Teilhard de Chardin Attempts to Reconcile Religion and Evolution

In his 1955 philosophical treatise The Phenomenon of Man, Pierre Teilhard de Chardin sought to reconcile theological perspectives with evolutionary theory by offering a coherent spiritual view of planetary evolution. The book became a bestseller in France and was translated into English in 1959.

Summary of Event

Pierre Teilhard de Chardin first reflected on the significance of evolution during his theological studies at the Jesuit College in Hastings, England (1908-1912). In the course of his studies he read Henri Bergson’s L’Évolution créatrice (1907; Creative Evolution, 1911), which had a profound effect on him, and he became involved in the controversial discovery of Piltdown Man, later exposed as a hoax. Although for some time he continued to view evolution as a mere hypothesis, he soon renounced that belief. In a 1926 essay, “The Basis and Foundations of the Idea of Evolution,” “Basis and Foundations of the Idea of Evolution, The” (Teilhard de Chardin)[Basis and Foundations of the Idea of Evolution] he embraced evolution as a demonstrable fact. Human Phenomenon, The (Teilhard de Chardin)
Evolution, religion and
Theology;and evolution[evolution]
[kw]Teilhard de Chardin Attempts to Reconcile Religion and Evolution (1955)
[kw]Religion and Evolution, Teilhard de Chardin Attempts to Reconcile (1955)
[kw]Evolution, Teilhard de Chardin Attempts to Reconcile Religion and (1955)
Human Phenomenon, The (Teilhard de Chardin)
Evolution, religion and
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[g]France;1955: Teilhard de Chardin Attempts to Reconcile Religion and Evolution[04730]
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Teilhard de Chardin, Pierre
Husserl, Edmund
Bergson, Henri
Lubac, Henri de
Huxley, Sir Julian
Medawar, Peter
Ong, Walter J.
Vernadsky, Vladimir
Le Roy, Édouard

Alarmed by the implications of his early endeavors to integrate science and the Catholic faith, Teilhard de Chardin’s Jesuit superiors removed him from his teaching post at the Catholic Institute in Paris and sent him to China, where, over the course of nearly two decades, he conducted research in geology and paleontology. The Vatican, Roman Catholic Church;evolution at that time, had no officially stated policy on biological evolution; however, the steadfast rejection of Teilhard de Chardin’s ideas by his superiors shows that there was considerable opposition to its acceptance as a fact of science.

Le Phénomène humaine (The Phenomenon of Man, 1959; also as The Human Phenomenon, 1999) is the mature product of Teilhard de Chardin’s long-term struggle to reconcile the findings of science with the tenets of his faith. He wrote the first complete draft of the work between June, 1938, and May, 1940, during one of his protracted sojourns in China. Returning to France after World War II, he submitted revised versions of his manuscript to Church censors for scrutiny first in 1947, then again in 1948-1949, but he was denied permission to publish it on both occasions. Hence, The Human Phenomenon was not released until after the author’s death in 1955.

As the title of The Human Phenomenon suggests, Teilhard de Chardin’s heuristic is founded in phenomenology, a school of philosophical thought pioneered by Edmund Husserl in the early twentieth century. Along with other phenomenologists, Teilhard de Chardin was interested in the structures of human consciousness—namely how individuals acquire knowledge—but his main concern was to study the evolution of humanity based on scientifically verifiable phenomena. In his view, man (or humankind) represents the “axis and arrow of evolution” because his development as a species summarizes the past and points to the future.

Drawing on scientific discoveries in a variety of disciplines such as chemistry, biology, physics, and natural history, The Human Phenomenon charts the evolution of humanity from elementary matter to the advent and expansion of reflective and spiritual consciousness. Evolution, the author argues, is a fundamental process governing all observable phenomena, including humans. If life evolved out of matter, and consciousness out of life, there must have been some essential form of “radial energy” already present in matter in the beginning, channeling matter’s drive toward complexity and consciousness. Such an energy is, according to Teilhard de Chardin, “the inside or within of matter” and represents God’s hand in evolution.

The first three stages in Teilhard de Chardin’s chronicle of evolution are “prelife,” life, and thought. “Hominization”— the passage from a nonreflective state to one of self-reflection—was in his view a defining moment in evolution and was set into motion with the birth of thought. Through hominization a layer of thought—a noosphere—is said to have enveloped the planet, spreading like a fire from place to place. It was also at this time, he argued, that evolution became aware of itself in the human consciousness.

Teilhard de Chardin’s so-called cosmic law of complexity-consciousness, which appeared in a postface at the end of The Human Phenomenon, represents a deliberate departure from the scientific community’s prevailing belief in a steady loss of form, energy, and structure in the universe. Although the physical universe appears to be in a process of spatial expansion and progressing toward entropy, Teilhard de Chardin posits that organic matter over time evolves toward ever greater structural complexity, which in turn favors the growth of consciousness and fuels the process of hominization.

