Fall 1982, Vol. 34, No. 3, pp. .

Donald Goergen:
      Current Trends: Recent Studies of Pierre Teilhard de Chardin

Father Goergen, O.P., author of The Sexual Celibate and The Power of Love, resides in Madison, Wisconsin, and is engaged in writing a book on Christology.

TEILHARD de Chardin is without doubt one of the more significant religious figures of the twentieth century. He was born on May 1, 1881, and died on April 10, 1955, not quite seventy-four years old. Last year, 1981, many celebrated the one hundredth anniversary of his birth. It was a year during which several new and significant works were published pertinent to Teilhardian studies. It is my purpose here to review some of these recent contributions.

The year 1881 came ten years after Darwin had published his Descent of Man, twenty-two years after his Origin of Species, and twenty-two years after Marx's Critique of Political Economy and the birth of Henri Bergson. And 1881 was also twelve years after the opening of the First Vatican Council. On Easter Sunday, April 19, 1955, Teilhard died in New York City, six years before Vatican Council II. This man's life spanned two world wars, the growing significance of Darwin, Marx, and Freud, and the papacies of Leo XIII, Pius X, Benedict XV, Pius XI, and Pius XII.

Teilhard was an extremely creative thinker. Both his science and his theology broke through academic and traditional confines. His philosophical and religious thought was sufficiently novel to lead the Roman Catholic magisterium to express caution about his writings. This was done twenty years ago, in 1962, in a monitum issued by the Holy Office. Nineteen years later, however, that monitum was followed by another official directive. On May 12, 1981, on the occasion of the centenary celebrations, the Cardinal Secretary of State Agostino Casaroli sent a letter to Archbishop Paul Poupard, Rector of the Institut Catholique of Paris, where centenary celebrations were being held. The letter said:

Geared to the future, this synthesis, often so lyrical in expression and fraught with a passion for the universal, will have contributed to restoring to men tormented by doubt the taste of hope. At the same time, the complexity of the problems tackled as well as the variety of approaches adopted, have not failed to raise difficulties, which rightly motivate a critical and serene study -- both on the scientific and on the philosophical and theological levels -- of this exceptional work.

There is no doubt that the celebrations of the centenary, at the Catholic Institute of Paris, or at the Natural History Museum, at UNESCO as well as in Notre Dame in Paris, will be from this point of view an opportunity for a stimulating confrontation, through a rightful methodological distinction of levels, on strict epistemological lines.

Our time will certainly remember, beyond difficulties of conception and deficiencies of expression in this bold attempt at a synthesis, the witness of the unified life of a man seized by Christ in the depths of his being, and concerned to honor faith and reason at the same time, responding in advance, as it were, to John Paul II's appeal: "Do not be afraid; open, open wide the doors to Christ, the immense fields of culture, civilization and development."(1)

Thus it is right that we set behind us both the fears and fads associated with the thought of Father Teilhard and approach his writings once again both critically and creatively. We welcome the new contributions which represent a new phase in the study of Teilhard.

The question may well be raised about Teilhard de Chardin's relationship to the field of spirituality. He was professionally a scientist and not professionally a philosopher or theologian. Yet his enduring contribution is seen not so much in the area of scientific as in the area of religious studies, in areas like cosmology, theological anthropology, and christology. He will always be remembered for the synthesis which he effected between modern science and the Christian faith. Yet ultimately, I think, he will be remembered as a mystic, and his contribution will be to the field of spirituality. Almost all the recent studies on Teilhard point in this direction. One need list only a few of Teilhard's own essays to show his own keen interest in this field: "The Mystical Milieu" (1917); "The Soul of the World" (1918); "The Spiritual Power of Matter" (1919); "Pantheism and Christianity" (1923); "The Mass on the World" (1923); "The Divine Milieu" (1927); "The Road of the West: To a New Mysticism" (1932); "The Evolution of Chastity" (1934); "The Phenomenon of Spirituality" (1937); "The Spiritual Contribution of the Far East" (1947); "The Spiritual Energy of Suffering" (1950); "Some Notes on the Mystical Sense" (1951); "Research, Work and Worship" (1955).

Here I cannot discuss what I consider the main elements or distinctive contributions within the spirituality of Teilhard de Chardin. Let it suffice to say that, along with Thomas Merton, he is one of the Catholic makers of modern spirituality.

