Pierre Teilhard de Chardin (May 1, 1881 – April 10, 1955) was a Jesuit priest trained as a philosopher and paleontologist, among those who discovered the Peking Man. His theological writings have been enormously popular and stimulated much popular culture, speculation, and contemplation about God's role in the on-going creation and evolution. In setting forth his sweeping account of the unfolding of the material universe, he abandoned the literal interpretation of the creation account in the Book of Genesis in favor of a metaphorical interpretation. In so doing he displeased certain officials in the Roman Catholic Curia, who considered that this undermined the doctrine of Original Sin. Due to this controversy, his work was denied publication during his lifetime. His theological works are filled with infectious passion and joy. He experienced and expressed the Divine in the human, material, scientific, and spiritual aspects of our world. His idea of the "Omega Point" reveals his mystical understanding of history, progressing in a spiral fashion closer and closer to the goal through increased complexity and greater inter-connectedness, until finally we reach the highest, ultimate point—union with God.
Pierre Teilhard de Chardin was born in Orcines, close to Clermont-Ferrand, in France. "De Chardin" is a vestige of a French aristocratic title and not properly his last name. He was formally known as "Pierre Teilhard," which is the name on his headstone in the Jesuit cemetery in Hyde Park, New York.
He was the fourth child of a large family. His father, an amateur naturalist, collected stones, insects, and plants, and promoted the observation of nature in the household. This fostered Teilhard's love of science and the material world.
Teilhard's spirituality was awakened by his mother. He loved both parents very much, so it was natural that in his later life he could see no reason to choose one discipline over the other.
When he was 11, he went to the Jesuit college of Mongré, in Villefranche-sur-Saône, where he completed baccalaureates in philosophy and mathematics. Then, in 1899, he entered the Jesuit novitiate at Aix-en-Provence, where he began a philosophical, theological, and spiritual career.
As of the summer 1901, the Waldeck-Rousseau laws, which submitted congregational associations' properties to state control, forced the Jesuits into exile in the United Kingdom, where their students continued their studies in Jersey. In the meantime, Teilhard earned a licentiate of literature in Caen in 1902.
From 1905 to 1908, he taught physics and chemistry in Cairo, Egypt, at the Jesuit College of the Holy Family. Teilhard studied theology in Hastings, in Sussex (United Kingdom), from 1908 to 1912. There he synthesized his scientific, philosophical, and theological knowledge in the light of evolution. His reading of l'Evolution Créatrice (The Creative Evolution) by Henri Bergson was, he said, the "catalyst of a fire which devoured already its heart and its spirit." Teilhard was ordained a priest on August 24, 1911, at the age of 30.
From 1912 to 1914, Teilhard worked in the paleontology laboratory of the Musée National d'Histoire Naturelle, in Paris, studying the mammals of the middle Tertiary sector. Marcellin Boulle, a specialist in Neanderthal studies, gradually guided him towards human paleontology. At the Institute of Human Paleontology, he became a friend of Henri Breuil, and took part with him in excavations in the prehistoric painted caves in the northwest of Spain.
Prior to World War I, Teilhard was asked to examine and comment on the archaeological finding that came to be known as the Piltdown Man. This "finding" was later revealed as a hoax, with some saying that Teilhard was one of the perpetrators, although he was later cleared of such allegations.
Mobilized in December 1914, Teilhard served in the war as a stretcher-bearer in the 8th regiment of Moroccan riflemen. For his valor, he received several citations, including the Médaille Militaire and the Legion of Honor.
Teilhard then studied geology, botany, and zoology at the Sorbonne. After 1920, he lectured in geology at the Catholic Institute of Paris, becoming an assistant professor after being granted a science doctorate in 1922.
In 1923, Teilhard traveled to China with Emile Licent, who was in charge of a laboratory collaborating with the natural history museum in Paris and the Marcellin Boule laboratory. Licent carried out considerable work in connection with missionaries, who accumulated observations of a scientific nature in their spare time.
In the following year, he continued lecturing at the Catholic Institute and participated in a cycle of conferences for the students of the Engineers' Schools. In 1925, he was asked not to lecture at Catholic institutions, but to continue his scientific work instead.
