From the French Coast to the Cliffs of England -- World as Sacrament in the Early Life and Theology of Pierre Teilhard de Chardin
David Grumett writes about Teilhardís de Chardinís theology of evolution.
In France in the opening years of the twentieth century, religious life entered dark times. The government of the Third Republic, not content with the existing separation of church and state and post-Revolutionary secular constitution, banned all Christian education in the country. This prohibition hit the Jesuits and other religious communities particularly hard, because to gain new members they depended on a lengthy programme of formation delivered by their own clergy.
Teilhard and other leading Jesuits of his generation therefore crossed the English Channel to complete their education. Several centres were opened on the south coast of England, the largest being in Hastings, where Teilhard studied from 1908 to 1912. This period was important not only in providing a comparatively tranquil setting for spiritual contemplation, but for the vistas it opened onto what would become his other great passion: paleontology. In scientific terms this was the genetics of its age, with the recovery of the fossil record of biological history enabling human origins and connectedness with the rest of the created order to be understood as never before.
Teilhard had developed a fascination with matter much earlier during his childhood in the Auvergne amidst its spectacular extinct volcanoes. Looking back, however, he regarded this near obsession with hard, solid matter as misguided. While excavating the Sussex cliffs, he began to see the wider importance of matter not as the ultimate constituent of human life but as pointing to a deeper spiritual reality: the evolution of life and the emergence of human life as processes directed by God.
Teilhard also encountered matter spiritually in the Churchís sacraments. During his time in Hastings, the eucharist became increasingly central to his spirituality: he was ordained priest, wrote a dissertation on the eucharist and received the sacrament every day. At the altar, he consumed Christís body and blood. Yet he would soon see the bread and wine of the eucharist as continuous with the rest of created matter. In the Mass, the portion of bread and chalice of wine offered and consecrated represented for him the whole of matter continually formed and transformed by human activity. Moreover, he regarded this everyday transformative activity as priestly because, just like eucharistic consecration, it involved human co-operation in Godís creative action. In his spiritual classic The Divine Milieu, Teilhard wrote that in action, ĎI adhere to the creative power of God; I coincide with it; I become not only its instrument but its living extension. And as there is nothing more personal in beings than their will, I merge myself, in a sense, through my heart, with the very heart of God.í He saw these words as applicable not only to himself but to all human beings.
The eucharist also presented a solution to his problem of how to value matter spiritually, rather than as just brute, hard, formless stuff. Drawing on the work of some earlier scholars, he came to see Christís presence in the substance of the eucharist as exemplifying his presence in all created substances, sustaining them and constituting them into something far greater than raw matter. He thus regarded substance as spiritually formed matter.
What does all this mean for a theology of the body? Teilhard has sometimes been read as a pantheist, believing that God is everywhere in the natural world but does not subsist outside that world. This is untrue, however, and it would be equally simplistic to infer that Teilhard regarded the world as Godís body. He certainly recovered an ancient sense of the whole world as a place infused with Godís action and of all matter as enfolded in a single cosmic order. But he understood that the ordering of matter was possible only as the result of a cause existing outside the observable natural world, and that God could only be present in that world if ultimately subsisting beyond it.
This view of the nature of Godís involvement in the world brings us naturally to the focus of Teilhardís Christian faith: the person of Christ. Devotion to Christís life and especially his Passion was central to Teilhardís Jesuit and Ignatian spirituality, enabling him to see God at work in the world even when humanity was grievously diminished through pain and suffering. He had no easy explanations for the apparently meaningless and purposeless suffering intrinsic to human bodily existence, but in The Divine Milieu wrote movingly about how this is transfigured by God and provides a means by which God may enter, in Christís bodily suffering, into the heart of humankind. God Ďmust, in some way or other, make room for himself, hollowing us out and emptying us, if he is finally to penetrate into usí, and at death is Ďpainfully parting the fibres of my being to penetrate to the very marrow of my substance and bear me awayí within himself.
Some striking elements of Teilhardís understanding of Christ require further comment. Later nineteenth-century theology had tended to emphasise Christís human nature at the expense of his divine nature. This had been taken to an extreme in various modernist writings that portrayed Christ as a mere human being no different from anyone else. Teilhard compensated for this by developing the insights of some of his teachers and fellow students at Hastings into the cosmic dimension of Christís work. Christ was not simply the carpenter of Galilee, but in the terms of Paulís letter to the Colossians the Ďimage of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creationí, creator and sustainer of all things and the source of their consistency.
