On Being with Krista Tippett

Xavier Le Pichon

The Fragility at the Heart of Humanity

Last Updated

July 21, 2016

Original Air Date

June 25, 2009

Xavier Le Pichon, one of the world’s leading geophysicists, helped create the field of plate tectonics. A devout Catholic and spiritual thinker, he raised his family in intentional communities centered around people with mental disabilities. He shares his rare perspective on the meaning of humanity — a perspective equally informed by his scientific and personal encounters with fragility as a fundament of vital, evolving systems. Le Pichon has come to think of caring attention to weakness as an essential quality that allowed humanity to evolve.

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Xavier le Pichon is Honorary Professor at Collège de France in Paris. He founded La Maison Thomas Philippe that provides retreats for families, including those struggling with mental illness.


July 21, 2016

KRISTA TIPPETT, HOST: The French geophysicist Xavier Le Pichon knows fragility to be a fundament of vital, evolving systems – in the Earth’s crust and in human communities. He was one of the original pioneers of the field of plate tectonics — a key figure at a time when science not only radically revised its view of the world, but changed the way all of us see it. He’s also spent decades living in community with people and families facing disabilities. And he’s emerged from all of this with a rare perspective on the very meaning of humanity.

DR. XAVIER LE PICHON: I think it’s going to be a big discovery in life sciences when they realize the importance of the fragility of human life and the fact that the human life is really so fragile that it needs to create a whole new way of culture, of dealing with the others. The fragility is the essence of men and women, and it is at the heart of humanity.

MS. TIPPETT: I’m Krista Tippett, and this is On Being.

[music: “Seven League Boots” by Zoe Keating]

MS. TIPPETT: I spoke with Xavier Le Pichon in 2009. Still a practicing scientist, he’s also a lifelong Catholic. Since 2003, he has lived in an intentional community he and his family helped found to provide retreat for families caring for a loved one with mental illness. Before that, for nearly three decades, he and his wife raised their six children at the original French L’Arche community, centered around people with mental disabilities.

Xavier Le Pichon was born in 1937, the son of a rubber plantation manager in a region of French Indochina that is current-day Vietnam. During World War II, he and his family spent 6 months in a Japanese concentration camp there. When the war ended, they moved back to their native France.

MS. TIPPETT: Let’s just start by getting a sense of your background. I’m wondering if there was a religious background to your childhood.

DR. LE PICHON: Yes, yes. I had. My parents were committed Christians, so I was educated in the Christian faith. And actually, I can say that I’ve been a dedicated Catholic all my life. I’ve been going to mass every day since I was young, so it was very — a constant in my life.

MS. TIPPETT: I noticed that you were born in Vietnam. Is that right?

DR. LE PICHON: Yes, yes. My parents were living in Vietnam at the time, and I had the war in Vietnam. Actually, I was in a concentration camp like all the French with the Japanese. That was a strong experience in my life. I discovered France when I was 8-and-a-half, 9.

MS. TIPPETT: And how were you drawn then eventually to studying geophysics?

DR. LE PICHON: That’s something that came from my very early life. Actually, when I was in the concentration camp, we were on the shore of the Pacific Ocean, and I was wondering what was below the water, and I was on the beach. And I was saying I have to find out what happens when it gets deeper and deeper. And this question has been present since. I wanted to know about the deep ocean. I wanted to know about the Earth. The Earth has always been, for me, a living being, one with whom I share a lot of things. And when I think about it, when I model it and so on, I have it in my head like a living being.

So I have a very close relationship with Earth that I consider a little bit like my mother. And that has colored my scientific life. I wanted to know. I wanted to understand. I wanted to find out about it. The remarkable thing about science is you ask questions to the Earth or to another object in the universe, and if you ask properly the question, you get answers, and you begin a dialogue. And I entered into a dialogue with the Earth since I was young, and I’ve never stopped doing that.

MS. TIPPETT: It’s very interesting, too, that in your field — well, you helped create the field of plate tectonics. And it really is a field which experienced revolutionary leaps forward in your lifetime and that you were part of.

