The Phenomenon of Pierre Teilhard de Chardin

H. James Birx


During the first half of the twentieth century, famous geopaleontologist and controversial Jesuit priest Pierre Teilhard de Chardin (1881-1955) tried to reconcile scientific evolutionism with his religious beliefs. A devoted spiritualist, he presented a mystical interpretation of cosmic evolution in his major work, The Phenomenon of Man, but he was silenced by the Roman Catholic Church for his unorthodox view of our species within dynamic reality. Nevertheless, Teilhard's bold vision of this evolving universe introduced the fact of evolution into modern theology and religion.


Are science and theology reconcilable in terms of evolution? As both an eminent scientist and cosmic mystic, Pierre Teilhard de Chardin (1881-1955) presented a dynamic worldview. He argued that our species does occupy a special place within a spiritual universe, and that humankind is evolving toward an Omega Point as the end-goal of converging and involuting consciousness on this planet.

With his steadfast commitment to the fact of pervasive evolution, Teilhard as geopaleontologist and Jesuit priest became a very controversial figure within the Roman Catholic Church during the first half of this century. Actually, because of his bold interpretation of our species within earth history and this cosmos, he was silenced by his religious superiors for taking an evolutionary stance at a time when this scientific theory was a serious threat to an entrenched orthodox theology. Going beyond Charles Darwin (1809-1882), Teilhard even maintained that evolution discloses the meaning, purpose and destiny of our species within life, nature and this universe.

As a geopaleontologist, Teilhard was very familiar with the rock and fossil evidence that substantiates the fact of evolution. As a Jesuit priest, he was acutely aware of the need for a meta-Christianity that would contribute to the survival, enrichment and fulfillment of humankind on this planet in terms of both science and faith. Sensitive to the existential predicament of our species, with its awareness of endless space and certain death, Teilhard as visionary and futurist ultimately grounded his personal interpretation of evolution in a process philosophy, natural theology and cosmic mysticism that supported panentheism (the belief that God and the World are in a creative relationship of progressive evolution toward a future synthesis in terms of spirit).

Galileo Galilei had endured humiliation and was put under house arrest, as a result of his claiming that the earth does in fact move through the universe; a discovery that the aged astronomer was coerced into recanting by his dogmatic persecutor, Pope Urban VIII (formally Cardinal Maffeo Barberini), under the intolerant Jesuit inquisitor, Cardinal Robert Bellarmine.

As a direct result of the conservative standpoint taken by his religious superiors, Teilhard would suffer alienation and discouragement because he rightly claimed that species (including our own) evolve throughout geological time, or they become extinct; his daring evolutionism discredited fixity and essentialism in biology and philosophy.

Discovering Evolution

As a child, Teilhard showed an interest in both natural science and religious mysticism. Sensitive to his beautiful Auvergne surroundings in France, and particularly drawn to the study of rocks, Teilhard found delight in a plowshare which he supposed was an enduring object free from change and imperfection. However, after a storm, the youth discovered that his ìgenie of ironî had rusted. Teilhard tells us that he then threw himself on the ground and cried with the bitterest tears of his life. As a result of this devastating experience, he would have to seek his ìone essential thingî beyond this imperfect world of matter and corruption.

To be ìmost perfectî (as he put it), Teilhard at the age of 17 entered the Jesuit society in order to serve God. Even so, he intensified his interest in geology on the channel island of Jersey. Throughout his entire life, the scientist-priest would never abandon his love for science, concern about human evolution, and devotion to mystical theology (especially eschatology).

In 1905, as part of his Jesuit training, Teilhard found himself teaching at the Holy Family College in Cairo, Egypt. This three-year experience offered him the unique opportunity to do research in both geology and paleontology, expanding his knowledge of earth history. It also exposed this priest to a rich multiplicity of cultures, both past and present, that surely jarred him from European ethnocentrism. Following this teaching obligation, he then finished his theology studies at Hastings in England.

