Fr. Pierre Teilhard de Chardin

Fr. Pierre Teilhard de Chardin

February 11, 2013
MICHAEL SWAN
THE CATHOLIC REGISTER

In his new play, The De Chardin Project, actor and writer Adam Seybold draws a line in the sand – or rather two lines in sand – on the stage floor. Playing the pioneering 20th-century scientist theologian and Jesuit priest Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, Seybold dramatically lays down the central fact of de Chardin's life: the cross.

The story of the French priest and paleontologist who discovered Peking Man with Canadian Davidson Black is much more than a biography on stage.

"It's about the story of the origins of the universe," Seybold told The Catholic Register. "It's about matter and space and the confluence of those two things. And Teilhard's notion that the cross is a physical symbol of that synthesis of matter and spirit - that the world of matter is the horizontal line and the world of the spirit is the vertical line."

De Chardin was a brilliant and controversial thinker who articulated the first positive Christian response to evolutionary theory. He died in relative obscurity in 1955 at 73, but today his thoughts on cosmology form the basis of Catholic theologies of the environment.

Seybold's drama was itself born in a real life drama of joy and tragedy. The 35-year-old actor and his three-person company, The Quickening Theatre Company, took on the project as a Vancouver Fringe Festival entry in the fall of 2011 because one of the three thespians, Ginette Mohr, was pregnant.

They needed a play Mohr could direct and Seybold and his wife Kate Fenton could act in. It took Seybold eight days to write the first draft.

Over the summer, Fenton discovered she was pregnant. The Fringe production went ahead, but then Fenton lost the baby. Continuing to work on the play became a way for the couple to focus their energy and attention elsewhere. They were invited to workshop the play at Grove City College in Pennsylvania in the spring of 2012.

Things went better for Fenton the second time around. The play is now being performed in Toronto, and Seybold and Fenton's son Henry is two-and-a-half months old.

The play about the man who made evolution a theological idea is the product of Seybold's own spiritual evolution.

Seybold grew up among conservative, even fundamentalist, Protestants in western Pennsylvania. "I moved away from the Church for a while, because I didn't think it matched up to my experience of reality," said Seybold.

Seybold and his wife now attend a liberal Protestant church.

Seybold is convinced de Chardin can speak to people who are wary of the Church and tired of fundamentalism in religion, politics and culture.

"Teilhard's message of moderation and inclusion, still being deeply scientific and being deeply faithful, a lot of people can relate to that," he said.

For Catholics, de Chardin has something profound to say about Christ and creation, said Stephen Scharper, a University of Toronto professor of religion and environment.

CREATION GROANING

"St. Paul in Romans talks about all creation groaning as it gives birth to this new reality - a sense of creation is involved in Jesus' arrival, the Christ-event," Scharper said.

"He believes in evolution and he connected the salvation story with the evolution of the universe. The evolution story and the salvation story of the whole universe are part of the same narrative."

As a dramatist, Seybold uses events in de Chardin's life to get at the theological insights. From his discovery of Peking Man in the Gobi Desert of China in the 1920s to his struggle to publish his major theological work, The Phenomenon of Man, in the 1940s, there's plenty of drama in the life of this scholar-priest.

If there's anything the audience can take away from this night at the theatre, Seybold hopes it's to get past a false split between science and religion. "Science is the question of how we got here and religion is the question of why we got here. They're not necessarily at odds."