Was the Jesuit priest and scientist Pierre Teilhard de Chardin really a racist, fascist, and even genocidal opponent of human dignity? I had thought that, at least among educated Catholics, this question was almost dead, and that holdout pockets of hostility might be vanishing for good, especially after several recent popes admiringly cited Teilhard’s cosmic vision for its theological beauty and Eucharistic power.
But my optimism was premature. In a December 2016 article in Philosophy and Theology titled “Dangerous Tendencies of Cosmic Theology: The Untold Legacy of Teilhard de Chardin,” John Slattery writes that “from the 1920s until his death in 1955, Teilhard de Chardin unequivocally supported racist eugenic practices, praised the possibilities of the Nazi experiments, and looked down upon those who [sic] he deemed ‘imperfect’ humans.” Slattery, a recent graduate of Notre Dame’s Department of Theology, claims that a persistent attraction to racism, fascism, and genocidal ideas “explicitly lay the groundwork for Teilhard’s famous cosmological theology.” This, he informs us, “is a link which has been largely ignored in Teilhardian research.”
A more recent article by the same critic in Religion Dispatches (May 2018) is entitled “Pierre Teilhard de Chardin’s Legacy of Eugenics and Racism Can’t Be Ignored.” In it, Slattery hangs his case on eight stray citations from Teilhard’s letters and other scattered writings. Most of the quotes present what were speculative inquiries on the part of Teilhard—questions that countless other thoughtful people have asked, including many Catholics—rather than systematically developed theses for public consumption. Their style is provocative and interrogatory, not declarative. Exactly what Teilhard really meant by them is, in every single case, highly debatable.
And yet Slattery holds these excerpts out to us as undeniable evidence that Teilhard’s true “legacy” is one of hostility to Catholic affirmation of human dignity, racial justice, and concern for the disadvantaged. Still more important, however, is Slattery’s claim that it was Teilhard’s commitment to these evils that grounds and undergirds his “cosmological theology.” Nothing could be more preposterous.
Slattery doesn’t deny that the bulk of Teilhard’s religious writings are uncontroversially Christian and in tune with Catholic teaching. Yet he ignores this fact in defining what he calls Teilhard’s “legacy.” Though he surely knows that most readers will be unfamiliar with the man and his thought, he has decided to expose them first to what he considers Teilhard’s most sinister side. In the process he takes a thimbleful of quotes out of context, posts them on a blank background, and says nothing substantive about the remaining 99.9 percent of Teilhard’s work. Failing to take into account the general architecture of Teilhard’s thought always leads to the kinds of exaggeration and distortion that Slattery commits.
He begins by reciting the best-known of Teilhard’s treasurable remarks: “If humanity ever captures the energy of love, it will be the second time in history that we have discovered fire.” Noting that millions who tuned into the wedding of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle heard these lines recited in a moving sermon by Episcopal Bishop Michael Bruce Curry, Slattery remarks that listeners who “swooned” over them were unaware of the poisonous roots of Teilhard’s religious worldview. He proceeds to reveal the rot he finds in a package of eight passages cherry-picked from Teilhard’s voluminous letters and writings. I shall condense the most offensive of these below, but I want to begin my response to Slattery by summarizing what other students of Teilhard’s work consider to be his real legacy. Only after becoming acquainted with his core ideas can we interpret rightly what Slattery finds so offensive in Teilhard’s work.
Seasoned Teilhard scholars are aware of the questionable remarks he points to; but the seeming offensiveness of such comments fades into the shadows when we read them in terms of the fundamental principles guiding Teilhard’s scientifically informed vision of the world and God. Here are four of these fundamental principles:
The universe (as science has demonstrated) is still coming into being. Hence the world is not yet perfected. Theologically, this means that creation remains “unfinished,” and that humans, who are part of this universe, may contribute significantly to its making. The opportunity to participate in “building the earth” is a cornerstone of human dignity. (It is also a teaching of Vatican II.) The fact that our creativity can sometimes lead to monstrous outcomes does not absolve us of the obligation to improve the world and ourselves. Taking advantage of this opportunity is sometimes dangerous, but it is also essential to sustaining hope and a “zest for living,” Teilhard maintains. Moreover, nothing “clips the wings of hope” more severely than the now obsolete theological idea that the universe was completed once and for all in the beginning, and that there is little or nothing we can do to make it new.
To create is to unite. The world comes into being—and becomes new—by a process of unification. Scientifically understood, the emerging cosmos becomes intelligible only by gradually bringing increasingly more complex forms of coherence out of its primordial state of diffusion and atomic dispersal. As the universe in the course of time becomes more complex, it also becomes more conscious. Theologically, this principle is implied in Christian hope as summed up in Jesus’ prayer that “all may be one” and in the Pauline expectation that everything will be “brought to a head” in Christ, “in whom all things consist.” Teilhard stated explicitly that his whole theology of nature is consistent with the expectations of the Apostle Paul and the Fourth Evangelist: “Lord make us one.” His true legacy lies in his rich Christian sense of a universe converging on Christ and being brought into final union in what he called God-Omega.
True union differentiates. As the creative love of God brings increasing unity to the unfinished universe, it is God’s will that the diversity of creation increases as well, including the emergence of free and unique human persons. In Christ, God seeks to become continually more incarnate in the world not via an order imposed on it, but by a differentiating, liberating, and personalizing communion with it. Many distortions of Teilhard’s intentions, including Slattery’s, stem from a failure to understand what Teilhard means by true union. As we shall see, to miss the deeply Christian motif of differentiating union in his writings is to do him grave injustice.
The world rests on the future as its sole support. As we follow the course of cosmic history from its remote past into the future, Teilhard observes, we discover a “law of recurrence” in which something new, more complex, and (eventually) more conscious has always been taking shape “up ahead.” Scientifically speaking, we now know that subatomic elements were organized around atomic nuclei; atoms were gathered into molecules; molecules into cells; and cells into complex organisms, some of which made the leap into thought. The most important kinds of emergence can occur, however, only if the elements allow themselves to be organized around a new and higher center, one that lifts them up to a more elaborately differentiated unity. To experience true union, true being, true goodness, and true beauty, therefore, we must allow ourselves—like Abraham, the prophets, and Jesus—to be grasped by the Future.