Pierre Teilhard de Chardin

From our service on February 7, 2021, a story of the inspiring life of Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, as recounted by Colin Mills.

One of my favorite prayers begins with these words:

Above all, trust in the slow work of God.
We are quite naturally impatient in everything to reach the end without delay.
We should like to skip the intermediate stages.
We are impatient of being on the way to something unknown, something new.

And yet it is the law of all progress
that it is made by passing through some stages of instability —
and that it may take a very long time.

The man who wrote those words understood what he was talking about. He was a Jesuit priest who developed unorthodox ideas about human consciousness and the path of evolution. During his lifetime, those ideas were dismissed and rejected. But in the years since, he has been recognized as a visionary philosopher who was ahead of his time. The story of Pierre Teilhard de Chardin demonstrates the importance in trusting the slow work of God.

Growing up in France in the late 19th century, Teilhard was fascinated by the natural world, rocks in particular. He was also fascinated by religion, a fascination he credited to his mother: “[W]ithout a doubt, it was through my mother that it came to me, sprung from the stream of Christian mysticism, to light up and kindle my childish soul.” At the age of 18, he joined the Jesuit order; at the urging of his advisors, he also pursued his interest in science.

Teilhard was serious about his faith, but he had no interest in locking himself away from the world. During World War I, he served as a stretcher-bearer on the front lines, serving with such valor that he earned the Chevalier de la Legion d’Honneur. After the war, he traveled the globe to participate in archeological and paleontological expeditions; he helped discover the “Peking Man” fossils in 1926.

Throughout his life, Teilhard sought to connect his two great loves: the world of science and his Catholic faith. He found a bridge between them in the theory of evolution. In Teilhard’s vision, evolution was designed to bring the universe into oneness with God. He believed that matter evolved in the direction of increasing complexity and consciousness. He developed the concept of the “noosphere,” or sphere of reason, a layer of information fueled by human consciousness that would envelop the earth: “A glow rippled outward from the first spark of conscious reflection… The fire spreads in ever-widening circles, till finally the whole planet is covered with incandescence.” He believed the path of evolution leads to the “Omega Point,” when the material and spiritual world unite as one.

Unfortunately for Teilhard, the leaders of the Roman Catholic church were skeptical of evolution, considering it incompatible with dogma, and they were just as skeptical of him. They rejected his theories, forbid him to teach, and banned his works from being published during his lifetime. Scientists weren’t any more welcoming of his ideas, which they considered loopy and confused. When Teilhard died on Easter Sunday of 1955, his theories seemed destined to die with him.

Over time, however, Teilhard’s reputation has risen and his visions have been vindicated in many ways. In the Internet, a network of information that connects the globe, we see Teilhard’s noosphere come to life. The idea of consciousness emerging from increasing complexity appears in neural networks and artificial intelligence. When today’s thinkers discuss the Singularity, we can hear echoes of the Omega Point.

Some even consider Teilhard to be the spiritual father of the New Age movement. This passage from his book “The Phenomenon of Man” certainly has a New Age feel: “Love alone is capable of uniting living beings in such a way as to complete and fulfill them, for it alone takes them and joins them by what is deepest in themselves. All we need is to imagine our ability to love developing until it embraces the totality of men and the earth.”

Teilhard has been referenced in works by Arthur C. Clarke, Don DeLillo, Flannery O’Connor, and Salvador Dali. Political leaders such as Al Gore and Mario Cuomo have cited him as an inspiration. Even prominent Catholic figures like Henri Nouwen, Cardinal Ratzinger (later Pope Benedict XVI), and Pope Francis have spoken approvingly of his work. Far from being forgotten, Teilhard and his ideas have been rediscovered and celebrated.

Pierre Teilhard de Chardin persevered through rejection and scorn by the strength of his faith. We should follow his example and proceed in faith, love, and trust in the slow work of God.

Watch this segment on video (starting at 4:50):