I found myself on the fringes of a facebook discussion about Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, the concern over his being the subject of a fandom and his supposedly foundational racism, his defense at commonweal, and the suggestion this defense is somewhat unconvincing. At that last link, Tim O’Malley, a liturgist I admire, said, “Commonweal’s defense of Teilhard is weird.”
Unpacking all of this takes more than a fb comment. Taking it a bit in reverse, I’m not sure the defense is Commonweal’s as much as it belongs to John F Haught, a Georgetown theologian. His conclusion:
I do wish that Teilhard had expressed himself more clearly at times. I wish too that he had been more ecologically sensitive, less Eurocentric, a bit more Darwinian and less Lamarckian, more aware of gender issues, more attuned to the ambiguities of technology, and so on. Well, I wish too that John Chrysostom and Martin Luther had purged their preaching and prose of every trace of anti-Semitism, and that Thomas Aquinas had given us a deeper understanding of human sexuality. My point, of course, is that most of us do not take the blemishes in our religious classics to be foundational or legacy-defining. If we are fair, we can usually find in the main writings of saints and scholars the very principles that demolish those defects. Surely we can and should read Teilhard’s vast body of writings no less leniently. Teilhard’s reflections and principles put forth a theologically and morally rich framework within which we—and he—should be able at least to ask the hard questions without having to be accused of ethical monstrosity.
This strikes me as balanced, honest, and rather un-weird, especially in comparison to the blogosphere. It is part of the current human enterprise in rationalism, a very definite child of the worst of the Enlightenment, that many internet discussions about celebrities descend into a gotcha! contest. What is the worst we can dig up on a person? Or, if we are opposed by some foil, what can we dig up on their heroes? What dirt on what pope, bishop, theologian, saint, or grandmother can help us in our zero-sum game of lifting our own comfort level at the expense of someone else’s. Maybe that’s some kind of rejoinder to Teilhard’s sense of spiritual evolution. Who knows?
I’ve read John Slattery on Teilhard, and he seems to have a back-and-forth about essays behind firewalls and not. One of his conclusions:
I do believe Teilhard still has much to teach us about science, faith, and mysticism; but no, I do not believe he can or should teach us anything else about racism.
I can admit upfront I’m more an admirer of Teilhard than a scholar of his work. The man was a paleontologist–and that was more or less the core of my undergraduate studies. I observe that Teilhard is celebrated as much for being persecuted by the institutional church than for the content of his work, which I admit I have found difficult to follow. If you do a search on this website, you will find him mentioned about a dozen times. I find myself drawn more to the man who experienced God’s creation and was able to put his reflections and prayers into words as part of that.
He was not viewed with uncritical praise by his colleagues in the sciences or theology. Even a fanboy or fangirl can concede that. On the other hand, I don’t see a handful of difficult statements in many volumes of work to be evidence of his theology being rooted in racism. Mr Slattery’s assertion …
Teilhard de Chardin unequivocally supported racist eugenic practices, praised the possibilities of the Nazi experiments, and looked down upon those who he deemed “imperfect” humans. These ideas explicitly lay the groundwork for Teilhard’s famous cosmological theology, a link which has been largely ignored in Teilhardian research until now.
… seems quite a stretch for my reading eyes.
To be fair to Mr Slattery, his conclusions from that first link above, a summary of a 2018 paper:
Three final points must be made. First, it should seem obvious that I strongly object to Teilhard being named a Doctor of the Church, though I don’t object to the Vatican removing Teilhard’s previous censures—if those censures were based on scientific ideas alone.
Second, even though this essay contains the largest collection to date of Teilhard’s writings on the relationship between forced human perfection and cosmic theology, I have no doubt that there is more to be found.
And third, in order for Teilhardian scholarship to continue in light of this essay, academics, clergy, and laypersons alike must be vigilant in reconsidering our own cosmic theologies in relationship to eugenics.
On number one, the man is not yet a saint–except as recognized in the Episcopal Church. We know the institutional church found it difficult when confronted with scientific developments of the 19th and 20th centuries–and that was certainly part of their opposition to Teilhard.
I’d like to read more about “forced human perfection.” As a science-educated person, I know that human beings, over the past several millennia, have engaged in some threads of genetic modification. We see the results in nutrition in not a few ways, including tolerance of lactose, to increases in height across the world. Our choices–casual, intentional, and accidental–all have results in the realities of the physical human body. Is a six-foot modern human innoculated against diseases who can drink milk superior to a five-foot human from thirty centuries ago? Teilhard would acknowledge their equality before God. But a person picking sides for basketball or tlachtli would likely be biased toward the taller, stronger human.
And number three, I think a scholar needs more than a repetition of the word “eugenics” for it to apply. I’ve seen his cherry-picked quotes and I’m not sure that Teilhard uses that term in exactly the same way as his critic or I might.
I’m also unconvinced that seeking the “more to be found” is necessarily helpful in the discussion. I think if one wants to build on Teilhard and refine his efforts in cosmology, mysticism, and his reflections on Christ, then the fruitful path is to elucidate the positive connections.
On that last point, I’m aware that various believers take aim at Saint Paul or Augustine or Thomas Aquinas or most any other for offenses against women, Jews, sexual propriety, etc.. I think it’s healthy to have a healthy skepticism about what people have said or written. I also think it incumbent on a faithful theologian or theology-oriented believer to resist the urge to dismantle the heroes of other believers without offering something of substance that builds up faith, understanding, and especially the intersection of the two.
Comments that expressly declare “(this) is weird” really do nothing to further the Gospel.