When I had nothing new to read lately, I picked up the Letters of a Traveller 1923-1955 which Teilhard de Chardin, the famous jesuit, scientist and thinker, wrote on his long geological and paleontological excursions. My copy is an old, beautifully bound Dutch version, belonging once to my aunt Mary (who died in 1970). That I refer here to my family is no coincidence, as I was raised by an outspoken Teilhardian – my father, the younger brother of my aunt. Books on evolution for children, a nice collection of minerals and fossiles, and holiday trips to prehistoric caves were key ingredients of my childhood – next to regular church visits and a jesuitic intellectual atmosphere. This cocktail left me with an ingrained attitude of self-criticism (the jesuit heritage), methodological doubts of the infallibility of the theory of evolution (although I liked the caves and the stones) and an aversion to the belief in progress in history (which made me a Nietzsche fan for quite some time).
The Letters of a Traveller are really enjoyable – although I am sometimes irritated about the man’s primitive social views (he holds a kind of race theory then in fashion, and not very critical views on the moral issues of World War II), he has a great talent for describing the landscapes and peoples he comes into contact with. And then I thought it to be time to read that other book for the first time – the one which inspired the intellectual upbringing of my primary school days: The Phenomenon of Man, written by Teilhard largely during the war years, and published after his death, in 1955. It is a fascinating book, that is for sure – but also very strange. It’s author claims not to write as a theologian or a philosopher, but as a scientist: he wants to restrict his reflections to the phenomenal. Methodologically he is quite progressive for his time, while he acknowledges the theory-ladenness of all observation, and thus the provisional character of any reflection. Also he sees clearly that this reflection is perspectivistic, in the sense that it is human reflection – which explains his dismissal of metaphysical reasoning, which he defines as searching a final foundation of thought in being as such.
I could not read the book without drawing into account the biography of it’s author. It is so obvious an attempt to unite the conflicting forces in his character: the careful researcher, digging up and dusting ancient bones and rocks – and the passionate jesuit, who has rendered his entire psychic energy to a life for Christ. His biography is not meaningless, however, and especially nowadays, when evolution theorists and creationists have entangled themselves in fierce battles, his attempt at fusing Christian belief and scientific observation, deserves a re-read. He goes about his job intelligently, that I must also confess, and quite some of his ideas are not strange to me either. The idea that not only biological life, but the universe itself is a result of evolution has become a standard view. His idea that a kind of consciousness is present in pre-human forms, in everything in fact, is not standard, it reeks of Fechner, indeed, but is quite attractive to an anti-anthropocentrist. Finally his understanding of the importance of time in conceiving the world (a thing is just a moment in time) is to my view very sharp and interesting.
On the other hand there are the strange aspects. First, his observation that Christianity is the ultimate religion which will grow and unite the whole world – since it would be the only belief system that takes love as it’s central value. Second, his idea that humanity will unite in a process of ever greater communication pressure (well, the latest element in that was prophetic) – and must transcend it’s conflicts by a transformation of the individual into the person. That mysterious category is the key of his thought: the person is an individual, but one which lets itself be governed, united and transformed by the one ruler: Love=Christ. This must happen, he thinks, since the concept of evolution, of living in time, with it’s diversification and increasing complexities, leads inevitably to the concept of an ending, in which everything comes together again. Not in a gigantic destruction, as in gloomy SF stories, but in a spiritual ‘escape’ of humanity (and thus of the entire creation) from it’s material boundaries.
I don’t buy that – original beginnings, nor final endings – not in cosmology, not in spirituality, not in religion. I don’t believe in the Big Bang, I don’t believe in the total unification of humankind as the ‘end of history’. I do think that human beings can be transformed into more loving beings by following Christ, but this might happen as well by leading any other sincere religious life, be it islamic, shamanistic, buddhist, you name it. As it might in a life inspired by sincere atheistic views. Any view which helps to reduce self-centered and destructive attitudes will do. Believing in a necessary progression is not helpful in that process, since it makes one prone to forgetting real sufferings of real living beings (human and non-human) – seeing them as just a price to be paid in some grand scheme. It is clear, I think: this would be valuing the beauty of an intellectual construct over real love.
In the end Teilhard’s great attempt for me boils down to the following: he created a Christian myth to save his belief in evolution as a basis for solid science. His endeavor seems outdated seventy years later – as religious dialogue seems a better tool to overcome conflict than a conversionist attitude, and as many authors (among whom Thomas Kuhn, Bruno Latour and Sandra Harding) have provided strong arguments to show scientific theories to be culturally and historically situated views of the world we live in. This goes as much for evolution theory as for any other theory, and I have a strong feeling that it will be pushed over by another paradigm in the near future.
Teilhard de Chardin lived from 1881 to 1955.
The books I discussed, Letters of a Traveller 1923-1955 and The Phenomenon of Man are around in numerous translations and editions. Both appeared after the writer’s death.