Ursula King originally published this book with the title Toward a New Mysticism: Teilhard de Chardin and Eastern Religions in 1980. By her own admission (p.vii), it was ahead of its time since interest in mysticism and spirituality was not widespread 30 years ago. But now “the global awareness and context of the twenty-first century, with its myriad challenges and problems, has opened up new opportunities for intercultural dialogue and encounter, and for closer collaboration in all fields of endeavor to ensure the future of humanity and the Earth.” In this changed world, Teilhard’s life-long interest in mysticism and his appreciation of the contribution of the Eastern religions to a revival of mystical awareness in the West makes King’s book much more significant for students of mysticism and spirituality both East and West. Teilhard, to be sure, never formally studied the religious traditions of Buddhism, Hinduism, Taoism and Confucianism. But his experiential contact with proponents of these Eastern religions in the course of his long stay in China from 1923 to 1946 in connection with archeological expeditions coupled with travels to India, Indonesia, Burma and Japan as part of still other research projects gave him an awareness of both the strengths and the weaknesses of the Eastern religions. He firmly believed that the a new cosmic mysticism would eventually arise in the West but only after being religiously and culturally transformed through contact with the religions and cultures of the East. In the end he sought a middle path between the vertically oriented Semitic religions (Judaism, Christianity and Islam) and the horizontally oriented pantheistic religions of the East. That middle path in his mind was mystical union with a transcendent personal God (the cosmic Christ) in and through a deep appreciation and embrace of the created world (the Earth) in all its creativity and destructive power. The history of cosmic evolution and its progressive explanation in terms of modern science, after all, make clear that there is a search for an all-embracing unity within the scientific community. In Teilhard’s view both science and religion are, consciously or in the case of science unconsciously, in search of a hidden transcendent reality within creation. This veiled reality is not to be sought for itself alone (pantheism) but for the sake of intimate union with a personal God who became incarnate in Jesus of Nazareth and is now exalted as the ultra-personal focal point of cosmic evolution.
After a Foreword and Introduction, the book is divided into two parts. In the first part King reviews the professional life of Teilhard from teaching physics and chemistry to young boys at a Jesuit school in Cairo (where he had an initial exposure to Islam and the striking landscape of the North African desert) to his death in 1955 in New York City where he lived in virtual exile from his native France. In between he learned theology at the Jesuit seminary in England, experienced the awe-inspiring drama of World War I as a stretcher-bearer in the French army, and began to develop a mystical theology of his own making as expressed in “The Mass on the World” in 1923 and The Divine Milieu while on his first trip to China. His best-known work The Phenomenon of Man was written between 1938 and 1940 while in Peking on his second trip to China. Subsequent chapters in Part One detail his return to France in 1946, his difficulties with Church authorities and religious superiors over his writings in philosophy and theology, and acceptance of a research position in anthropology from the Werner-Gren Foundation which brought him to New York City. Despite his growing despondency over the outcome of his career as a philosopher/ theologian, he composed two important essays: “The Heart of the Matter” in 1950 while in Paris and “The Christic” shortly before his death in 1955 while in New York City. Part Two of the book is dedicated to the exposition of his cosmic vision which I summarized above. In addition, King added various Appendices, copious Notes, a Bibliography, Index and an annotated Study Guide for students of Teilhard’s work. The book is thus encyclopedic in scope, and should be a “must read” for those interested in contemporary religion and science discussion, interreligious dialogue and Christian spirituality.
By way of a personal note, I should add that my appreciation for Teilhard and his mystical vision grew enormously in the course of reading this book. As a long-time student of the philosophy of Alfred North Whitehead and its application to contemporary process theology, I previously considered Teilhard’s achievement as inferior to that of Whitehead if only because the latter developed a metaphysics suitable to a philosophical understanding of cosmic evolution. Teilhard’s efforts to flesh out his mystical vision in terms of a modified Thomism struck me as well-intentioned but inadequate to the task of a thorough-going evolutionary world view. Now I realize that Teilhard is superior to Whitehead in the depth of his world view which brings together science and religion in a way that goes well beyond what Whitehead achieved in Science and the Modern World and subsequent philosophical works. This can be partly explained, of course, in terms of their previous training and respective career goals. Whitehead was a mathematician/philosopher with a knack for system-building. Teilhard was a Christian theologian and mystic with a religiously inspired vision for the modern world which could not be contained within the confines of a metaphysical system. Any future synthesis of their achievements should do justice to the genius of both men and compensate for each one’s shortcomings.