A visionary who sought to reconcile science, Christianity

In his efforts to tie ecological concerns to the theology and practice of the church, Benedict XVI recently made the following statement concerning the letter to the Romans’ assertion that the world itself is intimately tied to humanity’s worship of God: “It’s the great vision that later Teilhard de Chardin also had: At the end we will have a truly cosmic liturgy, where the cosmos becomes a living host” (July 24 Vespers). 

While some commentators were surprised at the allusion and possible “rehabilitation” of Teilhard (whose work the Vatican declared “contained ambiguities” in statements of 1962 and 1981), this is not the first time the pope has positively referenced the French Jesuit. Then-Cardinal Ratzinger’s books “The Spirit of the Liturgy” (28-9), “Introduction to Christianity” (85, 236-8), and “Principles of Catholic Theology” (334) all acknowledge the importance and prescience of Teilhardian thought, recognizing its potentially fruitful contribution to Catholic dialogue with the sciences.

Pierre Teilhard de Chardin (1881-1955) is largely considered a visionary and contemporary Renaissance-man, fluent in the widely varied fields of paleontology, geology, biology, physics, chemistry, theology, and philosophy. The bulk of his work centers on reconciling the natural sciences, and especially evolution theory, with Christian doctrine. 

In his view, creation follows an evolutionary trajectory, moving from inanimate matter through primitive life-forms, and on to plants, animals and human beings. When the development reaches humanity a first threshold of consciousness is crossed; matter becomes self-reflective. Human beings are able to become, in the words of the Jewish theologian Abraham Heschel, “cantors of the universe,” singing the glories of creation. However, this is not the termination of the progression. 

Teilhard views humanity as moving toward an even greater and transcendent culmination in consciousness, what he calls the “Omega Point.” For the devoutly Christian Teilhard, this point is the cosmic Christ himself, the Alpha and Omega which not only draws history to its apex, but as the Word “through whom all things were made” causes its unfolding.   

His sweeping Christological vision is elucidated in a prayer composed in 1961: “Glorious Lord Christ: the divine influence secretly diffused and active in the depths of matter, and the dazzling centre where all the innumerable fibres of the manifold meet; power as implacable as the world and as warm as life; you whose forehead is of the whiteness of snow, whose eyes are of fire, and whose feet are brighter than molten gold; you whose hands imprison the stars; you who are the first and the last, the living and the dead and the risen again; you who gather into your exuberant unity every beauty, every affinity, every energy, every mode of existence; it is you to whom my being cried out with a desire as vast as the universe, ‘In truth you are my Lord and my God.’”

Teilhard was involved in some of the most interesting paleontological events of the 20th century.  He was present at the unearthing of archeological fossils in numerous sites, including those of the Piltdown Man (later discovered to be a hoax perpetrated by Charles Dawson) and the legitimate Peking Man, which supported the scientific argument for evolution.

Teilhard scholars Louis Savary and Patricia Berne claim, “Teilhard’s evolutionism earned him the distrust of his religious superiors, while his religious mysticism made scientific circles suspicious; but despite much opposition — or perhaps because of it — there was an unusually broad popular response to his work after its posthumous publication. The interest may be explained by his boldly anthropocentric, and somewhat mystical, understanding of the cosmos: humanity for him is the axis of the cosmic flow, the key of the universe.”

Although Teilhard died on Easter Sunday, 1955, those committed to dialogue between religion and the sciences continue to turn to his work for insight.  The exponential growth in technology and globalization in recent decades has mandated such conversation. As Pope Benedict said in his latest encyclical, it is problematic when “too much attention is given to the ‘how’ questions, and not enough to the many ‘why’ questions underlying human activity” (Caritas in Veritate, 70). 

Perhaps such sentiments and a waxing dedication to metaphysical inquiry into scientific development manifest the fact that Teilhard’s thought is once again rising in prominence. His work could very possibly contribute to the pope’s call for “faith, theology, metaphysics and science to come together in a collaborative effort in the service of humanity” (Caritas in Veritate, 30).

Dr. John Grim of Yale University is president of the American Teilhard Society. Information is available at ReligionAndEcology.org and TeilhardForBeginners.com.

Michael M. Canaris of Collingswood is a Ph.D. candidate in systematic theology at Fordham University

Categories: Growing in Faith

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