An interview with philosopher & founder of Schola Contemplatonis Beatrice Bruteau.
AE: In this issue we are exploring spiritual evolution and the relationship between enlightenment and evolution. You are one of the pioneering thinkers in evolutionary spirituality and your work has been devoted to bringing an evolutionary view to Christian contemplative life. In your book, God’s Ecstasy, you have said, “Evolution is a part of religious life. Creativity is built into the natural world. And the Divine is the creative principle.” Can you explain what you mean?
Beatrice Bruteau: Somewhere deep down we are all filled with a mystical longing, with a longing for ultimate meaningfulness, and therefore we need to see all of our world in that context. To attain this in today’s climate, we need a new theology of the cosmos —one that is grounded in the best science of our day. It will be a theology in which God is very present precisely in all the dynamism and patterns of the created order. A theology of evolution sees God as deeply involved in the evolutionary process of the world. God is making the world by means of evolution. And the evolutionary process in its turn is seen as striving toward God. So, you see, God is Self-expressing and Self-realizing in evolution.
All sorts of wonderful creatures have been generated from a few simple principles and a handful of elementary particles. The creativity that makes the world is built into the world as its own essence. And in this self-creating world there is gradually growing the most Godlike capacity, consciousness. The cosmic complexity has supported the development of consciousness, and now we can know and understand and contemplate this beautiful and marvelous universe. More and more, creatures know what they’re doing, appreciate their environment, choose their actions. And when you get to human beings, consciousness is aware of the fact that it is conscious. We try to understand where consciousness comes from, how it works, how we can manipulate it. At the human level, consciousness is trying to make new forms of consciousness. We’ve developed consciousness-altering practices and we’ve taken consciousness-altering drugs. Now we’re even making machines that do things we used to think only conscious brains could do. Thus, consciousness is evolving further consciousness.
AE: Can you describe what the movement or process of evolution actually is?
Bruteau: Evolution is the linked changing of the world. There is a basic urgency in life to grow, to expand, to become new and renewed. We might even say that the very meaning of being alive is to be constantly in the process of becoming a new creation. This happens on small scales with every biological form we know, and it happens on a large scale in the universe as a whole. At least one contemporary view of the cosmos sees it as one huge, dynamic, evolving being that passes through a series of stages in which its forms and internal relations assume ever-new patterns. Some theorists of evolution point out that with each succeeding stage of development, the complexity of the patterns is increased. So evolution is the passage in time from simpler organizational forms to more complex organizational forms, carrying with it an increase of consciousness, which means a sense of unity in the organized entity. Now, this process is usually thought of as advancing by a series of small steps. But sometimes there is a Great Step. Great Steps occur when the cosmic organization goes to another level of complexity. It does this by uniting elements of the preceding level. These are what French Jesuit priest and paleontologist Teilhard de Chardin called “creative unions”: they bring into being something that never existedbefore. The New Being emerges from the connections and interactions of the composing units, and it constitutes a new level of oneness and wholeness.
AE: Could you say more about Teilhard’s view of an evolutionary progression toward greater and greater degrees of unity?
Bruteau: As I said, in Teilhard’s view, all of evolution has progressed by a series of creative unions. More complex and more conscious beings are formed by the union of less complex and less conscious elements with one another. Subatomic particles unite to form atoms, atoms unite to form molecules, molecules unite to form cells, and cells unite to form organisms. This same pattern of creating something new, something more complex and more conscious, by the union of the less complex and less conscious recurs at each of these levels. It is because we can look back and see the pattern, see it recurring, that Teilhard believes we can legitimately extrapolate and project the pattern into the future, looking forward to another creative union in which we will be the uniting elements.
AE: How do these “creative unions” come about?
Bruteau: What Teilhard says is that each time this occurs there is an exchange of “characteristic energy” among the uniting elements. For instance, the characteristic energy of atoms is electrical energy. It is by sharing this energy among themselves that the atoms make themselves into molecules. The atoms are capable of making connections with one another, and then they interact to form the union. So in order for us as human beings to unite with one another to form the next creative union, according to the same pattern that the atoms and molecules and cells followed before us, we must share with one another our characteristic energies. It is the energy sharing that forms the bond. The characteristic energy at the level we have now reached is human energy. And what is human energy? It is not just physical energy or chemical energy or biological energy. It is the energy of thinking, or knowing, and the energy of loving, or willing. It is this most intimate energy of ours that we are asked to commit to the new union. In other words, we are being asked to give ourselves as persons in order to create a higher-level New Being. The question, however, is whether human beings will actually do this enough to form the next level of cosmic evolution.