The first study to be noted is The Spirituality of Teilhard de Chardin by Robert L. Faricy. Faricy is a Jesuit priest, a professor of theology at the Gregorian University in Rome, as well as the author of earlier works on Teilhard de Chardin. The present work, 126 pages, published by Winston Press in 1981, originally published in England under the title All Things in Christ, can be described as both introductory and devotional. It is based upon solid research (evidenced by the author's previous contributions to Teilhardian studies) and competent understanding (evidenced by the rightful respect accorded his previous publications). I would describe the present work as introductory, not in the sense that it provides an introduction to the thought of Teilhard, but in the sense that it does not presuppose or require previous background. I describe the book as devotional because it could serve as spiritual reading. It fills a spiritual rather than scholarly need. One of the devotional and delightful aspects of the book is that each of the five chapters concludes with a prayer from the writings of Teilhard himself.

Faricy is a person who has given much of his life to a study of Teilhard. Thus it is significant that he writes: "Today, serious scholarship, re-evaluating Teilhard de Chardin's contribution to Christian theology, finds that his real importance lies in his spirituality of Christian life in the world and centered on Jesus Christ risen" (p. 9).

Faricy's book is an excellent book for someone who wants a competent and readable presentation on the spirituality of Teilhard which does not presuppose prior background. But if I were to recommend something introductory for someone who does not have previous background, I would suggest one of the author's earlier works. Faricy's Teilhard de Chardin's Theology of the Christian in the World (Sheed and Ward, 1967) remains a highly readable and competent articulation of the thought of Teilhard. If I were to suggest something for devotional or spiritual reading, I would suggest reading Teilhard meditatively. There is no substitute for Teilhard himself. The Divine Milieu remains Teilhard's spiritual classic. Likewise his essay "The Heart of Matter."

I have one misgiving about Faricy's present work, namely, his discussion of Teilhard's thought and Christology as apocalyptic (pp. 63-68). I disagree with Faricy's statement that Teilhard's "Christology is also teleological but even more it is apocalyptic" (p. 68). There is no need to describe Teilhard's Christology or spirituality in this way, even if one sees apocalyptic as a positive quality. Apocalyptic is a word which is widely used and lacks precision. It does not clearly describe Teilhard's thought well.


Of the five works which I consider here, Faricy's is the only one which is introductory in the sense I have described. The others are more specialized, such as Thomas M. King's Teilhard's Mysticism of Knowing. King is also a Jesuit priest, and an associate professor of theology at Georgetown University. Teilhard's Mysticism of Knowing, published by Seabury Press in 1981 and running to 154 pages, concerns itself with five paradoxes or syntheses within the thought of Teilhard -- the relationship between matter and spirit, life and truth, universalism and personalism, object and subject, growth and diminishment. King is well acquainted, not only with the many published essays and letters of Teilhard, but also with unpublished material, for example, notebooks from the last years of Teilhard's life now at the Jesuit residence at Chantilly, France, and unpublished letters on file at the Fondation de Teilhard in Paris. His translations of the French rely on the currently available English translations but often amend these for the sake of greater accuracy or poignancy.

King presents Teilhard as a mystic and attempts to describe Teilhardian mysticism by coining the expression "mysticism of knowing," obviously in contrast to much traditional mysticism. As a conclusion to his extensive research, King writes: "I now believe the real significance of Teilhard is not that he might have reconciled truths of modern science with truths of Christian faith, nor that he was a Christian mystic with a considerable scientific achievement (several hundred published articles); rather, it is in Teilhard's exuberant claim that in the very act of scientifically achieving, he knew God" (p. vii). Teilhard's mysticism is wrapped up with the act of knowledge, and thus King's work has an epistemological character to it.

By becoming known, the essence of the material world enters into the very soul of the knower; the essence of the universe passes into thought and is deposited with humankind (pp. 18-19). The material world achieves its consummation by entering human consciousness, hence the importance of knowledge and research. Thus the human being and humankind are the means whereby the world becomes more real, more complete, by being known. King rightly suggests here a type of idealism and a type (more a reversal) of Platonism. King writes: "The Idealism of Teilhard could be identified as an Idealism of the future" (p. 56). What Plato held to be already real, Teilhard holds to be in the process of becoming real -- the really real universals are in the making. Their locus is the future.

Not only is there human knowing, however. There is divine knowing as well. The universe is the object of all knowledge, the percepta; but the subject of all knowledge, the perceptor, is the person of Christ. "The Percepta is rising through Humanity's act of perceiving into the divine Perceptor. Matter strives to be perceived (become Thought) so that it might enter the great Thinker" (p. 113).

