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Teilhard de Chardin and His Relevance for Today
published in Woodstock Report No. 82, June 2005
On Easter Day in 1955, a French Jesuit priest and paleontologist died suddenly of a heart attack in New York City, an obscure death following a fairly obscure life - as far as the general public was concerned. Within just a few years, Pierre Teilhard de Chardin was celebrated within the church he served and the world he loved. And, 50 years after his final diminishment (a word that he used creatively in connection with ultimate communion with Christ), Teilhard remains an undiminished figure of intellectual and spiritual life within Catholicism and beyond.
At Georgetown University on April 11, Woodstock joined with three other organizations in hosting a day of reflections on Teilhard's contributions to both theology and science. That evening, the Woodstock Forum drew a standing-room-only crowd of more than 350 people who heard presentations on Teilhard's legacy.
"Teilhard ultimately had a very big influence in the last century," said James F. Salmon, S.J., a Woodstock senior fellow and professor of chemistry - and theology - at Loyola College in Maryland. He moderated the forum, attended by, among others, at least 100 members of the French Teilhard Association who had traveled to the United States for commemorations in New York in addition to the Georgetown events.
Father Salmon was alluding in part to Teilhard's largely unrecognized role in helping to define the mission of the United Nations. As it turns out, though little known outside of scientific circles, Teilhard's unpublished thoughts and personal contacts had inspired a few early architects of the international body, helping them to achieve a global vision.
"Faith and science [must] converge. Science will not come to the feet of a theologian." -- Teilhard de Chardin
And then there was Teilhard's impact on the Catholic Church, whose leaders had largely suppressed his theological and philosophical ruminations during his lifetime. After his death, friends in Paris began publishing volumes of his thoughts; his classic works The Divine Milieu and The Phenomenon of Man made him a symbol of renewal during the build up to the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965).
There were distinct echoes of those writings in the Council's 1965 document, Gaudium et Spes, which defined the Church's opening to the modern world and spoke in Teilhardian terms of scientists being led in their secular work by Christ the Omega, "the goal of human history." Thomas M. King, S.J., a Georgetown theologian who organized the day portion of the April 11 gatherings, cited this and other links between the Jesuit's thoughts and what became part of official Catholic teaching at Vatican II.
More recently, Teilhard's insights into the organic connections between spirit and matter, earth and consciousness, have materialized in several converging areas of contemporary discussion. These include science and religion, ecology and spirituality, and the globalization of many things.
Sponsors of the daytime conference - all with overflowing audiences - included Georgetown College and Georgetown's Jesuit community, together with Woodstock and Cosmos and Creation, an organization at Loyola College co-founded and co-directed by Father Salmon. The evening Woodstock Forum included presentations by Nicole Schmitz-Moormann, a Woodstock fellow who has engaged in a lifelong task of deciphering and transcribing unpublished writings by Teilhard; former U.S. Senator Harris L. Wofford; and Lutheran theologian Philip Hefner. What follows are some highpoints of those remarks as well as the question-and-answer segment.
A Vast Legacy
"Teilhard's literary legacy is vast," said Nicole Schmitz- Moormann, who edited Teilhard's key scientific works with her late husband, Karl, one of the world's leading scholars of the Jesuit's thought.
For one thing, approximately 200 people are known to have received his extant personal and professional letters, correspondence spanning several decades. His journal consists of 1,700 pages, not including missing entries between 1925 and 1944, covering his years spent in a sort of Jesuit exile in China.
"It is quite significant that Pierre Teilhard's letters have been treasured and kept by those to whom he wrote through the years. He did not keep the letters addressed to him, but in some cases, thanks to recipients who made carbons of their own letters, we have the back and forth of the exchanges," she noted in her opening presentation at the Woodstock Forum, held in Georgetown's Bunn Intercultural Center Auditorium. "The contents of personal letters addressed to acquaintances and friends reveal his thoughtfulness, his openness to diverse opinions, religions, and races, his apparently endless patience to explain. His correspondence shows clearly that he was not on a preaching mission."
Schmitz-Moormann pointed to examples of how Teilhard's intimate thoughts in personal letters reflected the development of his ideas. She cited his correspondence with New York artist Lucile Swan, with whom he shared a special friendship. In those exchanges, "We can study the meaning and the influence of la feminine (the feminine) in his own life as well as his understanding of love and chastity."
To Swan, he wrote in 1936: "If you do not find me as you would like, the reason is the presence of God whom I love as a person and to whom I have given the final activity of my life." About himself, he wrote in the same letter, "I am not a preacher but a desperate searcher."
Teilhard made this provocative comment in an April 1950 letter to another correspondent, Jean Martier. "I am a child of the earth before being a man of God," he wrote. " . I only can scratch the divine for the cosmic. If you do not see that, you will never understand me."
