Teilhard, Paul, and Jesus:
A Dialogue Between Tradition and Experience
by Teri Daily
In 1881 Pierre Teilhard de Chardin was born in the ancient province of Auvergne in southern France, an area known for its mountain ranges, forests, and dormant volcanoes. Following the lead of his father, an amateur naturalist, Teilhard collected rocks and studied nature from an early age. This love of the natural world would go on to shape his entire life. He became a paleontologist as well as a geologist, earning his doctorate in 1922 and joining research digs in China.
Teilhard was also a devoted Christian. Having taken his first vows as a Jesuit in 1902, his faith—along with evolutionary science—provided the framework for his understanding of the world. To say that theology and science were parallel disciplines in his life would be to paint them as separate spheres for Teilhard, which would be a misrepresentation. For him, science and theology were inevitably intertwined. Teilhard understood evolution as the process through which the entire cosmos was being drawn to its convergence in Christ; he saw evolution as the force through which the redemption of the world was taking place.
Teilhard’s ideas brought consternation from the Roman Catholic Church in his lifetime, but they have become more accepted in recent times. After all, expressing the gospel in ways that fit one’s own reality is not something new among Christians. It happens each and every time the gospel is truly heard and lived. In fact, I think that this fresh embodiment of the gospel has something to do with the different accounts of Paul’s conversion that we find in the Bible.
In today’s reading from Galatians, Paul claims that his call to preach the gospel of Christ is of divine origin; Paul goes to great measures to refute any possibility that the good news he proclaims has come to him through human means. He says up front: “the gospel that was proclaimed by me is not of human origin; for I did not receive it from a human source, nor was I taught it, but I received it through a revelation of Jesus Christ.” In other words, the good news comes straight from God and takes up residence in Paul. And Paul continues to distance himself from the apostles of Jesus by pointing out that he waited three years after his famous conversion on the road to Damascus before even going to visit the apostles in Jerusalem.
There were good reasons for Paul to paint his conversion and call to ministry in this way. After Paul had brought gentile Galatians to faith in Christ, rival missionaries had come along, challenging the teachings of Paul with respect to Jewish Law. Particularly, they taught that Gentiles who converted to Christianity needed to be circumcised—something Paul saw as a rejection of the grace of God extended to the Gentiles. In the context of this missionary rivalry, Paul was arguing in this passage for the dominance of his authority. If Paul’s gospel came
straight from Christ and not through any human chain, who could claim a superior authority? Who could challenge Paul?
I confess that I’m a little uneasy with this passage. True, Paul underwent a miraculous transformation on that road to Damascus—a transformation from a self-described zealous persecutor of Christians to the poster boy for Christian missionaries for eons to come. But I can’t overlook the glaring absence of the Church in this rendition of Paul’s call to ministry. Truth be told, if he were trying to enter the process for ordination today, Paul would never make it through any Episcopal parish discernment committee, not with the disregard for tradition he shows in this passage. Based on this account, I’m not sure how a committee could sign off on Paul’s ability to “submit to the authority of the Church.”
This, however, is not the only account of Paul’s conversion that we find in scripture. We find another version in the Book of Acts, Luke’s history of the early Church. It’s not surprising that the story sounds a little different when it’s told from the perspective of the Church. Paul (then called Saul) was on the road to Damascus when a bright light flashed around him and he heard the voice of the Lord calling him: “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?” Paul was blinded we’re told—he could see nothing, so the men who were with him had to lead him into Damascus. Then the Lord instructed Ananias, a disciple of Christ in Damascus, to go and lay hands on Paul that he might receive his sight and be filled with the Holy Spirit. In fact, Ananias occupies pretty much half of the story of Paul’s conversion in the Book of Acts. Not exactly the individualistic, isolated depiction of Paul’s transformation that we find in Galatians.
So we have two accounts of Paul’s conversion—one that stresses the role of the Church (or tradition) in his transformation and another that stresses the uniqueness of his call, one that emphasizes a continuity with other followers of Jesus and another that emphasizes discontinuity. Why the two stories? How do we make sense of the different accounts? Well, it’s not as if one account is accurate and the other is necessarily false. Instead, when we find two accounts of the same event in scripture, it’s usually because each of the versions has something to teach us about God and our faith; and we know both things to be true. In the case of Paul’s conversion, these are the two things that are true: 1) Paul’s faith came to him through the tradition of the early Church, and 2) it was shaped by his own experiences and, therefore, was also marked by uniqueness, by newness. In this way, Paul’s faith journey is just like that of Teilhard de Chardin. And like that of Jesus.
Jesus was very much embedded in his faith tradition, which was that of first century Judaism. In fact, his goal was restoration—a goal that only makes sense in the context of a tradition. He stood in a long line of Jewish prophets; he worshiped in the synagogue and journeyed to the Temple; he used parables to instruct his followers, a form of teaching tied to the wisdom tradition of Judaism. And yet, Jesus was not a carbon copy of other Jews before him. He expanded the definition of neighbor, emphasized the compassion of God, and advocated such a radical dependence on God’s deliverance that he told his followers to turn other cheek and he himself suffered death on the cross. And he did all this in the context of first century Roman oppression and in ways unique to his own personality and characteristics. Jesus took the tradition he had inherited and reshaped it to fit his own consciousness and reality. (1)
This faithful appropriation of tradition takes place every time the gospel is embodied afresh; it is what makes our faith a living and breathing tradition that stretches through time, as relevant today as it was yesterday. We all have within us an Acts account of our faith (that which has been entrusted to us by our tradition and community) and a Galatians component of our faith (those elements that have been reshaped by our own experience and our unique way of being in the world). Maybe this is what is meant by the saying, “God has no grandchildren.” For our faith to be alive, we have to see its relevance in our own lives; we have to make it our own.
There’s no need to worry that such new expressions of our faith automatically put us in opposition to the tradition handed down to us. As we see, this multiplicity of expression is itself part of our tradition.
So let the ancient rituals, prayers, and stories of our tradition saturate your life, and let the particularity of your life inform the significance of these rituals, prayers, and stories. This interplay will happen in unique ways for each of us. For example, if I have recently had a wonderful meal with friends, the fellowship around the Eucharistic table may be what speaks to me; if I have lost a loved one to violence, perhaps the breaking of the bread and the remembrance of Christ’s own violent death may be the images that get lodged in my mind. A downpour that drenches to the bone may remind one of baptism, and the passing of the peace may jog the memory of a handshake once refused. I attend a worship service where a language other than English is spoken, and I imagine what it might have been like that first Pentecost and wish I could understand the words that are said. Each time the Feast of the Holy Innocents comes along, I grieve for the innocent children lost in the Sandy Hook massacre. There is meant to be dialogue between the liturgy of worship and the liturgy of our lives, between tradition and experience.
This is why tradition doesn’t have to be constraining or oppressive; it can be full and rich and alive. When we engage it with imagination, courage, and humility, tradition is like a good conversation that keeps on going; it opens us up to new possibilities. Just as it did for Teilhard de Chardin, Paul, and even Jesus. Our faith is big enough for us to live it with our whole lives and follow where the Spirit takes us. Trust me, you’ll be in good company if you do.
1. Corinne Ware describes the integration and individuation of Jesus’ own spirituality in her book Discover Your Spiritual Type (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 1995) 15-23.