The publication in 1960 of Sheldon Wolin’s Politics and Vision: Continuity and Innovation in Western Political Thought re-established in many ways, the importance of epic and classical political philosophy contra the reigning tendency towards positivism and behaviorism (a shrinking of thought to the smallest scientistic circle turns). The republication of Politics and Vision in 2004 reminded thoughtful political theorists of a motherlode worth the mining. There can be no doubt that Wolin’s 1969 article, “Political Theory as a Vocation”, inspired a generation of idealists to realize that thinking in a political way could be a vocation and birthed, in some ways, the Berkeley School of Political Theory. The death of Wolin (1922-2015) ended an important era of substantive approaches to political thought, but Wolin’s notion of thinking in large, epic and historic ways lingers on in opposition to those who reduce thinking to micro issues.
Why have I begun and article on Pierre Teilhard De Chardin (1881-1955) by referring to Sheldon Wolin? Both De Chardin and Wolin thought on a large canvass—they were the perennial foxes rather than the burrowing hedgehogs. Both men covered much terrain in their expansive thinking and interpretations. Needless to say, De Chardin was much more concerned and focussed on the relationship of spirituality and science than was Wolin, and it is to this important crossroads I now turn.
There has been a regrettable tendency to pit science against religion, and religion against science. The clash and conflict has a centuries old history, but the most recent act in the larger drama began in the 19th century with Darwin and the idea of evolution. Sadly so, creationists became pitted against evolutionists and the religion-science debacle dominated much of the latter half of the 19th century and the 20th century. There were those, though, who thought such an approach to creation-evolution need not be an either-or position. The hardening of the intellectual arteries that tends to dominate the religion-science civil war has been, gratefully so, countered by a more nuanced and refined approach between theologians, philosophers and scientists (of various disciplines). Pierre Teilhard De Chardin was one of the most controversial Roman Catholic scientists of the 20th century that dared to find a synthesis between faith and science.
De Chardin has become a model and mentor of sorts within the progressive wing of Christianity that attempts to ponder the relationship between time and history, spirituality and science, faith and evolution. The publication of Kathleen Duffy’s Teilhard’s Mysticism: Seeing the Inner Face of Evolution (2015) and Ilia Delio’s Christ in Evolution (2010) go the extra mile to thread together De Chardin’s thought as a paradigm for integrating evolution and Christ. John Haught, Ursula King, Thomas King, John Grim, Mary Tucker and James Salmon are but a few of the De Chardin scholars that have unearthed the importance of De Chardin for those interested in spirituality and science. Should the thoughtful uncritically accept the Chardinian approach to faith and evolution, spirituality and science? If the answer is Yes, then the scholars listed above (and there are many others in both the disciplines of spirituality and science) must be consulted as gurus on the journey. If the answer is No, then a sort of Yes and No dynamic takes front stage.
The 13th and final volume of De Chardin’s writings was published in English in 1978. The final volume contains two of the most important articles by De Chardin, penned near the end of his prolific and wonder filled life. “The Heart of Matter” and “The Christic” are must reads for those interested in understanding De Chardin’s fuller vision. “The Christic” was completed in March 1955, and in April 1955, De Chardin died, although he continues to live through his many commentators as a saint of sorts. There can be little doubt that since his death, De Chardin has become a fount of living water to many and his significance ever grows and multiples amongst the “progressives”.
There are a few points to ponder in “The Christic” and “The Heart of Matter” that must be noted. The fact De Chardin was pondering within the religious ethos of his time the relationship of faith and science, creation and evolution meant he was often misread, misunderstood and challenged---he certainly paid the difficult price for going where few had gone both within the Roman Catholic Church and other forms of Christianity. Also, De Chardin was as interested in the origins of life as he was in the upward and forward movement of time and history----the omega point of sorts. Is there a relationship between the unfolding and direction of nature (human and non-human) and Christ? Is Christ the means and end of evolution at its finest and fittest? These were some of the issues De Chardin grappled with most of his life, but he summed up his thinking, in a compact and succinct way, in “The Heart of Matter” and “The Christic”.
