the jesuit and the skull

By Diogenes (articles ) | Oct 08, 2007

There's a new book on Pierre Teilhard de Chardin titled The Jesuit and the Skull, by Amir Aczel. It's reviewed in yesterday's LA Times by Jonathan Kirsch. Kirsch is enthusiastic about Teilhard and about the book; less so about the Church.

Tall, dapper, handsome and aristocratic, Teilhard was a charismatic figure who inevitably attracted the attention of the women around him. But as a Jesuit priest who had taken a vow of chastity, he refused to enter into the sexual union that some of them sought. And because his vows included one of obedience, his most important work, his philosophical writings -- an effort to embrace both a mystical faith in religion and the hard facts disclosed by scientific inquiry -- remained unpublished during his lifetime because the Roman Catholic Church decreed that they were heretical.

Teilhard's most vexing problems revolve around his membership in the Society of Jesus. His popularity and success in the secular world prompted his superiors to send this most cosmopolitan of men into exile in the wilds of Asia and Africa. And because he elected not to break his vow of chastity or withdraw from his order, the love he shared with a sculptress eventually withered and died.

"I am forced to choose," he wrote to a priest friend, "between two opposing ideas; the one, the rather 'brutal' thought that nothing in life really matters except God; the other, an ever-sharpening awareness of how heavy-handed, narrow-minded, and weak is the modern Church."


Tens of thousands of years later, the worst features of organized religion distorted and delimited the life and work of this visionary whom the inheritors of the Inquisition saw as a dangerous heretic. Only after Teilhard's death were his most important works printed, and only because he put the manuscripts beyond church control by bequeathing them to one of the women who had befriended him.

In this case, I think, the organs of the "worst features of organized religion" got it right, and the "heavy-handed, narrow-minded, and weak" Catholic Church proved better a judge of character than Teilhard's sculptress. Tall, dapper, handsome and aristocratic -- I'll have to take Kirsch's word for it here -- Teilhard de Chardin was essentially a fraud. At bottom, he was a Ramada Inn lounge singer posing as a metaphysician.

I cringe to admit I have weighty opinion against me. Both Joseph Ratzinger and Flannery O'Connor were deeply impressed by Teilhard. I can only explain this admiration by the surmise that neither admirer had any formal education in science, and both were thus innocently susceptible to Teilhard's pseudo-scientific pedantries. It's also true that, in the way that Mother Teresa became a living symbol of the Church's love of the wretched, Teilhard by the early 1960s had become a symbol of the conviction that Catholic faith and scientific fact are reconcilable, and he attracted the sympathies of those shared that conviction. The difference is that Mother Teresa was the genuine article.

Teilhard was cut out to be one of those lecture circuit mystagogues that are part guru and part crooner. As is characteristic of the breed, he had an unwholesome liking for grand sounding neologisms and that "tipsy, euphoristic prose-poetry" (Peter Medawar's perfect phrase). As is characteristic of the breed, he was ostentatiously yet solemnly concerned with the forging of some Great Synthesis -- between faith and science in his case. As is characteristic of the breed, his woozy mysticism was peculiarly attractive to a certain kind of woman no longer young. Matthew Fox, Thomas Moore, and Richard Rohr are, perhaps, his closest present day counterparts.

Had Teilhard stuck to his cotton-candy metaphysics, he probably would have been ignored by his principal antagonists both inside and outside the Church. It was his claim to be a serious paleontologist and unflinching respecter of scientific fact that put his theology in the crosshairs. Peter Medawar's famous demolition of Teilhard's The Phenomenon of Man -- worth a read in its entirety -- not only exposed the sleight-of-hand behind his pseudo-science, but pitilessly rubbed Teilhard's nose in his own poetry:

Teilhard is for ever shouting at us: things or affairs are, in alphabetical order, astounding, colossal, endless, enormous, fantastic, giddy, hyper-, immense, implacable, indefinite, inexhaustible, extricable, infinite, infinitesimal, innumerable, irresistible, measureless, mega-, monstrous, mysterious, prodigious, relentless, super-, ultra-, unbelievable, unbridled or unparalleled. When something is described as merely huge we feel let down. After this softening-up process we are ready to take delivery of the neologisms: biota, noosphere, hominisation, complexification. There is much else in the literary idiom of nature-philosophy: nothing-buttery, for example, always part of the minor symptomatology of the bogus. "Love in all its subtleties is nothing more, and nothing less, than the more or less direct tract marked on the heart of the element by the psychical converge of the universe upon itself." "Man discovers that he is nothing else than evolution become conscious of itself," and evolution is "nothing else than the continual growth of 'psychic' or 'radial' energy". Again, "the Christogenesis of St Paul and St John is nothing else and nothing less than the extension of that noogenesis in which cosmogenesis culminates".

Continual growth of radial energy. Got it.

