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Born: 1881, Sarcenat, France

Died: 1955, New York, New York

Major Works: The Divine Milieu (1957), The Phenomenon of Man (1955)

Major Ideas

Evolution, or cosmogenesis, has a direction.

Evolution ascends toward a final point, or Omega, which exerts an attraction on the process although it stands outside of it.

Evolution has a within as well as a without, taking place on both the physical and psychic levels.

Tangential energy moves evolution on the without while radial energy operates on the within.

Ultimately all energy is one, namely, psychic energy or Love.

Omega is the Cosmic Christ who attracts an increasingly personalizing universe to a kind of cosmic mystical consciousness.

God and the evolving universe are united one with another.

The moral and spiritual responsibility of human beings is to advance the work of evolution and thus to create the future.

If human beings are like poems in the sense of being worlds unto themselves, living unities that defy fragmentation and analysis, then Pierre Teilhard de Chardin is a metaphor for this truth. A complex man in the variety and enormity of his interests, yet simple in the elegant unity of his vision, Teilhard proves the fallibility of attempts to classify human experience. The complexity of this man is apparent in the obvious fact that he was both a scientist and a priest, his simplicity in his insistence on the unity of the truth that he found and created through the two vocations.

Born in Sarcenat, France, in 1881, Teilhard inherited from his father the desire to understand natural history and from his mother a disposition to appreciate the beauty of nature. The poet and scientist in him were manifest at an early age.

Attending the Jesuit school at Villefranche, he passed the baccalaureate at the age of eighteen and entered the Jesuit novitiate at Aix-en-Provence, continuing his studies in French, Latin, and Greek two years later at Laval. With the expulsion of the religious orders from France in 1902, he went to Jersey to continue with the Jesuit community and study Scholastic philosophy.

September of 1905 saw Teilhard on the first of his many exotic excursions, this time to Cairo, Egypt to teach physics and chemistry at the Holy Family College, and also to expand his knowledge of geology and paleontology. In Egypt he encountered the East, which would fascinate him all his life. He also began his publishing career there, writing on scientific subjects.

His scientific studies receded in importance when he traveled to England for final training for the priesthood and ordination and when, in 1914, he joined the army to serve as a stretcher-bearer. In 1919 he resumed his scientific career, studying at the Natural History Museum in Paris and completing a doctroal thesis in 1922. Until April 1923, when he left for China to join the French paleontologist Pere Emile Licent, Teilhard taught geology at the Institut Catholique in Paris, garnering a reputation as a brilliant, innovative thinker.

The experience in China was essential to the vision that was growing in Teilhard's mind and heart. In the vast solitude of the Ordos desert, Teilhard not only participated in the discoveries that made famous the French paleontological mission but also nurtured a unique spirituality that bore fruit in the beautiful "Mass on the World," published in Teilhard's The Hymn of the Universe (1955).

His return to France in the fall of 1924 occasioned the first of many difficulties he would encounter with his religious superiors about his theological interpretations. The tragedy underlying the years until his death was the recognition on his part that his powerful and confident Christian vision, which was being born out of his intense love for God and the world, would remain suspect in the eyes of the Church and would render him suspect as a Catholic priest as well. Although there is considerable evidence that Teilhard suffered deeply because his work was not accepted by the Church and the writings that were not strictly scientific did not receive the imprimatur necessary for their publication by a member of a religious order, he never abandoned his work or betrayed the vision.

In the next years he traveled extensively, to India, America and China, where he lived during the Japanese occupation, leaving at last in 1946. In 1951, Teilhard accepted as a kind of self-exile from France and from recrimination by his order an appointment at the Wenner-Gren Foundation in New York, where he devoted himself to anthropological studies. A man of unfailing charm and intellectual vigor, he attracted many friends and colleagues, their esteem somewhat easing the pain of realizing that in his lifetime the Church would not accept his work or agree to its publication. On April 10, 1955, which was Easter Day, Teilhard collapsed late in the afternoon in New York. His funeral was humble, a quiet ending to a life that was destined to change the thinking and stir the hearts of countless men and women.

