Trashing Teilhard

Was the Jesuit scientist Pierre Teilhard de Chardin really a fascist, racist, genocidal opponent of human dignity? I had thought that, at least among educated Catholics, the question was almost dead. I was even guessing that holdout pockets of hostility might be vanishing for good after several recent Popes favorably cited  Teilhard’s cosmic vision for its theological beauty and Eucharist power.

I guess my optimism was premature. In a recent article likely to gain momentum on social media, the tired old accusation of Teilhard’s complicity in the spreading of evil has come roaring out of the gates again. This time the impeachment is packaged succinctly in a couple of publications by a young Catholic theologian and recent graduate of Notre Dame’s Department of Theology. Their author, Dr. John Slattery, claims that “from the 1920s until his death in 1955, Teilhard de Chardin unequivocally supported racist eugenic practices, praised the possibilities of the Nazi experiments, and looked down upon those who [sic] he deemed ‘imperfect’ humans.”

In his article “Dangerous Tendencies of Cosmic Theology: The Untold Legacy of Teilhard de Chardin,” in Philosophy and Theology (December 2016), Slattery writes that a persistent attraction to racism, fascism, and genocidal ideas “explicitly lay the groundwork for Teilhard’s famous cosmological theology.” This, he highlights, “is a link which has been largely ignored in Teilhardian research until now.”

A more recent article by the same critic in Religion Dispatches is entitled “Pierre Teilhard de Chardin’s Legacy of Eugenics and Racism Can’t Be Ignored.” I encourage readers to look at this shorter piece online: https://religiondispatches.org/pierreteilhard-de-chardins-legacy-of-eugenics-and-racism-cant-be-ignored/. They will see that Slattery hangs his claims on only eight stray citations from Teilhard’s letters and other scattered writings. Most of these passing remarks were never developed for publication nor elaborated systematically. Their style is provocative and interrogatory, and their meaning in every case is highly debatable. Slattery gives them to us, however, as undeniable evidence that Teilhard’s true “legacy” is one of hostility to Catholic affirmation of human dignity, racial justice, and concern for the disadvantaged. More important, however, is the assertion that it was Teilhard’s commitment to these evils that gave rise to his mature “cosmological theology.” Nothing could be more preposterous and farther from the truth.

Slattery’s thesis—offered without any real argumentation—will appeal to those on the Catholic and Evangelical right who have consistently repudiated Teilhard for trying to reconcile Christian faith with evolutionary biology. And it will draw no objections from the many scientific skeptics like Jacques Monod and atheistic philosophers like Daniel Dennett who have denounced Teilhard’s thought for the same reason. Above all, however, it will win approval from readers who suspect that there just has to be something deeply perverse about Teilhard’s rethinking of Christian faith for the age of science.

Instead of digging into Teilhard’s mountainous body of work, with which he shows little familiarity, Slattery rests his summation of “Teilhard’s legacy” on half a thimbleful of quotes taken out of context. Seasoned Teilhard scholars have known about these remarks for decades but have usually measured their significance in terms of what they take to be Teilhard’s true legacy. This legacy consists of at least four cardinal principles completely ignored in Slattery’s desperate debunking. Here they are:

First principle: The universe is still coming into being. Theologically, this means that creation is not yet “finished” and that humans, who are part of an unfinished universe, may contribute to the ongoing creation of the world. The opportunity to participate, even in the most excruciatingly monotonous ways, in “building the earth” is a cornerstone of human dignity. It is also a teaching of Vatican II. The fact that our creativity can sometimes lead to monstrous outcomes does not absolve us of the obligation to improve the world and ourselves. Taking advantage of this opportunity is also essential to sustaining hope and a “zest for living.” And nothing “clips the wings of hope” nor leads life into listlessness more deadeningly than the now obsolete theological idea that the universe has been finished once and for all and that all we can do religiously is hope for its restoration.