DR. LE PICHON: Yes. Well, you have to understand that when I was a student, the Earth was considered a place where everything was static. Things were moving up and down but never laterally. Continents have always been there. The ocean had always been there. And I was educated in a world that we call “fixist.” Things were not moving. And we discovered that was completely wrong. Actually, the Earth is an extraordinary living being with motions of the oceans and continents and thousands of miles and continuously changing, evolving. And this was a tremendous shock. When I made the first model of the moving plates, I spent three months working alone. I was 29 at the time, and nobody wanted to work with me. They thought that was a crazy idea.

MS. TIPPETT: [laughs] Right.

DR. LE PICHON: I was working all the night at the computer. And one night, finally, I put everything together, and I found that Hawaii was getting closer to Tokyo every year by eight centimeters and things like that. And when I came down for breakfast with my wife, I told her, “I’m going to be the most famous man on the Earth.” [laughs]


DR. LE PICHON: “I have discovered how the Earth works. I really know it now.” And I was so excited. The other type of discovery that I’ve made, which is the — I was the first one to dive in the middle of the ocean in the rift in 3,000 meters with submersible, landing at the place where no human had ever been. And actually, no living being had looked at it because it’s in complete darkness. We were the first to put light in there.


DR. LE PICHON: I had the impression, being a religious man, that I was back to Genesis, finding out the new world. Which is, of course, an enormous responsibility, but at the same time, extremely exciting.

MS. TIPPETT: So a second passion of your life — I’ll just put it this way — has been a presence and awareness to suffering in the world. And I’d like to ask also how and when that began to evolve in you.

DR. LE PICHON: This had been a major crisis in my life that was in 1973.


DR. LE PICHON: So by this time, I was 36. And I progressively discovered that I was so immersed in my research, I was not seeing the others anymore. In particular, it was not seeing the people in difficulty and suffering. And that was a very, very strong crisis. And actually, it led me to decide to quit science. And I resigned from all my positions, and I went to Calcutta to Mother Teresa’s place. I spent six weeks there working with her Brothers of Charity working in the streets.


DR. LE PICHON: Working with the dying people and so on. And I had the meeting with — giving the food to one of these small children who was dying of hunger. He was at the last stages. Suddenly, I had this experience that is, to me, the founding experience of humanity, which is discovering through empathy that you really are one with the man who is suffering. You identify yourself with this person, and this can be so strong. So I made, at the time, the promise to the small child that I will try, from now on, not to ever turn away my eyes from somebody who is suffering. And that was a turning point in my life.

MS. TIPPETT: So something that’s very interesting to me about your approach to all of this is — let’s say, the French philosophers and scientists of the 18th and 19th century would’ve looked at this child in misery in Calcutta, or would’ve looked at the earthquakes that you study as a specialist in plate tectonics, and seen all of that and the suffering it created as a refutation of the notion of God.

DR. LE PICHON: Yeah, yeah.

MS. TIPPETT: But you look at what you know from plate tectonics and how weakness is part of a system that, in fact, is alive. And this also flows into your understanding of empathy and compassion.

DR. LE PICHON: Exactly. I mean, I think this is a very important point which is passed over nowadays. And I think it’s going to be a big discovery in life sciences when they realize the importance of the fragility of human life and the fact that the human life is really so fragile that it needs to create a whole new way of culture, of dealing with the others. The fragility is the essence of men and women, and it is at the heart of humanity.

And once you realize that, you accept your own fragility, you see? This is one of the things we discover in community where you live with people who have deep suffering — that they make you realize that you have your own fragility, your own weakness, and that you don’t have to be ashamed of it. You just have to share it and say, “Look, I am like you.” And that really frees the persons.

[music: “Lilla Kulturbidragsvalsen” by Väsen]

MS. TIPPETT: After encountering that child in Calcutta, Xavier Le Pichon returned to France and consulted with a wise priest he knew, Father Thomas Philippe. Father Philippe encouraged him to come live in the L’Arche community and share his life with suffering people. But he also urged Le Pichon to continue his work as a geophysicist. And so, pursuing these dual passions of science and spiritual community, Xavier Le Pichon continued to ponder the implications of the fragility that marks human life at its beginning, its end, and at places in between.

[music: “Lilla Kulturbidragsvalsen” by Väsen]

MS. TIPPETT: I think that also you draw analogies between how a whole community works, which is incorporating that fragility as part of its living being and even what you know about how the Earth works.

