but it does assert that what a good part of potential reality does turn out to be depends, to a certain degree, on what we ourselves want it to become!

The theological overtones, especially for Christian theology, should be obvious. But to draw out its full implications, again we must turn to Teilhard. An early champion of an almost "physicalist" interpretation of the Pauline doctrine of "the Body of Christ", Teilhard eventually abandoned that graphic analogy for the more abstract but more comprehensive "pleromic" terminology adopted in the later Pauline epistles from the language of the Stoic philosophers of antiquity. Meaning "fullness", "completion", or "fulfillment", this Greek term pleroma can have both and active as well as a passive meaning or connotation. The Pauline epistles see it primarily in the latter sense, as the universe redeemed or fulfilled by God (or as in Colossians 2:9, with Christ manifesting the fullness of divinity).

But must not this Pleroma also be understood, as Teilhard insisted, in a more mutually active as well as passive sense, as in the case of one his most comprehensive descriptions where he speaks of "the Pleroma -- the mysterious synthesis of both the Uncreated and the Created, --the grand completion (both quantitative and qualitative) of the Universe in God." (See "La Parole attendue" (1940), Oeuvres de Teilhard de Chardin, Paris: Ed. de Seiul, 10:153: translation mine.)

So it seems, if we follow the evolution of Teilhard's own thought to its logical conclusion, that just as the sufferings of individual Christians (and of the Church, of course) can be seen as making up what is still lacking in the Body of Christ (see Colossians 1:24) so too, the struggles of humanity in some sense also make up what is still lacking in the full becoming of the universe, which is in itself in some way the fulfillment or completion of Being (both created and uncreated) in itself.

There are those, of course, who would see all these later Pauline themes, not only as developed by Teilhard, but even by the some of the New Testament writers themselves, as secondary or even tertiary in respect to the basic New Testament tradition, particularly that of the gospels as records of the words and deeds of Jesus himself. In this criticism, of course, they would be perfectly correct. The support for such a distinction can be found in the 1964 instruction of the Vatican's official Biblical Commission on "The Historical Truth of the Gospels" in which there is a distinction made regarding the three levels of tradition contained within the canonical texts: namely, the words and deeds of Jesus, the basic "kerygma" or message of salvation (primarily through his death and resurrection), and finally, the various theological elaborations of this message as developed by the evangelists themselves. (See Joseph A. Fitzmyer, S.J., A Christological Catechism, New York, Paulist Press, 1982.) By extension of this same analysis, we may assume that not only the kerygma, but even more, this final or third level appears to reach its fullest expression in the other New Testament writings. The historical Jesus (as even Teilhard admitted) takes preference to all the rest.

However, that being said, the saving kerygma or message concerning Jesus as the savior is what Christianity is all about, and as we shall soon see, without that saving message and the possibility of its fulfillment, even the historical person of Jesus fades into ultimate insignificance for the future.

Finality and Immortality

Most surprising of all the variations of the anthropic principle, especially as formulated neither by philosophers nor theologians, nor even by popularizers of science such as Breuer, is that formulated by the physicists Barrow and Tipler -- what they term the "Final Anthropic Principle" (FAP). It amounts to the bold statement that "intelligent information processing must come into existence in the Universe, and, once it comes into existence, it will never die out." (See Barrow & Tipler, op.cit. page 17.)

We will not spend much time commenting on what their concept of intelligent life (which can be apparently reduced to the operations computer software guaranteed by the invention of self- replicating space ships known in Si-Fi circles as "Von Neumann Probes") but rather concentrate on the significance of this assertion and what it indicates about the human need to make sense of the universe.

Despite the never-ending search for enough "Dark Matter" in the universe to prolong its existence beyond its predicted end, either by gravitational collapse ("The Big Crunch") or by eventual "Heat Death", there is apparently no realistic hope that the universe, at least as we know it, could continue forever. (See Silk, op.cit. pages 388-93.) So while some may profess to be completely indifferent to such an outcome, while others may find it, at the very least, largely irrelevant to their present life, when one stops to think through it implications, one is eventually confronted with an ultimate crisis of meaning. And seen in this light, it is not so much human sinfulness (the preoccupation it seems, mostly of Western Christianity following its mentor, Augustine) that we need to be saved from, as the utter futility symbolized by death.

It has been pointed out by various historians of theology as well as liturgical scholars, how Oriental Christians, by way of contrast to those of the West, never developed an extensive theology of "original sin" as the cause of all humanity's ills, but especially death. Quite the contrary, Eastern Christian thought has instead tended to single out the fear of death as being the major cause of human sinfulness. Unwittingly perhaps, this same insight formed the major theme of the Pulitzer Prize winning book by Ernest Becker, The Denial of Death (New York: Macmillan, 1973) and its posthumous sequel, Escape from Evil (New York: Free Press, 1976). Becker claimed to have come to this insight by way of the thought of Freud's disciple, Otto Rank.

Nor is this simply an argument over the question of personal immortality -- though that issue turns out to be crucial part of the picture as well. Historically speaking, it is quite evident that while a large portion of humanity has held belief systems in which some kind of personal immortality figures quite prominently, still, there has been other peoples (the ancient Hebrews among them) whose religion or whose philosophies have left the issue of individual, personal immortality to be uncertain at best. Classical theraveda Buddhism, as contrasted to most of the more widespread mahayana schools of thought, has considered such beliefs as an obstacle to spiritual enlightenment. So too, some modern agnostics point out how even some of the Christian mystics became largely indifferent to the survival of their own ego.

