Teilhard – scientist, philosopher, mythologist?

When I had nothing new to read lately, I picked up the Letters of a Traveller 1923-1955 which Teilhard de Chardin,  the famous jesuit, scientist and thinker, wrote on his long geological and paleontological excursions. My copy is an old, beautifully bound Dutch version, belonging once to my aunt Mary (who died in 1970). That I refer here to my family is no coincidence, as I was raised by an outspoken Teilhardian – my father, the younger brother of my aunt. Books on evolution for children, a nice collection of minerals and fossiles, and holiday trips to prehistoric caves were key ingredients of my childhood – next to regular church visits and a jesuitic intellectual atmosphere. This cocktail left me with an ingrained attitude of self-criticism (the jesuit heritage), methodological doubts of the infallibility of the theory of evolution (although I liked the caves and the stones) and an aversion to the belief in progress in history (which made me a Nietzsche fan for quite some time).

The Letters of a Traveller are really enjoyable – although I am sometimes irritated about the man’s primitive social views (he holds a kind of race theory then in fashion, and not very critical views on the moral issues of World War II), he has a great talent for describing the landscapes and peoples he comes into contact with. And then I thought it to be time to read that other book for the first time – the one which inspired the intellectual upbringing of my primary school days: The Phenomenon of Man, written by Teilhard largely during the war years, and published after his death, in 1955. It is a fascinating book, that is for sure – but also very strange. It’s author claims not to write as a theologian or a philosopher, but as a scientist: he wants to restrict his reflections to the phenomenal. Methodologically he is quite progressive for his time, while he acknowledges the theory-ladenness of all observation, and thus the provisional character of any reflection. Also he sees clearly that this reflection is perspectivistic, in the sense that it is human reflection – which explains his dismissal of metaphysical reasoning, which he defines as searching a final foundation of thought in being as such.

I could not read the book without drawing into account the biography of it’s author. It is so obvious an attempt to unite the conflicting forces in his character: the careful researcher, digging up and dusting ancient bones and rocks – and the passionate jesuit, who has rendered his entire psychic energy to a life for Christ. His biography is not meaningless, however, and especially nowadays, when evolution theorists and creationists have entangled themselves in fierce battles, his attempt at fusing Christian belief and scientific observation, deserves a re-read. He goes about his job intelligently, that I must also confess, and quite some of his ideas are not strange to me either. The idea that not only biological life, but the universe itself is a result of evolution has become a standard view. His idea that a kind of consciousness is present in pre-human forms, in everything in fact, is not standard, it reeks of Fechner, indeed, but is quite attractive to an anti-anthropocentrist. Finally his understanding of the importance of time in conceiving the world (a thing is just a moment in time) is to my view very sharp and interesting.

On the other hand there are the strange aspects. First, his observation that Christianity is the ultimate religion which will grow and unite the whole world – since it would be the only belief system that takes love as it’s central value. Second, his idea that humanity will unite in a process of ever greater communication pressure (well, the latest element in that was prophetic) – and must transcend it’s conflicts by a transformation of the individual into the person. That mysterious category is the key of his thought: the person is an individual, but one which lets itself be governed, united and transformed by the one ruler: Love=Christ. This must happen, he thinks, since the concept of evolution, of living in time, with it’s diversification and increasing complexities, leads inevitably to the concept of an ending, in which everything comes together again. Not in a gigantic destruction, as in gloomy SF stories, but in a spiritual ‘escape’ of humanity (and thus of the entire creation) from it’s material boundaries.

I don’t buy that – original beginnings, nor final endings – not in cosmology, not in spirituality, not in religion. I don’t believe in the Big Bang, I don’t believe in the total unification of humankind as the ‘end of history’. I do think that human beings can be transformed into more loving beings by following Christ, but this might happen as well by leading any other sincere religious life, be it islamic, shamanistic, buddhist, you name it. As it might in a life inspired by sincere atheistic views. Any view which helps to reduce self-centered and destructive attitudes will do. Believing in a necessary progression is not helpful in that process, since it makes one prone to forgetting real sufferings of real living beings (human and non-human) – seeing them as just a price to be paid in some grand scheme. It is clear, I think: this would be valuing the beauty of an intellectual construct over real love.

In the end Teilhard’s great attempt for me boils down to the following: he created a Christian myth to save his belief in evolution as a basis for solid science. His endeavor seems outdated seventy years later – as religious dialogue seems a better tool to overcome conflict than a conversionist attitude, and as many authors (among whom Thomas Kuhn, Bruno Latour and Sandra Harding) have provided strong arguments to show scientific theories to be culturally and historically situated views of the world we live in. This goes as much for evolution theory as for any other theory, and I have a strong feeling that it will be pushed over by another paradigm in the near future.

Teilhard de Chardin lived from 1881 to 1955.

The books I discussed, Letters of a Traveller 1923-1955 and The Phenomenon of Man are around in numerous translations and editions. Both appeared after the writer’s death.

  1. Excellent summary! You capture the essence of Teilhard de Chardin’s views. However, as a person with a blog devoted to the ideas of Teilhard de Chardin I differ slightly in some of your conclusions:-)

    “his endeavor seems outdated seventy years later”.

    I believe that many of Teilhard’s ideas are more relevant today than 70 years ago. Humans are becoming much more conscious of their interconnectiveness, both to other humans and other creation. Part of this is the result of technology: I am able to share ideas and interact with you in ways that were not possible even 20 years ago. Moreover, developments such as the atomic bomb and space travel bringing images of Earth as the pale blue dot surrounded by darkness have created a collective awareness of the fragility of existence.

