Teilhard de Chardin - prophet for today
All through my life the bold and profound thinking of Teilhard de Chardin (1881-1955) has been a background influence. Like me he was a scientist as well as a priest, in itself countering the exaggerated opposition of religion and science I’ve seen over my lifetime. His positive and biblical embrace of evolution attracts me in its richness which repairs damage done in the Christian past to thoughtful and creative believing. As someone involved day by day in giving reasoned defence of Christian faith I find Teilhard an inspiration. He’s a writer who raises the bar from the Christian end, raising sights above the narrow church issues of our day to 'the uniting of all things in Christ' (Ephesians 1.10).
In 2008 a commemorative blue plaque was unveiled in Hastings to commemorate Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, world famous French Jesuit priest and geologist. Teilhard studied fossils along the Hastings coast whilst resident at the former Jesuit Seminary between 1908 and 1912. Teilhard was one of the first Christians to reflect deeply upon the Darwinian theory of natural selection and make a connection with Jesus Christ. For Teilhard the risen and ascended Jesus is the one who holds all things together and who leads us forward to a fulfilment that will coincide with his majestic return. Teilhard spoke of the Risen Christ as the Omega Point. By raising Jesus as the centre of human history God the Father has made him our goal, our Omega towards which the whole creation is moving and tending towards, the fulfilment not just of human destiny but of the earth and the whole cosmos.
The writer and mystic Teilhard de Chardin (1881-1955) builds on passages like Colossians 1:16-17 that give the risen Christ a cosmic role: ‘In him all things in heaven and on earth were created, things visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or powers – all things have been created through him and for him. He himself is before all things, and in him all things hold together’. To Teilhard the whole cosmos is like a cone with the movements within it converging upon Jesus as the apex or omega point. Our individual futures, the future development of the whole church and the future of the whole created order rest in Jesus and are to end in Jesus.
The French writer Teilhard de Chardin saw that theology’s about the big picture of things if it’s anything at all. That's why I get distressed by those who label the abstruse or irrelevant as 'so much theology'. If there’s a personal God who’s shown his face in the world what he has to say would, and in my belief does, challenge disconnected thinking and application. If there’s a big Mind he’s the living proof that mind comes before matter and that a materialistic worldview is blind. Materialists may well stay blind until believers shake off their sense of intellectual inferiority and become true 'theologians' who can speak to awake them. Such speech about God, allied to deeds of love, won't be abstract or irrational but deep, compelling and absolutely connected with the aspirations and lifeblood of the world.
Teilhard saw that if God has come in person to us in Jesus Christ what's personal about human existence is geared to reign supreme as be all and end all. All that depersonalises is ultimately to be defeated by the coming, death, resurrection and awaited return of Jesus. In a world where life on earth is seen more and more against the depersonalising backcloth of cold technology and the dark immensity of the cosmos, belief in the supremacy of loving relationships is awesome good news.
Scientists tell us now that there was a Big Bang 14 billion years ago when space and time were thrown into being. An awesome business, needing awesome thinking, bigger than we’re sometimes used to! Hence the value of Teilhard’s thought which sees Jesus, to quote Hebrews, ‘sustaining all things’ (1:3b) and goes on to reflect on how things are brought to life and movement and thought and love and prayer in a divinely instituted process. All of this development is in Christian faith contained by the risen and ascended Lord Jesus who, in the words of Ephesians ‘ascended far above all the heavens so that he might fill all things’ (4:10b)
‘You have so filled the universe in every direction, Jesus’ wrote Fr. Teilhard, ‘that from now on it is blessedly impossible for us to escape you…Neither life, whose progress reinforces the hold you have on me; nor death which throws me into your hands, nor the good or bad spiritual powers which are your living instruments; nor the energies of matter, into which you are plunged;…nor the unfathomable abysses of space, which are the measure of your greatness;…none of these things will be able to separate me from your substantial love, because they are only the veil, the “species”, under which you hold me so that I can hold you’ (Le Milieu Divin 1957).
Of all gifts Teilhard gives me personally it's the way he has opened up worship to me. His writings confirm Christian worship, in which believers see God's person, and their own communion sealed, through material elements of bread and wine, as a school for seeing God through and in all things, working out his purpose to 'be all things to all people' (1 Corinthians 15.28). This transformative action of Jesus Christ through bread and wine is an eye opener to his role in the evolution of the cosmos from the inanimate, to life, and to loving relationships that await his consummation.
Teilhard's love of the eucharist and vision of its cosmic implications has enriched and given purpose to my own engagement with the sacraments. Like the best theologians his writings evidence a rooting in prayer and worship, as in his great ‘Mass on the World’, one of my favourite spiritual texts. In the invocation of the Holy Spirit at the eucharist he sees an echo both of Our Lord's desire to 'cast fire upon the earth' (Luke 12.49) and the stellar fires and molten lava that energise the earth's development. In the elevation of the Host in the eucharist Teilhard sees in anticipation the raising up of Jesus as the 'Omega Point' on his return to gather all things to himself.
'My vocation is to personalise the world in God' Teilhard writes. 'Nothing is precious save what is yourself in others and others in yourself'. Always Teilhard sees earthly things in the light of the communion of saints where God will become all in all in an atmosphere of pure love, a union in Christ that will preserve individual distinguishing. Teilhard's cosmic mysticism affirms with Saint Gregory: 'We are one in him who is everywhere'.
It’s an extraordinary feature of Teilhard that he prophesied the connecting up of human consciousness we now experience in the global internet. His logical examination of the trajectory of evolution from inanimate matter to animation then human self-consciousness extrapolates to the cosmos being made incandescent with the glow of a single thinking envelope. This trajectory goes with Darwinian theory up to a point, then radically diverges towards the radical Christian vision, where the God-given human capacity to converge and unify leaps beyond the materialist vision of 'survival of the fittest'.
In Teilhard’s thinking the meeting of minds as in the internet is the last stage before the uniting of holy hearts and souls in the communion of saints. In this process the exercise of human freedom, as in repentance and faith, is essential since the spiritual momentum of Christianity, carrying beyond the physical and psychological to God in his holiness, respects the human option to choose God or not.
One of the best Christian interpreters of Teilhard de Chardin is Henri de Lubac who picks up from him in his ‘The Religion of Teilhard de Chardin’ how Mary's conception of God demonstrates we are more than a compartment of the animal kingdom. The ascent of man drawn to Christ in the Spirit counters materialistic pessimism eg the growth of entropy. Christ needs to find a summit of the world for his consummation just as he had need of a woman for his conception. Evolution may be part of a disposing of the creation towards salvation which is God's gift.
Teilhard's challenge and mine is to bridge a potential schism between 'the supernatural truth of salvation preserved by the Church and the growing body of human truths that emerge from the work of mankind' (De Lubac). This involves our challenging shallow interpretations of Christianity so as to introduce non-believers to the supremacy of the personal and prepare them with us for the burning vision of the universe held by incarnational faith.
The forward momentum of the Holy Spirit rescues Christian theology again and again and the connected up thinking of Teilhard de Chardin is a brilliant example in our age. For more information I would recommend reading Teilhard himself, starting with his short 'Mass on the Universe', or commentaries on his writing, chiefly that of Henri de Lubac ('The Religion of Teilhard de Chardin'). As a gentler devotional introduction to him I would recommend Robert Faricy and Lucy Rooney's 'Knowing Jesus in the World'.