Teilhard de Chardin, Pierre

views updated May 14 2018


TEILHARD DE CHARDIN, PIERRE . Pierre Teilhard de Chardin (18811955), a French Jesuit, was a distinguished scientist of human origins, a Christian mystic, and a prolific religious writer. Prohibited by his church from publishing any nonscientific works, his philosophical and theological writings were printed only after his death, though they circulated clandestinely before. His major opus, Le Phénomène humain, appeared in 1955 and was an immediate best-seller. The English translation, introduced by Julian Huxley, was titled The Phenomenon of Man (1959), later more accurately retranslated as The Human Phenomenon (1999). Throughout his life, Teilhard de Chardin reflected on the meaning of Christianity in the light of modern science, especially in relation to evolution. He was concerned with the social, cultural, and spiritual evolution of humankind, as well as the place of religion, spirituality, and mysticism in an increasingly global society marked by pluralism and convergence. Some of his thoughts parallel those of the Hindu evolutionary thinker Sri Aurobindo.


Born on May 1, 1881, in Sarcenat near Clermont-Ferrand, France, Pierre Teilhard de Chardin was the fourth of eleven children of an ancient aristocratic family of the Auvergne. His father was a gentleman farmer with scientific and literary interests; his mother was a great-grandniece of Voltaire. Brought up in a traditional Catholic milieu marked by a vibrant faith, Teilhard's pantheistic and mystical leanings were already evident in childhood. His devout mother shared his interest in mysticism, whereas his father encouraged the collection of fossils, stones, and other specimens, laying the foundations for his son's future scientific career.

After an excellent education at a Jesuit boarding school, Teilhard entered the Jesuit novitiate at the age of eighteen. Deeply torn between an equally passionate love for God and the natural world, he resolved his crisis of faith by realizing that the search for spiritual perfection could be combined with that for scientific understanding. When the Jesuits were exiled from France, he continued his theological studies at Hastings in the South of England (19021905; 19081912), where he was ordained in 1911. From 1905 to 1908 he taught physics and chemistry to mainly Muslim pupils at a Jesuit school in Cairo. There he first discovered his great attraction to the desert and the East, leading him later to write with great lyrical beauty about cosmic and mystical life, culminating in his spiritual classics "Mass on the World" (1923) and The Divine Milieu (1927).

Henri Bergson's Creative Evolution (1907), which saw the world immersed in an immense stream of evolutionary creation, revealed to Teilhard the meaning of evolution for the Christian faith. Overflowing with the presence of the divine, the living world was experienced by Teilhard as an all-encompassing cosmic, mystical, and "divine milieu." These deeply mystical experiences were followed by scientific studies in Paris, interrupted by World War I, during which Teilhard served as a stretcher-bearer in a North African regiment at the Western Front. Living through the fiercest battles, miraculously never wounded, he found himself part of a pluralistic "human milieu," which led him to speculate about the growing oneness of humanity. These reflections grew later into the new idea of the "noosphere" (sphere of mind), an immense web of inter-thinking and interaction that connects people around the globe, hailing a new stage in human evolution. Almost daily encounters with death moved Teilhard to leave an "intellectual testament," communicating his vision of the world, which in spite of its turmoil he saw as animated by and drawn towards God. He began to write a series of stirring essays, published posthumously as Writings in Time of War (1968). Little known, these were seminal for his later work and provide one of the best introductions to his thought.

Teilhard completed his studies in geology and paleontology after the war. Following the brilliant defense of his doctorate in 1922, he was elected president of the French Geological Society and appointed to the chair in geology at the Institut Catholique in Paris, where he could publicly expound his ideas about evolution and Christianity. This soon led to difficulties with his church, which continued throughout his life. Because of these difficulties, he was glad to join a fossil expedition in China in 1923, where he traversed much of the Mongolian Desert. China soon became a place of almost permanent exile, and he spent most of his scientific career there (19261946) after his license to teach at the Institut Catholique was revoked in 1925 as a result of a paper he wrote on evolution and original sin. Teilhard first worked with Jesuit fellow scientists in Tianjin, and he then became a member of the Chinese Geological Survey in Beijing, where he collaborated in the discovery of the skull of the 200,000-year-old Peking Man at Zhoukoudian. His scientific work brought him into contact with leading paleontologists of his time and involved numerous expeditions across Asia, including trips to India, Indonesia, Myanmar, Sri Lanka, Vietnam, and Japan, as well as regular travels between East and West.

The unforgettable experience of World War I was followed by the equally formative discovery of the vast continent of Asia with its variety of peoples and cultures. Many of Teilhard's essays were written in China, as were his two main books, a practical treatise on spirituality, The Divine Milieu, and his best known, though most difficult work, The Human Phenomenon, which he wrote from 1938 to 1940. Teilhard met some of his best friends in China among American and European scientific colleagues; he also first encountered the American sculptor Lucile Swan in Beijing, with whom he formed a deep, intimate friendship that lasted until the end of his life.

Teilhard returned to Paris after World War II and attracted a considerable following for his ideas. In 1948 he was invited as a candidate for the chair of paleontology at the Collège de France, but fearing further difficulties with the Vatican, his order refused permission. Not being allowed to lecture in public or publish his writings, he accepted a research post at the Wenner-Gren Foundation for Anthropological Research in New York in 1951, and made two trips to fossil sites in South Africa. Lonely and suffering, he spent the last years of his life mostly in New York, where he died in 1955 on Easter Sunday (April 10), as had been his wish. He is buried in the Jesuit cemetery at Saint Andrews on the Hudson.

The posthumous publication of his works raised much interest and controversy due to the exploratory nature, complexity, and unfamiliar terminology of his new ideas, but also due to the challenge of his unifying global vision. Although harshly dealt with by church authorities, Teilhard gained loyal support from several members of his order, especially Henri de Lubac and René d'Ouince, his longtime superior, who described him as "a prophet on trial" in the church of his time.

The Human Being, the World, and God

Teilhard's method is based on a particular kind of phenomenology, different from that of other disciplines. It emphasizes the study of all phenomena by relating outer to inner "seeing." Such seeing involves the correlation of scientific knowledge of the outer world with a unifying inner vision, whereby the world is seen as held together by "Spirit." This holistic approach leads to a profound transformation of the seeing person and the world as seen, for seeing more implies being more.