That comment - about being the earth's child before God's - could easily be misinterpreted. Part of his point was that activity in the so-called secular world is the gateway to God. As he wrote in 1944, "Science leads to the divine. It is a modern access to the divine."
While penning The Phenomenon of Man more than a decade before it was able to see the light of publication, Teilhard voiced a conviction about the ultimate power of ideas. "There is very little chance that my book will escape the Roman censor. The essential thing is that the ideas make their way. And they do make their way," he wrote to Swan in 1947.
Schmitz-Moormann also spoke about what she referred to as Teilhard's "so-called journals," which she has painstakingly deciphered and transcribed over the past few years.
"Teilhard's literary legacy is vast." -- Nicole Schmitz-Moormann
"In fact, Pierre Teilhard did not use the word 'journal' for the schoolbooks which he used to write down and develop ideas and concepts. He simply referred to them as cahiers, the French word for journals or schoolbooks" (that is, composition books or notebooks), she explained. "No intimate reflections are found in the journals, but his state of mind, births, and development of his thoughts are present." Indeed, Schmitz-Moormann believes the journals are key to understanding Teilhard's legacy. They at least give a taste of how the priest understood his intellectual vocation. "I will continue to do sciences so to influence others and to live personally the transition of cosmos into Christ," he vowed in his journal, in March 1919.
In light of the recent wave of interest in mutual dialogue between science and religion, another journal entry in August 1921 appears nothing less than prophetic: "An accord between faith and science is certain, provided both converge. Science will not come to the feet of a theologian."
On the subject of love, Schmitz-Moormann quoted a March 1916 entry in which Teilhard wrote, "For a man, God must be loved through a woman in using her." Those words express his view that an understanding of the feminine is key to understanding God, who is neither male nor female. Schmitz-Moormann commented, "This statement is so strong, almost disturbing, that we feel the need for a complementary explanation." She added that such a clarification (especially of "using her") is to be found in his October 1919 reflection, where he writes of his ideal "to seek after the feminine in a woman without destroying her and without being absorbed by her." Teilhard had many deep Platonic friendships with women, from which he drew insights about knowing and loving God.
As Schmitz-Moormann observed, Teilhard's name has been linked in recent years with discussions of globalization as well as pluralism. Teilhard himself spoke of "planetization," the sundry forces that are pulling people and cultures together. And beyond this, one would need a Teilhardian glossary of terms to keep track of his distinctions, a sort of lexicon that the Jesuit himself planned but never finished.
"Planetization is a phase in noogenesis," she quotes him as noting (noogenesis referring to the origins of conscious reflection). "Planetization has begun with hominization" (which Teilhard saw as the evolutionary leap beyond the animal biosphere, into the sphere of reflection) "and it is the final phase of hominization."
Safe to say that in mapping out this global convergence of human cultures and religions, Pierre Teilhard de Chardin was visualizing a world of dialogue decades beyond his own world.
Teilhard on the Stump
"I was ready for Teilhard," said Harris Wofford, a lawyer and scholar who served as a Democratic member of the U.S. Senate from 1991 to 1994. He was speaking of the 1950s, when doors seem to be opening everywhere, for him and for people like his stepmother. She was ordained a minister at age 50, in 1959, and his family gathered for her memorial service on the morning of the April 11 forum at Georgetown.
"It was Teilhard's vision that knit together in one comprehensible whole, not only a view of the world and human destiny, but a view of the ever-expanding universe of universes, the existence we were all trying to comprehend," recalled Wofford.
"Teilhard's vision tells us to hurry up, to find the ways and means to harness the energies of love." -- Harris Wofford
During the presidential campaign of 1960 and for some years afterward, Wofford worked with Sargent Shriver, the brother-in-law of President John F. Kennedy who founded the Peace Corps and spearheaded the War on Poverty during the Kennedy administration. Shriver was another fan of Teilhard, and Wofford told of how Teilhard's message stayed with Shriver through the 1960s and rang out at the 1972 Democratic national convention.
As he recounted: "On nights when we worked late into the morning hours, I often found myself in Shriver's suite at the Mayflower Hotel or in some hotel traveling to another country. Each night before he turned out the lights, he would sit and read for a while, usually a book of spiritual import, and very often it was Teilhard de Chardin. And when he finished, he would sometimes pass the book over to me. And then in the morning, he was up promptly to go to Mass, and I had no way to escape that, and greatly benefited by it.
