Toward a Science Charged with Faith
Chapter 5 of God and Science
Pierre Teilhard de Chardin (1881-1955) stands among the very few leaders of thought in this century to integrate pure scientific research with a religious vocation. At an early point in his career this paleontologist and Jesuit priest made it his personal mission to reconstruct the most basic Christian doctrines from the perspectives of science and, at the same time, to reconstruct science from the perspectives of faith. He would do this by overthrowing all the barriers that had been erected between science and religion in the past one hundred years. He would take the lessons learned from the study of nature as the foundation on which to reconstruct the Christian faith. He would single-handedly remake all the dogmas of his own Catholic Church, and he would at the same time remake the world of modern science on the model suggested by his personal experience of God.
Teilhard was seen by the Vatican as a threat to the integrity of the faith. Rome insisted that his religious writings should not be published; he was forbidden to teach or even to speak publicly on religious subjects; he was banished from his native country. Yet his ideas were disseminated informally and sometimes secretly by friends and colleagues in the church. He became a hero and a role model for a whole generation of younger priests and theologians. He set the stage for the renewal movements which finally came to flower in the era of Vatican II.
At the same time he also suggested a program for the reconstruction of science. He put forward a systematic critique of traditional science which was just as radical and just as provocative as his criticism of traditional religion, and he provoked equally extreme reactions in the scientific community. A small number of world-class scientists have taken his ideas seriously enough to structure their own work on Teilhard’s model, but the majority of scientists have reacted as defensively as the Vatican theologians.
It is perhaps not surprising that a leading advocate of Darwinism, Stephen Jay Gould, has gone to work on Teilhard. Writing vehemently and dogmatically, like the guardian of an established religion, Gould asserts that Teilhard’s whole enterprise is illegitimate: Teilhard’s essential insights are incompatible with science. In addition to that, Gould has made it his personal mission to expose Teilhard as being guilty of the most outrageous scientific fraud of modern times.
Partly as a result of these defensive and dogmatic reactions to Teilhard, he is today tragically underestimated in both the religious and scientific communities. While many of his ideas have worked their way anonymously into currency and have been widely accepted, still Teilhard’s innovative thinking has been taken seriously only by a minority of thinkers who see science and religion entering into a new era of cross-fertilization and creativity. For the vast majority, Teilhard’s thought seems marginal at best, and his insights are not studied in the depth they deserve. This is partially explained by the active suppression of his ideas by the church and the suspicion of his ideas within the scientific community. Teilhard’s obscurity is also to be explained, however, by his own style of writing and his tendency to wander into the realm of pure speculation. His fertile imagination sometimes led him into a fantasy world foreign to scientists and theologians alike. Yet even in the face of Teilhard’s most serious mistakes I believe his initiatives should be pursued. When one cuts through his sometimes lurid prose, one encounters a series of highly imaginative and suggestive proposals for the reunion of research and religion. The questions raised by his work cannot be avoided. Anyone interested in extending the search for truth beyond the traditional frontiers of knowledge must wrestle with his basic affirmations.
Can science and religion be successfully remarried? Can a reunion of these old lovers infuse new vitality to the whole of western culture, as Teilhard passionately asserted it would, or, as his critics suggest, does Teilhard accomplish the reconciliation of science and religion at the expense of both partners to the marriage? Does he fatally compromise both sides in forcing an alliance which should never have been attempted in the first place?
It was at the height of his career in paleontology while he was studying bones and fossils in northern China (in 1927) that Teilhard wrote what he called “a little book on piety” designed to convey both the sincerity and the orthodoxy of his faith to his superiors in Rome. In this book Teilhard speaks of The Divine Milieu and by its very title suggests his theme: the whole material world as the setting for a profound, mystical vision of God. It is in the world itself, as it is seen through the eyes of science, that the workings of God are most apparent. Teilhard’s writing is graphic and unrestrained:
Needless to say writing like this did not reassure the religious authorities in Rome, for Teilhard affirmed the material world as a source of mystical illumination. Though Teilhard did not directly criticize any specific doctrines of the church in his little book of piety, this work constitutes an assault upon the skeletal supports of traditional theology. Teilhard was just as provocative when he was trying to reassure as when he was trying to stir up debate. Early on, he describes his book in two sentences which were intended to convey the modesty of his position but in reality contained a theological time bomb:
Teilhard says that he intends no more than to “recapitulate the eternal lessons of the Church,” but he goes on to assert that he is actually teaching the church how to see! As a scientist and an individual thinker, he is suggesting that the primary source of religious truth is to be found in the material world rather than in the magisterium of the church. In a real sense, it shall be science which shows theology how to see; it shall be the personal experience of a single priest which will indicate to the highest ecclesiastical authorities what is essential in Catholic teaching (as, by implication, he will show what is not essential).