Yet Teilhard was also careful to point out that we participate in creation, and prove our fidelity to life in an unfinished universe, not only by our activities but also by our passivities. Far from being indifferent to the suffering of the disabled and the marginalized, as Slattery accuses Teilhard of being, the Jesuit priest consistently fostered a vision of life that gives dignity to the helpless and those in need. As he reflected with quiet empathy and unvanquished hope on the incessant suffering of an invalid sister, for example, he developed a beautiful Christian theology of suffering. Furthermore, in the quest for what contributes rightly to new creation and the zest for living, Teilhard set forth as morally permissible only those actions and creative projects that are in accordance with the following three principles.

Second principle: To create means to unify (creare est unire). Scientifically understood, the emerging cosmos becomes real and intelligible only by (gradually) bringing increasingly more complex forms of unity or coherence out of its primordial state of diffusion and subatomic dispersal. As the universe in the course of deep time becomes more intricately unified in its emergent instances of physical complexity, it also becomes more conscious. Theologically understood, the principle is realized in Christian hope as summed up in Jesus’s prayer that “all may be one” and in the Pauline expectation that everything will be “brought to a head” in Christ “in whom all things consist.” Teilhard’s true “legacy” lies in his rich Christian sense of a universe converging on Christ and being brought into final union with and in God. Almost all the many distortions of Teilhard’s intentions, none more agonizingly than Slattery’s, stem from a failure to understand exactly what he means by true union.

Third principle: True union differentiates. True union does not mean uniformity or homogeneity but a rich, complex mode of being that is built up out of a diversity of components that are permitted to coexist in a relationship of complementarity.   Theologically, the principle that “true union differentiates” is exemplified in a wondrous way in the doctrine of God as three in one. Scientifically speaking, it is both a good evolutionary and ecological principle as well as a criterion of survivable social organization. Ecologically, true unity maximizes diversity and acknowledges differences. So does the biblical theme of justice. Slattery should know, then, that when Teilhard acknowledges “inequalities” he is not supporting injustice, racism, classism, or elitism. He is following an ethical and ecological principle that maximizes diversity and differences in such a way as not to detract from individual value and overall unity.

True unity at the human level of cosmic emergence enhances personal freedom, maximizes otherness, and in that way respects personal dignity. So, when Teilhard expresses “interest” in the fascist experiments of the 20th century, far from approving them, as Slattery sneakily implies, he is simply observing that such movements feed parasitically on a twisted passion for union, an irrational instinct devoid of concern for differentiation. Anyone who has actually read Teilhard’s works widely and fairly will notice that he deemed fascist and communist experiments evil insofar as they fail to look beyond uniformity, homogeneity, and ideological conformism to the true unity that differentiates, liberates, and personalizes.

Finally, Teilhard presents the cosmic Christ as the paradigm of differentiating, personalizing, attracting, and liberating union. Christ is the Center around which humans and all of creation are called to gather in differentiated, dialogical—and hence intimate—communion (as expressed in the Eucharist).

Fourth principle:  The world rests on the future as its sole support. As we survey cosmic history with the scientists, we discover a “law of recurrence” in which something new, more complex, and (eventually) more conscious has always been taking shape up ahead. Scientifically speaking, we can now see that subatomic elements were organized around atomic nuclei; atoms were gathered into molecules, molecules into cells, and cells into complex organisms some of which have recently made the leap into thought.  The most important kinds of emergence can occur, however, only if the elements allow themselves to be organized around a new and higher center that lifts them up to the state of more elaborately differentiated unity.

In our contemporary picture of an unfinished universe a Center of union and a fountain of “fuller being” is always awaiting the universe up ahead. Theologically, Teilhard identifies this future ultimately with what the Abrahamic traditions call God. What gives nature its consistency and unity, what holds it together in other words, is not the subatomic past—where everything falls apart into incoherence—but the always fresh future where everything is gathered into one. True Being, the Center of differentiating union, resides essentially in the future.

Yes, God is both Alpha and Omega, “but God is more Omega than Alpha.” To experience true union, true being, true goodness, and true beauty, therefore, we must allow ourselves—like Abraham, the prophets, and Jesus—to be grasped by the Future. Teilhard stated explicitly that his whole theology of nature was an attempt to implement the cosmic expectations of St Paul and the Fourth Evangelist. Not to notice this deeply Christian motif in his thought is to do him grave injustice. It is only under the constraints of Christian hope that he says we must be ready to “try everything.” This requires a more adventurous sense of the moral life than what we find in classical religious patterns of piety. Teilhard was looking for a morality rooted in hope not only for humanity but for the whole universe. This cosmic turn can cause confusion to theologians who have not yet fully awakened to the fact of an unfinished universe and what the new cosmology means for our understanding of God, faith, and the sense of obligation.