DR. LE PICHON: Yeah. It’s true that — I was very, very impressed by one of these things, which is the way earthquakes are fabricated, which is that in the lower layer of the Earth where the temperature is high, then the defaults that are within the rocks are activated, and the rocks are able to deform without fracture, become what we call ductile. They flow.


DR. LE PICHON: But when the temperature is low and cold — it’s cold like in the upper few miles of the Earth — then they are rigid. These weaknesses cannot be expressed. And as a result, the rocks are much more resistant, much more rigid, and they react by reaching their limit of resistance. And suddenly — bing — you have a major commotion and an earthquake.


DR. LE PICHON: And so the difference is that, in one case, the defaults play a role in putting weakness in that and making things much more smooth. And in the other case, it’s very rigid. And I find, in the society, it’s very often the same thing in the community. Communities which are very strong, very rigid, that do not take into account the weak points of the community, the people who are in difficulty and so on, tends to be communities that do not evolve. And when they evolve, it’s generally by a very strong commotion, a “revolution” I would call them in French.

MS. TIPPETT: Right, right. You make that distinction between systems that incorporate fragility and evolve, and then systems that become rigid and then need revolutions to move forward.

DR. LE PICHON: Yeah. Here is a very simple example that I have found time and time again and experienced myself. It’s a couple who gets its first child. The first child is extremely weak. He has no power, nothing. But he is really the boss in the house, you know?

MS. TIPPETT: [laughs] Right.

DR. LE PICHON: As soon as he cries, he asks for something — up. Everybody is at his service. Everything evolves around this new child. And it is the same thing when, in a family or community, you really are taking care with love of somebody who is sick or in the last stage of his life. Suddenly, everything turns around this person, and that is what extremely specific of man community.

Man communities have been built around two kinds of — I call them poles, centers. They have reorganized themselves around the small ones, the babies, because otherwise there is no life possible. So that we share with all the mammals. But also the people who are in great difficulty because of suffering, because of sickness, because of handicap, because life is coming to the end. And that’s really very new and special. It becomes a society which we call human.

MS. TIPPETT: Right. Right.

DR. LE PICHON: Humane, actually. In French we use the same word. But humane. It is different from an animal society. There is a new touch, a new kindness, a new softness, a new way of living which is completely introduced by the fact that you put the weakest in the center of the community. And they become the ones who are going to regulate the life of the society.

[music: “Opus 44” by Dustin O’Halloran]

MS. TIPPETT: I’m Krista Tippett, and this is On Being. Today, I’m with the geophysicist and spiritual thinker Xavier Le Pichon.

[music: “Opus 44” by Dustin O’Halloran]

MS. TIPPETT: As you’ve said, you’ve been a devout Catholic all your life. But it also seems to me, that these experiences that you’ve had – this experience of communities of compassion – that these experiences have formed and nuanced your faith in very concrete and very theological ways. I’d just like to talk about a little bit of that. In that same essay where you wrote about that child in Calcutta, you said you suddenly understood the incarnation. You understood Jesus on the cross saying, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”

DR. LE PICHON: Yeah. I think this is the mystery that Jesus has asked us to get into, which is the mystery of the neighbor who is suffering. He doesn’t give a direct clue about what’s going to happen. But he tells us, “Look, try. Try to go to them and to live with them and see what happens, how your life is going to be changed.” This is what I’ve been doing. And I’ve progressively discovered that this was the essence of his message — that God is mercy, and God can be found only in the measure in which you enter in this deep companionship with those that he loves best because they need him most, which are the people having deep suffering. So that has been the progressive discovery I made. And then I began to look into the history of man.


DR. LE PICHON: I found when you look at the history of man, as far as you go, you find that he had this extraordinary ability to empathize with the other. Otherwise, you cannot explain why a man from Neanderthal a hundred thousand years ago in Iraq was able to take care of a highly handicapped man in very difficult circumstances.

MS. TIPPETT: Right. We have evidence of that — don’t we — that surprised scientists?

DR. LE PICHON: Yeah. And this is coming more and more. In the beginning, they were saying it’s a fluke, a thing like that. But it’s skeletons of people who are so physically handicapped that these people — they were walking every day maybe five miles, 10 miles — they had to carry them on their back. They had to feed them. So how did they decide that, “No, we will not do like the animals, to leave them on the side, but we will change our life. We will change our community to put this guy in the center and to live with him.” And we know that it’s beyond 40 years of age, I mean, so it’s a very long time.

