Pierre Teilhard De Chardin, a great Jesuit of the century, was thought to be a controversial Christian. While reading his book The Phenomenon of Man, his great contribution to the world, especially to the world of philosophy, one is touched by his humble and simple religious life and by his exceptionally wide knowledge and the new way he looks at existence. At the same time, the reader is disturbed to know that Teilhard was sent to China as a punishment for his scientific approach.
Teilhard, a prophet, a mystic, a scientific philosopher, and a committed priest, was born in 1881 at an Auvergne in the heart of France. He was the fourth in a family of 12 children. At the age of 12 he was sent to the Jesuit college of Longre. His teacher, Henri Bremond, said that he was a serious student, “perhaps too serious”.
At the age of 18, he joined the Jesuit Order. He had hardly started his studies in geology in Paris when the World War I broke out. He was enlisted as a stretcher-bearer and served during the whole period of the war. When the war was over, he returned to his scientific research and became a Professor of Geology in 1920 at the Catholic Institute of Paris.
After three years of Teaching he went to China as a member of the scientific expedition which eventually discovered the Synanthropus, one of the most primitive specimens of man. When he returned to France in 1924, he faced opposition to his scientific ideas from his superiors. It was about this time he made the pathetic remark: “If one tries to break new ground, or to walk in a new path, one walks straight to Calvary.”
In 1927 he went back to China and lived uninterruptedly for 27 years. It was there that he wrote his two famous books: Divine Milieu (1927) and The Phenomenon of Man (1938). Death came to him suddenly at the age of 74 after his return to the USA in 1954. He died peacefully on Easter Sunday April 10, 1955 at St. Patrick’s Church, New York. After Mass he mingled with the crowds, that human phenomenon he loved so much and then went to a concert. That is when he fell. And his last words were: “I don’t remember a thing … oh … this time it is terrible”.
A few years before his death Teilhard had told a priest friend, “Pray hard for me that I may not die bitter”. In fact he did not die bitter, but died as a deserted son. Neither the Church nor the Jesuit Order encouraged him in his work during his life-time. It was only some years after his death; the Church authorities and individual clergymen realized the importance and relevance of Teilhard’s scientific and philosophical ideas. Today more and more people, Christians as well as non-Christians, accept his views and take keen interest in studying his philosophy.
In his book The Phenomenon of Man he talks about pre-life, life, the Alpha Point, the Omega Point, and so on. According to him the pre-life is what we call matter. In calling it ‘pre-life’, he wants to imply that there is already a direction, a tendency, an obscure sort of will in matter.
He distinguishes three things in matter: plurality, by virtue of which the substratum of the tangible Universe, dizzily numerous and minute, slopes down towards a limitless base, disintegrating as it goes. Secondly Unity, which pushes the elements towards each other so as to comprehend them together in one great whole, the Universe. And finally Energy, or capacity for interaction. The immediate consequence of this is that the world forms ‘a system by its plurality, a Totum by its energy’.
What is new here is that we can see matter under the twin categories of duration and of evolution, instead of fixity and geometry. The whole universe in fact, is found to be engaged in an immense evolution, to which astronomy claims to be able to assign an initial date – between five billion five hundred million and eight billion five hundred million. Teilhard recalls at this point that two principal laws rule matter – that of the conservation of energy and that of the degradation of energy. The more the quantum of energy in the world functions, the more it gets used up. This is the fundamental phenomenon of the world which necessarily leads to the “Phenomenon of Man”.
Law of Complexity
The great factor in the evolutionary phenomenon as expounded by Teilhard is the “great law of complexity and consciousness’. It is a law implying a structure, a converging psychic curvature of the world upon itself. This is called the metaphysics of union and fits well into the evolutionary conception of the cosmos. Evolution takes place along the axis of complexification – we pass from the relatively simple to the complex. Thus we pass on to atoms from atomic particles, from atoms to molecule and successively to molecular compounds, carbon compounds, viruses, cells living organism, plants, animals and finally man; briefly pre-life, life and thought.
“All energy”, says Teilhard, “is of a psychic nature.” But this fundamental energy is divided in to two distinct components: a tangential energy, which brings together all the elements of the world in an ever-increasing complexities, and a radical energy which draws it in the direction of a state even more complex and even more directed towards the future.
