Wednesday, August 22, 2007

The Mass on the world

In his published journals, the famed historian of religions Mircea Eliade makes note of a 1950 conversation with the Jesuit paleontologist Teilhard de Chardin.

Teilhard was insistent that the Church be ready to renovate dogma as science discovers more about the world. "The Church is like a crustacean," said Teilhard, in Eliade's account, "she must throw off her shell in order to grow." This is not, of course, a message that the institutional Church wanted to hear. Any institution that claims infallibility will not want to admit that dogma is anything other than -- well, dogmatic. Teilhard was held on a short leash by his religious superiors, and towards the end of his life he was banished from his beloved France to the gulag of New York.

Eliade asked Teilhard how he understood the immortality of the soul. What interested Teilhard, according to Eliade, was "conservation of human experience." Teilhard was enough of a scientist and sufficiently aware of developments in biology and neurology to know that traditional notions of immortality and resurrection of the body were among those crusty shells that the Church must shed. Still, he insisted, no part of the human self must be lost. All experience must be expressed by language or culture and preserved in the noosphere, a planetary wrap of immaterial intelligence that seems to be taking on a physical embodiment in the present World Wide Web. The difficulty comes in passing on the "mysterious, irreducible, incommunicable foundation" of a self that cannot be expressed in language or culture. This too Teilhard imagined somehow "passes into the beyond," although exactly how Eliade does not elucidate.

It is this vagueness in Teilhard's thought that exasperates his scientific critics. But give Teilhard this: He had great confidence in science, even to the point of embracing what the Church considered heretical. Science had for him a religious function, in bringing not just the Greco-Roman world, but also the entire galactic universe, into consonance with the Christological mystery as he understood it. We forgive his vagueness out of respect for the depth of his personal integrity in the face of official disapprobation.