Teilhard’s de Chardin’s theology of evolution
Teilhard and other leading Jesuits of his generation therefore crossed the
Teilhard had developed a fascination with matter much earlier during his childhood in the
Teilhard also encountered matter spiritually in the Church’s sacraments. During his time in
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 Christ’s 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 God’s body. He certainly recovered an ancient sense of the whole world as a place infused with God’s 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 God’s involvement in the world brings us naturally to the focus of Teilhard’s Christian faith: the person of Christ. Devotion to Christ’s life and especially his Passion was central to Teilhard’s 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 Christ’s bodily suffering, into the heart of humankind. God ‘must, in some way or other, make room for himself, hollowing us out and emptying us, if he is finally to penetrate into us’, and at death is ‘painfully parting the fibres of my being to penetrate to the very marrow of my substance and bear me away’ within himself.
Some striking elements of Teilhard’s understanding of Christ require further comment. Later nineteenth-century theology had tended to emphasise Christ’s 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
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
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 ‘Outline of a Dialectic of Spirit’, 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 Teilhard’s 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 Church’s 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 narrative’s 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
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 people’s 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.