Q:Can someone at On Being recommend a good book to start reading the works of Teilhard de Chardin? I was transfixed by this show! Thank you!
Most definitely! There are two books I’d definitely recommend reading.
The first is Pierre Teilhard de Chardin: Writings Selected. It’s edited by the religious scholar Ursula King, who is a guest voice in our podcast on "Teilhard de Chardin’s ‘Planetary Mind’ and Our Spiritual Evolution."
This book is a good introduction to Teilhard’s spiritual thinking and biographical notes. Ms. King writes a beautiful summary at the beginning that gets at the heart of Teilhard de Chardin’s spirituality, which “creatively welds together science, religion, and mysticism in one unifying synthesis.”
Ms. King doesn’t just write about him and selectively quote from his writings. This is a good thing. She pulls healthy sections from some of his most notable works — including Writings in a Time of War, The Divine Milieu, Heart of Matter, and The Phenomenon of Man — which allow you to imbibe the sensibility of Pierre Teilhard de Chardin in his own words. The translations are passionate and very readable, thank goodness, because we’ve come across other translations will make you feel like you’re eating week-old bread with nothing to wash it down.
I’d also recommend reading Amir Aczel’s The Jesuit and the Skull. Mr. Aczel is a superb storyteller and popularizer of great scientific minds and finds. For devotees of Teilhard, Mr. Aczel may not do enough, but his focus on the French Jesuit’s role in the discovery of Peking Man in 1929 gives the reader a sense of Teilhard as scientist who is trying to reconcile his religious beliefs with those of the Catholic Church.
Teilhard de Chardin’s struggle is at the heart of Aczel’s book. It’s an adventure story too, trotting the reader all over the globe, introducing us to countries and cultures of the day that speak to our own ongoing wrestling match about evolution.
Whereas, Ms. King’s compilation will force you to read slowly, think deeply, and savor Teilhard’s passionate langue and ideas, The Jesuit and the Skull lets you buzz through with a liveliness and vitality of a good summer vacation exploration.
Hope this helps!
Trent Gilliss, senior editor
Altogether, I think we ought to read only books that bite and sting us. If the book we are reading doesn’t shake us awake like a blow to the skull, why bother reading it in the first place? So that it can make us happy, as you put it? Good God, we’d be just as happy if we had no books at all; books that make us happy we could, in a pinch, also write ourselves. What we need are books that hit us like a most painful misfortune, like the death of someone we loved more than we love ourselves, that make us feel as though we had been banished to the woods, far from any human presence, like suicide. A book must be the ax for the frozen sea within us. That is what I believe.
—Franz Kafka, from a letter to Oskar Pollak dated January 27, 1904.
Walter Brueggemann loosely cited this passage from Kafka in our interview being released this week and so, while fact-checking the script, we thought we’d verify for attribution. And, we wanted to read what he originally wrote. Following is the German version from which the English was translated:
"Ich glaube, man sollte überhaupt nur solche Bücher lesen, die einen beißen und stechen. Wenn das Buch, das wir lesen, uns nicht mit einem Faustschlag auf den Schädel weckt, wozu lesen wir dann das Buch? Damit es uns glücklich macht, wie Du schreibst? Mein Gott, glücklich wären wir eben auch, wenn wir keine Bücher hätten, und solche Bücher, die uns glücklich machen, könnten wir zur Not selber schreiben. Wir brauchen aber die Bücher, die auf uns wirken wie ein Unglück, das uns sehr schmerzt, wie der Tod eines, den wir lieber hatten als uns, wie wenn wir in Wälder verstoßen würden, von allen Menschen weg, wie ein Selbstmord, ein Buch muß die Axt sein für das gefrorene Meer in uns. Das glaube ich."
Photo by Celeste RC/Flickr, CC BY-NC 2.0
For touring, my Kindle is just about the greatest thing I own. I have a few hundred books on it and have recently been going back and rereading Bertrand Russell’s A History of Western Philosophy. When I was in college I was a philosophy major and now I feel like forgotten almost everything I’ve learned. So I’m putting myself through a Bertrand Russell refresher course. On tour, however, I also tend to read a lot of what you’d probably call plot-driven airport fiction—I go through that like water.
Some Light Summer Reading?
Whew! It’s hard to keep up with all the books that get sent to us for consideration. The table in our office fills up quickly each week, and since our territory is “religion, meaning, ethics, and ideas” we get a little bit of everything. Some are good fits, others are too abstract; some come with thoughtful pitches about why the author would be a good guest for us, others have no relevance and I assume come just because we got on some publisher’s mass distribution list.
While we make earnest attempts to plough through these, the reality is we pay attention to program ideas from many diverse sources. But looking at the stack on the table this week made me wonder what summer reads our listeners are enjoying that might be of interest to us. Please tell us — but don’t send us a copy, OK?