Trashing Teilhard

Was the Jesuit scientist Pierre Teilhard de Chardin really a fascist, racist, genocidal opponent of human dignity? I had thought that, at least among educated Catholics, the question was almost dead. I was even guessing that holdout pockets of hostility might be vanishing for good after several recent Popes favorably cited  Teilhard’s cosmic vision for its theological beauty and Eucharist power.

I guess my optimism was premature. In a recent article likely to gain momentum on social media, the tired old accusation of Teilhard’s complicity in the spreading of evil has come roaring out of the gates again. This time the impeachment is packaged succinctly in a couple of publications by a young Catholic theologian and recent graduate of Notre Dame’s Department of Theology. Their author, Dr. John Slattery, claims that “from the 1920s until his death in 1955, Teilhard de Chardin unequivocally supported racist eugenic practices, praised the possibilities of the Nazi experiments, and looked down upon those who [sic] he deemed ‘imperfect’ humans.”

In his article “Dangerous Tendencies of Cosmic Theology: The Untold Legacy of Teilhard de Chardin,” in Philosophy and Theology (December 2016), Slattery writes that a persistent attraction to racism, fascism, and genocidal ideas “explicitly lay the groundwork for Teilhard’s famous cosmological theology.” This, he highlights, “is a link which has been largely ignored in Teilhardian research until now.”

A more recent article by the same critic in Religion Dispatches is entitled “Pierre Teilhard de Chardin’s Legacy of Eugenics and Racism Can’t Be Ignored.” I encourage readers to look at this shorter piece online: http://religiondispatches.org/pierreteilhard-de-chardins-legacy-of-eugenics-and-racism-cant-be-ignored/. They will see that Slattery hangs his claims on only eight stray citations from Teilhard’s letters and other scattered writings. Most of these passing remarks were never developed for publication nor elaborated systematically. Their style is provocative and interrogatory, and their meaning in every case is highly debatable. Slattery gives them to us, however, as undeniable evidence that Teilhard’s true “legacy” is one of hostility to Catholic affirmation of human dignity, racial justice, and concern for the disadvantaged. More important, however, is the assertion that it was Teilhard’s commitment to these evils that gave rise to his mature “cosmological theology.” Nothing could be more preposterous and farther from the truth.

Slattery’s thesis—offered without any real argumentation—will appeal to those on the Catholic and Evangelical right who have consistently repudiated Teilhard for trying to reconcile Christian faith with evolutionary biology. And it will draw no objections from the many scientific skeptics like Jacques Monod and atheistic philosophers like Daniel Dennett who have denounced Teilhard’s thought for the same reason. Above all, however, it will win approval from readers who suspect that there just has to be something deeply perverse about Teilhard’s rethinking of Christian faith for the age of science.

Instead of digging into Teilhard’s mountainous body of work, with which he shows little familiarity, Slattery rests his summation of “Teilhard’s legacy” on half a thimbleful of quotes taken out of context. Seasoned Teilhard scholars have known about these remarks for decades but have usually measured their significance in terms of what they take to be Teilhard’s true legacy. This legacy consists of at least four cardinal principles completely ignored in Slattery’s desperate debunking. Here they are:

First principle: The universe is still coming into being. Theologically, this means that creation is not yet “finished” and that humans, who are part of an unfinished universe, may contribute to the ongoing creation of the world. The opportunity to participate, even in the most excruciatingly monotonous ways, in “building the earth” is a cornerstone of human dignity. It is also a teaching of Vatican II. The fact that our creativity can sometimes lead to monstrous outcomes does not absolve us of the obligation to improve the world and ourselves. Taking advantage of this opportunity is also essential to sustaining hope and a “zest for living.” And nothing “clips the wings of hope” nor leads life into listlessness more deadeningly than the now obsolete theological idea that the universe has been finished once and for all and that all we can do religiously is hope for its restoration.

Yet Teilhard was also careful to point out that we participate in creation, and prove our fidelity to life in an unfinished universe, not only by our activities but also by our passivities. Far from being indifferent to the suffering of the disabled and the marginalized, as Slattery accuses Teilhard of being, the Jesuit priest consistently fostered a vision of life that gives dignity to the helpless and those in need. As he reflected with quiet empathy and unvanquished hope on the incessant suffering of an invalid sister, for example, he developed a beautiful Christian theology of suffering. Furthermore, in the quest for what contributes rightly to new creation and the zest for living, Teilhard set forth as morally permissible only those actions and creative projects that are in accordance with the following three principles.