    “as religious dialogue seems a better tool to overcome conflict than a conversionist attitude”

    Teilhard would like agree with this statement. Although Teilhard was a Jesuit, his views were viewed with deep suspicion by many of his religious Superiors and he was prohibited from publishing philosophy or theology during his lifetime. As a result, he was effectively exiled to China for 20 years to work on paleontology and much of his interaction was with non-Christians. Much of Teilhard’s language and thought was an attempt to have a mutual dialogue among more conservative Christians, atheists and Eastern religions.

    “Believing in a necessary progression is not helpful in that process, since it makes one prone to forgetting real sufferings of real living beings (human and non-human) – seeing them as just a price to be paid in some grand scheme. It is clear, I think: this would be valuing the beauty of an intellectual construct over real love.”

    That is a common criticism of Teilhard, but I believe it is misguided. As you indicate, it is impossible to separate Teilhard’s ideas from his fascinating biography. Teilhard suffered immensely during his lifetime: from seeing extreme horrors during his time as a stretcher-bearer in World War I, to seeing six of his siblings die prematurely, to not being able to share his vision with a broader audience during his lifetime. Despite these enormous personal sufferings, by all accounts, Teilhard maintained a joyful and loving attitude throughout his life, developing deep and loving personal friendships. Teilhard certain knew suffering.

    “I don’t believe in the Big Bang . . . many authors (among whom Thomas Kuhn, Bruno Latour and Sandra Harding) have provided strong arguments to show scientific theories to be culturally and historically situated views of the world we live in.”

    Could you please elaborate? Granted I do not have your philosophical background, nor am I familiar with these authors, and am curious learning more about their ideas. I agree that many of the details of biological or human evolution are currently unknown and will be revised over time, but the core concepts of cosmological evolution (starting with the Big Bang) and the broad concept that humans evolved from single cell organisms seem to have an exceptionally high probability of being accurate.

    Thank you again for your excellent summary of two of Teilhard’s best writings.

    W. Ockham

    • Thanks, William, for your kind and interesting comment.

      There is too much there to answer fully in just a reply. But I will try to go into your points:

      1) yes, humans are ever more connected, interconnected, and a part of them will also be aware of this. But interconnectedness has no necessary relation to unification. We can be immensely interconnected in conflict. I mentioned that Teilhard’s observation on the growing interconnectedness was prophetic, but I do not share his conviction that this must lead to unity. Dialogue and understanding would be more realistic and desirable goals for me.

      2) on his contact with other religions – yes he was for a long time in the East, and also in Africa. In his letters I do not find much real contact, however with the people who lived there. He complains that the Chinese and the Mongols are not civilised, they even belong to an inferior race to his view, which will be proven when they try to govern themselves, just as it went with the Indians (his words, not mine!). He longs constantly for the ‘spiritual’ contact he only has in France, and while in the East he seeks conversation mainly with Europeans and Americans.

      3) I did not want to say that Teilhard knew no suffering. I see, however, not much attention to the suffering of others in his letters nor in his work on ‘man’ – no word on the massmurders that took place in Europe while he was in his Eastern exile. Only once in the letters I read something about the difficulties of Jews, where he remarks that Vichy-France should distinguish between refugees that are coming into the country, and those Jews that have lived there for generations. On the contrary I read a lot of words on great struggles for the world, that are perhaps necessary and that will lead mankind to a new stage (concentrationcamps, artificial famines, torture, gas chambers – just parts of great and necessary struggles?).

      4) the philosophy of science point is the hardest to treat in a short manner. Just to say some words on e.g. Sandra Harding: she tries to show that those scientific views that are maintained by the most powerful groups (Western, white, male dominated) tend to be most convincing – and surprisingly enough they also fit what these groups are doing in the world. Like: the idea of evolution supports the idea that some species, and some races, as it was generally believed in the 1940’s, are more backward that others, The same is said about cultures – this all gave a foundation to colonial exploitation. It is no coincidence that the famous picture which was used to show the descent of man pictured a shaven, short haired, white male at the end of the line…

      Besides these points (I apologize if my reply might come across a bit unfriendly towards Teilhard, which was not my purpose – it is more the substance of these issues that makes me write in a more sharp tone perhaps) I think there is a lot in his work that deserves a reread, as I also mentioned in my post – especially the connection he attempted to make between science and spirituality/religion – a subject which interests me very much.

      Thanks again for your compliments – I hope to return to the philosophy of science question another time!

      • Hi Angela:

        Thank you so much for the prompt reply. A few quick thoughts:

        1. I agree that dialogue and understanding are realistic and desirable first steps at this point. My completely untested hypothesis is that when two different humanoid cultures first come in contact with each other, they either find a way to get along or kill each other. Too much of our history has been the latter (including the probability that our distant ancestors killed related hominoid species). The last several centuries have seen brutal attempted genocides from Europeans wiping out most of native peoples in the Americas and Australia to the 20th century Jewish Holocaust and Cambodia. However, humans have made a big leap in at least recognizing that these acts are atrocities, which is a start. I may be naive, but I hope that within the next 1,000 years, we will move towards a greater consciousness of our shared humanity.

        2. I acknowledge that Teilhard de Chardin had some less positive characteristics, not unlike his contemporaries.

        3. Teilhard de Chardin knew both personal suffering and witnessed suffering all around him, from the trenches in World War I to the civil war in China to the aftermath of Europe in World War II. I certainly would not take his writings as a lack of empathy for the victims of the carnage he saw. Teilhard was an incredibly optimistic person and elected not to dwell on suffering; not because it is unimportant, but because he tried to focus on whatever positive aspects he could find resulting from pain and suffering.

        4. I look forward to reading your thoughts on the philosophy of science. I agree that cultural norms affect interpretations of science, including the examples of evolution and cultural superiority that you mentioned. However, incorrect assumptions on the meaning (the why question) of evolution or cosmology do not change the underlying likely facts (the what questions).

        Thanks again for your excellent blog and responses.


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