Teilhard's thought is profoundly ecologicalhe saw human beings as an integral part of cosmos and nature, humankind as part of life, and life as part of the universe. In this dynamic and organic perspective the human being is not a static center, but "the axis and leading shoot of evolution." The rise of evolution is an immense movement through time, from the development of the atom to the molecule and cell, to different forms of life, to human beings with their great diversity. This evolutionary rise toward greater complexity leads in turn to a greater "within" of things, an increase in consciousness and reflection. The idea of greater interiority emerging within more complex organic structures is described as the "law of complexity-consciousness," sometimes called "Teilhardian law," and it is recognized as one of Teilhard's master ideas.

Cosmic, human, and divine dimensions are closely interwoven. Each is involved in a process of becoming, or genesis, and all are centered in Christ. Whereas cosmogenesis refers to the birth of the cosmos, anthropogenesis and noogenesis refer specifically to the emergence of human beings and the birth of thought. These are closely studied by modern science, whereas Christogenesis, or the birth of God in Christ as an event of cosmic significance, can be seen only through the eyes of faith. Cosmic and human evolution are moving onward to a fuller disclosure of Spirit, culminating in "Christ-Omega." The outcome of this forward and upward process cannot be taken for granted but involves human responsibility and co-creativity. For this reason, Teilhard was much concerned with moral and ethical choices, with the hope and energy needed for creating the right future for humanity and the planet, as expressed in The Future of Man (1964). Working for the future and helping in "building the earth" is an important educational task that entails a change of mind and heart in people. Teilhard inquired into the resources of spiritual energy needed to create a better quality of life, greater human integration, and a more peaceful and just world. Although there are thousands of engineers calculating the material energy reserves of the planet, Teilhard inquired about "technicians of the Spirit" who can supply the necessary spiritual energy to sustain the life of individuals and the entire human community.

Here, the spiritual heritage of world faiths and philosophies is most important, providing some of the most valuable spiritual energy resources. Human beings are responsible for their further self-evolution and a greater unification of the human community, but these goals need ultimately spiritual, rather than merely material, resources, and the greatest of these spiritual resources is love. The noosphere as a sphere of thoughtsurrounding the globe like the atmosphere as a layer of air or the biosphere as layer of lifecan also be interpreted as an active sphere of love through which greater bonds of unity, of "amorization," are created between human beings. Teilhard was convinced that people must study the phenomenon of love as the most sacred spiritual energy resource in the same way that they study all other phenomena in the world. Love is so central in his thinking that Teilhard's entire corpus can be interpreted as a metaphysic of love. Yet he also called for a rigorously scientific approach to the energies of love, just as the sociologist Pitirim Sorokin proposed a scientific analysis of the production of "love-energy" in the human community, so necessary for its self-transformation.

Teilhard's dynamic understanding of God is sometimes compared to that of process philosophy and is best described as panentheism. His deeply mystical approach to God is expressed in his spiritual writings, such as The Divine Milieu and The Heart of Matter (1978). It centers above all in the person of Christ, whom Teilhard experienced as a cosmic and universal reality. He spoke of the "three natures" of Christ: human, divine, and cosmic. His numerous reflections on the universal, cosmic Christ contain important suggestions for a new Christology, never systematically developed. Teilhard spoke of the ever-present, ever-greater Christ, expressing a strongly Christocentric vision of faith that was grounded in a pan-Christic mysticism. As he often used the image of fire and heart, drawn from the Bible and the Christian mystics, Teilhard's spirituality can also be described as a fire-and-heart mysticism, at once profoundly modern and ancient. In its affirmation of the world as God's creation, it belongs to the kataphatic rather than apophatic type of Christian mysticism, expressing a strong affinity with contemporary creation spirituality.

Mircea Eliade saw Teilhard de Chardin's specific genius in celebrating the sacredness of the cosmos. However, the cosmos cannot be seen in isolation from the social and spiritual bonds of humanity, animated by the powers of all-transforming love and seeking a higher form of union. Scattered across Teilhard's writings exists a general theory about religion as the driving force in human evolution. Central to the phenomenon of religion and spirituality is the phenomenon of mysticism, experienced in a variety of forms across different religious traditions and culminating in a mysticism of love and action.

Teilhard's vision of the world represents a unique blend of science, religion, and mysticism. Central to it are the ideas of the noosphere and the divine milieuthe first belonging more to a secular context, the second to a deeply religious contextas well as ideas about spiritual energy, and the transformative powers of love. The essayistic, fragmentary nature of Teilhard's work, with its profusion of ideas and fluidity of language, marks him more as a postmodern than a traditional thinker. Insufficiently well known, and often cited out of context, his work contains challenging reflections on God, the world, humanity, science and religion, ecological responsibilities, interfaith encounter, and the convergence of religions. Teilhard's work also explores a greater unification, or "planetization," of humanity; the place of the feminine and love in creating greater unity; and the central importance of spirituality and mysticism. Some of his thoughts are insufficiently developed and opaquely expressed; others must be criticized for certain elements of exclusiveness and Eurocentrism. Yet his ideas are said to have influenced the founding debates of the United Nations, several documents of the Second Vatican Council, Christian-Marxist dialogue, discussions on futurology, and discussions concerning the World Wide Web, whose patron he is sometimes said to be. Others have called Teilhard a New Age prophet, yet such a description ignores the profoundly Christian core of his vision.

Teilhard's mysticism of action is directed towards the creative transformation of the outer and inner world, and it is based on the deepest communion with God, intimately present throughout creation. Teilhard's powerful affirmation of the incarnation and his brilliant vision of the universal, cosmic Christ within an evolutionary perspective provide inspiring ideas for a reinterpretation of the Christian faith in the modern world, governed by an ongoing scientific and spiritual quest. Theologians will be interested in his understanding of God, Christ, and creation; scholars of religion will gain from his reflections on the place of religion, especially mysticism, in human evolution; and scientists are attracted to the newly emerging possibilities of the noosphere and the as yet unexplored energies of love for achieving profound personal and social transformation.


