Pierre Teilhard de Chardin (1881-1955)

A great man of science and a great soul
Arnold Toynbee

Teilhard de Chardin became an influence in my late teens/early 20s, soon after his works first appeared in English. As a man of deep faith and also a scientist, a Jesuit priest and a professor of geology, he impressed as one who rejected any fundamental antipathy or incongruence between the worlds of science and religion. To a rather simplistically pious young man pursuing a career in technology this presented an exciting and hopeful way of embracing matters mystical with matters mechanical. Equally at home in the secular world of contemporary science and the ecclesiastical world of the official church, he expounded a truly visionary synthesis of matter, mind and spirit, an enlarged and integrated vision of God’s evolving creation, and pointed to an enormously enhanced scope for holiness in human endeavour - whatever form that took. Since then the world has been for me a bigger, more interesting and potentially more holy place.

Pierre Teilhard de Chardin was born into a pious French Catholic family in Sarcenat in the hills above Clermont-Ferrand. He was brought up within the atmosphere of frugality and independence of mind which is characteristic of many people from the Auvergne region. From an early age he was interested in the geology of the area, collecting rock specimens for the family museum (his father was a scientist). At the age of 18 he entered the Order of Jesus as a novice to start 14 years of training. His formation included teaching physics in Cairo for three years and continuing his work as a palaeontologist there and elsewhere. He was training at a time when anti-clericalism was rampant in France, with Jesuits as a prime target. (The Order of Jesus was of course founded as a missionary order to out-think and out-teach both paganism and Protestantism.) From the mid 1880s priests were no longer allowed to teach in schools and in 1901 all religious orders were expelled from the country. Teilhard, along with others from his home monastery at Aix-en-Provence, came to Jersey and later to Dover

During the 1914-18 War he volunteered as a stretcher bearer, and was twice decorated for gallantry - receiving the Médaille Militaire and the Légion d’Honneur.

As a palaeontologist he worked in many places - in China where he established and directed a museum and laboratory, in India and Burma, and in Mongolia where his discoveries provided the first evidence for the existence of Palaeolithic Man. He was in China when Hiroshima was bombed and had his work seriously affected by the Maoist revolution. He lectured in palaeontology in Paris, with a laboratory at the Paris Museum and was eventually elected as a member of the Académie des Sciences.

Teilhard’s spirituality addressed what he called ‘the problem of two faiths’ - faith in the world with an attachment to human progress, and faith in the God of love and the sacrifice of the Cross.

  • The impulse and imperative of the world is forwards, towards greater faith in humanity characterised by confidence and action.
  • The impulse and imperative of religion is upwards, towards greater faith in God, characterised by humility and adoration.

The unifying key he saw as resurrection. He described the risen Christ as the God of both ‘forward’ and ‘upward’, and resurrection as the future focus of all evolution, including human history. Seeming opposition between faith in the world and faith in God is synthesised in this one event, which is both future and present. Since Christ transcends time, his resurrection makes the ultimate future present now, so for the Christian acts as a basis for hope in the future. This is the ‘Omega Point’ at which the physical universe of time and space ‘involutes’, but this same point is at the core of our innermost being from which we reach both ‘forwards’ and ‘upwards’ to God.

Perhaps his best known work, The Phenomenon of Man, is an extraordinary, powerful, scientific, yet spiritual, treatise on humanity in an evolutionary context - incorporating insights from the physical and biological sciences with depth psychology, philosophy and theology.

I have been particularly drawn to Teilhard’s more mystical moral teaching in which he works out a spirituality of involvement in the world through love and the progressive unity and reconciliation of all things in Christ. This seems to provide a Christian ethic for work - any type of work, or indeed any form of human action. The Cross is not just the sign of Christ’s sacrifice, it is also the symbol of growth - to which we are drawn to respond. All progress in the direction of increased unity expresses itself in terms of work and effort.

Teilhard makes a very clear distinction between active living and receiving, but he applies the same logic of holiness to both. Half of human existence is in being active and half being acted upon - being passive. That which is not done by us, is, by definition, undergone. Holiness, however, depends on how God-centred are our intentions.

Here is a short extract from a chapter on Divination of our activities:

Whether you discover one truth or one fact more or less, whether or not you make beautiful pictures, whether your organisation of the world is more or less successful - all that has no direct importance for heaven. None of these discoveries or creations will become one of the stones of which is built the New Jerusalem. But what will count, what will always endure, is this - that you acted in all things conformably to the will of God

It was only in later years that I first read that in Le Milieu Divin and always find it challenging. The following, from Divination of our passivities in the same book is even more powerful.

When the signs of age begin to mark my body (and still more when they touch my mind); when the ill that is to diminish me or carry me off strikes from without or is born within me; when the painful moment comes in which I suddenly awaken to the fact that I am ill or growing old; and above all at the last moment when I feel I am losing hold of myself and am absolutely passive within the hands of the great unknown forces that have formed me - in all those dark moments, O God, grant that I may understand that it is you (provided only my faith is strong enough) who are painfully parting the fibres of my being in order to penetrate to the very marrow of my substance and bear me away within yourself… Vouchsafe therefore something more precious still than the grace for which all the faithful pray. It is not enough that I should die while communicating. Teach me to treat my death as an act of communion.

Much of Teilhard’s writing has a mystical quality, yet its logical and highly structured format is more like that of analytical research. His sentences, which are among the longest anywhere, and his tendency to invent words to express his thoughts, make his work rather opaque and difficult to access.

He was considered rather unorthodox by his Jesuit superiors and in 1924 was barred from teaching for ‘theological error’. None of his spiritual writing was published until after his death. Since then his influence has grown enormously.

Teilhard de Chardin lived his last four years in America (working with a science foundation) and it was there that he died, on Easter Sunday, 10 April, 1955. This was symbolic and perhaps fitting, for someone who made the resurrection so central to his life’s thought and work.

Jim McLean

© St Peter's Church, Nottingham
Last revised 21st April 1998