Teilhard by Mary Lukas and Ellen Lukas. Doubleday. 360 pp., $10.00 (Cloth).
In this lucid if somewhat topical treatment of the life of Teilhard de Chardin (1881-1955), Mary and Ellen Lukas have revealed an old truth: human consciousness is not easily changed but must be challenged by advanced thinkers whose lives are filled with trial, test, and controversy. Chardin was such a thinker, and his theories of evolution, derived from both mysticism and science (he was a paleontologist), brought anger and denunciation from the Catholic Church (of which he was a Jesuit priest). His study of fossils and his belief in the inherent good of all things and the divine destiny of man led him to see all life as a surge toward the infinite.
For a Church that still held to 700-year-old Thomist dogma, and for whom earth was a misery to be rejected and heaven was all there was, this was not at all in keeping with truth. Rome could not accept Teilhard’s view of the world as synthesis and the Christ as spirit pervading the universe. The Christ, as he saw it, was not limited to the historical Jesus, although He was its chief exemplar in our time.
He felt that everything from rock to ant to ape to man led to the upward spiraling of planetary consciousness, and his discoveries in paleontology furthered this view. Instead of being static, a minion whose only purpose was to reject his material life and to focus on the after-life, which was traditional doctrine, man for Teilhard was a part of a growing creation where there was no duality such as spirit-matter. The material world was to be used by man as a means to a higher consciousness, not to be seen as dead weight.
In reading his life, one comes to wonder at his quiet courage in the face of constant trial with the forces of reaction in the Church. But it is doubtful that he could have achieved what he did if he had been embraced by its hierarchy from the beginning. Often it is through difficulty that growth takes place, and I do not know of any major thinker or artist who has succeeded without a great deal of personal suffering. Perhaps this is one of the reasons he stayed in the Jesuit order, along with the less apparent but equally important reason that if he had quit or if he had been excommunicated, his views would have been cast aside as heresy. As it stands, credence was given them after his death by the more enlightened sector of the Church. In simpler terms, this was change from within, rather than threat from without.
There was a grand style to the man, too, despite his having been a churchman. Bon vivant, member of an aristocratic French family, he hobnobbed with the illustrious as well as the pious. After being exiled to China for his views, he met and cultivated a fascinating bunch of adventurers, diplomats, wild scientists, and a curious series of ladies of understanding. One of the oddities of the book is the authors’ attempt to link him romantically if platonically with a Mrs. Swan and a Mrs. de Terra, both unattached and eager to help him at any cost. But all this goes to show the marvelous complexity of the man and his passion for life.
It was only in old age that his frequent and “terrible” depressions began to burden him. As it became apparent to him that he might never see his views in print (Roman censorship had repeatedly denied him this) he turned more and more inward. He knew that on the eve of his last exile from France (for being a threat to the Church), he might never return, and his unpublished manuscripts would be destroyed by the Roman authorities.
This possibility was also evident to a sympathetic acting superior, and in a shuffling reminiscent of a Divine sleight of hand, he had Teilhard’s secular secretary take the papers for safe keeping. This was a stroke of fortune, as Teilhard never returned to France but died alone and dejected in New York. It is a note of grace that his writings survived him, bringing the next generation of Catholic intellectuals, as well as the lay thinker, closer to the realization of the spiritual evolution of man and the planet as a whole.