Pierre Teilhard de Chardin Biography


(History of the World: The 20th Century)

Article abstract: Through his work as a geologist on the evolution of the earth and as a paleontologist on the evolution of life, Teilhard, a devout Jesuit priest, came to see human beings progressing toward a new consciousness and spiritual unity called the “Omega Point,” which he identified with Jesus Christ.

Early Life

From the perspective of his mature vision of the universe, Marie-Joseph-Pierre Teilhard de Chardin interpreted his own life in the light of his evolutionary doctrine. He saw as providential his birth in 1881 in a Sarcenat château amid the foothills of the Monts Dore in central France. Teilhard was the fourth child in a family that would eventually number eleven children, and on his mother’s side he was distantly related to Voltaire and on his father’s side to Blaise Pascal. His mother was a deeply religious Roman Catholic who ignited a spiritual fire in young Teilhard. His father was a gentleman farmer with interests in natural history, and he introduced his children to the delights of rocks, minerals, wildflowers, and animals. Thus, from an early age, Teilhard was able to combine two spheres of life—the material and the spiritual—commonly considered incompatible.

In 1892, a month before his eleventh birthday, Teilhard became a boarder at the Jesuit school of Nôtre-Dame de Mongré at Villefranche-sur-Saône, near Lyons. He was a good student, especially in science and literature, and in his free time he continued his interest in geology by collecting minerals. He eventually concluded that he had a vocation to the Jesuit life. On March 20, 1899, he entered the Jesuit novitiate in Aix-en-Provence, about twenty miles north of Marseilles, to begin a long period of spiritual and intellectual formation.

On March 25, 1901, Teilhard took his first vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience, and then began, at Laval, his studies in the Greek and Latin classics (the juniorate). These studies were interrupted when anticlerical legislation in France forced the Jesuits to transfer their juniorate to Jersey, one of the English Channel islands, in the summer of 1901. As a second-year junior in Jersey, Teilhard seriously considered abandoning the study of geology to devote himself completely to spiritual activities. One of his religious superiors wisely helped him put his spiritual evolution in perspective and guided him in a direction in which he could combine his love of matter, energy, and life (his cosmic sense) with his love of Christ and the supernatural (his Christic sense). From 1902 to 1905, he studied Scholastic philosophy at the Jesuit house on the Isle of Jersey, where he spent his free hours, geologist’s hammer in hand, in scientific surveys, resulting in a paper on the island’s mineralogy and geology.

In September, 1905, Teilhard was sent to teach chemistry and physics at the Jesuit College of the Holy Family in Cairo, Egypt. Although the science he taught was elementary, this experience of the chemical substances and physical forces of the universe helped him refine his still-crude understanding of the world. After three years as a teacher in Egypt, during which he published works on the Eocene period, he returned to England to complete his Jesuit training. He spent four years, from 1908 to 1912, studying theology at Hastings in southern England. While continuing his geological and paleontological research and writing, he also devoted time to the synthesis of his scientific and spiritual views.

During his theological studies at Hastings, Teilhard began to understand matter from the perspective of spirit, and this forced him to develop a new way of thinking and speaking about what he saw happening in the universe. He began to use the words of science (energy, force, radiation) to describe the previously unseen evolution of spirit that was taking shape in nature. This spiritual energy, already familiar to him in the evolution of his own consciousness, he now grasped as active in the universe, itself in the process of self-creation. Matter, as an evolutionary fact, had given birth to spirit; therefore, matter and spirit are not two separate substances but two aspects of a single evolving cosmos. Physical energy therefore contains something of the spiritual, since energy’s upward trend is an observable fact in the increasing complexity of evolving organisms. By the time he was ordained, on August 14, 1911, he had discovered a vision by which he could understand scientific phenomena spiritually and spiritual phenomena scientifically. It therefore became the core of his vocation as a priest to show that evolutionism does not entail a rejection of Christianity, because Christ represented the crucial point in the universe’s history at which matter and spirit met.

Life’s Work

Throughout the rest of his career, as priest and scientist, Teilhard devoted himself to the evolution of the universe (what he called cosmogenesis), whose ever-richening spirituality constantly became for him more real and resplendent. For him, salvation no longer meant abandoning the world but building it up. His scientific work therefore became something holy, to be undertaken not for its own sake but for the liberation of more spirit from matter.

After completing his theological studies in 1912, Teilhard went to Paris to study under Marcellin Boule, a professor at the Institute of Human Paleontology in the Natural History Museum. Boule was one of the leading experts on Neanderthal man, but Teilhard’s work was mainly in the paleontology of Tertiary mammals in Europe. His scientific studies were interrupted by his tertianship (the final year of his Jesuit formation, a period of intense prayer, meditation, and ascetical training), and then by World War I. Although he could have chosen to be a chaplain, he joined the Eighth Regiment of the Moroccan Tirailleurs as a stretcher-bearer. Teilhard, whose bravery under fire and whose generosity of spirit throughout his military service were honored by medals both during and after the war, did not allow his experiences of the war’s horrors to destroy the vision of human history he was constructing. Indeed, he found that his patriotic service on behalf of a great ideal had invigorated his life. Even in the trenches he believed that he was participating in the grand work of sanctifying humanity. In his personal writings during this time, his constant theme was spiritual evolution: When everything of value in the material world has passed into the souls of men, he believed that souls will pass into a new level. In 1917, he began describing this level as the mystic milieu.

After his demobilization, Teilhard returned to his scientific studies. He completed his academic requirements at the Sorbonne and then began work on a thesis about the mammals of the lower Eocene in France. In 1922, he successfully defended his thesis and was awarded his doctorate in paleontology. During the early 1920’s, he served as an assistant professor of geology at the Catholic Institute of Paris, but his position there became untenable when he taught that evolution required a revision in the Church’s doctrine of original sin. The discoveries of geologists, paleontologists, and paleoanthropologists had convinced Teilhard that no evidence existed for Adam, Eve, or Eden, and consequently the Fall was an event that could not be verified. Before Charles Darwin, Christians could believe that one man’s sin (Adam’s) had ruined everything and that another man’s suffering (Christ’s) had saved everything. After Darwin, Teilhard believed that Christians must realize that original sin is not a malady specific to the earth but an inevitable consequence of the limitations of evolving matter and spirit. Because of Teilhard’s heterodox views on original sin, his Jesuit superiors asked him to leave the institute and take a research post in Tientsin, China, with Father Émile Licent, a Jesuit pioneer in paleontology. For the next twenty-three years, from 1923 to 1946, Teilhard’s career would center on China. He would return to France periodically, but he led what he called a vagabond existence that would continue for the rest of his life.

During his first decade as a peripatetic priest, Teilhard worked mainly in the north of China. He participated in a French paleontological mission to the Ordos and Gobi deserts directed by Father Licent. On a visit to central Mongolia in the summer of 1923, the two priests found the first evidence for paleolithic man in China. After these research expeditions, Teilhard returned to Paris, hoping to continue teaching at the Catholic Institute while making occasional field trips to China, but his superiors continued to be bothered by his evolutionary views of original sin, and he was told to restrict himself to his scientific work (his position at the Catholic Institute was terminated at the end of 1926).

Returning to China in the spring of 1926, Teilhard obeyed the orders...

(The entire section is 3669 words.)