No one can have failed to notice that the modern world has been drifting away from Christianity for the last three centuries. The reasons are complex, but the overall result is that the ‘secular’ world has been gaining ground while the ‘religious’ area of life has shrunk. It continues to do so as religion becomes ever more individualised, and especially here in Ireland, reduced to a pursuit of the elderly.
However, there is someone who has confronted the challenge of the modern worldview head on, eyeball to eyeball, in the name of Christ. That is my hero: the French Jesuit scientist and mystic, Pierre Teilhard de Chardin SJ (1881-1955). That is why I love him. He gives me hope.
How to bring the modern world to Christ? That was the great task confronting Teilhard’s missionary heart. This mirrored his own personal struggle and lifetime task: how to be both a passionate scientist and a passionate Christian without feeling torn in two by conflicting loyalties. How to combine the human and the divine in oneself, so as to be a unified whole, where each aspect nourishes the other. How to live our human vocation to master this world and everything in it (Genesis 1.28), while doing so for the glory of God.
Teilhard’s great mind focused on nothing less than reality as a whole. He was unique in how he integrated the worldviews of science and faith, which had gone their separate ways until they were worlds apart. Neither took much account of the other!
Christians living in the modern world had to compartmentalise themselves, between the ‘secular’ daily part of their lives and the ‘religious’ part. This left the Christian faith looking ever weaker and more isolated, as scientific knowledge gradually took over every area of life.
I felt this tension in myself as a twenty-year-old in University College Dublin back in the late 1960s. Having been inspired as a teenager by the wonderful autobiographies of Saint Thérèse and Saint Teresa, I then found myself at college with the panorama of English and French literature laid out before me. It all seemed rather far from Christ, passionate centre of my life. It made me long for something that would bring Christ into the modern world for me.
A BURST OF LIGHT
Then I happened to go to the French society one evening for a talk by the French ambassador of the time on someone called Teilhard de Chardin. I was soon electrified! Here, finally, was a modern Christian! Teilhard had worked out a vision that drew together the story of cosmic-human evolution and the place and role of Christ in it! I was overjoyed! I went off, got hold of his books, and his unified faith-world vision became the foundation for my faith for the rest of my life. I no longer felt out of place as a Christian in the modern world. The story of universal evolution had been Christified, (one of his words), at least for those believers who felt in need of it!
I regard Teilhard as a modern prophet, but I was unaware, at the time I discovered him, that he was found controversial by the official Church which had forbidden him, through his Jesuit order, to publish anything during the whole of his lifetime. This meant he could not test out his thinking against other minds, and he spent most of his career as a palaeontologist in China. His ideas, given in talks during a number of visits, were more warmly received in America than in his home country, and he spent his final years in New York. His writings were only published by friends after his death in 1955.
THE NEED FOR DYNAMIC THINKING
His thinking was too far ahead of the Church of the time, which forbade him to publish. However, his warnings that “What is Christian and what is human no longer appear to coincide,” have proven all too true. The failure of the Church to develop a dynamic, evolutionary Christology, adequate for the new dimensions of space-time discovered by science, is actually the root of the crisis of faith in the world today. The result is that, in Teilhard’s words, the Church is now offering “too small a Christ” to attract people. These have mentally migrated to modernity, while the teaching Church still offers a static interpretation of Christ that has barely developed beyond that of the early centuries. This faith crisis will not be resolved until the Church faces up to the modern world with the wisdom and courage of a Teilhard.
“In a sense, Christ is in the Church is the same way as the sun is before our eyes. We see the same sun as our fathers saw, and yet we understand it in a much more magnificent way. I believe that the Church is still a child. Christ, by whom she lives, is immeasurably greater than she imagines. And yet, when thousands of years have gone by and Christ’s true face is a little more plainly seen, the Christians of those days will still, without any reservations, recite the Apostles’ Creed.” (1)
His thinking is quietly making its way in the Church at grass roots level, and is remarkable for the enthusiasm with which it is greeted by many, who like me, find in it a relief for the tension “they feel between the modern world and their faith. It gives us hope that it is possible to lead the modern world to Christ, to help it find its soul again.
AN UNUSUAL LIFE STORY
However, Teilhard deserves to be much better known and appreciated. Indirectly due to the pandemic, I have rediscovered my passion for him, that lay dormant under a busy, teaching life for years. Now I have had the leisure to read much more about him, and the more I read the more enchanted I am! Two biographies revealed a truly wonderful human being, of great charity, kindness and charm, who made friends out of anyone and everyone. His life story is most unusual, and includes heroic service in the first World War on the front lines as a stretcher bearer, where he survived over sixty battles, earning him the medal for bravery of the Legion d’Honneur.
His many years in China working as a geologist and palaeontologist gave him a unique perspective in theological thinking. His strong links with America reflect the international character of his life.
A faithful Jesuit, he put up with the ban on his writing with heroic obedience over a whole lifetime, without bitterness and with great humility. What drove his life were the twin passions of his love for Christ, and his scientist’s love of the world, God’s creation. Through his struggle to unite these aspects of himself, he brought his own being into a single whole for Christ. He gives today’s Christians a new way to do the same.
Some people, and I am among them, see a form of divine accreditation, a seal of approval, in the fact that Teilhard died of a sudden heart attack on an Easter Sunday, (10th April 1955). It had been his wish for many years to die on the day of the risen Christ, centre and destiny of the evolving cosmos, to whom he had dedicated his life’s work. My hope is that he will one day be declared a Doctor of the Church and a saint.
- 15 January 1921, in a letter to a friend. The Heart of Matter, Harvest Book. Harcourt, Inc. A Helen and Kurt Wolff Book, San Diego, New York, London, p117-8.
Leave a Reply