At a time when the Catholic Church was suspicious of evolution, and many clerics were creationists, Teilhard de Chardin stood for evolution. When church leaders encouraged Christians to be other-worldly, he stood for loving the world and the creatures in it – not only for God’s sake, but their own inherent value.
Teilhard de Chardin combined the roles of scientist, priest, and philosopher with an expertise rarely shown before – and arguably never since. A Jesuit priest, de Chardin was a powerful, controversial figure in the history of religion and science.
Born in 1881 in Orcines, France, the young Teilhard entered the Jesuits and fought as a stretcher bearer in World War I, earning several medals, including the legion d’honneur. But Teilhard’s work was to combine priesthood with the role of scientist. The latter task taking him to China to work on fossils of Peking man; it was Teilhard who ascertained that this species was a tool maker.
A committed evolutionist, this belief brought Teilhard into a lifelong conflict with the institutional church, which banned him from teaching in its name, but to which he always remained faithful. Teilhard wanted to die on Easter Sunday; on April 10th 1955 he had his wish, when a heart attack took him.
Convergence: the Key to the Evolution of Mind
Teilhard took Aquinas’ view that truth opposes not truth and applied this with logical rigour to religion and science. Evolution, he knew, was a well-founded theory, though Teilhard had his doubts about orthodox Darwinism, as it had no place for final causes. Final causes mean purposes/goals that draw evolution onwards, as opposed to natural selection, which is the accumulation of small successes and failures. Teilhard saw a place for purpose in evolution, as part of a grand purpose for the world.
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In a way he was attempting to do what the medieval scholastics had done: Create a synthesis of knowledge, a renewal of the great medieval synthesis with a new set of concepts. He aimed this attempt at a new form of Christian thought with a newer form of spirituality. This spirituality would provide a way for humans to love God and the world, and he formulated this in his seminal work, Le Milieu Divin.
For Teilhard, evolution proceeds by divergence into different forms, but mind evolves by convergence, a process of complexification [his term]. In ‘complexification,’ not only neural networks, but also societies complexify, leading the growth of mind and culture. This was part of the process of noogenesis, the development of mind, which is a key stage of biogenesis, the development of life, and leads to the ultimate unification of humanity.
Megasynthesis: the Goal of Evolution
Noogenesis was focused on the omega point. Omega, the last letter of the Greek alphabet, symbolized the ultimate goal of all development. “I am the Alpha and the Omega, the First and the Last, the beginning and the End,” says Christ in Revelations 22:13.
For Teilhard, the Omega point was incarnated in the living Christ, who was the goal of all evolution, the centre on which all development and progress converge.
Yet to draw humanity onwards, Omega ever recedes, Teilhard argues that we can expect nought else, for it draws us towards the infinite. The view that evolution proceeds by complexification implied that humanity would develop only insofar as it unites around Omega.
Teilhard envisaged a final unity of humanity around Omega, the incarnate Christ, as the final goal of the evolutionary process. Here we detect the influence of St Bonaventure, who regarded Christ as the centre, axis and goal of creation, and also of Bonaventure’s fellow Franciscan, Duns Scotus, for whom Christ is primary in creation. For Teilhard, any comprehensive account of the world must, therefore, include Christ.
But there are negative and positive versions of unity. Teilhard rejected the unity of the anthill, in which the individual is a tool of the collective and in which individuality is totally diminished. This is the unity of totalitarian states, and thus he rejected the false paradise offered by totalitarian systems, such as communism.
Instead Teilhard stood for a unity in which the collective and the individual both come to fruition and are perfected, a unity in God in which the world becomes divinized, filled with the divine presence.
Responses to Teilhard: Positive and Negative
Teilhard seems to have a polarizing effect on his audiences. Peter Medawar calls him a charlatan. This is unjust, as a charlatan sells what he knows is untrue, but Teilhard was convinced of the truth of his theory.
Richard Dawkins, howevever, thinks Medawar’s criticism devastating. Jeremy Griffith, on the other hand – an evolutionary biologist committed to a multidisciplinary approach that synthesizes all subjects – regards Teilhard as a visionary philosopher.
The Russian orthodox evolutionary biologist Theodosius Dobzhansky, an exponent of theistic evolution, sees Teilhard as one of the greatest thinkers of our age.
It seems that those committed to an exclusively scientific approach dislike Teilhard; but those with a broader vision value him.
Despite initial suspicion, Teilhard’s stock in the church has risen. Cardinal Schonborn observes that hardly anyone has tried to bring together the knowledge of Christ and evolution as Teilhard has done. Cardinal Ratzinger, later known as Pope Benedict the Sixteenth, has taken up Teilhard’s vision of a world divinized in union with Christ by calling it the goal of creation.
The Significance of Teilhard
This is but a sample or taster of Teilhard’s rich thought. Like all great thinkers, he has bitter foes and devoted friends. His thoughts are not the final word on evolution and religion, but he liked to meditate and this gives us a clue as to how to take him. Teilhard is a stimulus for meditative thought on the presence and role of God in an evolving world.