One can see the epistemological thread in King's presentation of Teilhard and the significance of knowledge for the spirituality of Teilhard. Teilhard's spirituality is clearly committed to the intellectual life, to scientific research, to the spiritual value of human knowledge. Research and study are forms of worship. We come to God through them, not in abandoning them. Kinds highlighting this characteristic of Teilhard's mysticism is one of his contributions. One of his weaknesses is that the epistemology to which he points is not always clearly presented but is dispersed throughout the five chapters. It may have been helpful, after his explication of the five syntheses in Teilhard's thought (which are excellently presented), to have drawn together by way of conclusion a more concise statement of Teilhard's epistemology. As it is, the five themes he chooses to present are well presented, and all point to the significance of the epistemological current which is a characteristic of Teilhard's contribution to a new mysticism.

Another author, Ursula King, also sees Teilhard in terms of a new mysticism in her book, Towards a New Mysticism, Teilhard de Chardin and Eastern Religions. Ursula King, not related to Thomas King, studied in Germany, France, India, and England, and is presently in the Department of Theology and Religious Studies at the University of Leeds. Towards a New Mysticism is a larger book of 318 pages, published by Seabury Press in 1980. It did not appear during the year of the Teilhard centenary but still represents the new era of Teilhardian scholarship. I previously reviewed this book for Spirituality Today (September 1981). In my opinion, it is the most significant contribution to Teilhardian studies in the last couple years. It is well researched by someone of recognized competence and contributes to the increasingly important dialogue with Eastern religions. Teilhard lived for a long time in the East and is often misrepresented as having a negative attitude toward the contribution of Eastern spirituality. One of the limitations of King's work is that it becomes detailed in a way that does not make for easy reading. But it is well written, well argued, clearly presented, and anyone who reads it is bound to find it valuable.

Teilhard speaks of two types of mysticism and two types of pantheism which he describes in various ways, one such way being the "road of the West" and "the road of the East." This particular expression is unfortunate since the two mysticisms are not to be identified. with West and East as such. Much of the "road of the East" can be found in Western mysticism, and likewise the "road of the West" can be found in Eastern mysticism. These represent two types of mysticism or spirituality which are well developed by Ursula King. For Teilhard the future of mysticism lies with "the road of the West" (which does not mean with the West). For Teilhard, one of the contributions of the West to the mysticism of the future is modern science. This recalls Thomas King's discussion of Teilhard's mysticism as a mysticism of knowledge, and of knowledge of the world.

There are two points within Ursula King's research that I would like to emphasize. The first hearkens back to the work of Thomas King, and the second looks toward the work by K. D. Sethna to be discussed next.

I mentioned above that Teilhard's major contribution will be in the area of spirituality. Thomas King has presented Teilhard's thought as mysticism. So likewise does Ursula King. Teilhard must be seen as having definitely contributed to the study of mysticism. Yet it is agreed that Teilhard's mysticism is a new mysticism, even if not altogether new. Thomas King describes this new mysticism as a mysticism of knowing. Ursula King describes it as a mysticism of action (pp. 216, 221). Ursula King also presents this particular mysticism as the mysticism of the future. It is not so much that Teilhard's mysticism is the new mysticism of the future but that he provides the direction for this new mysticism. Thus a thorough study of the spirituality of Teilhard is central to a study of the future of spirituality.

Secondly -- and this is a point on which Sethna's work will challenge us -- not only must Teilhard himself be surpassed, but to what degree will Christianity itself as we now know it also be surpassed? Teilhard himself spoke of meta-Christianity. What did he really mean? One of the provocative chapters in Ursula King's book concerns the very evolution of religion. The religions of the East and of the West themselves will evolve and the future of mysticism lies exclusively with neither.


K. D. Sethna's The Spirituality of the Future: A Search apropos of R. C. Zaehner's Study in Sri Aurobindo and Teilhard de Chardin is a provocative work. Mr. Sethna was born and educated in Bombay, India, and is now a member of the Sri Aurobindo Ashram in Pondicherry. The Spirituality of the Future, 314 pages, published by Fairleigh Dickinson University Press in 1981, is what the title says -- a statement about the future of spirituality along Teilhardian and Aurobindonian lines, and a response to R.C. Zaehner's 1971 study of Sri Aurobindo and Teilhard entitled Evolution in Religion (Oxford: Clarendon Press).

