PIERRE TEILHARD DE CHARDIN (1881-1955)

BIOGRAPHY -2


Friends about Teilhard

Like his great friend, the Abbé Breuil, Teilhard devoted the whole of his priestly life to the study of science. At one period during his student days he almost gave up the idea of spending his life doing research. His superiors, however, forbade him to do this, and long before the end of his life he accomplished the integration of his priestly and scientific vocation into one harmonious whole. As he was forbidden to publish anything but scientific papers during his life, his influence was chiefly personal. Among his friends were men of all classes, races, and creeds, and the unbelievers far outnumbered the believers. They recognized the integrity of his religious and scientific vocations and the later publication of his most important works was due largely to the efforts of his friends, many of whom had no religious belief. Thc constant refusal of his superiors to allow him to publish his major works had the advantage that he was constantly able to revise them. The spirit of obedience is well illustrated in a letter he wrote to the Superior General of the Jesuits in 1951. He concludes it with the following paragraph:

'Let me repeat that, as I see it, this letter is simply an exposition of conscience and calls for no answer from you. Look on it simply as a proof that you can count on me unreservedly to work for the Kingdom of God, which is the one thing I keep before my eyes and the one goal to which science leads me'. (1)

His priestly life was well summed up by his friend, another Jesuit, Père Leroy: 'There was something paradoxical in a priest who seemed outwardly so little the ecclesiastic, who was at home in even the least religious circles, who took his place in the advancement of thought, and devoted his life to the study of the properties of man as an animal. It seemed paradoxical, too, that a specialist in the scientific history of the past should be interested only in the future. He was all this: but above all he was a priest, deeply attached to the Church and its teaching, faithful to the end in spite of annoyances and difficulties, the insinuations, too, that assailed him from every side'. (2)

The real purpose of his work

Time and again throughout his letters his mind wanders to the real purpose of his work both as a priest and a scientist, and that is to bring the world to God. To him the reality of the world lies in the fact that God has created it, that it is evolving, and that in the end it will find its fullest completion in God. His basic premise is that God is Greater than All. His effort is always directed to helping man to rediscover the truth that God is the Creator, and the world, the work of His hands, is evolving back to Him who made it. While this effort may be laudable, it can impose certain difficulties in the mind of the person thus working. It presupposes an absorption in the things of this world. In Le Milieu Divin Teilhard sees and tackles this difficulty. For him, the only way is attachment to the work engaged in. This work is a creative act since it is enabling God's creation to be ever more perfectly fulfilled, and is, in fact, a sharing in God's own creative activity. Such a vocation, if conscientiously followed out, must bring with it its own suffering and, following this, its own detachment from the things of this world. This detachment does not become a source of indifference to the work, but enables the worker to see God's hand ever more fully in creation. The suffering, too, is a sharing in the Cross of Christ, a feature which his own work bears out most remarkably. It demands intense activity and complete dedication, as the search for truth must always do. This approach to life indicates that every job, no matter how menial it might be, is a sharing in God's creative work, for it is helping in some small way to perfect tbe world, which is the work of His hands.

For Teilhard, the centre of his life and the life of the world is Christ. Not the vague Christ of the Modernists, but Christ, the Second Person of the Trinity who took to Himself the nature of man, and became a real man among men. Christ transformed matter, and the life of the world is henceforth bound up with the Cross. The true road of the Cross always rises upwards, and a true following is the great means of universal progress - since there can be no progress without Christ. While each individual must follow the Cross himself, yet this following must not be limited to individuals but must be an act of the whole of mankind. All our work must be connected with Christ's victory. For him the great vision of his life is of Christ as All-in-everything, and the Divine Milieu in which we live and have our being is that of a universe moved and compenetrated by God in the totality of its evolution.

A more complete study of Teilhard's religious thought has been carried out by Père de Lubac. He wishes to show that Teilhard's universe only forms an integrated unity if account is taken of a superior force which binds it together. When studying this universe the thought in Le Milieu Divin is as important as that in The Phenomenon of Man. The most fundamental question which Teilhard attempted to answer throughout his life concerned the interior attitude demanded of a Christian face to face with God and the world. Teilhard's answer is not to propound a new spirituality but to add a new observation to the spiritual life, namely that our material universe has expanded and is still doing so by the recent discovery and exploration of two dimensions - space and time. For Teilhard the time dimension is more important, since time is the basis of all progress and dynamic forward movement.

