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Teilhard de Chardin – Envisioning a Unitive Evolution

Intertwining Science and Religion for the Sake of the Planet 

Teilhard de Chardin – Envisioning a Unitive Evolution 

by Marcus Braybrooke 

Pierre Teilhard de Chardin (1881-55), a distinguished paleontologist, theologian, and visionary, held a unitive vision that covered a wide canvas. He tried through his writings to bring the worlds of science and religion together, believing their combined insights held the key to creating a greater sense of global community. 

In The Oxford Companion to Christian Thought, Ursula King says this about Teilhard:

His work contains challenging reflections on God and the world, the figure of Christ, science and religion, on ecological responsibilities, interfaith encounter, the greater unification of humanity, the place of the feminine and of love in creating greater unity, and the central importance of spirituality and mysticism in religious life. His new mysticism of action is directed to both the creative transformation of the outer and the inner world and the deepest communion with the living God of Love, intimately present throughout the creation. More than anything else it is his powerful affirmation of the Incarnation and his vision of the universal cosmic Christ within an evolutionary perspective that reaffirm the core of the Christian faith for our scientific age.
Pierre Teilhard de Chardin – Photo: Wikipedia

Pierre Teilhard de Chardin – Photo: Wikipedia

Pierre was born on May 1, 1881 in the volcanic Auvergne region of central France. His father, a gentleman farmer, was interested in geology and encouraged his children to collect fossils, stones, and other specimens of nature. His mother was a devout and holy woman. So from an early age he found himself “rooted in two domains of life usually considered antagonistic,” he wrote in a 1934 essay. “Through my education and intellectual formation, I belong to the ‘children of heaven,’ while by temperament and owing to my professional studies I am ‘a child of earth.’”  His life’s work was to seek to reconcile these two worlds and he tried not to erect any walls between them in his interior life. “I have found that far from destroying each other, each has served to reinforce the other.”

Teilhard received a good classical and scientific education at the Jesuit College of Mongré, where he boarded from the age of 10 to 18. He entered the Jesuit novitiate at 18 and was ordained priest at 21 in 1912. He taught at the Jesuit College in Cairo until he was drafted into the military during World War I. He chose to be a stretcher bearer rather than a chaplain and was awarded the Legion of Honour for his bravery. After the War, he obtained a doctorate for his geological research and then taught geology at the Catholic Institute of Paris. In 1923 he was invited by a fellow Jesuit researcher to join a fossil expedition to the Ordos desert in China. The experience led him to write his “Mass on the World.” Subsequently, he spent most of his scientific career in China, where he wrote The Divine Milieu  (1927) and the Phenomenon of Man (1938-40), both published after his death.

After the Second World War, Teilhard returned to Paris, but opposition to his thinking in Church circles made life so difficult that he accepted a research position in the United States. He died on Easter Sunday, April 10th, 1955. Only 12 people attended his funeral.

His scientific work was already recognized. He had been involved in the discovery of Peking Man’s skull. In addition, he enlarged the field of knowledge on Asia’s sedimentary deposits and stratigraphical correlations, and also on the dates of its fossils. Publication of his religious and philosophical writings was banned by Church authorities during his lifetime. But after his death they quickly attracted wide attention.

Teilhard’s writings are an attempt to heal the inner tension between what he called his ‘cosmic sense’ and his ‘Christic sense.’ At first, he could find no way to bring the two together. In time, he came to see that Christ had a cosmic function and that the evolution of the cosmos had to be seen as a movement orientated upon a cosmic central point: “With the passing years I have been aware, with ever greater clarity and depth of feeling, of that confluence as the key to every advance – and, be it said, to every conflict too – in my inner life.” He believed in science but thought it was insufficient by itself. Science had only looked at the world from without. It was necessary also to look from within.

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As a student he had read L”Évolution Créatrice (Creative Evolution) by Henri Bergson (1859-1941). Bergson interpreted evolution as the result of the continuous operation of an élan vital (the vital force or impulse of life). The book helped Teilhard understand the meaning of evolution for the Christian faith. He held that the stuff the universe is formed from increases in complexity and consciousness as it evolves.

Humanity is one peak in the process. It moves through increasingly close-knit social relationships towards the Omega Point, which he identified with Christ. Evolution, he argued, results from an inward tendency rather than adaptations induced by the external struggle for the survival of the fittest.

In Teilhard’s view, there have been several critical points in the curve of evolution. These include the primordial emergence of matter, followed by the emergence of amphibians, then reptiles, and then mammals. Life moves constantly in an outward spiral from one zoological layer to another. At the heart of the process, carrying it forward, is the rise of consciousness. Consciousness is to be found everywhere, but in man – a being who is the object of his own reflection – evolution takes a new step forward. Teilhard asked,

Can we … hesitate to admit that man’s possession of it [self- reflection] constitutes a radical advance on all forms of life that have gone before him? Admittedly the animal knows: But it cannot know that it knows: that is certain … We are separated by a chasm – or a threshold – which it [the animal] cannot cross ... It is not merely a matter of change of degree, but of a change of nature.

