Monday, July 08, 2013

Hymn of the universe


Ah, yes. Teilhard de Chardin. I dragged out my copy of The Phenomenon of Man for Friday's post, and ended up perusing all the underlinings and marginal notes I made back in the 1960s when I had a big intellectual crush on the lanky Jesuit. I was at that point in my life enthralled by both science and French Catholicism, and Teilhard fit the bill nicely. Matter, energy, consciousness, evolution: These were the elements of his religious vision -- a universe of "stuff", born in fire, blowing into a complexified future. What was not to like?

Well, Rome didn't like it. He was forbidden to publish, and banished from his beloved Paris to the gulag of New York. Seminaries and universities were warned not to let Teilhard's unorthodox ideas infect the minds of the impressionable young. I had already been infected. The antibodies instilled by my university courses in theology and apologetics were not sufficient to ward off a full-blown case of Teilharditis.

But the fever burned itself out. As I settled down and sobered up, Teilhard's vision came to seem over the top, mystified, full of theogush and hocus pocus. As I got deeper into science, I became ever more wary of rash extrapolations. Teilhard de Chardin seemed increasingly superfluous.

But here he is -- that Harper Torchbook paperback embellished with my 50-year-old scribbles -- and I can't help but feel a bit of heartbreak for a lost first love. In the more than half-a-century since Teilhard died no one has come close to equaling what he so daringly attempted, a smushing together of the natural and supernatural, a theology that springs out of matter and races like a wildfire towards consciousness and cosmic unity. He was the Meister Eckhart of our time, the heretic who might have saved the Church from an irrelevant dualism. Less and less, he said near the end of his life, did he see the difference between scientific research and adoration.