Teilhard, contrary to his detractors, was humble enough to acknowledge that his own thoughts on these topics were tentative and revisable. We should not be surprised if at times he made mistakes. Who hasn’t? Still, since humans are part of nature, and nature remains far from finished, it is perfectly legitimate to wonder, as countless other thoughtful people are doing today, whether and to what extent humans can participate in their own and the world’s future evolution. Is this genocidal? At least in the four principles sketched above (as well as others not discussed here) we have a morally rich framework within which to begin dealing with the hard questions that Teilhard was among the first to raise

“Trashing Teilhard” Published in Commonweal Fall 2018. Reprinted with permission by the American Teilhard Association

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6 Comments

  1. Traces of God at the Museum | RESource on July 15, 2020 at 10:57 pm

    […] reading: A further article on Teilhard by American theologian John Haught outlines some of his ideas about evolution towards […]



  2. Daniel Shevock on March 22, 2019 at 9:05 am

    I posit everybody who uses any of the evolutionary metaphors for social progress (and spiritual progress) need to take social evolution’s history of deep seeded racism, classism, urbanormativity, ablenormativity, and sexism–and specifically connection with eugenics–seriously. This is not to validate the work of the particular author, John Slattery, in the same way this article points us toward his book. When I used Chardin’s ideas (through Thomas Berry’s work) in my book on education I realized it is necessary to take the connections seriously. For instance, the idea of evolutionary spirituality could be used to promote technocracy, which, with the dominance of the ecological crises (and their distinctive destruction of poor communities, the Global South, women, people of color), is likely to be looked at in the same negative way we look to eugenics polices (which continued to the 1970s) now. Today though, if the only people who recognize these challenges are those who want to “trash” Chardin ad hominem, to ignore all of his insights, those insights will fail to evolve because of lack of serious intersection. It matters not if Chardin specifically promoted eugenics or not. We’re not looking for a new Jesus in Chardin. What matters is how those ideas (also in Bergson, in Spencer, in G. Stanley Hall, and in Satis Coleman who I research) historically existed so we can take seriously our possible blind-spots.



    • Gregory Hansell on March 22, 2019 at 9:33 am

      Daniel, I think that’s exactly right. It is essential we avoid a “Pollyannaish” progressivism in evolutionary views, where it is absurdly assumed that everything gets better and better, and that a simple “higher and lower” cultural hierarchy emerges. We certainly don’t think that at Omega Center, and FWIW I don’t believe Teilhard thought so either, although that is of course debatable. My reading of where evolutionary theory has gone in the last few decades vis-a-vis evolutionary developmental biology and other innovations, as well as evolution read alongside complexity theory, finds a much different understanding of developmental change being presented. I’ve had conversations with a handful of modern day Teilhardians in the last three months and they all affirm this.

      This is a very complex conversation worthy of its own presentation in articles here (and we are working on these), but I think something like a “weak progressivism” (to use a modifying term from physics) can be affirmed. Teilhard understood that the evolutionary progression increased in complexity and interiority (what he calls “centration”), but that every move in that combined direction brings along its own set of challenges and concerns. In evolutionary theory, many mutations lead to dissolution (death), and in complexity science every increase in complexity leads to a higher chance of systemic failure. In Berry’s language, every Great Work brings along its own unique problems that, in some sense, needs to be addressed at the level of that “work” and perhaps by the next Great Work (which will again great new challenges).