Nevertheless, that being said, one must admit that the principle attraction of Christianity, from the very beginning, has been its doctrine of personal immortality, generally expressed under the symbolism of "resurrection." Indeed, it was this belief that set apart Jesus and the Pharisees (with whom he otherwise largely disagreed) from the Sadducees and the other members of the Jewish religious and political establishment that engineered his death. And it was this same belief that inspired the countless early Christian martyrs to give their lives so freely to its cause. In fact, so central was this belief to the Christian faith, that St. Paul was able to argue that if we ourselves are not to rise from death, then neither could Jesus have risen, and if that be so, then we are fools whose faith is in vain. (See I Corinthians 15:12ff.)

However, we should also remember that most professions of indifference to or even disdain for personal immortality have generally been against the background of a world or universe that was somehow perceived as being itself immortal. In other words, human hopes, even in the face of uncertainty or even outright denial of personal survival, have generally preserved a sense of meaningfulness for human life and its activities, even if it be for the sake of future generations that may long after, forget those who came before. What will happen to civilization and the sense of human meaning, when even that vague hope is taken away?

Perhaps we are seeing the answer to that in many parts of the world already -- even while the cause of this breakdown of human morale remains unconscious to those who experience it the most! According to psychiatrist Viktor Frankl, it is precisely this pervading atmosphere of nihilism that is the cause of the "existential neurosis" that underlies most cases of emotional illness in today's world. While Frankl's major writings on this theme (Man's Search For Meaning, 1959, and The Will To Meaning: Foundations and Applications of Logotherapy, 1969) were written decades ago, they now appear to have been even more prophetic than when they first appeared.

Thus, even while the question of individual survival past death remains a very personal, perhaps even selfish one, it becomes clear, in this cosmic context, that we find ourselves faced with and "all or nothing" situation. Either the human "spirit" (I use this term in preference to the dualistic overtones associated with the word "soul") is capable of survival, or else evolution itself issues in nothing of lasting significance. True, it is possible to suppose that creation is not supposed to have any such value beyond time, that it is, in the language of some Oriental philosophies, nothing but lila, the "play" of the gods, destined for ultimate oblivion. For some minds, this would symbolize the epitome of religious detachment. For others, it represents the abyss of philosophical nihilism. One may, of course, take ones pick. But for Christian belief, the course is clear: death is the ultimate enemy, and when death in all its forms is finally defeated through its subjection to the Cosmic Christ (the to whom all else has been made subject) then, and apparently only then, does God become "all in all." (See I Corinthians 15:28.)

Thus we can see that the anthropic principle, whether or not one can accept its tentatively "final" form, at least raises the soteriological question, not so much in its individualistic understanding, but in a truly cosmic context. If the old theological adage that "christology follows soteriology" remains true, there may be also something to be said for its opposite in this new context. Salvation, especially of the individual, may strike some as excessively narrow, even narcissistic, unless understood first of all in cosmic terms. The same might also be said for the anthropic principle as well. A truly cosmic Christology might be the specifically Christian contribution towards preventing any anthropic principle from becoming a too narrowly humanistic source of pride.

Some Evangelical Implications

While I am not suggesting, particularly in conjunction with the above conclusion, some kind of doctrine of apokatastasis or universal salvation on the one hand, or even a natural immortality of the "soul" (whether destined for salvation or damnation) on the other, what I am suggesting is that the vitality of Christianity for the future demands, a revitalization of the doctrine of the Cosmic Christ. It may very well turn out to be, in a way that was never was as true for the other "third level" understandings of the Christian tradition (especially the "Atonement" theory, particularly as associated with the doctrine of Original Sin) essential as they may have seemed at the time, that the credibility of Christian belief in the future stands or falls with the development of a christology that is as expansive, indeed, continuing to expand, as is our awareness of the universe itself.

No doubt that some, like those who object to the suggestion of any "anthropic principle" at work in the evolutionary process as being the cover for a deus ex machina, will see in my suggestions concerning a "cosmic Christ" as similar kind of conspiracy at work. If so, it can't be helped. I can only defend my conclusions with a variation of that remark by the celebrated skeptic, Voltaire. For if it is true that "if God did not exist it would be necessary to invent him" then I would add (with indebtedness to Voltaire's own kinsman -- Teilhard's mother claimed Voltaire in her family's lineage) that in the light of the Anthropic Principle, it would seem equally necessary for us to invent a Cosmic Christ.

My object, in doing this, was not to depreciate, much less eliminate, the altogether necessary task of deepening our knowledge of the historical Jesus. Instead, my real intention has been to deepen this quest by attempting to grasp, in terms of contemporary cosmology, the same existential issues that motivated, humanly speaking, the faith of this man whom Christians believe to been (and to still be) "the Son of God." For I believe that it is precisely through him, by directing our lives by his teachings, and by identifying ourselves with him in his struggles to liberate humanity from its sufferings, that we shall also eventually come to find ourselves in him -- together with all other creatures destined to survive the great unfolding of evolution -- in his own union with the Source of all that is.

Richard W. Kropf
June 10, 1994

Return to Index Page

File:AP&CC.html 1/26/2000