The great medievalist scholar Etienne Gilson once wrote of Bonaventure: “You can either see the general economy of his doctrine in its totality, or see none of it, nor would a historian be led by the understanding of one of the fragments to desire to understand the whole, for the fragments are quite literally meaningless by themselves, since each part reaches out into all the rest of the system and is affected by the ramifications leading to it from the synthesis as a whole” (The Philosophy of St. Bonaventure, 436).
What Gilson wrote of Bonaventure could also be said of Pierre Teilhard de Chardin who saw himself in the lineage of the Greek Fathers of the early Church. Teilhard was such a broad, integrated thinker that you either see the economy of the whole of his thought or none of it. Like the early Greek Fathers, he developed a cosmic Christology based on natural philosophy (science), Scripture (especially the writings of St. Paul) and faith in Jesus Christ. His theological vision emerged out of a deep, prayerful reflection on the dynamic relationship of God and world with an understanding of evolution beyond Darwinian natural selection. According to Teilhard, evolution and creation, cosmos and history of salvation are not contrasts but complementary aspects of the one process of reality. Within his “Weltanschauung” three levels of perception may be distinguished: physics or phenomenology, metaphysics or hyperphysics, and mysticism. The object of perception, for Teilhard, is always the entire reality. He thought of the cosmic Christ like a tapestry of divine love incarnate unfolding across the vast dynamic expanse of evolution. To grasp his ideas one must follow the threads of his tapestry as they begin in the integrated union of faith and science.
There are some scholars today who maintain that Teilhard was a proponent of eugenics, Nazism, and human superiority. In their view, Teilhard’s radical anthropocentrism thwarts an ecological consciousness, since he holds the human person above all other aspects of biological life. This is so unfortunate because Teilhard thought completely otherwise. His brilliant insights were born out of an acute scientific mind and a deeply Ignatian spirit. He was first and foremost a scientist and he wrote about theological matters as a scientist not as a trained theologian. He wrote: “I never leave for an instant the realm of scientific observation.” Profoundly misunderstood and labeled by critics as a charlatan, Teilhard realized that the real path
to truth must begin with concrete reality. He wrote his opus, The Phenomenon of Man, not as a work of metaphysics, still less as a theological essay, but simply as a scientific treatise. Yet, anyone familiar with modern science would find his talk of an imperceptible psychic “within” of matter or spiritual energy or a teleologically directed evolution as scientifically suspect. Teilhard was well-aware of such suspicions and genuine perplexity as to his methods; he encountered them and wrestled with them all his life long. Elizabeth Sewell, however, noted in her book, The Human Metaphor, that Teilhard’s greatest contribution may be methodological. What Teilhard contributes is a renewed scientific methodology that connects science with logos, cosmos and eros, in a way that impacts the whole social order and thus the course of evolution.
Although Teilhard saw himself as a scientist, he clearly saw the need for a new philosophy and metaphysics that could support the integration of faith and evolution. He sought to develop a philosophy of love but did not follow a systematic approach to his endeavor. Yet one can follow his connections between love as a significant force of attraction and the primacy of the future which leads to his notion of hyper-physics (compared to the classical meta-physics). His philosophical insights are woven throughout his writings providing a metaphysical basis to his personalizing universe. It is precisely his philosophy and metaphysics that critics of Teilhard fail to adequately consider.
Further, while Teilhard was a trained paleontologist, he did not agree with Darwin’s theory of evolution. In his view, Darwinian evolution did not adequately account for novelty and transcendence in nature. In his view the ‘phenomenon of evolution’ is “something very different from and more than a mere genesis of animal species” (“The Energy of Evolution,” in Activation of Energy, 362). Does this mean he disregarded animals? Absolutely not. Rather he saw the emergence of different species within a larger flow of cosmic and biological life. He was inspired by the French philosopher Henri Bergson and his notion of creative evolution. Bergson posited an “elan vital” or a vital impulse in nature, which led Teilhard to develop his concept of Omega. Again, this is a departure from classical Darwinian evolution and to interpret Teilhard through a Darwinian lens is to do him a radical injustice.
The critics of Teilhard today are operating theologically out of a Thomistic philosophical paradigm and scientifically from a Darwinian framework, neither of which are relevant to Teilhard. His ideas instead are along the lines of process thought rather than Greek metaphysics, giving rise to a dynamic understanding of God as the power of the future.
Quite honestly, I do not foresee the critics of Teilhard changing their minds any time soon. They are quite convinced of their methods and, if anything, they will strive to defend their positions. Teilhard lived with this same “wooden scholasticism” and it was precisely this scholastic inertia that propelled him to work tirelessly toward a new theological vision consonant with evolution. I suggest that we do the same.