Teilhard traveled to China again in April of 1926, where he lived for the next 20 years. He settled in Tientsin first with Emile Licent, and then moved to Beijing. During this time, Teilhard made five geological research expeditions in China, traveling in the Sang-Kan-Ho valley, and making a tour in Eastern Mongolia. While there, he wrote Le Milieu Divin (the Divine Milieu), and also prepared the first pages of his main work Le Phénomène human (The Phenomena of Man).
In 1929, Teilhard was involved in the discovery of one of the oldest known remains of a human being, the Peking Man. This was enormously important to archaeology and evolutionary thought, and also inspired his theological development.
After a tour in Manchuria in the area of Great Khingan with Chinese geologists, Teilhard joined Roy Chapman Andrews and the team of American Expedition Center-Asia in the Gobi organized by the American Museum of Natural History. While in China, Teilhard developed a deep and personal friendship with Lucile Swan, a sculptor who worked on the reconstruction of the skull of Peking Man, and who later sculpted a bust of Teilhard.
Answering an invitation from Henry de Monfreid, Teilhard undertook a journey to Somalia. His commentary reveals the kind of life he lived:
Monfreid and I, we did not have anything any more European, joked Teilhard. Once we dropped anchor, at night, along the basaltic cliffs where the incense grew. The men were going by dugout to fish odd fishes within the corals. One day, Hissas sold us a kid goat with camel milk. The crew took this opportunity "to dedicate" the ship. The old reheated Negro who served Monfreid in his whole adventures dyed with blood the rudder, the mast, the front part of the ship, then, later in the night, it was the song of the Qur'an in the medium of thick incense smoke.
From 1930 – 1931, Teilhard stayed in France and in the United States. During a conference in Paris, he stated: "For the observers of the future, the greatest event will be the sudden appearance of a collective human conscience and a human work to make."
In 1934 and 1935, Teilhard participated in expeditions to India, and also visited Java. In 1937, Teilhard wrote Le Phénomène spirituel (the spiritual Phenomenon) on board the boat the Empress of Japan, where he met the Rajah of Sarawak. The ship conveyed him to the United States, where he traveled to Philadelphia and New York to receive awards for his contributions to science, all amidst great controversy.
He then stayed in France, where he was immobilized by malaria. During his return voyage to Beijing he wrote L'Energie spirituelle de la Souffrance (Spiritual Energy of Suffering) (Complete Works, tome VII).
A few days before his death, Teilhard said: "If in my life I haven't been wrong, I beg God to allow me to die on Easter Sunday." Teilhard died on April 10, 1955 in New York City, and that was, in fact, Easter Sunday.
He died in his residence at the Jesuit church of Saint Ignatius of Loyola, on Park Avenue. He was buried at the Jesuit seminary of Saint Andrews-on-Hudson in upstate New York. In 1970, the Culinary Institute of America bought the seminary property, but the cemetery remains on the grounds there.
Teilhard worked as an advisor to the Chinese national geological service, creating the first general geological map of China from 1925 to 1935. He supervised the geology and the paleontology of the excavations of Choukoutien (Zhoukoudian) near Beijing. In December 1929, he took part in the discovery of Sinanthropus pekinensis, or Peking Man who was determined to be the nearest relative of Pithecanthropus from Java. This was an important link in the speculation of evolutionary descent; this ancient man being recognized as a "faber" (worker of stones and controller of fire).
Teilhard took part as a scientist in the famous "Yellow Cruise" in Central Asia. He also undertook several explorations in the south of China. He traveled in the valleys of Yangtze River and Szechuan (Sichuan) in 1934, then, the following year, in Kwang-If and Guangdong.
Teilhard participated in the 1935 Yale–Cambridge expedition to northern and central India that verified assumptions on Indian paleolithic civilizations in Kashmir and the Salt Range Valley. He then made a short stay in Java, visiting the site of Java man. In 1937, he received the Mendel Medal granted by Villanova University during the Congress of Philadelphia, in recognition of his works on human paleontology.
