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Understanding Teilhard, Part II: The Duty of Research

Updated: Sep 5, 2022

Living Still Life, Salvador Dali, 1956

Editor’s note: this essay is part 2 in a series on Teilhard, beginning here.

The day will come when, after harnessing space, the winds, the tides, [and] gravitation, we shall harness for God the energies of love. And, on that day, for the second time in the history of the world, man will have discovered fire.

-Teilhard de Chardin, The Evolution of Chastity

Teilhard de Chardin is well-known for calling upon Christians to support the sciences. This rallying cry is best articulated in Mastery of the World and the Kingdom of God. In this essay, Teilhard levels a criticism against contemporary Christian thought that still rings true today.

Christians are often eager, he points out, to emphasize Christianity’s historic role in the development of science in the West—something I myself did earlier, in the first part of this series, when I referenced Carolus Linnaeus. Yet Christians too often automatically distrust, or at best ignore, cutting-edge scientific developments in our own time. It is part of the church’s mandate, he teaches, both to support and to actively drive the advancement of medicine, engineering, and other fields of discovery. He writes:

So long as [the Church] neglects to include, among the Christian’s essential obligations, the sacred duty of research, in other words his being bound, under pain of sin, to assist in the specific and temporal betterment of the earth—it will be a waste of time for her apologists to put forward the illustrious names of scientists who have also been men of prayer. She will still have to prove that if science flourishes in her wake, too, it is by right that this is so, and under her influence and not in spite of her or through a happy chance.

This technological mandate is part of the flowering of the germ of evolution. Just as evolution runs contrary to the entropy of particles, mankind is now using its knowledge of creation to reverse entropy at increasingly higher levels of complexity. We are working, for example, “methodically to overcome disease.” In this way, mankind’s “function is to complete cosmic evolution by making the inexhaustible energies at the heart of which he is born ‘work’ as through which a leaven, until all the promise they hold is realized.”

The simplest justification for this leavening of the universe is, of course, our God-given duty to help one another. Jesus’ statement in Matthew 25:45—“What you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me”—could be called the foundation of all Christian ethics. Any time a medical researcher cures some disease, he obeys this commandment and simultaneously furthers the divinely-sanctioned conquest of the universe.

Teilhard, right, served as a stretcher-bearer in World War I. He is depicted here at Verdun.

Our duty to conquer the universe is therefore an eschatological outworking of our duty to protect the least of these from natural evil—whether that evil is Alzheimer’s disease, the future immolation of the Earth the by the sun, or the heat death of the universe.

In a previous series of essays on eschatology, I put forward arguments that humanity—and specifically the church—is an agent, not a mere passive observer, in God’s eschatological narrative. To take only one important illustration of this principle, consider Daniel’s prophecy of the coming of the universal church in Daniel 2:44:

And in the days of those kings the God of heaven will set up a kingdom that shall never be destroyed, nor shall the kingdom be left to another people. It shall break in pieces all these kingdoms and bring them to an end, and it shall stand forever.

Teilhard has a hermeneutical bone to pick with those who downplay passages like this one. We must reject, he says, “the timid interpretations of the narrow common-sense that is ready to take the words of Consecration literally (because faith obliges us to do so) but in all other contexts looks for the meaning with the least impact.” We should therefore be literalists about the crowning mandate of Psalm 8:5-6: God has given mankind “dominion over the works of your hands; you [God] have put all things under his [mankind’s] feet.”

Teilhard also analyzes human agency in terms of God’s grace. Because we are the sort of beings who desire adventure and conquest, God has offered us the world “unfinished, so that [we] may draw sustenance from the intense satisfaction of, in some small way, giving You to Yourself.”

Of course, feats of medicine and engineering can also be “achieved by a godless man,” Teilhard acknowledges, “but what does that matter?” By way of an analogy, Teilhard points out that “philanthropy, which is an entirely natural and secular virtue, can readily be transformed in its entirety, both acts and object, into divine charity.”

Teilhard’s invitation to mankind then, is this:

For too long, in seeking health and growth, mankind has confined itself to docile empiricism and patient resignation… The time has now come to master nature, to make it unlock its secrets, to dominate it, to inaugurate a new phase; in that phase intelligence, which emerged from the universe, will turn back to it, to readjust and rejuvenate it, and make it provide its conscious portion with the full contribution it can make of growth in joy and activity.

Last week, I realized that Teilhard’s theology had shaped my own subconscious thinking. While merging onto a highway, I noticed the driver in front of me flick a cigarette butt out of his car window and into the grass. I was suddenly struck by the impression—one I hadn’t felt before—that the driver had committed an unholy act.

While I have always seen protecting the environment as a moral duty, I realized that washing my mind in Teilhard’s writing had reshaped my view of littering. To Teilhard, it is part of our mandate as Image-bearers to further the flowering of the New Heaven and the New Earth. By polluting the ground instead of healing it, the driver ahead of me seemed less to have desecrated the sacred than to have soiled the very process of sanctification. Put differently: before I discovered Teilhard, I would have felt simply that the litterer had done something which he should not have done and should be prevented from doing. After Teilhard, I suddenly found myself seeing littering as an inversion rather than a mere violation. The relevant moral duty is not limited to not littering or even to stopping littering from occurring. Our role as human beings is to affirmatively do the opposite of polluting the world: to leaven the universe until the promise it holds is realized.

First Church on a New World; original AI-generated art

Editor’s note: this essay is part 2 in a series on Teilhard, continued in part 3. Ian Huyett is a litigation attorney and a commentator on law, religion, and technology for Staseos and other outlets. You can follow him at @IanHuyett.



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