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The phenomenon of Teilhard

30 November, 1999

Martin Brennan SJ reviews the life of Jesuit scientist and thinker Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, and emphasises Teilhard’s heroic concern to show that there is no necessary conflict between the findings of science and the religious conception of creation.

Pierre Teilhard de Chardin was born on 1 May 1881 into a typical family of the lesser French nobility in the Chateau de Sarcenat, a few miles west of Clermont Ferrand in the Auvergne. The family name is Teilhard, pronounced Tay-yar. De Chardin was brought into the family by his paternal grandmother. If one must choose, it is more correct to refer to him as ‘Teilhard’ than as ‘de Chardin’.

One of eleven children
He was the fourth of eleven children seven of whom died young. One of his brothers entered the army, another the navy, a third chose business and four took to engineering. Of his sisters, one died young as a Little Sister of the Poor in far-off Pekin, whilst a second, his favourite and confidante, Marguerite Anne, was a permanent invalid from her 20th year and later was the leading spirit in the Catholic Union of the Sick.

To his mother he owed his great faith and a lifelong devotion to Mary and her Rosary. To his father, a ‘gentleman farmer’ who managed a few family estates and yet found time to make an intensive study of local history, he owed a deep interest in every aspect of nature. This blossomed into a veritable passion for rocks and the story they had to unfold of the natural aspect of God’s creation. His great achievement was, in fact, to give a full meaning to the scholastic philosophers’ description of nature as ‘natural revelation’ and its corollary that research, scientific research in particular, is, in his own penetrating phrase, “close to adoration.”

At 11 he was sent as a boarder to the Jesuit College of Mongre, and when he had completed his secondary education he entered the Society of Jesus. He never weakened in his love and loyalty to the Order, and when he was later refused permission by his superiors to publish his striking ideas he humbly submitted, absolutely rejecting the suggestion of some friends that he should leave the Society. He left it to God to use his ideas for His own greater glory in His own good time: and time is vindicating this great and humble spirit.

Ploughing a lonely furrow
The Jesuit Superior General, Fr Pedro Arrupe, recently (1981) explained the caution of the ecclesiastical superiors regarding Teilhard’s thought.  In brief, he was a pioneer ploughing a lonely furrow ahead of his time. He had a great, valid and most significant insight, but in its elaboration his language – addressed primarily to non-believing scientists – might in places fail to measure up to the rigid requirements of professional philosophers and theologians. But Teilhard expected such people to develop and even correct his thought and this is, in fact, being done intensively within the Church. All in all we can say with Fr Arrupe that “the positive elements in Teilhard’s thought are far more numerous than the negative or questionable ones. His vision of the world exercises a very beneficial influence in Christian and non-Christian scientific quarters. He is one of the great masters of thought of the modern world and we should not be surprised at his success.”

Owing to the expulsion of religious from France in 1901, he spent much of his student days in England and Jersey, with an intermission of three years in Egypt, where he taught in Holy Family School, Cairo. His schoolboy interest in the natural history of his native countryside had grown into a deep interest in geology and palaeontology, the study of fossils so often contained in rock deposits. In Egypt and later in England he displayed quite a mature competence in both these fields and became well known and respected among serious scientists.

He returned from Egypt to study theology and was ordained at Hastings in 1911. He was now sent to do a doctorate under the famous Marcellin Boule, author of a classic study on fossil men. In the years 1912-1914 he became innocently involved in the now infamous Piltdown finds: his first elation gave way to puzzlement, as also happened with other great scientists, and neither he nor they were surprised when, 40 years later, Kenneth Oakley, by techniques not known in 1914, proved beyond all doubt that the scientific world had been the victim of a clever but unscrupulous hoax. But these studies were interrupted by the outbreak of the First World War, during which he served in the trenches as a stretcher-bearer and distinguished himself by his signal bravery and devotion to duty. His comradeship with the great variety of men sucked into that remorseless conflict and his contacts with men of science opened his eyes to the great misery of well-meaning men deprived by their upbringing of the treasure of the faith and unable, because of their modes of thought and unconscious assumptions, to comprehend the usual words in which the saving message of the Gospel was wrapped.