It was during his stay in England that Teilhard read Henri Bergson's major book, Creative Evolution (1907). This metaphysical work had an enormous influence on the scientist-priest, since it resulted in his lifelong commitment to the brute fact of evolution. It is worth emphasizing that it was not Darwin's On the Origin of Species (1859) or The Descent of Man (1871) but rather Bergson's interpretation of evolution that convinced Teilhard that species are mutable, including our own, throughout organic history.

While on one of his field trips, Teilhard unfortunately became involved in the discovery of the controversial Piltdown skull (later determined to be a fraud). Although he had questioned the validity of this fossil evidence from the very beginning, one positive result was that the young geologist and seminarian now became particularly interested in paleoanthropology as the science of fossil hominids.

After his stay in England, Teilhard returned to France where, during World War I, he was a stretcher bearer at the front lines. It is remarkable that he emerged from his horrific experiences in the war trenches even more optimistic that evolution had been preparing the earth for a new direction and final goal in terms of the spiritualization of the human layer of this planet. In fact, during the global war, Teilhard had several mystical experiences which he recorded for posterity. It was this emerging mysticism that would eventually allow him to reconcile science and theology within an evolutionary vision of a converging and involuting spiritual reality (as he saw it).

In 1923, as a result of an invitation, Teilhard next found himself as a geologist participating in a scientific expedition into inner Mongolia. A year in China gave the Jesuit a splendid opportunity to begin his career as a specialist in Chinese geology. It was during this time, while in the Ordos Desert, that Teilhard essayed ìThe Mass on the Worldî (a mystical account of his offering up the entire world as a Eucharist to a Supreme Being as the creator, sustainer, and ultimate destiny of an evolving universe). He expresses his dynamic Christology when he writes: "I, your priest, will make the whole earth my altar and on it will offer you all the labors and sufferings of the world....You know how your creatures can come into being only, like shoot from stem, as part of an endlessly renewed process of evolution."1

It is to Teilhard's credit that he never took seriously a strict and literal interpretation of Genesis as presented in the Old Testament. Instead, he will continue to devote his life to synthesizing science and theology in terms of the indisputable fact of pervasive evolution.

Returning to France, Teilhard ran into serious problems with the Roman Catholic Church because of his unorthodox beliefs. In Paris, he began giving public lectures on and teaching about evolution. This priest was even bold enough to offer a personal interpretation of Original Sin in terms of cosmic evolution and the emergence of our own species in a dynamic but imperfect (unfinished) universe; he saw this cosmos as a cosmogenesis moving from chaos, multiplicity and evil to order, unity and perfection.

When a copy of his controversial essay fell into the hands of some Jesuits, Teilhard was immediately silenced by his superiors. They, of course, had a failure of nerve in not facing head-on the fact of evolution and its ramifications for understanding and appreciating the place of humankind within nature. Because his audacious vision challenged Christian dogma, Teilhard was censored by the Church: he could no longer teach or publish his own theological and philosophical views, and furthermore he was even exiled from France by the Jesuit order (finding himself back in China).

Nevertheless, the ostracized scientist-priest wrote his first book, The Divine Milieu (1927), a spiritual essay on the activities and passivities of the human being. In this work, he argues that a personal God is the divine Center of evolving Creation. His position is in sharp contrast to biblical fundamentalism or so-called scientific creationism: views that hold the creation of this entire universe to be a completed event that happened only about ten thousand years ago! Teilhard writes: "We may, perhaps, imagine that the creation was finished long ago. But that would be quite wrong. It continues still more magnificently, and at the highest levels of the world."2

Fortuitously, Teilhard now found himself a member of the Cenozoic Laboratory at the Peking Union Medical College. Starting in 1928, geologists and paleontologists excavated the sedimentary layers in the Western Hills near Zhoukoudian. At this site, the scientists discovered the so-called Peking man (Sinanthropus pekinensis), a fossil hominid dating back at least 350,000 years but now relegated to the Homo erectus phase of human evolution. Teilhard became world-known as a result of his popularizations of the Sinanthropus discovery, while he himself made major contributions to the geology of this site. Likewise, Teilhard's long stay in China gave him more time to think and write about evolution, as well as continue his scientific research.

