Teilhard’s Legacy Can’t Be Reduced to Racism: A Response to John Slattery

Having recently completed a dissertation on Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, I read John Slattery’s RD article on Teilhard’s “legacy of eugenics and racism” with interest. I agree with some of the motivation for his essay and in a recent paper I called for more work to be done “on the subject of elitist, ethnocentric, imperialist, and racist elements in Teilhard’s thought.” Slattery provides a service by casting light on some of the most troubling passages in the Teilhardian corpus, but I strongly disagree with his method and conclusions.

My first concern is with the tone of Slattery’s essay. While I appreciate the appended claim that he did not write his essay “out of malice or spite,” I found his choice of words off-putting and potentially demeaning when he writes of Twitter users who “swooned over” a Teilhard quote.

There are also surprising factual errors. Slattery originally got the date of Teilhard’s death wrong (he died in 1955, not 1953) and he anachronistically references “Pontifical Councils,” which did not exist under this name during Teilhard’s lifetime. (Slattery likely intended to refer to the “Holy Office,” or what’s now called the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.)

In addition, Slattery claims Teilhard wrote “dozens of books and hundreds of essays” when he only wrote two books. Teilhard’s theological essays were later collected to produce eleven more. One would need to include the published volumes of Teilhard’s personal correspondence, his journals, and his rarely-cited scientific writings to reach “dozens.” To ignore this fact is also to ignore that most of Teilhard’s essays were not revised for mass publication.

Slattery does, however, acknowledge that Teilhard’s work was censured by church authorities. It’s important to note that this censure deprived Teilhard of the contribution interlocutors and critique might have had on his ideas. Slattery also writes, “Bishop Curry’s use of Teilhard’s vision of ‘fire’ at the Royal Wedding comes largely from The Mass on the World, completed in 1923.” Fire imagery is central to Teilhard’s writing and Bishop Curry’s selection bears some affinity with “The Mass on the World,” but the sermon’s most direct citation is from an essay titled “The Evolution of Chastity” written in 1934. I find this omission strange, but it could stem from Slattery’s desire to separate Teilhard’s work into an acceptable early portion and an unacceptable latter portion. This is futile. There are elitist and colonialist passages in some of Teilhard’s earliest letters and insights of great beauty in his final essays. We have a responsibility to examine all of this.  

As a final critique of approach, I do not believe Slattery’s citations support his conclusions. Taken out of context, some of the citations lose notes of ambiguity or ambivalence. Slattery quotes the awful passage, “More generally still, how should we judge the efforts we lavish in all kinds of hospitals on saving what is so often no more than one of life’s rejects?” But he conveniently elides the next sentence, “Something profoundly true and beautiful (I mean faith in the irreplaceable value and unpredictable resources contained in each personal unit) is evidently concealed in persistent sacrifice to save a human existence.”

This doesn’t excuse Teilhard, but it complicates the portrait Slattery wants to paint. Slattery follows this citation with another example meant to show how Teilhard continued to “argue for forced eugenical practices” in a debate with Gabriel Marcel. But the given quote, from Mary Lukas and Ellen Lukas’s 1981 biography, Teilhard, makes no mention of eugenics and instead focuses on Teilhard’s characteristic faith in the “inevitability of human progress” despite the horrors of Nazi Germany. Once again, this is obvious in the excised portion of the source text,

“Man,” he asserted, “to become fully man, must have tried everything . . .” Of course, he [Teilhard] added as a corollary, since the human species was still so young and still prone to fall into the dark from which it came, the persistence of such evil was to be expected. But since, unlike the lower animals, man no longer acted purely out of instinct, he would presumably abandon every new experiment the moment he saw it did not lead him to greater personalization. . .

Slattery misrepresents both Teilhard and the authors of the biography he’s citing. Evidence is being shaped to fit conclusions instead of the conclusions being altered based on evidence.

Slattery asserts that no scholars “have written at length on the depths of Teilhard’s commitments to eugenics, sterilization, and racial superiority.” Two replies are necessary. First, he overstates the enthusiasm for Teilhard studies. While Teilhard was extremely fashionable when his work first burst onto the scene in the 1960s, there was a significant downturn afterward.

Slattery asks why scholars have not written about Teilhard and racism. The most obvious answer is that too few scholars are writing about Teilhard in general. 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. My second reply is that there is indeed prior scholarship on some of the issues raised by Slattery. In her excellent dissertation, “The Kingdom of God as a Unity of Persons,” Amy Limpitlaw argues that Teilhard “openly espouses a kind of racism” and provides an extended analysis.

This brings us to Slattery’s thesis: “the mature formulations of some of Teilhard’s most famous ideas—e.g., the Noosphere, the Omega Point, the divinization of the species—rest upon philosophies infused with conceptions of eugenics, racial superiority, sterilization, and limitless science.” He is even bolder in a journal article where he argues that Teilhard’s entire mature cosmology “rests upon a wildly racist foundational philosophy.”

I disagree.

From thousands of pages of Teilhard’s manuscripts, Slattery has picked out eight troubling passages. While there are certainly others he could have chosen, we’re still looking at only the tiniest portion of Teilhard’s work. If eugenics and racism were as central as Slattery would have us believe, why do they so rarely come up? In response, I would remind that Teilhard envisions humanity brought together through center-to-center unions. In terms of mysticism, this means you cannot dissolve the self in union because the self, the center, is the very substance of the union. And if every individual is the very substance of union, then over-emphasizing hierarchy or exclusion in Teilhardian thought is a mistake.

Teilhard calls racism “collective egoism.” This egoism works against progress by walling off the unique contributions from whichever groups are designated inferior. This is self-defeating. Teilhard writes, “The way out for the world, the gates of the future, the entry into the superhuman, will not open ahead to some privileged few, or to a single people, elect among all peoples. They will yield only to the thrust of all together.” This is the vision inspiring one of the hallmarks of antiracist literature, Flannery O’Connor’s Everything That Rises Must Converge.

Slattery suggests we disregard all of Teilhard’s writing after “The Mass on the World.” He reaches this conclusion through overemphasis on Teilhard the techno-futurist over Teilhard the priest whose most fully formed vision is of a future where God will be all in all. The prescription for a more accurate reading is not to focus exclusively on a sliver of Teilhard’s mystical writings. The answer, instead, is to understand that the strongest reading of Teilhard takes place through a mystical lens.

In this way we might better understand Teilhard’s meaning when he writes, “The only subject ultimately capable of mystical transfiguration is the whole group of mankind forming a single body and a single soul in charity.” In this way we might produce powerful antiracist readings of Teilhard while acknowledging this is a project partially engaged with reading Teilhard against himself. This certainly seems to be the approach of Bishop Michael Curry who bracketed Teilhard’s invocation of love’s fiery power with similar sentiment from Martin Luther King.

It’s important to highlight and discuss Teilhard’s problematic passages, but John Slattery overreaches in his conclusions. Anyone intrigued by Bishop Curry’s sermon ought to read deeply in Teilhard’s writings and judge for themselves. With Slattery, I recommend the early spiritual classics, “The Mass on the World” and The Divine Milieu. Among his later writings, “The Heart of Matter” provides an autobiographical explanation of his overall vision. Ursula King’s Spirit of Fire, the most recent biography of Teilhard, offers another entry point for those interested in learning about his singular life experiences.

Teilhard is complex and not without his problems, but his work should be more read, more taught, and more talked about. And, if you take his work as a whole, the greater share of his legacy is a message we sorely need: recognition of love’s transformative power and our responsibility to build a more unified world.

Read John Slattery’s response here.