E S S A Y S ,    A R T I C L E S    A N D    R E V I E W S

rediscovering fire

Religion, Science and Mysticism
in Teilhard de Chardin

By Ursula King
Department of Theology and Religious Studies, University of Bristol

Issue #39, Fall 2000

[Teilhard's] vision of love is a spirituality that celebrates the oneness of creation, a spirituality that acknowledges love as the clearest understanding we have of God, of ourselves, of history, and of the cosmos.

- David Tracy, theologian
   Teilhard was one of the first scientists to realize that the human and the universe are inseparable. The only universe we know about is the universe that brought forth the human. Teilhard understood this. He understood that the human story and the universe story identified with each other. The immersion into the deep creative powers of the universe is the most direct contact a human can have with the divine. Such is thespirituality that Teilhard makes available to us. A spirituality that is rooted not in the spatial cosmos of Ptolemy, but in the time-developmental universe that the scientists have detected.
- Thomas Berry, geologian

The day will come when after harnessing the ether, the winds, the tides, 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. -from The Evolution of Chastity

PIERRE TEILHARD DE CHARDIN'S vision was one of consuming fire, kindled by the radiant powers of love. It was a mystical vision, deeply Christian in origin and orientation. Yet it broke through the boundaries of traditional orthodoxies -- whether those of science or religion -- and grew into a vision which is global in intent.

       His deepest desire was to see the essence of things, to find their heart, and probe into the mystery of life, its origin and goal. In the rhythm of life and its evolution, at the center of the cosmos and the world, Teilhard believed, is a divine center, a living heart beating with the fiery energy of love and compassion. Now, the heart is really a fleshly reality But the image of this very flesh, this concentration of living, breathing matter, came to symbolize for Teilhard the very core of the spirit.
Courtesy, Fondation Teilhard de Chardin
       His entire outlook on life was profoundly mystical, yet his mysticism was firmly grounded in contemporary scientific research. For Teilhard the mystic, seer, and believer, the immense research efforts and advances of contemporary science, despite their negative side effects and the new ethical problems they cause, ultimately lead to the adoration and worship of something greater than ourselves, to the celebration of and surrender to divinity, to the heart and soul of the world.

       [Teilhard's] ideas were developed in direct living contact with the world, especially the Earth, the stuff of the Earth. As a scientist in the fields of geology and paleontology, he was in constant contact with the world of rocks and stones, fossils and bones, plants and animals. But he also was in touch with many different places and peoples. All of these were, for Teilhard, the tangible concrete stuff of the universe.

       While he worked on his scientific papers in his laboratory and office, he created most of his religious and philosophical writings in an unusual setting different from most academics, far removed from any library. His first essays were written in the trenches of the First World War, in woods and farmhouses, whenever there was respite from battle. In later years, he often composed the final version of his essays on the long boat journeys between Asia, America, and Europe, or during vacation time in his family home in the old land.

       As he wrote in his 1918 essay "My Universe": "It seems to me that every effort I have made, even when directed to a purely natural object, has always been a religious effort. Substantially, it has been one single effort. At all times, in all I've done, I'm conscious that my aim has been to obtain the absolute. I would never, I believe, have had the courage to busy myself for the sake of any other end. Science, which means all form of human activity, and religion have always been one and the same thing for me. Both have been, so far as I am concerned, the pursuit of one and the same object."

The turmoil of the war clarified his ambition. It made him realize in a new way, that matter was charged with life and spirit. He felt so deeply, so vividly, a love of matter, of life. Life is never mistaken, he said, either about its route, or its destination.

       This interesting quotation points out the twofold way in which Teilhard refers to science. On one hand, he mentions specific natural sciences such as physics and chemistry (which he taught in his early years) and geology and paleontology, which were his specialties of research. But he also understood science in a much more generalized sense: as any ordered unified effort of inquiry, and as the systematic knowledge arising from such efforts. In this way his approach to an understanding of the universe, of an ordered cosmos, was larger and more comprehensive than that of traditional science.

