The ideas of Teilhard De Chardin
Pierre Teilhard de Chardin’s most obvious claim to fame was his overwhelming acceptance of evolution, and an unquestionable passion to try to fit Christianity into it.
He was born in Auvergne, France, in 1881 and entered the Catholic Society of Jesus at 18. He spent the next three years teaching physics and chemistry at Cairo, followed by four years’ theological training at Hastings, England. He developed a seemingly unquenchable thirst for palaeontology and spent much of his adult life in China searching for man’s ‘evolutionary’ ancestors. He was involved in the excavation of the so-called Peking Man in 1929. Throughout his life he found he was unable to totally harmonize traditional Catholicism with the scientific framework of evolution, and incapable of openly flouting the orders of his superiors.
In the end he became Chardin the mystic, and his thoughts were published only after his death.
But Teilhard was also involved in the Piltdown hoax. This skull, which was later discovered by workers at the British Museum to have been made of parts of a human skull and the jaw of an orang-utan, had been chemically stained to indicate great age, and the teeth filed to resemble human teeth. A probing yet charitable analysis of Teilhard’s probable role in the hoax has been published by prominent evolutionist Stephen Jay Gould.1Gould’s analysis shows Teilhard was almost certainly aware of the hoax and was embarrassed by its exposure in 1953, a few years before his death in New York.
Teilhard’s unquestioning acceptance of evolution, together with his passion for mysticism, led him to propose ideas which were clearly incompatible with the traditional teachings of the Catholic Church. He had entered the priesthood in 1899, only 30 years after the First Vatican Council (1870), which stated:
“There is one, true, and living God, Creator and Lord of Heaven and Earth, almighty, eternal, immense, incomprehensible, infinite in intelligence, in will, and in all perfections, who, as being one, sole, absolutely simple and immutable spiritual substance, is to be declared as really and essentially distinct from the world, of supreme beatitude in and from himself, and ineffably exalted above all things that exist or are conceivable … This one, only true God, of his own goodness and almighty power, not for the increase of his own beatitude, nor to acquire, but to manifest his perfection … created out of nothing … both the spiritual and the corporeal creature, namely the angelic and the mundane, and then the human creature, as partaking in a sense, of both, consisting of spirit and body.”2
After having studied 10 years for the priesthood, Teilhard would have been familiar with the 1870 Catholic position against evolution. Despite this he was convinced evolution was true.
Further, he believed strongly that a church which accepted the Genesis account of Creation was wedded to an outmoded and unscientific outlook. In his framework, such a Church was out of touch with reality and would lag behind the rest of the world as it plunged into the 20th century. He felt it was vital for the church to adapt its theology to harmonise with modern evolutionary theory.3
Such a harmony became his life’s mission and the end product was his formulation of a mystical evolutionary theology.
The church, until the time of Charles Darwin, had promoted an objective creation-based view of reality. In other words, the universe is comprised of real, distinct things. Chardin sought to change this! He proposed that the universe did not consist of real things, since everything was evolving and converging towards a future goal called “Omega”. The only thing that must give it unity, therefore, is the spiritual or mystical realm. God must be the only unifying force. According to Teilhard, God somehow inserted himself into the evolutionary process, and Christ the force drawing everything towards the goal of “Omega”.
He did accept the God of Genesis who was clearly portrayed as the Creator of all things.
De Chardin wrote:
“How does He (God) unify it? By partially immersing himself in things, by becoming ‘element’, and then, from this point of vantage in the heart of matter, assuming the control and leadership of what we now call evolution. Christ, principle of universal vitality because sprung up as man among men, put himself in the position (maintained ever since) to subdue under himself, to purify, to direct and superanimate the general ascent of consciousness into which he inserted himself.” 4
His ideas have been the centre of much controversy within and without the Catholic Church. His most definitive work,The Phenomenon of Man (published by others after his death), contains Chardin’s so-called scientific treatise. It outlines all of his standard evolutionary ‘facts’ and simply glosses over difficult questions.