The Phenomenon of Man

Bringing his scientific knowledge and religious commitments together, Teilhard now began writing a synthesis of facts and beliefs. He aimed to demonstrate the special place held by our species in this dynamic universe. After two years, writing several paragraphs each month, Teilhard completed his major work, The Phenomenon of Man (1938-1940, with a postscript and appendix added in 1948). For other religionists, his evolutionary synthesis was a threat to traditional theology and, consequently, the Vatican denied its publication. In retrospect, it is with bitter irony that this book was so controversial because it does offer an earth-bound, human-centered, and God-embraced interpretation of spiritual evolution that seems more-or-less conservative from today's perspective. The work is primarily an ultra-anthropology grounded in a phenomenology of evolution in terms of the structures and intentionality in emerging consciousness (spirit).

In The Phenomenon of Man, Teilhard writes:

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 henceforth if they are to be thinkable and true. Evolution is a light illuminating all facts, a curve that all lines must follow....The consciousness of each of us is evolution looking at itself and reflecting upon itself....Man is not the center of the universe as once we thought in our simplicity, but something much more wonderfulóthe arrow pointing the way to the final unification of the world in terms of life. Man alone constitutes the last-born, the freshest, the most complicated, the most subtle of all the successive layers of life....The universe has always been in motion and at this moment continues to be in motion. But will it still be in motion tomorrow?....What makes the world in which we live specifically modern is our discovery in it and around it of evolution....Thus in all probability, between our modern earth and the ultimate earth, there stretches an immense period, characterized not by a slowing-down but a speeding up and by the definitive florescence of the forces of evolution along the line of the human shoot.3

For Teilhard, the Mosaic cosmogony is replaced by an emergent evolution within which the biblical Adam and Eve become fossil apelike forms! Not surprisingly, the evolutionary stance taken by this Jesuit priest in The Phenomenon of Man resulted in the condemnation of this unorthodox book by the dogmatic religionists of his time.

Teilhard argues that this universe is a cosmogenesis. Essentially, the unity of this universe is grounded not in matter or energy but in spirit (the within-of-things, or radial energy); thereby he gives priority to dynamic spirit rather than to atomic matter (the without-of-things, or tangential energy). Moreover, Teilhard was a vitalist who saw the personalizing and spiritualizing cosmos as a product of an inner driving force manifesting itself from material atoms, through life forms, to reflective beings. He discerned a direction in the sweeping epic of this evolving universe, particularly with the emergence of humankind. However, his alleged cosmology is merely a planetology, since the scientist-priest focuses his attention on this earth without any serious consideration of the billions of stars in those billions of galaxies that are strewn throughout sidereal reality.

Of primary significance, Teilhard argues that the assumed order in nature reveals a pre-established plan as a result of a divine Designer, who is the transcendent God as the Center of creation or Person of persons; the general direction in evolution is a result of the process law of complexity-consciousness. Teilhard was deeply interested in and concerned about the infinitely complex that would emerge in the distant future as a spiritual synthesis, rather than occupying himself with the infinitely great and the infinitely small.

For Teilhard, this cosmic law of increasing complexity and consciousness manifests itself from the inorganic atoms through organic species to the human person itself. Or, this process law has resulted in the appearance of matter, then life, and finally thought. Evolution is the result of ìdirected chanceî taking place on the finite sphericity of our earth. Teilhard emphasized that evolution is converging and involuting around this globe: first through geogenesis, then biogenesis, and now through noogenesis. The result is a geosphere surrounded by a biosphere, and now an emerging noosphere (or layer of human thought and its products) is enveloping the biosphere and geosphere. For this Jesuit priest, noogenesis is essentially a planetary and mystical Christogenesis, i.e., the evolution of Christ to God-Omega as the divine destiny of humankind.

Unlike the iconoclastic philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900), who prophesied the coming of the superior overman as a creative intellect independent of society, Teilhard envisioned the emergence of a collective humankind that would advance to a spiritual union with a personal God in the distant future. Interestingly enough, several Marxist philosophers appreciated Teilhard's emphasis on the collective and directional evolution of our species; of course, as pervasive materialists, they could never accept Teilhard's spiritual and mystical interpretation of dynamic reality.

