On 19 May, Prince Harry married Meghan Markle in Saint George’s Chapel at Windsor Castle. It was a glorious day – in retrospect the opener to a British summer of unrelenting sunshine. An unexpected star of the event was the Most Reverend Bishop Michael Curry, the presiding bishop of America’s Episcopal church. His dramatic, sometimes fiery, sermon was not what the British are used on such occasions – but it did make the world sit up and listen.
He concluded his 14 minute address with a reference to a Catholic priest who died in 1955:
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“Pierre Teilhard de Chardin was arguably one of the great minds, great spirits of the 20th century —a Jesuit, Roman Catholic priest, a scientist, a scholar, a mystic. In some of his writings, he said… that the discovery and harnessing of fire was one of the great scientific and technological discoveries in all of human history…
“He then went on to say that… if humanity ever captures the energy of love, it would be the second time in history that we have discovered fire.”
It is fascinating to see Teilhard’s work continue to exert an influence – and not just within a Christian context. His most famous writings occupy a space somewhere between theology, philosophy and scientific speculation. Their ambition is to fuse Christian thought with evolutionary theory. The central argument is that the universe, including humanity, is evolving through different stages of increasing complexity and consciousness towards the ‘Omega Point‘ – a state of perfect unity that draws all of existence into itself.
This is not exactly mainstream science; it’s not mainstream Catholicism either. Indeed, the church authorities stopped Father Teilhard from publishing his work during his lifetime – and, when they were published posthumously, the Church officially placed them under a monitum (a warning).
The whiff of heresy that surrounds Teilhard doesn’t put off his biggest fans, especially not those in the ever-expanding ‘spiritual-but-not-religious’ category. What they might find rather more disturbing, however, is the evidence presented in an article by John P Slattery for Religion Dispatches.
Slattery presents quote after quote that show that Teilhard was a racist who believed that some ethnic groups are more advanced than others. He believed that “as not all ethnic groups have the same value, they must be dominated” though not, he added, “despised” (well thanks, Pierre, that’s mighty big of you!).
Furthermore, he was a eugenicist who argued that what he called the “advancing wing of humanity” should use scientific methods to further its biological evolution. Here’s another direct quote:
“We must recognize…the vital importance of a collective quest of discovery and invention no longer inspired solely by a vague delight in knowledge and power, but by the duty and the clearly-defined hope of gaining control (and so making use) of the fundamental driving forces of evolution. And with this, the urgent need for a generalized eugenics (racial no less than individual) directed, beyond all concern with economic or nutritional problems, towards a biological maturing of the human type and of the biosphere.”
Slattery is careful to put Teilhard’s most objectionable ideas within their historical context:
“…before World War II, much of the Western World was, what most of us would now regard as openly racist. Anti-Semitism, anti-blackness, anti-immigration, anti-disability, and misogyny dominated the populations of the United States and Europe. Leaders in science and industry coupled such racism with Darwin’s conception of evolutionary progress to produce horrific decades of enforced eugenic practices.”
Prominent eugenicists of that era include Marie Stopes, George Bernard Shaw, Margaret Sanger, Sydney Webb, John Maynard Keynes, William Beveridge and Julian Huxley – all of whom are held in high regard by progressivies to this day (though not for their eugenicism). Let’s also not forget that nice, liberal, social democratic Sweden had a post-war programme of compulsory sterilisations that didn’t come to a halt until 1975.
Is this the attitude we should take to Pierre Teilhard de Chardin – dismissing the bad stuff as ‘of its time’ and focusing on the good stuff?
No, because the ‘good stuff’ provides the basis for the bad stuff. Teilhard’s ideas have something in common with all visions of progress towards an Earthly utopia – the inherent perfectibility of humankind. That might sound like a good thing, but it allows for the idea that some people are fundamentally more advanced than others. It also implies that to make further progress, the inferior specimens have to be upgraded, bypassed or in some way dispensed with. This can be seen in Nietzsche’s concept of the Superman, the communist ideal of the New Soviet man and, of course, the Nazi belief in a master race. In a non-totalitarian form, it is there too in contemporary transhumanism and the Silicon Valley religion of the Singularity.
It’s telling that what got Teilhard in trouble with the Catholic Church was his apparent denial of the doctrine of Original Sin. The idea that we’re all flawed (and born that way) is probably the least popular of the core Christian beliefs, but also the one for which the evidence is most glaringly obvious. It is also incompatible with Earthly utopias. If we’re all fundamentally sinful – and irredeemable except through divine grace – then there are no ‘advanced’ and ‘unadvanced’ classes of human being, and no self-propelled evolution towards perfection.
This is why Teilhard had no room for Original Sin in his philosophy. It is also why there should be no room for his philosophy in Christianity.