Teilhard saw Christ as exercising this guiding influence over the cosmos most powerfully via the mechanism of evolution. Schooled in the metaphysics of Thomas Aquinas, he was sympathetic to the idea that different types of cause co-operate in the world to form a texture or harmony of causes. Although Teilhard broadly accepted Darwinís theory of natural selection, this more ancient metaphysics suggested to him that evolution was not entirely a product of random mutations and struggles for survival, but a convergent progression of the world towards an ever greater unity in Christ. He tested this hypothesis by digging up fossils, and concluded that it provided a reasonable explanation for the evolutionary changes these revealed, as well as the similarities identifiable between different branches of evolution. Teilhard even experimented with the idea of Christ as exhibiting a third Ďcosmicí nature distinct from his human and divine natures, but quickly realised that Christís cosmic activity could only be due to the perfect fusion, without confusion, of his divine and human natures rather than to the action of some additional nature. Christís human nature provided his anchor point within the world, while his divine nature allowed him to act in the world without being confined by it.
In evolution, Teilhard saw Christ as presenting himself to the world as its Omega point: its plan, fulfilment and final end. In an important description contained in a later ĎOutline of a Dialectic of Spirití, he explained how Christ as Omega binds together three distinct centres of evolutionary attraction: the natural end of the world, its supernatural but still immanent spiritual end, and its transcendent, triune and divine centre. This Trinitarian understanding of how humans experience reality complements his strongly Christocentric vision.
Teilhard thus presented the human body as both an active body and a passive body, but in any case as a body dependent on the body of Christ present in the eucharist and by extension in the whole created order. What did this mean for his faith? Many of Teilhardís supporters and detractors have sought to align him with a New Age spirituality that refutes traditional Christian claims or at best dilutes them. In fact, he mostly accepted those claims, seeking to demonstrate their significance for the twentieth century and thereby intensify their true meaning. He accepted that religious faith was a human creation: Christian belief had been formulated and passed on by the Church through many centuries of word and action. Nevertheless, he firmly believed that faith was more than a human creation, pointing to an inalienably transcendent reality without which Christ would not ever have been sent into the world to inaugurate the Churchís historic witness in word and sacrament. Teilhard also believed in a supremely creative, human-centred Christian faith, but remained convinced that divine action was implicated in all human creativity worthy of the name.
His view of the nature and function of Christian narrative is daring by current postmodern standards. Rather than seeing narrativeís primary function as being to describe individual human lives and then to reach outwards to connect with narratives of other human lives, he depicts a panoramic sweep stretching from the origin of the world to its final consummation. Narrative is primarily cosmic for Teilhard, with individual lives and experiences subsumed into a much larger story. This is especially clear in his wedding addresses, where the love that the couple feel for each other is given permanency and consistency by the love of Christ beyond them, ahead of them and above them, drawing them outwards from mutual self-absorption into an even greater reality. This is part of a spirituality in which the ultimate truth is Christ.
Although Teilhard spent many yearsin China, he never accepted that all religions offered equivalent manifestations of a single overarching spiritual reality. He saw in Christianity particular features uniquely apposite to modern embodied reality, especially its incarnational fusion of spiritual and material principles and the linear narrative it unfolds of a series of events leading up to the birth, life and death of Christ and continuing beyond them. In his evolutionary theology, Teilhard understood humanity and the whole of nature as combining incarnationally these two principles in a linear historical progression guided by Christ.
This daring reappropriation of themes from secular, non-Christian speculation reminds us of how, in the New Testament, Paul used some of his letters to wrest cosmic imagery from the dominant pagan religion to put it to the service of Christianity. In the present day, the power of popular Gnosticism such as The Da Vinci Code shows that Christianity needs to do more to recover its own unique cosmological narrative in ways that inspire peopleís imagination and respond to their metaphysical questions. It also needs confidently to refute popular misinterpretations of modern science with its own alternative metaphysics, negotiating the plains on which armies of atheist scientists and philosophers currently clash with creationists. Teilhard has a lot to offer both these projects.
Dr David Grumett is Research Fellow in Theology in the University of Exeter. He is author of Teilhard de Chardin: Theology, Humanity and Cosmos (Peeters, 2005) and a booklet Religious Experience in the Vision of Teilhard de Chardin (Lampeter: Religious Experience Research Centre, 2006). For further details of his work, see www.davidgrumett.com.