Pierre Teilhard de Chardin's religious and philosophical works were published posthumously in French between 1955 and 1976 in thirteen volumes entitled Oeuvres (Éditions du Seuil, Paris). Their English translations appeared between 1959 and 1978. Also published were numerous volumes of letters, extracts from his diaries, and the collection of his previously published scientific papers, L'Oeuvre scientifique, edited by Nicole and Karl Schmitz-Moormann, 11 vols. (Olten, Switzerland, 1971).

Teilhard presents his evolutionary system in its most complete form in The Phenomenon of Man (London and New York, 1959), now available in a much-improved translation by Sarah Appleton-Weber, The Human Phenomenon (Brighton, U.K., and Portland, Ore., 1999). To understand the full intent of this work, one should first read Teilhard's classic treatment of Christian spirituality in The Divine Milieu (London and New York, 1960; reprint, translated by Siôn Cowell, Brighton, UK, 2004), followed by the theological essays in Science and Christ (London and New York, 1968) and The Heart of Matter (London and New York, 1978). Many readers find the easiest entry into Teilhard's thought through his vivid letters, especially Letters from a Traveller, edited by Claude Arragonès (London, 1966), or through his early, very lyrical work Writings in Time of War (London, 1968) and the selected essays in Hymn of the Universe (London and New York, 1965). This also contains his famous "The Mass on the World," originally written in 1923. Of particular appeal among his other works are The Future of Man (London and New York, 1964), Human Energy (London and New York, 1969), and Christianity and Evolution (London and New York, 1971).

A helpful reference work has been provided by Siôn Cowell, The Teilhard Lexicon (Brighton, UK, and Portland, Ore., 2001), the first English-language dictionary of Teilhard de Chardin's writings and vocabulary. Claude Cuénot's biography, Teilhard de Chardin (London and Baltimore, 1965), with its rich documentation and detailed bibliography of Teilhard's publications, is an indispensable resource, but not as readable as the shorter life by Mary Lukas and Ellen Lukas, Teilhard (New York and London, 1977), or the illustrated biography by Ursula King, Spirit of Fire: The Life and Vision of Teilhard de Chardin (Maryknoll, N.Y., 1996). The vicissitudes of Teilhard's life, especially the censure of his writings, have been amply documented by his Jesuit superior, René d'Ouince, in Un prophète en procès ; vol. 1, Teilhard de Chardin dans l'église de son temps (Paris, 1970). Among numerous commentators the Jesuit Henri de Lubac must rank as one of the best; his early study The Religion of Teilhard de Chardin (London, 1967) is especially helpful. Another Jesuit, Thomas M. King, offers a searching analysis of Teilhard's mystical experience in Teilhard's Mysticism of Knowing (New York, 1981), undertaken from a different perspective by Ursula King in Towards a New Mysticism: Teilhard de Chardin and Eastern Religions (London and New York, 1980), which examines Teilhard's views on Eastern and Western religions in a converging world, including his new mysticism of action. R. C. Zaehner's Evolution in Religion: A Study in Sri Aurobindo and Pierre Teilhard de Chardin (Oxford, 1971) provides an insightful comparison between a Hindu and Christian approach to the evolutionary reinterpretation of two different religious traditions; see also Ursula King, "Teilhard de Chardin and the Comparative Study of Religions" in Christopher Lamb and Dan Cohn-Sherbok, eds., The Future of Religion: Postmodern Perspectives, Essays in Honour of Ninian Smart (London, 1999), pp. 5476. J. A. Lyons's The Cosmic Christ in Origen and Teilhard de Chardin (Oxford, 1982) analyzes Teilhard's innovative passages on Christ's "three natures" and his traditional roots in Greek patristics. An earlier overall theological synthesis was undertaken by Christopher F. Mooney, Teilhard de Chardin and the Mystery of Christ (New York, 1966).

Well worth studying are The Letters of Teilhard de Chardin and Lucile Swan, edited by Thomas M. King and Mary Wood Gilbert (Washington, D.C., 1993), especially for their detailed coverage of his China years and his friendship with Swan. Mathias Trennert-Hellwig, Die Urkraft des Kosmos: Dimensionen der Liebe im Werk Pierre Teilhard de Chardins (Freiburg, Germany, 1993) provides the most comprehenssive study of Teilhard's dynamic vision of love. A comparison with Pitirim Sorokin's ideas on love is found in Ursula King, "Love A Higher Form of Human Energy in the Work of Teilhard de Chardin and Sorokin," Zygon 39, no. 1 (2004): pp. 77102.

The diffusion and critical reception of The Divine Milieu, especially in France, has been closely examined by Hai-Yan Wang, Le phénomène Teilhard: L'aventure du livre Le Milieu Divin (Paris, 1999). A wide-ranging discussion of Teilhard de Chardin's spirituality is found in Pierre Noir's "Teilhard de Chardin," Dictionnaire de spiritualité: Ascétique et mystique, doctrine et histoire, vol. 15, pp. 115126 (Paris, 1991); selected texts on spirituality have been thematically grouped in Pierre Teilhard de Chardin: Writings, Selected, with an Introduction by Ursula King (Maryknoll, N.Y., 1999). The background, semantic context, and importance of Teilhard de Chardin's noosphere concept in relation to contemporary scientific discussions are extensively documented in The Biosphere and Noosphere Reader: Global Environment, Society, and Change, edited by Paul R. Samson and David Pitt (London, 1999). The relevance of Teilhard de Chardin's work, especially in relation to contemporary cosmology and ecology, is evident from the essays in Teilhard in the 21st Century: The Emerging Spirit of Earth, edited by Arthur Fabel and Donald St. John (Maryknoll, N.Y., 2003).

Ursula King (2005)

Teilhard De Chardin, Pierre

views updated May 18 2018


(b, near Orcines, Puy-de-Döme, France, 1 May 1881; d. New York, N.Y., 10 April 1955)

paleonatology, geology.

