Saturday, April 16, 2011


Teilhard de Chardin: Scientist and Seer - Charles E. Raven
The Divine Milieu  - Pierre Teilhard de Chardin

I read Raven's book on Teilhard first, and then, curiosity aroused, read Teilhard himself. It was a good order in which to read, as had I gone to Teilihard first I might not have struggled through the entire book. Teilhard is not easy to understand for a "bear of little brain". Yet there were flashes on the page that shone light into my mind and soul. I do have a sense of what he means by "the divine milieu" - that God is ever present in the universe, but not in a pantheistic way. I am still confused but the best explanation, I found on p. 56: "God must, in some way or other, make room for himself, hollowing us out and emptying us, if he is finally to penetrate into us. And in order to assimilate us in him, he must break the molecules of our being so as to re-cast and re-model us. The function of death is to provide the necessary entrance into our in-most selves"  On that page and the next is a beautiful prayer asking for help in facing death.

The word "milieu" was kept from the French, because no acceptable synonym was found in English, and its exact sense in French is impossible to translate, according to the foreword. From page 84 there is this definition which I found I could understand in some measure: "God reveals himself everywhere, beneath our groping efforts, as a universal milieu only because he is the ultimate point upon which all realities converge. Each element of the world,.whatever it may be only subsists, hic et nunc, in the manner of a cone whose generatrices meet in God who draws them together."

Raven in his biography and commentary is much clearer than Teilhard and is also speaking of Teilhard's whole life thought whereas The Divine Milieu although not published until after his death was one of his earlier works. Raven presents Teilhard as both scientist and religious and is particularly impressed by Teilhard's synthesis of the two world views. Raven writes: "It is perhaps Teilhard's greatest service to our time that having accepted the whole cosmic process as one, continuous, complexified and convergent, he can regard it with unfaltering hope." (p,75)

Raven's accounts of the restrictions imposed upon Teilhard by the Catholic authorities, removing him from teaching positions, not allowing his writings to be published, and his quiet submission, left me with the unanswered questions: how did Teilhard manage to remain in a faith that abused him so, what was it about Catholicism that kept him true to his vows? Finally what made him ensure that his writing would be saved and published after his death? That seemed inconsistent with his previous obedience, I need to read another biography for the answer.

Raven  includes this confession of faith from Teilhard, dated July 1933, a few years after the writing of The Divine Milieu.   It helps explain what is sometimes obscure in the book:

"We can be fundamentally happy only in a personal union with something personal (with the personality of everything) in everything. This is the ultimate appeal of what we call 'love'. In consequence the essential quality of the joy of life discloses itself in the knowledge or feeling that in everything that we taste, create, undertake, discover or suffer in ourselves or in others, in every possible line of life or death, organic, social, artistic or scientific, we are increasing gradually and are ourselves gradually incoporated in the growth of the universal soul or spirit." Raven goes on to comment: "For this conviction all that is needed is an impassioned human heart and the acceptance of three points:  (1) That Evolution or the birth of the universe is by nature convergent not divergent, making for a final unity; (2) that this unity, built up gradually by the world's labour, is by nature spiritual -- spirit being understood, not as a withdrawal from but as a transformation or sublimation or culmination of matter; (3) that the centre of this spiritualised matter, of this totality of what is by nature spiritual, must in consequence be supremely conscious and personal; the Ocean which gathers all the spiritual tides of the universe is not only something but someone; he is in himself face and heart. If one accepts these three points the whole of life, including death, becomes for each one of us a discovery and continual conquest of a divine and irresistible Presence. This Presence illuminates the secrecies and inmost depths of everything and every man around us. We can attain a full realisation not a simple enjoyment of everything and every man. And we cannot be deprived of it by anything or anyone. That is Teilhard's creed.

"And if we are to express it theologically we find him convinced that evil is no accident or regrettable mistake. We have no right to suppose that God would have created a world without evil and suffering; they are, however, we explain it, an integral part of the process.  All we can say is that the world is so constructed that evil and death occur in it. 'Suffering', said Teilhard in his La Vie Cosmique of 1916, 'is the consequence and the price of the labor of development.' 'Creation groans and travails until now,' as St. Paul put it. 'Creation, Incarnation, Redemption, each marking a stage in the divine operation, are they not three phases indissolubly joined in the manifestation of the divine?' (Raven, pp. 183-184)

So, not light reading, but I did find that the concepts presented by Teilhard and Raven did lift my heart - the centrality of love, beauty, truth, goodness, in their theology and the sense of God as a mysterious ever presence waiting to welcome us at the time of our death. (Although I may be oversimplifying. Teilhard is so difficult to understand that I couldn't figure out what the Catholic authorities were afraid of in terms of his being published. However, his books sold 300,000 copies in the first year or so of publication, surely unusual for the books of a Jesuit! So perhaps they were right to fear.)

Teilhard's book available Virtual Catalogue and Amazon. Raven on Amazon.

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