So you see, at this point, evolution meets a situation that is unique in its history: the uniting elements, in our case, are free agents. We will not automatically unite merely because of some natural affinity. Since each of us is free, we can each choose whether we will enter into the proposed union or not. Thus the union, the New Being, the next creative advance of evolution, will come about only if we freely consent to form it because the energy exchange itself, which forms the bond of the new-level cosmic organization, consists of free acts. This is why Teilhard says that the whole cosmic enterprise now hangs on our decision: we are evolution.
AE: So human beings are in a unique position, and we bear a great responsibility for what happens. You could say that we are at a crucial evolutionary juncture.
Bruteau: Yes we are. And in order to appreciate and feel the force of what the present human vocation is, we need to zero in on how the elements of any particular level of cosmic organization actually perform the uniting by which they come to constitute a new kind of wholeness in the world. There is not some outside force that causes this to occur. The capacity for it is inherent in the uniting elements, and they themselves do it by their own characteristic power. Every level of cosmic being has its own power of communication, the power to unite with others of its level to make something yet grander. This is the pattern that repeats in the course of evolution.
And this, therefore, is the clue to our human vocation, the next stage of the cosmic evolution. Human beings have a far more wonderful power of communication than have atoms. If the pattern repeats at our level, then we are to exercise that power to form a new kind of further Being, a Being born of our voluntary togetherness that will be able to do things that we singly cannot do.
AE: The great evolutionary thinkers have all also made the point that the human ability to choose, to intelligently exercise free will or volition, is what sets us apart from other creatures. Can you say a little more about the significance of choice?
Bruteau: You see, evolution up to this point has gone by happenstance and natural selection. The individual animal doesn’t get to choose how it’s going to evolve. But the individual human being can, and we, by our concerted intention, can make something that hasn’t existed before. If we are to make this change in favor of forming a New Being, we will have to redirect our energy currents. And it will take energy even to make that option. You see, our energy currents are egocentric —the currents flow out from the ego, grasp what’s good for the ego, and flow back to the ego. This energy pattern cannot form a creative union because it tries to assimilate all other beings to the being of the ego. And because of that, it’s important that we make a big effort to realize the True Self —otherwise we’re running entirely on the motives to exploit and dominate —the motives that are endangering the world.
AE: Is this why you say in your books that Self-realization, or enlightenment, is “the foundation for evolution”? Do you mean that for the next step of evolution to occur, we must transcend our ego motivations, those impulses that fundamentally keep us separate from each other?
Bruteau: Yes. Self-realization is the condition for forming the next creative union because we must bring the characteristic human energy to the place where we can intentionally share it. To form a truly New Being, to make another Great Step in evolution, we have to unite the deepest, most central energies of consciousness. This depth is currently buried and hidden in most of us. Yet, we also sense that it is there, waiting to be brought into full presence, and so we do various spiritual practices in the hope of becoming fully aware of our deep reality.
AE: What do you mean by “deep reality”?
Bruteau: Deep reality is that place in the center of our being where we experience our existence in an unlimited way. The deep self is not defined, not described by any of the qualities of our bodies or personalities, by our histories or social positions, our jobs, or our religions. This is fairly hard to realize. We tend to think of ourselves, introduce ourselves to others, believe others are seeing us in terms of these qualities. In meditation and its associated practices, we try to center ourselves in our sense of existing without identifying with these descriptors. To the extent that we become accustomed to this, we may spontaneously behave in a new way.
You can see from this how our energy is affected. When we define ourselves in terms of our qualities, we have to devote energy to protecting them and trying to gain more valuable ones —more beauty, personality, wealth, power, social status. But if we liberate ourselves from such identity, then all that energy becomes available for the radiation of goodwill to others. We have realized ourselves as the Self that says only I AM, with no predicate following, not “I am a this” or “I have that quality.” Only unlimited, absolute I AM.
