17 août 2015

London, autumn 1966: teilhardians in congress. An intellectual convergence

Intellectual Convergence by ROBERT SPEAIGHT

WHEN M. Claude Cuenot, Teilhard's French biographer, came to address the audience of four hundred in the St. Pancras Town Hall at the Teilhard de Chardin Association's conference last weekend, he attributed the success of Teilhard de Chardin to the answer he had given to the expectations of modern youth. But no one, looking down on that attentive public, would have said that all the youth of England was on fire. M. Roger Garaudy, the brilliant and charming Marxist philosopher who was also among the speakers, had previously remarked (in private) that in France the hall would have been "bourree des jeunes". I do not doubt it. We were not, however, as old as all that: perhaps "reflective middle age" would have been a more accurate description. We were also denominationally diversified: the plain black cassocks of the Community of the Resurrection mingled with priests en clergyman and the habits of various religious orders, mostly women — although women did not predominate unduly in the audience. This reflected very fairly the breadth of Teilhard's appeal.

In his opening remarks Dr. Bernard Towers justi fied the formation of a Pierre Teilhard de Chardin Association. When a great, or even a lesser, writer dies the French are quick to group themselves into les amis de So-and-So for a continuing activity of pietas. I was present myself when les amis de Maurice Baring was formed, although I doubt whether the formation lasted for very long. In England, as Dr. Towers pointed out, no one forms a Whitehead or Eddington Association: why then make an exception for Teilhard? The answer could be read in the titles of the eight lectures we were invited to hear. From Marxism to Christology, from embryology to orthogenesis—no other thinker touches contemporary preoccupations at so many points. When Teilhard had finished the last chapter of The Phenomenon of Man he foresaw that he would have against him the pure scientists and the pure metaphysicians. The premonition has been proved correct. His reputation in Britain rests, very largely, on two reviews of The Phenomenon of Man. The first, by Dr. Joseph Needham, appeared in the New Statesman and was ardently in favour of Teilhard's thesis. Dr. Towers read out to us from a letter of Dr. Needham which showed that years have not quenched his enthusiasm. The second, by Sir Peter Medawar in Mind, was wholly damning. It impugned not only Teilhard's intelligence but his integrity ; and now it looms, like Mozart's Commendatore, behind the chair of every literary editor in London. The New Statesman, in particular, has lost no time in disclaiming the commendation of its own reviewer. Dr. Towers has himself replied to Sir Peter Medawar on the radio ; and although Sir Peter's name was not mentioned at this very eirenical gathering, much of his criticism was implicitly refuted.
Was it perhaps a shade too eirenical? Eight lectures in less than thirty-six hours left little time for questions, and the questions were not always to the point. Dr. Towers made it plain that the conference was an exercise in criticism, not the celebration of a cult. But it was the genius of Teilhard to draw people together from widely separated positions. He was himself an illustration of the law of convergence which he tirelessly preached. So we had M. Garaudy declaring that the Marxist, like the Christian, started out from an act of faith. Neither had any scientific guarantee that evolution would end successfully: they only had the conviction that life had a meaning and history a purpose. Nothing, he said, did greater honour to man than Christ's despairing cry from the Cross, for he refused to believe that at that moment Christ had the fore-knowledge of the Godhead, so to speak, up His sleeve. For Teilhard, as for Marx, philosophy was essentially a praxis ; and when M. Cuenot suggested that Teilhard's spirituality would replace the spirituality of the Imitation, and extend that of St. Ignatius, he may well have had the same thing in mind.
In all this Christian-Marxist dialectic—which M. Garaudy refused to see in terms of political and social conflict—the existentialists (Christian or other) were rather left out in the cold, as one of them complained to me. Certainly Teilhard had little patience with the existentialists of either camp, and he said so in a letter to Fr. Martindale which recently came into my hands. Existentialism, as I understand it, is primarily concerned with persons, and while Teilhard never lost sight of personality in its various phases of union and of convergence towards Omega Point, he did not examine it in its labyrinthine, and often murky, depths. He saw it in planetary extension and vertical ascent. As Fr. Christopher Mooney had pointed out, he had his personal Angst, but his extrovert temperament—not to mention his Ignatian training—forbade him to indulge it. And it is perhaps in his theory of original sin that his orthodoxy, and indeed the depth of his total vision, are most open to question. It was not questioned at the St. Pancras Town Hall ; but when Dr. Dyson, the chaplain of Ripon Hall, Oxford, had gone pretty fat in claiming for Teilhard an exclusively immanentist spirituality, an Anglican clergyman suggested to me that it was time for orthodoxy to have its say.
The out-and-out transcendentalist will never be at home with Teilhard, but Pere Elliott, S.J.—who had previously spoken to us as a bio-chemist on the origins of life—gently redressed the balance. Reminding us that Newman had talked about evolution fourteen years before Darwin took out his copyright, he stressed the importance of the Essay on Development in Teilhard's thinking. In this sense ,both men were among the invisible periti at the Second Vatican Council. I wish that someone had emphasised the pure transcendentalism of Teilhard's Eucharistic theology, and shown how an initial tendency towards pantheism had been unequivocally overcome. There was further comfort for the orthodox in Dr. Fothergill's lively intervention on the subject of Adam and Eve. He showed, in a series of diagrams on the blackboard, that while Adam and Eve were not scientifically proved, they were scientifically possible.
Out of the six speakers at the conference—two of them spoke twice—three were French-speaking ; and although their papers were accurately prepared in English, and clearly delivered, this did not always make for easy listening. But at least it showed that much of the resistance to Teilhard among British philosophers and scientists is pretty parochial. One would have liked a contribution on his palaeontology, since this was his particular discipline ; but as a subject—both as man and thinker—he is almost inexhaustible, and one looks forward to further conferences as stimulating and well-organised as this one.
VERNON SPROXTON questions a group of British and Continental scholars about the French Jesuit scientist and religious writer Pierre Teilhard de Chardin Those' taking part in this discussion all lectured at the Annual Conference of the de Chardin Association, held in London during the autumn. They are:
CLAUDE CUÉNOT biographer of Teilhard de Chardin
FRANCIS G. ELLIOTT , S.J. Professor of Biochemistry at Leopoldville, Congo Republic
ROGER GARAUDY Director of the Centre for Marxist Studies and Research in Paris, and Professor of Philosophy at Poitiers
P. G. FOTHERGILL Senior Lecturer in Botany at Newcastle
BERNARD TOWERS Lecturer in Anatomy, and Fellow of Jesus College, Cambridge
ANTHONY DYSON Chaplain of Ripon Hall, Oxford