The Third Covenant: The Transmission of Consciousness in the work of Pierre Teilhard De Chardin, Thomas Berry, and Albert J. LaChance
By Albert J. LaChance and Rebecca LaChance Goodwin
192 pp. North Atlantic Books. $14.95.
I found this book very difficult to review mainly because it doesn’t lend itself to easy digestion. The book, written by a father-daughter team (LaChance a psychologist and Goodwin a theologian, respectively) is a summary of sorts of the theological and philosophical system that has been the life’s work of LaChance, and makes frequent references to his previous work. As someone who was born and raised on a steady diet of Western Enlightenment-steeped philosophy, theology, and science, I found the glimpse into the Eastern ways of thinking in these areas that this book provides interesting, occasionally insightful, but ultimately frustrating and unsatisfying.
The main body of the book is divided into three parts, the first two written by LaChance, and the third written by Goodwin. LaChance also provides a brief background chapter to open the book, while Goodwin provides an introduction to the themes of the book. Finally, both LaChance and Goodwin provide afterwords.
In the opening material we see immediately where the book is going. For LaChance and Goodwin are not merely describing a theological system for understanding Christianity and its relationships to other traditions. Rather, they are taking the bold and explicit step of arguing for the advent of an entirely new religion. LaChance is, helpfully, very clear in the beginning of Part I about the origins of the name for this new religion: namely he claims to have had a vision of the crucified Christ who informed him in no uncertain terms that the theological system of Pierre Teilhard de Chardin was a new revelation from God Himself, and that he should explicitly call it the “Third Covenant”.
The first two parts of the book LaChance turns to fleshing out this vision by ruminating on the works of two individuals: Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, and Thomas Berry, and here lies one frustration I have with the book. For, if Teilhard de Chardin (a 20th Century French Jesuit Priest who sought to extrapolate biological evolution to an overriding cosmic and divine principle) is such an important figure in this new revelation (LaChance calls him a “shoot of Yeshua” in the same way Christ was a shoot of Jesse), one would think that he would be described in more than just fleeting terms. Much of the section of the book ostensibly devoted to him barely touches on the man himself, referring the reader to other works for this purpose. Instead, one gets the vaguest of sketches of Teilhard de Chardin’s theology that is so interspersed with LaChance’s own interpretations and distracting asides that it is nigh impossible for the reader to tell where one ends and the other begins.
A similar criticism applies to the section on Thomas Berry. However, this section fared somewhat better in this regard, particularly a chapter outlining Berry’s 12-point theological treatise on the relationship of humanity to the rest of the universe. Nevertheless, I still finished these chapters barely knowing anything more about the man other than that he was a mentor to LaChance, and I had similar difficulties understanding where Berry’s theology and philosophy ended, and LaChance’s began. In brief, LaChance spends most of this part of the book describing various encounters with Berry and how Berry’s theology informed Lachance’s own musings, but does so in such a scattershot way as to be dizzying.
As for the content of the Third Covenant itself, the orthodox Christian, for one, will find it hard to stomach the idea that we should do away with the concept of monotheism, and instead embrace “monosacrality”, which is the idea that everything is sacred or divine and ultimately one. How this and other similar concepts that the book presents differ from traditional pantheism never even enters the book’s radar screen, which strikes me as an odd omission. Of course, taken on the book’s own terms, the fact that a Christian (or a Muslim, Jew, or atheist for that matter) would find it hard to embrace this shift wouldn’t be such a problem if LaChance and Goodwin didn’t also repeatedly claim throughout that the previous covenants (the so-called “Second Covenant” constituting Christianity and Islam) could “remain alive, differentiated, and active within the Third Covenant”. But, on the other hand, they spend a great deal of time extolling the virtues and superiority of their new syncretistic universal religion that has no need for the trappings of the former. In other words, it seems they want to have their cake and eat it too, or rather, to offer this non-choice to current members of the previous covenants. But, for example, the difficult but crucial question of how an orthodox Christian who is committed to Christ as the unique Son of God can simultaneously affirm the Third Covenant’s claim that Jesus was merely one of a long line of “avatars” of the “monosacred” (that includes Buddha, Krishna, and Mohammed), is never truly engaged. But, explaining how this might be strikes me as absolutely critical to their project, and frankly, their presentation as it stands currently suffers from the same problems that plague many other syncretistic meta-religious projects throughout history.
