In high school, being a somewhat sanctimonious little shit and having become entranced by the romance of archeology, I naturally stumbled over the career of Teilhard de Chardin, a Jesuit whose works challenged some of the more orthodox views of the Catholic Church. He was particularly interested in the interaction and synergistic relationship of the spiritual with matter. Reviewers of other books about Teilhard have suggested it was his interest in evolution that pissed off the church; I think it was his forays into theology that resulted in his periodic exile.
While fascinating, this overly hagiographic biography stumbles frequently into adoration. The author — founding member of the Teilhard Centre in London — is a woman, perhaps significant, given the importance of several women to Pere Teilhard during his life. With Lucile, for example, he conducted a twenty-year correspondence that reflected his desire to help her spiritually, yet “at another level these most personal, most intimate letters speak of a depth and intensity of love as never before in Teilhard’s life.” Hmmmm. Lucile for her part, “longed for a fuller giving, a complete union, not only spiritual love and friendship. . .” Teilhard’s letters in response to her longing suggest he never succumbed. Well, maybe.
As a child growing up in the Auvergne, he had always sought treasures “that were incorruptible and would last.” He remembered years later being devastated when his mother threw some curls she had cut of his hair into the fire, and he saw them consumed. He had learned he was perishable. He began collecting things he thought would last — rocks replacing metal when he saw how iron would rust away.
This epiphany led to a lifelong passion for fossils. It’s the more striking then that the war would not affect him more. . . In fact, his war essays contained the seeds of most of his more fully ideas that came later. They did seek a reinterpretation of Christianity, “the need for a new image of God, the quest for a practically engaged spirituality appropriate to the needs of a contemporary world.” His vision of mankind as one, “sharing a common origin and destiny in spite of all its diversity and diversions.”
His vision of mankind as universal and one was a pervasive strain running through his thought and writings. That his writing was continually suppressed and prevented from being published by his Catholic superiors is understandable but troubling to me who sees no need for orthodoxy. (More evidence of the hagiographic nature of the book is that the Index (the Catholic list of prohibited books) does not appear in the book’s index, despite its mention in several places.)
I have often been accused of an optimistic outlook on things, indeed, making candy out of excrement, so to speak, but Teilhard makes me look like a piker. In China, doing fossil research, amidst the Japanese atrocities in China and seeing extraordinary extremes of hunger and
poverty, he managed to “maintain such an attitude of hope and deep belief in the future of humanity.”
The Phenomenon of Man, perhaps his summative work, was finished after his return to China in 1940 following a sojourn in France and America. In it he attempts to answer the question of the significance “of the human being within the vast cosmic process of evolution.” A copy finally made its way to Rome in 1945, and he was disappointed to hear that permission to publish had been withheld. The book “demonstrates how the rise of evolution is an immense movement through time from the development of the atom to the molecule and cell to different forms of life and to human beings with greater diversity. This movement exemplifies how the development of ever greater structural complexity leads in turn to an ever greater ‘within’ of things, and increase in consciousness and reflection.” The ultimate result of the development of a more collective human consciousness is the appearance of a “super-consciousness” and “ultra-human,” which he calls the “Omega point,” i.e., God.
Even Teilhard was not immune to doubt, and he wrote toward the end of his life: “How is it, then, that as I look around me, still dazzled by
what I have seen, I find that I am almost the only person of my kind [what did he mean by kind, here? Priest or human?:], the only one to
have seen? . . . How, most of all, can it be that ‘when I come down from the mountain’ and in spite of the glorious vision I still retain, I find that I am so little a better man, so little at peace, so incapable of expressing my actions, and thus adequately communicating to others, the wonderful unity that I feel encompassing me? Is there, in fact, a Universal Christ, is there a Divine Milieu? Or am I, after all, simply the dupe of a mirage in my own mind? I often ask myself that question.” To which I might respond, does it really matter?
Teilhard was a fascinating man who was clearly dedicated to his beliefs and the Church. Despite the book's adulatory nature, one senses the inner turmoil and struggle faced by Teilhard as he sought to make sense out of the universe.