And the interesting thing is that as soon as you experience yourself this way, you at once find that you also are saying toward the whole world, “Let it be!” It seems to be the nature of that which is I AM to say, “Let it be.” This is the love that is called “agape.” Agape is the love that seeks the being, well-being, full being, ever-fuller being, of the beloved. It is a love that is not a reaction to the beloved but rather a first action, an action beginning in you, coming out from the center of your being because of the nature of your being. This energy of love is inexhaustible. It doesn’t have to be reserved or apportioned or used economically. It is plentiful, bountiful, enormous. It is a dynamic out-flowing activity, energy. It’s constantly in motion and radiant, like a star is radiant. It streams out from us in every way. The True Self in us is constantly radiating this willed goodness.
A New Being
AE: At times you’ve characterized agape or “creative love” as a future-seeking or, could we say, evolutionary movement, the intention of which, as you’ve put it, “is to bring something new into being.”
Bruteau: It is a will to being —it’s the ultimate energy of God, if you want to call it that. This intention to share being is agape. And it is central, it is original, it is Source. When you discover it, you discover that you are that —that the most “self” thing that you are is that. This is what people find when they have what’s called Self-realization. And it’s an energy that has no limit. The central or True Self that is the truth of our being is continuous with the Divine Source of all reality. And that, of course, is intended toward the future —it is future-oriented, and it is the intention that there should be more being because its own nature is the gift of being. It gives itself to every being. It is its pleasure to give itself, to expand and radiate. It is our participation in the “glory of God” that “fills the whole world.”
This is how we, as individuals, doing our spiritual practices, coming to our Self-realization, to our enlightenment, make possible the next step in human evolution, which is to say, cosmic evolution, which is God’s Self-manifestation. The hidden Godness in us comes forth and shows itself for what it is and rejoices in the truth of its Being.
AE: In your view of the next evolutionary step, you emphasize the importance of the collective or human community. Why is the nature and formation of this collective so significant?
Bruteau: Because the collective is an integrative operation. You see, the collective is the medium by which the oneness both is made out of the diversity and protects the diversity and transcends the particular diversity that composes it. This is a kind of leapfrog by which evolution always moves. So a molecule is a kind of community. A cell is a kind of community. Molecules are communities of atoms, cells are communities of molecules, and so on. Now, we’re following this same pattern that evolution seems to have followed, which is unite in order to create. The new human community will be some kind of an entity, some kind of a Being. Just as the organism is a collective of molecules and the molecule is a collective of atoms. So if you can get human beings to share their characteristic human energy —which is agape, knowledge, concern, creativity, inventiveness, and all the other kinds of strictly human energies that we have —all that interchange of energies binds us together into a community. And when the whole community experiences and practices this kind of love, the crisscrossing energies form a net, and the net is the New Being that can do what the individuals that it is composed of could not do.
AE: In your writings, you elaborate on the role of integration and differentiation —two central elements of both scientific and spiritual evolutionary theory. We’ve spoken quite a lot about the process of integration, but could you say more about the role and value of differentiation in the creation of this new order, or what you just called the “New Being”?
Bruteau: Yes. Diversity is absolutely essential to the unity of the composed being. The more diversity, the better. It means the greater the variety of the relations and interactions among the composing entities, the more intricate the composed unity. Think of a painting with fifty different shades of color rather than one made with only three. Or think of an orchestra with fifty different instruments instead of a single instrument —the different players interact with one another, increasing the being of the whole, the richness, the beauty. Each time cosmic evolution makes another Great Step, the diversity within the New Being and the diversity of the interactions of the new whole with its new peers is vastly increased. It’s like adding another dimension; how much more there is to a volume of space compared with just a surface!
AE: Many Eastern traditions describe the pinnacle of human potential as the realization of nonduality. Is the union you are speaking about analogous to this definition of enlightenment?
Bruteau: Yes, but it’s a nondualism that doesn’t reduce to a monism. That is to say, our personal energies do not merge or become submerged in some amorphous whole. We do not acquire a kind of oceanic sense of being swallowed up in a great All. Quite the contrary: subjectively, it feels rather like an intensification of individuality —Self-consciousness or Self-realization. Perhaps we might call it “complex nondualism.”
AE: Do you think that some philosophies of nondualism might be antithetical to an evolutionary perspective? For example, the traditional Eastern definition of enlightenment is final cessation, or the end of all becoming. What is the relationship between enlightenment, as it’s traditionally conceived, and your view of spiritual awakening as the foundation for an evolutionary progression toward ever-higher expressions of integration?