The Phenomenon of Man

Among the many writings of Teilhard, two stand out as essential to understanding his vision. The first, The Phenomenon of Man, appears to be the more scientific of the two, while The Divine Milieu has the look of a spiritual essay. In fact, they express the same vision, with differing points of emphasis.

The Phenomenon of Man was a complete manuscript by 1938, although like his nontechnical works, its appearance in book form would have to await publication until after his death. As Teilhard explains in the preface written in 1947, the book bears the title it does because man is preeminently significant in nature and mankind is organic in nature. The story of evolution that he traces in The Phenomenon of Man is unique in his insistence that the human being is the key to understanding evolution. Since consciousness is the aspect that sets human beings apart from other manifestations of evolution, Teilhard seizes upon the phenomenon of reflection as if it were the thread of Ariadne by which to find one's way through the labyrinth of evolution.

Two terms that are essential in Teilhard's vocabulary are "cosmogenesis" and "orthogenesis." The first term indicates the scope of evolution, that he is treating not just an aspect of evolution but the whole of it as a cosmic event. Orthogenesis is a term first used by the biologist Wilhelm Haacke in 1893 and later defined by Gustav Eimer as a general law by which evolution takes place in a noticeable direction. Thus evolution has a drift, even though chance is still operative. Evolution begins with the fact of primordial matter, perhaps the result of an event like, if not the same as, that postulated by scientists as the big bang. In this matter, all of creation is potentially existent. Given primordial matter, evolution ascends through four major stages in four spheres.

Geogenesis is the evolution of the cosmos in the form of prelife in the geosphere. In this stage, matter presses from an undifferentiated state to one of organized forms, moving, for example, from the less complex form of the nucleon to the more complex one of the atom and thence to the molecule. Each manifestation, whether electron, proton, atom, or molecule, is a closed whole with properties unique to itself.

The cosmos continues to be born in biogenesis, which is evolution of life in the biosphere. Here the process is manifest in the evolution of the simple cell to complex cells, to algae, to fish, to amphibia, to reptiles, and to mammals.

"Noosphere" and "noogenesis" are terms that Teilhard coins to suggest the stage of evolution marked by the emergence of human beings and the birth of thought. The phenomenon of man with the power to think is a new and critical point in evolution, for at this time the earth finds its soul, Teilhard says, and with his reason man is able to seize the rudder of evolution and reduce the force of chance.

Through these three stages of cosmogenesis, Teilhard is walking on the fairly firm ground of scientific inquiry, especially in those sections where his paleontological expertise undergirds the discussion. But as Teilhard projects evolution into the fourth stage, that of Christogenesis, what has seemed a real story collapses for his critics into fiction in the camp of science and scandal for those bastioned in theology. In this stage, Teilhard clarifies the spiritual nature of evolution, explaining that the process is not pushed from below but attracted from above; that which attracts is Omega, the final point to which the cosmos has been struggling and continues to struggle to give birth. The Omega is that to which all creation is ascending and that which stands outside of the process but nonetheless energizes it with its attracting power.

Christ, the Omega

Omega, Teilhard asserts, is Christ, whom he also calls the Cosmic Christ, Christ-Omega and Christ-the-Evolver. Before Omega or Christ-Omega is realized, however, cosmogenesis is to move through the stage of survival, which in turn is subdivided into the collective and the hyperpersonal. In the collective, human beings under the pressure of increasing proximity one to another recognize the need to cooperate and coexist; evidence of the collective abounds in such forms as the alliance of science and religion and global enterprises in politics, economics, and governance.

Beyond the collective is the era of the hyperpersonal, when individuals become ever more aware of their uniqueness, not as a factor to alienate them from one another but as a psychic reality that draws them together. In the vision of the hyperpersonal cosmos, Teilhard sounds a familiar mystical note, affirming on a cosmic scale that men and women will realize their uniqueness as intensely as do lovers who in rapturous embrace at last see themselves in the full beauty of their personhood. Individuality is not lost but realized in the consciousness of the hyperpersonal.

