An evolutionary life and vision
Pierre Teilhard de Chardin was a 20th-century Jesuit scientist and religious thinker. Although his ideas on science and religion still leave many readers perplexed, his prophetic insights, born out of an acute scientific mind and a deeply Ignatian spirit, enabled him to approach world religions by placing religion in a cosmic evolutionary framework. Below is a detailed reference guide for anyone interested in delving deeper into Teilhard’s life and work.
The following is a trailer for The Evolution of Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, a biographical documentary production by Frank and Mary Frost of The Teilhard Project and winners of the 2023 Center for Christogenesis award.
Timeline of Teilhard’s Life
Born on May 1 at Sarcenat on May 1 in France, near Orcines and Clermont-Ferrand. He was the fourth of eleven children—eight of his brothers and sisters would precede him in death.
Sarcenat is in the Massif Central amidst extinct volcanos, the tallest of which is Puy-de-Dome (4800 ft).
He graduated Licence es-lettres having passed baccalaureate exams in philosophy (1897) and in mathematics (1898) and entered the Jesuit novitiate in 1897.
He spent three years teaching in Jesuit college in Cairo, Egypt, with three geological field trips. Teilhard learned in 1907 that because of his discoveries of shark teeth in Fayoum, a new species of shark was named for him, Teilhardia.
Teilhard studied theology at Hastings, England. He is ordained a priest in 1911. During this period he read Henri Bergson’s Creative Evolution (1911) and was greatly influenced by it. Bergson’s book would later appear on the church’s Index of Forbidden Works. In 1912, Teilhard participated in the digs at Piltdown with Charles Dawson. “Piltdown man” was revealed as a hoax in 1953.
During the Great War he was a stretcher bearer. Two of Teilhard’s were brothers killed in action. Teilhard was awarded the Croix de Guerre and the Medaille Militaire, plus was eventually made a Chevalier de la Legion d’Honneur for his bravery in battle (1921) . During the war Teilhard wrote letters to his cousin Marguerite Teillard-Chambon and sent her many of his essays. These essays caught the notice of his Jesuit superiors because of their unorthodox theology (e.g. there is no Adam and Eve, no original sin, no creation ex nihilo), but he was still allowed to take his final vows as a Jesuit.
He took his final vows as a Jesuit and completed formal education (with certificates in geology, botany, zoology, and a doctorate in geology). In 1922, Teilhard wrote “Note on Some Possible Historical Representations of Original Sin” as a private reflection not meant for publication, but for the consideration of theologians. This document somehow made its way to Rome and was a contributing factor in Teilhard’s being “exiled” to China in 1926.
From April 1923 to September 1924 in China, Teilhard writes “La Messe sur le Monde” (“The Mass on the World”).
He taught at the Institut Catholique in Paris. His extreme popularity with students alarmed his superiors because of his unorthodox views on evolution and original sin. During July 1925 (week of the Scopes Trial in America), there is a the crisis of obedience and Teilhard is obliged to sign a statement of repudiation of his ideas on original sin. Some of his friends advised Teilhard to leave the Jesuits. Abbe Breuil said, “vous etes mal made. Divorcez-la!” However, Auguste Valensin advised Teilhard to sign the confession, not as a statement of the condition of his soul which, Valensin argued, God alone could judge, but in order to signal his obedience to the Jesuits. Teilhard signed the statement. It was during this period that Teilhard introduced the word “noosphere” (nous meaning mind), the layer of reflective life embracing the biosphere, though still dependent on it.
During these years Teilhard made six more trips to China, spending much of his time there. He wrote his spiritual masterpiece, Le Milieu Divin (The Divine Milieu), trying in vain to revise it so as to please the church censors. In 1929, he began a life-long friendship with Lucille Swan (1890-1965), often discussing his work with her. He played a major role in the expedition that discovered Sinanthropus (so-called Peking Man) in 1929-30 and, in 1931-32, participates in the Croisiere Jaune (the Yellow Expedition) in China. His trips to and from China allowed him opportunities for geological and paleontological study in Ethiopia, Manchuria, France, the United States, England, Java, and India. He is awarded the Gregor Mendel Medal in Philadelphia in 1937. In 1938 Teilhard begins writing his magnum opus, Le Phenomena Humain (The Human Phenomenon), finished 1940. For Teilhard, disbelief in evolution is unthinkable; it is a light illuminating all facts, but especially “the human phenomenon.” The God En Haut is identified with the aim, En Avant, of the evolutionary process, which Teilhard calls “Omega Point.”
