TEILHARD: Visionary Scientist

A review by Father Peter Malone (Australia)

“God does not make the world. God makes the world make itself without God’s interference.”

Is that our idea of God, of the cosmos, of evolution? In the past, not so much agreement but, in more recent decades, a more visionary perspective on science and on religion.

The author of the quotation is the Jesuit scientist Teilhard de Chardin (1881-1955). For those who want to know who Teilhard was, how we came to his insights and conclusions, what it was like to be a prophet (not always welcome in his own country), what it was like to be enthralled by the cosmos, to be a visionary (sometimes hailed, sometimes ridiculed and denounced), then here is an exhilarating two hours to introduce Teilhard or to become re-acquainted with Teilhard de Chardin, to become aware that we live in Le Milieu Divin (no need for translation).

This documentary by Frank and Mary Frost has been, literally, years in the making. As for so much from its long production (no matter how demanding for the filmmakers and their supporters). Travel to actual locations, tracking down photos and footage, lining up interviews and commentary. The visuals of the film are often magnificent, so much location photography – France for Teilhard’s early life and teaching career in Paris, England for his religious studies, China for his archaeological ventures, the US where he was “exiled” and where he died. Quite a range of locations which help bring Teilhard’s life to life.

The footage, as expected, includes many photos but also news and home film, which means that Teilhard is not just a character of books and articles but we see him as a person, joys and sorrows.

And, also as expected, quite a range of interviewees, many Jesuits as is fitting, scientists, museum curators…

In a way, one could say that Teilhard lived too early, a late 19th century figure soon after Darwin, in the spirit of the archaeological diggings of the early 20th century. And his early years as a Jesuit and as a priest in the time of church leadership and campaigns and strictures against “Modernism”. Teilhard and his creative writings, science, religion, spirituality, mysticism, led to some 20th century inquisitorial behaviour by those who were wary, sometimes shocked. And there were health and depression consequences for the targets.

A significant feature of Teilhard’s life, hands-on rather than philosophical/theological, was his four years as a stretcher bearer in World War I when he was in his mid-30s, surviving although some of his family did not. In many ways, war and archaeology, his life was down-to-earth.

But, back to the themes. First, some quotes:

Earth is throbbing with divine energy.

Matter is infused by spirit.

The traditional “Great Chain of Being” is a process, dynamic.

Teilhard died seven years before the opening of the Second Vatican Council and the greater opening up of Catholic thought from the 1960s which meant a greater awareness of what Teilhard wrote, its being more widely appreciated and accepted – and, as this film shows, still an inspiration for our times.

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Galileo and Teilhard de Chardin

Following the Powerpoint “Teilhard de Chardin, 20th Century Galileo,” that Frank and Mary Frost presented via Zoom last week, we thank our friend and Teilhard scholar H. James Birx for the following excellent summary comparing Teilhard and Galileo.

Galileo Galilei (1564-1642) & Pierre Teilhard de Chardin (1881-1955)

01. Each respected science, research, observation, empirical evidence, & critical reflection.

02. Each contributed to the natural sciences:

  • Galileo to astronomy & physics.
  • Teilhard to geology & paleontology.

03. Each authored a major but controversial book that was deemed to be unorthodox & therefore unacceptable by the Roman Catholic Church:

  • Galileo‘s Dialogues Concerning the Two Chief World Systems (1632).
  •  Teilhard‘s The Phenomenon of Man (1955; it was banned from publication during his lifetime, but it was published posthumously.

04. Each was silenced by the Roman Catholic Church:

  • Galileo, In 1633, under the threat of torture, was forced by the Inquisition to reject all his scientific discoveries in astronomy & placed under house arrest until his death in 1642.
  • Teilhard was exiled from France to China by his Jesuit superiors & forbidden to teach or to publish his ideas on philosophy & theology; he could publish his strictly scientific papers. On 10 April 1955, Teilhard died in New York City.

