On Teilhard and “Teilhard’s Fire” (a song)

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Few life stories can match that of Pierre Teilhard de Chardin (1881-1955) for drama, passion, and intellectual ferment. The piety of his Catholic upbringing along with an early interest in geology set him on a collision course with the Church of his time but also presented an opportunity for creative transformation within the religious community as a whole. A Jesuit priest, a decorated veteran of World War I, and a distinguished scientist, Teilhard lived through some of the great crises of the twentieth century. Best known during his life as a member of the team that discovered Peking Man and as the priest who embraced evolution, he was ever restless to convey his vision of cosmogenesis, the creative unfolding of the universe. For Teilhard, the physical universe, permeated to its most elementary elements by “the within” of experience, crossed the threshold of thought in human evolution and is destined to converge on a supremely personal “Omega Point.”

Teilhard’s religious superiors never permitted him to publish anything but strictly scientific articles, so he shared his vision through “clandestins”—as they were called—that he distributed in mimeographed form. Only after his death were these published, thanks to the efforts of Jeanne Mortier who volunteered her services as Teilhard’s secretary. Published in thirteen volumes between 1955 and 1976, the “clandestins” represent about a third of his oeuvres—the other two thirds being his extensive correspondence and his collected scientific articles. As witness to the importance of these volumes, Mortier assembled a thirty-two member scientific committee and a twenty-one member general committee; the names of the people on these committees, published in each of the French editions, includes numerous distinguished figures of French science and letters.

Teilhard’s posthumously published work created a sensation in scientific, religious, and philosophical circles. As Teilhard’s works were being published, the spirit of aggiornamento gripped the Church and Vatican II was in session. While Teilhard remained a theological outsider, the Church softened its opposition to evolutionary thinking; indeed, forty-six years after Teilhard’s death Pope John Paul II used Teilhardian language to declare evolution to be more than a hypothesis, but a theory confirmed by all of the deliverances of science. Moreover, many within the Church and outside of it took inspiration from the Teilhardian vision of a cosmos in the making. The biologist and anthropologist, David Sloan Wilson maintains that Teilhard was, in some respects, ahead of his time, both in terms of his science and his spirituality; indeed, Wilson says, “Let his scientific flame burn brightly again!” (Wilson, The Neighborhood Project, New York: Little, Brown and Company, 2011, p. 120).

Teilhard’s works secured his reputation as a world-class thinker and visionary. To be sure, from the beginning, some religious writers as well as a couple of well-known scientists questioned the value of his thought. Teilhard anticipated that he would be criticized as offering, on the one hand, something less than religious orthodoxy (or even something heretical) and, on the other hand, something more than science (or even something opposed to it). Doubtless, he would have refined or revised his ideas in light of this feedback, as he did before the works were published. It is unlikely, however, that he would have considered himself refuted. After all, Teilhard advocated, above all, a way of seeing the world, a new perspective that invites one to transcend disciplinary boundaries by considering humanity not as an anomalous branch on an evolutionary bush but as the shoot of an evolutionary tree through which is most visible the inner workings of the cosmos, divinely transformed at its heart.

I take the words of “Teilhard’s Fire,” in part, from a 1934 essay that Teilhard wrote as he was struggling with his feelings for his close friend Lucille Swan whose love he never returned in the ways she desired. The essay ends with words that have gained a wide circulation: “The day will come when, after mastering the ether, the winds, gravitation, we will capture for God the energies of love.—And then, for a second time in the history of the world, Man will have discovered Fire.” I adapted these lines, in both their original French and in translation, for the song. Another Teilhardian phrase that I use in the song is “union differentiates” (l’union différencie), which Teilhard calls a “universal law” (une règle universelle). For Teilhard, true love unites in such a way as to augment rather than to diminish the personalities of those caught in its Fire. Omega, of which Teilhard sometimes whispered, is God considered as the lure to unification with others and with creation itself in what Teilhard called “the divine milieu”—a present reality and a future promise.

In 1927, Teilhard wrote to Ida Treat that he wished he could translate his vision into music. My aim is not so audacious, although I hope that something of Teilhard survives in my composition beyond the words themselves.

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