Teilhard as a scientist

As a scientist Teilhard was primarily a palaeontologist, specializing in human palaeontology, but he was no narrow specialist. He had a contempt for the specialist who could not see anything further than his own limited field. His name will always be most closely associated with the remains of early man found at Chou Kou Tien in 1927. Teilhard directed the excavations for a time and was largely responsible for showing their chronological place within the events of the Pleistocene Period.

His works - The Phenomenon of Man

Undoubtedly Teilhard's most important work was The Phenomenon of Man. It was written in China during the war years, when the war made research work impossible. Basically it is the work of a scientist, a naturalist looking at nature. In the preface he calls it a scientific treatise, and though it is essentially scientific, it is also inevitably philosophical. In it, he does not attempt to provide a complete answer to all the problems of the world, but rather to give an outline of a solution. It is a vision of the world, with man as the highest point of creation, but a world which comes from God and returns to Him. Because he was a specialist in the past, Teilhard believed that the study of the history of the world provided the key which would help us to understand the future. In 1935 he wrote to his cousin:

'It is almost as though, for reasons arising from the progress of my own science, the past and its discovery had ceased to interest me. The past has revealed to me how the future is built and preoccupation with the future tends to sweep every-thing else aside'. (3)

The study of man, the peak of creation, is the most important study, for the whole of God's creative activity is summed up in man. While the lower animals have knowledge of some kind, man is the only being who can think, the only one with the power of reflection. The second factor is that man is an organic being. In this he is closely linked to his predecessors in tbe world, having come from them through an evolutionary process.

The fundamental point of the essay is the absolute necessity of adopting an evolutionary approach to nature. Man is a product of this evolution, but he differs from the other products in so much that he is conscious of evolution. In fact, not only is he conscious of it, but he is an active agent in it, and in the final completion of the evolutionary process. The fact that man has an active part to play in it implies a further point - that evolution is directed and that it has a future. Teilhard's main thought is always directed towards the future. He recognizes three stages in evolution: chemical evolution, organic evolution, and psycho-social evolution. These three correspond generally to the temporal order of evolution, and they are linked by what he considers to be the three main events of absolute and unique importance in the history of the world. The first of these is the separation and consolidation of the earth itself, the second is the appearance of life upon the earth, and the third is the appearance of thought, or the ability to reflect. To him, each of these is a unique event which occurs only once in history.

Before Life came

To the scientist, evolution means not only tbe evolution of life, but the evolution of the whole universe itself, so that the modern complexity of the universe has been built up from very simple substances. All the time nature adds to itself, and this emphasizes the dynamic nature of the universe. Teilhard is not content with examining the outside of nature only, but looks beyond it to consider what he calls 'The Within of Things'. Since this cannot be measured, it is strictly outside the realm of science. For Teilhard, one of the essential features of evolution is that it shows a rise in conscious-ness. This term he uses in its widest sense, as he says, 'to indicate every kind of psychicism, from the most rudimentary forms of interior perception and knowledge imaginable to the human phenomenon of reflective thought'.' (4)

This rise in consciousness is therefore an increase in knowledge or in life. Science has so far only recognized consciousness in the higher forms of life and hence has been able to ignore it as an isolated phenomenon. In actual fact, however, life itself or consciousness cannot just suddenly appear on the earth; there must be some preparation for it, and hence even inorganic matter contains pre-life and pre-consciousness within itself. This is present at all points within inert matter but is only shown in living forms. Today other scientists are putting forward similar ideas. To this idea of the 'within' Teilhard links another idea, that of energy, one of the fundamental forces of the universe. He considers that there are two types of energy, one to correspond with physical energy as we know it and can measure it (for instance electrical energy), and this he calls tangential energy. The other, which he calls radial energy, corresponds with spiritual energy. This becomes important in the third stage of evolution. One further point which he stresses in connection with the 'within' is that the same rules apply to it as to the 'without' of things. As the 'without' becomes more complex, so does the 'within'; i.e., it is closely linked to the 'without'.

