Some day, after mastering the wind, the waves, the tides, and gravity,
we will harness for God the energies of Love,
and then for the second time in the history of the world,
man will have discovered fire. — Pierre Teilhard de Chardin
The poetic words above hint at a hopeful turn of events around the bend of humanity’s future. Religion and science, which separated after Copernicus and divorced after Darwin, may one day reconcile.
Pierre Teilhard de Chardin died in New York City in 1955, in exile from his native France. He lies buried beneath a simple headstone in the graveyard of the Jesuit Fathers at Saint Andrews-on-Hudson. A mere handful of faithful friends attended his dreary, rain-dampened funeral. Fifty years following his death, however, conferences convened around the world to celebrate Teilhard’s life and legacy. In November 2005, in particular, the author was privileged to attend “Rediscovering Fire,” a Teilhard-legacy conference at Chestnut Hill College in Philadelphia, where some 500 people gathered from many nations to celebrate an extraordinary human. Why such interest in Teilhard, and why now, in the 21st Century?
For starters, Teilhard was a scientist — a paleontologist — of the highest rank. During an expedition to China’s Inner Mongolia in the 1920s, Teilhard and his coworker, Emil Licent, unearthed the first incontrovertible evidence of paleolithic humans in that remote corner of the globe. Although he did not discover Sinanthropus, commonly known as Peking Man and unearthed in 1929, Teilhard performed a vital role in the interpretive work that dated this early hominid at 500,000 years and determined him the first to tame fire. Hence the origin of the name of the Chestnut Hill conference: “Re-Discovering Fire.” As a scientist, Teilhard was prolific. In 1930 alone, he published 18 papers. His collected works fill 11 volumes. The caliber and quantity of his work earned him entry into the most prestigious scientific academies of both France and Britain.
Second, Teilhard was a Jesuit, so devout in his Christian faith that he prayed to die on Easter Sunday, a prayer granted by a massive heart attack during afternoon tea on April 10, 1955. But as a scientist as well as a priest, and a student of human origins who religiously carried a geology hammer on every outing, Teilhard fully embraced evolution. “Is evolution a theory, a system, or an hypothesis?” Teilhard pondered. Ultimately, he concluded:
It is much more: it is a general condition to which all theories, all hypotheses, all systems must bow and which they must satisfy henceforward if they are to be thinkable and true. Evolution is a light illuminating all facts, a curve that all lines must follow.
How did a man of such faith arrive at so bold a view of evolution? Keenly aware of 20th Century developments in cosmology, among them that the universe is expanding, having originated in a “primeval atom” (to use fellow scientist-priest George LeMaitre’s original term for the Big Bang), Teilhard grasped what others had failed to appreciate: evolution applies not only to biological processes. It applies to the whole of the cosmos. From this recognition emerged his beautiful notion of cosmogenesis, a term signifying a universe in continual creation. When was the moment of creation? Now!
Such radical views ran afoul of religious orthodoxy. Forbidden to publish for “errors of theological interpretation,” Teilhard, deeply wounded, acquiesced to the authority of the church. Assigned — some say banished — to China for the autumn of his life and to the US for its winter, Teilhard experienced continual rejection from the church to which his live was dedicated. All his significant non-scientific works were published posthumously. In rapid succession, The Phenomenon of Man, The Divine Milieu, and the autobiographical Heart of Matter each appeared shortly after his death — in French, then in English — thanks to the devotion of followers.
Third, Teilhard was an extraordinary human being: a man of shining intelligence, integrity, warmth, and uncommon courage. When Europe erupted into flames at the outset of World War I, Teilhard was conscripted and sent to the front as a stretcher-bearer assigned to a regiment of Moroccan sharpshooters. The unit had no chaplain. Soon Teilhard found himself consoling the dead and dying, earning from the Muslim men and boys their utmost respect and a title of high esteem — “Sidi Marabout” — which translates “closely bound to God.” Although he saw action in many of the greatest battles of WWI, Teilhard survived miraculously unscathed, without the slightest scratch. Decorated time and again for valor, he declined all promotions in order to remain at the front, of service to those who most needed him.