"Then in the presidential campaign of 1972, after George McGovern asked him to become his running mate, I was helping Sarge work on his acceptance speech. He was late, as sometimes happens - the motorcade to go to downtown here in Washington to the special convention to nominate him to hear his acceptance speech was revving up. Sarge was still unsatisfied with the end. 'I know how I want to end!' he suddenly proclaimed. 'It's Teilhard de Chardin. I'm going to find that quote. It's on a plaque in a pile upstairs.' We physically tried to stop him, but he bounded out and in two minutes was back with the plaque. So he ended his address with these words of Teilhard that brought the quite electrified delegates to their feet: 'The day will come when, after harnessing the winds, the tides, and gravitation, we shall harness for God the energies of love. And on that day, for the second time in this history of the world, man will have discovered fire.'
"Those who were there that day have not forgotten, I suspect, the fire with which Shriver delivered those words about fire. And they became the theme of his campaign, as those who love Sargent Shriver know those words are the theme of his life. He practiced what Teilhard preached as he went to help his wife Eunice and his son Tim spread Special Olympics to the far corners of the world."
Wofford added that those and other words of Teilhard played a significant part in what he described as "my own little journey" from the Anglican Episcopal Church of his father to the wider Catholic Church of Teilhard. At the same time, the former senator made it clear that - as a follower of Mohandas Gandhi and Martin Luther King and their advocacy of civil disobedience - when it comes to fundamental matters of conscience, he would have some close questions to ask of Teilhard. "I find it very hard to fathom the faith he must have had to accept the public silencing of his most important thoughts. But I respect his agonizing decision to choose what he probably viewed as divine obedience," said Wofford, who served as a special assistant to President Kennedy, coordinating civil rights policy for the White House.
What does Teilhard's vision have to say to politics today, to worldwide poverty, including poverty of the spirit, to the suffering brought on by various forms of violence, from street crime to terrorism to war? Wofford posed this question and answered: "Teilhard's vision tells us to hurry up, to find the ways and means to harness the energies of love, to do in the political world what scientists did with the physical atom, to crack the atom of civic power, to start a chain reaction of constructive force that will answer those burning questions. As John Kennedy said, 'Man now holds in his hand the power to end all poverty on earth and to end all human life on this planet. And God's work on earth must be our own.'"
Wofford concluded by linking the literary with the political. He says Teilhard's grandest metaphors always had "something to do with fire - the fire that will blaze forth when we do discover how to harness the power of love for the unity of man.
"The poet in him is to restore in the world of politics and religion the heat and the light needed for that old idea of creative fire. So we must hope that the sparks that his words send out will one day catch fire in the dry tinder of our times."
The Eucharistic Milieu
In his presentation, Philip Hefner delved deeply into an essay that Teilhard wrote 80 years ago in China, titled "My Universe." In it, he wrote, "The mystical milieu is a flesh. For it has all the properties the flesh has, of palpitable domination and limitless embrace." Hefner, who edits Zygon: Journal of Religion and Science, sees poetry in the text. But what makes the text really stand out, in his view, is the Eucharistic image. In this connection, Teilhard drew on Gregory of Nyssa, who wrote: "The bread of the Eucharist is stronger than our flesh. That is why it is the bread that assimilates us and not we the bread when we receive it."
Hefner reflected on the power of that image: the bread that is Christ's body, consuming us. "And of course, we know that Teilhard considered the entire created world to be the Eucharist host," said Hefner, professor emeritus of systematic theology at the Lutheran School of Theology in Chicago. This means the Eucharist has physical extensions, beyond the visible wafer.
He let Teilhard speak for himself about this Eucharistic milieu. "Since Christ is above all Omega, i.e., the universal form of the world, he can attain his organic balance and plenitude only by mystically assimilating all that surrounds him." And: "The host is like a blazing hearth from which flames spread their radiance, just as the spark that falls into the heather is soon surrounded by a wide circle of fire." ("Here's fire," Hefner interjected.) Continues Teilhard: "So the sacramental host of bread is continually being encircled more closely by another infinitely larger host, which is nothing less than the universe itself. The world is the final and the real . the final and the real host into which Christ gradually descends until his time is fulfilled."
In these meditations, Teilhard was catching nothing less than the rhythm of life, as Hefner sees it. "We work actively, extending our energies to the utmost and we are also acted upon, drawn into the processes of the world, and therefore the processes of God. We receive the gracious pull of God through the push of our own actions. We take the bread and the wine in the sacrament and we consume them, but we do so within the larger rhythm in which we ourselves are consumed by the blazing flames of the host itself, which is the world and which is Christ."
These mystical images also throw light on the Teilhardian view of science and the process of evolution. As Hefner explained, evolution, in Teilhard's thought, is all about Christ and the emergence of Christ in the universe. Teilhard had this to say in his essay: "All around us, Christ is physically active in order to control all things - from the ultimate vibration of the atom to the loftiest mystical contemplation. From the lightest breeze that ruffles the air to the broadest currents of life and thought. He ceaselessly animates without disturbing all the world's processes. And in return, Christ gains physically from every one of them. Everything that is good in the universe is gathered up by the Incarnate Word as a nourishment that it assimilates, transforms, and divinizes."
