Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, SJ (1881-1955)

Pierre Teilhard de Chardin was a Jesuit paleontologist who worked to understand evolution and faith. He was born May 1, 1881, and died on April 10, 1955. Between these days Teilhard fully participated in a life that included priesthood, living and working in the front lines of war, field work exploring the early origins of the human race, and adventurous travels of discovery in the backlands of China. Pierre Teilhard de Chardin also participated fully in an intellectual life through the development of his imaginative, mystical writings on the evolutionary nature of the world and the cosmos.

Teilhard suffered from the rejection of his writings by ecclesiastical authorities and—perhaps felt more severely by him—by the Jesuit leadership. In his thinking and writing Teilhard studied the intimate relationship between the evolutionary development of the material and the spiritual world, leading him to celebrate the sacredness of matter infused with the Divine presence.

Teilhard’s interest in the world of nature began when he was a child. As he grew up he studied geology and the natural sciences. After he entered the Jesuits, he was ready to give up these interests in order to devote himself to his spiritual vocation. But Pierre Teilhard de Chardin was dissuaded by his wise Jesuit spiritual director, who advised him that following his intellectual interests also gave glory to God. Through his theological studies and continued studies in the natural sciences, Teilhard sought to create intellectual space in which the physical and spiritual world could be appreciated for their unique contribution to human life.

Teilhard’s thinking was tested in the midst of the first great tragedy of the 20th century, World War I. Although he was ordained a priest in 1911, Pierre was drafted into the French army in 1914. He turned down a commission in order to serve as a stretcher bearer, serving in many of the major battles including Champaign, Verdun, and the second Battle of the Marne. Teilhard served heroically, winning the Croix the Guerre and the Chevalier de la Legion d’Honneur. In the midst of this slaughter and crippling of millions of men, Teilhard’s faith was shaken. But his insight into the evolving flow of history helped him to see, even in the midst of human tragedy, a sense of communion with the world and communion with God united in the crucified Christ.

After the war, Teilhard went on to receive a doctorate in geology from the Sorbonne. His developing insights on the nature of evolution did not sit well with a hierarchy uncomfortable with the idea of evolution and its spiritual consequences. So in 1923 Teilhard was given permission to go to China to do paleontological work in the backcountry around Beijing (Peking). Teilhard spent many of the 23 years between 1923 and 1946 doing fieldwork in China under the most primitive conditions.

Expeditions took him to difficult areas where he endured blistering heat, icy blizzards, poor food, sandstorms, snakes, flash floods, marauding bandits, civil war, political intrigue, bribery, and maddening policy changes leveled by unstable governments.

(Foreword to The Divine Milieu, Thomas King , SJ, newly revised translation by Sion Cowell, xvii)

No matter how trying the times, Teilhard continued to develop his positive vision by writing some of his most important works: The Divine Milieu (1927), The Vision of the Past (1935), Building the Earth (1937), The Phenomena of Man (1940), and The Future of Man (1941). Teilhard’s efforts to receive ecclesiastical approval for the publication of The Phenomena of Man failed, and he was also denied the opportunity to teach in France. With his health failing, Teilhard traveled to South America and South Africa tracing further discoveries of the evolutionary journey. He finally settled at St. Ignatius Parish in New York City where he died peacefully Easter Sunday, April 10, 1955.

By Jim Campbell

Quotes by Pierre Teilhard de Chardin

“It is through the collaboration which he solicits from us that Christ, starting from all creatures, is consummated and attains his plenitude. St. Paul himself tells us so. We may, perhaps, imagine that Creation was finished long ago. But that would be quite wrong. It continues in still more magnificent form in the highest zones of the world….Our role is to help complete it, if only by the humble work of our hands. This is the real meaning and the price of our acts. Owing to the interrelation between matter, soul, and Christ, we lead part of the being which he desires back to God in whatever we do. With each of our works, we labor automatically but really to build the Pleroma, which is to say we help towards the fulfillment of Christ.” (The Divinization of Our Activities” in Modern Catholic Thinkers [Vol. 1], New York: Harper 1960.)

“Lord Christ, you who are divine energy and living irresistible might: since of the two of us it is you who are infinitely the stronger, it is you who must set me ablaze and transmute me into fire that we may be welded together and made one. Grant me, then, something even more precious than that grace for which all your faithful followers pray: to receive communion as I die is not sufficient: teach me to make a communion of death itself.” (Hymn of the Universe, NY: Harper and Row 1965.)

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