Interdisciplinary book review: The Jesuit and the Skull

“Where there is no vision, the people perish.”  Proverbs 29:18 (KJV)

A man of complicated contrasts, French Jesuit priest Pierre Teilhard de Chardin (1881-1955) was a mystical scientist and an obedient rebel. And after reading Amir D. Aczel’s The Jesuit and the Skull, you are left with the decision to either admire him, scratch your head in bemusement, or both.

Published with a good half century of hindsight in 2007, The Jesuit and the Skull is a well-written, thoroughly researched and somewhat sympathetic account of Teilhard’s lifelong internal and external conflicts with the Catholic Church over his beliefs and writings on evolution and original sin. Teilhard was a member of the expedition that discovered in a Chinese cave the skull of a Homo erectus—dubbed “Peking Man”—which was regarded as one of the evolutionary “missing links” between humans and apes.

{358C4486-612D-4A74-AABF-54FD76BB2869}Img100Though “Peking Man” proved to be Teilhard’s crowing achievement, it by no means stood alone. While evolution was and continues to be a bitter conflict between the luminaries of science and faith, Teilhard spent much of his life trying to establish a missing link of a different kind: a rapport between science and faith.

As Teilhard matured, he remained deeply religious. He performed his meditations and prayer with great devotion, and continued to believe in God and maintain his loyalty to his order. Yet he believed that the Catholic Church and the Jesuits needed a better understanding of what they were saying about God. One point of contention was the story of the spontaneous appearance of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, which Teilhard refused to accept literally. He knew that the advent of humans was through the gradual process of evolution. But this contradiction never presented him any problems of belief. Much of scripture should be taken allegorically rather than literally, he knew, and he saw no conflict between embracing evolution and at the same time practicing his religious belief as a devout priest. In the same way that physical laws explained the physical universe, evolution was the explanation of the arrival of human beings. — from Chapter 6, “Teilhard”, p. 81-82

Aczel introduces you to Teilhard’s personal life, his colorful friendships and his relationship with Lucile Swan, a sculptor who fell in love with the celibate Jesuit. He writes, almost quizzically, of Teilhard’s obedience to the Jesuit order and devotion to his priestly vows, even though hanging up his cassock could have led to a lucrative scientific career and a freedom to publish as he saw fit.

But Teilhard knew that priests who left the order generally did not fare well in society and their careers often faltered. Moreover, he was not raised to take such a step. He was from a tradition that held that when a person gave his word, he must keep it. In addition, he simply did not believe that he should leave his chosen path in life. He was a Jesuit, a believer, and he had no intention of leaving the order. As he would later write his friend Édouard Le Roy, “I still have just one choice: to be a perfect religious or to be excommunicate.” Jesuits follow orders as soldiers do, and Teilhard had made his choice: he would remain a loyal priest. But his life was now unpleasant as well as extremely complicated. — from Chapter 7, “A Discovery in Inner Mongolia”, p. 103

A study of Teilhard’s mysticism, the book is not. Aczel is a noted science writer, and while he touches upon the mystical aspect of Teilhard’s life, it is the paleontology and the philosophical conflict that motivates the writing. However, if you are interested in detailed accounts Teilhard’s excursions into the central Asian deserts looking for fossils, Aczel does not disappoint. He enlivens the book with chapters covering the history of the search for human ancestry before, during and after Teilhard’s time.

Overall, the book is a good read, and a good encouragement on days when the Church hierarchy makes you want to turn your head up to heaven and shout, “Why?” After all, though he didn’t live to see it, Teilhard ultimately proved that the Church itself can evolve.

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