The language of the mystic points as well to the reality of Christogenesis, or the realization of Omega, when the cosmos in its particularities is united in an ineffable embrace, each particularity a center of consciousness, centered in itself, and every center touching every other center by dint of being centered in the ultimate Center of Christ-Omega. Omega is visible already in the historical fact of Christ's birth, but the transformation of cosmogenesis into Christogenesis may take 1 or 2 million years.

Two laws control evolution. The first is the law of complexification, whereby evolution builds up units that are ever more elaborate as organizations or systems. Just as there is an increase of physical complexity, so there is increasing complexity of consciousness, of which the nervous system is the judge. The emphasis on psychic complexity reveals the uniqueness of Teilhard's vision, for, arguing by analogy, he posits the existence of consciousness and its evolution along the same lines as physical evolution. That is, just as the emergence of a physical phenomenon on the horizon of evolution is not without precedent, so the advent of thought in human beings has its precursors, whose existence, although not yet detected scientifically, is reasonable to assume given the demonstrable nature of cosmogenesis.

The second law that governs evolution is entropy, the cosmic force that constantly fights against the rise of complexity-consciousness. This law dictates that with each conversion of energy from one form to another, some of the energy is lost as useless heat that diffuses throughout the universe. By the second law of thermodynamics, the whole universe is moving inexorably toward its death.

Teilhard did not accept the inevitability of cosmic death, for he saw evolution moving on a within as well as a without, and the energy that in the final analysis makes possible the entire process defies death. Appropriate to the two forms of evolution--the physical and the psychic--are two manifestations of energy. Tangential energy links units of the same complexity, while radial energy builds up complexity and causes evolution to move forward, or, stated more aptly, to ascend. Ultimately, however all energy is psychic, and this internal energy Teilhard identifies as love, the transcendent force that in the face of physical death creates life.

If the scientific community repudiated the larger vision of Teilhard and sought his company only on the safe terrain of scientific inquiry, his religious peers and superiors were no less reluctant to follow his star. His vision of Christ-the-Evolver was enough to shatter their confidence in him as a theologian, a role that lie shunned for himself in the belief that his theological training was insufficient. His writings took him into the theological arena, however, for he could not posit belief in Christ-Omega without calling into question the belief in a static world and the theology of fall and redemption to which the Church still clung in this century. Teilhard rejected the view of a world created perfect, that is complete m which human beings fell from perfection and were redeemed by a Savior. According to that view redemption means return to a prior perfection. In a world that is evolving, such a static view is not acceptable. Hence Teilhard envisions cosmogenesis as ascending from multiplicity and chao s to a final point of unity and harmony. The geometric model for the ascent is a cone with the rising lines of evolution converging toward Omega. In the process Christ is both in the process and outside of it; Christ is within as the historical Christ who prefigures the consciousness of Christogenesis and as the one who is being created (cosmogenesis-Christogenesis), and Christ is without as the Christ-Omega who in his plenitude attracts the process. Thus Christ is--Christ-Omega--and Christ is becoming--Christogenesis.

In this vision there is no fall from perfection nor redemption in terms of a return to perfection. Rather, Christ redeems human beings insofar as he and they are cocreators in Christogenesis. As a consequence of this Christology, sin must be rethought; for Teilhard, human beings sin when they are aware of cosmogenesis and refuse to participate in the process. To say no to evolution is to say no to God-which is a theology of sin that sounds familiar even though it looks strange in the new clothes of its language.

The Divine Milieu

Thus Teilhard envisions an evolving cosmos that he understands on the basis of scientific inquiry and whose continuance he affirms from the depths of faith. What the contours of life at Omega would be he could not detail, but he does offer in The Divine Milieu insights into its nature as well as the character of those who occupy it. This book is one of the more mystical of his writings; indeed, Teilhard shows himself to be in the tradition of the Christian mystics, especially Saint John of the Cross.