MS. TIPPETT: And that discovery contradicts a kind of a simplistic — I would say — simplified, straightforward Darwinian understanding of survival that would imagine that people who had no utility, who were weak, who would drag others down, would simply be left by the wayside. Is that right?

DR. LE PICHON: Right. I think there is now, among the scientists, a great effort to understand why man has really been able to go to cooperation and to helping the others. But the basic thing is not why man is helping the others, but I think it’s why man has this ability to empathize, to identify himself with the suffering person, which leads him, of course, after that to decide to help him, to share the life with him. This is what’s so unique about man.

And this is the experience that lots of very important people who have changed the evolution of humanity have made like Buddha, like Confucius, like Isaiah, and like Jesus, of course. They say, “What can we do about suffering? What can we do about the suffering person? What can I do about it?” That’s something extraordinary, and I think it is a basic — the basic human experience.

MS. TIPPETT: So, I want to clarify just before we go on that for you, as a deeply religious — and I’d say an orthodox religious — Catholic, “evolution” is not a word that is in contradiction at all with your faith. Right?

DR. LE PICHON: Not at all. No. I find that the thing that God obviously has given us is the faculty to evolve with the whole world. In other words, he gave us a creation which is not finalized, and we have in our hands the possibility to finalize it. And he shows us that everything is not arbitrary. It’s not something that — he created some species of animals, some species of plants, and so on once indefinitely. And he did it, and that’s it. No.

He puts the system in root, and he lets it evolve. He is there. He supports it, but he does not arbitrarily change the law all the time. It’s an understandable system. It’s a system that is given to us. And I find it extremely interesting and beautiful to discover how he has prepared all this possibility we have in us through the evolution.

MS. TIPPETT: And what I also find interesting in your work and your thought is that, at the same time, you ask some different questions of evolution than maybe someone looking at this idea of evolution from a strictly scientific point of view would ask. I mean, you’re very concerned as you’ve been talking about how we evolved into what we call human, humane.

And you’ve pointed out that we tend to tell the story of the evolution of humanity through tool-making capacities, and physiological evolution, but not the psychological factors. And you’ve spent a lot of time in this essay, “Ecce Homo,” writing about what we sometimes in English call the Axial Age, around the sixth century B.C.E., where you feel there was a real psychological, almost spiritual step forward. So tell a little bit of how you tell that story.

DR. LE PICHON: Well, I discovered after that — that was told to me by a Chinese philosopher that Karl Jaspers, the philosopher, had already talked about this extraordinary sixth century before Christ in which there has been summits of philosophy and religion, which were Buddha, Confucius, the second Isaiah, and so on. And I was immediately struck by the fact that this came after the Iron Age began to modify very deeply the culture of man and introduced the culture of terrible extermination war. So that was a terrible time.

MS. TIPPETT: You have power, and you have abuses of power.

DR. LE PICHON: Yes. Abuses of power and on a scale that we can barely imagine now.


DR. LE PICHON: And then you have these people coming up and saying, “Man is not that.” They say, “Man is not that.”

MS. TIPPETT: Right. You call them the prophets, these.

DR. LE PICHON: The prophets, yes. They are prophets. In other words, they are shouting a completely new message — “Look, you are not like that. Man is not like that.”


DR. LE PICHON: “This is not the explanation of man. Man can fight the harm, the difficulty, the suffering through tenderness, kindness, through companionship.” And this is the same message you find everywhere. What do you do with your suffering? What do you do with the suffering of the others?

MS. TIPPETT: That’s where I think your emphasis adds something because, as you say, Karl Jaspers has told this. Karen Armstrong wrote a book about the Axial Age. But what you’re pointing out is that Buddha, Confucius, second Isaiah, Lao-tzu — I mean, yes, this did give rise to new ideas of compassion and what it means to be human. But what they all saw and pondered is what you saw and pondered in Calcutta with that dying child, and that is the fact of suffering. It was facing suffering that led to that kind of breakthrough.

DR. LE PICHON: Again, it’s this remarkable capacity of man, of identifying himself with the person in front of him who is suffering that leads him to recognize that he’s like him, that he’s him. I like the word of Isaiah, “It’s my own flesh.”