The origin of the Earth he stated was purely accidental:
“Some thousands of millions of years ago, not, it would appear, by a regular process of astral evolution, but as the result of some unbelievable accident (a brush with another star? an internal upheaval?) a fragment of matter composed of particularly stable atoms was detached from the surface of the sun. Without breaking the bonds attaching it to the rest, and just at the right distance from the mother-star to receive moderate radiation, this fragment began to condense, to roll itself up, to take shape. Containing within its globe and orbit the future of man, another heavenly body—a planet this time—had been born.”5
‘‘The Earth was probably born by accident; but, in accordance with one of the most general laws of evolution, scarcely had this accident happened than it was immediately made use of and recast into something naturally directed.”6
The origin of the first cell provided no problem to de Chardin. He wrote:
“If their spontaneous generation took place only once in the whole of time, it was apparently because the original formation of the protoplasm was bound up in a state which the general chemistry of the earth passed through only once.”7
On the reproduction of cells, he claims that:
“At first sight reproduction appears as a simple process thought up by nature … what was at first a happy accident or means of survival, is promptly transformed and used as an instrument of progress and conquest.”8
For the evolution of man’s consciousness he proposed the concept of ‘noogenesis’. He stated:
“… the engendering and subsequent development of the mind, in one word ‘noogenesis’. When for the first time in a living creature instinct perceived itself in its own mirror, the whole world took a pace forward.”9
“Man discovers that he is nothing else than evolution become conscious of itself, to borrow Julian Huxley’s striking expression.”10
For Teilhard, evolution is so central to truth that the word “creation” does not even rate inclusion in his book’s index. He wrote:
“Is evolution a theory, a system or a hypothesis? It is much more: It is a general condition to which all theories, all hypotheses, all systems must bow and which they must satisfy hence forward if they are to be thinkable and true. Evolution is a light illuminating all facts, a curve that all lines must follow.”11
And where does original sin fit into Teilhard’s views? There is no mention of Adam, Eve, Satan or the term original sin in his book. And without original sin, there is no need of the Saviour Christ, and without a need of a Saviour, there can be no Christian Church.
De Chardin has become a cult figure to many after his death, particularly to academic evolutionists among Catholics and Anglicans. Many still believe his ideas were ahead of his time, and that his thinking will inevitably be accepted by the official teaching bodies of the Catholic Church. The reality is however that his confused speculation has only contributed to further obscuring the notion that God has revealed objective truth to man through the Holy Scriptures. Mysticism has always resulted in common sense being replaced by nonsense.
Teilhard’s speculative theories were not scientific, but metaphysical! They depended for plausibility upon evolution being historically true. As the credibility of evolution theory diminishes, his writings reduce to highly imaginative anti-Christian fantasy. During his lifetime Chardin was refused permission to publish his theories, and in fairness to him it must be stated that he remained obedient to his superiors.
As one Catholic theologian has pointed out: “Teilhard’s fundamental error was to seek for something more elementary than being as the basis of his metaphysics. He thought he had found it in the concept of unification, but he was mistaken … Created being is composite and oriented towards an end distinct from itself, not in so far as it is being, but in so far as it is created.”12
References and notes
- Gould, S.J., The Piltdown Conspiracy, Natural History magazine 89(8):8–28, August 1980, American Museum of Natural History. Return to text.
- Vatican Council 1, Enchiridion Symbolorum, Denzinger 18–20, 1782–3. Return to text.
- Refer Teilhard’s letter to Abbe Breuil (12 July, 1941): “ … isn’t this just the time for a Catholic to speak openly and as a Christian on lines determined by the best scientific thought of today? (Works so orientated are coming out from every quarter at this very moment!)”, p. 231, Letters From A Traveller (a collection of letters by Teilhard 1923–1955), Fontana Books, William Collins Sons & Co. Ltd, London, 1967. Return to text.
- Teilhard de Chardin, P., The Phenomenon of Man, p. 322, William Collins Sons & Co. Ltd, London, 1980. Return to text.
- Ref. 4 p. 73. Return to text.
- Ref. 4 p. 80. Return to text.
- Ref. 4 p. 162. Return to text.
- Ref. 4 p. 115. Return to text.
- Ref. 4 p. 201. Return to text.
- Ref. 4 p. 243. Return to text.
- Ref. 4 p. 241. Return to text.
- Duggan, G.H., SM, Teilhardism and the Faith, p. 33, The Merrier Press, 4 Bridge St, Cork,1968. Return to text.