Jesuits and skulls? No, this is not another post about Henry Garnet. It's not another post about Zurbarán and "Memento Mori". This Christmas I'm asking Anne to buy me a new book by Guggenheim fellow Amir D. Aczel called The Jesuit and the Skull: Teilhard de Chardin, Evolution, and the Search for Peking Man.
Pierre Teilhard de Chardin (third from right), on a paleontology expedition in China, 1920s
I really don't have a problem believing in both God and evolution. Maybe I've mastered the ability to shut off certain synapses in the brain from firing off over it, but I don't feel much cognitive dissonance around holding this view. Following St. Thomas Aquinas and Albertus Magnus, I look for God to reveal himself in nature. To me, pitting science against religion is stupid and futile. I don't need biblical literalists calling me to task for being a heretic over it any more than I need atheists accusing me of being a creationist cretin just because I won't kneel down to the "blind watchmaker" of capricious chance.
Apparently, without my really being aware, it is the work of Teilhard de Chardin that has made this somewhat easy for me. I admit I don't know as much about Teilhard de Chardin as I should. I know that he was a scientist whose experiences in that discipline, along with his experiences as a stretcher-bearer in the trenches during World War I, led him towards a theology of convergence and ultimate unity, defining "the Cosmological Christ", and that his works got him into trouble, enjoyed a period of favor and recognition, and then fell out of circulation again. I also knew that as a paleontologist, he was involved with the team that discovered several specimens of Homo Erectus that came to be know as Peking Man. This is what the book is largely about. Consider a Jesuit in the 1920s who digs for hominid fossils in the Gobi Desert. This is the kind of thing that makes the Society pretty cool...
Let me take the opportunity to make a plug for someone here. Please take a look at Kevin McManus' fine "Portinexile" blog called Stranger in a Strange Land. It's full of references to interesting and excellent articles such as Who was this guy called Pierre Teilhard de Chardin? Why is he Famous in the Scientific Community? The actual origin of the reference is from the blog Are Jesuits Catholic?:
Pierre Teilhard de Chardin was a visionary French Jesuit, paleontologist, biologist, and philosopher, who spent the bulk of his life trying to integrate religious experience with natural science, most specifically Christian theology with theories of evolution. In this endeavor he became absolutely enthralled with the possibilities for humankind, which he saw as heading for an exciting convergence of systems, an "Omega point" where the coalescence of consciousness will lead us to a new state of peace and planetary unity. Long before ecology was fashionable, he saw this unity he saw as being based intrinsically upon the spirit of the Earth: "The Age of Nations is past. The task before us now, if we would not perish, is to build the Earth."Looking at Amazon, I noticed that Publishers Weekly panned the book for being superficial, but not all the editorial reviews were so negative. Some excerpts from the reviews:
In December 1929, in a cave near Peking, a group of anthropologists and archaeologists that included a young French Jesuit priest named Pierre Teilhard de Chardin uncovered a pre-human skull. The find quickly became known around the world as Peking Man and was acclaimed as the missing link between erect hunting apes and our Cro-Magnon ancestors. It also became a provocative piece of evidence in the roiling debate over creationism versus evolution. For Teilhard, both a scientist and man of God, the discovery also exposed a deeply personal conflict between the new science and his faith. He was commanded by his superiors to deny all scientific evidence that went against biblical teachings, and his writing and lectures were censored by the Vatican. But his curiosity and desire to find connections between scientific and spiritual truth kept him investigating man's origins. His inner struggle, and, in turn, his public rebuke by the Catholic Church personified one of the central debates of our time: How to reconcile an individual's commitment to science and his commitment to his faith...
Teilhard de Chardin's colleague, Lucile Swan
Readers will marvel at how loyal Teilhard remained to a church that repeatedly disciplined him for heresy in his evolutionary explanation of human origins. It was, ironically, by exiling Teilhard from his beloved France that church authorities put him in China, where in 1929 he shared in the discovery of the famous Peking Man fossils. Aczel details Teilhard's role in that discovery, highlighting his involvement with Lucile Swan, an American artist commissioned to sculpt the ancient hominid. That relationship finally foundered when Teilhard refused to break vows of celibacy sanctified by a church that repaid his fidelity with continued hostility. Nonetheless, Aczel discerns an abiding legacy in the words and writings of a thinker who suffered much for his synthesis of pioneering science and iconoclastic faith.
More on Pierre Teilhard de Chardin from Company Magazine:
In the 1960s and 70s, Pierre Teilhard de Chardin's writings--from the scientific The Phenomenon of Man to the mystical The Mass on the World--fit the optimistic, forward-looking mood of the times. This Jesuit paleontologist, philosopher, and theologian, who influenced college students and Vatican II participants alike, was one of the rare literati who reached beyond academia and into the mainstream, at least for a while.
It's safe to say that most college students today, even at Jesuit schools, aren't familiar with Teilhard, one of the most influential Jesuits of the twentieth century. "When I started teaching Teilhard, everybody on campus knew who Teilhard was," says Fr. Thomas King, SJ, who has been teaching about the Frenchman at Georgetown University since 1968. "Now it's a name they haven't heard of, and you have to introduce it."
Teilhard's reputation has ebbed and flowed with the times. During his life, his writings were suppressed by some of his Jesuit superiors and the Vatican; his attempts to reconcile evolution with original sin and other Catholic doctrines were viewed as a threat to orthodoxy...
Soon after Teilhard's death in 1955, his writings, published by friends, developed a reception that the visionary himself never did. But his name recognition has dwindled in recent decades. Bookstores at seven Jesuit universities could find no books by Teilhard being used in courses this fall; only two courses at these institutions used his books last year...
Though Teilhard is less well known today than in the past, his ideas continue to evolve. James Landry, chair of the natural science department at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles, asks a question of scientists regarding Teilhard's work: "Has his time come and gone, or do we need to look at his writings again in terms of new things we know?"
One of Teilhard's ideas that raises both scientific and theological questions is his notion of the "within" of things, the idea that particles of matter have an innate quality bringing them together. As the particles aggregate, a new energy emerges. This explains how what Teilhard called the noosphere, the realm of human consciousness, emerged from the biosphere. " Teilhard seems to be talking about the evolution of consciousness and soul," says Fr. Joseph Fortier, SJ, a biologist at Saint Louis University. "It's as though the within, this propensity to unite, is the pre-soul or proto-soul." Fortier, who teaches a course on evolution and Christian theology, sees Teilhard as one of his principal spiritual mentors and lauds his role in helping Catholicism to embrace evolution...
As to why Teilhard's popularity has decreased, Fortier speculates that the Frenchman's dense writings clash with the age of immediacy. He also notes that Teilhard worked in two fields often hostile to each other...
"Darwin was martyred by the religious establishment, so he's a martyr for the scientific establishment," says Fortier. "Teilhard was martyred by both establishments, so he doesn't have the hero appeal that Darwin does. But anybody who deals with evolution and religion is on the back of Teilhard, who's the giant. He's really the architect of the evolution-religion dialogue."
Teilhard's words will remain in at least one place. At Georgetown University's Edward B. Bunn Intercultural Center, King helped secure Teilhard's words on a prominent wall: "The age of nations has passed. It remains for us now, if we do not wish to perish, to set aside the ancient prejudices and build the earth."
"The Eucharist is celebrated in order to offer on the altar of the whole earth the world's work and suffering in the beautiful words of Teilhard de Chardin," wrote Pope John Paul II in Gift and Mystery. He was referring to prayers in Teilhard's The Mass on the World, which the latter had said 80 years earlier in the Gobi Desert, when he had run out of bread and wine and made the whole earth his altar.