MS. TIPPETT: Isaiah? Mm-hmm.

DR. LE PICHON: This person in front of me is my own flesh. This is the capacity of empathy. It changes the people. And that is the major experience that we have to explain, and I think biological sciences are going to look at that more and more.

MS. TIPPETT: It’s interesting — isn’t it — how biological sciences are looking at altruism and compassion and forgiveness?

DR. LE PICHON: Yes. Altruism is new.

MS. TIPPETT: Yes. [laughs]

DR. LE PICHON: But they work hard on that. And now I think they are going to move to compassion and to the capacity of empathy because otherwise they will not understand anything. We need to go beyond that. [laughs]

MS. TIPPETT: Let me ask you — this has been on my mind as I’ve been watching this development in science. So, I love this story about Dorothy Day, the Catholic social activist, that she experienced the San Francisco earthquake when she was 6 years old, and she saw what you’re describing, what happens after a catastrophe. She saw people pouring out to care for each other and to take care of each other, and she asked herself, “Why can’t we live this way all the time?” Life goes back to normal, at least on the surface.

DR. LE PICHON: Sure. Sure.

MS. TIPPETT: So do you have a sense of what happens when people actually do turn their lives over to this and make this normal? And do you have any sense from the sweep of your lifetime that maybe more people move in that direction?

DR. LE PICHON: That’s a very important question you’re asking, and this is one I’ve often asked myself. I’ve known some people that I’ve considered very generous, very open, and so on, and I’ve seen them progressively close themselves, begin to shut the doors, to be afraid of being invaded by this problem from the outside. And it’s as if their heart were shriveling. And why is that? I don’t know.

Others, you have the impression that they are always more and more open. I’ve known some extraordinary people. I met Mother Teresa, I’ve known Jean Vanier, Father Thomas Philippe, and so on, who are people who have this extraordinary capacity to enter into a relationship with people always open and in a relationship in which they immediately join the part which is most hidden and hurt in them. They have this capacity to enter into this new life, and it seems to deepen and deepen with time. It’s as if you had two different ways. Now, for most of the people, it’s something in between.


DR. LE PICHON: You have this kind of big awakenings when the big catastrophe happens, either a collective one like a war or major accident, but it can be also a tragedy inside the family, not just outside. And they may react in a way that you cannot predict. Sometimes it’s very bad. Sometimes it opens them up. So it’s something difficult. But my experience is that, once you enter into this way of — I would call it companionship, walking with the suffering person that has come into your life and that you have not rejected, then your heart progressively gets educated by them. They teach you a new way of being.

MS. TIPPETT: Right. Your heart gets educated. I like that.

DR. LE PICHON: Yes. We have to be educated by the other. Our heart cannot be educated by yourself. I mean, my heart cannot be educated by myself.

MS. TIPPETT: Right, right.

DR. LE PICHON: It can only come out of relationship with others. And if we accept to be educated by the others, to let the other explain to us what happens to them, how they feel, which is completely different from what we feel, and to let yourself immerse into their world so that they can get into our world, then you begin to share something which is very deep.

You will never be the person in front of you, but you will have created what we call communion, the capacity to share at a very deep level. And I feel that that is the essence of life, and that’s what Jesus came to teach us. Learn how to enter into communion with your neighbors – the way he called it, neighbors. And then you will discover something completely new.

[music: “Soulmate” by Chris Beaty]

MS. TIPPETT: You can listen again and share this conversation with Xavier Le Pichon on our website, onbeing.org. There, you can also read his essay “Ecce Homo.”

I’m Krista Tippett. On Being continues in a moment.

[music: “Soulmate” by Chris Beaty]

MS. TIPPETT: I’m Krista Tippett, and this is On Being. Today, with geophysicist and spiritual thinker Xavier Le Pichon. He helped create the field of plate tectonics. He and his wife raised their family in intentional spiritual communities centered around people with mental disabilities. In recent years, he’s pursued his interests in religion, the history of ideas, and the life sciences together with his knowledge of frailty and flaws as essential elements in living geological systems. Xavier Le Pichon has come to think of caring attention to weakness in ourselves and in others as an essential quality that allowed humanity to evolve.