Life

Teilhard then goes on to consider the advent and the growth of life. This is one of the crisis points in world history, since it involves the appearance of a new order. Beginning with the first cells, life spread by reproduction, which ensured permanence and also ensured rapid multiplication of life so that it was able to spread over the earth. A later form of reproduction was conjugation or the union of cells, and this led to the formation of more complex beings, and enabled evolution to move in an upward direction. The individual beings then became part of a chain, transmitting what they had found to their successors. Throughout the palaeontological record we find the constant appearance of many new phyla or families of animals. These present many difficulties to a complete theory of evolution, difficulties which have not yet been satisfactorily solved. Once they appeared, however, the phyla quickly spread out and we find that they occupy different layers in the evolutionary sequence. It is from one of these layers, the mammals, that the ancestors of man appeared, and from this zoological group, one branch, the primates, are those most closely linked to man. In their limb formation they remained the most primitive of the mammals, and because of this they remained free to evolve in the most important direction, and this was in the increase of their brain size and power. Their nervous system became constantly more complex, and with increasing complexity there developed a more complex brain and an increase in consciousness. The tangential energy of evolution has almost completely stopped, while the radial energy is constantly increasing.

Thought

The third unique event in the history of the world is the appearance of thought. Though the change in the structure of the primates is small, yet the change which occurs is far out of proportion to the physical changes. Not only can man know something, but he has acquired the faculty of reflecting upon things outside himself and upon himself. Teilhard coined a word which describes the change exactly - hominization. Man has at last become truly a man; he alone can be called an intelligent being. At this point Teilhard points out that the causes of the change are in actual fact deeper than just a material cause. One of the most important results of this change is that of the personalization of the individual.

Another important change is the emergence, small though it is at the start, of the noosphere. This is another term coined by Teilhard, and by it he simply means the layer of thought that would one day spread around the world. Just as we have the atmosphere and the biosphere (the living layer around the earth), so now we have the thinking layer. Early man as we see him was a nomad and it was not until comparatively late in his life, in the neolithic and later periods, that he settled down in groups. Socialization came quickly, for man settled, became a person who practised agriculture and stock-breeding, and gradually began to collect his traditions and enter into commerce with his neighbour. This was the beginning of the settling of the noosphere upon the earth.

Part of modern man's dilemma has arisen as a result of the settling of the noosphere. For, with the formation and spread of ideas, man has come to realize that not only is he the product of evolution, but, because he is intelligent, he is partly responsible for the future evolution of the human race. His difficulty arises because he does not know where he is being led or where he must help to lead. Teilhard's final section is perhaps his greatest achievement, for he attempts to provide us with a guide to the future evolution of man.

Survival

Teilhard starts this last section by insisting that the way to survival is not through isolation, whether individual or of a group; such isolation would eventually hamper the formation of the individual personality which is of such great importance. The spherical world imposes a physical limit on man's movements and hence brings about a concentration of consciousness also. This enforced limitation brings about the gathering of mankind into a new type of 'body'. From this unity of mankind comes knowledge which gives rise to power, and this leads, in its turn, to action. This causes the noosphere to spread over the universe as a single thinking envelope. Collectivism follows from this union of individuals, but it also sows the seeds of repulsion between man and man. This could lead to totalitarianism and enslavement, and the only answer to this danger is to be found in the full development of each individual human person. As each becomes more of a person, so he must become more of a small centre of the world. As all these centres are already limited by the shape of the world and by the envelope of the noosphere, they will eventually converge upon one another. The universal and personal will thus grow together and will eventually become one. What is to be the centre of this convergence? In Teilhard's eyes, it is a point which he calls Omega. To this point, at present above man, mankind, both universal and individual, will rise and converge upon it, as an arrow onto its target. The centre of convergence must reassemble in itself all the centres of consciousness. At this central point, Omega, the individual man, will become lost in something greater than himself, that is, he will find himself fulfilled.

The natural repulsion between man and man can only be overcome by one thing, and that is the force of love. Love is deeply embedded in man and unites individuals by what is deepest in them. It is this union in love which develops and completes the individual personality. In order to attract us on the journey Omega must already be present. It must be permanent and outside the series since it must close and crown it.

