FRANCE: Pierre Teilhard de Chardin

John Gehl sends this bio of the French Jesuit priest and noted man of science Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, S.J. (1881-1955), whose posthumously published speculations on man's evolutionary future made him a cause celebre among the world's intelligentsia. During his lifetime, Teilhard was known mainly for his seminal contributions to the science of paleontology, based largely on his scientific fieldwork in China and Africa. He was actively involved in the 1929 discovery of the skull of Peking man. As a scientist who was also a deeply spiritual man, Teilhard was stirred philosophically to blend his scientific work with his Christian faith to develop his theory that man is evolving, mentally and socially, toward a final spiritual unity. He strived with limited success to convince religious believers that the acceptance of  evolution does not involve the rejection of Christianity.  Teilhard's own superiors refused him permission to publish his evolutionary theories, with the result that he confined himself to writing up his strictly scientific investigations, avoiding all mention of his philosophical-theological conclusions. Only after his death did friends succeed in going to press with The Phenomenon of Man, the book he wrote in the 1920s and '30s containing his controversial insights into the course he expected human evolution to take in coming times.

Teilhard was a gentleman farmer's son, and at age 10 he was sent to the Jesuit College of Mongré, where as a boarding student he developed his first interest in geology. When he was 18, he joined the Jesuit novitiate at Aix-en-Provence to begin his studies for the priesthood that culminated in his ordination in 1911. He served with the French Army during World War I, as a stretcher-bearer and not as a chaplain, earning the Legion of Honor for his courage on the battle lines. After the war he taught at the Catholic Institute of Paris, and in 1923 he made the first of his paleontological and geological missions to China. Later in the 1930s he traveled to the Gobi desert, Sinkiang, Kashmir, Java, and Burma (Myanmar) to conduct pioneering studies of Asia's sedimentary deposits and the dates of its fossils.  The outbreak of World War II found him in Peking, where he was forced to spend the war years from 1939 to 1945. Teilhard returned to France in 1946, but then moved to the United States when he was denied his wish to teach at the Collège de France and publish his philosophical works. He spent the remaining years of his life at he Wenner-Gren Foundation in New York City. The foundation supported the two paleontological and archaeological expeditions he made in South Africa.

In his theory of cosmic evolution Teilhard sought to reconcile Christian thought with modern science and traditional philosophy by postulating an evolutionary process that would proceed from its biological beginnings to embrace an intellectual and spiritual endpoint Teilhard called "the Omega point." Initially greeted with skepticism by both scientists and philosophically traditional thinkers, Teilhard's ideas have since gained an interested following among a variety of Information Age thinkers seeking a conceptual structure and vocabulary to deal with evolving cyberspace realities.

See H. James Birx Pierre Teilhard de Chardin's Philosophy of Evolution

RH: He was a remarkable man, and the Jesuit Order acted stupidly toward him. This however gives us an opportunity to pay tribute to the scholarly contributions of the Jesuits.  ^Perhaps WAISer Tony Mahowald, a highly respected Professor Emeritus in the field of science at the University of Chicago and for years a Jesuit priest, will have some comment.  He spent a sabbatical year at Stanford, where he is remembered affectionately.

We posted John Gehl's bio of Jesuit Teilhard de Chardin, with my comment that the Jesuits treated him badly. Professor Tony Mahowald of the University of Chicago, a former Jesuit, comments: I don't think it is correct to say that the Jesuits treated Teilhard badly; certainly the Catholic Church did.  Evolution was still a very difficult subject for the Catholic hierarchy in the 1920's and 1930's.  I believe it was only after the war that Pius XII's encyclical on evolution first opened the door to speaking openly on evolution, and then the issue of human evolution was avoided until very recently.  Since Teilhard's writings dealt directly with human evolution, he was prohibited by the Church from publishing. Teilhard himself was very popular when I was a Jesuit (1950's and 1960's) and a group of us visited the Jesuit cemetery at St. Andrews on the Hudson where he is buried.. I believe he is still admired for his spirituality and hopeful vision.

RH: The Catholic Church is now ahead of American Protestants who believe in the inerrancy of the Bible, which is a fighting issue in American schools.

Ronald Hilton 2004


last updated: February 27, 2005