[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.