Teilhard was born into an aristocratic family at Sarcenat, the familial home. In 1898 he entered the Jesuit order and, after initial studies at Aix-en-Provence and the Isle of Jersey, was assigned to a Jesuit school in Cairo, where he taught physics and chemistry from 1905 to 1908. In Egypt he acquired his first extensive experience in fieldwork, which awakened his interest in the geology of the Tertiary. Although he published a monograph on Eocene strata in Egypt, Teilhard did not acquire true professional competence until he was transferred to the Jesuit house at Hastings, England, where between 1908 and 1912 he studied not only theology but also vertebrate paleontology. Ordained a priest, he returned to Paris in 1912 to study geology and paleontology with Marcellin Boule at the Museum of Natural History; these researches, interrupted by wartime duty as a stretcher-bearer, led to his Sorbonne thesis (1922) on the mammals of the Lower Eocene in France.

From 1920 to 1923 Teilhard taught geology at the Catholic Institute in Paris. In the latter year he made his first journey to China to participate in a paleontological mission with Émile Licent. By the time he returned to Paris, his habit of interpreting such theological questions as original sin in the light of evolutionary ideas had attracted opposition, with the result that he was forbidden to continue lecturing at the Catholic Institute. In April 1926 he departed for virtual exile in China.

The years 1908–1912 had been ones of critical intellectual formation. At Hastings he became acquainted with the evolutionary philosophy of Henri Bergson, whose book L’évolution créatriceproved to be the most important source of Teilhard’s emerging world view, although Teilhard’s notion of a converging cosmos was antithetical to that of Bergson. By 1916 (in his essay “La vie cosmique”) the main lines of Teilhard’s idea of a cosmic and directed evolutionary force had already developed. In Paris, before his definitive departure for China. Teilhard further developed his philosophical ideas in conjunction with the Bergsonian philosopher Édouard Le Roy and the Russian geologist V.I . Vernadsky. Le Roy and Teilhard attended Vernadsky’s 1922–1923 Sorbonne lectures on geochemistry, in which the Russian explicated his concept of the biosphere. It was this stimulus that led Teilhard, in a series of lectures on evolution in 1925–1926, to develop the concept of the noosphere, or thinking layer of the earth, representing a higher stage of evolutionary development. During his first months in China he set down his ideas in Le milieu divin, in which the theme of man as the culmination of the evolutionary impulse emerges in full relief.

The next few years, spent largely in collaboration with Licent, were productive ones for Teilhard. He continued work on Quaternary and Tertiary mammals, participating in 1928 in a joint study with Boule, Licent, and Henri Breuil on the Chinese Paleolithic, his contribution being studies on geology and his specialty, mammalian fauna, which he found to be quite similar to the mammals of the European Pleistocene. In 1929 he was scientific adviser to the Chinese Geological Survey and, in his own words, “heading the geological advance in China.” By the end of the decade he had terminated his relationship with Licent and had shifted his scholarly connections from French to Sino-American institutions; it was against this background that the discoveries at Chou-k’ou-tien were made. There, in 1929, a human cranium, that of the celebrated Sinanthropus, was unearthed by Pei Wen-chung. Teilhard, as the research team’s geologist (as well as coordinator of operations), was able to demonstrate the earliness of the skull, which later proved to be a close relation of the Pithecanthropus of Java.

The next phase of Teilhard’s career was devoted largely to geological research as he sought to synthesize the continental geology of Asia. In 1929 he began a series of expeditions, including the Roy Chapman Andrews Central Asia expedition (summer 1930) and th Croisieáre Jaune expedition of 1931–1932 (which Teilhard regarded as a pseudo-scientific venture but one that nevertheless enabled him to complete syntheses of the tectonics of northern China and of the Pleistocene geology of Central Asia).

By 1934 Teilhard was acting director of the Geological Survey and an active participant in the Cenozoic Research Laboratory in Peking. He next sought to connect the Tertiary and Quaternary geologic structure of northern China with that of the south, following the lines of fissure, a project that led to a trip to India with Helmut de Terra to connect the geology of the subcontinent with that of China. From 1931 to 1938 Teilhard produced a series of essays contributing to his synthesis of Asian geology and paleontology.

After 1938, with the exception of two trips to Africa, Teilhard’s fieldwork was over. During the Japanese occupation he wrote several important monographs on human paleontology and fossil mammals in China. It was during this same period that his major philosophical works were conceived, beginning with the first chapter of Le pheénomène humain in 1938.

The Teilhardian thesis is not a scientific theory but, rather, a philosophical world view based on certain themes drawn from the evolutionary synthesis and expressed in mystical, often poetic, terms. Teilhard discerned in the historical development of the cosmos a law of “complexity-consciousness,” a notion reminiscent of Haeckel’s views on the psychic unity of the organic world, only extended on a cosmic scale to include the inorganic world. According to Teilhard’s law, each successive stage in the evolutionary process is marked, first, by an increasing degree of complexity in organization and, second, by a corresponding increase in degree of consciousness. Evolution thus proceeds in orderly fashion from the inorganic to the organic, from less complex to more highly organized forms of life, through the process of hominization and beyond to “planetization,” whereby all the peoples of Homo sapiens are to achieve collectively an ultrahuman convergence, seen symbolically as a final “Point Omega.”

As a rationale for his view of an anthropocentric universe, Teilhard invoked Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle to demonstrate that man is the center of all perspective in the natural world. He then applied the second law of thermodynamics to explain the complexification of the universe over time. Energy, instead of being lost through entropy, is converted into what Teilhard termed “radial energy,” a metaphysical construct standing for the evolutionary forces productive of increasing cultural complexity.

In terms of evolutionary process, Teilhard has been typically interpreted as a neo-Lamarckian exponent of orthogenesis: a process of accretion of changes tending in the same direction, toward a divinely inspired mankind. As T. Dobzhansky has noted, Teilhard’s notion of orthogenesis was an eccentric one, the teleological implications of which have been overstressed by religionists to the point of distorting Teilhard’s conception of the evolutionary process. That he was a finalist in the philosophical sense cannot be denied: but his finalism was applied to the evolutionary process only in a retrospective way, as a commentary on the cosmic past. His real understanding of evolution was considerably closer to scientific orthodoxy than has generally been supposed, and toward the end of his life it drew closer to the neo-Darwinian synthesis. He saw evolution functioning through a series of purposeful “gropings” (tâtonnements) that are random until the “purpose” is achieved. The hasard dirigé that governs the process need not be understood in a theologically teleological sense, however, but as a process of response to environmental challenges.

