Teilhard de Chardin: God in war
Pierre Teilhard de Chardin (1881-1955) experienced the First World War as a stretcher-bearer in an infantry regiment. He was present at some of the most symbolic locations: Verdun, the Chemin des Dames. He lost two of his brothers and several friends, and saw many combatants killed around him. Brought up in a “protected” environment, he found that the war truly “plunged [him] into reality”.
The wartime period was also a time of intense literary output. He benefited from the times of inactivity behind the lines to set down in writing his reflections inspired by what he experienced at the front. His “Writings in the Time of War” (1916-1919), published posthumously, contain the main themes he subsequently went on to develop.
The ordeal of evil
The first theme that becomes apparent is that of evil. How can such violence be possible between countries that claim a Christian heritage? Numerous thinkers see in this “the end of a civilisation” (Rosenzweig). Teilhard felt instinctively that “the suffering of war is the sign of a great work that is being accomplished”, as he wrote in his diary on returning from Verdun. Beyond the apparent absurdity, he glimpsed the possibility of renewal.
“Nostalgia for the Front”, first published in the journal “Études”, is a revealing text. It is not an apology for war, but the account of a lived experience. The text is dialectic in nature. On the one hand, it concerns one’s own “adventure and research”, a taste of new and extraordinary experiences. On the other hand, liberty is only attained by those who “no longer live for themselves”, who have renounced their limited desires in favour of a superior being. The renouncing of one’s own, egocentric desire is the condition for attaining real life, emancipated from death.
At certain moments, Teilhard acknowledges that he was tried by despair, and felt the anguish of dying. But, turning his eyes to Christ on the cross, he understood that death was not the last word. Beyond this apparently impassable barrier, the promise of resurrection can be perceived. This presupposes a “desire to believe”, a confident abandon: “the more we lose our footing in the moving, obscure future, the closer we come to God.”
A crucified God
The God who, for Teilhard, is present in the midst of war, is the Christ who knew the agony of Gethsemane and the Cross. During this paroxysm of violence, God appeared infinitely distant to him. At certain moments, as his diary attests, Teilhard lived through a dark night of tested faith. All that remained was the interior movement that pushed him towards entrusting himself to another: “What can I do in this case where all support is lacking, if not cling on, without feeling anything, to Our Saviour, and pray until the flow of activity is re-established.” Christ is victorious over death because he knew what it was to be abandoned. He found himself alone, deprived of the human support he had known hitherto, and relying on God alone.
Teilhard does not justify war with religious motifs, as some of his fellow Jesuits were wont to do. He did not invent a God of “consolation”. He accepted that he did not understand, but entrusted himself to Him who had already passed the test: “Only the figure of the Crucified One can absorb, express or console all the horror, the beauty, the hope and the profound mystery in such an outburst of fighting and pain.”
We have become more aware than previous generations of the absurdity of conflict. Starting from a desire for power, conflicts have brought about disasters. Is Teilhard maybe too optimistic when he considers that a “great work” is being accomplished? That the crisis engulfing Europe at the time was the expression of “the pains of childbirth”? That a new world was in the process of emerging?
This is how he later read the history of evolution, as marked by the fight for existence and punctuated by dramatic events. Could war be nothing but another episode in this great competition for the “survival of the fittest”, that is, the victors?
Teilhard’s thinking is more subtle. His gaze is focused on the further distance, supported by hope of the resurrection. He does not despair of humanity and refuses to take refuge in a “beyond world”. God can bring forth good from evil. But the transformation that takes place is hidden from our eyes.
François Euvé sj
Editor-in-Chief of the journal Études, member of the Council of the Teilhard de Chardin Foundation.
Author of “Pour une spiritualité du cosmos. Découvrir Teilhard de Chardin” [A spirituality of the Cosmos. Discovering Teilhard de Chardin], Paris, Salvator, 2015
Translated from the original text in French