No contradiction
There grew in him a great determination to learn to speak to these people in terms that they could understand. But first he had to achieve eminence in his chosen field of science so that they would listen to him as to one of themselves. He must show in his own life and person that there is no necessary contradiction between the priest and the palaeontologist, between religion and science.

In 1919 he was sent to complete his doctorate. But even before he graduated he was appointed Professor of Mineralogy in the Catholic Institute of Paris in 1922. A year later he was invited by a fellow Jesuit to undertake a geological and palaeontological expedition to China, where he spent the next 18 months.

Already he had divined that the only real difficulty in accepting the evolutionary theory in regard to man centred on the traditional teaching of original sin. Modern science knows of no way by which a new species can arise save by the slow changing of a whole population of that species over a long period, often of the order of a million years. This would mean in the case of man that a large number of pre-human individuals would have arrived at the same time on the threshold of humanity. Of course, God could then have freely chosen a single pair from among these for the privilege of becoming human, and this is required by the orthodox position at present.

People made uneasy
But many minds were uneasy at such a suggestion. To them it would seem a little arbitrary if only one pair were chosen for the supreme transition. Yet the traditional understanding of the revealed dogma of original sin, as well as the literal words of Genesis, would seem to demand that the first man be the physical father of all men if his fault were to be transmitted to them. This is an example of the type of apparent contradiction between revelation and the findings of modern science, which Pope Pius XII requested various Catholic scientific experts to study. Teilhard had already given his attention to these and some of his tentative efforts at reconciliation were bruited abroad without his knowledge during his absence in China and greatly disturbed his religious Superiors. Kindly, but firmly, they told him to resign his position in the Institut Catholique and to keep strictly to purely scientific work in future. In order that he might do so in greater safety, they sent him back to China.

However, it must be underlined at once that there was no bitterness on either side. His superiors valued and respected him and he, as we have seen, accepted with heroic loyalty what was a most cruel blow. It is in moments like these that we are sure of the uncompromisingly apostolic motivation behind the whole of Teilhard’s career.

For this blow seemed to spell the ruin of his cherished ambition. To him Paris was the hub of the world and from there he hoped to influence the largest possible circle of scientists and scientifically minded men for his Master. Away on the fringe of the world in China, what influence could he have? But the spirituality which he had worked out for himself, based on the Spiritual Exercises of St Ignatius as applied to a modern scientific milieu, brought him through this crisis. One of the first things he did on reaching China was to give an intimate account of this spirituality in order to strengthen and sustain the waverers within Christianity and to attract men of goodwill outside it. Under the untranslated title Le Milieu Divin, this spiritual treatise, for all its strangely new yet sound terminology, bids fair to exert a powerful moulding influence on the spirituality of the future.

Obedience rewarded
Nor was his heroic obedience without its rich reward. On his return to China he became involved in the excavations of a fossil type of man near Pekin, called at first Sinananthropus pekinensis, or ‘Chinaman of Pekin’, but now classified as Homo erectus pekinensis. A number of first-rank international scientists collaborated in this work. It soon caught the imagination of the world and Teilhard found himself at the very centre of things, scientifically speaking. He was now fully accepted by all the leading men in his broad field of work – geology and palaeontology.

Just before the last World War he was back in France, but returned to Pekin before its outbreak and was there till shortly after the end of hostilities. It was here, during 1938, that he completed his great ambition: to give scientific men an account of the development of the material world in terms that they would understand and which at the same time would prepare them to accept the idea of a supremely loving and loveable Being, the cause of it all.  His was to be a work of synthesis, gathering together the main threads of knowledge possessed by man, religious and scientific, and weaving them into a unified pattern.

Science is ‘phenomenological’ – that is, it deals with the regular succession of phenomena, describing this succession, analyzing it so as finally to be able to predict and control it.  Phenomenon (and its plural phenomena) here has its original meaning of ‘what appears’ as distinct from the essence, the ‘real thing’ behind the appearances. Teilhard explicitly states that he is going to give a phenomenological account of the origin of life and man in an evolutionary setting: a description of the ‘appearances’, the things that happened one by one without at first giving any philosophical or religious causes why they should so happen.