05. However, each never abandoned the Roman Catholic Church.

06. Each rejected fixity;

  • Galileo rejected both geocentrism & the fixity of the Earth, claiming that our rotating planet moves through space as it revolves around the Sun as the center of our solar system.
  • Teilhard rejected the fixity of species (including the alleged fixity of the human animal), claiming that the fact of organic evolution demonstrates that new species emerge & that all species change throughout biological history, with most species having become extinct over vast periods of geological time; in fact, for Teilhard, this entire universe is a cosmogenesis.

07. Each made substantial contributions to natural science:

Using his telescope (which was far more powerful than those earlier versions used by others) for observational astronomy, Galileo had discovered:

  • Spots on the Sun;
  • Phases of Venus;
  • Mountains & Craters on the Moon;
  • Four largest moons of Jupiter; 
  • Rings of Saturn;
  • “Star” Neptune;
  • Stars of our Milky Way Galaxy.

Teilhard contributed to understanding & appreciating the geology & paleontology of the caves at Zhoukoudian near Bejing in China, especially in terms of the discovery of Peking Man (Sinanthropus pikenensis), a fossil hominid form now relegated to the Homo erectus phase of human evolution. He also contributed to the scientific study of Mongolia, as well as other significant anthropological sites. Teilhard did not hesitate to seriously consider the scientific implications, philosophical ramifications, & theological consequences of the fact of pervasive evolution.

08. As a result, both Galileo & Teilhard had made major contributions to natural philosophy through their research, which challenged the dogmatic & entrenched Aristotelian worldview while advancing a modern cosmology & anthropology, respectively, in terms of a dynamic view of this universe & the place of our own evolving species within it.

09. On 31 October 1992, the Vatican admitted that Galileo Galilei had been correct concerning his claims in astronomy.

However, the Vatican is yet to remove the “warning” (Monitum decree 1962) it has given to the writings of Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, S.J.

Prof. Dr. Dr. H. James Birx

Distinguished Visiting Professor (permanent status)

Faculty of Philology, University of Belgrade

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Seeing Teilhard in Modern Culture

Dear Friends,

This Saturday, April 10, is the 66th anniversary of the death of Teilhard de Chardin in New York City.  It was Easter Sunday that year.  And then on May 1 we celebrate Teilhard’s 140th birthday!  

We at the Teilhard Project have been musing about the extraordinary extent to which Teilhard and his vision have filtered down in the years since his death, into local cultures the world around.

So, on the occasion of this auspicious celebration of Teilhard’s 140th birthday, The Teilhard Project is collaborating with the Worldwide Teilhard Association based in Paris to begin collecting evidence of the full spectrum of cultural expressions that reveal Teilhard’s influence since his death in 1955.  To that end, we are asking for your help in this “crowd-sourcing” effort that is an international undertaking.  

We can calculate the cultural influence of Teilhard in a number of ways.  Numbers are one way.  For example, if you do a Google search of his name you will discover about 1,680,000 results.  If you search “Books about Teilhard” you get about 763,000 results.Query his name at the digital world library catalog and you find 3,449 works in 9,004 publications in 15 languages and 139,295 library holdings.  And doing a Google search for Teilhard quotes turns up 262,000 results.

But numbers don’t really give the flavor of Teilhard’s influence in art, literature, music, and every wrinkle of our popular culture.  Here in the U.S., for example, two popular novels that were made into movies had a character modeled after Teilhard: Shoes of the Fisherman, by Morris West, and The Exorcist, by William Peter Blatty. 

Not long ago Episcopal Bishop Michael B. Curry referenced Teilhard’s famous quote about rediscovering fire in his homily at the wedding of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle.  Long before that, author Flannery O’Connor named a short story after a Teilhard quote, “Everything that rises must converge.”  

In the field of music everything from folk music to symphonies have been inspired by Teilhard.  World famous sculptor Frederick Hart created extensive works in “homage to Teilhard de Chardin.” Numerous paintings and digital works of art claim Teilhard as their inspiration.

Please join us in this effort. We ask that you send any examples you are aware of to frankfrost@teilhardproject.com. The deadline is April 20, 2021.

We are aware that it’s a short deadline, but the Worldwide Teilhard Association wants to be able to release an interim report on the May 1 birthday anniversary, although we are sure this international legacy project will have a much longer life. For the time being we ask you to limit your answers to the fields of literature (essay, fiction, poetry, theater), music, painting and drawing, sculpture and numismatics.  For example, Romain Gary and Arthur C. Clarke could be mentioned in literature, André Jolivet in music, Salvador Dali in painting.

