Friday, December 14, 2007

The Jesuit and the Skull

A new book about Fr. Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, SJ (1881–1955)

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.


crystal said...

Great photos!

Consider a Jesuit in the 1920s who digs for hominid fossils in the Gobi Desert. - does it get any cooler? :-)

I've read only a little about him, and there's an article in one of my The Way journals that is of his notes from an 8 day spiritual exercises retreat he took while he was still in Beijing in 1945 .... interesting .... he calls Jesus the Omega and the Evolver.

Interesting post, Jeff :-)

portinexile said...

Nice post Jeff - I am stealing a few moments, but los niños terribles are in the el baño and my better half will be screaming for assistance any second now. I will try to post a response soon, as I have been on a bit of a Teilhard kick lately...

Jeff said...


It's pretty darned cool. Do you have the link to that article?

Hi Kevin,

Oh, I know how that goes... I'm looking forward to seeing what you're going to post up.

crystal said...

Jeff, sadly not many articles from The Way are posted online (link to the issue with the article) but I could ask my sister to scan it (I think) or I could send it to you.

Garpu the Fork said...

He's one of the people I would like to meet, if I ever get inside a time machine. His writings are worth the time it takes to get through them, and "Mass on the World" is one of my favorites.

Jeff said...

Crystal and Garpu,

Thanks very much for the insights. Sounds like you guys are all over this, at least to a better degree than I am. I have reading to do. Thanks for the tips. :-)

jackjoe said...

Was not Teilhard one of the 'suspects' in the Piltown forgery? Jack

Jeff said...

Teilhard de Chardin worked with Charles Dawson in England when he was a young student. It should be remembered, however, that he wrote a paper in 1920 (more than 30 years before the exposure of the hoax) called 'Les Cas d'homme de Piltdown' in which he pointed out his conviction that the skull and the lower jaw belonged to two different animals, stating that the jawbone was from a chimpanzee from which the condyle had been deliberately removed. His reservations about the find hardly suggest that he was a willing conspirator in a hoax.

When Kenneth P. Oakley (the inventor of the flouride dating test that exposed the hoax) wrote to him about it in 1954, Tielhard wrote:

I congratulate you most sincerely on your solution of the Piltdown problem. Anatomically speaking, "Eoanthropus" was a kind of monster. And, from a palaeontological point of view, it was equally shocking that a "dawn-man" could occur in England. Therefore I am fundamentally pleased by your conclusions, in spite of the fact that, sentimentally speaking, it spoils one of my brightest and earliest palaeontological memories. . . .

Have you ever written a book, Jack?

portinexile said...

Jeff - I second Garpu's rec of "mass of the world" - it's a great place to start. I have it in an anthology of his writings called "the heart of matter", but it's probably posted on-line somewhere. I'm [slowly] re-reading "the divine milieu" right now and it is amazing. also check out a recent book that came out "Teilhard De Chardin-The Divine Milieu Explained" that Paulist press just put out.

Initially i was a bit put off by Teilhard because I had unfairly associated him with some of the flakier new agey thinkers that seemed to be overly optimistic and of the "spiritual not religious" school of dogmatic non dogmatism. But now that I've actually started reading his stuff rather than reading about it I am impressed by his depth and ability to reconcile his vision with the core truths and ethos of his deep faith and commitment to his vows as a Jesuit priest.

For a great book of essays and reflections that is chock full of references to Teillhard check out this book: "The Cosmic Mystique"

Winner 2007 Catholic Press Association Award

Book Description
Out of a lifetime of teaching and a mystic’s vision of God’s presence in the natural world, Henry Garon has written a joy of a book. The Cosmic Mystique is simple, deep, sometimes funny, always readable.—Emilie Griffin, author of Wonderful and Dark Is the Road

As our cosmos expands, what new spiritual truths await our understanding and appreciation? These reflections on the world around us explain the scientific principles at work and explore their meaning for Christians. Garon reviews what he terms the "world's stuff" as "outward expressions of the inner life of God."

Line drawings and other illustrations demonstrate the scientific principles at work. Sketches, actual and textual, of theologians such as G. K. Chesterton, Karl Rahner, and Pierre Teilhard de Chardin bring theological depth to scientific understanding. The result is a sense of astonishment at the grandeur of God’s grace running through all creation.

Henry A. Garon is a recently retired professor of physics at Loyola University in New Orleans. He is also an ordained married deacon in the Roman Catholic Church.