It doesn’t help that along the way, LaChance takes several gratuitous swipes at traditional Christianity, bizarrely insists without any justification that the religious expressions of indigenous peoples constitute a purer expression of the “monosacred Voice of the planet”, and tacks on a demonization of alcohol for good measure (along with another bizarre claim that if only the minds of these peoples were free from alcohol, they would save the planet). To be fair, given LaChance’s own admission of alcohol abuse, such an aversion is at least understandable, but it’s the totalizing of this aversion that concerns me. Additionally, he introduces so many idiosyncratic concepts, words, and phrases (such as “ChristLogos”, the “Avatar Voice”, “one-ly”, and others) without clear differentiation and definition as to often make it very difficult to follow the thread of the discussion.
This isn’t to say that I found nothing of value in the book. For one thing, I very much resonate with its underlying angst in regards to the indifference much of the modern West has towards the ecological health of the planet. But LaChance and Goodwin would do well to acknowledge that many traditional Christians care about these things as well, and one doesn’t need to regard the Creation as fundamentally divine to understand that we should take care of it as a precious gift of God. Along these same lines, I think I would also agree with the unspoken indictment of Western Christian theology in regards to viewing humanity as being radically distinct from the rest of Creation. We are in fact deeply and inextricably entwined with the health of the ecosystems and planet as a whole. I would even go so far as to say that the more mystical threads of Christian thought through the ages should be given a longer and more respectful look by those of us who tend to emphasize, consciously or not, a more dualistic Enlightenment-based perspective on human knowledge and experience. We may well find that there indeed is some sort of deeper connection of our souls to the rest of Creation that is similar to what LaChance and Goodwin are describing. As an aside, I find the mystical experiences described by C. S. Lewis in “Surprised by Joy” to be an excellent starting point for thinking about these ideas (and I myself have had similar experiences).
Finally, I found Goodwin’s sections in Part 3 (those describing the work of her father LaChance) to be a far clearer exposition of the concepts LaChance himself introduced previously. I only wish they had come sooner. For example, she discusses an interesting attempt to expand upon Jungian Psychology (of which I know nothing about, so cannot comment upon its efficacy or standing in modern Psychology) in line with the concept that human consciousness supervenes on a deeper level of consciousness ascribed to the whole planet, and ultimately the entire cosmos. While I’m highly skeptical of such exercises, at least there is a systematic attempt here to flesh this out. That being said, Goodwin (or LaChance) provides mostly speculation throughout most of this part. For example she wonders whether human psychological disorders are somehow inextricably linked to ecological ills of the planet, but provides little or no supporting evidence. As a scientist, the first thing that comes to mind here is “correlation does not imply causation”, which is one of the first principles a scientist is taught to embrace. Goodwin mostly throws this principle to the wind. At one point in regards to this presumed connection, she muses (emphasis original), “The degradation of life anywhere affects life everywhere. How do we know? Because we can feel it.”
There’s much more I could say, but the above constitutes my main impressions of the book. In summary, while at times I found “The Third Covenant” provided some interesting insights and musings on our place within Creation and our relationship with and apprehension of God, these positive factors were mostly outweighed by the utter inability of the book to live up to its own stated and overly-ambitious objective of ushering in a new religious dawn, which at the end of the day turns out to be another iteration of long-standing pantheism. This inability manifests in 1) the short shrift the authors give to the impressive weight of traditional Judeo-Christian understandings of God and Creation, 2) vague and idiosyncratic descriptions of their proposed religious system that would supposedly transcend all the former ones, and 3) a failure to explain how the former systems would operate intact within the new, especially with so many glaring (at least apparent) conflicts which are barely acknowledged, let alone seriously discussed.
Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the author and/or publisher. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR,Part 255.