Birth of self-consciousness
In words of great beauty he describes matter slowly organizing itself over countless millions of years, becoming more and more complex until it is found to be alive. The simple primitive living cells in turn organize themselves and so the plant and animal kingdoms arise.  Finally, at the heart of the latter group, the primates become so advanced in its leading members, the hominids, that they can advance no further in purely animal perfection. The great bound is accomplished from animal consciousness to man’s self-consciousness. Teilhard brings out beautifully the uniqueness of this step, but as yet he does not frighten the scientists by declaring what is implicit in what he says, that this step requires special intervention on the part of God.

Humanity now, as never before, is aware of the vastness of space and time; it is aware of its own desires of unlimited fulfilment – and its own dread power of self-destruction. If it is to achieve the former and avoid the latter, it must make a great act of faith in its own future – a faith that consists in combining with his fellowman, in mutual giving of love and trust. But this is already taking place. Yet creatures of intellect and will cannot be coerced, they must be drawn by love. So, says Teilhard, already such a source exists, drawing mankind, focusing it on a point by the magnetic force of love. But such a source must be outside space and time and supremely above both or it would be perishable like them and so could not support the faith of man.

Such a source exists, he points out: the God of Christian revelation.  The point of focus, ‘Omega Point’ as he calls it, is apparently none other than that wonderful society known as the Mystical Body of Christ, in which God meets His creation.  Here man, “the axis and the leading shoot” of evolution, achieves the consummation of the whole sweep of that evolution in God’s free communication of Himself to His creation in the hypostatic union in Christ, and His consequent communication of Himself by grace to Christ’s members.

Breadth and beauty of vision
Teilhard’s vision is for scientists and is couched in language that they can understand and, he hoped, respond to. In fact, it is already having a profound influence in both religious and nonreligious circles. Its breadth and its beauty, coupled with the striking personality and outstanding scientific competence of the man who conceived it, has done more than anything else in a hundred years to shake the conviction of men of the scientific era that religious thought is a pre-scientific anachronism unworthy of modern man.

As befits one who sings so lyrically of creation’s ascent to God, Teilhard’s own spirituality consists in a positive acceptance of the material creation of God and of the material environment in which men have been placed by their maker: each one has a role of his own to play in working out the designs of God.  For him nothing in itself is ‘worldly’.  All human life is of God and/or God. So the common tasks of every day as well as the scientific research that seeks out the secrets of God’s natural creation and so comes close to adoration – all this along with his more formally religious endeavour is necessary to ‘fulfil’ Christ, to ‘build up’ the whole Christ.

Christian perfection for him should not be a holding back from material things, but an enthusiastic search for and acceptance of their Creator in them. In his reaction against the undue stress on a negative asceticism which turns away from the good things of life, he further shows that, in the general rhythm of Christian life, development and renunciation are not mutually exclusive. In Le Milieu Divin he states that “it would clearly be as absurd to prescribe unlimited development or renunciation as it would be to set no bounds to eating and drinking.”

Cooperating with divine grace
He himself co-operated to the utmost with Divine Grace in the unremitting activity of a life-work undertaken wholly and generously for God, and no less the wholehearted acceptance of the uniquely painful ‘diminishments’ that were his lot: his task was to pioneer a new and positive approach to modern life, while most of his fellow-Catholics were still too timid to leave their intellectual ghettos and confront it with the old message rendered anew, as Aquinas also had done. In the face of similar opposition and distrust, he loyally bore the frustrations and bitter human disappointments entailed in being ahead of his contemporaries and, above all, the greatest sorrow to his apostolic spirit, the prohibition that prevented him from giving his ideas to the whole world and deprived him of the joy of seeing them fructify in his own lifetime. Thus, in pain and humility, he grew in the likeness of Christ. .

After the war he spent a short period in France and then accepted an invitation from the Wenner-Gren Foundation in New York, from whence he coordinated and greatly promoted research all over the world into the physical origins of man. Towards the end he confided in a friend that his great desire was to die on the day of Christ’s Resurrection.  Shortly afterwards, on Easter Sunday 1955, while apparently in good health, he said Mass in St Patrick’s Cathedral, New York, and later went to visit a friend’s house.  Suddenly he collapsed and in a few moments he had gone to meet his risen Master.

Is it too naive to see in this not a mere coincidence, but the supremely gentle tact of Christ, who arouses special desires in his favourite servants in order that he may show men his pleasure in honouring them?

This article first appeared in The Word (May 1981), a publication of the Divine Word Missionaries.