As Karl Marx turned the world of philosophy upside down by revealing the foundations in society for every human theory, Teilhard tried to accomplish the even more difficult task of turning theology downside up. He tried to demonstrate that the material world, the world of rocks and trees, stars and planets, plants and animals, rather than being the neutral subject of scientific investigation, was in fact the soil from which would spring a new vision of the holy. The very subject matter of pure science was nothing less than a mirror in which one could see reflected the face of God. Hence Teilhard did not succeed in calming the anxious theologians at the Vatican, and they were rightly worried. He had raised the material world to a level of importance it had seldom held for theologians, Catholic or Protestant. In a more candid statement of faith written at the request of his confidant and colleague, Bruno de Solages, rector of the Institut Catholique in Toulouse, Teilhard put the issue on a personal, even confessional plane:
We must now ask what led Teilhard to believe so deeply in the world, or , putting it another way and reflecting the deep skepticism of our own era, what in the world is worthy of belief in the first place? For the vast majority of us, the material world provides the raw material for scientific research, not mystical illumination. Yet here is a professional scientist working at the frontiers of research, part of an international team of geologists, paleontologists, and anthropologists, and writing from an outpost of science in northern China, who boldly asserts:
One can easily see why Teilhard raised cries of alarm within the hierarchies of both the church and the academies.
Teilhard was born and reared in an eighteenth-century manor house located in the barony of Sarcenat near the provincial capital, Auvergne, France. The windows and terraces of the manor house look out upon the plain of Clermont, the rounded hillsides, and sleeping volcanoes that form the foothills of the Puy mountains. Growing up in a family of eleven children, Teilhard was reared in an atmosphere of discipline and devotion. In this highly structured family setting, Teilhard learned from his father, Emmanuel Teilhard de Chardin, the love of nature and natural history which later became so important to his spiritual life as well as to his science. The countryside was rich in rocks and minerals, animal life, and flowers, and Teilhard spent many hours with his father exploring, climbing the mountains, riding, fishing, hunting, and collecting outstanding examples of the local mineral, animal, and vegetable stock. Most of all he was attracted to the minerals, to the rocks, and to items of metal. He began a collection of shell casings and other metal objects. He seemed to be attracted to these objects because of their durability. He even called them his “idols.” In his autobiography he records this memory of the earlier years:
From that moment forward, Teilhard did not stop looking, searching, and exploring every corner and dimension of the natural world for his consolation.
Pierre’s mother, Berthe Adele, seemed to have more immediate influence upon the child’s religious life. “I was an affectionate child,” he writes, “good, and even pious.” Teilhard lovingly attributes to his mother, whom he referred to as my “dear, sainted maman,” all that was “best in his soul.” It was the influence of his mother which he looked upon to “rouse the fire into a blaze.” The fire of which he speaks here is that of a mystical illumination from within. “And the spark by which my own universe . . . was to succeed in centering on its own fullness, undoubtedly came through my mother.”(6) Teilhard’s life spins itself around these two poles of thought and feeling: his sense of fascination and wonder about the natural world and his sense of God’s presence welling up from within the world. As he told the story much later:
At the age of twelve Pierre was sent as a boarder to the Jesuit school of Notre Dame de Mongre at Villefranche. He was popular among his peers and was eventually elected president of the student body. He achieved a respectable academic record in religious studies and a superior record in science. At eighteen he entered the Jesuit novitiate at Aix-on-Provence, and, when the religious orders were expelled from France in 1902, he traveled with the community to their refuge on the Isle of Jersey. While studying with the Jesuits, he was introduced to the rigors of a scholastic theology which he later so violently rejected, and he had the opportunity to pursue his primary interest in geology and the natural sciences. Physics, in particular, opened a new dimension in his thinking. In the laws of physics he saw a verifiable basis for the unity that he had sensed in the natural world. In this “world of electrons, waves, and ions” he felt “strangely at home.” The “mysterious” laws of motion and the electromagnetic forces of the physical world seemed to suggest a secret, “that at twenty-two,” he vowed to himself, “I’d one day force.”(8)
In 1905 Teilhard was sent to do his teaching internship at the Jesuit college in Egypt and then in 1908 to England to finish his theological training at Hastings in Sussex on England’s southeast coast. It was here that Teilhard’s own thinking began to develop in its full originality. Critical to his intellectual development was a reading of Henri Bergson’s Creative Evolution, which raised the theory of evolution to the level of a cornerstone in a fully developed philosophical system. Teilhard found in Bergson a theoretical basis for his personal feeling of intimacy with nature and the material world. For Bergson saw a force at work across the whole face of this planet as life evolved from the most simple and original forms to the most complex. More important still, Bergson’s work suggested to Teilhard that the theory of evolution might be the precise theoretical tool that was necessary to bring together the world of modern science and the ancient teachings of the church.