Every aspect of life – sexual attraction, reproduction, and the struggle for survival – is changed as the threshold of reflection is crossed.

Consciousness and the Noosphere

The noosphere – Photo: Tek-gnostics Network

The noosphere – Photo: Tek-gnostics Network

The evolutionary process, however, does not stop with human beings. The growth of consciousness means ever greater interaction and unification. Teilhard refers to this as the “noosphere.” The word, which Teilhard invented from the Greek word for mind, means literally “the realm of the mind.” But for Teilhard it meant much more. The noosphere is “a layer of thinking and interacting that connects people around the whole globe.” It “marks a new stage in human evolution” and binds people together by a universal love for the whole. “How is it,” he wrote, “that we are not more sensitive to the presence of something greater than ourselves moving forward within us and in our midst?”

This new stage in evolution towards the ultimate goal or Omega point is not automatic. It requires human cooperation, responsibility, and co-creativity. The model of the noosphere provides a particularly creative perspective on racial, cultural, and religious pluralism in the new context of global complexity.

Teilhard unites his dual commitment to evolution and Christianity by seeing Christ as the Omega point, the point where science and mysticism fuse together. Christ not only embodies universal love but is also linked to the moral universe and organically to the cosmos. Such a view gives meaning to the words at the beginning of St John’s Gospel that all things were made through the Logos [Christ]. Emphasizing the Incarnation of Christ, God’s presence in the physical, Teilhard says that it is through Christ that the world acquires ultimate unity and cohesion. Indeed, Christ is the very meaning of the whole evolutionary process and the source of power and energy that draws all things to itself. As a result, whereas Orthodox Christians speak of two natures in Christ, the human and the divine, Teilhard added a third, “the cosmic.” Indeed, he once described himself as “the apostle of the cosmic (or universal) Christ.”

Catholicism and More

Teilhard’s views were regarded with suspicion by Catholic authorities. They felt he did not take the reality of evil seriously enough and that in his emphasis on Christ’s incarnation, he neglected Christ’s atoning death. His views were never officially condemned by the Vatican, but people were advised to read his books with caution. After his death his books became known and started to garner considerable excitement. His ideas had some influence on Vatican II and help shape the important document Gaudium et Spes.

Teilhard increasingly recognized the importance of other religions and their coming together in what is now known as the interfaith movement. At the inaugural meeting of L’Union des Croyants (literally, the Union of Believers) – the French sister organization of the World Congress of Faiths – a paper Teilhard wrote, but was not allowed to present, was read aloud by René Grousset. Teilhard writes that the gathering is “the summit movement of tomorrow.” Despite their differences, people of different faiths can come together to build a common future. A union of believers could draw together and rekindle the faith of those who, in varying forms, believe:

  • “That there is a future and a goal for the world, ahead of Man;
     
  • That this future and this goal depends on the union, at once organic and mental, which will establish itself some day on our planet between all individuals, all races and all nations on Earth;
     
  • And that this union itself, so conditioned as it is by the progress around us of technology and socialism, can only be achieved with the vision and under the influence of a supreme centre, which is at once attractive and personal.”

Certainly in his early days, Teilhard was critical of Eastern religions, especially the Hindu philosophy of Advaita or nondualism. Later, however, although he spoke of a “universal” Christ, he recognized that humanity’s understanding of the Divine was incomplete and on-going. There is a note in one of his writings saying “Christ would not be complete if he did not integrate Shiva.” And in The Future of Man, he wrote, “A tendency towards unification is everywhere manifest and especially in the different branches of religion. We are looking for something that will draw us together, below or above the level of that which divides … Not through external pressure but only from an inward impulse can the unity of Mankind endure and grow.”

While Teilhard’s thinking may appear speculative and abstract, he made a close link between mysticism and action because he believed the evolving future was dependent upon human choices and actions. As a leading Teilhard scholar, Ursula King, has written, “For Teilhard all forms of mysticism found their highest expression in a mysticism of action, a dynamic and activating centre burning with the fire of love, a mysticism deeply grounded in Christian incarnational theology.”

Chardin’s new appreciation of our part as humans in the evolving cosmos suggests that human beings have to see themselves as part of the Earth community and recognize that all life is bound together. Just as astronauts in space have marveled at the magical beauty of planet Earth when they saw it whole from space, so mystics who have explored inner space proclaim the same message of unity. Teilhard de Chardin himself said, “I live at the heart of a single, unique Element, the Centre of the Universe, and present in each part of it; personal Love and cosmic Power.”

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For further study of Teilhard de Chardin and his work, please see the following, from which the quotations above were drawn:

  • Maurice Keating and H.R.F Keating, Understanding Pierre Teilhard de Chardin (1969)
  • Ursula King, Towards A New Mysticism (1980)
  • Ursula King, Christ in All Things (2009)
  • N. M. Wildiers, An Introduction to Teilhard de Chardin (1968)