MS. TIPPETT: I feel that maybe because of your scientific knowledge as well as your faith, your understanding of the human spirit and of the soul is kind of an evolutionary understanding. I was struck by these lines that you wrote: “Our humanity is not an attribute that we have received once and forever with our conception. It is a potentiality that we have to discover within us and progressively develop or destroy through our confrontation with the different experiences of suffering that will meet us through our life.”

DR. LE PICHON: Yes. That is definitely something I believe very strongly. We have been born with a certain capacity to do things and, in particular, to develop our humanity, the capacity to interact with the others in a loving way. But this is a potential. It’s not something which is given to us. It’s a possibility we have. And that’s how we progressively change.

And I think it’s the same thing for the society. I think it has been the same thing for the humanity. The humanity doesn’t have the humanity acquired once and for all. It has to build it, and the confrontation that humanity has with the problems that come at all ages forces invention of a new answer. For example, in our age, one of the obvious new difficulties we are dealing with is extreme age, the very old age.

MS. TIPPETT: Right, right.

DR. LE PICHON: The fact that we have these millions of people who are in the “fourth age,” we call them.

MS. TIPPETT: We live much longer.

DR. LE PICHON: Which is terrible suffering for many of them.


DR. LE PICHON: My mother died of Alzheimer’s disease, and I could see what the suffering was. And that requires from us to invent a new way to deal with this person, with the suffering, to make their life possible, humane. And at each age, you have new challenges, and you have to face them. And this is how we build the humanity. The humanity is given to us at the possibility at old age, at each birth, and it has to be constructed. It has to be built. It is hard work. It is very difficult work.

MS. TIPPETT: Right. It is hard work because what you have now, also, is this phenomenon of people — in the U.S., they call them the “Sandwich Generation,” people who are at one and the same time raising their own children, who need them because of their youth, and then taking care of their aging parents who may have Alzheimer’s disease, may have any number of frailties. And they’re also the caregivers caught in the middle for whom these are hard experiences.

DR. LE PICHON: This is true. But at the same time, this comes from, I think, a biased way of looking at what are human people.


DR. LE PICHON: Human people are not adults in full possession of their means. Human people — it starts with babies, it continues with growing people, it continues with adults, it continues with older people, and with great age, and people who die. All of that is part of humanity, and humanity is not complete if you have some of these parts out.

And the way to build the society is the way to integrate these people in a way in which they can interact and each of them can find out that they have their place, that their life has a meaning, that they are needed by the others. So often I have found, for example, among very old people that they have the impression that they are not useful anymore. Nobody needs them. And then they want to go. They want to go. So there is this problem that the society cannot live by itself if it doesn’t recognize that it’s heterogeneous and highly diverse.


DR. LE PICHON: And that the weakest have to get their place in there.

MS. TIPPETT: It would be possible to look around the world today, especially as we are all reeling from the uncertainty of our economic situation and to worry that it’s precisely the weak among us who are going to suffer just because of budget cuts. Right?


MS. TIPPETT: And people having to reel in their energies. I mean, do you despair, given this wisdom that I think you have about how we as human societies and human beings stay most alive by being very vitally present to suffering?

DR. LE PICHON: I remember when I was in the concentration camp. I was eight at the time. And life was hard. All the babies were dying of hunger, and we were together. We were the center of life. We were continuously present with our parents, uncles, and so on, and that is not a bad memory for me.


DR. LE PICHON: Because I think, even under stress, if you find a way to create a community which makes sense to your life, then it becomes extremely important. My mother was a very strong woman. And one day we got a message from the Japanese governor of the camp, and he let us know that he will shoot most of the people the next day. And my mother said, “Well, I don’t know what’s going to happen tomorrow, but today you have to learn your lessons. So come on.” [laughs]

MS. TIPPETT: [laughs] Right.

DR. LE PICHON: You see? This way of living the day as the present instant is something very important that you live together, that you share, and you can enter then in communion, which makes very often at times of hardship or stress. And some people say after, “We discovered, at this time, things that we had not discovered elsewhere.” So difficulties are here, yes, and I think it makes sense for somebody like me that believes in God that the difficulties are larger now than they were maybe two, three centuries ago for the challenge for the whole humanity.

MS. TIPPETT: Right. Why does that make sense to you?

DR. LE PICHON: Because we have much more possibilities.