Meanwhile Giuseppe Sarto was elevated to the papacy as Pius X. Both devout and reactionary, the new Pope was committed lo lead Christ’s church away from the corrupting influence of such “modernist” opinions. An elaborate spy system, complete with underground periodicals and secret codes, was devised in the process of seeking out and eventually bringing under discipline the church’s errant, younger priests and scholars. The Pope set up committees of censorship in every diocese, and reports of heretical thought were sent directly to Rome. Catholic scholars and teachers were required to sign an antimodernist loyalty oath.
Had Teilhard believed his primary calling to be a theologian, he might have seen in these developments a direct threat to his own future, but at Hastings his creative energy was moving still deeper into the realm of science. A chance meeting with the lawyer and amateur archaeologist Charles Dawson led to an association which was much later to present as great a threat to Teilhard’s reputation as immediate events at the Vatican. At the time, though, Teilhard’s association with Dawson contributed immensely to his progress within a scientific profession. Dawson introduced him to the prominent Arthur Smith Woodward, keeper of paleontology at the British Museum. Smith Woodward opened doors to the scientific establishment that would otherwise have been closed to the young Jesuit seminarian. In fact, Dawson and Smith Woodward were to become collaborators in one of the great events of paleontology, the “discovery” of the famous Piltdown Man, which they presented as an important missing link in the evolution of the human species. Teilhard participated with the two Englishmen in their excavations at Piltdown, and in the process his own standing as a promising young paleontologist was established in scientific circles far beyond the precincts of the church. When Teilhard left England to begin his doctoral work, he was to become a student and eventually a colleague of Marcellin Boule, the greatest physical anthropologist in France. Thus were the foundations laid for Teilhard’s long and successful career as a paleontologist.
In 1953, however, Piltdown Man was exposed as a deliberate hoax, perhaps the most astounding fraud in the history of modern science. Until recently Charles Dawson was believed to have acted alone in the Piltdown affair, but in August 1980, a quarter-century after Teilhard’s death, Stephen Jay Gould put forward his own view that Teilhard was a coconspirator in the original fraud. Gould first published his accusations in Natural History magazine and repeated his case with additional argument and discussion in Hen’s Teeth and Horse’s Toes. Though his “evidence” is entirely circumstantial, Gould accusations are tightly reasoned, as are the arguments of Teilhard’s defenders who have written and published their own views in reply to Gould. The briefs for and against Teilhard are too complex to review here. Suffice it to say that the reconstruction of events that originally took place in the years 1908 -1914 is difficult in itself. To draw firm conclusions based upon circumstantial references in letters and remembrances stretching across seventy years is almost impossible. Gould speculates wildly as to why Teilhard might have been drawn into the conspiracy. His tentative conclusion is that Teilhard thought he was involved in little more than a practical joke.