Having traced the route we must take, Teilhard now shows us how we undertake it. The first essential is to organize the pursuit of truth. We cannot be fully developed unless we are seeking the truth, and hence this search must be unified and organized. We must strive to be and to know rather than to possess. This search must be directed above all to the phenomenon of man, for in man is the whole of creation summed up. Psychology will then come into its own right as a science, for it alone can study the spiritual side of man. The final stage must be the union of science and religion, and this in a vast synthesis which will sum up the whole of human knowledge of God and of the world He created.

In a final section of the book Teilhard shows that the fact of Christianity which we see, offers to us the fulfilment of his vision. Its central fact is the 'Redeeming Incarnation' through which the world is purified and united to the God who created it in the beginning. God Himself is the Centre of centres, and Christian love alone has the power to bring about the full universalism and personalism which the world, and man as its supreme being, must eventually attain.

The value of his work

The above is only a short summary of some of the chief ideas contained in Teilhard's most important work. In order to appreciate the development of the ideas, the original work must be studied. The Phenomenon of Man must not be regar-ded as a complete synthesis of knowledge, or even the outline of such. For Teilhard it was simply an essay in which he expressed his vision of the universe. Its value lies in the fact that he was not afraid to try to bring together ideas of a theological, philosophical, and scientific nature to build up an overall picture of the worId created by God. All learning must ultimately attempt to synthesize these types of ideas into one vast synthesis in which the whole of man's knowledge and life witl find its place. Unfortunately, today, most thinkers have ceased to try to build this synthesis because it is too difficult a task. Teilhard was a prophet whose own vision must encourage us to take up the struggle again. Theologians, philosophers, and scientists have all a part to play in building up this synthesis. The closer they can collaborate, the easier will become a difficult task, and the truer will men be to their particular vocations as theologians, philosophers, and scientists, and above all as children of God.

Teilhard's influence

Teilhard's influence was summed up by Bone: 'His presence in the scientific world, his professional authority, his technical competence allied to his open and generous friendliness, and with it all his transparent and wholehearted faith, could not fail to make a deep impression. He did a great deal to help a whole generation undermined by scientism to listen to the message of faith. There was no untimely proselytizing nor indiscreet zeal, but Teilhard, simply by what he was, by the integrity of his scientific effort and the sincerity of his religious belief, lit the flame of hope in the modern world, in academies, universities, laboratories, in the men of today who bear the mark of progress, of developments in organization, or of the machine age: the hope of reconciling Christian thought with the claims of research and the autonomy of science'. (5)

The final summary should be left with his friend Père Leroy: 'Pere Teilhard's life, his interior life, is thus seen as a witness. "My skill as a philosopher may be greater or less", he writes in one of his notes, "but one fact will always remain, that an average man of the twentieth century, just because he shared normally in the ideas and interests of his time, was ablc to attain a balanced interior life only in a scientifically integrated concept of the world and of Christ; and that therein he found peace and limitless scope for his being to expand. Today my faith in God is sounder, and my faith in the world stronger, than ever." Could there be a more up-to-date or more faithful version of St Paul's doctrine of the "cosmic" Christ? "In Him all created things took their being, heavenly and earthly, visible and invisible ... They were all created through Him and in Him; He takes precedence of all, and in Him all subsist .. It was God's good pleasure to let all completeness dwell in Him and through Him to win back all things, whether on earth or in heaven, unto union with Himself, making peace with them through His blood, shed on the Cross." (6)

Footnotes:

  1. Teilhard de Chardin, P. 1962 Letters from a Travellor, p. 44
  2. Leroy, P. 1962, letters from a Travellor, Introduction, p. 16
  3. Teilhard de Chardin, P. 1962, Letters from a Travellor, p. 207
  4. Teilhard de Chardin, P. 1959, The Phenomenon of Man, p. 57, footnote 1
  5. Boné, E. 1956, Revue des questions scientifiques, Louvain, 20 January; quoted in Lettres from a Travellor, p. 362
  6. Leroy, P. 1962, Letters from a Travellor, Introduction, p. 45

 

[This biography was taken from: Michael Le Morvan B.Sc.,F.G.S. "Pierre Teilhard de Chardin Priest and Evolutionist, London Catholic Truth Society 1979 - 4th print pages 4-16)]

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