An evolutionary vision

This year marks the 50th anniversary of the death of Pierre Teilhard de Chardin and the 40th of Winston Churchill’s. They never met and had totally different temperaments. But some things they had in common: each came from a locally distinguished family, had significant overseas experience, and found his hour after it had seemed to pass him by. And each now basks in an autumnal absence of interest.

Teilhard’s hour came after his death at the time of the Second Vatican Council. He was one of the foundation stones, long spurned by the builders in the Church, that was to become a cornerstone of the post-conciliar Church.

Earlier, Teilhard had been forbidden to publish his work, but his manuscripts had a significant influence. After his death, his writings, preserved by the zeal of some fellow Jesuits and other  friends, came triumphantly to light.

Teilhard was also an emblem of the Vatican Council in that he embodied in his person its intent to reach beyond the Church in order to engage with the public world. He was of the rural gentry, refined in appearance, charming and sociable, and at home in universities and salons. His personal journey and his palaeontology had taken him to the critical theatres of the 20th century—the trenches of the Great War, and China during the civil war and the Japanese invasion. A Jesuit priest and distinguished scientist, he was involved in the discovery of the fraudulent Piltdown man and the seminal Peking man.

Above all, his vision brought together scientific and theological reflection to affirm an evolutionary view of the world centred on Jesus Christ. Science and evolution, which were seen by many as the enemies of faith, were so reconciled.

The Vatican Council brought romantics out to play. Teilhard’s faith was essentially romantic: it rested on a personal and passionate vision that came out of struggle. He walked in a valley shadowed by the absence of God. The rhetoric in which he couched his affirmation that an evolutionary world found its ultimate meaning in Christ was passionate and vigorous. His vision had an imaginative sweep that could be intuited, even if it was not always understood.

Teilhard’s evolutionary vision transcended the categories of the classical theology that he inherited. He collapsed boundaries between God and the world, between grace and nature, between church and world, matter and spirit, between present and future. It is little wonder that in a controlling climate he was denied licence to publicise his ideas.

In all these respects Teilhard was the emblem of a new way of being Catholic and of thinking as Catholic. If he is now less read and less noticed, it may be because classical theology no longer has any purchase on the Catholic imagination. It may also be because a large and broad vision does not sit lightly with the current mood of retrenchment, of digging walls, inspecting foundations, and looking inwards. In a time of bombarding the enemy’s trenches, of capturing a yard or two of ground, of summoning loyalty, it seems quixotic to make peace with old enemies, to struggle with large ideas, or to proclaim the expansive hopes of the Gospel. 

That is why it is important to return to Teilhard de Chardin. He stretched his life, his prayer, his relationships, his work and his faith so tight that they always threatened to fly apart. At a time that is intellectually and culturally less adventurous it is tempting to settle for bombastic affirmations of faith and for a bland and formal reconciliation of faith and culture, matter and spirit, church and world. That the highest human value is neither a quiet nor a regimented life, Teilhard and Churchill alike testify.    

Andrew Hamilton sj is the publisher of Eureka Street.



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