After the war Teilhard returned to Paris, where he labored in vain to publish Le phénomène humain. In 1947 he was ordered to refrain from philosophical writing and in 1949 was denied permission by his order to succeed to Breuil’s chair of paleontology at the Collége de France. The result of these reverses was a second “exile”–to New York (1951–1955) and a research appointment at the Wenner-Gren Foundation for Anthropological Research. He resumed fieldwork on two trips to South Africa to inform himself of the research on Australopithecus. The African experience made it possible for him to complete his scientific synthesis of hominization, in which he characterized anthropogenesis as a bipolar process having an abortive Asian center and another in Africa that led directly to Homo sapiens. At the same time Teilhard continued to relate human origins to general geological development. In his final essays he again articulated his view of man as the primary focus of recent evolutionary development.

The diffusion of Teilhardian evolutionism is not a spurious phenomenon, but a further phase in the popularization of the theory of evolution, whereby entire sectors of society previously hostile to Darwinism have been brought into the evolutionary consensus. The primary diffusion began with the publication of Le phénomène humain in 1955, peaked around 1967, and, by 1970, had encompassed all the cultures of the Catholic West. In 1957 the Holy Office ordered the works of Teilhard removed from the libraries of Catholic institutions and forbade their sale in Catholic bookstores. This move was a prelude to the monitum of 30 June 1962 advising the faithful of errors and ambiguities in Teilhard’s philosophical and theological writings. At the same time, however, the Jesuit order relaxed its former stance and now produced the leading ecclesiastical defenders of Teilhard. That the monitum proved a dead letter can be seen from the feverish Teilhardian literary activity in France, Spain, and (with stronger opposition) Italy, which has had the effect of depolemicizing evolution in most intellectual and many educational sectors of the Catholic world.

A different phenomenon has been the reception of Teilhardism by European Marxists, especially in the Soviet Union. There, Teilhard’s teleological interpretation of evolution has been seen as convergent with dominant concerns of Marxist ideology. The future evolution of the noosphere is to be effected on the basis of the socialization of mankind into ever larger collectivities. Although economic and technological development are indispensable to this movement, both Teilhard and the Marxists believe that “spiritual” (=ideological) factors play a decisive role, particularly a belief in the supreme value of evolution (progress).


I. Original Works. The complete scientific works of Teilhard are collected in Pierre Teilhard de Chardin: L’oeuvre scientifique, Nicole and Karl Schmitz-Moor-mann, eds., 10 vols. (Munich, 1971). Of the collected works in the series published in Paris, only vol. II. L’apparition de l’homme (1956), translated as The Appearance of Man (New York, 1966), contains essays that are, properly speaking, scientific. See also vol. I, Le phénomène humain (1955), translated as The Phenomenon of Man (New York, 1959); vol. III , La vision du passé (1957), translated as The Vision of the Past (New York, 1966), and vol. VIII , Le groupe zoologique humain (1963), translated as Man’s Place in Nature (New York, 1966). His fieldwork in China and Africa can be followed in Lettres de voyages (Paris, 1956), translated as Letters From a Traveller (New York, 1962).

II. Secondary Literature. The burgeoning literature on Teilhard and Teilhardism has been cataloged in several bibliographical guides: Joan E. Jarque, Bibliographie générale des oeuvres et articles sur Pierre Teilhard de Chardin (Fribourg, 1970); Ladislaus Polgar, Internationale Teilhard-Bibliographie, 1955–1965 (Munich, 1965); and Daniel Poulin,Teilhard de Chardin. Essai de bibiographie (1955–1966) (Quebec, 1966). Selected works on Teilhard are listed yearly in Archivum historicum Societatis Jesu (Rome). See also Alfred P. Stiernotte, “An Interpretation of Teilhard as Reflected in Recent Literature,” in Zygon, 3 (1968), 377–425. Useful as critical apparatus are Claude Cuénot, Nouveau lexique Teilhard de Chardin (Paris, 1968); and Paul l’Àrchevêque. Teilhard de Chardin. Index analytique (Quebec, 1967), a composite index to the first 9 vols. of Teilhard’s Oeuvres.

Among the periodicals published by societies devoted to the thought of Teilhard, see Société Teilhard de Chardin (Brussels), Revue (1960– ) and Univers 1964– ); Société Pierre Teilhard de Chardin (Paris), Carnets Teilhard (1962–); Association des Amis de Pierre Teilhard de Chardin (Paris), Cahiers (1958–1965) and Bulletin (1966– ); the Teilhard Center for the Future of Man,Teilhard Review (1966– ); and Gesellschaft Teilhard de Chardin (Munich), Acta Teilhardiana (1964– ).

The standard biography of Teilhard is Claude Cuénot, Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, les grandes étapes de son évolution (Paris, 1958), also in English (Baltimore, 1965). Works dealing primarily with Teilhard’s scientific career are George B. Barbour, In the Field With Teilhard de Chardin (New York, 1965); Louis Barjon and Pierre Leroy, La carrière scientifique de Pierre Teilhard de Chardin (Monaco, 1964); Henri Breuil, “Les enquêtes du géologue et du préhistorien,” in Table ronde, no. 90 (June 1955), 19–24; Paul Chauchard, La pensée scientifique de Teilhard (Paris, 1965); George Magloire, Teilhard et le sinanthrope (Paris, 1964); Henry Fairfield Osborn, “Explorations, Researches and Publications of Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, 1911–1931,” American Museum Novitates, no. 485 (25 Aug. 1931); Jean Piveteau, Le Père Teilhard de Chardin savant (Paris, 1964); and Helmut de Terra, Mein Weg mit P. Teilhard de Chardin (Munich, 1962), also in English (London, 1964).

