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Summary Article: Teilhard de Chardin, Pierre from Cambridge Dictionary of Christian Theology

A Jesuit the whole of his adult life, Pierre Teilhard de Chardin was born in Sarcenat in the Auvergne region of France in 1881 and died in New York on Easter Sunday, 1955. He studied at Jesuit institutions at Aix and Laval, on Jersey, and in Cairo, Hastings, Canterbury, and Paris. After serving as a stretcher-bearer during World War I, he returned to Paris to take up a chair in geology at the Institut Catholique. During the 1920s his unorthodox theological ideas, especially about the fall, came under increasing scrutiny from superiors. As a result, he was sent to China to spend more time on research into palaeontology, a discipline then transforming understanding of human origins.

His key theological works are The Divine Milieu (1957) and the collections Writings in Time of War: 1916–1919 (1965) and The Heart of Matter (1976). In these, he unfolds a philosophical theology that in the twentieth century was unsurpassed in mystical and synthetic power. Human life is seen as a dialectic of action, in which humans co-operate with God’s transforming activity, and passion, in which they experience diminishment and God’s otherness. In a rich and dense cosmology, spirit provides the unifying principle of matter, and substance is preserved by a bond analogous with the presence of Christ in the Eucharist. Teilhard’s theology is permeated with a striking vision of Christ revealing himself in the world by transforming human sensory perception of the world. Politically, Teilhard refutes both fascist and Marxist ideology and embraces a global social democracy.

He is best known for his theology of creative evolution, in which scholars of science and religion have shown much interest. This is developed in many essays and in his most famous work, The Human Phenomenon (1955). He accepts the classic Darwinian account of evolution, along with theories of emergence and complexity-consciousness, embedding these in a Christology in which Christ is the alpha and omega of the created order. Humanity is becoming, he claims, the creative agent of its own future evolution through enhanced technological competence and its ability to manipulate matter and biological life. Key to this evolutionary theology is convergence, a theory in which there is currently renewed interest among palaeobiologists.

The Jesuit order banned Teilhard from publishing any theology during his lifetime, and he remained obedient to this injunction. His oeuvre was compiled and gradually published after his death to wide popular acclaim. Readers need to remember that he had no opportunity to respond to his public reception, or correct the many misinterpretations of his writings by both antagonists and enthusiasts. He therefore provides an easy target for unimaginative critics, but continues to inspire those theologians and Christians who possess a mystical sensibility, a passion for action, and a synthesizing vision.

  • Grumett, D., Teilhard de Chardin: Theology, Humanity and Cosmos (Peeters, 2005).
  • Raven, C., Teilhard de Chardin: Scientist and Seer (Harper & Row, 1962).
  • David Grumett
    © Cambridge University Press 2011

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