The final stage in Teilhard de Chardin’s account of human evolution is “superlife,” where individuals and institutions have the opportunity to transcend difference and unite in a higher form of consciousness. Ultimately, he believed, humanity and the cosmos would converge in a so-called Omega Point (le Point Oméga) of mystical proportion.

Published as volume one of Teilhard de Chardin’s Œuvres (1955-1976), the first edition of The Human Phenomenon achieved the status of a best seller in France with a cumulative circulation now in excess of 200,000 copies. It was quickly translated into Spanish (1958), Dutch (1958), English (1959), and German (1959), and so became readily available to an international public. An improved English translation, with the now-preferred title The Human Phenomenon, was published in 1999.

Initial reader reactions were mixed, but often intense. Sir Julian Huxley, a former director general of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), wrote a supportive introduction to the first English translation, but admitted he did not fully understand some of the transcendental elements of Teilhard de Chardin’s approach to evolution. In a review published in 1961, Peter Medawar, a British zoologist and Nobel laureate, sparked controversy when he roundly condemned the book for its metaphysical conceits, its abuse of neologisms, and its antiscientific temperament. Opposition to Teilhard de Chardin’s publications remained equally strong within the Catholic Church, but influential thinkers such as Henri de Lubac and Walter J. Ong rallied to his defense and contributed to the animated discussion of his thoughts on evolution in the 1960’s and 1970’s.


With its roots firmly planted in natural science, philosophy, and theology, Pierre Teilhard de Chardin’s The Human Phenomenon ranks among the classics of twentieth century literature. Certainly it was one of the century’s most controversial and thought-provoking enquiries into the evolution of humanity. The preponderance of Teilhard de Chardin’s evidence in support of evolutionary science dealt a severe blow to the proponents of biblical literalism and forced people on both sides of the evolutionary divide to reconsider the relationship between science and religion in general. Critics in the scientific community typically regret the anthropocentric bias of Teilhard de Chardin’s worldview and fault him for introducing arguments of faith and metaphysical conceits into his otherwise rigorous scientific discourse, but they also acknowledge his contributions to modern spirituality and his influence on modern scientific thought.

Along with Vladimir Vernadsky and Édouard Le Roy, Teilhard de Chardin was one of the first writers to fully articulate the concept of a noosphere enveloping the planet. This concept, purged of its metaphysical trappings, has become a familiar theoretical model in biology, earth science, and ecology, and it has found applications in other disciplines as well. Teilhard de Chardin’s belief that humanity’s choices will affect the future evolution of the planet has proven to be a reasonable and intellectually appealing one for modern readers. Human Phenomenon, The (Teilhard de Chardin)
Evolution, religion and
Theology;and evolution[evolution]

Further Reading

  • Birx, H. James. Interpreting Evolution: Darwin and Teilhard de Chardin. Buffalo, N.Y.: Prometheus Books, 1991. Traces the history of evolutionary science, with a focus on Charles Darwin, Henri Bergson, and Teilhard de Chardin’s The Human Phenomenon.
  • _______. “The Phenomenon of Pierre Teilhard de Chardin.” Religious Humanism 32 (1998): 58-72. Discusses briefly the fundamental issues relating to Teilhard de Chardin’s thoughts on evolution. Recommended reading.
  • Cuénot, Claude. Pierre Teilhard de Chardin: A Biographical Study. Translated by Vincent Colimore, edited by René Hague. Baltimore: Helicon Press, 1965. A reliable study of Teilhard de Chardin’s life and thought. Includes a comprehensive bibliography of his work.
  • Fabel, Arthur, and Donald St. John, eds. Teilhard in the Twenty-First Century. Maryknoll, N.Y.: Orbis Books, 2003. Fifteen essays by specialists treat major aspects of Teilhard de Chardin’s life and thought, with special emphasis on the significance of his work for the environmental sciences.
  • King, Ursula. Spirit of Fire: The Life and Vision of Teilhard de Chardin. Maryknoll, N.Y.: Orbis Books, 1996. A detailed biography based in part on Teilhard de Chardin’s personal correspondence. Includes some discussion of The Human Phenomenon.
  • Roberts, Noel Keith. From Piltdown Man to Point Omega: The Evolutionary Theory of Teilhard de Chardin. New York: Peter Lang, 2000. A comprehensive discussion of Teilhard de Chardin’s ideas and the controversies surrounding them.
  • Teilhard de Chardin, Pierre. The Human Phenomenon. Translated by Sarah Appleton-Weber. Brighton, England: Sussex Academic Press, 1999. Teilhard de Chardin’s major work. Also includes information on various manuscript versions produced between 1938 and 1955 and discusses issues pertaining to the first English translation of the book.

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