General works on Teilhard’s philosophy are Henri de Lubac, La pensée religieuse du Père Teilhard de Chardin (Paris, 1962), also in English (New York, 1967); Émile Rideau, La pensée du Père Teilhard de Chardin (Paris, 1965), also in English (New York, 1967); and Bernard Towers, Teilhard de Chardin (London, 1966). For the “prehistory” of Teilhard’s Catholic evolutionism in France, see Henri Begouen, Quelques souvenirs sur le movement des idées transformistes dans les milieux catholiques (Paris, 1945). Among the explications of Teilhardian evolutionism, see Bernard Delfgaauw, Teilhard de Chardin (Baarn, Netherlands, 1961), translated as Evolution: The Theory of Teilhard de Chardin (New York, 1969); and Fernando Riaza, Teilhard de Chardin y la evolución biológica (Madrid, 1968). Commentary by scientists, from favorable to hostile, includes essays by Theodosius Dobzhansky in The Biology of Ultimate Concern (New York, 1969), 213–233, and George Gaylord Simpson in This View of Life (New York, 1964), 108–137; and P. B. Medawar’s famous critique in Mind (Oxford), 70 (1961), 99–106. See also Stephen Toulmin’s aʼnalysis, “On Teilhard de Chardin,” in Commentary, 39 , no. 3 (Mar. 1965), 50–55.

Studies of Teilhard’s sources are underrepresented in the literature. For his dependence on Bergson, see Madeleine Barthélemy-Madaule, Bergson et Teilhard de Chardin (Paris, 1963); on the fleeting, but critical, relationship with Vernadsky, see I. I. Mochalov, V. I. Vernadsky: Chelovek i myslitel (Moscow, 1970) 136–138. On Teilhard and Marxist thought, there are numerous articles by Roger Garaudy, including “The Meaning of Life and History in Marx and Teilhard de Chardin: Teilhard’s Contribution to the Dialogue Between Christians and Marxists,” in Marxism and Christianity: Studies in the Teilhardian Synthesis (London, 1967), 58–72; and “Freedom and Creativity: Marxist and Christian,” in Teilhard Review, 2 (1968–1969), 42–49.

The monitum and Catholic opposition to Teilhard are discussed by René d’Ouince, Un prophéte en procés: Teilhard de Chardin dans l’église de son temps, 2 vols. (Paris, 1970); and by Philippe de la Trinité, Rome et Teilhard de Chardin (Paris, 1964) and Pour et contre Teilhard de Chardin (Paris, 1970).

The diffusion of Teilhardism has yet to be studied systematically. Representative national studies and bibliographies are (France) J. Hassenforder, Ètude de la diffusion d’un succès de libraire (Le phénomène humain) (Paris, 1957); (England) Bernard Towers, “The Teilhard Movement in Britain,” in Month, 36 (1966), 188–196; (Germany) Helmut de Terra, Bibliographie des deutsch-sprachigen Schrifttums von und über Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, 1955–1964 (Frankfurt, 1965); (Italy) Elio Gentili, “Pierre Teilhard de Chardin in Italia. Bibliografia,” in Scuola cattolica, 93 (1965), supp. biblio. 1, 247–334, and 95 (1967), supp. biblio. 2, 138–181; and Marcello Vigli, “Fortuna e funzioni del teilhardismo in Italia,” in Questitalia, 11 (1968), 352–370; (Soviet Union and eastern Europe) Ladis K. D. Kristof, “Teilhard de Chardin and the Communist Quest for a Space Age World View,” in Russian Review, 28 (1969), 277–288; and V. Pasika, “Teiiar de Sharden,” in Filosofskaya entsiklopedia, V (Moscow, 1970), 192–193; (Spain) Miguel Crusafont Pairó, “Teilhard de Chardin en España,” in Acta Teilhardiana, 5 (1968), 53–63. For a quantitative overview, see José Rubio Carracedo, “Quince años después: Del teilhardismo a Teilhard,” in Arbor (Madrid), 76 (1970–1971), 43–46.

Thomas F. Glick

Teilhard de Chardin, Pierre

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Teilhard de Chardin, Pierre

The thought and works of Pierre Teilhard de Chardin represent the widest and deepest attempt to reconcile Christian theology and the scientific worldview of biological evolution. Teilhard de Chardin noted the peculiar contributions of modern science to the vision of creation. Arguing that evolution moves toward complexity and consciousness, he noted that the order implied by creation is in the future and is achieved as a result of both the mechanisms of evolution and the action of humankind. The theological vision of the movement of creation toward unity, redemption, and salvation is now referred to as the evolutionary universe.

Early life and influences

Pierre Teilhard de Chardin was born in Sacernat in the French region of Auvergne in 1881, a year before the death of Charles Darwin. Teilhard died in New York in 1955. He entered the Society of Jesus in 1899 and was ordained a Roman Catholic priest in 1911. A year later he started his scientific training in natural science with a special interest in paleontology at the Institute of Human Paleontology in Paris, under the direction of Marcellin Boule, one of the most eminent human paleontologists of that time. There Teilhard completed all his scientific training until the doctoral thesis.

Teilhard de Chardin's vocation became clear to him during the first world war; he wrote in his diary: "I would like to reconcile with God what is good in the modern worldits scientific intuitions, its social desires, it proper criticisms" (Journal, pp. 9091). For Teilhard, one of the great novelties of the modern world was evolution: the theory that life, Earth, and the whole universe are subject to a nonreversible change over time. From his point of view, evolution was not only a theory to be investigated, but also the scientific description of a peculiar way of creation, which required new approaches from theologians and philosophers "The adoption of the evolutionary mode for the formation of the world implies a particular mode of appareance 'ex nihilo subjecti' and suggests that this world has a deep ontological reason " (Journal, p. 264).

After completing his doctoral degree, Teilhard became chair of geology at the Catholic Institute of Paris. There, together with the French philosopher Edouard LeRoy and the Soviet geochemist Vladimir Vernadskij, he coined the word Noosphere, which he defined as the totality of all thinking creatures, "the psychically reflexive human surface." According to Karl and Nicole Schmitz Moormann in Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, L'oeuvre Scientifique, Teilhard also started to envision a new global approach to evolution as a matter concerning the whole biosphere.

Darwin and evolution

In the meantime, he wrote a private note on original sin, in which he suggested that, in an evolving universe, order is not to be found at the beginning, only to be ruined by human sin, but order will come in the future and has to be constructed by human action. According to Teilhard, there is no gap in the history of life, no nature uncorrupted before sin and corrupted after sin. The mechanism of biological evolution, which involves the undeterministic and dramatic events first elucidated by Darwin, are present from the very beginning of life and are a general characteristic of the evolution of the universe.