For each example that you offer, please send us its name/title and the author or artist’s name, together with a digital link that would allow us to “see”, read or “hear” it. Please don’t try to send a book!

We would also like you to explain your choice by telling us in a few lines why you believe it is inspired by Teilhard.

Thank you in advance for becoming a part of this remarkable attempt to “see Teilhard” in modern culture.

Frank and Mary Frost

Production on the documentary Rediscovering Fire: The Evolution of Teilhard de Chardin has continued during this pandemic. Our deepest thanks to all of you who have helped us reach this point. We are now in the midst of post-production, but we still have a ways to go to finish, and your financial help, no matter the amount, will make a difference. Visit our website,www.teilhardproject.com/donations.  Grateful thanks to all who have already given so generously.

Frank and Mary Frost

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Lord, Grant me the mystic presence of all those whom the light is now awakening to the new day. One by one, Lord, I see and I love all those whom you have given me to sustain and charm my life.”

— Teilhard de Chardin, “Mass on the World”

We echo the words and spirit of Teilhard de Chardin in expressing our gratitude to all those whose support continues to sustain us in the making of our documentary about him, now in post-production.  Happy Thanksgiving to all!

Frank and Mary Frost

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The New Spiritual Exercises

A Guest post by Louis Savary

For the past forty years, I have been trying to put Teilhard’s new ideas into common speech as clearly as I can. Some years ago, a person told me that if I wanted to get Teilhard’s evolutionary insights more well known, I needed to apply his ideas to a popular piece of spirituality, such as St. Ignatius’ Spiritual Exercises, a retreat format used by all Jesuits and many others.

As a faithful Jesuit, Teilhard had made Ignatius’ Spiritual Exercises many times. Noted in his retreat notes, his evolutionary mindset found the traditional Exercises unsatisfying and unchallenging. After all, they were created over 400 years ago, based on a classical static world viewpoint and a Middle Ages spirituality founded on sin and fear of eternal punishment. He said the Exercises needed to be transposed and re-imagined in line with the evolutionary culture we live in today. Unfortunately, he himself never did the job.

Since I had been a Jesuit for thirty years, I too had made the Exercises many times, and felt the same need to re-envision them. Since no one so far had attempted what Teilhard said was needed, I decided to try. I called my book The New Spiritual Exercises in the Spirit of Teilhard de Chardin.

I began by collecting 17 Teilhardian principles of spirituality from his writings. I summarized them and placed them in a front section of the book, so that readers would clearly understand the foundational thought of the book. In the New Exercises, I followed the same four-week structure Ignatius had used, so that people who led traditional retreats would be on familiar territory. I also kept his special exercises, such as the Kingdom, Four Classes, etc. but gave each of them an evolutionary perspective.

For Teilhard, our life on Earth is not simply about avoiding sin and getting to heaven, which was a central theme of spirituality in Ignatius’ day. Rather, it was clear to Teilhard that, in creating an evolving world, God had a divine plan or project in mind for creation, and humans had a role to play in helping accomplishing that project. I called it the Christ Project. It is a Christian term for the work of transforming human life on our planet.

Also, since for Teilhard the most important principle of spirituality is “God is Love,” I put Ignatius’ final exercise, Contemplation for Learning to Love the Way God Loves, right up front. In place of Ignatius’ First Week’s focus on avoiding sin and punishment, I knew that Teilhard would focus more positively on learning to love and experiencing gratitude.

The New Spiritual Exercises was published in 2008 and is slowly becoming a familiar way the Exercises are being re-envisioned and presented, both in retreat format and in the year-long process Jesuits call “Annotation 19.” Many people have expressed deep gratitude to me for writing The New Exercises. I have written over eight other books explaining Teilhard’s ideas on various spirituality topics, such as suffering, discernment, love, morality, and the Eucharist. But the way most people will discover Teilhard and the way he thinks will be with The New Spiritual Exercises.

—Louis Savary

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