Friday, March 15, 2013

“A pilgrim of the future”

Pierre Teilhard de Chardin (1881 – 1955) isn’t as well known today as he was 50 years ago. He was a Jesuit scholar, paleontologist, theologian, philosopher, writer, speaker, and archaeologist.  He helped identify and authenticate the fossil that became known as “Peking Man.” He wrote several works, some of which had to wait until after his death for publication – the Vatican always sensed a touch of heresy about his theology, at least while he was alive (and not entirely without reason).

He described himself as “a pilgrim of the future on my way back from a journey made entirely in the past,” and the description is an apt one. His writings challenged the Catholic Church on evolution, among other things, and suggested a kind of pantheism. And yet he was true to the church to the very end of his life, always obedient to his superiors.

In Pierre Tielhard de Chardin and the Cosmic Christ, author Alex Terego has provided a short and concise biography of the man and a summary of his thinking and philosophy. Teilhard de Chardin, Terego says, envisioned the “the whole world as the extension of God,” and his understanding of Jesus as “the Incarnate Being in the world of matter stayed with him his whole life.”

Yes, there were some of what we would understand as pantheistic leanings; Teilhard de Chardin was fusing what he had learned through science and philosophy with Catholic theology. He was concerned that the Church was being superseded by discoveries in science, and he understood those discoveries to be expressions of God. Most importantly, he didn’t see contradictions between faith and science, instead understanding a kind of convergence by both.

He had an important influence on many people, three of whom were the man who became Pope Benedict XVI, who recently resigned the papacy; Rowan Williams, the immediate past Archbishop of Canterbury; and the writer Flannery O’Connor. (In fact, it was in O’Connor’s letters that I first discovered Teilhard de Chardin.)

This is not an exhaustive biography, but it wasn’t meant to be, consisting of some 60 pages. Instead, it is an introduction to the man’s life and thought. Terego has done a real service in explaining his subject’s philosophy and theology – it’s not that simple to follow in the original writings.


Maureen said...

I'm always impressed by the breadth and depth of your reading materials.

kchripczuk said...

"He was concerned that the Church was being superseded by discoveries in science, and he understood those discoveries to be expressions of God."
I like this, and I wonder what he would have to say about the discovery of the Higgs Boson "God particle" which has made recent news. I'm currently reading "The Wisdom Way of Knowing," by Cynthia Bourgeult, which is introducing me to what I guess might be a similar cosmology and while I find some aspects of the thought intuitively compelling, I also wonder at the limits of such thinking, expecially since it isn't something most Christians are aware of or thinking about. Maybe a "touch of heresy" can be a good thing, but, for me, it's also a bit of a fearful thing.

diana said...

I've been exposed to Teilhard via my spiritual direction training and find his ideas to be fascinating ones. You're right - there sometimes seems to be a breath of pantheism there, but I'm thinking it's more akin to panentheism, which in some forms is more amenable to orthodoxy. Teilhard is a very interesting mix of old school and new school Catholic theology. And you're right again - his own writing is extraordinarily dense -- you need an interpreter to help you with it!!

Unknown said...

Many thanks for the positive review. Stay tuned for the other four bios in the series!