During all these years, Teilhard strongly contributed to the constitution of an international network of research in human paleontology related to the whole Eastern and south Eastern zone of the Asian continent. He would be particularly associated in this task with two friends, the English Canadian, Davidson Black, and the Scot, George B. Barbour.
Throughout the years of World War I, Teilhard de Chardin developed his reflections in his diaries and in letters to his cousin, Marguerite Teillard-Chambon, who later edited them into a book: Genèse d'une pensée (Genesis of a thought). He confessed later: "… the war was a meeting … with the Absolute." In 1916, he wrote his first essay: La Vie Cosmique (Cosmic life), where his scientific and philosophical thought was revealed as was his mystical life. He pronounced his solemn wish to become a Jesuit in Sainte-Foy-lès-Lyon, on May 26, 1918. In August 1919, in Jersey, he wrote Puissance spirituelle de la Matière (the spiritual Power of Matter). The complete essays written between 1916 and 1919 were published under the titles:
In the 1920s in China, Teilhard wrote several lyrical and passionate essays that became important in their own right as well as a foundation for the direction he would pursue. These included La Messe sur le Monde (the Mass for the World), written in the Ordos Desert.
In 1929, amidst his discovery of the Peking man, he was inspired to write L'Esprit de la Terre (the Spirit of the Earth).
Prevented by the church to be published while he was alive, Teilhard's posthumously published book, The Phenomenon of Man, set forth a sweeping account of the unfolding of the material universe in the past, the development of the noosphere, and including his vision of the Omega Point in the future.
Teilhard de Chardin was a proponent of orthogenesis, the idea that evolution occurs in a directional, goal driven way, a teleological view of evolution. However, his view did not deny the capacity of evolutionary processes to explain complexity, and thus differs from Intelligent Design. To Teilhard, evolution unfolded from cell to organism to planet to solar system and finally to whole universe.
According to Teilhard and Russian scholar and biologist Vladimir Vernadsky (author of The Geosphere (1924) and The Biosphere (1926)), the earth is in a transformative process, metamorphosing from the biosphere into the noosphere. Teilhard saw evolution as progressing through the physical and biological dimensions, with increasing complexity of species, with the appearance of human beings as the final step in that phase. Human beings, having the faculty not only of consciousness but an awareness of being conscious, then proceed to develop the mental realm of thought, the noosphere.
The next step for Teilhard was the socialization of humankind, in which our social development would lead us into one unified society. The culmination of evolution is the Omega point, a term Teilhard invented to describe the ultimate maximum level of complexity-consciousness, considered by him the aim towards which consciousness evolves. Rather than divinity being found "in the heavens," he held that evolution was a process converging toward a "final unity," identical with the Eschaton and with God. Thus, he saw the role of Christ in his Second Coming as initiating this ultimate convergence.
Controversies about his line of thought center on the question of whether or not the mission started by Christ ended with the crucifixion, or is it up to humankind to continue it throughout the evolutionary process. In turn, this demands to know whether or not the key to human salvation is the mediation of the Catholic Church and its sacraments, or whether it is the actions undertaken by humankind in moving towards the Omega point and so realizing the actual Christogenesis.
In China in 1923, Teilhard sent two of his theological essays on Original Sin to a theologian, on a purely personal basis, but they were misunderstood. These writings were:
In Teilhard's view, the evolutionary process occurs naturally toward ultimate convergence of all creation with God. In this process, evil and sin occurred in the process of growth, seen as "growing pains" and not the major perversion of Original Sin. Thus, the role of Christ is not seen by Teilhard as primarily redemptive for our sin, but rather as opening the way to convergence between the physical and spiritual realms.
In 1925, Teilhard was ordered by the Jesuit Superior General Vladimir Ledochowski to leave his teaching position in France and to sign a statement withdrawing his controversial statements regarding the doctrine of original sin. Rather than leave the Jesuit order, Teilhard signed the statement and left for China. This was the first of a series of condemnations by church officials that would continue long after Teilhard's death.
