Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Catching Up: The Jesuit and the Skull

I have just finished a book that came out a few years ago dealing with the famous Jesuit Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, called The Jesuit and the Skull: Teilhard de Chardin, Evolution, and the Search for Peking Man. The author is Amir Aczel, who is one of the new breed of science writers. He has also tackled Fermat's last theorem, the invention of the compass, Einstein's theory of relativity and other topics.

The Jesuit and the Skull is interesting for what it is and what it is not. It is a chronological life history of the fascinating churchman, his struggles to understand the science of his day, to remain true to his vows despite his long relationships with women, and with the ever-present and ever-critical Society of Jesus. What it is not is an examination of the beliefs and theological constructs that made him a champion of liberal theology and a scourge to the church. It is hard not to be sympathetic with Teilhard, who obviously struggled mightily with these issues and received no support of any kind from the church. In the end, his idea of the Omega Point differs from orthodox Christianity enough that he was branded sort of a modern-day gnostic. What does come out in the book is his loyalty to his friends and to the church that spurned him. As Amir writes, Teilhard was continually hand-cuffed in what he could write, what he could lecture about and where he could go by the church that he felt he could never leave.

The book gives a good, if brief account of the goings on in China in the late 1920s and 1930s, with the discovery of the Sinanthropus pekinensis fossils and attempts to keep them out of the hands of the invading Japanese army. It also gives a modest treatment of fossil hominid discoveries up to that point and how Teilhard responded to them. The section on evolutionary theory takes up less than a chapter and deals more with the history of the breakthrough than the theory itself, which is peculiar, given the title, and makes for some odd reading.

Aczel's book is an easy read and moves along nicely. It is also fascinating to see, if only tertiarally, how a man who had deep-felt and honest devotion to God adapted to the changing views of science. This area could have been expanded and the reading experience comes up a little bit short because of it. It is, however, well worth the time to delve into the life of this interesting and much maligned cleric.

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