DR. LE PICHON: Science and technology have given us the possibility to really answer to these challenges. This is the first time in the history of humanity that humanity has to make collective decisions like for the climate, the energy, and so on. This is the first time.


DR. LE PICHON: It’s never happened before.


DR. LE PICHON: It’s an extraordinary thing. Humanity is discovering for the first time that it is a people.


DR. LE PICHON: And that they have the power of decision in their future. It’s as if the humanity had been educated by God to arrive at a stage where it can now really take its future into its hand and decide what’s going to happen now. It’s like a child. The Neolithic and the Paleolithic were children, really. They were just struggling along. They had no vision at all for the future. They had no vision for what’s going to happen to the Earth and so on.

But now we have this vision. We have the possibility to interact with our environment. We have the possibility to make the decision to change everything. What it will be, what they will do, I don’t know. The answer can be wrong. The answer can be bad. But I think it’s a very important new step in the history of humanity.

[music: “Sexfaldur” by Amiina]

MS. TIPPETT: I’m Krista Tippett, and this is On Being. Today, I’m talking with Xavier Le Pichon. He’s a pioneer in the field of plate tectonics. And he’s also spent over three decades living in intentional communities centered around people with disabilities and mental illness.

[music: “Sexfaldur” by Amiina]

MS. TIPPETT: So I wonder how you do respond to the theodicy question because, as you said, we don’t know how many of these crises of our time will be resolved, but we know that many bad things will happen alongside good things. Right? [laughs] I mean, Einstein said that technology in his generation was like a razor blade in the hand of a three-year-old. And there’s a lot that happens with technology. I mean, we have bigger weapons now. So how do you respond to people who say the fact of all this suffering, of the huge dark side of our potentiality, really calls into question the idea that there could be a good God behind the universe?

DR. LE PICHON: I think this a very childish conception of God. God is somebody who is really in front of us very weak. He loves us. The more you love somebody, the weakest you are with this person. Because you can be hurt by her, and you don’t want to force her to do something. You want her to do it from his own willingness. That is the attitude of God with us. And we have the proof of that, for us Christians who believe in Jesus is that the way he has sent his son to save us, he did not send a strong man with legions of angels and so on. He sent somebody who told us, “You have the potential to change the world, but I’m not going to force you. It’s up to you to decide. It’s up to you to act.” So it’s exactly the position taken by somebody like Buddha, really.

MS. TIPPETT: Right. Right.

DR. LE PICHON: You can change the world, but it’s up to you. God is a mystery, but He can be discovered only through the weak, the fragile, the part of us, and around us. And then we discover that this has a power of transformation of the world. Not through very strong armies, or rockets, or whatever that is.

MS. TIPPETT: I was excited to interview you. I’ve been fascinated with plate tectonics, actually.


MS. TIPPETT: Because I hear that informing your theology all the way through. Do you remember — there was the terrible tsunami a few years ago in Indonesia.

DR. LE PICHON: Of course. Indonesia. I worked on that quite a lot, yeah.

MS. TIPPETT: And Sri Lanka. And I interviewed a geologist named Jelle de Boer. Do you know him? He’s Dutch.

DR. LE PICHON: Yeah. Yeah.

MS. TIPPETT: When something like that happens that was so catastrophic, so many people died, this question is raised of this magnitude of suffering and this, “Where is God?” question. And somehow, this Jelle de Boer, he talked about how with a long view of time and nature, that plate tectonics are what make life possible. [laughs] And restore life over time.

He said life is directly dependent on these geological processes, that we don’t know that other planets have this type of plate tectonics or these extensive oceans, and that’s probably why there may not be life there. He said — here — we are lucky. “We’re lucky because of these processes where the plates separate and crack and where they run over each and crack. And as a consequence of that, magmas form at deep levels in the Earth. They are brought to the surface, and they bring not only nutrients, but also water. And that is the essence of life.” I mean, it’s this long view of life.

DR. LE PICHON: Yes. This is perfectly true, but if, for example, I look at the controversy between Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Voltaire immediately after the Lisbon earthquake. Voltaire said, “How can that be a good God that is letting these hundreds of thousands of people being killed by the earthquake?” and so on. And the answer of Rousseau was, “Look, God created them as people living in the forest and so on. And if they had still been living in the forest instead of building huge buildings in which they lived, there would have been barely anybody killed.”