"On Easter Sunday in 1955," writes Jonathan Kirsch in his review of Aczel, "Teilhard died of a heart attack in New York. Later that year, The Phenomenon of Man, the first of his many books, at last was published, despite every effort of the church to prevent it." If we buy the Kirsch line that this represents a defeat for the Church and a victory of Teilhard, it's still fair to ask: half a century after the Church's failure, whose reputation has suffered more as a consequence?

Sound Off! supporters weigh in.

All comments are moderated. To lighten our editing burden, only current donors are allowed to Sound Off. If you are a donor, log in to see the comment form; otherwise please support our work, and Sound Off!

Show 13 Comments? (Hidden)Hide Comments
  • Posted by: - Oct. 10, 2007 9:34 PM ET USA

    I wonder whether Teilhard's critics have that "formal education in science" that surpasses the supposedly lacking education of Joseph Ratzinger. Was the future erudite Holy Father really taken in by a "lounge lizard," a "lecture circuit mystagogue," and a "crooner" that others could spot so easily? If Joseph Ratzinger was impressed by Teilhard, maybe Teilhard deserves more credit than some people give him. BTW, it matters not that Teilhard was tempted, only that he resisted.

  • Posted by: - Oct. 10, 2007 4:21 AM ET USA

    Yes, Clement, let's review but please not the anti-RC narrative of Galileo upholding reason against Church obscurantism. G. was slapped on the wrist for claiming the earth's orbit of the sun was proven (by the tides!) while it was still a hypothesis, calmly taught at the time along with geocentrism and proven indubitably only some 200 years later. Vittorio Messori once reported on a Council of Europe survey which showed that 97% of EU science students thought G. had been tortured by Church.

  • Posted by: - Oct. 09, 2007 9:42 AM ET USA

    Teilhard Chardin excites nothing in me but a need to sleep. I've never been able to read more than a few paragraphs of anything he wrote before I begin wondering about what I'm having for lunch. Bad poetry and bad science make a terribly bad read.

  • Posted by: - Oct. 09, 2007 8:56 AM ET USA

    Yes, Proud Papist, you had to mention Matthew Fox. I will at least give him credit for leaving the Catholic Church and becoming Episcopalian rather than staying and becoming another shrieking dissident.

  • Posted by: - Oct. 09, 2007 6:42 AM ET USA

    Clement - of course science and religion can be reconciled - REAL science and REAL religion. Teilhard de Chardin was a proponent of neither.

  • Posted by: - Oct. 08, 2007 9:40 PM ET USA

    Teilhard de Chardin excites the passion of men no matter what side of the equation you're on. Perhaps science and religion can't be reconciled but maybe it's the dialogue between the two that's important. I guess it's time to review the works of Nicolas Copernicus, Galileo Galilei and Charles Darwin.

  • Posted by: - Oct. 08, 2007 8:59 PM ET USA

    Chardin never seemed to worry that he was faking the science, nor does it worry his fans today. What is it about the Jesuits that tends to encourage their scholars to fake the science? McCormick's "pre-embryo" comes to mind. Then there is the fascinating article by Hurlbut (physician, President's Council, OAR-stem cells, etc.) in New Atlantis, "From Biology to Biography", about the evolution of "personhood": Must be something in the water.

  • Posted by: - Oct. 08, 2007 7:02 PM ET USA

    Flannery O'Connor's story Everything That Rises Must Converge takes Chardin head-on and demolishes his theory. His contention that we are evolving over time in an ascendancy toward God is discredited here where she once again establishes the premise that salvation, through grace, comes in a moment of turning ourselves over to God, often as the result of violence, or rupture, or death. I'm reticent to contradict the Great D, but where did you get that she supported his theories?

  • Posted by: - Oct. 08, 2007 4:40 PM ET USA

    To be clear, 'Teilhard,' not 'Chardin,' is the man's surname. Why doesn't it surprise me that even his name doesn't really make much sense.

  • Posted by: - Oct. 08, 2007 4:38 PM ET USA

    Hey, Teilhard is very hip, up-to-date, and cool! For 1931, that is. I always thought the noosphere was the state of half-sleep brought on by reading one of his books.

  • Posted by: - Oct. 08, 2007 3:42 PM ET USA

    I was encouraged by a Jesuit to read Teilhard many,many years ago. I did so. It was at first with curiosity which eventually descended into doubt about the use of valuable time on such nonsense. I got the impression that he thought man was evolving into God. Human nature has not evolved nor will it become God. We must deal with our humanity by seeking to imitate Jesus. Might as well read "Jabberwocky" again.

  • Posted by: - Oct. 08, 2007 11:19 AM ET USA

    Chardin would be horrified to be lumped in the same catagory as Matthew Fox! I have a friend who thinks that Chardin is (was?) God and that Jung is his high priest. I personally like to hear of Fox's latest drivel- as it provides me with colossal, endless, giddy, indefinite, irresistable, prodigious, relentless, and unbridled...mirth. Especially when he talks about the theology of his dog.

  • Posted by: - Oct. 08, 2007 8:31 AM ET USA

    Let's hope that this is the end of name-dropping by the pompous intelligentsia, who often reply, "Well perhaps, but have you read Chardin!?"