      I think the “inevitabilities” in this understanding represent certain trajectories or tendencies in the evolutionary unfolding (and divine becoming), but not that they are simply higher and better. Teilhard famously foresaw something like the Internet (and by extension, social media), in so far as unity differentiates and diversity increases interconnectivity. But in a “weak progressivism,” we needn’t ignore the downsides of how the Internet has fragment our cultures and our truth claims, and how social media, in bringing us together via questionable algorithms based on even more questionable behaviorist metaphysics, has resulted in deeper “tribalism” and group think. This also goes for, as you mention, the history of simplistic and supremacist readings of evolutionary theory as essentially just pseudo-scientific cover for colonialism and racism. And without doubt, belief in every technology as simply “progress” has lead to the decimation of the ecosphere and brought life on this planet to the edge of systemic collapse.

      All of which is to say that I both agree with you and would also want to defend a certain notion of progressivism that is cautious, humble, and less inclined to some of the “Pelagian” tendencies that often beset such views. It is very important to us here at Omega that we cover and nuance this concern and plan to do so soon.



      • Daniel Shevock on March 22, 2019 at 9:11 pm

        Thanks for responding, Gregory! Your post was very helpful. And I’m glad to have found these articles on the Omega Center webpage. I would definitely like to read more about this idea of weak progressivism, especially in relation to historic injustices of people assuming progress. I guess I’m distinctively situated to think about this since my philosophy teacher was a student and friend of Ivan Illich, and I’ve long been into Thomas Berry’s writings. The idea of weak progressivism might help me resolve some of the paradoxes I confront in considering the Great Work and the specific ecological and social challenges we face in 2019.



  3. Alan Sage on February 13, 2019 at 8:13 am

    Dr Haught rightly points out that ,as so often, many of Teilhard’s detractors or misrepresentative have read only selected texts from Teilhard’s works and thus skew the understanding of his thinking. As Sr Ilea shows by reference to Gilson’s work on Bonaventure, in order to grasp the essential vision of Teilhard we have to read the whole of his writings. Teilhard wrote in different keys in his many writings and this has to be understood if we are to interpret him correctly. This aspect of Teilhard’s presentation can easily lead the novice or the part-reader of his writing to inaccurate interpretation of his thinking; Dr Slattery appears to be among many other writers who fall into this category. His disaffection with Teilhard’s thinking is perhaps a symptom of the tendency among modern theologians to lack an appreciation of the new evolutionary context within which we live and preferring to write theology within a static world view context. Sadly, much of Catholic theology is still stuck in a mediaeval world view with its emphasis on stability and permanence as a guarantee of faithfulness to the traditional faith. In reality it is failing to recognise that the world of evolution that is the gift of the creator. Teilhard clearly understood this as far back as 1916 and saw how the cosmic vision of St Paul is fully realised in an evolutionary, forward looking vision. If evangelisation is to have any impact in modern society then the static vision of the past has to be transformed into a dynamic, forward looking outlook which takes into account fully our understanding of the universe within which we live. Jesus’ teaching about the kingdom or reign of God suggests a vision of an open , expansive world in which the values of each individual are brought to fulfilment in a process of bringing things together; He wanted to break down barriers and bring all things together which was an ambitious project which would face much opposition and the need for courageous commitment. This was the centre of Jesus’ teaching but it was often exchanged for a more institutional model in subsequent Christian history. We need to return to Jesus’ radical vision and transpose it into an evolutionary, dynamic context – this should be the central pole of an evangelisation programme and the outlines of a Teilhardian cosmic vision would be a suitable vehicle for presenting this to people in today’s world.



  4. Thomas Telhiard on February 5, 2019 at 12:06 pm

    I found this article very helpful. A Teilhard novice myself, I have often wondered about his remarks concerning race and eugenics, but have also noted how these were never developed within his writings. The 4 principles as Haught lays them out are simple and meaningful in giving a framework for ‘understanding’ Teilhard’s vision as opposed to applying an exlcusively systematic theological approach to his writings. The process line of Teilhard’s writing, which I would call mysticism, is that which offers the most hope. I particularly appreciate how Haught underlines the prominence of ‘future’ for Teilhard and how this would translate in the Hebrew/Christian tradition as ‘God.’ The future as a “morality rooted in hope” is that which frightens those of us subscribing to a finished product God and universe; but alas, it is, I believe, the very ‘open’ container which we can continue to participate (create) a God always MORE. Thanks for this!



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