DR. LE PICHON: So it’s the way man has chosen to live that is creating that. At the present time, we have, for example, half of the mega-poles, there’s more than 10 million people who are close to plate boundaries. And we have chosen to put them there. When I was an associate professor in Tokyo University, it was at the time of the Kobe earthquake. They had a big discussion about should we move Tokyo? It’s a very dangerous place.

MS. TIPPETT: [laughs] Right.

DR. LE PICHON: It was a very serious discussion. Should we move it to the west? It’s true. They put it in one of the most dangerous places that is. That is the challenge of humanity. We are now 6 billion and a half people, and clearly without science and technology, we cannot live anymore. I mean, science and technology is essential. But at the same time, we have chosen certain ways of life in which we did not have time yet to test our reaction to the environment. And we have this problem to deal with — how are we going to tackle the problem of completely new implementations which are not environment tested? That’s one of the big challenges of the future.

MS. TIPPETT: My last question — I was reading your essay in a book on the history of plate tectonics, and you finished your essay saying that you recall a colleague saying to you that nevermore in our life will we be able to contribute to such a decisive and exciting discovery.


MS. TIPPETT: And you talked about the extraordinary feeling of what you lived through of actually being involved in a revolution, a mutation of the whole of Earth sciences. And I want to kind of come back to a question that we’ve skirted around. These passions that have consumed at least as much of the rest of your life after all those discoveries about humanity and suffering, how do you think about the effect, the success, the impact of that kind of energy that you’ve spent in these other decades of your life with other human beings?

DR. LE PICHON: Well, I’ve always, in my life, had this love of God, love of my family, love of the world, of the Earth, of the universe.


DR. LE PICHON: And I then discovered later on the love of the suffering people, which I found could not be separated from the love of God. Actually, I could not go to God unless I went through these people. And all this seems, in a sense, incompatible. Somebody once asked me, “How do you maintain unity in your life? Aren’t you schizophrenic?”

MS. TIPPETT: [laughs]

DR. LE PICHON: [laughs] And my answer was, “It’s through prayer. I spend a lot of time in prayer.” I pray at least one or two hours a day. And it is through the prayer of God that unity can be put into this extremely different field. I think it’s the power of God that, when you ask him, he lets you unify things that apparently cannot be unified.

For example, when I was in Calcutta, and I spent this month and a half with the people of the slums and so on, I found out this extraordinary way of belonging to them. I was accepted by them. They loved me. They treated me as one of them. And I discovered their suffering, of course, but also the immense joy capacity of relationship that was in there.


DR. LE PICHON: So there is a treasure hidden in each of the communities, in each of the societies that is not possible to access unless you immerse yourself in it. And we have a tendency to see all of that through the point of view of our occidental cultures.

MS. TIPPETT: Right. Right.

DR. LE PICHON: We don’t realize that there are treasures everywhere in this life that we consider a rotten life, life that has no possibilities.

MS. TIPPETT: That’s flawed.

DR. LE PICHON: Yeah. This is something that has to be recognized, that life has an extreme diversity. And this diversity is its richness.

[music: “We Always Think There Is Going to Be More Time…” by The End of the Ocean]

MS. TIPPETT: Xavier Le Pichon is Honorary Professor at Collège de France in Paris. He founded La Maison Thomas Philippe that provides retreats for families, including those struggling with mental illness.

[music: “We Always Think There Is Going to Be More Time…” by The End of the Ocean]

STAFF: On Being is Trent Gilliss, Chris Heagle, Lily Percy, Mariah Helgeson, Maia Tarrell, Annie Parsons, Marie Sambilay, Aseel Zahran, Bethanie Kloecker, Selena Carlson, Dupe Oyebolu, and Ariana Nedelman.

MS. TIPPETT: On Being was created at American Public Media. Our funding partners are:

The John Templeton Foundation.

The Ford Foundation, working with visionaries on the frontlines of social change worldwide at fordfoundation.org.

The Fetzer Institute, helping to build a spiritual foundation for a loving world. Find them at fetzer.org.

Kalliopeia Foundation, working to create a future where universal spiritual values form the foundation of how we care for our common home.

The Henry Luce Foundation, in support of Public Theology Reimagined.

And the Osprey Foundation, a catalyst for empowered, healthy, and fulfilled lives.

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