When a Jesuit Evolutionist and a Religious Existentialist Cross Paths; (Or) Why Won't the New Humanity Emerge Already?

Caveat: This piece is chock full of non-inclusive language. That's the least of what's troubling about it.

The Eiffel Tower at sunrise,
taken from the Place du Trocadero.
By Tristan Nitot. (Via Wikimedia Commons)
In the aftermath of World War II, Paris was teeming with intellectual life. The most dominant schools of philosophy were Marxism and existentialism -- or better, Marxisms and existentialisms. Pierre Teilhard de Chardin (1881-1955) engaged in vigorous conversations with representatives of both groups -- who also, of course, were in spirited engagements with each other (See Novak). By this point, late in his career and life, the Jesuit geologist and paleontologist was world-renowned, especially for his field work in China, where, among many other accomplishments, he worked on the research team that discovered "Peking Man" (Sinanthropus pekinensis); he also helped establish the fact that pekinensus was homo faber, a tool-maker.

Established professionally by his theories of the earth's past, though, Teilhard's company was more broadly in demand for his views as a futurist, who articulated the lines for a bold science (or "phenomenology") of the human as such, seen as the crown and perfecter of cosmic and terrestrial evolution.

Perhaps sentiment in war-ravaged Europe was ripe for a bit of visionary optimism. In a fit of premature exuberance (it would seem), Teilhard writes:

I am excited and absorbed by everything I see in France. Could it be that France is truly the cradle where, after two thousand years, Christ is pleased to be reborn "universally"? In any case, a light is certainly rising on the horizon (Cuénot, p. 251).

(France was awaiting Christ the Omega; instead, they would have to settle for Charles de Gaulle.)

Through scores of essays, the majority of which were not published during his lifetime, Teilhard articulated a revisionist Catholic natural philosophy and theology that seeks to integrate a mystical, Christ-centered piety with a modern evolutionary cosmology. Such radical ideas, though, were a bit too edgy for many church leaders in the decades between the bruising modernist controversies at the turn of the century and Vatican II (still, at this point, almost 20 years in the future). Consequently, Teilhard had been admonished by his superiors in the Jesuit order not to publish his speculations of a philosophical or theological nature, nor to promulgate his views in large public gatherings.

Pierre Teilhard de Chardin (1947)
Archives des jésuites de France
(via Wikimedia Commons
Teilhard, a loyal member of his order until his death, complied with the ban, though clearly he chafed under it -- and he fudged a bit (or so it seems to me). Thus, in the late '40s, Teilhard gave lectures to smaller groups and engaged in conversations with leading intellectuals in France (as well as in the United States; he was residing in New York, virtually in exile from his native country when he died in 1955). Teilhard's biographer, Claude Cuénot, recounts a fascinating interchange between Teilhard and the religious existentialist philosopher Gabriel Marcel (1889-1973). Marcel and Teilhard met on January 21, 1947; the topic was "Science and Consciousness." The two thinkers debated about the extent to which material and social organization might serve to advance human spirituality.

Teilhard's overarching anthropological claim is that the evolution of humankind has moved from the physiological sphere into the realm of thought and culture, and that all these lines of development are converging toward an ultimate point of unification and fulfillment. Marcel, a bit skeptical, demurs. He charges Teilhard's thought with being "Promethean" and "anti-Christian" in its pretensions to build a radiant spiritual future from the ashes of its material miseries.

By "spiritual" I understand a reference to certain values which are very precise. Let me take the example of the doctors at Dachau. On this level, can one be optimistic? What is the integrating consciousness of these scientists worth? I see nothing hominizing there (ibid.).

"No!" Teilhard retorts:

Man, if he reflects on what he does, finds himself forced to realize that he must rise above himself to attain his summit. What makes a man Promethean is his refusal to transcend his deeds. The Promethean man is confronted by total death (ibid.).

The key issue dividing the two thinkers is theodicy, the problem of evil from the perspective of religious philosophy. Marcel fixates on the broken and fragmentary character of human existence, whereas for Teilhard, this propensity to evil is really a sort of inertia and resistance in the face of collective human progress. For the priest, evil is a roadblock to be resisted and -- through the power of God instantiated through human striving -- eventually overcome. Cuénot summarizes what polarizes the two philosophers:

[G]ranting this deep rift that evil has introduced into the human condition, granting that man, in a very personal drama, wavers between invocation and refusal, Marcel is particularly sensitive to what collectivization and the development of technique (linked phenomena) mean as far as dehumanization is concerned. He sees in the triumph of collectivism and technique a new manifestation of the Promethean spirit which is pride and a refusal of God, the will to snatch from God his good in order to become God oneself (p. 252).