The idea of a developing noosphere was also explored in the writings of the Russian scientist Vladimir I. Vernadsky (1863-1945). Similar to Teilhard's comprehensive orientation, Vernadsky had presented a holistic view of life on earth in his major work, The Biosphere (1926). Even so, it was Teilhard who seriously considered the long-range ramifications of noogenesis.

Teilhard stressed that the process of evolution has not been a continuum: from time to time, evolution has crossed critical thresholds resulting in the uniqueness of both life over matter and thought over life; a person represents an incredible concentration of consciousness or spirit, resulting in the immortality of the human soul. Consequently, the Jesuit priest claimed that the human being is ontologically separated from the great apes (orangutan, gorilla, chimpanzee, and bonobo).

For Teilhard, the ongoing spiritual evolution of our species is rapidly moving toward an Omega Point as the end-goal or divine destiny of human evolution on this planet. His theism maintains that God-Omega is one, personal, actual and transcendent. In the future, God-Omega and the Omega Point will unite, forming a mystical synthesis.

Grounded in agapology and centrology, Teilhard's interpretation of evolution claims that the human layer of consciousness engulfing our earth is becoming a collective brain and heart; in the future, as a single mind of persons, this layer will detach itself from the globe and, transcending space and time, immerse itself in God-Omega. As such, the end-goal of evolution is a final creative synthesis of the universal God-Omega with a spiritualized and united humankind. Thus, his panentheism becomes (at least in part) a mystical pantheism. Yet, the Jesuit priest did not take exobiology and exoevolution seriously, e.g., the possibility that Omega Point events have happened or will happen elsewhere in this universe.

Tragic Consequences

After The Phenomenon of Man was denied publication by his superiors, Teilhard then wrote Man's Place in Nature: The Human Zoological Group (1950). This book is a more scientific statement of his interpretation of evolution. With controlled enthusiasm but focusing on our species, he writes: "Man is, in appearance, a ëspecies,í no more than a twig, an offshoot from the branch of the primatesóbut one that we find to be endowed with absolutely prodigious biological properties....Without the earth could there be man?"4

Unfortunately, the publication of Teilhard's third book was also denied along with his request to teach in Paris. In fact, on August 12, 1950, Pope Pius XII issued the Encyclical Letter Humani generis; obviously, this Papal warning from the Vatican was (at least in part) a direct result of Teilhard's unsuccessful request for the publication of his slightly revised version of The Phenomenon of Man written in 1948, as well as his 1950 work on human evolution.

Leaving Paris for New York City, Teilhard spent the last years of his life reflecting on both human evolution and his mystical vision of a spiritual future for our species. Of particular interest is the fact that the secular humanist Sir Julian Huxley was sympathetic to Teilhard's religious humanism. However, Huxley the biologist could never accept Teilhard's overall commitment to spiritual transcendence rather than seeing evolution as a strictly naturalistic process.

While in New York City, Teilhard had the opportunity to visit twice the fossil hominid sites in South Africa. Unfortunately, at the end of his distinguished life, he became removed from the new developments in evolutionary science, e.g., the discovery of the DNA molecule and population genetics research. For the evolutionist as materialist, organic creativity is grounded in chance genetic variation, necessary natural selection, and historical contingency (not teleology and spiritualism). And even though he espoused a geological perspective and saw our species continuing to evolve for millions of years, Teilhard still held that humankind would never leave this planet. Instead, he offers a myopic vision in which our species is nailed to the earth and absolutely alone in this universe. Of course, this suffocating centrology was necessary in order for him to believe in the formation of an unique Omega Point at the end of human evolution on earth. If he were alive today, then what would Teilhard think about the far-reaching ramifications of space exploration and genetic engineering?

