Teilhard’s Struggle: Embracing the Work of Evolution

By Kathleen Duffy. Orbis Books, 2019. 176 pages. $20/paperback; $16.50/eBook.

I read The Phenomenon of Man (the 1959 translation of the original, Le phénomène humain), Pierre Teilhard de Chardin’s magnum opus, in 1969, at the height of the countercultural movement in the United States. A French Jesuit priest and paleontologist during the first half of the twentieth century, Teilhard wrote extensively about his faith and also helped discover Peking Man in the Gobi Desert.

Teilhard believed that Creation is not a unique event, but an evolution from the Big Bang (the Alpha), through the ever-changing forms of life on Earth, to the fulfillment of humanity’s divine potential (the Omega Point). Out of complexity comes convergence and union. As Duffy says, cosmogenesis equals Christogenesis. In other words, the Incarnation is not a single miracle. In the form of the Word of God, the Logos, Christ has been an unfolding, creative force in the universe since the beginning of time.

Hence, Matter and Spirit are not at odds. When experienced as two aspects of the same reality—whether rocks or rockets, viruses or human beings—they’re the stuff of Cosmic Consciousness. Teilhard’s God is immanent and transcendent.

I didn’t have to be high on drugs to realize this was the real dope, the forbidden fruit they don’t teach in Bible class.

Kathleen Duffy, the author of Teilhard’s Struggle, is no Sunday school teacher. She’s a Sister of Saint Joseph and a professor with a PhD in physics, who’s written several books about the priestly bone hunter. She clearly knows her stuff.

Duffy’s interest in Teilhard isn’t just academic. With other members of the American Teilhard Association, she’s petitioned the Vatican to name him a “doctor of the church,” a singular honor. (National Catholic Reporter reported on this effort in January 2018: “Time to rehabilitate Teilhard de Chardin?” by Heidi Schlumpf.)

Among other contemporary admirers are Father Thomas Berry (The Sacred Universe), and naturalist writer Annie Dillard (Pilgrim at Tinker Creek). Yet many theologians and scientists question the validity of Teilhard’s speculations.

After reading Teilhard’s Struggle, I recognized that the critics don’t appreciate Teilhard’s burning desire to reconcile his Catholic faith and his scientific practice. To avoid censure by the Church Fathers, he doesn’t mention in The Phenomenon of Man that Jesus Christ is the glue holding the universe together.

Nevertheless, Teilhard’s superiors in the Church added to the censure of his earlier, more theological works by forbidding publication of The Phenomenon of Man. (Nothing he wrote was published until after his death in 1955.)

His sin: ambivalence about the original variety, for continuing revelation will show us how to take care of evil on our way to Omega’s bliss—an optimism shared by Friends. In particular, as George Fox preached, “Walk cheerfully over the world, answering that of God in everyone.”

Teilhard’s clash with the Church was one of his struggles. After laying out his beliefs about matter and evolution in chapter 1, Duffy chronicles all of Teilhard’s struggles in eight short chapters, beginning with “Teilhard the Person,” followed by “Teilhard the Scientist,” then the mystic, the friend, the believer, the Jesuit, a faithful member of the Church, and a lover of the world. She dissects his life, as Teilhard analyzed geological strata, and reassembles the layers so well you’d think he dictated his autobiography to her.

For example, the logistical and other obstacles he faced with equanimity during 20 years of searching for fossils in the deserts of China were . . . well . . . Christ-like (though Duffy only rates him as high as Jacob wrestling with the angel or Moses straining to hear God’s still, small voice).

And during World War I, when he was a stretcher bearer for the French army, Teilhard had a vision of Christ on fire, radiating Light. George Fox had his seminal epiphany on Pendle Hill; Teilhard’s took place in the trenches of Verdun. Or, as he writes in The Phenomenon of Man, “There are no summits without abysses.” These experiences sustained both men throughout their lives.

What lessons do a Catholic’s travails offer Friends? Like Fox, Teilhard tried to renew his church and find a truer relationship with his God. Born and raised a Jew, I’ve always appreciated that Jesus wanted to cleanse the Temple, not burn it to the ground.

On first reading Teilhard’s Struggle, I wondered why I’d been so enthralled with The Phenomenon of Man 50 years ago. Like many books I loved in college, I assumed if I reread this one now, it would sound like mumbo jumbo.

Reading Duffy’s explanations of Teilhard’s beliefs is at times like scrambling across a jetty and stumbling on the rocks, not that she doesn’t try hard to guide us. After several more readings of Teilhard’s Struggle, I realized the rewards of such an adventure are worth the effort.

In fact, as with all creation, there is more here than meets the eye. Look closely. You’ll discover Duffy’s words and Teilhard’s are on fire. And from the Alpha to the Omega of Teilhard’s Struggle, I was on fire too.

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