Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Vernon Sproxton's "Teilhard de Chardin": Book Review

This unprepossessing introduction from a Christian press in 1970 may seem basic, but it's well written and ideal for those needing a straightforward account of this maverick Jesuit paleontologist's daring theology which sought to ennoble the material by refusing to keep it apart in dualistic models from the spiritual. In his introduction, the author credits this "vision" for guiding some who, soured by Christian dogmatism distanced from the modern world, but also bitter about "a nihilism which betrayed their deepest intuitions," found their way back to a religion better suited to their aspirations.

Avoiding the more "uncritical adulation" of some of Teilhard's New Age followers, Sproxton as a minister and BBC producer of Religious Programmes brings the telling detail of the documentary format to enliven a formidable subject. It's for beginners. He opens in the Auvergne, where amidst nearly a prehistoric, rocky and barren landscape of the Massif Central in the same town where Pascal was born, young Pierre Teilhard began his life's work, "tracing the lineaments of Christ in solid rock."

Upset at the fleeting nature of matter, for his favorite iron talisman soon rusted, the boy sought reconciliation with the intangible energy.  "Even then he was seeking an Idea which would embrace his own frail mortality and the constancy of solid rock. He was then seven years old." (22)

Called to the priesthood, he bristled against the pious platitudes, searching for an intellectual coherence leading to a combination of the seen and unseen. While his apparent welcoming of the unleashed energy that sparked WWI unsettled me, his service in the trenches as a chaplain attests to his bravery and commitment to an ideal. He lived within his idealistic time; a loyal Frenchman and a Catholic cleric, he displays his class and era's mindset even as his scholarship sought to transcend it.

Nearly thirty by the time he was let out into society as it were, he learned then of evolution. Whether in France or in Egypt, China or England, the young Jesuit tried to leap out of the bounds keeping Christ on one side and fossils on the other. Rocks and spirit, for Teilhard, both carried vitality. He coined "noosphere" as the "thinking layer  consisting in mankind, its interrelatedness, technology, culture and spiritual values." By "hominisation," in Sproxton's summary, "upright, reflective, thinking Man" emerges as a phenomenonology that challenges us "to see or to perish" (58-9). An evangelist, according to his critic, Teilhard longed to find within the soil the release of the transcendental.

Sproxton takes us in chapter 4 through what Teilhard's The Phenomenon of Man delineated best. Organisms, sparked into biology's progression, use "a process of becoming" over immense duration in "cosmogenesis." With the end of perfection in Christ in mind and matter, somehow, tangential energy accrues. Combined with radial energy's bursts, evolution continues down blind ends (evil may be accounted for in this theodicy as a kind of waste by-product) or more direct alleys towards primates and humans. Within the latter, the opportunities for advancement allow the greatest ability for "amorsiation" or love which attracts each to each and by "directed chance," a move towards an Omega Point of unity and ultimate absorption of the material within the immaterial will arrive.

This remains despite Sproxton's efforts, and no fault of his own as he may well acknowledge, not crystal clear. Teilhard seems to have remained eager but rather naive when came to the horrors of both great wars, and he praises the chance for energy unleashed by the H-bomb. Despite the privations of wartime China and postwar France he witnessed, he appears (perhaps his quiet nature and resilient attitude dominated) to have detached himself from much of the half century during which Teilhard struggled to articulate his vision to those lacking faith. Original sin is thankfully diminished to the credit of Teilhard if not his superiors. With little patience for the human side of Christ, Teilhard yearned for a overpowering, immanent, omnipotent, and mystical "Christification."

Yet "God" rarely appears in Sproxton's precis. As Sproxton observes, the lack of critique which Teilhard brought to the Church (despite his own censure by Jesuits and scrutiny of the Holy Office) puzzles, but the patience with which the priest endured his later years of polite ostracism by certain authorities attest to the confidence and childlike faith that Teilhard kept as he was sent from China to Paris and then to New York. One wonders, decades after 1955, the fate of his body, buried humbly at the Jesuit novitiate on the Hudson--now the flagship campus for the Culinary Institute of America.
(Amazon US 7-5-13)

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