(1881–1955) scientist, mystic, writer
Pierre Teilhard de Chardin was one of the most eloquent 20th-century voices for religion in an increasingly secular world. As a distinguished paleontologist and a Jesuit priest, he tried to synthesize evolutionary science with the incarnation of Christ. His ideas were new, speculative, and bold enough to figure into deliberations as diverse as the founding of the United Nations and the formulation of several Vatican Council documents. Even today his name is cited for a spiritual perspective on the convergence of human communication due to the Internet.
He was born in France into a devout Catholic family of 11 children in 1881. His father was an intellectual and a farmer, and his mother was a great-grandniece of Voltaire. Teilhard’s father provided his son a keen interest in science, and his mother an inclination toward mysticism. He received a top-notch Jesuit education and entered their novitiate program by 1899. By 1911 he was ordained a priest after doing assignments in England and Egypt. World War I interrupted further studies in geology, and he saw action on the front lines. His close calls with death prompted him to consider a more speculative approach to science.
After the war he brilliantly defended his doctorate at the Sorbonne in 1922. Soon thereafter he accepted the chair of the geology department at the Institut Catholique. From this platform he now began to publicize ideas about the synthesis of science and religion, and the resulting controversy cost him his license at the Institut and forced him abroad to do his research and study.
For almost the rest of his career he lived abroad, almost as in a self-imposed exile. Most of that time he spent in China (1926–46), and there he collaborated with the Chinese Geological Survey and helped to discover the Peking Man skull. He wrote his important books, The Divine Milieu and The Human Phenomenon, during these years.
For one brief time after World War II he returned to France, but the Jesuits refused to allow him to take an academic position lest he receive more critical scrutiny. He was banned from lecturing in public or publishing his writings. He decided to go to New York in 1951. Lonely and suffering, he died on Easter Sunday, 1955, and is buried in a Jesuit cemetery there.
From a scientific point of view it is difficult to establish the methodology and provability of Teilhard’s ideas. He has clearly advanced the fields of geology, stratigraphy, and paleontology, with a supreme competence in the areas of China and the Far East. However, his dominant interest and the source of his infamy was in “anthropogenesis,” a new study focusing on the evolutionary position of humanity.
He proposed that evolution had entered a new phase with the emergence of humanity, whereby complexity and consciousness converged and spiritualized evolution. The final development of humanity he termed the “Omega Point,” and he connected this perfection with Christ.
In 1962 the Catholic Church issued a warning against the uncritical acceptance of Teilhard’s theories, though it did not question his scientific contributions or his integrity of faith. The best way of categorizing his unsystematized though eloquent speculation is as process theology, or perhaps even as a form of Christian pantheism.