Teilhard’s Gamble

Betting on the whole human species
This story is included in these collections
Archives des jésuites de France, 1955

 

[This article first appeared in the October 27, 1967 issue of Commonweal]

     It is neither difficult nor unusual to contrast the optimism of Teilhard de Chardin with the pessimism of Pascal, yet the two have much in common. Not only did they both come from the central mountains of France, the Auvergne; not only were they both scientists who reacted as Christians to the scientific revolutions of their times; they also constructed apologetic syntheses which they felt would revive the faith of their contemporaries. Both were creative spirits as adventurous as they were gifted. Both reacted forcefully against the dead inertia of merely conventional Christianity. Both were controversial figures, venerated by some as prophets and mystics, execrated by others as heretics or religious cranks. Both recognized the urgent need for a restatement of familiar truths in a language viable for a new religious consciousness.

     Of course, Pascal did not, like Teilhard, create a whole new vocabulary. He spoke the language of his time. Confronting the “infinite spaces” opened up by the discoveries of Copernicus and Galileo, the vastness of a universe in which tiny man seemed lost, he urged the Christian to gamble with his existential freedom and make the wager of faith in the solitude of his own heart. Teilhard, facing the ongoing and openended process of evolution—adduced by some as a final proof of the unimportance of man— proceeded to put man right back into the center of the picture. In each case, the Christian answer to a quantitative conception of man in the world was a reaffirmation of value and quality. For Pascal, this centered in the personal freedom of the individual believer; for Teilhard in the collective freedom of persons committed to a common task of “planetization.”

     Even though Teilhard seeks to base his cosmic and “Christic” humanism on scientific evidence, it is ultimately a wager something like Pascal’s. Teilhard does not reach his grandiose conclusions by sheer induction: on the contrary, it all starts with an intuitive and global illumination, elaborated into a scientific mystique. Pascal gambles on the individual’s relation with Christ in faith. In other words, he bets that since man needs a Savior he must really have one. Teilhard gambles on God’s need for man, since without man God’s creative plan cannot be fulfilled. Without man, God’s face cannot be fully manifest in his evolving creation. Man has an inescapable inner need to be the locus of the divine epiphany, because in him the universe has at last become conscious of itself. And “the universe by structural necessity cannot disappoint the consciousness it produces.”

Evolution and Man

     The whole structure of Teilhard’s “religious thought,” which is the subject of de Lubac’s new book about him, The Religion of Teilhard de Chardin (Desclee), is based on this contention that evolution has made man once again the center of the universe, not spatially, not metaphysically, but in Teilhard’s word, “structurally.” “Man is the hub of the universe,” “the structural key to the universe.” Hence for Teilhard it is not only religion but science itself which declares that “man is the key and not an anomaly” in the world of evolution. For “man is the greatest telluric and biological event on our planet,” and “the supreme achievement of the organizing power of the cosmos.” Consequently man is “the key to the whole science of nature” and the “solution of everything that we can know.” This is the principal challenge of Teilhard to the thought of his time, and it is a challenge which, implemented by a cosmic and incarnational mystique, is directed against scientific positivism more than against the traditional theology of the Church. Indeed, one would have expected the scientists to dismiss Teilhard’s thesis as reactionary even more emphatically than the theologians who fought it as revolutionary. But scientists were on the whole more friendly to Teilhard than theologians.

     It is certainly true that the immense popularity of Teilhard is due in part to the censorship which strove to keep his writings out of reach. The censors themselves did more than anyone else to confer upon Teilhard the aura of charismatic authority which he enjoys among those who are fed up with indexes and inquisitions. And now Teilhard is doubly fortunate in having one of the best theologians of his Order, Father de Lubac—who also bears a few scars from the days of Humani Generis—to vouch for the perfect orthodoxy of his doctrine, at least in its basic orientation.

     The title of the translation, The Religion of Teilhard de Chardin, is perhaps unfortunate. “Religion” in English does not properly render pensée religieuse. Why does de Lubac announce his intention to study the “religious thinking” rather than the “theology” of Tabard? De Lubac is all the more ready to admit that Teilhard is “not a theologian or a philosopher” because he considers this in some respects an advantage. Teilhard was, like Pascal, the kind of religious genius who fell outside the ordinary categories and who would have been hampered in his creative originality if he had had to fit his thought into strictly technical limitations. True, this had disadvantages also. Teilhard’s thought is in some respects undisciplined and confusing to the theologian, open perhaps to grave misinterpretation by the layman. His new language is not always felicitous, and is sometimes tedious, sometimes even comic, as de Lubac freely admits. Nevertheless Teilhard is a genius, a unique and providential combination of the scientist and the mystic.

Teilhard is a genius, a unique and providential combination of the scientist and the mystic.

     De Lubac accepts without question that Teilhard is a true mystic, that his basic intuitions are entirely and profoundly Catholic, and that his shortcomings are purely incidental matters of expression. As an expert in Origen and the Greek Fathers, de Lubac indicates the deep affinities between Teilhard and the Alexandrians. One regrets that he does so only in passing: this is a theme which could be profitably developed. But de Lubac is concerned with the more urgent business of showing that there is nothing suspect in Teilhard. He does so fairly successfully, in so far as he concentrates on the “religious thinking” of Teilhard especially in its practical consequences for the Christian life. This book is in reality a summa of Teilhard’s spiritual doctrine: his teaching on the ascetic and mystical life in the context of his evolutionary and incarnational cosmogony. This teaching is centered in one of Teilhard’s most indisputably classic works, The Divine Milieu, but de Lubac also draws on many other documents, including much that has not appeared in print. The only sources not quoted are the “most intimate” letters which reflect Teilhard’s difficulties with his superiors and which remain classified. (De Lubac intimates that they will only prove more thoroughly Teilhard’s fidelity to traditional ideas of religious obedience.)