For Teilhard, this evil is precisely what humanity must struggle to overcome as it releases and synthesizes the spiritual potentials of its material organization. In his view collectivization, properly understood, does not eviscerate diversity and individuality but rather unites fully actualized people in a higher communal synthesis. Somehow this process of emerging complexity that converges to a point of collective spiritual maturity realizes a union with "God" -- indeed, for Teilhard the evolution of human culture and civilization (the "noosphere," meaning the expanding envelope of collective thought that crowns the biosphere) somehow realizes and extends of the progressive incarnation of "Christ," the ultimate catalyst and term of human evolution. Note my emphasis on somehow; in my reading Teilhard tends to wax rather wooly on the practical details.

Cuénot writes:

Teilhard replies that he has never denied the existence of men at once intelligent and perverse, and that the concentration camps only illustrate with more intensity the very essence of evil, which is the refusal of unity, integration and the love of God (p. 253)

Prometheus bringt der Menschheit das Feuer
by Heinrich Fueger (1817) (via Wikimedia commons)
Unloving, to say the least. But what I (along with Marcel) find troubling is that the Nazis had a very clear vision of a future, united humankind, and it was either sublime or hellish, depending upon your perspective and how "advanced" your ethnic and culture group happened to be. Keep in mind that Teilhard himself foresaw a role for eugenics in the self-directed evolution of an enlightened human vanguard.

So which of these francophone philosophes is more on target? A Teilhardian could always say, of course, that the best is yet to come and that the love of God ensures that the process comes out right in the end. In my view, the best way to weigh these options in a proper perspective would be to lay out a "phenomenology" of some of the shit that's gone down in the seven decades since this debate occurred, years in which the power of a fallen technical reason has developed new means of inflicting cruelty, suffering and death more subtle and insidious than even the Nazi doctors could imagine. (While we're in post-war France ... Paging Jacques Ellul?) Dirty wars and cold wars, genocide and ethnic cleansing, torture and terrorism -- all of which have been aided and abetted by advances in technology and social experimentation. If Jesus is en route to arrive soon, we've all got some explaining to do; and he likely won't be ratifying our collective achievements as much as judging and forgiving them.

To be fair, I'm not suggesting Teilhard is blithely unaware of the problem of evil; on the contrary, as I argued in a paper many years ago, he's practically obsessed with it. Rather, the issue is that the cultural and technological progress of humankind poses an enigma whose answer cannot be found within the world process itself. At all. That, in a nutshell, is what I think he doesn't get.

"Everything that rises must converge," claims Teilhard de Chardin. But I'm inclined to rewrite it: "Everything that rises steps on top of something -- or someone -- else."


Works Cited:

Cuénot, Claude. Teilhard de Chardin: A Biographical Study (Baltimore, MD: Helicon Press, 1965).

Novak, George (ed.). Existentialism versus Marxism: Conflicting Views on Humanism (New York: Delta, 1966).



Matthew Frost said…
Very well-summarized. "Rather, the issue is that the cultural and technological progress of humankind poses an enigma whose answer cannot be found within the world process itself. At all."

I come out of a religion-and-science program that cites PTdC as one of its canonical saints, that adores naturalism, and that pointedly doesn't see the hegemonic cultural assumptions behind "convergence" as a narrow passage through which only the worthy will fit. It's not a universalism! Precisely by being a "transcendent" intellectual experience, it rules out everything "lower" than the (white, Western) standard of universal mind. "Progress" has been happening, and we are proof of it, and some will be validated in the end. This is always the failure of partial soteriologies, and it is a failure inherited by so many so-called "universalisms" that function by inclusion into the group of the saved—a program "already in progress," as they used to say on TV. Leading the way, like a proper revolutionary vanguard ... and followed poorly if at all by the genuine proletariat to whom they should have been solidary, instead of demanding solidarity upward to themselves as the leaders.

I'm reminded of the frequent historic collapses of left-wing demagoguery, using all the tools of the right-wing factions for programs that don't get at the real reason demagoguery works.
Thanks! Good points all. It looks like I've managed to write something with which you agree. ;-)

Popular Posts

Abortion, Authoritarian Self-Deception, Evangelicals, and Trump: a collected Twitter essay from Christopher Stroop

What’s the Deal with Wolfhart Pannenberg? A guest post by Andrew Hollingsworth

So, You Want to Read Wolfhart Pannenberg? A guest post by Andrew Hollingsworth

So You Want to Read….Dietrich Bonhoeffer?

“We must become the prayer”: an anonymous missive on the pastoral task after the death of God