Pierre Teilhard de Jardin (and Desmond Ford)



The Pontifical Council of Culture recently announced that it plans to request Pope Francis to rehabilitate Pierre Teilhard de Jardin. This is remarkable, since his ideas (and, in particular, his books in which these ideas were explained) were considered as dangerous reading for Catholics. Gradually this situation is changing. The previous pope quoted from Teilhard in a vesper service in 2004, and the current pope referred to him in a positive way in his recent encyclical Laudato si (Be praised: on the care of our common home, 2015). A request for rehabilitation would certainly have a chance of success.

Pierre Teilhard de Chardin (1881-1955) was a Jesuit priest and well-known philosopher, but his special areas of expertise were paleontology and geology. A dictionary definition of paleontology is: “A paleontologist is someone who studies fossil remains and traces of organisms, with a view to reconstructing the nature and the evolution of life on earth in the geological past.” In other words: Teilhard de Jardin was active in the study of evolution. His acceptance of the evolutionary origin of all forms of life was at odds with the official teachings of his church, and, as a result, the church condemned his work. Teilhard wrote one of his most important books The Phenomenon of Man already in 1930, but it was not published until shortly after his death in 1955. I must still have the book somewhere. I bought it more than fifty years ago, when it was published in a then popular Dutch Aula paperback series. I do remember that at the time I did not understand much of what I read, and I gave up after a few dozen pages.

The fact that the Roman-Catholic Church had revised its view of the evolution theory, and that at long last Teilhard de Jardin may be rehabilitated, is rather remarkable. Churches are not very good in changing their doctrinal views. That is also true for protestant churches. They do change, and some long-time cherished ideas may gradually move into the background and be almost forgotten, but it remains quite difficult for most denominations to openly admit that it no longer supports some of the things that were said and written in the past. Often those men and women who pioneered those developments received a very negative press, or could no longer function in their church because of their ideas.

I do not think that in the foreseeable future the Adventist Church will give more space to scholars who have convictions about the creation-evolution dilemma that differ from what the church expects them to believe and teach. And many Adventist theologians and biologists (and geologists, paleontologists, etc.) will remain at odds with their church about many aspects. Let us, however, hope that they will not have to wait sixty years before they receive more space and will be rehabilitated.

PS.  And thinking about rehabilitation for people who in the past were sidelined by the church, because they had some alternative ideas about particular theological issues, I cannot help but remembering the name of Desmond Ford. Has the time not come to rehabilitate him (even when one does not agree with all his views)?


One thought on “Pierre Teilhard de Jardin (and Desmond Ford)

  1. Robert T. Johnston

    As an Adventist scientist, I, too, hope it is not 60 years! I recently published an extended report on a geology field trip I participated in this summer, led by John McLarty and Gerry Bryant. You may read it following the link from McLarty’s introduction here in Adventist Today: https://atoday.org/walking-dinosaurs-shifting-sand/

    I wrote:
    “Instead of obscurantism, the Adventist church should take a portion of the budget it currently uses for defending traditional creationism and use it to fund a “research project” whereby a few of our brightest theologians are tasked with exploring potential Adventist theological responses based on the assumption that the scientific community is correct about the age of life on earth. This seems like a reasonable way to advance “present truth”—or at least test the waters. A natural environment for conducting such a research project would be within our universities. The current climate of punishing professors and even entire universities who depart from conservative orthodoxy makes this difficult.”

    That seems unlikely in the present climate, but we desperately need better answers than what the church is presently (and dishonestly) presenting to its members and youth. Why are we so fearful of even exploring this space?

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