Like Saint John of the Cross, Teilhard discerns the two faces of human experience in activities and passivities. Although we would like to think of ourselves as being in control of our lives, acting upon the world to shape events, the reality is that we experience ourselves as passive far more than we do as active. Yet our activities are essential to the divine milieu, for through them we create the cosmos and give birth to Christ. Teilhard rejects any notion that our daily work is merely something to offer up to God or to occupy our time until we can occupy the kingdom of heaven. Human endeavor is worthwhile in and of itself precisely because we participate in a cosmic enterprise by dint of our work, however humble or distinguished it may be. In these pages Teilhard celebrates the nobility of human endeavor with unmuted joy.

Just as passivities play the larger part in the mystical vision of Saint John of the Cross, so also do they in Teilhard's. Unlike Saint John, however, Teilhard speaks of two kinds of passivities, those of growth and those of diminishment. When we experience ourselves as being acted upon, recipients of life's experiences, as it were, and the gift infuses us with joy, as in the event of giving birth or in some way attending to birth, then the passivity is one of growth. Through the passivity, we touch the wellspring of our existence and are opened to God in joy and love.

Passivities of diminishment do not taste of joy as do those of growth, though eventually their bitterness is transformed into delight. We are diminished externally by the turnings of chance, as with natural disasters, and internally by deficiencies of mind, personality, and body. The ultimate diminishment is death, which presents itself to us as the final absurdity for the reason that we experience ourselves falling into the multiplicity of physical decay and decomposition. All experiences of diminishment are related to death in that they are foretastes of the ultimate bitter dregs we must swallow.

Teilhard does not advocate resignation in the face of diminishment but rather heroic resistance by which we muster every ounce of energy to combat the forces of decomposition. We are to exhaust ourselves in combat until, drained of energy, we accept the inevitable. Teilhard would have not only individuals but also society fight heroically against the forces of diminishment, through such work as medical research. Ultimately, death is defeated, for just as suffering can be transformed into spiritual energy, so can faith in Christ transform death into life.

Like Saint John of the Cross, Teilhard does not court suffering, but he does view passivities of diminishment in the light that illumines the "dark night" for Saint John, that is, as the context for spiritual transformation whereby a person dies to selfishness and is reborn in compassion for the world and love for God. Teilhard the scientist-mystic of the twentieth century speaks a language that differs from his sixteenth-century predecessor, in that the "dark night" for Teilhard has global as well as individual application for a cosmos that is laboring to give birth to the seed it carries within, the seed of Christ-Omega.

Further Reading

Corbishley, Thomas. The Spirituality of Teilhard de Chardin. Paramus, N.J. and New York: Paulist Press, 1971. The author's concern is to explore Teilhard's spirituality, with particular attention to the Ignatian roots.

Demoulin, Jean-Pierre. Let Me Explain Pierre Teilhard de Chardin. New York: Harper & Row, 1970. Although essentially a compilation of passages from Teilhard's writings, the introduction, bibliography, and glossary of terms make this a helpful companion volume.

Jones, D. Gareth. Teilhard de Chardin: An Analysis and Assessment. Downers Grove, Ill.: Inter-Varsity Press, 1969. It is interesting to follow the appraisal of a scholar who, after providing a lucid introduction to Teilhard's concepts and vision, finds his evolutionary humanism inadequate.

Hefner, Philip. The Promise of Teilhard. Philadelphia and New York: J. B. Lippincott, 1970. A volume in the series The Promise of Theology, it offers a clear, succinct introduction to Teilhard's ideas.

Kraft, R. Wayne. The Relevance of Teilhard. Notre Dame, Ind.: Fides Publishers, 1968. Written by a professor of metallurgy, the book is splendid help in understanding the scientific concepts of Teilhard.

Lubac, Henri de, S.J. The Religion of Teilhard de Chardin. Garden City, N.Y: Image Books, 1968. This is essential reading for understanding Teilhard.
COPYRIGHT 1999 COPYRIGHT 1992 Ian P. McGreal
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Publication:Great Thinkers of the Western World
Article Type:Biography
Date:Jan 1, 1999
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