Read along with Toward a New Mysticism by Ursula King (who has also written of the contrast between Teilhard and Sri Aurobindo), The Spirituality of the Future presents an intellectual and spiritual challenge. Obviously the book is specialized. If someone has no background in the thought of Sri Aurobindo, the book will be more difficult. Also, since the book is a response to Zaehner, the flow of the text can be disrupted by the effort to expound Zaehner's position first. Sethna's style, however, is lucid and the research significant. There are two theses which Sethna argues well and with which many may disagree -- one concerning Teilhard, and one concerning the future.

First, Sethna is critical not only of Zaehner but of many Catholic expositions of the thought of Teilhard. These Catholic studies attempt to save Teilhard for the church by pointing to his continuity with tradition, especially with the Greek fathers, as if Teilhard's pantheism is Christian. As Teilhard has come to be more and more acceptable within Catholicism, Sethna, from outside Catholicism, seriously challenges his orthodoxy. Sethna argues that the pantheism of Teilhard is truly a pantheism unacceptable within Roman Catholicism. In fact, one of the major limitations in the thought of Teilhard flows from the unfreedom within his church (keep in mind the post-Vatican I, pre-Vatican II period within which he lived) which prevented him from going fully where his spirit was leading him. Teilhard's Catholicism stands in the way of Teilhard's spirituality, which is pantheistic in a sense fully in accord with Indian Vedanta. Teilhard was critical of Eastern thought without realizing how Eastern his own thought was.

Second, because of this constraint which prevented Teilhard from freely developing his own intuitions, Teilhard's spirituality is not the spirituality of the future, although the core Teilhardian intuition and spirit do provide the right direction. But one must go beyond Teilhard, or go where Teilhard was going without letting himself go there, and that is in the direction of the Integral Yoga of Sri Aurobindo.

Now that there is greater freedom and objectivity we ought to reconsider the question of Teilhard's pantheism which he himself carefully presented so as to make it orthodox. Yet Sethna cannot decide what is orthodox for Christianity. From within the church there can be a growth in consciousness as well. What may not have been seen as possible within the century after Vatican I may indeed become possible within the century after Vatican II. A reassessment of Teilhard, however, cannot be done apart from a profound dialogue with the East.

But, however one assesses Teilhard, orthodox or not, and his potential for the future, we must in the West take the thought of Sri Aurobindo more and more seriously. Sethna is not the first to point to the similarities and contrast between Pierre Teilhard and Sri Aurobindo. I myself have had the opportunity to team -- teach a course on these two spiritual thinkers with a man from the Ashram. We must remain open to the contributions of the East. (A good introduction to Sri Aurobindo is Morwenna Donnelly's Founding the Life Divine.(2) Eventually, however, one will want to read Aurobindo's own Synthesis of Yoga and the two volumes of The Life Divine.)

Jerome Perlinski, general secretary of the Teilhard Foundation here in the United States, has edited The Spirit of the Earth, a collection of eight essays specifically prepared for the Teilhard centennial, 148 pages, published by Seabury in 1981. Only a brief comment on each essay is possible here.

William Coulson, founder of the Center for the Studies of the Person in LaJolla, California, in "Cultural Apprenticeship," argues on Teilhardian ground as well as on the work of Michael Polanyi against a very prevalent approach to child-rearing as exemplified in Thomas Gordon's Parent Effectiveness Training. Coulson maintains that the Teilhardian evolutionary perspective does not support the approach which sees the parent as a nondirective therapist. The articulation of parental values are not a barrier to child development. In fact, "in recommending that parents withhold their influence in the name of their childrens' freedom, the therapeutic psychologists are asking that the next step of evolutionary development be a step backward" (p. 24).

Willis Harman, senior social scientist for the Strategic Environment Center in Menlo Park, California, in "Changing Views of Creativity and Evolution," concerns himself with "the reconciliation of the two basic paths to human understanding, that of rational empirical science and that of the inner search via the mind of intuition and creative imagination" (p. 33).

Robert Rubinstein is an assistant to the vice-president for academic resources and institutional planning at the University of Chicago and lecturer in the Department of Anthropology at Northwestern University. Sol Tax is emeritus professor of anthropology at the University of Chicago and worked personally with Teilhard. They collaborated on an essay entitled "Literacy, Evolution, and Development," in which they examine the consequences of being illiterate (a majority of adults in portions of the world still cannot read or write), present their hypothesis of a critical period in childhood "during which the neurological system serving reading must be put to work if proficient reading is to be developed" (p. 59), and suggest "we must start people reading at an age early enough to fall within the presumed critical period" (p. 60) .