According to Teilhard, matter and psychism were co-created. Just as man’s body goes back to some primordial matter, which has gradually evolved, so does his psychism or soul. The whole matter is permeated by the spirit, although this is not evident at all levels. The whole man, body and soul, thus emerged form matter. Just as matter evolves from the very beginning into a body that becomes more and more human, so psychism from the very beginning evolves into psychism that becomes more and more human. To put it in Teilhard’s own words: “We must accept what science tells us that man was born from the earth. But more logical than scientists when they lecture to us, we must carry the lesson to its conclusion, that is to say, accept that man was born entirely from the world, not only his flesh and bones, but also his incredible power of thought.”
The most revolutionary and fruitful aspect of our present age is the relationship it has brought to light between matter and spirit; spirit is no longer independent of matter and vice versa. It follows from this that spirit and matter are two facets of one and the same thing. Man’s soul and his body, the inside and outside (Teilhard would say “within and without”) have existed at all times. In Teilhard’s words: “In the world nothing could ever burst forth as final, across the different thresholds, successively traversed by evolution which has not already existed in some obscure primordial way.” And this applies to life, to consciousness and thought.
The Alpha Point
This is the “terminus a quo” of evolution and a rather obscure point in Teilhard’s system. It is not what we usually understand by “creatio ex nihilo”. According to Teilhard the starting point of evolution is infinite multiplicity, but disorganized: “Infinite Disorder”. It was like having stones but not the building or like having seeds but not the plant. Creation, for him, is a creative union, viz. what brings about unification out of multiplicity; thus creation is not and cannot be instantaneous. It is still going on.
Evolution does not proceed haphazardly; it is orthogenetic; it has a direction, a goal, an axis of development. The axis passes through the amphibians, reptiles, mammals, the primates and leads straight to man. We can almost pinpoint the axis in the gradual, observable complexification of the nervous system, especially of the brain.
We can follow it almost step by step. If we go back in time, we can follow the axis of evolution as it crosses various thresholds, leading from lithosphere to the biosphere (the vitalization of matter); and from the biosphere to the noosphere, the thinking layer which now covers the world.
The Omega Point
If the cosmic process has a meaning, a direction, a goal, it must have a definite terminus towards which it is advancing. It must have a nucleus. A synthesis can take place only around a nucleus, around which the consciousness of the whole humanity will finally crystallize. In other words, if evolution follows very many lines, there must be a peak in which they must converge.
And this peak, he calls “Omega Point.”
He also describes the attributes of the Omega Point which are:
(1) It must be already existing;
(2) It must be personal – an intellectual being and not an abstract idea;
(3) It must be transcendent;
(4) It must be autonomous – free from the limitations of space and time; and
(5) It must be irreversible, that is it must be attainable. He expressly states that in the Omega Point, the human person and his freedom will not be suppressed, but super-personalized. Personality will be infinitely enriched.
Having said these, he passes form hyper-physics to theology and revelation. He finds in the Gospels, especially in St. Paul’s writings, a truly existing personal, transcendental, autonomous and irreversible center of cosmic evolution – Christ. He says that Christ is the Omega Point, and in this all-embracing revealed perspective, he maintains that the Incarnation, Resurrection and the Ascension of Christ should be viewed not merely as historical events, affecting Christ only, but as cosmic events, affecting the whole cosmos.
Teilhard’s Christian dimension where he makes Christ as the meeting point of science and revelation, of the natural and supernatural of the human and divine in one and the same person, is something to be reckoned with. Though Christians in general are comfortable with this view – Christ as the Omega Point, to many Christians and Church authorities, he sounds a heretic from the point of view of Christian teaching and philosophy. A concrete example for this could be his view: “The Earth was probably born by chance”.
One who understands Teilhard and his teachings well, will never call him a heretic. Though the Church and also the Jesuit Order were hard on him, he had been very loyal to the Church and a true, committed priest. As one of his close friends, Pierre Leroy, a Jesuit says, Teilhard tried to give us a less infantile image of God, more in conformity with current knowledge. The God he adored and venerated, the God he proclaimed is in no way and impersonal force which we cannot reach. For Teilhard, as for all true believers, God is a personal God: He is He who is: he is. Teilhard is and will remain a passionate champion of Christ. The Human Phenomenon par excellence.