Teilhard de Chardin: The Religion of Evolutionism
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Time Magazine, 14th December 1959.
When Scientist Julian Huxley predicted a new, evolutionary kind of religion last week (Time, 7th December), one man must have been in his mind - a Jesuit priest named Pierre Teilhard de Chardin. Just published in the U.S. is the late Father Teilhard's major work: The Phenomenon of Man
(Harper; $5), and Huxley himself supplied the introduction. "A very remarkable work by a very remarkable human being," he wrote. "His influence on the world's thinking is bound to be important... He has forced theologians to view their ideas in the new perspective of evolution, and scientists to see the spiritual implications of thei knowledge... The religious minded can no longer turn their backs upon the natural world... nor can the materialistic minded deny importance to spiritual experience and religious feeling."
Jesuit Teilhard wrote The Phenomenon of Man
as a scientist; he was a top ranking paleontologist and one of the discoverers of Peking Man. But as a Roman Catholic priest, he submitted to the prohibition of his church against publishing his writings or teaching his ideas. Until his death at 73, in 1955, The Phenomenon of Man
had to be circulated privately in mimeographed form. A friend to whom he left the manuscript arranged for its publication.
Up Through the Ooze
Scientist Teilhard believes in evolution, not just as a matter of accepting Darwin; evolution for him is the mystical key to existence, the movement of the universe towards God. But God does not appear in Teilhard's book until the very end, and then under a different name.
In the beginning is matter. Matter is "atomic" in that it exhibits plurality, to the microscope, the telescope or the naked eye - "in raindrops and grains of sand, in the hosts of the living, and the multitude of stars; even in the ashes of the dead." Matter also exhibits unity - something holds it together. "We do not get what we call matter as a result of the simple aggregation and juxtaposition of atoms. For that, a mysterious identity must absorb and cement them, an influence at which our mind rebels in bewilderment at first but which in the end it must perforce accept." The third property of matter is energy - "the most primitive form of universal stuff."
There are two kinds of energy: "tangential" energy on the outside of entities, and "radial" energy, which operates within. Everything, says Teilhard, has this "within" and "without," and it is the radial energy within that is the evolutionary force, driving toward greater and greater complexity. This drive produced the molecule, the cell, organic life, up through the ooze to man.
This bloody, teeming struggle upwards - "despite all the waste and ferocity, all the mystery and scandal it involves" - is a single gigantic organism moving in one direction: toward more consciousness. But evolution does not stop with consciousness. "In one well-marked region at the heart of the mammals, where the most powerful brains ever made by nature are to be found... a flame bursts forth at a strictly localized point. Thought is born."
Geologists see thw world as a series of layers: the metallic barysphere at the center, the rocky lithosphere, the water hydrosphere, the atmosphere. The earth's coating of fauna and flora is sometimes called the biosphere. Teilhard sees the birth of thought as the beginning of anew layer, "outside and above the biosphere," which he calls the "noosphere" (from noos
pronounced no-os, Greek for mind). "The idea is that of the earth... becoming enclosed in a single thinking envelope so as to form... a single vast grain of thought on the sidereal scale."
The Name is New
In the noosphere, the whole planet stands at the threshold of a huge, new, evolutionary leap, for which the time is only just ripe. Teilhard cavalierly dismisses the history of Chinese civilization as too "neolithic" and that of India as too "passive and detached" to contribute much to the noosphere. The central place is the West and the time is now. "It is not in any way naive to hail as a great event the discovery by Columbus of America. In truth, a neo-humanity has been germinating round the Mediterranean during the last six thousand years and precisely at this moment it has finished absorbing the last vestiges of the Neolithic mosaic with the budding of another layer on the noosphere, and the densest of all. The proof of this lies in the fact that from one end of the world to the other, all the peoples, to remain human or to become more so, are inexorably led to formulate the hopes and problems of the modern earth in the very same terms in which the West has formulated them."
Teilhard's mystical theory of evolution posits a goal - a point outside space-time at which all lines of evolution converge. He calls this point Omega - in effect God - "which fuses and consumes them integrally in itself." But Omega is not impersonal. Man, the farthest outreach of evolution so far, is also aware of himself as a person - other animals know, but only man knows he knows. Hence it follows that the direction of Omega is the direction of the "hyper-personal." It is also the direction of the "all-together." To combine these two elements of personality and collectivity without sacrificaing either takes a special kind of energy. The name of this energy is love.
And the force that urges man upward through love is Christianity. Teilhard explains in an epilogue. "Though frightened for a moment by evolution, the Christian new perceives that what it offers him is nothing but a magnificient means of feeling more at one with God, and of giving himself more to him... And at the present moment Christianity is the unique current of thought, on the entire surface of the noosphere, which is sufficiently audacious and sufficiently progressive to lay hold of the world, at the level of effectual practice, in an embrace, at once already complete, yet capable of indefinite perfection, where faith and hope reach their fulfilment in love... "
Seduction & Aberration
Published in France eight months afthe Teilhard de Chardin died, The Phenomenon of Man
has been stirring up a mounting wave of discussion in Europe ever since. next year a foundation will be formed for the study of his works and their translation into other languages. Scientists, for the most part, welcome Teilhard's daring attempts at synthesis - though few go as far as Omega. But many Catholic theologians take a dim view of what they believe to be Teilhard's neglect of the Creator aspect of God, his virtual omission of any idea of original sin and Christ's redeeming sacrifice, his side-stepping of the doctrine that all mankind descended from a single couple. (In hte long-range eyes of science, "which can only see things in bulk," says Jesuit Teilhard, "the 'first man' is, and can only be, a crowd, and his infancy is made up of thousands and thousands of years.")
Last spring the Pontifical Roman Theological Academy devoted an entire issue of its quarterly Divinitas
to attacks on Teilhard de Chardin's ideas, calling them "a maximum of seduction coinciding with a maximum of aberration." But, said the Latin foreword of the issue: "We will not apply the mark of heresy, which he perhaps does not deserve subjectively because of his good faith."
There was no doubt of that. Four years before he died in the U.S. (he is buried at the Jesuit novitiate of St. Andrew-on-Hudson in Poughkeepsie, N.Y.), Father Teilhard wrote to the Jesuits' superior General Janssens: "Truly and by virtue of the whole structure of my thought, I feel myself today more irretrievably bound to the heirarchical Church and to the Christ of the Gospels than I have ever been at any moment of my life. Never has Christ seemed more real to me, more personal, more immense."
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