Pierre Teilhard de Chardin and his theory of the evolution of human consciousness
“One day, having mastered the winds, waves, tides and gravity, we will harness the energies of love for God, and then, for a second time in the history of the world, man will have discovered the fire.”
― Father Pierre Teilhard De Chardin
We tend to view evolution as something that happened in the past. Just saying that word brings to mind scientists digging up bones. For example, this long-dead “A” creature molded itself over time and trial into the “B” animal, which we know better today. Obviously, I oversimplified the infinitely complex and skipped a lot.
Although that’s not far from the truth. Evolution makes people think of fossils and maybe the Galapagos Islands – things that have happened before. But one interesting character had very different ideas about it. Namely, it is not done.
Father Pierre Teilhard de Chardin also believed that evolution was not limited to material things.
More than bones, cells and living beings evolve. Consciousness too. In one of the strangest combinations in history, he mixed a mixture of science, religion and archaeological research with our human ancestors in a mixed theory of evolution peppered with Christian concepts.
One of his main thoughts was that evolution continues with the human mind and its thought power, evolving into something greater than one could imagine.
Initially, he succeeded in uniting the religious and scientific community in a way he had not anticipated. The two slaughtered him relentlessly. His Jesuit order only allowed his books to be published after his death, and scholarly critics called his ideas ridiculous.
However, it has gained renewed interest lately. Although his ideas were truly unique, so was the man himself.
- Teilhard became a highly decorated soldier who never carried a weapon.
- He worked on groundbreaking archaeological excavations, finding ancient precursors to modern man
- As science and religion argued over the existence of evolution, Teilhard claimed to see God in science.
- The priest had an optimistic view of the future of mankind, making evolution a philosophy and blending it with his religious beliefs.
In fact, before you can really understand his theory, you have to understand the life of Father Pierre Teilhard de Chardin. So, let’s start there.
According to Encyclopedia Britannica, the future priest was born in France in a family of farmers. Geology caught his attention early on. As he grew older, he studied it in depth at the Jesuit College in Mongré. At eighteen he began the process to enter the Jesuit order, eventually teaching at their school in Cairo for a few years.
He was fully ordained a priest shortly before World War I and enlisted.
Loyola’ press Spirituality of Ignition (SI) The website says Teilhard turned down a commission to be chaplain and served as a stretcher-bearer on the front lines. Thus, he personally saw Champaign, Verdun and the second battle of the Marne. It shook his faith at times.
And why wouldn’t it be? The nation of stretcher bearers suffered over six million casualties, or about seventy percent of their entire army. Teilhard won both the Croix de la Guerre and the Chevalier de la Légion d’Honneur for his bravery.
He completed his doctorate in geology after the war. In 1923, he was sent to China. A few years later, he took part in an excavation that discovered the skull of Peking Man – an ancestor of modern man. He will spend more than twenty years traveling through China, the Gobi (desert), Sinkiang, Kashmir, Java and Burma cataloging fossils.
It experienced primitive conditions, civil war, cold, heat and the Japanese invasion during World War II. However, he still managed to write five books. Most of which his Jesuit order did not allow him to publish due to the mixture of evolution and theology.
The order also did not allow him to teach in France once his research abroad was completed. He eventually moved to the United States, spending the rest of his short life in New York.
His two famous works The divine environment and The phenomenon of man were published in the late 1950s, after his death. Now, I’m sure you’re wondering what bothered the Church so much? Well, such a unique life would guarantee an equally unique philosophy that didn’t fit the neat mold of a religious order.
“Perhaps we can imagine that Creation has long since ended. But that would be completely wrong. It continues in even more magnificent form in the highest areas of the world… Our role is to help complete it, if only by the humble work of our hands. This is the true meaning and the price of our actions. Because of the interrelation between matter, soul and Christ, we bring back to God a part of the being that he desires in whatever we do.
— Father Pierre Teilhard De Chardin
In The phenomenon of man, Teilhard explains it from the beginning of the universe, the complexity increases. Think about it. It all started with the simplest molecules, forming atoms and eventually creating building blocks.
Hydrogen and helium then gave rise to most of the wide array of squares we see in the periodic table of elements. He refers to this as the law of increasing complexity. Likewise, life works pretty much the same way.
Single-celled organisms grew in complexity, eventually becoming life in the advanced forms we recognize today.
But there was a major development – consciousness. A branch of primates have come to “know that they know”. This greater potential of thought allowed them to develop language, technology, culture and finally to populate the planet.
But this consciousness has not finished evolving, becoming more complex like everything else. Humanity will eventually bind together in a web. Teilhard called this the noosphere, which comes from the Greek meaning “sphere of reason”.
Just as the Earth has developed a barysphere, lithosphere, hydrosphere, atmosphere and biosphere, consciousness will create its own change on the planet. But it will be a “social phenomenon”. Religion, technology, education, legal systems and research drive it.
This will eventually culminate in an Omega point. This is where consciousness peaks and all of humanity comes together firmly without the common barriers that divide us. Teilhard believed that this realization would bring about the return of Christ. Then we would be freed from our material bonds.
As you can imagine, the Vatican wasn’t thrilled, and neither was the scientific community.
The Vatican Office issued a monatum or warning against Teilhard’s writings in 1962. British Nobel laureate Peter Medawar, called his ideas “nonsense” in 1961 and accused him of being wrong and deceive the public. Later, Richard Dawkins called Teilhard’s work “poetic bad science”.
Yet that only delayed his message.
- In 2009 Pope Benedict praised Teilhard’s idea of the cosmos as a living host
- A 1995 wired magazine the article proclaimed Teilhard “established the philosophical framework for net-based planetary consciousness 50 years ago”
- David Sloan Wilson, evolutionary biologist and co-founder of the Evolution Institute, called Teilhard’s insights “scientifically prophetic” in his 2019 book. This View of Life: Completing the Darwinian Revolution
A panel of doctors came together to discuss the priest’s life and work in 2015, putting things into perspective. Some of the members knew Teilhard personally. They explained that he was an eternal optimist and that evolution made him that way.
Why? Well, evolution by nature is a slow process.
It contains branches with many dead ends but always keeps moving forward in time. So we need patience. Likewise, his book The phenomenon of man was written in the 1930s, released in the 1950s, and not enjoyed until about seventy years later after it was originally written.
Teilhard saw the worst depravities of man, both during World War I and World War II. He had been denounced by his own religious order. Even the scientific community laughed at him. In a way, it’s fitting that a war hero carrying no weapons can handle incoming fire with such grace.
His unique life allowed him to see science, humanity and spirituality.
- Evolutionary science has proven that things progress and become more complex
- Humanity showed him both destruction and wonder
- Spirituality surrounded the group demonstrating that humanity’s journey was “nothing more than a way of the cross”.
Teilhard’s message is the one we need in a world populated by those who preach the end of humanity. Evolution is not complete. Our consciousness is destined to continue its arc of complexity. But expect dead ends and frustration.
Although with research, spirituality and “the humble work of our hands”, humanity will discover fire for the second time in its history.