Anyway, all the best, and, since I may not get a chance to post again before Chritmas, Happy Christmas and best wishes for the new year to you Jeff and to all of your posters and readers.

Peace, Kevin

jackjoe said...

Jeff, where does Theilhard and when did he openly described Piltown man as a hoax. The essay you cite needs to be understood in full. It is fascinating to me that the book you so highly praise has only three mentions of Piltown man. As you know sometimes we allow our religious devotions to cloud our judgment. Theilhard was a devoted catholic who yearned, as do the creationists, to show science 'proves' religion in this case christianity. I am a Christian and try to act like one rather than many who claim Christianity and usually act otherwise as accepting Theildard's philosophy as a real contribution to either science or religion.

Yes, I have written two books. One under my name and another as a 'ghost'. I have also written several speeches for congressmen or candidates for congress. My daughter is fearful of too much emphasis on this as she believes the blogs have some very strange people who might attempt harm to our family. I do see what she means.Incidentally what is your relationship to "Mike?". Jack

Jeff said...

Praised the book highly? I haven't even read it yet.

When did I claim that Teilhard openly claimed that Piltdown was a hoax? Please read something carefully for once. Refer to pages 2 through 5 of this PDF article for a description of Teilhard's role in this affair. Refer specifically to page 5 for the reference to the 1920 article that I mentioned. Refer to page 3 for his expressed belief in his correspondence that his supervisor Marcellin Boule was "unlikely to be taken in by Piltdown man, and that the elephant and mastodon remains must have been introduced."

There is a host of speculation as to who was responsible for the Piltdown hoax, as can be seen here, with Stephen J. Gould voicing his opinion that Teilhard was largely to blame. Referring to that same website, I find those who've come to his defense to be more credible, but as experts on this matter disagree, the best that you will be able to do here or elsewhere is to express your own opinion, as I have.

You've authored a book, but your daughter thinks it's dangerous for you to put emphasis on it on a blog? What's the matter, don't you want anyone to read it?

Well, if your daughter is worried, consider this...

How would she feel if someone kept leaving comments on your blog after you had asked him on more than one occasion to please refrain from doing so, as you have done here to me? How would she feel if I devoted the topics and titles of entire posts to impugning your character as you have done to me and several of my guests? I'm inclined to believe that she might be more frightened for your safety than she is now.

You frighten me. Leave your rantings towards me on your own site. Get off my blog and stay off.

jackjoe said...

Ah, the great Christian. Do you ever answer questions about Mike, or are you afraid to?I assumed the time you gave to the book meant you thought it was good. I've read it. A complete cover up. You'll love it. Incidentally your slams at "On Eagles Wings " may be right. I suggest if a child of yours' die you suggest they sing "Jail House Rock." at the funeral. By the way I am preparing another exposure of you;I would hope you might consider there is a difference between catholic and christian. I have already ask you to block me from your blog. Good bye to your syncophants. I've searched and searched and can't find anyone of your "guest" who ever disagrees with you except on cheap music. My rantings? You're are afraid for anyone to disagree with you. I wonder my? You find me frightening. I find you a total religious fake. Jack

Jeff said...

Hi Kevin,

Thanks for those recommendations.

Like you, I was also circumspect about Teilhard at one time, because I have a tendency to focus on the human side of Christ, and those aspects of life that he deigned to share with us, and all that talk of a "Cosmic Christ" was a little bit remote and off-putting to me. I'm very much looking forward to reading this book, checking out the other books you mentioned, and looking at his original works. He may have been more visionary than I initially thought.

One thing I'm curious about... From what little I understand of his writings, he advanced the theory that even inert matter has the goal of achieving the most advanced state possible - and that the direction of evolution is inexorably driven towards ever-increasing complexity.

I wonder what a strict Darwinist would say in response to this today. As far as I understand them, I think they would say that evolution is not uni-directional, but that it strictly responds only to the influences and pressures of the environment. If less complexity is what is favored in a particular environment by Natural selection, then that is the direction in which it will go (think, for instance, of the deep sea fish that still has eyes, but eyes that are blind and useless to them).

Still, I find his concepts of the geosphere, biosphere, and noosphere intriguing and a bit ahead of his time, even for an evolutionist. I'm looking forward to learning more about him.

Thanks for the Christmas blessings. Here's wishing a Happy Christmas to you and your family as well.

jackjoe said...
This comment has been removed by the author.