No doubt, one finds it very disconcerting that the aged Teilhard wept and was depressed about his pathetic ordeal within the Jesuit order. And, one may find it somewhat unsettling that, as a Jesuit priest, he spent considerable time traveling and communicating with several beautiful women whose friendship he encouraged, even though they could never find a lasting intimate relationship with this spiritual and mystical man who gave preference to a transcendent God over those individuals who loved him in this world. Of course, Teilhard was a man of flesh and blood who, struggling with his own beliefs and commitments within an intellectually hostile environment, no doubt needed that human companionship provided by those who found him attractive in every way.

On Easter Sunday, April 10, 1955, Teilhard died of a sudden stroke in New York City. He was buried at Saint Andrew's on the Hudson, in the cemetery of the Jesuit novitiate for the New York Province (as such, his earthly remains are far removed from France). By the fall of that year, the first edition of The Phenomenon of Man was published in its author's native language.

In 1962, a Monitum decree issued by the Holy Office on Teilhard's works went as far as to warn bishops and heads of seminaries about those doctrinal errors that were held to be inherent in the Jesuit scientist's evolutionary and mystical interpretation of humankind within nature. In fact, as his writings were published posthumously, Teilhard became more controversial in death than he had been while he was alive.

Teilhard's hopefulness seems to have overlooked the extensive roll that extinction plays throughout organic evolution (not to mention the excessive evil in the world): those mass extinctions, that caused all the trilobites, ammonites and dinosaurs to vanish forever, should tarnish the unbridled optimism of any rigorous evolutionist. Furthermore, Teilhard's vision will not convince many serious thinkers that it was inevitable for our species to appear in this universe. An obvious expression of wishful thinking, the anthropic principle represents anthropocentrism in its most extreme form.

Claiming that everything that rises must converge, Teilhard grounds his philosophy of evolution in teleology and spiritualism: the movement of matter, then life, and finally thought is both forward and upward to a mystical union with God-Omega (the beginning and end of cosmic evolution). For the Jesuit priest, the chaos and probability throughout nature are giving way to order and certainty. But most scientists will not accept Teilhard's directional interpretation of this evolving universe.

Teilhard's severest critic was the British zoologist Sir Peter Medawar, a Nobel laureate who found the mystic's evolutionism to be not only preposterous but also an attempt at self-deception. Furthermore, the Harvard paleontologist Steven Jay Gould even claims that Teilhard was directly involved with the infamous Piltdown hoax. It is surprising and disappointing that Gould has besmirched the international reputation of a distinguished natural scientist and virtuous human being by suggesting that the Jesuit priest had been a conspirator in the Piltdown fraud, without there being a single thread of incontestable evidence to support such a damaging accusation. Invoking ìinnocent until proven guiltyî and in light of his reputation as a most commendable person, it seems only fair to assume that Teilhard is blameless of any wrongdoing in this singularly outrageous perpetration of a false discovery in human evolution research.

Some Final Thoughts

Teilhard was committed to science, evolution and optimism despite his daring speculations and mystical orientation. He was a religious humanist: a visionary and futurist who foresaw the collective consciousness of our global species increasing in terms of love, information and technology as a result of God's existence. Surely, Teilhard would be delighted with the Internet, seeing it as a planetary force that is uniting the consciousness and spirituality of humankind. It is to his lasting credit that he introduced into modern theology the fact of organic evolution at a time when this scientific theory was rejected by many who saw it as a threat to their religious beliefs and traditional values. Unfortunately for him, in trying to reconcile the natural with the supernatural, this Jesuit priest satisfied no intellectual community. Even today, although wisely not opposed to the fact of evolution, the Roman Catholic Church offers no comprehensive and detailed evolutionary explanation for the origin and history of life or the emergence and future of humankind.

Teilhard focused exclusively on the earth and gave special attention to our own species. In this respect, he was not in step with those modern thinkers who offer a truly cosmic perspective in which humankind is merely a fleeting event in this material universe.

Surprisingly, on October 23, 1996, Pope John Paul II issued a statement to the Pontifical Academy of Sciences in which he endorsed evolution as being ìmore than just a theoryî; thereby both biblical fundamentalism and so-called scientific creationism were dealt yet another blow to their vacuous claims about the origin of this universe and the history of life forms on our earth. With bitter irony, it was the silenced Teilhard who had committed himself to the fact of evolution as well as the indisputable powers of science, reason and free inquiry (albeit within a theological framework).

