In his introductory essay to a collection of works by renowned German theologian Wolfhart Pannenberg, Richard John Neuhaus draws attention to the unity of thought and experience in Pannengerg’s theological corpus. He writes of Pannengerg’s commitment to a ‘comprehensive idea of history that challenges the dichotomies of emotive over intellectual existence.’ Contrary to the perception of Pannenberg as intellectually highbrow and somewhat detached from the experiential, Neuhaus suggests that it is impossible to divorce Pannenberg’s theology from the wider context of his lived experience. Amongst the important events that shaped Pannenberg’s life was his experience being raised in Nazi Germany. As the second world war drew to a close Pannenberg was drafted into the Wehrmacht in order to defend the Fatherland from the invading Russians. Although sickness prevented him from participating in combat, the background of Nazism and war impacted Pannenberg deeply, which in part explains why he was so focussed on the eschatological kingdom of God as a way of maintaining Christian hope in a world marked by violence and injustice. Raised an atheist, Pannenberg’s underwent a mystical experience of God amidst the turmoil and destruction of war. Reflecting on his so-called ‘conversion’ experience when observing a setting sun, Pannenberg wrote that throughout this experience he felt a deep sense of oneness with the light that surrounded him, and that his eyes had now been opened to the possibility of the spiritual dimension of life.This awakening led Pannenberg to pursue studies in philosophy, but was immediately drawn to the study of theology through the influence of a literature teacher who had been a member of Germany’s Confessing Church.
Neuhas’ desire to highlight the interrelatedness of objectivity and subjectivity in the thought of Pannenberg is by no means a standard theological or philosophical practice. It is still widely held that the two domains represent distinct and separate fields of endeavour, with the pursuit of a cold, detached objectivity seen by many as an ideal that helps to ensure intellectual clarity. (insert reference). Philosophical scepticism reflects something of this tendency in its questioning of the possibility of judgements being drawn based on the perceived limits of human knowledge and experience. Philosophers who advocated for a sceptical approach to human experience include David Hume and Baruch Spinoza. Spinoza in particular was specifically concerned with how the claims of religious experience could be reconciled with the ideals of sceptical enquiry.His conclusion, naturally enough, was that they could not. Yet at the other extreme lies an overemphasis of personal experience and culture with the theological task. The work of Paul Tillich can be considered an attempt at closing the gap between religion and culture which- despite its commendable aims and impressive scope- at times borders on atheism and vagueness. Finding God within everything that makes up the stuff of human life can be a risky venture, and an objective focus on what Barth might have called the transcendent content of revelation protects against the deification of that which exists in the created order.
Nevertheless, there remains a kind of residual Platonism between the alleged purity of ideas in themselves and the temporal, physical world. It is this dualism which is in need of re-evaluation. It is my view that the separation of subjective and objective knowledge as a general principle (or ideal) presents some irreconcilable problems when it comes to the art of theological and philosophical reflection. The particularity of our life and the multitude of experiences that shape our psyche influences not only the shape of our thought, but also provides the source of our underlying passions which in turn dictate what areas of intellectual endeavour we are most interested in. I am not suggesting that objectivity thereby a useless concept. As I have suggested above, the pursuit of objectivity is noble ideal when understood correctly, as it prompts us to question our own drives and motives, whether these be implicit or explicit. Nevertheless, I propose that the idea of ‘objectivity’- at least as far as it applies to the humanities- be understood more as an aspirational goal rather than a criterion to be met before any meaningful insights are gleaned. Considering objectivity as a goal rather than a necessity has two benefits. First, it takes seriously the claim-common throughout many forms of philosophical enquiry- that a state of pure objectivity is actually impossible.The drives and biases of our unconscious mind work through our reasoning process no matter how much we might yearn to be free of them in pursuit of ultimate truth and facts. Second, when objectivity is seen as a goal rather than a dogmatic requirement, we are then in a position to be more honest about the role personal experience plays in giving shape to our thought. Instead of experience being demonised as a barrier to the clarity and integrity of an idea, we recognise its inevitable influence as a source of inspiration that is able to helpfully contribute to our thinking processes. Of course, the dangers of using personal experience as a platform for developing ideas and conclusions is well-attested to, and I do not mean to suggest that all experience is helpful in the pursuit of truth. Rather, what I advocate is for a synthesis of subjectivity and objectivity as being both essential elements of philosophical/theological reflection.
