The following introduction to Pierre Teilhard de Chardin was written by Nancy Van Kirk from Victoria BC, Canada. Nancy wrote this summary to share with her church community, as a way to introduce them to Teilhard and his ideas. Nancy refers to Teilhard as a “Prophet of Hope.”
Teilhard de Chardin – Prophet of Hope
by Nancy Van Kirk
You may have heard of Pierre Teilhard de Chardin but know little about him. I knew very little myself except to say that two of his most famous books, The Phenomenon of Man (since re-title “The Human Phenomenon”) and The Divine Milieu, had been unread, on my bookshelf since 1968, shortly after they were published. In this article I hope to give you some sense of this important visionary, whose life and work has renewed resonance today. Pierre Teilhard de Chardin is a modern day prophet who has left us an incredible volume of writing on spirituality and science; he is indeed a man for our times.
Life and Work
Pierre Teilhard de Chardin was born on May 1, 1891, in the Château of Sarcenat at Orcines, France. He was the fourth child of eleven, whose upbringing was strongly influenced by both of his parents in different ways. His aristocratic lineage went back centuries, descending on the Teilhard side from an ancient family of magistrates from Auvergne, and on his mother’s side from a family that was ennobled under Louis XVIII. Voltaire was a distant relative. His father was an amateur naturalist who promoted observation of nature to his children through collected stones, insects, and plants. Young Pierre avidly collected natural history specimens from an early age.
His mother, however, awakened in him a devout passion for spirituality when she taught him childhood prayers and devotion to the Sacred Heart of Jesus. The twin paths of science and spirituality would set the course of his entire life.
At age 12, Teilhard began attending a Jesuit college where he completed baccalaureates in philosophy and mathematics, and in 1899, he made the seemingly natural progression to the Jesuit novitiate at Aix-en-Provence, pursuing a career in philosophy, theology, and spirituality. His interest in science and nature continued in parallel. On an early teaching assignment he taught chemistry and physics at the Jesuit school in Egypt and developed a lifelong delight in the natural wonders of the desert. In these early years he also chanced to read the work of Henri Bergson, whose L’Évolution Créatrice (The Creative Evolution) awakened his conviction that evolution is the fundamental driver of the universe. From 1908 to 1912, as he studied theology in Hastings (Sussex) where the French Jesuit Novitiate had now moved, he began to reorient his scientific, philosophical, and theological knowledge towards the heady new insights that evolution offered.
In those days this was radical stuff, but it did not alter the Jesuit path he had chosen. On August 24, 1911, at age 30, Teilhard was ordained a priest. His solemn vows as a Jesuit however had to be delayed until 1918, after the war.
Experiences in the First World War were to profoundly influence his life and work. Teilhard served as a stretcher-bearer on the front lines assigned to the 8th Moroccan Rifles. He could have become an Officer and Priest away from active duty, but chose the camaraderie of the men and their needs over his own safety. Soon he acquired a reputation for being fearless, and quite unexpectedly, found that the horror of the trenches paradoxically occasioned mystical, life affirming experiences. He began writing his reflections in letters and dairies sent to his cousin, Marguerite Teilhard-Chambon, who later compiled them in a book entitled The Making of a Mind. They reveal his “thoughts on death and doubt, but confirm a deep trust in the “sustaining presence of God… and a passionate love of life in all its forms.” In 1916 he produced his first essay: La Vie Cosmique (Cosmic life), which revealed his mystical insights along with scientific and philosophical thought. He later wrote of the trenches in Nostalgia for the Front, ”…[that} the war was a meeting … with the Absolute.” For his valour, Teilhard received several citations including the Médaille militaire and the Legion of Honour.
Before the war, Teilhard’s studies had confirmed a primary career interest in Human Paleontology. After the war he took degrees in geology, botany, and zoology at the Sorbonnes and was awarded a Doctorate in Science in 1922. By 1923 he was on excavating expeditions collecting fossils in China, and had begun to teach when home in France.
At this point, and with hindsight, we can begin to see that seeds of conflict were developing within Teilhard’s early career. He had become a Jesuit dedicated to a life of Christian devotion, daily mass, the discipline mandated by the Order and a life of great spiritual depth, both his own from an early age and one presumably deepened by the Spiritual Exercises (Ignatian). As a scientist he would also conduct scientific research, as well as teach and write. In his writing he would record scientific findings but, equally important, he would record profound inner thoughts and his insights into reality and the cosmos.