Bruteau: The answer to that brings together two things I’ve been speaking about. When you find the I AM in the center of your self, that’s the cessation part. And having found it, you discover that its intention is toward becoming, and that’s the evolution part.
AE: So could the traditional definition of enlightenment as the end of becoming actually be an obstacle to the realization of our evolutionary potential?
Bruteau: If we really think that that’s the final goal and there’s nothing beyond it, then it might be.
AE: A lot of spiritual teachers do think that way. We often hear it said that when you wake up, you realize that this world is only an illusion and therefore nothing of this world matters!
Bruteau: Oh yes, I know. But if you really wake up, you should discover from the experience itself that it is not the end. In fact, I believe it was the Indian philosopher and sage Sri Aurobindo who said that Shankara told only half the story. Traditional Vedanta says that this world is really Brahman, or the Absolute, but it appears as Maya, or illusion. Now where Aurobindo felt that Shankara had stopped short was that Shankara did not pursue this and say, “Well, what Brahman is doing is manifesting as world. And that means that the world is holy and the world needs to be encouraged to manifest further.” What we’re looking at is the creative activity of the Brahman. There is the Absolute, and the Absolute manifests itself in terms of the relative. Both the relative and the Absolute are real. Both the Infinite and the finite are real. You are a miniature of the same structure. The deep Self in you is the Absolute, the Infinite, the Eternal, the Divine, and it’s manifesting as the particular human being that you’re embodied as, at the present time. So I would say there are two poles. There is a mystical pole, which is what Shankara invites us to, and then there is the creative pole, which is this whole evolutionary movement.
AE: So would you say that a view that recognized only the validity of “Being” and not of “Becoming” would be an incomplete view?
Bruteau: I would say that a nondualism that eventually rejects or escapes the whole domain of manifestation deprives the process of its own intrinsic value. Complex nondualism urges that we do not need to reject the manifest phase in order to perfect the unmanifest phase. Rather, the desired position is to rest in the Unmanifest and express in the Manifest, not alternately but simultaneously and by mutual implication. The Unmanifest, being of the nature of agape, necessarily radiates Being, thus expressing as Manifest. And the Manifest, realizing its deep nature as the expression of the Unmanifest, experiences itself as That. Our evolution in consciousness is aimed at this complex Self-realization and enlightenment. Our spiritual practices are to bring us to that realization.
What Is Going On
AE: Do you see a final culmination, or as Teilhard would have put it, an Omega point, at the end of the evolutionary trajectory?
Bruteau: I tend to go along with the idea of an expanding universe; I don’t have an Omega. I don’t think there’s a final end point; I think it’s a song that goes on singing. We don’t sing the song in order to come to the end of it. The divine Self-expression isn’t trying to complete itself. We impose that idea because we generally do things with some kind of a defined goal, but here we’re doing something with the Infinite, and so it doesn’t have a limited or defined goal for itself. It’s trying to express the Infinite in the various media of finitude. I would say that life attains its goal —it becomes what it is supposed to be, fulfills itself —precisely by never coming to an end. If it ever did come to an end in which there was no more novelty, there would be no more life; it would be dead.
So you see, it is very important that we participate in this because this is What Is Going On. This is reality. We respond to it initially on the individual level because that is where we are presently experiencing ourselves. And we all must do it because we all exist, and no one can be left out. Everyone is absolutely essential and infinitely precious. Since the process of forming the next Great Step in evolution, which is the manifestation of the Infinite One, requires that we ourselves voluntarily, consciously, and intentionally do the interactions that will constitute the energy exchanges that make the New Being, we each and all have the honor and the responsibility for living and creating the expression of God as world.
Every little thing counts because everything is real and is part of the picture. Nothing escapes; nothing is on the side. Everything is making its difference to the whole. No one is ever outside the God-process. But it goes only where we go with it. It doesn’t force us; we are the movers from the inside. So it won’t go forward unless we move it forward. That is why we are all so important. We cannot wait for the world to turn, for the times to change that we may change with them, for the revolution to come and carry us round in its new course. No more will the evolutionary forces of nature propel us in their groping way through the next critical point into a new state of Being. From now on, if we are to have any future, we must create that future ourselves. We ourselves are the future and we are the revolution.
originally printed in What Is Enlightenment? Magazine Spring/Summer 2002