I recently came upon references to the work of Pierre Teilhard de Chardin (1881-1955), a French philosopher who became a Jesuit priest at the young age of 19. Teilhard studied geology, botany, and zoology at the Sorbonne and lectured in geology at the Catholic Institute of Paris, becoming an assistant professor after being granted a science doctorate. He also trained as a paleontologist and took part in the discovery of the Peking Man. But his real legacy is as a mystic.
His best know work, The Phenomenon of Man, sets forth a sweeping account of the unfolding of the cosmos. He abandoned trational interpretations of the creation in the Book of Genesis in favor of a less strict evolutionary interpretation.
In an effort to reconcile his Catholic belief structure with the truths of science, particularly evolution, Teilhard developed a particularly noteworthy creation theory. In his posthumously published book (1955; English 1959), he suggested that the Earth is evolving toward consciousness (sentience?) and that collectively we and our technologies are a part of that process. For Teilhard, as mankind organizes itself into increasing complex social networks, the Earth will increase in awareness until it reaches the “Omega Point,” which he saw as the apex of history. His concept of the “Omega Point” reveals his mystical understanding of history, progressing in a spiral fashion closer and closer to the final goal: union with God.
Teilhard is today highly regarded as the patron saint of the Internet. And he gives transhumanists a framework for their uber-technological visions.
His ideas greatly displeased certain officials in the Roman Catholic Curia and in his own order who thought that it undermined the doctrine of original sin developed by St. Augustine. Teilhard’s theological formulations were opposed by his church superiors, and his work was denied publication during his lifetime by the Roman Holy Office. As an additional punishment, the church requred him to give up his lecturing at the Catholic Institute and concentrate on his paleontological research in China. A 1950 encyclical Human generis condemned several of Teilhard’s beliefs, while leaving other open to discussion. Recently6, Pope Benedict XVI praised Teilhard’s idea of the universe as a “living host” although the eccleasiastical warnings attached to his work remain.
Teilhard was a priest and a mystic, but was also a scientist, to whom the concept of science held as much weight as scripture, and in some cases more. “Evolution” is the basis for Teilhard’s entire cosmology. Not, as Darwinian evolution would have it, a random product of, or the “survival of the fittest,” but an evolution planned and guided by divine agency. His universe is one of continuous and interwoven evolutionary threads, incorporating plants, animals, the planet, and the cosmos.
Teilhard believed in his Catholicism as well as his right to disagree with and question that institution. His questions were not signs of rebellion buth rather evidence of a great mind trying to reconcile multiple realities. He spent his life trying to bring balance to the scales of science and religion.