In Teilhard’s case, his teaching career began with a flourish at the Catholic Institute of Paris and he quickly gained a following. However, as he applied his own spiritual insights and enthusiastically embraced evolution as a guiding principle, conflict with the Catholic Church and the Jesuit order was inevitable. Evolution definitely contradicted the Church’s teachings on original sin and Biblical explanations of the earth’s origins. The church was not ready to hear new theological interpretations embracing evolution, nor did his superiors want to encourage insights from his mystical experiences.
Indeed, they would not be ready during Teilhard’s entire lifetime. Eventually their alarm resulted in the long term thwarting of any teaching opportunities where he might influence young minds, and in the lifelong censorship of his writing on spiritual matters. Exile to China was a way to remove him from France, so he was there on and off for twenty years from 1926 to 1946, including the time of the Second World War. He did travel beyond China as well, and took part in expeditions to Somalia, Kashmir, Mongolia and Java, as well as conferences to the US and France. The Jesuit order seemed perpetually wary of his activities and only allowed his scientific papers to be published.
While in China in the 1920s, Teilhard was involved in the exciting discoveries of Peking Man, and participated in proving that Peking Man was a faber, (maker) the earliest hominid known to work with stone and fire. His collecting work contributed to the fossil record and his geological research produced a general geological map of China.
Despite the lack support for publishing, Teilhard continued to write essays and books on philosophical subjects, developing ideas that first emerged in the 1920s and then further refined over decades. Many manuscripts were presented for publication and repeatedly refused by his Jesuit superiors. Fortunately, these works were saved and protected by close friends and colleagues. In addition, scholars have speculated that Teilhard’s ideas may not have developed as deeply as they did had he not had the time and isolation to complete them. On the other hand it is noted that the benefits that wide debate and peer review could have provided were missed due to his work not being published in his lifetime. His motivation to continue despite the severe censorship is a testament to his recognition that these were important ideas, especially for the future – it was an offering of hope. There were known periods of disheartening frustration that would have caused a lesser man to give up, but Teilhard’s strength of character and faith must have been sustaining.
The courage and fortitude of a prophet comes to mind, and he never gave up on his commitment to the Jesuit way of life. Teilhard’s last exile was to New York City, where he died on Easter Sunday, April 10, 1955. He had expressed the wish to die on such an auspicious day, the time of resurrection.
Even after death and as late as 1963, Jesuit authorities and Rome tried to block publication of his works, citing errors contrary to Catholic doctrine. The changes that Vatican II (1959) would bring had not yet effected these decisions. After 1955, however, such publication bans were bypassed by friends and supporters who saw to it that his works were widely distributed, first in the original French quickly followed by English translations. Later Teilhard’s writing was officially published, and eventually he was acknowledged by the Catholic Church and recently praised by Pope Benedict XVI and other eminent Catholic figures.
So, what were the teachings of Pierre Teilhard de Chardin and why are his works important to us today? We can only touch on a few ideas here. He was indeed ‘before his time’ but elements of his thinking are showing increasing relevance to our post-modern concerns.
Two Major Works
His two comprehensive works, The Human Phenomenon and The Divine Milieu were written in the 1920s when Teilhard made a total commitment to the evolutionary process as the core of his spirituality. At the time, other religious thinkers felt that evolutionary thinking challenged the structure of conventional Christian faith. As a scientist, Teilhard committed himself to the evidence and data he discovered. He also personally experienced convincing evidence of the spiritual realm as well as the scientific. For Teilhard, science and religion were not in conflict since the divine could be found in all of creation from the infinitesimal to the vastness of the universe.
The Human Phenomenon, is a sweeping account of Teilhard’s cosmogenesis – the unfolding of the material cosmos, from primordial particles to the development of life, to human beings and the noosphere, and finally, to his futuristic vision of the Omega Point, which is “pulling” all creation towards it. The noosphere is his term for the sphere of human thought which surrounds the earth (like a sphere). It is a third phase in the earth’s development, after the geosphere of rocks and matter and the biosphere of biological life. Each phase fundamentally transforms the one before, such as the development of human cognition fundamentally transforming the biosphere. He proposed that evolution is convergent, occurring in a directional, goal-driven way. Ultimately the Omega Point means reunion with Christ – the maximum level of complexity and consciousness towards which the universe is evolving.