When he received the Mendel Medal from Villanova University, he gave a speech about evolution, the origins and the destiny of man. The New York Times dated March 19, 1937 presented Teilhard as the Jesuit who held that man descended from monkeys. Some days later, he was to be granted Doctor honoris causa of the Catholic University of Boston. Upon his arrival for the ceremony, he was told that the distinction had been cancelled.
The climax of his condemnations was a 1962 monitum of the Holy Office denouncing his works:
The above-mentioned works abound in such ambiguities and indeed even serious errors, as to offend Catholic doctrine … For this reason, the most eminent and most revered Fathers of the Holy Office exhort all Ordinaries as well as the superiors of Religious institutes, rectors of seminaries and presidents of universities, effectively to protect the minds, particularly of the youth, against the dangers presented by the works of Fr. Teilhard de Chardin and of his followers.
As time passed, it seemed that the works of Teilhard were gradually returning to favor in the church. However, in 1981 the Holy See clarified that recent statements by members of the church, in particular those made on the hundredth anniversary of Teilhard's birth, were not to be interpreted as a revision of previous stands taken by the church officials, thus, reaffirming the 1962 statement.
Teilhard said: "A religion which is supposed to be inferior to our ideal as mankind, whatever the miracles surrounding it, is a LOST RELIGION." Though many would ask one to choose between heaven and earth, between God and humankind, Teilhard refused to honor the division. His opponents would say he chose the latter humanistically. His supporters would say he created a bridge for those who had previously been unable to find the link between those things we have designated as heaven and earth.
Pierre Teilhard de Chardin inspired so many with his embrace of life, and ability to endure what some call persecution. He loved God and the Church; he loved science. He never saw any reason to abandon either of them. He felt compelled to work out his problems with the officials in his chosen discipline by accepting their authority, thus truly exemplifying the way of Jesus.
The enormous respect for this character is shown in his unique and enormous impact on popular culture. For example, novelist Morris West clearly based the heroic character David Telemond in The Shoes of the Fisherman on Teilhard. In Dan Simmons' novel Hyperion Cantos, Teilhard de Chardin has been canonized a saint in the far future. His work is a focal inspiration for the anthropologist priest character, Paul Duré. When Duré becomes Pope, he takes Teilhard I as his regnal name.
Teilhard was a disciplined and methodological scientist working for intra-disciplinary cooperation. He anticipated various scientific concepts in his work, such as the multiplicity of universes and possibilities eventually described in various theories of quantum physics much later. The debate over evolution and intelligent Design continues. Although the technical validity of some hypotheses obtaining from his paleontological findings may not hold to be entirely correct, his process and diligence in observation will remain exemplary.
His views on evolution and religion particularly inspired the evolutionary biologist Theodosius Dobzhansky, who wrote the essay Nothing in Biology Makes Sense Except in the Light of Evolution. The teachings of Teilhard de Chardin influenced many of the engineers who greatly advanced the world of technology with their work on computers.
Theologically and philosophically, many still discuss his ideas and work from them. This is exemplified in the seminal short story by Isaac Asimov, "The Last Question" (in the Book Robot Dreams). Humanity merges its collective consciousness with its own creation: an all-powerful cosmic computer. The resulting intelligence spends eternity working out whether "The Last Question" can be answered, namely "Can entropy ever be reversed." When the intelligence discovers that entropy can be reversed, it does so with the command: "LET THERE BE LIGHT."
The merging of contemporary scientific principles with apocalyptic concepts is intriguing and has promise in reviving religious thought and devotion. Just a one example is found in Barrow and Tipler's The Anthropic Cosmological Principle:
At the instant the Omega Point is reached, life will have gained control of all matter and forces not only in a single universe, but in all universes whose existence is logically possible; life will have spread into all spatial regions in all universes which could logically exist, and will have stored an infinite amount of information, including all bits of knowledge which it is logically possible to know. (676)
Just as there is still much thought and discussion within his beloved Roman Catholic Church, there also is most certainly much legacy in the more secular world as well. The sheer joy and exuberance expressed through symphonies, popular songs, books, websites would delight Teilhard de Chardin as evidence of many really taking his thoughts seriously, and thus decreasing the time it will take us to reach the "Omega Point."
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