Second principle: To create means to unify (creare est unire). Scientifically understood, the emerging cosmos becomes real and intelligible only by (gradually) bringing increasingly more complex forms of unity or coherence out of its primordial state of diffusion and subatomic dispersal. As the universe in the course of deep time becomes more intricately unified in its emergent instances of physical complexity, it also becomes more conscious. Theologically understood, the principle is realized in Christian hope as summed up in Jesus’s prayer that “all may be one” and in the Pauline expectation that everything will be “brought to a head” in Christ “in whom all things consist.” Teilhard’s true “legacy” lies in his rich Christian sense of a universe converging on Christ and being brought into final union with and in God. Almost all the many distortions of Teilhard’s intentions, none more agonizingly than Slattery’s, stem from a failure to understand exactly what he means by true union.

Third principle: True union differentiates. True union does not mean uniformity or homogeneity but a rich, complex mode of being that is built up out of a diversity of components that are permitted to coexist in a relationship of complementarity.   Theologically, the principle that “true union differentiates” is exemplified in a wondrous way in the doctrine of God as three in one. Scientifically speaking, it is both a good evolutionary and ecological principle as well as a criterion of survivable social organization. Ecologically, true unity maximizes diversity and acknowledges differences. So does the biblical theme of justice. Slattery should know, then, that when Teilhard acknowledges “inequalities” he is not supporting injustice, racism, classism, or elitism. He is following an ethical and ecological principle that maximizes diversity and differences in such a way as not to detract from individual value and overall unity.

True unity at the human level of cosmic emergence enhances personal freedom, maximizes otherness, and in that way respects personal dignity. So, when Teilhard expresses “interest” in the fascist experiments of the 20th century, far from approving them, as Slattery sneakily implies, he is simply observing that such movements feed parasitically on a twisted passion for union, an irrational instinct devoid of concern for differentiation. Anyone who has actually read Teilhard’s works widely and fairly will notice that he deemed fascist and communist experiments evil insofar as they fail to look beyond uniformity, homogeneity, and ideological conformism to the true unity that differentiates, liberates, and personalizes.

Finally, Teilhard presents the cosmic Christ as the paradigm of differentiating, personalizing, attracting, and liberating union. Christ is the Center around which humans and all of creation are called to gather in differentiated, dialogical—and hence intimate—communion (as expressed in the Eucharist).

Fourth principle:  The world rests on the future as its sole support. As we survey cosmic history with the scientists, we discover a “law of recurrence” in which something new, more complex, and (eventually) more conscious has always been taking shape up ahead. Scientifically speaking, we can now see that subatomic elements were organized around atomic nuclei; atoms were gathered into molecules, molecules into cells, and cells into complex organisms some of which have recently made the leap into thought.  The most important kinds of emergence can occur, however, only if the elements allow themselves to be organized around a new and higher center that lifts them up to the state of more elaborately differentiated unity.

In our contemporary picture of an unfinished universe a Center of union and a fountain of “fuller being” is always awaiting the universe up ahead. Theologically, Teilhard identifies this future ultimately with what the Abrahamic traditions call God. What gives nature its consistency and unity, what holds it together in other words, is not the subatomic past—where everything falls apart into incoherence—but the always fresh future where everything is gathered into one. True Being, the Center of differentiating union, resides essentially in the future.

Yes, God is both Alpha and Omega, “but God is more Omega than Alpha.” To experience true union, true being, true goodness, and true beauty, therefore, we must allow ourselves—like Abraham, the prophets, and Jesus—to be grasped by the Future. Teilhard stated explicitly that his whole theology of nature was an attempt to implement the cosmic expectations of St Paul and the Fourth Evangelist. Not to notice this deeply Christian motif in his thought is to do him grave injustice. It is only under the constraints of Christian hope that he says we must be ready to “try everything.” This requires a more adventurous sense of the moral life than what we find in classical religious patterns of piety. Teilhard was looking for a morality rooted in hope not only for humanity but for the whole universe. This cosmic turn can cause confusion to theologians who have not yet fully awakened to the fact of an unfinished universe and what the new cosmology means for our understanding of God, faith, and the sense of obligation.

Teilhard, contrary to his detractors, was humble enough to acknowledge that his own thoughts on these topics were tentative and revisable. We should not be surprised if at times he made mistakes. Who hasn’t? Still, since humans are part of nature, and nature remains far from finished, it is perfectly legitimate to wonder, as countless other thoughtful people are doing today, whether and to what extent humans can participate in their own and the world’s future evolution. Is this genocidal? At least in the four principles sketched above (as well as others not discussed here) we have a morally rich framework within which to begin dealing with the hard questions that Teilhard was among the first to raise

“Trashing Teilhard” Published in Commonweal Fall 2018. Reprinted with permission by the American Teilhard Association

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