Elise Boulding is chairperson of the Department of Sociology for Dartmouth College. "The Vision is the Reality" makes suggestions for working out "the evolutionary vision in the broader context than the Eurocentric, homocentric frame of Teilhard's thought (p. 71). While pleased that she discovered Teilhard, she sees the need to go beyond Teilhard and suggests four areas for constructive thinking: the role of the social order or sociosphere between Teilhard's biosphere and noosphere; the implications of seeing evolution as a transcivilizational process rather than Eurocentric and Christocentric; evolution as a transgender process which is the work of women and men together; and the importance of children and the nature of the educational process for evolution.

Francis Tiso teaches in the Department of Religion and Philosophy at Mercy College, Dobbs Ferry, New York. "Love's Conspirators: Builders of Earth-House-Hold" is a personal, reflective response to Teilhard. He makes the point that the noosphere needs a disciplined practice which recognizes the latent energies of the psyche. The two guides for this to which he points are Teilhard and Merton. He concludes his essay with twelve proposals.

Kenneth Boulding is an emeritus professor of economics at the University of Colorado. "Toward an Evolutionary Theology" considers two epistemological processes ("top down," "bottom up") and points to the complementarity between science and religion. One interesting suggestion, in the light of Sethna's work above, is that Teilhard's vision "is almost more Hindu than Christian" (p. 115). Another is that science developed out of a Christian society in a way it could not have developed out of any other society.

Robert Muller has worked with the United Nations for thirty-two years and is presently secretary of the Economic and Social Council. His "Five Teilhardian Enlightenments" is a reflection on the United Nations within biological evolution, based upon his most basic conviction that life is divine. One of the enlightenments speaks of spirituality as "the ultimate key to our earthly fate in time and in space" (p. 122). Robert Muller has also recently completed a work entitled Global Spirituality or the Planet of God (Doubleday).

Paolo Soleri is a well-known architect, with a doctorate in architecture, who has been influenced by Teilhard in the development of his science of arcology, the fusion of architecture and ecology. His essay, "Myriad Specks/Teasing Grace," continues his reflections on urbanization in a Teilhardian spirit deprived of one ingredient of Teilhard's foundation -- God: "My revisionism deals with a Teilhardian model that has been 'robbed' of God" (p. 132).

Before concluding this list of contributions to Teilhard studies, I wish to mention Margaret McGurn's Global Spirituality: Planetary Consciousness, 72 pages, published by World Happiness and Cooperation, Ardsley-on-Hudson, in 1981. It is a concise study of the thought of both Teilhard and Robert Muller (see the essay by Muller referred to above) and their contributions toward a global spirituality. It contains a good bibliography of the writings of Muller. One of the better bibliographies of Teilhard is that provided in the work by Ursula King. For a bibliography of Teilhard's own writings, see that at the end of his The Heart of Matter (Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1979).(3)

Teilhard challenges both modern science and traditional religion. He provides a basis for a cosmology and anthropology which is both modern and Christian. Teilhard's thought is also significant for Christology, and in many ways is a Christology. Yet his most enduring contribution may be to mysticism and spirituality. His phenomenological starting point, with its correlation between the "within" and the "without," enables him to value both interiorization and socialization. It is no surprise that someone like Roger Garaudy suggested Teilhard as a good starting point for dialogue between Christianity and Marxism.(4) Teilhard's world-affirming mysticism of action moves us in the direction of a spirituality which does not remove us from the world. At the same time, his divinization and pantheistic cosmic sense provide a basis for dialogue with Eastern mysticism, which Teilhard himself did not pursue. Teilhard's new mysticism is strangely both Eastern and Marxist. It is this spirituality, for Teilhard so thoroughly Christocentric, which deserves serious and critical consideration. The studies to which we have referred here contribute to this. But this new era in Teilhardian scholarship has only begun.

  1. "On the Centenary of the Birth of Father Teilhard de Chardin," The Pope Speaks 26 (1981): 265-66. Although this letter by Casaroli does not officially revoke the concerns of the previous monitum, it still reflects the most recent official statement and was communicated on behalf of John Paul II. It recognizes the significance and encourages the critical study of the thought of Teilhard. The complete text is in The Pope Speaks.
  2. (Lower Lake, Calif.: The Dawn Horse Press; distributed by Matagiri, Mt. Tremper, New York). The works of Sri Aurobindo are also distributed by Matagiri.
  3. The Heart of Matter is a significant volume in the Teilhardian corpus. I reviewed it in The Critic July-II, 1979): 2-3.
  4. From Anathema to Dialogue (New York: Herder and Herder, 1966), especially pp. 48ff.