The great Smith Woodward took the forgery and unwittingly presented it as a major event in paleontology, but then World War I erupted and Dawson died in 1916, leaving, as Gould argues, Teilhard as the lonely keeper of the conspiracy. By war’s end Teilhard was irrevocably committed to his own career as a paleontologist; he had seen his own mentor Marcellin Boule openly praise the Piltdown “discoveries.” If he now confessed, his own future might be ruined. In these circumstances, what is a guilty coconspirator to do? Either he would confess his guilt and place his scientific career in jeopardy or he would keep silent on the whole subject and move on to build his career upon a more legitimate foundation.
In fact, Teilhard took a most implausible course of action were he in fact guilty as Gould charged. In 1920 Teilhard published his own scholarly article on the Piltdown findings. Thus Gould would have us believe that Teilhard drew himself still more deeply into the web of lies, implicating himself far beyond the scope of a practical joke in a premeditated crime against the very scientific profession to which he was in the process of committing his life. Was the same man who made it his personal mission to show scientific endeavor to be a sacred calling capable of such duplicity? With such a serious potential for self-destruction? I doubt it.
The question which this entire episode raises in my own mind are Gould’s motives in acting as accuser, prosecuting attorney, and presiding judge in the case of Teilhard vs. the truth. One suspects that there is more to Gould’s motivation than a straightforward desire to solve a crime against science committed more than seventy years ago. Does Gould have an animus against Teilhard? Obviously he has, for Gould is a leading advocate of scientific atheism. Gould has made it his avowed intention to keep God, together with all superstition, racism, chauvinism, and other lies, out of science. Gould’s books and articles argue eloquently for the integrity of science. Gould insists that real science can only operate with integrity if God remains shut out of it completely. In marking out the course of natural history one must look at the actual processes of nature, not impose upon nature any grand theory or design. Gould recounts horror story after horror story from the history of science showing how the preconceptions of scientists have meant in effect that their research was being put in service to a lie. He shows scientist after scientist fabricating results in support of the most pernicious superstition and simple prejudice. Gould is rightly concerned and angered by scientific creationists who lift his own words out of context to show that Darwinism is in a state of disarray or that the science of evolution is about to self-destruct. Gould is so rightly angered by such false science and has suffered so many examples of religious superstition and stupidity that he can imagine no positive role for religion whatsoever. Since it has done and is still doing so much damage to science, it seems only prudent to separate science from religion completely. Given that conclusion, however, what does one do with the work of Teilhard de Chardin? Teilhard argues that the sciences of nature validate the fundamental affirmations of the Christian faith. While Gould is committed to shutting God out of science completely, Teilhard asserts that the only way to save science from self-destruction is to place God back in, at the very heart and center of scientific endeavor. To scientists as well as to theologians Teilhard said, in words that hang fire, “Surely the solution for which modern mankind is seeking must essentially be exactly the solution which I have come upon”(10)
In a highly suggestive essay written in 1939, Teilhard traces the development of science from its earliest beginnings as a mere hobby to its present state as “the solemn, prime and vital occupation of man.”(11) Teilhard follows science from its origins in the cultures of the ancient world through its period of expansiveness in the nineteenth century when it began to take on all the aspects of a substitute religion. Crucial in this period was the theory of evolution. Teilhard argues that the greatest single consequence of Darwinism was the “discovery of time.”
Teilhard points out that Darwin changed our understanding of time in much the same degree that Galileo transformed our sense of space. In both cases the boundaries of the universe were extended to infinity. As astronomy has exploded the geocentric universe in which earth sits in its fixed place at the center of all things, with the heavens above and hell below, so geology and biology have pushed the horizons of time backwards into the remote past and forwards into the far distant future. Also, as life came to be seen as evolving across the millennia in a gradual succession of living forms, suddenly a notion of progress was born. With this new sense of moving forward in time from the simplest life forms to the most complex, from the animal to the human species, from the most basic colonies of bacteria to the highest civilizations, science became much more than a method of collecting and classifying the facts of life. Increasingly science was seen as the specific means by which humanity would move forward into the future. Teilhard writes:
In the nineteenth century science enjoyed such success at explaining so many of the mysteries of life that it appeared to many as if all the mystery could one day be explained away. In physics one could penetrate to the heart of matter and develop a clear understanding of that fundamental building block, the atom. In biology, the evolution of life forms could ultimately be explained through competition of the various species across vast distances of time. By the same token, intelligence could be understood as a function of the circuitry in the brain and consciousness could be reduced to a complex series of chemical reactions, etc., etc. In other words, argues Teilhard, the mysticism of discovery was fast deteriorating into the mere “worship of matter.”(14) The religious corollary of this trend was the death of God. For, if all the important processes of life could be understood through the tools of analysis just recently developed by science, what further need remained for faith in God?