Pierre Teilhard De Chardin attempted to address scientists who ignored religion in the evolutionary process and religious thinkers who assumed evolution was anti-religious. Was there a way of seeing a religious impulse in evolution and an evolutionary impetus in religion? Such was De Chardin’s burden, vocation and fate to sort and sift through, and “The Heart of the Matter” and “The Christic” brought together his final and most mature thoughts on the topic. Should, as I mentioned above, De Chardin be read uncritically? There are three points to be noted by way of an answer to such a question.
First, I began the article by mentioning Sheldon Wolin. Wolin was a political philosopher. De Chardin attempted to synthesize, in a thoughtful and coherent manner, religion and science, spirituality and evolution—such a task, of course, has its place. But, what is the relationship between evolutionary science and politics? What is the relationship between evolution and the reality of politics (both in theory and practice)? When theory (theology or science) becomes detached or disengaged from life in the state, city or international community, theology and science lack a certain credible integrity. Some might think the League of Nations and the United Nations embody, at their best, the evolutionary human impulse. But, the League of Nations is defunct and the United Nations is a weak instrument when set beside the interests of powerful states. Are we truly evolving, at a human level, forward and upward or does power and wisdom ever compete to win the human heart and political life? Where is Christ in the many conflicts and tragedies on the human journey? Is De Chardin’s answer too simple when set within economic, political, environmental and social clashes and tensions?
Second, the progressive and evolutionary approach to time and history tends to dim and marginalize the immense wisdom of classical civilizations. Has Christ in and through the evolutionary process (both as means and end) meant the newest is most human and humane? Chronological snobbery can be a temptation for those who know not the deeper wisdom of the past and idealize certain aspects of the modern. Did De Chardin slip into this dilemma? Blake once noted that “joy and woe are woven” into the human journey and this perennial reality is as much there as in the alpha and omega.
It is significant that Hermann Hesse won the Nobel Prize for literature shortly after WWII for his brilliant novel, The Glass Bead Game. The inner tale of this tome draws together the finest intellectuals of the time on the mountain top of Castalia. All these thinkers are going the extra mile to synthesize the best insights from various religions, history, politics and science into an enlightened vision worth the living for. Castalia is the summit of the best that has been thought, said and done in human history. The dilemma is this and Hesse rightly notes it--such approaches to making sense of the human journey had been tried before both WWI and WWII--down in the valley, as Arnold noted in “Dover Beach”, ignorant armies fought by night. Was Hesse in The Glass Bead Game wary of those who spun out ideas on the mountain top but were out of touch with the “warre of all against all” in the valley of time and history? Where does evolution fit into Tolstoy’s war and peace that seems to exist world without end?
Third, even if we concede (as we should) the need to think through the relationship of religion and science, spirituality and time-history, whose model is best and wisest? Is De Chardin the way forward or a rabbit’s trail? Can Christ be seen in the heart of matter in such a way that he is the fulfillment of matter in the way De Chardin envisions? What are other models of spirituality-science that might agree with the desire of De Chardin to make sense of religion-evolution but understand the content of the synthesis in a different way and manner?
Wolin begins Politics and Vision with the notion of “Political Philosophy as a Form of Inquiry”—surely, when we approach the issue of faith and evolution, spirituality and science, there should be an ongoing form of inquiry that tests the relationship between scientific notions such as evolution with political philosophy--De Chardin never truly did this from his Castalian heights--Plato, in his finely textured Gorgias or the early books in the Republic, knew the dangers of facing the Callicles and Thrasmychus of raw power with the wisdom of Socrates. I suspect De Chardin would be more convincing if he had come down from the mountain top of science-religion Castalia to the daunting valley of political life. It is in such places that ideas are searchingly tested on the anvil of power and wisdom, realism and idealism--such tensions have been, are and ever will be with us---there is nothing new, on the substantive issues, under the sun.