TEILHARD DE CHARDIN (1881-1955) - JESUIT, SCIENTIST, PROPHET
(Photograph: Fondation Teilhard de Chardin Paris)
As the December 1999 article below makes clear Teilhard (pronounced Tay-ar) has a strong claim to be not only the Man of the Twentieth Century but also the Man of the Millennium. Why?
Because he saw where the human race has come from, and where it is bound, more clearly than anyone since St. Paul. If, having read the article, you are inclined to agree and want to know more please visit the British Teilhard Network website.
TEILHARD DE CHARDIN - MAN OF THE CENTURY?
It's easy to pick the man of the 16th century (Shakespeare) and the 17th century (Shakespeare), but other centuries are trickier. In the 19th you would have to choose between Darwin, Marx or Wagner. In the 20th between Freud, Einstein or Teilhard de Chardin, SJ - and anyone who feels that Teilhard is a long-shot is wrong. Because he saw what it means to be fully human more clearly than anyone else this century. Because he saw where the human race has come from and where it is bound more clearly than anyone since St. Paul.
Perpend. Teilhard was a geologist, a palaeontologist and a Jesuit priest passionately convinced that there was a single key to understanding life, the universe and everything, and the name of the key was evolution. He was passionately convinced that his vocation was to reconcile Darwinism and Christianity, science and religion, matter and spirit. Others before and after him have essayed these tasks, but none with such insight, range, boldness and eloquence, none with the advantage of being a great scientist, a great priest and a superb writer. And a very attractive Frenchman - witty, wise, charming, charismatic.
On top of all this Teilhard de Chardin was a prophet, and his daring speculations, which often strayed well into theological territory, unsurprisingly got him into hot water with Holy Mother Church. She forbade her turbulent priest to teach or publish his notions, and packed him and his hammer off to foreign parts where he could do no harm. But she didn't stop him developing his ideas, writing them down, popping them into bottom drawers. After his death in 1955 friends and colleagues were free to publish his books, and one in particular - The Phenomenon of Man - became an immensely influential bestseller. It is difficult but thrilling, and the basic concept is simple enough.
There is a force within the universe which impels simple elements to link with others and form more complex structures. The aboriginal particles present in the Big Bang quickly formed hydrogen and helium, and in due course stars were born which cooked up heavier elements and simple molecules. These stars exploded, and from their fragments a second generation of stars formed. One of these was our sun, with its orbiting planets.
Now during all these billions of years there were many laws at work but the one in the driving seat was the primal urge towards complexity, more accurately named by Teilhard "the law of complexity-consciousness". The more complex a structure is the closer it comes to being alive and thinking. This is so because there is a "within" of things as well as a "without"; even sub-atomic particles must possess pre-life and pre-mind, because the universe is a consistent whole.
On planet Earth carbon-based molecules duly developed into tiny living beings. Evolution thrust onwards and upwards: simple cells united to form multi-celled organisms; these gave rise to animals with a nervous system and a brain, and as brains grew bigger and better there finally emerged the next major break-through - consciousness. After 12 billion years the evolving universe was at last conscious of itself. Our globe was now enveloped not only by a layer of life (the biosphere) but by a layer of thought (the noosphere).
Some people object to this model of the journey from Big Bang to big brain. They argue that the cosmos is merely a meaningless quadrille danced by quarks and leptons; human beings are the insignificant by-product of blind, pitiless chance-and-necessity, due to be utterly extinguished when the sun explodes. Moreover, we may disappear long before then; our successors may even now be lurking unsuspected on the earth, as once the mammals among the dinosaurs. Teilhard of course would have none of this; au contraire, he took his own concept further.
Having produced thought evolution had by no means peaked. The final stage of the journey is for all these minds, these persons, to grow together in knowledge and love, to converge, to unite as a single arrow soaring towards a single goal beyond time and space, a goal Teilhard called Omega. And because the emergence of the personal in the universe is the highest good, Omega must also be supremely personal - be in fact the supreme Person, Christ. As St. Paul almost said, our task is to become cells of the body of Christ.
Thus the story of evolution is fundamentally the transformation of physical energy and matter into spiritual energy and matter. The 2nd law of thermodynamics makes it certain that the entire physical universe will one day die - burn out or disappear into a super black hole - but thought and spirit will survive and find their home in Christ. It follows that the human race (with Christianity at its centre) is the cutting edge of evolution; created, directed and attracted by Christ - Jesus of Nazareth, Mary's son, who is also the cosmic Christ of St. Paul and St. John and the Apocalypse.
One of the tests of greatness is fecundity, and myriad ideas flow from Teilhard's marvellous vision. Clearly one of humanity's principal tasks is not to fear matter and flee the world but to build the earth; we make our way to Heaven through Earth. Anything creative, however humble, any search for truth, is good. Inevitably, searching and creating in an evolving world will entail suffering, and to undergo this is to share in the Cross of Christ. Indeed, one of Teilhard's more controversial claims is that the sacrifice of Calvary was not merely an act of expiation by the Son through which the sinful, estranged human race was reconciled with the Father. The Cross means that, certainly, but also shows that the suffering Christ is he who bears the weight of a world in evolution.
Equally original ideas abound - on the significance of the first World War; of the Eucharist; of the atom bomb; of evil; of a cyclotron; of the eternal feminine; of Hell. How to reconcile the story of Adam and Eve with what science tells us about human evolution; why the age of nations must pass; whether there are other inhabited worlds; how to approach death. Fruitful Teilhard most certainly was.
He had and has his critics, both secular and ecclesiastical, but his central concept remains vital. The intensification of the noosphere is everywhere evident; television, the telephone and the Internet are both means and metaphors for this process; "no man is an island" has never been so true. As church-going Christianity declines in the West Teilhard's vision of an evolving universe charged with the grandeur of God, of a human race whose ultimate goal is Christ, becomes ever more luminous, ever more necessary.
Teilhard de Chardin Man of the Century? Man of the Millennium, more like.
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