In Teilhard’s view the situation has changed dramatically in the twentieth century. In physics, the atoms themselves were broken up and broken down into innumerable subparticles infinitely more mysterious than the alchemists ever imagined. In Teilhard’s own words:
Similarly, in biology, chemistry, and sociology the important phenomena could not be reduced to the simple mechanisms that were once thought to lie at the heart of all things. Far from continuing to explain away the remaining mysteries, science in this century has exposed still deeper mysteries at the very heart of matter itself. At a more mundane level science did not prove to be the unmitigated blessing it was once believed to be. Teilhard lived long enough to witness the explosion of the world’s first atomic weapons, and with these weapons the fatal blow was delivered against the nineteenth century idea of progress. If the science of Darwin, Marx, and Freud seemed to make certain the death of God, the nuclear arms race secured the death of science as a substitute religion.
In reaction against a naive, anthropomorphic religion, science, in its century of triumph, had turned increasingly against any theory which cast nature into a human mold. Paradoxically, in this century, scientists have recognized that no clean line of demarcation can be drawn between the observer and the observed. The scientist, like the theologian, cannot take a completely “objective” position separate and apart from the phenomenon being studied. One inevitably sees the world through human eyes and conceives of the world in human images. Even when one makes every effort to avoid doing so, one still tends to make the world into a mirror.
A majority of scientists have dealt with this situation (as does Stephen Jay Gould) by opting for a militant skepticism. Not only has God been shut out of science but also any attempt to see in nature evidence of a final plan, purpose, or design is rejected out of hand. As Gould puts it succinctly in specific reference to Teilhard, “Perhaps the problem with all these visions . . . is our penchant for building comprehensive and all-encompassing systems in the first place. Maybe they just don’t work.”(16) This criticism completely misses the mark. Teilhard does not attempt to build an “all-encompassing system” and impose it upon nature. Teilhard looks to the natural world for signals of its inherent purpose, and he sharply criticizes Gould’s brand of skepticism as narrow and debilitating. Writing much earlier than Gould, Teilhard anticipates his criticisms and answers his challenge:
Teilhard asserts that nature is moving, erratically and haltingly perhaps, but nonetheless moving, towards higher and higher forms of consciousness. This movement is most apparent in the evolution of the human species. It is humanity in particular which has a clear concept of nature and nature’s inner workings. Teilhard quotes Julian Huxley approvingly: humanity is “nothing else than evolution become conscious of itself.”(18)
The specific insights that come into the foreground of awareness as one reflects upon the ascent of this species are both its uniqueness and its relatedness to the whole of the natural world. For Teilhard the most sublime product of evolution is the human person, the individual uniquely aware of itself as a person, yet also aware of its interdependence with the whole. Teilhard would agree with Gould to a point. One cannot talk scientifically about the superiority of the human race; one cannot separate the creation of humanity from the creation of other life forms. Humanity did not emerge by fiat of an all-powerful God. On the contrary, our origin and ascent follow the same path taken by all the creatures of the natural world. Human consciousness (including a consciousness of God) is the culmination of nature’s own movement through time. Far from being imposed upon the formless face of the natural world, God emerges from nature as its final goal and purpose. Thus, science and religion are brought together in a direct, dialectical relationship. Teilhard states his argument most succinctly in the closing chapter of The Phenomenon of Man.