Two Postmodern Concerns
Among many points, two postmodern issues are briefly touched on here. One is our concern for the environment. If human cognition fundamentally transforms the biosphere then it is suggested that human consciousness can find solutions to save it. The other point references religious criticism. Teilhard abandoned literal interpretations of creation in the Book of Genesis in favor of allegorical and theological ones. Literal biblical interpretations clearly contradict what we now know through the sciences. Teilhard saw the need to bring the Church into the modern world and saw evolution as the answer. Evolution was “the natural landscape where the history of salvation is situated.” For Teilhard science and religion are not at odds. His life’s work was predicated on the conviction that human spiritual development is moved by the same universal laws as material development. The whole universe as we find it is a divine manifestation that he integrated with deep Christian faith.
Evolution of Consciousness
Teilhard saw human development and the evolution of consciousness as significant steps in our progress towards the Omega Point. Today our study of Consciousness, Cognition, and Neurosciences are important disciplines. Both humanity and society are shown to evolve through identified stages of growth. His cosmic theology also has a basis in Pauline scripture (Colossians 1:15-17) that credits the absolute primacy of Christ. It is Christocentric, meaning that Union with the Godhead will be reached through the incarnation and redemption of Christ.
“No evolutionary future awaits anyone except in association with everyone else.”
Two additional points arise from his work as a paleontologist and his conviction that evolution is the fundamental force of the universe. He emphasizes the importance of history and community. “…Everything is the sum of the past …nothing is comprehensible except through its history. ” ‘Nature’ is the equivalent of ‘becoming’, [of} self-creation. But, he saw isolation and marginalization in society as working against our evolutionary nature. Evolution is an “assent towards consciousness” that will require unification of consciousness. “No evolutionary future awaits anyone except in association with everyone else.”
Ongoing scholarship on the work of Teilhard de Chardin continues to spark new insights and fire new energy into his vision. Works such as The Human Phenomenon and The Divine Milieu are being re-translated and sparking renewed interest. For example, The Human Phenomenon, in the recent translation by Sarah Appleton Weber, deeply benefits from her dedicated scholarship and revised insights. Other writers to note are Ilia Delio OSF , a scholar on Teilhard’s work and vision who helps deepen our study today (see book list) and Ursula King whose book Spirit of Fire is a delightful, accessible introduction to his life and work. Reading his own words, especially, if you can, in the original French, is highly recommended. The time for Teilhard de Chardin is now.
Books by Pierre Teilhard de Chardin:
The Phenomenon of Man, translation by Bernard Wall, Harper, Torchbooks 1959 (This book was re-titled to The Human Phenomenon, see below)
The Divine Milieu, Harper Collins, 1960
Hymn of the Universe, Harper and Row, 1965
Human Energy, translation by J M Cohen, Harcourt Brace, Jovanovich Inc. 1969
The Future of Man, translation by Norman Denny, Harper and Row, 1969
The Heart of Matter, translation by Rene Hague, Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1978
The Human Phenomenon, translation by Sarah Appleton Weber, Sussex Academic Press 1999
The Letters of Teilhard de Chardin and Lucille Swan, Isha Books, New Delhi, 2013
Others important works on Teilhard de Chardin:
Spirit of Fire – The Life and Vision of Teilhard de Chardin, Ursula King, Orbis Books, 1996
The Unbearable Wholeness of Being, Ilia Delio OSF, Orbis Books, 2013
Teilhard’s Mysticism, Kathleen Duffy SSJ, Orbis Books, 2014
From Teilhard to Omega – Co-creating an Unfinished Universe, Ilia Delio OSF, editor, Orbis Books, 2014
Pierre Teilhard de Chardin – Selected writings, Ursula King, Orbis Books, 2015
You can browse many of the books written by Teilhard de Chardin on Google Books HERE.
Numerous additional resources related to Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, his writing, and his influence as a visionary and Wisdom figure, including teachings by Cynthia and writings by our community members, can be accessed HERE.
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