Teilhard was stranded in China as he waited out World War II. During these years he and his close friend and fellow Jesuit, Pierre Leroy, set up the Institute of Geobiology. He also lectured at the French embassy on “The Future of Man” and founded the journal Geobiologia.
These eventful years were spent mostly in and around Paris. In 1946, he did some lecturing, but in 1947 suffered a heart attack. In October 1948 Teilhard sought ecclesiastical approval in Rome for the publication of Le Phenomene Humain and permission to accept an invitation to a Chair at the College de France. Teilhard prepared himself “to stroke the tiger’s whiskers.” Both requests are denied. In early 1949, Teilhard gave one of a series of six planned lectures at the Sorbonne, but an attack of pleurisy cut short the lectures. Teilhard wrote the lectures into a book, Le Groupe Zoologique Humain (Man’s Place in Nature). Again, however, Rome refuses permission to publish.
Despite the fact that the church denied Teilhard permission to publish his religious-philosophical works, many of these works were widely known in Catholic circles because Teilhard authorized multiple copies to be made and distributed—these were referred to as Teilhard’s “clandestins.” Two books were published prior to Teilhard’s death which used these clandestins to launch criticisms of Teilhard’s ideas. L’Evolution Redemptrice du P. Teilhard de Chardin (Les Editions du Cedre, 1950) was the first. It was published anonymously, although the author was probably Abbe Luc Lefevre. However, the more important event of 1950 was the release in August of Pope Pius Xll’s encyclical Humani Generis. Some people believed that the encyclical was directed at Teilhard. If Teilhard believed this, he never let it on. Be that as it may, the encyclical affirmed the historical truth of the first eleven chapters of Genesis, expressed skepticism about the truth of evolution, and denied altogether the evolution of the soul (as opposed to the body). Teilhard wrote a partial response to the encyclical and sent it to Rome. Despite this, Teilhard wrote a letter to his Jesuit superior assuring him of his complete fidelity. In 1950 Teilhard also completed his autobiographical essay, “Le Coeur de la Matiere” (“The Heart of Matter”).
Teilhard felt pressured to leave France and was allowed to accept a research position with the Wenner-Gren Foundation in New York City. In 1952, the second of two books critical of his ideas appeared—Abbe Louis Cognet’s Le Pere Teilhard de Chardin et la Pensee Contemporaire. Teilhard wrote to Pere Leroy, “it’s a shame I can neither explain nor answer him.” In 1952, a conference on evolution was held at Laval University in Quebec to which the great evolutionists of the day were invited, with the exception of Teilhard. Teilhard referred to these as “Catholic games.” In these final years Teilhard remained active, traveling across the United States as well as overseas to South Africa and South America. He made his final trip to France in the summer of 1954 where he visited the Lascaux caves with Pere Leroy. In early 1955, Teilhard declined an invitation to speak at a symposium at the Sorbonne. A little later in the year, Rome took the precaution of denying him permission to attend the symposium. At the same time, he heard that Rome had denied permission to publish a German translation of some of his published scientific articles.
On the afternoon of Easter Sunday, April 10, 1955, Teilhard died of a heart attack in New York City.
By the end of 1955, Editions de Seuil had published the first of thirteen volumes of Teilhard’s work, beginning with Le Phenomene Humain (1955) and ending with Le Coeur de la Matiere (1976). After consulting a Jesuit canon lawyer to insure that he would remain faithful to the church to the end, Teilhard bequeathed his literary remains to his secretary, Mademoiselle Jeanne Mortier. It was Mademoiselle Mortier who ensured that the Roman censors would not have the last word.
Listen to Hunger for Wholeness
In the spirit of Teilhard de Chardin, Ilia Delio interviews other scholars and thought leaders on the intersection of science and religion.