       Teilhard believed that however much science had achieved, analysis alone, if it was not also related to synthesis, was not enough. He criticized science as often being too reductionist, too constricted by little questions without asking bigger ones about direction and meaning -- and about philosophical and ethical concerns relating to our responsibilities in being human.

       For Teilhard, the universe is not simply an object of scientific inquiry. It is a reality passionately loved and embraced, something alive, throbbing, and pulsating with energy and growth. He refers to the mother Earth, the terra mater, as our matrix and ground. And he refers to the Earth womb from which we grow and in which we have lasting roots; an Earth whose immensity, richness, and diversity of life he approached with deep reverence and a deep sense of wonder.

       At the human level, Teilhard's world is marked by experiences of suffering and joy, warmth and love, celebration and ecstasy. One has to be attuned to the tonality of his feeling, to the metaphors of fire and music, which he so often uses. He speaks about a note, a melody, a sound, a rhythm that beats for him at the heart of the universe. He also speaks of the spark of fire, the glow, the leaping up of flame, the blaze that sets alive and consumes. 
These attitudes are summed up in a passage of The Heart of Matter, where he writes; "Throughout my life, by means of my life, the world has little by little caught fire in my sight, until a flame all around me, it has become almost luminous from within. Such has been my experience in contact with the Earth. The diaphany of the divine at the heart of the universe on fire. Christ, the heart, a fire capable of penetrating everywhere, and gradually spreading everywhere."


TEILHARD FELT INSPIRED and compelled to write his first essays against the battle fires of the First World War. Almost daily at the boundary of life and death, he sensed an urgency of leaving his intellectual testament. He felt he had seen something new which he wanted to pass on to others. From the very first, he wanted to communicate the fire of his vision.

       We can ask, therefore, what is this fire? How was it ignited and kept alive? What does this fire mean, and what energies and powers does it transmit? And how can we discover this fire today, kindle it in ourselves and others, feed it and keep it alive? What does he mean by discovering fire, again, a second time?

       The war experience immersed him, as he himself wrote, in a baptism of fire, and proved a crucible in which the full power of this vision was forged. Five years of trench warfare brought all his different experiences together into a single process of spiritual transformation.

       It is astonishing the amount of work he managed to get done between all the exhaustion of battle. With heightened sensibility (and some may say, extraordinary detachment) he went for lonely walks between battles and reflected in solitude. What was the meaning of all life, and of his own? Where was God on these fields of death and battle? What was humanity heading for? Where was it going? How did all these diverse human groups on both sides of the battle line ...belong to one human family? What was the role of the Christian faith in the immense cosmic process that is the evolution of life?

       He started a journal, made notes, wrote letters, and composed a series of stirring essays. He wrote them for himself, but he also wrote them for the world. For he wanted to make others see what he felt, saw, and believed. His journal contains the seeds of his thought, the initial plans for his essays, later written out with a meticulous hand in full lengths between the spells of battle. The turmoil of the war clarified his ambition. It made him realize in a new way, that matter was charged with life and spirit. He felt so deeply, so vividly, a love of matter, of life. Life is never mistaken, he said, either about its route, or its destination.

       In the midst of these terrible battles of the First World War, surrounded by the experience of death, Teilhard opens his first essay with this extraordinary affirmation, "I am writing these lines from an exuberance of life, and the yearning to live. It is written to express an impassioned vision of the Earth, and in an attempt to find a solution for the doubts that beset my action. Because I love the universe, its energies, its secrets, and its hopes, and because at the same time I am dedicated to God, the only origin, the only issue, and the only end. I want to express my love of matter and life, and reconcile it, if possible, with the unique adoration of the only absolute and definitive god-head." ("Cosmic Life" from Writings in the Time of War.)


