Not so much looking down as across..

Monday, September 20, 2010

A Phenomenal Man

Pierre Teilhard de Chardin – Optimism in Science

Teilhard was born in 1881 deep in the heart of France and died in New York in 1955. He was ordained a Jesuit in 1911 and spent most of his priestly life as a scientist, dedicated to his love of paleontology, the science that looks at prehistoric life.

The Jesuits always impressed me. I spent a year at the lofty Gregorian Jesuit Seminary in Rome during the mid seventies. All of our philosophy studies were in Italian with the exception of Logic which was taught in Latin – ex lingua Latina. It was here I tripped over Wittgenstein and the slightly larger frame of Thomas Aquinas. Thomas Aquinas was a great philosopher but understood that students would have to be comfortable while sitting and studying – he was famously quoted as saying, ‘the mind cannot absorb what the bottom cannot endure’

The Jesuits also fascinated me. How can it be that they spend huge resources of time and money in the training of a priest only for him to head off to China for over a decade to look at fossils? It seems such a grandiose gesture! It reveals a generous vision of life and erudition compared to the mercenary times we seem to endure today.

My late father lectured in what is now called the National College of Ireland – then called the College of Industrial Relations – (I prefer the old name, it seemed to have more meaning and bite)(Coincidentally supported by, you guessed it, the Jesuits.) Anyway, in the sixties in Dublin, he had a terrific up to date private library that stocked books by all sorts of mad people that included Marshall McLuhan, JK Galbraith, Keynes and of course Teilhard de Chardin.

One afternoon, out of boredom I started reading the Phenomenon of Man which had been published in 1955 shortly following his death. The Church authorities regarded his teaching as dangerous and so he was asked to leave his teaching post and not to publish any of his controversial writings. He obeyed. The Phenomenon of Man which had been written 1938-40, only saw the light of day in fifteen years later. The ‘Phenomenon of Man’ may have been inspired by his taking part in a team in 1926 that found traces of Peking Man. Peking Man dates back over half a million years. Peking Man was a ‘faber’ – a worker of stone and a controller of fire. I struggled to read the book then and I still do. But I am happy to rely on the summaries of others. Even the summaries had a big impact on me and fired my imagination.

Essentially the message of Teilhard is one of optimism, serenity and love. He did not see the theory of evolution threatening his faith in any way – quite the opposite. The more he discovered, the more he was in awe of the marvelous world which would yield up secrets only to suggest hundreds more.

He was more than a scientist. He was a poet in love with the universe and the God who created it. He was happy to be enveloped in a cosmic dance that started millions of years ago. In the constant evolution of the world he saw God’s hand ever more clearly. Matter evolved to become man and man in turn will evolve to become part of cosmic consciousness called the Noossphere where we will join in an eternal cosmic embrace of surrender and love.

Teilhard expresses it so much better:
‘Some day, after mastering the winds, the waves, the tides and gravity, we will harness for God the energies of love. And then, for the second time in the history of the world, humankind will have discovered fire’

Someone should set the Phenomenon of Man to music. I suspect someone already has.


  1. Padraic,
    What a thought-provoking post. Is it possible that the antagonism between science and religion may come to some sort of reconciliation?

    Teilhard was a very interesting person. I would definitely like to read his book.

    Great post!


  2. Thanks Doris. I find science a great help in discovering what God might be and equally importantly what he is not!