Today, a rigorous evolutionist sees reality grounded in energy (not spirit) and manifesting no evidence of a divine plan unfolding throughout cosmic history. Our species is linked to material nature, and it is presumptuous to claim that a mystical destiny awaits it at the end of planetary time. Even so, through science and technology, humankind is more and more able to direct the future of organic evolution (including our own species) on earth and elsewhere.

Teilhard was a unique human being of intelligence, sensitivity and integrity. He experienced both the agony and ecstasy of time and change. His optimistic commitment to cosmic evolution flourished while he served on the blood-stained battlefield of a war-torn humanity, researched among the rocks and fossils of a remote past, and reflected in the deepest recesses of his profound soul on the meaning and purpose of human existence. As such, Teilhard himself exemplifies the phenomenon of man.


1. Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, Hymn of the Universe (New York: Harper & Row, 1965), pp. 19, 22.

2. Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, The Divine Milieu, rev. ed. (New York: Harper Torchbooks, 1968), p. 62.

3. Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, The Phenomenon of Man, 2nd ed. (New York: Harper Colophon, 1975), pp. 218, 220, 223, 227, 228, 277.

4. Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, Man's Place in Nature: The Human Zoological Group (New York: Harper & Row, 1966), pp. 15, 25.

Further Readings

Barbour, George B. In the Field with Teilhard de Chardin. New York, Herder and Herder, 1965.

Bergson, Henri. Creative Evolution (1907). Mineola, Dover, 1998.

Birx, H. James. Interpreting Evolution: Darwin & Teilhard de Chardin. Amherst, Prometheus Books, 1991, esp. pp. 178-222.

CuÈnot, Claude. Teilhard de Chardin: A Biographical Study. Baltimore, Helicon, 1965.

Darwin, Charles. The Descent of Man (1871). Amherst, Prometheus Books, 1998. Refer to the introduction by H. James Birx, pp. ix-xxviii.

Dawkins, Richard. Climbing Mount Improbable. New York, W.W. Norton, 1996.

Dawkins, Richard. ìThe Improbability of Godî in Free Inquiry 18(3):6-9, Summer 1998.

de Terra, Helmut. Memories of Teilhard de Chardin. New York, Harper & Row, 1964.

Dodson, Edward OThe Phenomenon of Man Revisited: A Biological Viewpoint on Teilhard de Chardin. New York, Columbia University Press, 1984.

King, Ursula. Spirit of Fire: The Life and Vision of Teilhard de Chardin. Maryknoll, Orbis Books, 1996.

Kuvakin, Valerii A., ed. A History of Russian Philosophy: From the Tenth Through the Twentieth Centuries. 2 vols. Amherst, Prometheus Books, 1994, pp. 399-409, 521-534.

Lukas, Mary, and Ellen Lukas. Teilhard. rev. ed. New York, McGraw-Hill, 1981.

Mortier, Jeanne, and Marie-Louise Aboux, eds. Teilhard de Chardin Album. New York, Harper & Row, 1966.

Raven, Charles E. Teilhard de Chardin: Scientist and Seer. London, Collins, 1967.

Schmitz-Moormann, Nicole, and Karl Schmitz-Moormann. Pierre Teilhard de Chardin: Scientific Works (1905-1955). 11 vols. Olten und Freiburg im Breisgau, Walter-Verlag, 1971.

Speaight, Robert. Teilhard de Chardin: A Biography. London, Collins, 1967.

Vernadsky, Vladimir I. The Biosphere (1926). rev. ed. New York, Nevraumont/ Copernicus/Springer-Verlag, 1998.

Vernadsky, Vladimir I. ìThe Biosphere and the Noˆsphereî in American Scientist 33(1):1-12, 1945.

Walsh, John Evangelist. Unraveling Piltdown: The Science Fraud of the Century and Its Solution. New York, Random House, 1996, pp. 128-148.

Wilson, Edward O. Consilience: The Unity of Knowledge. New York, Alfred A. Knopf, 1998.




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