I want to thank Dr. Canzona for responding to my article on Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, SJ, “Pierre Teilhard de Chardin’s Legacy of Eugenics and Racism Can’t Be Ignored.” It’s important to dialogue on difficult topics like these, and important to interrogate claims that may undermine a vision of a particular scholar or author. While I value his response, I fear that he may have misconstrued some of the more important aspects of the article, so I’d like to respond to each of his claims carefully and individually.
As a preamble, Dr. Canzona begins by rightly correcting a few factual errors in the article, which I appreciate, such as the correct reference from Bishop Curry’s sermon and my overlooking of Dr. Limpitlaw’s dissertation on Teilhard.
He continues with a central critique based on three arguments. First, he claims that my consistent elisions of surrounding context paint Teilhard as a much simpler intellectual than he should be remembered. Second, he claims that my lament that no scholars had investigated such ties to eugenics was misplaced, and that many aspects of Teilhardian studies have yet to be researched. Third, he claims that one cannot exact judgment upon Teilhard’s corpus based on “the tiniest portion of Teilhard’s work.”
“Taken out of context,” Dr. Canzona argues, “some of the citations lose notes of ambiguity or ambivalence.” While context is everything, some remarks can never be fully contextualized. If I claim, as Teilhard did in 1951, that we have an “urgent need for a generalized eugenics” that is “racial no less than individual” and directed toward “a biological maturing of the human type,” I’m not sure what context would ever redeem my intentions!
In Teilhard’s case, it’s wise to remember, as I noted in the article, that Teilhard studied, lived, prayed, and preached in a time of rampant colonialism, racism, and anti-Semitism. So much so that most of us today would be quite ashamed of what our great-grandparents thought, said, and did. However, this fact of contextual complexity doesn’t redeem Teilhard. History has not looked kindly on individuals who espoused such beliefs, and we must hold theologians and pastors to the highest of historical bars.
To his credit, there is no evidence of Teilhard actively participating in eugenical experiments, and no evidence of him actively supporting a specific eugenical implementation, but it is clear that his support for racial and personal eugenics remained steadfast over the course of decades. Indeed, as I write in the original article, Teilhard persisted in these views despite the shocking revelations of what took place in the concentration camps of Nazi Germany. It’s true that I could have included entire paragraphs surrounding each quote (and my editor can attest to the fact that I tried!), but in the end we have what we have, and we must not look away lightly.
Lack of scholarship
Dr. Canzona writes, “my dissertation is the first sustained comparison of Teilhard with a Muslim thinker. I could just as easily ask why this has not been done before.” It’s dangerous to make the assertion that investigating a scholar’s ties to eugenical practices is equally as important as any other theological or philosophical investigation into said author.
The investigation of a scholar’s ties to and associations with the darkest of human philosophies is, I would argue, of paramount importance in the modern world. The history of Western Colonialism is littered with philosophies of destruction and death; eugenics—literally, the culling of specific humans for the supposed benefit of others—clearly falls among the worst philosophical approaches. Support for such practices—just like support for slavery, misogyny, anti-black racism, and anti-Semitism—must be thrust into the spotlight if we’re to continue working with such scholars in the future. How else can the Church right the wrongs of the past?
Teilhard’s other ideas
While I agree that there are many, many beneficial ideas and thoughts in Teilhard’s corpus, these do not negate the fact that Teilhard’s worldview incorporated an explicit acceptance of eugenics. Quite literally, one aspect of humanity’s movement to Christ, in Teilhard’s vision, is to improve as a species not only spiritually but biologically. Teilhard has woven eugenics into the very fabric of his evolutionary theology. I do not doubt that he has useful ideas about aspects of racism, and I wholly appreciate those who have been inspired to hold enriching views of humanity based on his words, but he cannot be praised for wishing for human togetherness while holding fast to a stratification of human persons.
Finally, I do think there is a way forward for Teilhardian research, but I do not think it is the way that Dr. Canzona suggests. Proper historical awareness of Teilhard’s connections to difficult philosophies must be acknowledged, and theological employments of some of Teilhard’s ideas must be adjusted, but let us not make the mistake of turning Teilhard into a mystical anti-racist theologian. Let Teilhard be Teilhard—warts, beauty, and all—and let those whose voices he might have unintentionally or intentionally contributed in silencing be the voices for anti-racist theologies moving forward.
Instead of Teilhard, let us turn to the African-American nuns and priests whose voices were silenced for decades, and whose stories and struggles we’re now learning about through scholars such as Shannen Dee Williams, M. Shawn Copeland, Katie Grimes, Christopher Pramuk, and Matthew Cressler. Let us learn from Jewish theologians who wrestle with the eugenics-driven horror of the Shoah like Melissa Raphael; and from non-European Christian theologians who have already taught us so much about how to be anti-racist, like Gustavo Gutiérrez, Ada María Isasi-Díaz, Leonardo Boff, and María Pilar Aquino.
I do believe Teilhard still has much to teach us about science, faith, and mysticism; but no, I do not believe he can or should teach us anything else about racism.