Paradoxically, amidst the unspeakable misery and horror of life at the front, Teilhard found a strange exhilaration. “The man at the front is no longer the same man,” he mused. There, Teilhard had an epiphany that would solidify his life’s work. And there, on a moonlit night, Teilhard’s deep spirituality and his scientific insights fused into a new understanding of the mysterious workings of evolution. Although the cosmic evolutionary processes are random at one level, they are not directionless. However haltingly, evolution marches forward to create beings of greater biological complexity and concomitantly higher consciousness. Teilhard termed this process complexification and envisioned a distant goal of evolution, the Omega Point, toward which creation advances. Human consciousness, he affirmed, is not the by-product of evolution; indeed, it is the goal of evolution.
Finally, Teilhard was a mystic, whose transcendent experiences began early. Recounting a mystical encounter with iron as a child, he reflected, “In all my childish experience, there was nothing in the world harder, tougher, or more durable than this wonderful substance.” Throughout his life, Teilhard maintained a tender affinity for matter and for the durable, an affinity that led him to geology and from there to paleontology. Yet, he plunged into despair to learn while still a child that iron can be scratched and will rust. Ironically, Teilhard rediscovered in the most insubstantial of all substances the durability he had longed for. “The felicity that I had sought in iron,” he confessed as an adult, “I can now find only in Spirit.”
The following passage from Discovering God Within by John Yungblut sensitively captures the classical struggle of the mystic, which Teilhard felt all too keenly:
The mystic is under greater constraint than others. He must not merely perceive connections between apparently disparate things and ideas, but make one of two or more worlds, which he experiences as in deadly conflict within him.
Enamored of both, but torn between the material and spiritual worlds, Teilhard eventually came to see matter and spirit as but two sides of a coin. He termed these faces the Within of Things and the Without; both are primary. In words from The Phenomenon of Man:
Co-extensive with the Without, there is a Within to things … We have recognized the existence of a conscious inner face that everywhere duplicates the “material” external face, which alone is commonly considered by science … In a coherent perspective of the world: life inevitably assumes “pre-life” for as far back as the eye can see … Refracted rearwards along the course of evolution, consciousness displays itself qualitatively as a spectrum of shifting shades whose lower terms are lost in the night.
The painful tension between his scientific career and his Christian faith ultimately forged within Teilhard a remarkable synthesis of matter and spirit, thereby providing us with a new paradigm at a time of unprecedented challenge: “There is neither spirit nor matter in the world; the stuff of the universe is spirit-matter. No other substance but this could produce the human molecule.”
The process by which spirit overtook matter as Teilhard’s first love was gradual. In prose that rivals poetry he wrote: “Throughout my life, by means of my life, the world has little by little caught fire in my sight, until aflame all around me, it has become almost luminous from within. Such has been my experience in contact with the Earth. The diaphany of the divine at the heart of a universe on fire.” Fire, to Teilhard, was metaphor for Spirit. The deeper he peered into the heart of matter, the more radiant it became.
It is no wonder then that humans around the globe, at a moment of awakening, turn to Teilhard. In Teilhard one finds science and religion respectful of one another and re-united in the human quest for meaning. In Teilhard one begins to fathom the depths of Jesus’ cryptic words: “I am the Alpha and the Omega.” And in Teilhard’s bold view of evolution, one starts to appreciate the “ceaseless working-over that all the forces of the universe undergo in us in order to reach the level of the spirit.”
Teilhard, a contemporary of Einstein, no doubt resonated to the latter’s observation: “Science without religion is lame; religion without science is blind.” How deeply those, who in the name of faith deny evolution and denigrate science, wound their own spirits. And how unnecessarily they try, albeit in vain, to hold humanity back from the great evolutionary leap that Teilhard both envisioned and experienced: the rediscovery of fire in the reconciliation of science and faith.
© 2012 Dave Pruett
This essay is adapted from the final chapters of the author’s new book Reason and Wonder: A Copernican Revolution in Science and Spirit (Praeger, 2012).