Teilhard de Chardin, visionary, wounded prophet

I’m finally getting around to reading Teilhard de Chardin’s The Divine Milieu, having read The Phenomenon of Man a few months ago. Reading him now is fortuitous, in the context of a Church of England that has just been presented with a deeply compromised, inadequate report on human sexuality, and is experienced by many as dull and uninspiring. I don’t think the Church of England has a very good grasp of the energy, love and tenderness which is at the heart of our God, of Jesus the Christ, and should be at the heart of our worship and life.

Teilhard de Chardin had lived and worked for many years in China. He spent 6 dispiriting final years in Japanese occupied China during the war, cut off from the rest of the world. He longed to return to France and arrived in May 1946, only to have a severe heart attack. Two years later he had recovered enough to tour South Africa. In 1951 he went to live in New York, devoting himself to anthropological studies. His only once returned to Paris for a short visit, new restrictions having been placed on him by his religious superiors. He returned to New York six weeks early, broken by emotion that he could hardly contain, and torn by unendurable anguish, according to his friend Pierre Leroy SJ. On 10 April 1955, Easter Sunday, he collapsed with a sudden stroke and died.

On 12 October 1951, Pierre Telihard de Chardin wrote from Cape Town to his General, the Very Reverend Father Janssens, in Rome. The letter can be found in the 1960 edition of The Divine Milieu published by Harper and Row.

In the letter written to Father Janssens, Teilhard de Chardin described how he was feeling and where he stood in relation to his faith and the Order to which he belonged. As I read the letter this morning I found strong echoes of my own feelings in the context of the Church of England in December 2013, post publication of the Pilling Report, my frustration bordering on despair at the lack of vision and imagination in our Church.

We are trapped by the demands of conservative pressure groups and forces. They inhibit change in the Church which would open the doors to the full inclusion of women and LGB&T people. We are caught in a power game in which they have money and growing churches. They believe they are growing because of their commitment to orthodox Christian teaching and traditional Biblical truth – as interpreted exclusively by them. It’s hard for others in authority in the Church to resist the power of money and numbers.

This dynamic looks tyrannical to me – there is no space for an openly gay, partnered, contemplative in this model of Church which they claim brings success in the gospel. Where does that leave all of us who yearn desperately for a different Christian model? It leaves some of us feeling somewhat like Teilhard de Chardin.

He wrote (and I’m taking edited highlights):

“I feel that you must resign yourself to taking me as I am, that is, with the congenital quality which ever since my childhood has caused my spiritual life to be completely dominated by a sort of profound ‘feeling’ for the organic realness of the World. At first it was an ill-defined feeling in my mind and heart, but as the years have gone by it has gradually become a precise, compelling sense of the Universe’s general convergence upon itself; a convergence which coincides with, and culminates in, him in whom all holds together, and whom the Society taught me to love.

“I have found an extraordinarily rich and inexhaustible source of clarity and interior strength, and an atmosphere outside which it is now physically impossible for me to breathe, to worship, to believe. My attitude is simply the result of my own absolute inability to contain my own feeling of wonderment.

“Everything stems from that basic psychological condition, and I can no more change it than I can change my age or the colour of my eyes. Never has Christ seemed to me more real, more personal or more immense.

“How, then, can I believe that there is any evil in the road I am following?

“I fully recognize, of course, that Rome may have its own reasons for judging that, in its present form, my concept of Christianity may be premature or incomplete and that at the present moment its wider diffusion may be inopportune.

“Obviously I cannot abandon my own personal search – that would involve me in an interior catastrophe and in disloyalty to my own cherished vocation.

“Look on this letter simply as a proof that you can rely on me unreservedly to work for the kingdom of God, which is the one thing I keep before my eyes and the one goal to which science leads me.”

Pierre Leroy comments that Pere Teilhard knew well that it was his duty to speak out and allow others to share the fruits of his own experience.

All this happened 62 years ago. In the 1960s (Le Milieu Divin having first been published in France in 1957 following Teilhard’s death), an exploration of truth and reality and God began to energise parts of the Church. Now, such a vision of Christianity is denied by those whose presence has had a heavy influence on the tone and quality of the Pilling Report. This impacts on many individuals I know and value with great warmth and affection. It impacts on the life of the church at local and national level.

So many people describe to me how dull, empty of life and inspiration, disconnected from reality and real life, their experience of worship is on a Sunday morning. At least evangelicals have energy and numbers. They also have other qualities which are hostile to my flourishing.


  1. says

    Colin, I read Teilhard back in my 20’s (in the 60’s) and his theology and philosophy helped form my faith. Those of us who know Christ in this way find the Church a painful construction of expediency that often inhibits the Gospel rather than Christ’s body in the world. But I have come to think that perhaps it IS us old duffers that allows us to continue to reach out to the Christ that has formed us to touch the young. The Church has never been or never will be the Body of Christ. It will rely on those of us who know the liberation by all that is Holy that will teach the new young just as we learned from the elders of our age. It is hard work on pension, but it is, and always has been the work of those of us who KNOW the Divine, not just believe, to pass it on.

  2. says

    The search for holiness is a daily activity. I know for me, that I cannot go through a day without giving some time to contemplation. I read Teilhard decades ago and others afterward because of his energy for discovery. He was helpful for me I getting started to discover the Love of God’s creation. Its awkward sometimes to discuss the pulling and pushing of religious thoughts — the focus for me therefore is…
    “This is how God showed his love among us: He sent his one and only Son into the world that we might live through him. This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins. Dear friends, since God so loved us, we also ought to love one another.”

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