Teilhard De Chardin: Evolution of a Priest-Geologist

Article excerpt

"There is a communion with God, a communion with the earth, and a communion with God through the earth."

--Teilhard de Chardin (1916)

This quote aptly sums up the life, work and vision of Teilhard de Chardin, a Catholic priest, an active geologist, and a modern theologian, who died in 1955 (now fifty years ago). His writings and ideas serve as a vantage point for integrating modern science and discoveries with religion and spiritual beliefs.

Two in one: A Jesuit priest and an earth scientist

Marie Joseph Pierre Teilhard de Chardin was born on May 1, 1881, in his family's country estate of Sarcenat, a few miles outside Clermont-Ferrand, the provincial capital of the Auvergne in southern France. The Auvergne is a land with rich history and charming nature. Its green and mountainous landscape is built on ancient volcanic rocks, and its Christian population dates back to the Romans. Pierre was the fourth of eleven children. His father, Emmanuel, was a landowner and an amateur naturalist who instilled in Pierre the love of rocks, plants, and animals. His mother, Berthe-Adele, was a noblewoman from northern France, a great-grandniece of Voltaire, and a devout Catholic, who instilled in her children the love of Jesus and Mary. As Pierre wrote later, "Auvergne molded me."

His first memory at the age of five or six connotes a spiritual significance. He recalled that as his mother was snipping off his curly hair he picked one and held it so close to the fire that the hair burned instantly. "A terrible grief assailed me; I had learned that I was perishable."

At age eleven, Teilhard was sent to a Jesuit boarding school in Villefranche- sur-Saone, where he studied for five years. He had decided to become a priest and thus in 1899 he joined the Jesuits as a young novice in Aix-en-Provence. The following year, he was transferred to another Jesuit house in Laval as a junior.

In 1901, the French laws restricted religious groups; the French Jesuits were forced to move their houses to the United Kingdom. Teilhard was thus transferred to the island of Jersey to continue his studies. With his education in the classical Greek and Latin, in 1902 Teilhard was awarded a licentiate in literature from the University of Caen in northern France. He lived in Jersey until 1905 and studied not only theology but also the natural sciences.

During 1905-1908, Teilhard taught natural sciences at a Jesuit college in Cairo, Egypt. He enjoyed his first life experience of the Orient and found time to explore the local geology. He published his first scientific article in 1907 on the fossils of El Faiyum, southwest of Cairo. He was thrilled to know that one of the fossil species he had collected in Egypt was named Teilhardi by the Geological Society of France.

From Cairo, Teilhard returned to the United Kingdom to complete his studies in theology in Hastings, Sussex. From 1908 to 1912, he underwent the disciplined training of a Jesuit scholar. It was in Hastings, as Teilhard wrote later, that "there gradually grew in me, as a presence much more than as an abstract notion, the consciousness of a deep-running, ontological, total Current which embraced the whole Universe in which I moved." He was ordained a priest on August 24, 1911, at the age of thirty.

In the same year, Teilhard read the French philosopher Henry Bergson's book L'Evolution creatrice (Creative Evolution). Bergson argued that evolution itself is a process of creating life forms in divergent directions, and directed under the influence of a "life force" that operates intuitively in the matrix of the world and in the passage of time ("duration"). This book demonstrated to Teilhard that Charles Darwin's theory of evolution of life as a creative process could be reconciled with theological and humanistic doctrines.

From 1912 to 1914, Teilhard carried out research on the fossils of mammals in Europe at the National Museum of Natural History in Paris. …