Pierre Teilhard de Chardin was a person of many gifts who made a significant contribution at the interface of faith and reason as a Jesuit priest, mystic, theologian and scientist, and as an exile and a seer far into the future. He made a conscious decision to develop a theology using the language of science that links the cosmic, the human and the spiritual.
Born in France on May 1 1881, he was fascinated from childhood by what was real and seemed indestructible – the rocks around him, later going on to study paleontology and geology. He entered the Society of Jesus after secondary school, and after his novitiate and the usual philosophical and theological studies Teilhard was ordained a priest in 1911.
However, his studies were interrupted by World War I when he was drafted into the French Army as a stretcher-bearer. In between battles he used his time to reflect on science and theology – and on suffering. After the War he went to China to do research where he was involved in the discovery of the fossilized bones of ‘Peking Man’ in the 1920s.
Teilhard linked his deep spirituality as a Jesuit – based in the Spiritual Exercises of St Ignatius Loyola – to his scientific work and reflection. As a scientist he explored humanity’s early beginnings and our place in the ever-unfolding sweep of evolution. As a philosopher and theologian, he developed a unique synthesis of science and religion based on an evolutionary understanding of what he called the ‘cosmic Christ’ – the idea that the universe and everything in it is constantly moving towards to a point of perfection defined by unity and love.
He first used this term in his journal in 1916 and it appears throughout his writings, including in an essay completed a few weeks before his death in 1955. Creation is a process, he emphasized, not an event. Evolution and change are the heart of reality. Nothing is static. Love unites all reality in Christ and also draws creation together in an ever-deepening union. For Teilhard, every particle of the universe from the smallest quantum neutron is part of the cosmic Christ, and through love everything that exists is drawn deeper into that connection.
Love is the energy of what he calls the divine milieu, the living context of each person’s relationship with God, with each other and with all of created reality. Each act of love, no matter how small or hidden, moves all of reality closer to full union; each act of non-love moves it further away. Therefore, the shape and form of human action is vital.
Teilhard profoundly absorbed the Ignatian vision of “finding God in all things” and extended it to the furthest reach of the cosmos. God is not only in the outer limits of an expanding universe but is present here and now, he taught. In his book The Divine Milieu he wrote, “To repeat, by virtue of the Creation, and still more, of the Incarnation, nothing here below is profane to those who know how to see.”
The final meditation in the Spiritual Exercises is the Contemplatio – a four-fold consideration of the divine presence in creation and in the human person. The grace desired through this exercise isn’t only a personal knowledge of the great gifts of God; it’s also the desire to know and experience how deeply the cosmic Christ permeates all of creation through love – past, present and future.
God, for Teilhard, was not an outsider – a clock-winder God, distant and remote – but a creative God of becoming within the whole cosmos, a universe which has been growing and developing during the billions of years since the ‘Flaring Forth’ – the beginning of creation. He saw Christ’s presence in the form of love as the energy that moves creation forward, a process that has not yet come to its complete fulfillment because the process of evolution and the expansion of the universe continue.
Through these ideas he united matter – which had so fascinated him as a budding geologist as a child – with the Incarnation, the process of God becoming human in the form of Jesus of Nazareth. Thus matter was transfigured and made holy in Christ. This integration overcame the dualism that had permeated Christianity from its early encounter with Greek philosophy – the conviction that spirit is good, while matter is not.
On his desk Teilhard had a picture of the Sacred Heart of Jesus and a statement of his belief, “My Litany.” It’s a clear and powerful summary of his theological vision:
“The God of evolution
The Christic, the Trans-Christ
Sacred Heart…the motor of evolution
the heart of evolution
the heart of matter
The heart of God…the world-zest.
The activant of Christianity…the essence of all energy.
Heart of the world’s heart
Focus of ultimate and universal energy
Centre of the cosmic sphere of cosmogenesis
Heart of Jesus, heart of evolution, unite me
In this statement Teilhard unites evolution, matter and Christ and prays that this unity will become real in himself. In similar fashion he depicted reality as evolving through multiple layers of physical, biological and psychological complexity.
The first layer is cosmogenesis, which describes the continuing expansion of the universe. Then comes biogenesis, the continuing growth of life that leads to a third layer called the noosphere – the gradual evolution of the human mind both individually and collectively. Though Teilhard died a generation before the computer age, he would have been entranced by the Internet and the possibilities it has given us to strengthen our communication and mental connectivity in this way.
Cosmogenesis is the process of the union of all of creation in God. It describes the vision of St Paul when he speaks of Christ “in whom all things hold together” (Col. 1:17), and the human desire for unity as expressed in “God will be all in all” (1 Cor 15:28). This is what Teilhard calls the ‘Omega Point’ – a symbol of unity and completion.
Teilhard was not a religious recluse. He was known as a sociable person with a good sense of humor and a wide circle of friends, including women. A renowned paleontologist, he was also revered as a priest, and a friend once commented that “Whoever has not seen Teilhard say Mass has seen nothing.”
But in his thinking about connection and integration he was several generations ahead of Catholic theological thought, which during his lifetime was hostile to the concept of evolution that lies at the heart of his ideas. The Church authorities forbade the publication of his philosophical and theological writings, though not his scientific work.
His French Jesuit superiors protected him from papal censure, but when he returned to France after World War II he was sent to New York where he found a new home amidst like-minded scientific colleagues. His favorite feast was Easter, and friends remembered that he said that if he died on Easter, it would be a vindication of his work – and so it came to pass: during the afternoon of Easter Sunday, April 10 1955, while having tea with friends in their Manhattan apartment, he collapsed and died.
The momentous changes set in place by the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965) allowed Teilhard’s thought to become more widely known as his writings became easily available. Reading Teilhard today, as scientists confirm that the universe is always evolving and expanding, gives us a new appreciation of how far ahead he was of his times.
No doubt he would be at home in our world of 2020. He would continue his scientific work and find the internet a superb technological tool for his research. Email, Facebook, Twitter and Instagram would connect him with colleagues around the world. He wrote a great deal, so present-day explorers of his thought have much to read and ponder.
Prophets are usually lauded only after their death, and today we can name Teilhard de Chardin as a prophet of cosmic hope. His message is one of love at the heart of all reality, and love can never be vanquished. Humanity is assured that the world can still be created in love’s image.