In summary, we can both acknowledge the impossibility of pure objectivity whilst at the same time affirming its desirability as a helpful ideal which we can strive towards. Objectivity is understood best when we simultaneously acknowledge the vital role experience plays in shaping our intellectual interests and thinking processes. To highlight the important relationship between personal experience and broader philosophical reflection I will now offer a brief overview of Teilhard de Chardin’s transformational experiences as a soldier in the first world war, with reference to how these events shaped his future writings.
Teilhard de Chardin and The First World War
The French Jesuit Priest, scientist and philosopher Teilhard de Chardin remains one of my favourite thinkers, although I must profess that I do not understand much of what he writes. The strongly scientific nature of de Chardin’s corpus baffles me somewhat, and I often find myself struggling to grasp the technical concepts and broad, sweeping visions used by the great scholar when outlining his theories on the nature and purpose of humanity. In this ignorance I am comfortable, as I find the real appeal of de Chardin’s work to lie in a different direction. As much as de Chardin was a gifted scientist who rigorously valued the detached nature of scientific processes, the journey of his fascinating life shapes his philosophy in ways that highlight the importance of biography in the work of truly great thinkers.
I remember being in the University library one afternoon during my first few months of theological college in 2007. I was on a mission to locate various texts that my fiercely conservative Systematic Theology lecturer had explicitly condemned as heretical in nature. The authors of these texts included such controversial figures as Hans Kung, Don Cupitt, Lloyd Geering and John Hick. Also included in this list of theological castaways was de Chardin, whose commitment to the evolutionary process as the best explanation for the origin of man put him instantly at odds with large swathes of evangelicals. Intrigued, I found myself seeking out a rarely used corner of the library building that the computer told me housed de Chardin’s work. It was in this lonely enclave that I first encountered de Chardin’s 1955 work The Phenomenon of Man. Brushing of several layers of dust after what was presumably years of neglect, I took the book out on loan and delved right in.
To this day much of the detail of this work eludes my intellectual grasp. I am not too proud to acknowledge my bewilderment at the ideas contained within this mysterious volume. I took me quite a while, for example, to even faintly understand de Chardin’s concept of the noosphere, which is to my knowledge a faintly Hegelian inspired concept of the sum total of human thought and knowledge. Despite my general confusion, however, I was intrigued enough by de Chardin that I decided to pursue his work further. At this point I undertook a more extensive review of de Chardin’s corpus and was further compelled to pursue a work titled The Making of a Mind: Letters from a Soldier Priest.The work is a collection of letters sent to his cousin Marguerite Teillard-Chambon from the front lines of battle during the first world war. These reflections document de Chardin’s profound experiences as a stretcher-bearer in the 8thregiment of Moroccan Riflemen, which consisted largely of Islamic soldiers from the North African French Colonial empire. De Chardin’s direct combat experiences included participation in the famous battles of Ypres and Dunkirk, amongst others.As a stretcher bearer, de Chardin’s came face-to-face with the bloody brutality of war- a war that was being fought with newly developed killing machines capable a mass slaughter on an unprecedented scale. Impressively, de Chardin turned down a tempting opportunity to become the regiment’s Chaplain, which presumably would have resulted in his removal from the front lines. Instead of taking the easier path, the humble yet tenacious de Chardin chose to immerse himself in the heart of a bloody battle in which countless men were being slaughtered for no reason.