Teilhard's unconventional views resulted in his removal from his academic chair and his invitation to stay in China. Yet his theological revolution was only beginning. Because the promise of order resides in the future, he speculated, Christians are not only asked to reach their own eschatological salvation in paradise, but also to construct the Earth and a new type of human on Earth. At the end of the process of evolution humankind will reach a single point of convergence, the Omega Point, where there will be the second and final coming of Christ. A new ontological value is suggested in this scientific description of nature: evolution as movement toward an endpoint, a goal. The deep meanings of the universe, from both the theological and philosophical points of view, are related to this idea of movement toward something: of matter toward life, of life toward consciousness, of consciousness toward the thinking creature and the Noosphere, the Noosphere toward the Omega Point. Teilhard considered this movement the result of the complexityconsciousness law and he argued that it recovers the theological necessity for the emergence of humankind.

Teilhard was well aware of new research and discoveries in evolutionary biology. He was most interested in the aspect of Darwinism in which chance plays a central role, but he thought that a correct scientific analysis would be able to demonstrate the presence of canalisation (the determination of a direction to evolution in a - particular phyletic branch) and parallelisms (phyletic branches that separate off a common branch evolve in parallel and develop similar characteristics). In fact, Teilhard discussed the parallelisms of primates toward increasing brain size in his first scientific papers as a trained palaeontologist. For Teilhard, if there is a general movement that characterizes evolution, this movement has to be evidenced from an experimental point of view. He grappled with the question of how to reconcile this vision with the revision of Darwinism called modern synthesis, which was in vogue at the time Teilhard was working in palaeontology and which seemed to deny any epistemological meaning to evolutionary direction.

Teilhard de Chardin believed that only a global experimental approach could demonstrate the directional movement of evolution. Most palaeontologists relied on fossil records, and the lack of a broader global approach by the proponents of the modern synthesis, who used a reductionistic approach based on genes and populations, was the epistemological reason for their rejection of the idea of evolution as moving toward a goal. Some of the innovations of biology, for example, the global approach and the definition of biology as the science of complexity, were developed by Teilhard in an attempt to answer questions posed by theology.

Global approach

Central to the evolution of Teilhard's thought was his move to China in 1923, where he worked on the geology, palaeontology, and paleoanthropology of the Asiatic continent. Here, he was able to study evolution on a large scale, both in time and space, and the possibility of a global approach to evolutionary biology became more possible. He intended such a global approach to be part of his program of studying the biosphere, and the continental evolution that he had in mind at the time was an epistemological tool, by which he could study the evolution of the biosphere on a reduced scale but without distortions.

A new model of the interaction of science and theology became apparent: Some of the characteristics of theology, such as the eschatological movement toward an endpoint, and some level of necessity of the thinking creature, are recovered as the metaphysical frame of a true scientific research program. In addition, research that describes the evolution of the universe and its mechanisms can form a starting point for a new theological program. The epistemological model of Teilhard, presented in the introduction of The Human Phenomenon (1955), is that there are points where science, philosophy, and theology converge, and these points must be handled in the correct way. The main philosophic frame is that of totality because it is the concept of totality that requires general connections, but totality is also the way to propose the global view in construction of evolutionary theories concerning the biosphere. The peculiarities of the whole can be lost in a reductionistic approach. Teilhard wrote these ideas in letters from China just after an expedition in the Gobi desert, where he envisioned the mystical experience of totality and where he was inspired to write the "Mass on the World." There is the possibility that mystical knowledge, or at least mystical experience, was at the very basis of his research program.


From these connections, Teilhard de Chardin developed the notion of "complexity" and proposed a new science called geobiology, the science of continental evolution, which he intended as part of his global program to study evolution. He was able to develop an experimental approach to fossil evolution that showed that evolution is characterised by canalisation and parallelisms. The main parallelism, at least in animals, was the moving of different evolutionary branches toward increasing cerebralization, which Teilhard saw as experimental proof of the directional movement of evolution. The present day discussion about the increasing in complexity of life evolution has in Teilhard one of its forerunners.

Finally, developing Teilhard's vision, evolution is moving toward complexity and consciousness with mechanisms not strictly deterministic: There is room for chance and blind movements. Teilhard looked for philosophical and theological meanings of these mechanisms, and found them in the idea of freedom. He believed that freedom is the third ontological characteristic of the universe suggested by modern science.

These mechanisms are not proof of the lack of purpose or design, but they are compatible with the idea that design implies freedom and that the nondeterministic structure of the universe is the only way to allow room for the free action of the thinking creature. The lack of order at the beginning of the universe gives the thinking creature room for free action in order to conduct general movement toward the Omega Point. The creation and evolution of the Earth is owed to (or thanks to) the freely accepted alliance of creator and the created. The synthesis of interaction of science and faith finds here its climax.

See also Chance; Christianity, Roman Catholic, Issues in Science and Religion; Complexity; Convergence; Darwin, Charles; Emergence; Evolution; Freedom; Incarnation; Mysticism; Paleontology


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galleni, lodovico, and groessens-van dyck, marie claire. "lettres d' un paléontologue. neuf lettres inédites de pierre teilhard de chardin à marcellin boule." revue des questions scientifiques 172, no. 1 (2001): 5104

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ludovico galleni

Teilhard de Chardin, Pierre

views updated May 11 2018


Paleontologist and proponent of a synthesis of the evolutionary perspective of modern science with the Christian world view; b. Sarcenat (Orcines, Puy de Dôme), France, May 1, 1881; d. New York City, Apr. 10, 1955. After preparation at the Jesuit College of Mongré, he entered the Society of Jesus (Province of Lyons) in 1899. He studied philosophy in Jersey, theology in Hastings, and was ordained in 1911. In 1912 he began work in paleontology at the Museum of Paris under the direction of M. Boule. Interrupted in his studies by service as a stretcher-bearer during World War I, he subsequently completed his doctoral thesis, Les Mammifères de l'Éocèen inférieur français et leur gisements, and successfully defended it at the Sorbonne in 1922.

