Pierre Teilhard de Chardin (1881-1955)

One of the most remarkable contributions to the debate over the relation of science and religion was made by the distinguished French paleontologist Pierre Teilhard de Chardin. Teilhard de Chardin joined the Society of Jesus (also known as the "Jesuits") in 1899. He initially studied theology, but found himself increasingly attracted to the natural sciences, particularly geology and palaeontology. He was part of a team which worked in China, and uncovered the fossilized remains which are often referred to as "Peking man." After his work in China, he settled in the United States, where he remained to his death. During his lifetime, Teithard de Chardin published a number of scientific papers. Despite having given considerable thought to the relation of science and religion, he was not able to gain permission from his religious superiors to publish his writings in this field, partly because they were regarded as of dubious orthodoxy.

Teilhard de Chardin's death in 1955 opened the way to the publication of these writings. Within months of his death, the first major work appeared. Le phenomen humaine ("The human phenomenon") was written during the years 1938-40. It finally appeared in French in 1955, and in English translation in 1959. This was followed by Le milieu divin which was originally written in 1927, and appeared in French in 1957. The title is notoriously difficult to translate into English, on account of the rich connotations of the French word milieu. (The English word "medium" conveys at least some of these, but not all.) This difficulty led to the work appearing under two different titles in translation. It was published in English under its original French title in London in 1960, and under the title The Divine Milieu in New York. These two works, taken together, set out a remarkable fusion of evolutionary biology, philosophical theology and spirituality, which captured the imagination of many working in the field of science and religion.

Teilhard de Chardin viewed the universe as an evolutionary process which was constantly moving towards a state of greater complexity and higher levels of consciousness. Within this process of evolution, a number of critically important transitions (generally referred to as "critical points") can be discerned. For Teilhard, the origination of life on earth and the emergence of human consciousness are two particularly important thresholds in this process. These "critical points" are like rungs on a ladder, leading to new stages in a continuous process of development. The world is to be seen as a single continuous process - a "universal interweaving" of various levels of organization. Each of these levels has its roots in earlier levels, and its emergence is to be seen as the actualization of what was potentially present in earlier levels. Teilhard de Chardin thus does not consider that there is a radical dividing line between consciousness and matter, or between humanity and other animals. The world is a single evolving entity, linked together as a web of mutually interconnected events, in which there is a natural progression from matter to life to human existence to human society.

For some of his critics, this seems to suggest that there is some way in which matter can be thought of as "rational." Teilhard de Chardin's stress on the potential of lower levels flowering or becoming actualized in later levels leads him to the conclusion that, since matter has the potential to become "conscious," it can therefore be thought of as being "conscious" in some manner. There must therefore have been a "rudimentary consciousness" which " precedes the emergence of life" in the physical matter of the universe. Teilhard de Chardin expresses this idea in the following manner: "there is a Within to things." In other words, there is some form of biological layer lying within the fabric of the universe. This biological layer may be "attenuated to the uttermost" in the early stages of the evolutionary process, but its existence is necessary to explain the emergence of consciousness in later periods. It is important to note how this conclusion arises from his insistence that there are no radical discontinuities or innovations within the evolutionary process, which proceeds in a constantly progressive manner. New phases are to be thought of in terms of crossing thresholds, not breaking with earlier stages.

This clearly raises the question of how God is involved in evolution. It is clear that Teilhard de Chardin places considerable emphasis on the theme of the consummation of the world in Jesus Christ, an idea which is clearly stated in the New Testament (especially the letters to the Colossians and Ephesians: see Colossians 1: 15-20; Ephesians 1: 9-10, 22-23), and which was developed with particular enthusiasm by some Greek patristic writers, including Origen. Teilhard de Chardin develops this theme with particular reference to a concept which he calls "Omega" (after the final letter of the Greek alphabet). In his earlier writings, he tends to think of Omega primarily as the point towards which the evolutionary process is heading. The process clearly represents an upward ascent; Omega defines, so to speak, its final destination. It will be clear that Teilhard de Chardin regards evolution as a teleological and directional process. As his thinking developed, however, he began to integrate his Christian understanding of God into his thinking about Omega, with the result that both the directionality of evolution and its final goal are explained in terms of a final union with God.

Teilhard de Chardin is not as lucid in his discussion of this point as might be hoped, and there are some difficulties in understanding him at points. However, the main points in his later thinking appear to be the following. Omega is to be seen as a force which attracts the evolutionary process towards it. It is "the Prime Mover ahead," the principle which "moves and collects" the process. Unlike gravity, which attracts downwards, Omega is "an inverse process of gravitation" which attracts the evolutionary process upwards, so that it may finally ascend into union with God. The entire direction of the evolutionary process is thus not defined by its point of departure, by where it started from, but by its goal, by its final objective, which is Omega.

Teilhard de Chardin argues that the existence of Omega is suggested, but not proved, by scientific analysis. "This pole Omega is reached only by extrapolation; it remains of its nature an assumption and a conjecture." Yet it is confirmed and given substance by the Christian revelation. It is argued that the New Testament theme of all things finding their goal in Christ (which, as we noted, is clearly stated in the letters to the Colossians and Ephesians) provides a theological underpinning for this religious interpretation of evolution. "Far from overshadowing Christ, the universe can find only in him the guarantee of its stability." Jesus Christ, as God incarnate, is therefore understood as the ground and goal of the entire process of cosmic evolution. "In place of the vague focus of convergence demanded as a terminus for evolution, we now have the well-defined personal reality of the Incarnate Word, in whom all things hold together." If all things are to be "summed up in Christ" (Ephesians 1: 9-10), then Christ is to be seen as the final goal of the evolving cosmos.

The overall vision that Teilhard de Chardin sets out is thus that of a universe in the process of evolution - a massive organism which is slowly progressing towards its fulfillment through a forward and upward movement. God is at work within this process, directing it from inside - yet also at work abead of the process, drawing it towards himself and its final fulfillment In a paper entitled "What I believe," Teilhard de Chardin set out his cosmic vision in four terse statements:

1 I believe that the universe is in evolution.

2 I believe that evolution proceeds toward the spiritual.

3 I believe that the spiritual is fully realized in a form of personality.

4 I believe that the supremely personal is the universal Christ.

Teilhard de Chardin has evoked admiration and amusement in about equal measure. Many have found themselves fascinated by the vision which he offers of a universe converging towards its final goal. Others have found his ideas lacking intellectual rigor, and hopelessly optimistic in terms of the final outcome of cosmic evolution. Nevertheless, he remains a fascinating example of a twentieth-century writer who found points of connection between his scientific and religious thinking.