Here we have Teilhard's vision of nature, which reveals God and the workings of Christ. And since the sciences focus on nature, they represent knowledge of God's ways, Hefner commented. Referring to Teilhard's theory of "complexity consciousness," he added, "His spiritual vision compelled him to recognize that this was not only a theory of evolution, but it was a theory of God, a theory of God's way of working. In this essay, he uses the term 'creative union.' And we know how fully he appreciated matter - a fully material thinker intrinsic to the world, intrinsic to us. Whether we speak of the physical or the spiritual, we're talking about the material realm and its development. Materialism or naturalism is not the issue for Teilhard's vision. Rather it's our perspective on nature and matter, our understanding of it." That is because, through the process of creative union, the natural and material worlds are "inseparable from the spirit." That is why the mystical milieu is flesh.
The little essay opens up a spiritual vision carried forth, in Hefner's mind, by the Eucharistic images. It is a vision in which all human striving, whether scientific or moral - whether aimed at personal fulfillment, material advance, or sheer excellence of performance - is cosmically Eucharistic. In other words, it is "set forth for us in the Body and Blood of Christ," Hefner said. "Our building the earth is not our mastery of the earth, but rather the vehicle of our being consumed by the earth and united with it in the processes of complexity. Our building the earth is our pathway into Christo-genesis, the fuller becoming of Christ. Christ is the enabler, the God-forward of evolution."
"Teilhard's theory of evolution was also 'a theory of God, a theory of God's way of working' through the universe." -- Philip Hefner
Hefner related that Teilhard summarized his vision of Christian life when he wrote that the mystical vision discloses two things: the sacramental consecration of the world by a complete faith and communion with the world through a complete loyalty. "Complete faith, complete loyalty," Hefner underscored. "Faith focuses on the unification with Christ. Loyalty" - and here he quoted Teilhard - "is to grasp every opportunity of growing greater and in accepting every summons to die."
Ultimately, growth and death come together in this mystical movement. They are, Hefner concluded, "our access to unification with Christ and God."
Fire at the Forum
During the formal presentations, Wofford invoked the metaphor of fire in Teilhard's thought, which Hefner alluded to as well. And this talk of fire (or the lack of it in today's political world) caught on during the question-and-answer segment of the forum.
"The problem is that the crisis of our time, with the exception of those that call or result in explosive armed force with plenty of fire one way or the other, are slow burning crises. There isn't a blaze that ignites people, that excites people," one member of the audience observed.
Another questioner, who said he had just spent five years living and working outside the United States, added: "I think . we as a culture here are excessively fat, rich, and therefore not about to assume the Gospel challenge and catch fire. I think we're too lazy, indolent, and why should we? We have the easy boat. But that's this country. So I'm trying to approach your finest point of - How can we really catch fire? And I doubt it's going to happen until we all get poorer or more urgent."
In his response, Wofford noted that a "depression of the spirit" seems to have begun in the United States during the Vietnam era. Although he did not offer an easy remedy, Wofford seemed to suggest that if the political fire were to be set again, it would have to be caught in realms beyond politics. "We all know in our bones that the thing that we call the state and government is only one of many of the corporate forces in the world," he explained. Wofford, a former president of Bryn Mawr College in Pennsylvania, pointed to business and non-profit organizations as well as churches and educational institutions - "that whole world that governs most of the things that affect our lives. We haven't found the way to apply the sense of self-government that in every one of those corporate bodies, there's a responsibility to seek the common good."
He added simply, "I yearn for some great goals that can galvanize us."
Christ, Front and Center
Two Woodstock fellows at the forum raised questions about Teilhard's brand of Christo-centrism and whether this thrust of his thought poses a problem in the religiously pluralistic world of today. Senior research fellow John Haughey, S.J., remarked, "I wonder whether the heuristic of the Kingdom of God that Jesus preached can be connected to Teilhard's eschatology which turns out to be so thoroughly Christological. It is more dated than is needed at the present time." Visiting fellow Anthony Savari Raj of Madras, India, asked, "Is it not possible to think and speak of God, or Christ, without burdening him to be the Omega point or the apex" of all other human and religious striving?
Hefner stuck with Teilhard, and with a more traditional view. "I don't look upon this Christology as an imposition. You must think this. You must honor Christ with this preeminence," he said, speaking specifically of those who espouse Christian faith. "It's rather that everything a Christian looks at is through the lens of Christ. And whether this generation will put it one way and another generation will put it another way, their lens of meaning, if they're Christian, is going to be Christ."