Teilhard taught geology for a brief period at the Catholic Institute of Paris but soon left for China, where he resided from 1923 to 1946. There, as a consultant to the Geological Survey, he focused his attention on the stratigraphy and paleontology of northern China and Asia. In this role he collaborated in the excavations at Zhoukoudlanzhen near Beijing and in the discovery of Sinanthropus. He participated also in numerous scientific expeditions in Central Asia, India, and Burma. From 1946 until his death, at first in France, then in New York as a fellow of the Wenner-Gren Foundation for Anthropological Research, he gave himself to the elaboration of an anthropogenesis, a kind of new anthropology treating the genetic structure of humanity as a special biological unit of planetary scope. The foundation sent him to South Africa on two different occasions to organize expeditions to search out the origins of human life south of the Sahara desert. His correspondence [Letters of a Traveller (New York 1962)] is a basic source on his career and the evolution of his thought.

The evolutionary theme (the genesis of continents and of fauna), the thesis of increasing cephalization, and the "law of the disappearance of evolutionary peduncles" appear in the 170 or so articles and technical papers that Teilhard published between 1915 and 1945. His work was essentially in paleontology (Cenozoic mammals of Asia) and stratigraphy. Besides his interest in fauna and the evolution of organic collectivities (often interpreted in explicitly orthogenetic terms and without specific reference to Mendelian or neo-Darwinian theories of evolution), he added substantially to knowledge of sedimentary deposits and of stratigraphical correlations on the Asian continent. His studies in this area are most important to date the fossilized breccia at Zhoukoudianzhen and the fossil man of paleolithic China. But Teilhard's interest in man dominates all his research in these technical fields; it can be observed repeatedly in a series of general articles and essays published together in La Vision du passé (Paris 1957) and L'Apparition de l'homme (Paris 1956).

Teilhard's influence and the exceptional response his work has called forth from all quarters, as well as the controversy that it has engendered, are explained principally by his inquiry into the phenomenology of man, who in Teilhard's eyes constitutes the axis and arrowhead of the cosmic flow and the key for understanding of the universe [cf. The Phenomenon of Man (New York 1959); Le Groupe zoologique humain (Paris 1959)]. The central idea in L'Avenir de l'homme (Paris 1959) and L'Energie humaine (Paris 1962) is that the stuff of this world develops (cosmogenesis) according to a law of increasing complexity and consciousness until the appearance of man (anthropogenesis) and the noosphere, and then converges in a rhythm of hypersocialization toward an Omega point (Christogenesis). The fact that Teilhard places man at the structural center of all cosmic perspective leads him to situate Christianity in human history precisely as man himself is situated in nature, that is, as informing and consolidating man's axial and leading role and transforming all his human psychic energy.

From the scientific point of view, it is difficult to establish precisely the methodology employed by Teilhard and to accept as rigorously proven all of his conclusions. Moreover, the philosophical and theological implications of his system have sometimes aroused passionate discussion. This explains the monitum of the Holy Office on June 30, 1962, which warns against uncritical acceptance of his theories, although it does not question the value of his scientific work or the righteousness of his intentions and the sincerity or fervor of his spiritual life [for which see The Divine Milieu (New York 1960), a stirring expression of a spirituality both supremely original and profoundly traditional]. The monitum is neither a

condemnation nor a listing in the Index, but a simple warning [Acta Apostolicae Sedis 54 (1962): 526, interpreted by G. Isaye, SJ, in Nouvelle revue théologique 84 (1962): 866869]. Teilhard has been characterized as one of the great minds of the contemporary world, and eminent churchmen have invited scholars to continue to elaborate what Cardinal Feltin has called his marvelous and seductive "global vision of the universe wherein matter and spirit, body and soul, nature and supernature, science and faith find their unity in Christ" [Documentation Catholique 58 (1961): 1523].

Bibliography: Life. c. cuÉnot, P. Teilhard de Chardin:, tr. v. colimore, ed. r. hague (Baltimore 1965). Introd. c. tresmontant, Pierre Teilhard de Chardin: His Thought, tr. s. attanasio (Baltimore 1959). c. e. raven, Teilhard de Chardin: Scientist and Seer (New York 1963). f. g. elliott, "The World Vision of Teilhard de Chardin," International Philosophical Quarterly 1 (1961) 620647. f. russo, "The Phenomenon of Man," America 103 (1960) 185189. n. m. wildiers, Pierre Teilhard de Chardin (Paris 1961). Theology. h. de lubac, La Pensée religieuse du Père Teilhard de Chardin (Paris 1962). g. crespy, La Pensée théologique de Teilhard de Chardin (Paris 1961). "Systema Teilhard de Chardin ad theologicam trutinam revocatum," Divinitas 3 (1959) 219364. c. d'armagnac, "La Pensée du Père Teilhard de Chardin comme apologétique moderne," Nouvelle revue théologique 94 (1962) 598621. Methodology. r. t. francoeur, ed., The World of Teilhard (Baltimore 1961). c. d'armagnac, "Philosophie de la nature et méthode chez le Père Teilhard de Chardin," Archives de philosophie 20 (1957) 541. o. a. rabut, Teilhard de Chardin: A Critical Study (New York 1961). Philosophy. m. barthÉlemy-madaule, Bergson et Teilhard de Chardin (Paris 1963). c. cuÉnot, Teilhard de Chardin (Paris 1962), with biblio.

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Teilhard de Chardin, Pierre

views updated May 18 2018

Teilhard de Chardin, Pierre (1881–1955). French Jesuit palaeontologist and theologian. He entered the Society of Jesus in 1899 and was ordained in 1911. His theories on the origin and development of humanity, first privately circulated among his fellow Jesuits, but later published, attracted a good deal of attention, especially The Phenomenon of Man and Le Milieu divin. He argued that the stuff of which the universe is formed increases in complexity as it evolves, and likewise increases in consciousness. Humanity is one peak in this process, which moves through ever more closely knit social relationships and integration of consciousness towards the Omega Point. This, theologically, he identified with Christ. In 1962 the Holy Office gave a warning that his works had to be read with caution; they were never formally condemned.

Teilhard de Chardin, Pierre

views updated May 29 2018

Teilhard de Chardin, Pierre (1881–1955) French Jesuit philosopher and palaeontologist. He worked in China (1923–46), and shared in the discovery of ‘Peking Man’ (a fossilized Stone-Age human). His philosophical works, such as The Phenomenon of Man (1955), attempt to reconcile scientific views of evolution with Christian faith. His ideas were considered unorthodox by the Church and were only published posthumously.

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