At Point of Change

     Teilhard’s religious thought and spiritual doctrine center in his theory of man’s present task on earth. According to his estimate of the evolutionary process, man is now at a point of decisive and revolutionary change: a point as crucial as that when, a million odd years ago, human consciousness broke through and man ceased to be an ape. But the point at which we now stand—the point at which we are about to enter a “collective Christic superconsciousness” and a higher civilization—has not only a human but also a decisively spiritual character: one might almost say it is a mystical and eschatological event, except that this does not correspond accurately to Teilhard’s way of speaking. “History is about to fuse with the transcendent,” Teilhard would say. Cosmic evolution is reaching the point of “convergence” upon a “personal center.” In fact we are already in year eleven of the Noosphere! (I don’t know how seriously we are meant to take Teilhard’s assertion that the Noosphere would begin in the Geophysical year of 1957.) We are entering upon the “planetization of mankind.” Man is ready for “totalization” in a collective task. He must use science and technology to humanize and spiritualize matter, thus preparing it for the advent of Christ. “The whole process of hominization is simply a preparation of the final Parousia.” We are now called to “fundamental oneness,” to a collaborative task, to “master the universe, to examine its secrets, to become one with all men in a higher community in which conscious minds will be illuminated by convergence in which consciousness will have freed or penetrated all matter.” Teilhardian man is then not lost and alone in a threatening cosmos, but at home in a happy world which is entirely his and which Christ is waiting for him to transform. “Christ is waiting to reappear until the human collectivity has become capable . . . of receiving from him its supernatural consummation.” Teilhardian man is one who gambles entirely on the future. He is a “pilgrim of the future,” and he refuses to be diverted from his pilgrimage even by the H-bomb which Teilhard found very inspiring: it was only a manifestation of the spirit and the “dawn of a Christic neo-energy.”

     Clearly, the Teilhardian wager is as much a gamble as Pascal’s. Perhaps it is more of a gamble. Pascal’s existential thinking confines itself to the area of individual freedom, and the individual can decide his own spiritual destiny! Teilhard has hocked everything and bet it on the whole human species. He has done so at a moment when the odds seem somewhat long against the kind of runaway win he anticipates. Teilhard does not seem to notice the wounds of mendacity and hatred which have been inexorably deepened in man by his practice of technological warfare, totalitarianism and genocide. Certainly we can sympathize with the admirable innocence of his hope. But is it as he believes, and as de Lubac concurs, a completely valid extrapolation of Bible eschatology? Is Teilhard so convinced that he be right, that he obstinately refuses to see any possibility of losing? At times, the Teilhardian synthesis seems to demand nothing short of blind faith in predetermined evolutionary success: the Noosphere is here, the super-consciousness is dawning and—this de Lubac neglected to add—the armies of Mao marching on Peking in 1951 were seen by Teilhard as the vanguard of a new humanity. Everything is already in the bag. You can’t lose: “It would be easier to halt the turning of the earth than it would be to prevent the totalization of mankind.”

Is Teilhard so convinced that he be right, that he obstinately refuses to see any possibility of losing?

     There are moments when Teilhard does not regard the successful issue of evolution as completely predetermined in every detail. There is an option, and it is “the Great Option.” The issue does depend partially on man’s choice. The ascetic and mystical teaching of Teilhard is then entirely oriented to this choice: “to win the world of science for Christ,” “to transfigure the agonizing immensity of the world into a center of loving energy,” and “produce the organism of- the total Christ.” The wrong choice is described now as a “refusal of progression,” and a withdrawal, a regression into “fusion” and inertia, cowardly annihilation of consciousness in pantheist mysticism, or else as a “Faustian individualism,” a tenacious fixation on selfish interest, whether private or national, and a consequent refusal to “converge.” But with his evolutionist perspective, Teilhard seems to take for granted that in the long run these refusals of individuals and groups will only contribute to the success of the whole process. The human race, as such will, he feels, decide against entropy, and enter into the superconscious life.

     The great question is not whether this hope is laudable, but whether it is purely and simply the theological hope of the Gospels and of the Church. With all his admiration for Teilhard, de Lubac does not go so far as to say that. He has many reservations about Teilhard’s religious teaching, his style and its perspectives. But he accepts the Teilhardian wager as a legitimate extrapolation of Christian revelation in a modern context. Teilhard, in his estimation, has made an inspired guess and has built upon it a mystique of hope, which may well be of vital importance in our time. But de Lubac also admits that the enthusiasm of Teilhardians—and their overanxiety to be super-modern—has blinded them to two facts. Teilhard is not really as revolutionary as he himself thought, and one of the defects of Teilhardism is precisely its tendency to black and white schematization, a naive polarization of “yesterday” and “tomorrow.” The only harsh word de Lubac has for Teilhard is that he was too complacent about his own originality and that he neglected to learn from predecessors he would have agreed with, had he but known them: “his knowledge of Christian thought throughout the centuries was never more than elementary.”

Thomas Merton was the author of "Man in the Divided Sea," and many other books. He was a member of the Trappist Community at Gethsemani, KY. He died December 10, 1968.

This story is included in these collections:

Please email comments to letters@commonwealmagazine.org and join the conversation on our Facebook page.

Must Reads

Politics
Religion
Culture
Books
Books
Collections