Challenging the Rehabilitation of Pierre Teilhard de Chardin

As the sixtieth anniversary of Pierre Teilhard de Chardin’s death approaches this April, a renewed interest in his thought has found its way into the popular consciousness. A play praising the life of Teilhard, titled The De Chardin Project, ran from November 20 until December 14 in Toronto, Canada. Additionally, a two-hour biography on Teilhard’s life, tentatively titled The Evolution of Teilhard de Chardin, is scheduled to be released this year. The purpose of this documentary is expressed clearly on The De Chardin Project website: “The time is ripe to introduce Pierre Teilhard de Chardin to a new generation—the man, the paleontologist, the visionary French Jesuit priest, whose relentless effort to reframe his beliefs in the light of evolution led to a paradigm shift in the relationship of science and religion.”

Such praise for Teilhard’s attempt to amalgamate evolutionary thought with theological concepts is justified only to the extent that we see him as a pioneer within a historical context and not as someone whose work has any contemporary relevance. Indeed, there are many approaches that may or may not include evolutionary thought, the majority of which transcend what Teilhard envisioned with respect to the harmony between science, philosophy and theology. For example, the late nuclear physicist and theologian, Ian Barbour, published more recent ground-breaking studies on the relationship between science and religion that stands as a distinct alternative to Teilhard’s own limited, and ultimately outdated, approach. So aside from a relevant historical context, the science and religion interaction has advanced far beyond Teilhard’s thought.

Beyond anniversary preparations, Teilhard has garnished a significant amount of attention in recent years. Those of the “New Age” movement have latched on to many of his ideas, and he has even been dubbed “Father of the New Age Movement.” Pope Benedict XVI, in a homily delivered in 2008, had spoken on the relationship between original sin and evolution, noting that there is no contradiction between the two (excluding atheistic assumptions). This, however, does not mean he supported Teilhard’s views on the issue, despite the claims of some. This past summer, there was an animated controversy within the Church over nuns who supported Teilhard’s notion of “conscious evolution.” Cardinal Gerhard Muller, who heads the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, emphatically stated that such notions stand in stark contrast to Christian revelation and truth. Even Pope Francis’ words have been misconstrued to support Teilhard’s radical notions. As Fr. Dwight Longenecker rightly noted: “The idea that Pope Francis supports all this speculative Gnostic nonsense because he said we must be good stewards of creation is disingenuous and shows the author is either ignorant of Catholic theology or is distorting the pope’s words and intention on purpose.”

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Although Teilhard was a geologist and paleontologist, he became the subject of controversy in part for his “scientific theology” or what Teilhardian scholar, David Grummet, has dubbed “evolutionary natural theology.” Teilhard’s views on original sin and consequently many of his works were censured by the Catholic Church throughout his lifetime. Although a number of theologians deny that his writings and thought were heterodox, a closer examination is likely to yield a different conclusion. Regardless of this, many have recently considered him to be a visionary not only for his creative work on the relationship between science and theology but also for the advent and progression of the internet, globalization, eco-theology and contemporary transhumanism. Given the wide interest in these subjects today, it is hardly surprising that contemporary writers are recycling Teilhard’s ideas. Even some prominent theologians have embraced rather uncritically much of Teilhard’s thought. Yet despite his intriguing ideas, his works remain fraught with scientific, theological and philosophical difficulties. If Teilhard’s thought is going to be presented to a new generation, it should be done so in an honest and objective manner.

Wolfgang Smith as Teilhard Critic
Anyone seriously interested in a critical engagement with Teilhard de Chardin ought to study the work of Wolfgang Smith. Smith is the most distinguished critic of Teilhard writing today. He possesses a PhD in mathematics and has written for many years on the intermingling of philosophical, theological and scientific issues. This background provides him with the necessary tools to challenge Teilhard de Chardin’s “scientific theology.” Smith wrote his original critique of Teilhard’s work in 1988. A revised and updated edition was published in 2012 with the title Theistic Evolution: The Teilhardian Heresy.

The most prominent Teilhardian scholars, such as David Grumett, John Haught, Kathleen Duffy, Ursula King and Thomas Berry, have largely ignored Smith’s critique. Their silence is deafening since scholars are expected to engage with their academic critics. Are they silent because they do not have an adequate response? Even though Teilhard had contemporary critics, like Dietrich von Hildebrand and Jacques Maritain, none have been as thorough as Smith. Yet, despite this long history of criticism, Teilhard scholars continue to publish articles, books and present papers at conferences. Perhaps public exposure to Smith’s critique will encourage Teilhard scholars to think more critically about their subject.

