Friday, November 20, 2009

(1) Encountering Teilhard

Chapter One. Encountering Teilhard

When he died, I was born. Pierre Teilhard de Chardin--a Jesuit
theologian and paleontologist--died on Easter Sunday, 1955,
in New York City in the midst of skyscrapers; and I, James
Venable, was born on Easter Sunday, 1955, in a Virginia village
that stood in the shadow of the Blue Ridge Mountains. Over time
I would come to realize how much the spirit of Teilhard imbued
my own soul. Whether coincidence, whether fate, I will never
know--though I have an opinion that I'll keep to myself.

My life story has been patterned after Teilhard's own life, though
nuanced. Like Teilhard I received an early Catholic education.
My parents sent me to a nearby military academy, managed by
Benedictine Sisters of all people! Later I was enrolled at
Georgetown University, run by the Jesuit Order. And at the
beginning of my sophomore year I encountered the thought of
Teilhard in a required class. Though I was barely sophisticated
enough to grasp even the major points put by this good Jesuit, I
grasped enough to be thrilled by his idea of the "Cosmic Christ."

Curiously, at this time, I had occasion to visit the Shrine of the
Immaculate Conception (now a basilica) across town at the
Catholic University of America. Walking into this Byzantine-style
cathedral during mid-week, I nearly had this huge place to
myself. Sitting quietly in a pew, I looked towards the altar, and
behind it--on the back wall-- was a very large mosaic of the
Christ. The mosaic took my breath away. It depicted a majestic,
powerful Christ, with shoots of fire above his head. Nearly
instinctively, I knew what I was seeing was the Cosmic Christ.

My instinct was on the mark. Walking out of the cathedral, I
asked a docent about this mosaic. He gave a fascinating
account. The nearly blonde Christ image came from a painting
found in the Roman Catacombs. His face was powerful, strong
and serious, though not fierce. Dressed in a royal red robe, his
arms were stretched upright, with saints of the Church bowing
before his throne. The docent said that this mosaic depicted the
"Christ in Majesty," the Western representation of the earlier
Byzantine "Pantocrator."

What blew me away was that I had never heard of the Pantocrator.
As it turned out, Christ as the Pantocrator was the major Imago Dei
of Early Christianity. Christ the Pantocrator was the Ruler of All,
the Lord of the Universe! Yes, early Christians definitely believed
in the Cosmic Christ.

So it became obvious to me that Teilhard was *not* just picking
out of the blue when it came to his concept of the Cosmic Christ.
Rather he was tapping into History, though for so many Christians
today this concept of the Pantocrator, the Lord of the Universe,
seems very much lost. Teilhard would bring back this great concept
of the Cosmic Christ for some of us, though now linking this Incarnate
Logos, this Plenum of the Universe, with modern scientific develop-
ments. As a paleontologist, Teilhard would approach the Cosmic
Christ via Evolution.