THE WONDERFUL TEILHARD DE CHARDIN
What are the chances of putting together the worldviews generated by science on the one hand and faith on the other? They are like two worlds apart, and Christians have to ‘double-think’ all the time to accommodate them. This is one of the reasons why those identifying as Christians are becoming ever fewer in number.
This problem has been growing for the last three centuries, as science has increasingly taken over so many areas of life. It is my problem too, as I watch wonderful documentaries on TV, like ‘The Beginning and End of the Universe’ or ‘The Seven Ages of Starlight’. From dinosaurs to Star Wars, every child soon becomes aware of the amazing universe story, stretching almost infinitely back into the past and infinitely wide across space. The question is simple and the answer is complex: Where does the Christ of our faith fit into the new story of the universe? That is, does Christ have a place at all?
A CHRISTIAN GENIUS
However, providentially there is a Christian genius who undertook the task of putting the two worlds of faith and science together. His name is Teilhard de Chardin, a French Jesuit priest and scientist (1881-1955), and that is why he is my hero. The tension between faith and science was the drama of his own life: how to be both a passionate Christian and a passionate scientist, how to combine his love for Christ with love for God’s creation, how to be whole and dedicated to God while being fully human, fulling the human vocation to build the earth.
Taking the famous phrase from St John Evangelist, “God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son…” Teilhard dedicated his major work on spirituality, The Divine Milieu in these words:
Sic Deus dilexit mundum
For those who love the world
He deplored any spirituality that would set Christ against creation, as if we had to choose between being fully human and fully God’s. He thought the Church was too slow in developing the deeper, dynamic and cosmic understanding of Christ that the modern world needed.
“In a sense, Christ is in the Church in 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)
A PERFECT FIT
Through a lifetime of hard scientific work and ceaseless reflection, he came to see that if you put the newly-understood universe story and the Christian story together, you actually find they fit like a jigsaw! Once you learn to see that the universe and our world is one great becoming, and that this is focused now on human becoming, which culminates in Christ becoming, ” for such a person everything…in the universe becomes lit up, glowing, animated and infinitely lovable.” That is to say, this world becomes more and more transparent of God, and the emergent, evolving Christ calls each generation to complete his Incarnation in its own way, in its own time, in its own culture, until, through love, the earth finally joins the destiny of the Risen Christ.
This faith-science interpretation of reality as one single whole is an amazing achievement of joined-up thinking! The holistic spirituality it gives rise to is the kind of spirituality that can inspire people of today.
The problem was, however, that theologians in the Vatican were less aware of the science-faith tension than he was, and how the new generations of Christians were finding it harder to see the relevance of Christ. These are initiated into the Church, yet leave it in droves as adults. “Spiritual but not religious” is their self-description. Add to that the scandals in the Church and you have the perfect storm that threatens to shipwreck the bark of Peter, – at least in the lives of many.
Teilhard’s thinking was far ahead of the Vatican theologians, so much so that through his Jesuit order, he was forbidden to publish any of his writings. These were published by friends only after his death, in 1955. This was a severe trial to his great missionary heart, which longed to lead the modern world to Christ, a trial he bore with saintly humility and patience, free of resentment. He simply waited for his time to come.
His thinking is gaining ground among quite a few of today’s Christians, especially in America. One happy fruit of it is how his vision of the whole deeply inspired the American, Thomas Berry, who went on to become the father of the ecological movement. Berry is quoted by cosmologist Brian Swimme as telling him, “To see as Teilhard saw is a challenge, but increasingly his vision is becoming available to us. I fully expect that in the next millennium Teilhard will be generally regarded as the fourth major thinker of the western Christian tradition. These would be St Paul, Augustine, Thomas Aquinas and Teilhard.” (2)
There is surely a form of divine accreditation in the fact that Teilhard died of a sudden heart attack on an Easter Sunday, the 10th April 1955. Some months earlier, in a letter to a cousin, he had confided that his dearest wish was to die on an Easter Sunday, feast of the Risen Christ, the Omega; that for him it would be a sign of God’s approval of his work.
It is my hope and prayer that one day he will be declared a saint and a Doctor of the Church.
(1) 5 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.
(2) Quoted in the foreword to The Human Phenomenon, a new edition and translation, p xiv, Sussex Academic Press, Brighton, Chicago, Toronto, 2015.
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