Book Review by Professor Murray Rae PhD (London) [see ref 1].
The Phenomenon of Teilhard: Prophet for a New Age (Macon, Georgia, Mercer University Press, 1996). 189 pages. ISBN 0-86554-498-0 MUP/P131
by David H Lane, Hataitai, Wellington, New Zealand.
The French Jesuit palaeontologist Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, who died in 1955, has attained, at a popular level, a quite remarkable status as a prophet delivering a vision of a new spirituality which unites human beings with one another and enables them to recognise their evolutionary destiny as participants in a divine cosmos. Although Teilhard himself claims continuity between his vision and Christian tradition, there is with only a few exceptions, very little enthusiasm for his work amongst academic theologians. His prominence is largely at a popular level, amongst post-Christian New Age sympathisers.
While a great deal has been written about Teilhard and his work, most published critiques have been written by those who are largely in agreement with his philosophical position. In contrast David Lane offers a critique of the inadequacies and errors of Teilhard’s thought, outlining both the nature and extent of its divergence from orthodox Christian faith, and giving insight into the degree to which many New Age philosophies claim inspiration from the works of this populariser of the notion of spiritual evolution.
It is a moot point, as Lane himself makes clear, whether New Age thinkers are deliberately reflecting on and extending Teilhard’s thought or whether instead they are simply calling upon his name in order to give some academic respectability to their own work. Nevertheless, Lane’s book critiques the extent to which Teilhard’s attempt to graft Christianity onto evolutionary theory issues in the kinds of pantheism, monism and gnosticism favoured by New Agers. There can be little doubt, as Anne Roche Muggeridge has observed and Lane abundantly confirms that, despite his retention of the language of Christian dogma, Teilhard’s reliogio-philosophical writings empty that language of its traditional content. His appeal, amongst Christians as well as New Agers, can be attributed as much to the power of his poetic expression as to the mistaken perception, encouraged by Teilhard himself, that his work takes Christianity to the next step of its evolutionary development.
While Lane’s analysis of Teilhard is thoroughly documented and clearly establishes the main lines of his critique, not all aspects of the argument are equally convincing. While Teilhard undoubtedly enjoys some degree of influence upon Roman Catholic theology, for instance, Lane tends to overplay that influence. He relies rather too heavily on reactionary critics while ignoring the mainstream of Catholic theology represented by such figures as Rahner, von Balthasar. Congar and Kasper. Latin American Liberation theology is also a victim of some rather sweeping critique that does not accurately reflect the orthodox commitments of the vast majority of liberation theologians. Finally, the analysis of Teilhard’s work in terms of its alleged dependence on a modernist worldview is a little insecure. Again, the critique is somewhat overplayed.
Commonalities though there may be between Teilhard and some lines of Modernist thought, Teilhard’s divergence from Modernism in such aspects as his mysticism, for example, is surely quite substantial.
These criticisms should not unduly detract however, from the valuable study of Teilhard that Lane has presented. He promises us another book offering a more comprehensive critique of Teilhard’s theological and philosophical work. We can expect that work too to be carefully argued, thoroughly documented and to provide further evidence that Teilhard is a false prophet whose engaging rhetoric ought not to blind us to the erroneous nature of his theological vision. Lane is in the process of making a very important contribution to the literature on Teilhard.
Book Review Source: Originally Published in Stimulus: The New Zealand Journal of Christian Thought and Practice Vol. 6, No. 4 (November 1998, p. 45). Republished with permission in Apologia: The Journal of the Wellington Christian Apologetics Society (Inc.) Vol. 1 (2000), p. 43.
1. Professor Murray Rae B.Arch (Auckland) BD (Otago) BA (Otago) PhD (London), trained first as an architect, then studied theology and philosophy at Otago University, New Zealand. He completed his PhD at King’s College, London, on the incarnation in the thought of Søren Kierkegaard.
He is currently the chair of an International Colloquium on Theology and the Built Environment and has continuing research interests in the work of Søren Kierkegaard, Biblical Hermeneutics, Christian Doctrine, and the development of Christian faith amongst Maori.