The French theologian and paleontologist Marie Joseph Pierre Teillhard de Chardin (1881-1955) synthesized scientific evolutionary theory, theological interpretation, and mystical vision into a dazzlingly creative and controversial view of man and the universe.
Pierre Teilhard de Chardin was born on May 1, 1881, at his family's ancestral estate near Auvergne. His family was a devoutly Roman Catholic one. His mother influenced Teilhard's piety, and his father awakened the boy's interest in natural history.
Formative Years, 1899-1922
Teilhard attended the Jesuit school at Villefranche, and at the age of 18, he entered the Jesuit novitiate at Aix-en-Provence. When Roman Catholic religious orders were expelled from France in 1902, his Jesuit community moved to the Isle of Jersey, where he continued his studies for 3 years. He was then sent to teach physics and natural history at the Holy Family College in Cairo, Egypt. During his 3 years there he studied geology and paleontology, and he acquired a fascination with the Eastern world.
After the Egyptian interlude Teilhard spent the last stages of his training (1908-1911) at Ore Place, Hastings, England. He began to integrate his earlier absorption in the world of matter into the world of spirit and thus to forge his characteristic world view. Taking evolution as his key idea, he saw the whole universe as an evolutionary process— what he called cosmogenesis. Everything in the universe, including man, was bound together in complete organic interconnection and unity. Matter and spirit were not two separate things but rather two dimensions of one reality. The evolution of the cosmos was the progressive spiritualization, or personalization, of matter, with God as the Omega Point, or fulfillment of the cosmic process, and Christ as the incarnation in time of this ultimate cosmic purpose. The emergence of human consciousness, the "noosphere, " on this planet was the leading edge of the cosmogenesis and the clue to the direction of the whole universe. With man, cosmic evolution became self-directing; it "folds in upon itself, " converging increasingly toward spirit and person. Teilhard's two passionate loves were God and the universe, and the whole of his thought and life sought to integrate the two.
Teilhard was ordained a priest in 1911, and he completed his theological studies in 1912. He then did doctoral studies in science at the Sorbonne. When World War I broke out in 1914, he volunteered as a stretcherbearer in the French army; he served throughout the war and was twice decorated. In 1919 he returned to his studies and received a doctorate in paleontology from the Sorbonne in 1922.
Long Exile, 1923-1955
In 1922-1923 Teilhard taught as professor of geology at the Institute Catholique in Paris. His influence as a scientist began to be felt at this time. But he was eager to return to the East, and in 1923 he joined Père Licent, a fellow Jesuit and scientific pioneer in China, at Tientsin to found the French Paleontological Mission in China. Soon after Teilhard's arrival they made an expedition to Inner Mongolia and the Ordos Desert, bringing to light the first evidence that Paleolithic man had lived in North China. During this expedition Teilhard finished his mystical-philosophical "Mass on the World" (published in Hymn of the Universe in 1965).
In 1924 Teilhard returned to France. His superiors in the Society of Jesus had been concerned for some time over the boldness and seeming heterodoxy of some of his philosophical and theological views. They believed him to be overoptimistic about the problem of evil and heterodox in his interpretation of the Fall of Man. He was also accused of having pantheistic tendencies. As a result, Teilhard was barred from teaching in France. Thus began his lifelong ordeal with the Church, which brought him much personal suffering and prevented the publication of all his major writings until after his death. He accepted the decisions of the Church and the constant accusations of heresy with obedient submission, but the situation brought him incalculable anguish.
Teilhard returned to China, this time to Peking, a stimulating and cosmopolitan center where he enjoyed a circle of friends and professional colleagues that included scientists from all over the world. In 1926-1927 he wrote The Divine Milieu (1960), one of his best-known works. In 1928 he made two important paleontological expeditions into Mongolia. He later traveled in India and visited the United States several times. Teilhard returned briefly to China in 1934 and 1938, settling once again in Peking just before World War II broke out in 1939. The Japanese had occupied North China, and the Europeans and Americans in the region were isolated for the duration of the war. From 1938 to 1940 Teilhard wrote his major work, The Phenomenon of Man (1959).
In 1946 Teilhard returned briefly to France. He suffered a severe heart attack just before leaving on an expedition to South Africa, and he had to postpone the trip for 2 years. In 1949 he wrote Man's Place in Nature (1966), perhaps the best succinct introduction to the ideas more fully expressed in The Phenomenon of Man. In 1951 Teilhard was elected to the Académie des Sciences and went to live in New York City as a member of the Wenner Gren Foundation, where he devoted himself to anthropological studies. He returned to France only one more time in his long ecclesiastically imposed exile, in 1954. At that time new restrictions were imposed on him by his superiors. He died in New York City on Easter Sunday, 1955.
In addition to the writings mentioned, other important works by Teilhard in English include The Future of Man (1964), Building of the Earth (1965), The Appearance of Man (1966), The Vision of the Past (1966), and Science and Christ (1969). He ranks as one of the three or four most decisive influences in contemporary Christian theology. His thought was a significant new bridge between religion and science and between Christianity and the life and politics of modern man. His theory of cosmic evolution restored man to a central role in the universe, and his notion of human consciousness as evolving toward greater unification gave new optimism to spokesmen for social change.
His friend Père Pierre LeRoy said of Teilhard: "His own faith was in the invincible power of love: men hurt one another by not loving one another. And this was not naiveté but the goodness of the man, for he was good beyond the common measure."
Further Reading on Marie Joseph Pierre Teilhard de Chardin
The literature on Teilhard and his thought which has appeared in the short time since his death is enormous, and the Teilhard societies that have grown up around the world assure the appearance of much more. The most complete biographies in English are Claude Cuénot, Teilhard de Chardin: A Biographical Study (1965), and Robert Speaight, Teilhard de Chardin: A Biography (1967). Recommended studies of Teilhard's thought are Henri de Lubac, Teilhard de Chardin: The Man and His Meaning (1965); Christopher F. Mooney, Teilhard de Chardin and the Mystery of Christ (1966); and Philip J. Hefner, The Promise of Teilhard (1970).
Additional Biography Sources
Carles, Jules, Teilhard de Chardin, Paris: Centurion, 1991.
Grim, John, Teilhard de Chardin: a short biography, Chambersburg, PA: Published for the American Teilhard Association for the Future of Man by ANIMA Books, 1984.
King, Ursula, Spirit of fire: the life and vision of Teilhard de Chardin, Maryknoll, N.Y.: Orbis Books, 1996.
Knight, Alice Valle, The meaning of Teilhard de Chardin; a prime, Old Greenwich Conn. Devin-Adair Co. 1974.
Lukas, Mary, Teilhard, New York: McGraw-Hill, 1981.