A science “tinged with mysticism and charged with faith.” Are these words simply rhapsodic and metaphorical? Not for Teilhard. As a practicing scientist he saw the evolution of human personhood, not as an exception to the general rules of nature nor as a freak occurrence without relevance to other living things. He saw the “phenomenon of man” as an “arrow” pointing to the final goal and purpose of the universe itself.(20)
As science in this century has emphasized the interrelationship and interdependence of all things, religion affirms that the unity of all things is itself the most solid evidence of a God who embraces all. Growing from the same soil that has given rise to all other phenomena of life, human consciousness and the human personality appear to stand at the very top of the tree of life. If one were to project the forward edge of evolution into the future, especially as it falls increasingly under human direction and control, then it makes increasing sense to talk of a higher consciousness as being the inherent end and purpose of evolution. If evolution itself points toward a form of conscious life which has personality, perhaps God is the goal toward which this universe is moving after all. Hence the deep affinity which Teilhard felt between science and religion. “There is less difference than people think between research and adoration.”(21) “Religion and science are the two conjugated faces or phases of one and the same act of complete knowledge “(22) Teilhard illustrates these concepts in the clean and simple image of the cone:(23)
When human beings turn their powers of analysis upon the diversity and multiplicity of life (at the base of the cone), that is pure science. However, when humanity turns its powers of synthesis towards the summit, towards the totality and the future (at the pinnacle of the cone), that is theology. Yet science finds its fulfillment only as it turns from investigation and analysis towards synthesis: that is to say, seeing the totality of life and weighing its character, testing the relationship of the part to the whole. Likewise, those who engage in the search for God find their fulfillment only as they see the God who is available in the material world. A faith which is cut loose from the world is likely to be illusory and unreal. Conversely, the faith that truly counts is the faith which takes science as a fellow traveler in the final search for God.
In the past, Teilhard argues, theologians tended to see God as a supreme being standing over and apart from the material world. In this view God dwelt upon the high and remote plane of pure spirit, and therefore the way to salvation was to be lifted above the contradictions of the material realm onto a high spiritual plane. Teilhard writes, “Since Aristotle there have been almost continual attempts to construct ‘models’ of God on the lines of an outside Prime Mover.”(24) The high and all-powerful God of traditional theology can influence the world only by intervening in its natural processes and contradicting its natural laws. In fact, many theologians delineate a crystal-clear line of demarcation between the natural and the supernatural. The chief signs of God’s action in the world are taken to be those otherwise inexplicable events, apparently contradicting all reasonable explanation. Obviously this concept of God is still very much with us. In popular conception the most sure and certain sign of God’s presence is to be found in those startling and unusual occurrences that seem to defy all understanding. A cancer victim suddenly goes into remission despite a clear indication from the medical authorities that death is imminent. The popular imagination has been trained through centuries of religious instruction to see God’s appearance in the world as, by definition, a most un-natural and unusual event. Correspondingly, all hope for full and complete communion with God lies in the escape from the world which is possible only at death.
Thus one looks for a closer understanding of God by moving in a vertical dimension. One does not progress in life by moving forward in time but by escaping the contradictions of time and history in the eternal. It is precisely such a notion of salvation which has been seen as completely antithetical to science. A supernatural God can only be understood, in scientific terms, as arbitrary and capricious. It is not so much that scientists have locked God out of history; the breach has resulted as much from the sincere attempt of religious people to see God as perfect both in power and in love. Yet only a God who is removed from the ambiguities of life, as we know it, can be perfect. As Stephen Jay Gould rightly insists, such a perfect God could not have created an imperfect world. Such an act would have been completely out of character!
In the meantime, as theologians tended to define God more and more in terms of the supernatural, science has taken its stand in nature. In the years since Darwin scientists have seen human life evolving in a linear march through time. As the theologians defended God by building walls around the domain of the spirit, so science dug its trenches in the world of matter. Marx’s dialectical materialism and his atheism are together the logical consequences of supernaturalism in religion. Scientific atheism is in fact the inevitable consequence of a theology which insists that knowledge of God must defy human understanding. When theologians insist that knowledge of God can only come through a miraculous act of divine revelation, rather than being discovered by reason, or that sinful humanity has no hope of salvation except by fiat of an all-powerful and all-loving God, then the dialogue between science and religion is interrupted prematurely. Moreover, religion has no role to play in a world which is committed finally and forever to science. That, Teilhard argues, is the greatest theological tragedy of our modern age.
Teilhard’s modest proposal for the resolution of this dilemma is to chart a new course for both theology and science. If religion has seen its purpose as raising human life to higher consciousness in a vertical dimension and if science has seen its purpose in moving humanity forward on a horizontal plane within the boundaries of the material world, the obvious frontier of consciousness involves a movement both upwards and forwards. Again Teilhard offers a simple image to depict his agenda for the evolution of human consciousness.(25)