The cosmic vision of Teilhard de Chardin

A Mystic in Search of a Unifying Truth: Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, by Dr Ellen Galvin RSC (Kindle Edition, €1.52/£1.28; complete paperback edition from, €50.65; ISBN 978-1489530431)

These days we seem to hear very little of Teilhard de Chardin, at least in the English speaking world. His intellectual reputation was badly damaged by the attack on his work and outlook by the British biologist Sir Peter Medawar (reprinted in The Art of the Soluble).

But he is far from being a forgotten figure, as this new book by Dr Galvin demonstrates. That she has had to publish her interesting book herself is evidence, however, of that wider neglect. 

Dr Galvin is a religious sister now in her mid-80s. This book is based on her PhD thesis, written when she returned late in life to academic work. In writing it she was much influenced by the American authority on Teilhard, Fr Robert Faricy SJ – a noted Marian scholar.

She approaches Teilhard as a mystic in a long Catholic, indeed Christian tradition, but there are many other aspects to this interesting writer than that.

I first became acquainted with Teilhard’s writings soon after his works began to appear in print after his death in 1955. The Divine Milieu was the first one I read rather than The Phenomenon of Man. This was, I now realise, reading him the wrong way round.  To understand his cosmic view one has to begin with the science, not the theology.

However, at a later date, in the course of my historical research into the Piltdown Man Hoax it was suggested to me that Teilhard, who had been involved in that curious affair back in 1912, actually making the discovery of the famous canine tooth, was the perpetrator of the hoax.

Careful research, which meant following Teilhard’s life almost on a day-by-day basis in those pre-war years when he was exiled from France by the anti-clerical legislation of the day and was living at Ore Place in Hastings, showed he had been duped like so many other scientists. But his involvement has given many of his critics another level of disparagement to add what they feel about him.

However, reading his books, especially those letters written from China and elsewhere during his further years of exile, when his superiors refusal to allow him to teach meaning he was exiled again to distant parts of the world, was an experience. The result of my research when published were controversial, but I emerged from them with a profound respect for both Teilhard the man and the mystic, and for Teilhard the scientist and philosopher.

Those last qualifications are important. For science and the mystery of religion were at the very heart of what he wrote. He was not a theologian, at least as that term might be understood in some circles. He was attempting to expound a personal experience of God, Christ and the Cosmos.

Teilhard's experiences as a man, scientist, and teacher were so far removed from that of his critics that the misunderstandings, which began in the 1920s, when a private document dealing with original sin (and not intended for publication) was denounced to Rome, were almost inevitable, given the intellectual attitudes that then prevailed in the Church.

Dr Galvin in her book attempts to expound the thinking of Teilhard de Chardin, so far as it involves a religious view of the world. This is a difficult task, but she has certainly managed, as Robert Faricy comments, to make Teilhard readable.

Her chapters can be read separately out of sequence, which is an advantage, for they are thematic and deal with aspects of theology, of evolution, the future of man and the harmonies that should exist between faith, religion and science. She deals too with the current issue of feminism in the light of Teilhard’s view.

Anyone already engaged with Teilhard will find much of interest in these pages. For those who are unfamiliar with him Dr Galvin’s book will provide engaging introduction. But nothing is a substitute for Teilhard's own writings. It is only through these that a full appreciation of this mystic, whose views were the subject of a monitum from the Congregation of the Faith in 1961, yet who was  later admired and quoted by both John Paul II and Benedict XVI, will be truly appreciated. Teilhard’s world is a large one, as vast in a sense as the cosmos itself. 

Teilhard’s view grew out of his work and experiences. They derived from the nature of the real world. His imagination was dominated by the great age, the immeasurable mysteriousness of the cosmos.

For him the most important fact in that real world was the Incarnation of Christ, the penetration of the divine into the material, to which he was prepared to give a cosmic dimension that enlarges one’s horizons in a remarkable way.

Too many people despair of the future. They cling to aspects of the past that provide a momentary comfort, but not lasting consolation; ritual becomes a substitute for religion.

Teilhard was afraid neither of the past, or the present, for he believed in a future of further advance, both material and spiritual, as the mind and soul, the essential spirit of humanity moves towards an inevitable encounter with the divine.

For Teilhard the unifying truth of all things was Christ himself. In a letter Teilhard wrote to a friend there is a passage which neatly sums his vision: “The whole future of the Earth, as of religion, seems to me to depend on the awakening of our faith in the future.”  For Teilhard, as the reader will learn from this book, that future was Christ-centered.