Pierre Teilhard de Chardin SJ
Pierre Teilhard de Chardin SJ (Society of Jesus), (May 1, 1881 – April 10, 1955) was a French philosopher and Jesuit priest who trained as a paleontologist and geologist and took part in the discovery of Peking Man and Piltdown Man. Teilhard conceived the idea of the Omega Point (the maximum level of complexity and consciousness towards which he believed the universe was evolving) and developed Vladimir Vernadsky’s concept of Noosphere (sphere of human thought). Some of his ideas came into conflict with the Magisterium of the Catholic Church. He was reprimanded and his works were denounced by the Holy Office.
Teilhard’s primary book, The Phenomenon of Man, set forth a sweeping account of the unfolding of the cosmos. Teilhard views evolution as a process that leads to increasing complexity. From the cell to the thinking animal, a process of psychical concentration leads to greater consciousness. The emergence of Homo sapiens marks the beginning of a new age, as the power acquired by consciousness to turn in upon itself raises humankind to a new sphere. Borrowing Julian Huxley’s expression, Teilhard describes humankind as evolution becoming conscious of itself.
In Teilhard’s conception of the evolution of the species, a collective identity begins to develop as trade and the transmission of ideas increases. Knowledge accumulates and is transmitted in increasing levels of depth and complexity. This leads to a further augmentation of consciousness and the emergence of a thinking layer that envelops the earth. Teilhard calls the new membrane the “noosphere” (from the Greek “nous,” meaning mind), a term first coined by Vladimir Vernadsky. The noosphere is the collective consciousness of humanity, the networks of thought and emotion in which all are immersed.
The development of science and technology causes an expansion of the human sphere of influence, allowing a person to be simultaneously present in every corner of the world. Teilhard argues that humanity has thus become cosmopolitan, stretching a single organized membrane over the Earth. Teilhard describes the process by which this happens as a “gigantic psychobiological operation, a sort of mega-synthesis, the “super-arrangement” to which all the thinking elements of the earth find themselves today individually and collectively subject.” The rapid expansion of the noosphere requires a new domain of psychical expansion, which “is staring us in the face if we would only raise our heads to look at it.”
In Teilhard’s view, evolution will culminate in the Omega Point, a sort of supreme consciousness. Layers of consciousness will converge in Omega, fusing and consuming them in itself. The concentration of a conscious universe will reassemble in itself all consciousnesses as well as all that we are conscious of. Teilhard emphasizes that each individual facet of consciousness will remain conscious of itself at the end of the process.
He had abandoned traditional interpretations of creation in the Book of Genesis in favor of a less strict interpretation. This displeased certain officials in the Roman Curia and in his own order who thought that it undermined the doctrine of original sin developed by Saint Augustine. Teilhard’s position was opposed by his Church superiors, and some of his work was denied publication during his lifetime by the Roman Holy Office. The 1950 encyclical Humani generis condemned several of Teilhard’s opinions, while leaving other questions open. However, some of Teilhard’s views became influential in the reforms of the Second Vatican Council. More recently, Pope John Paul II indicated a positive attitude towards some of Teilhard’s ideas. In 2009, Pope Benedict XVI praised Teilhard’s idea of the universe as a “living host”.
Teilhard and his work have a continuing presence in the arts and culture. He inspired a number of characters in literary works. References range from occasional quotations—an auto mechanic quotes Teilhard in Philip K. Dick’s A Scanner Darkly, to inspiring William Peter Blatty to base the character of Father Lankester Merrin in his blockbuster novel The Exorcist on Teilhard. In Dan Simmons’ 1989–97 Hyperion Cantos, Teilhard de Chardin has been canonized a saint in the far future. His work inspires the anthropologist priest character, Paul Duré. When Duré becomes Pope, he takes Teilhard I as his regnal name.