De Chardin might have been forgiven for abandoning all pretence toward Christian faith as the battle raged around him. Discerning the reality of God in the midst of such chaos and violence might well have felt nigh on impossible. It would have been easier to simply to resign his inward faith convictions and concede victory to an atheism that would forevermore reign supreme. Yet this did not happen. We do know that de Chardin’s faith was significantly challenged by the realities of war,however, his experiences in the trenches appear to have drawn him into an even deeper sense of God’s presence.
Emerging from the chaos of death and destruction, de Chardin seems to have transformed this ghastly experience into wellspring of inspiration for his future thinking. It was around this time the de Chardin began to seriously consider the process of evolution as an ultimate shaper of human destiny. Evolution was not just to be considered a theory explaining the origins of man but was a concept that could extend toward the future. Prominent de Chardin scholar Ursula King notes in Spirit of Fire: The Life and Work of Teilhard de Chardinthat the experience of war seemed to unlock an inner vision for a brighter future for humanity, in which the seemingly disparate disciplines of science and theology would be united in a joint effort to promote the mystical union of evolution and spirit in mankind. This was a lofty vision indeed, and unfortunately one yet to be realised. Nevertheless, the miracle of this time in de Chardin’s life-and it seems to me nothing short of a miracle- was that he was able to emotionally and intellectually overcome the temptation to abandon his spirit to the nihilism that permeates the theatre of war.
Because of the intensity of de Chardin’s experience of war, the intellectual ideas and concepts which grew out of them are given more depth and existential weight. The theories he developed over the course of his life in relation to man’s place in the world and the future of humanity are only properly understood in light of his profound experience at the frontlines of battle. Similar to Pannenberg’s observations of the destructive legacy of Hitler’s Third Reich, de Chardin’s experiences in the first world war functioned as a starting point for his future work and grounded his ideas in the raw stuff of human life, as opposed to the abstract realms of pure theory. As such, de Chardin remains a prime example of one who was able to successfully incorporate personal experience with intellectual thought without sacrificing the integrity of either. It is as Immanuel Kant once said of the metaphysical/empirical divide: ‘thoughts without content are empty, intuitions without concepts are blind.’The experiential and the intellectual and deeply interwoven, and de Chardin displayed this throughout his remarkable life.
It seems fitting that I should close this reflection with the words of de Chardin himself. These beautiful words were composed during his time as a stretcher bearer in Nieuport during the great war. I believe they capture something of the direction in which his intellectual thoughts were heading despite being surround by carnage and chaos. They are testament to a man whose faith was able to transcend the ugliness of his surroundings yet still be deeply embedded in the material world of our existence:
‘If a Christian really understands the inexpressibly wonderful work that is being carried on around him, and by him, in the whole of nature, he cannot fail to see that the excitement and delight aroused in him by ‘awakening to the cosmos’ can be preserved by him not only in the form they take when transposed to a divine ideal, but also in the substance of their most material and most earthly objects.’
See: Wolfhart Pannenberg. Theology and the Kingdom of God(Philadelphia: Westminster, 1969), 14.
See: Fred Sanders, “The Strange Legacy of Wolfhart Pannenberg,” Christianity Today, September 18th2014. https://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2014/september-web-only/strange-legacy-theologian-wolfhart-pannenberg.html
See: Leora Batnitzky, “Spinoza’s Critique of Miracles,” Cardozo Law Review25 (2003), 507-18.
See, for example, Nietzsche’s succinct comment in his notebook of 1886-7 that ‘there are no truths, only interpretations.’
Teilhard de Chardin. The Making of a Mind: Letters from a Soldier Priest, 1914-19. Trans. Rene Hague (New York: Harper and Row, 1955).
Ursula King. Spirit of Fire: The Life and Vision of Teilhard de Chardin (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1998), 50.
 See: Immanuel Kant. The Critique of Pure Reason. Eds. Paul Guyer & Allen W. Wood(Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998), A51/B76.
See: Teilhard de Chardin. The Prayer of the Universe: Selected from Writings in Time of War (London: Fountain Books, 1977), 46.