THE SYMBOLISM OF FIRE was to occur in his writings again and again in the years to come. Nowhere is this vision more radiant and empowering than in the description of his mystical experiences. They truly express a vision of fire which filled him with wonder and amazement, ecstasy and joy, and made him see the world burst into flames. It is this fire which he wanted to pass on and kindle in others. His vision of fire was one of spiritual transformation drawn from the insides of both science and religion. The universe in evolution, studied in great detail in his scientific work, stimulated his zest for being. His Christian faith made him see the universal presence of Christ in all things.

      Teilhard loved the Earth and its peoples. He loved his church and his order. And he was filled with the fire of love for the ever-great Christ. For him, the symbol of fire meant the warmth and radiance of love and light, the energy to fuse and transform everything. But fire is, of course, ambivalent. I t can destroy as well as transform. In Teilhard's understanding, it is the transforming power of the energies of love which alone can create a truly human community and provide it with its strongest points. Thus, the fire of love may be the only energy capable of extinguishing the threat of another fire, namely that of universal conflagration and destruction.

      He considered the phenomenon of religion as central to human evolution, and the phenomenon of spirituality as the key element in religion. At the center of spirituality he perceived the phenomenon of mysticism, which he distinguished into different types. The core of mysticism, the most important and energizing type, was mysticism centered on love, a mysticism of action, which radiated outward and helped to  transform and build up the
spirit of the world.

       Science, religion, and mysticism are always closely intertwined in Teilhard¹s thought, for his science is of central significance to a new mysticism of action and a new understanding of the world. This mysticism of action is the mysticism of unification, of bringing everything, all the diverse elements (the cosmic, human, and divine) together. It's a mysticism of transformation and of sanctification, where holiness is understood as wholeness.

       Just a few days before his death, Teilhard wrote his last six pages, which are entitled "Research, Work, and Adoration." One might consider this text his last intellectual testament. In it, he speaks of the conflict between science and religion -- and its solution. He refers to the fire of a new faith in the human, to be combined with religious faith.

       Teilhard endeavored to seek an ultimate coherence for our manyfold experiences and quests, and tried to convey a vision greater than what either traditional religion or science alone can offer us. From this perspective, religion and mysticism are part of the human search for union -- or communion -- with God via the evolutionary process of the growth and
unification of the world. All human efforts, whether scientific or religious, whether action or contemplation, must finally lead to worship, adoration, and ultimately greater unity.

       If mysticism, especially the mysticism of love, is the very heart of religion, it must provide us with the deepest springs of energy for both action and interaction with others. It cannot be a mere spirit duality, but must stand for spirit-in-and-through-matter mentality. Spiritual development and religious experience are best seen as closely interrelated with and inseparable from our human experience in general.  F. C. Happold has remarked that for Teilhard, human activity in all its forms was capable of divinization. And therefore he described Teilhard's mysticism "as a mysticism of action, action springing from the inspiration of a universe seen as moved and com-penetrated by God in the totality of its evolution...this is a new type of mysticism, the result of a profound, lifelong reconciling meditation on religious and scientific truth, and it is thus of immense relevance and significance for a scientific age such as ours." (Mysticism. Pelican Books, London, 1978, p. 395.)

       This is an indication of the importance of this global prophet. But this assessment leaves out the living fire which animated Teilhard's Christian mysticism, summed up by him as a heart of fire, as "a fire with the power to penetrate all things, which invites a surrender to an active feeling of communion with God through the universe."

Ursula King is professor in the Department of Theology and Religious Studies at the University of Bristol, England, where she directs the Centre for Comparative Studies in Religion and Gender. She has been a student of Teilhard¹s works for more than thirty years and was one of the founders of the British Teilhard Association in London.

Her book, Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, is an excellent primer for anyone unfamiliar with Teilhard¹s body of thought, or as an ongoing resource for those who are. Please see page 20 to order, and for information on The Spirit of Fire, Dr. King's biography of Teilhard.

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