Views on Evolution
The problem with Teilhard’s “scientific theology” is not evolution per se but the definition or interpretation of such a term and its application to Christian theology. According to Smith, Teilhard artificially rules out God’s intervention and insists that God can only create through evolution. First, Teilhard limits God’s providence by following a deterministic view of physics (entailing a closed universe) without real justification. The science of quantum mechanics was already in existence during Teilhard’s productive years. A view from quantum mechanics would not support a neatly fashioned deterministic biosphere as Teilhard envisioned. Nor could a professed Christian assert that the universe is a closed system disallowing outside intervention from God. In his work, Christianity and Evolution, Teilhard implicitly asserts this:

In the earlier conception, God could create, (1) instantaneously, (2) isolated beings, (3) as often as he pleased. We are now beginning to see that creation can have only one object: a universe; that (observed ab intra) creation can be effected only by an evolutive process (of personalizing synthesis); and that it can come into action only once: when ‘absolute’ multiple (which is produced by antithesis to trinitarian unity) is reduced, nothing is left to be united either in God or ‘outside’ God. The recognition that ‘God cannot create except evolutively’ provides a radical solution for our reason to the problem of evil (which is a direct ‘effect’ of evolution), and at the same time explains the manifest and mysterious association of matter and spirit.

Aside from not providing a satisfactory solution to the problem of evil since the problem remains regardless of the process by which God chooses to create, Teilhard does not substantiate his claim that God can only create solely through evolution. Why limit a sovereign God in such a way? Even if God were to solely create through evolution, there is no reason to think that he could still not be intimately involved in the process, perhaps acting at the quantum level leaving such an involvement perhaps ambiguous.

It is clear that Teilhard has an agenda to reconstruct the traditional conception of God, one in which eventually even God must bow down to the process of evolution and goes from being the evolver to part of the evolved. Teilhard attempts to do this through the use of science but of course science cannot fully adjudicate such overarching metaphysical and theological issues. At best science can lead us in a particular direction when incorporated in an overall philosophical argument, but not solely on its own since by definition it would cease to be a “scientific” explanation.

Teilhard has also a peculiar vision of Christ in lieu of his views on evolution. He sees Christ as an evolving Christ, much as his vision of God becoming part of the evolutionary process. Christ is dependent upon the cosmogenetic process, as Teilhard intimates himself a month before his own death, in a quote found in The Heart of Matter: “It is Christ, in very truth, who saves—but should we not immediately add that, at the same time, it is Christ who is saved by Evolution?” Teilhard’s views in fact have no place for the Incarnation in the traditional Christian sense since nothing can ultimately enter up in the universe unless through a process of evolution since all is reducible to a cosmic evolution. Teilhard’s metaphysical impositions of evolution on the divine nature are completely heterodox because they overthrow the traditional conception of an eternal transcendental God. Teilhard’s heterodoxy extends beyond God’s nature. He accepts the separation of the soul from the body at death but does not allow for its origin via ex-nihilo through God’s creation but instead through gradual physical evolution.

One wonders why Teilhardian scholars seem to gloss over these aforementioned issues. Perhaps it is because it is more profitable to ignore these theological problems inherent to Teilhard’s work, or reinterpret them in a fashionable way, then to confront them head-on as Smith has done. This legacy began with Henri de Lubac, Teilhard’s friend and great defender. De Lubac fought to dispel the charges made by critics that, for instance, Teilhard denied the existence of a personal God. However, it is important to realize that Teilhard’s thought evolved from an orthodox position with imbedded seeds of doubt to an increasingly heterodox one. For example, in 1950 (only five years prior to his death) he wrote in The Heart of Matter about his earlier writings in The Divine Milieu saying they originated from a “self-centered and self-enclosed period of my interior life.” He goes on to state that:

The reason for this was that by one of those odd effects of inhibition that so often prevent us from recognizing us in the face, I failed to understand that as God “metamorphized” the World from the depths of matter to the peaks of Spirit, so in addition the World must inevitably and to the same degree “endomorphize” God…. All around us, and within our own selves, God is in the process of “changing” as a result of the coincidence of his magnetic power and our own Thought.

This is quite distinct from the view de Lubac had defended of Teilhard’s orthodoxy. It is significant that these statements come very close to his death in 1955. This seems to strongly suggest that Teilhard’s position was solidified at this point, unless he recanted this before his death but we have no evidence to support this. In Teilhard’s estimation, God goes from superintending evolution to becoming part of the process Himself. It is important to emphasize here that Teilhard is not arguing that God is interacting within time which would reveal his immanent capacity as has been explored in the work of some contemporary Christian philosophers but rather that his transcendent nature is “evolving.” One is not entirely sure how such a thing is possible without radically altering the meanings of the terms God and transcendency.

The Law of Complexity and Consciousness
In The Phenomenon of Man, Teilhard theorizes that all matter is in the process of becoming spirit through progressive complexification that entails “matter [giving] birth to life, consciousness and thought—in a word, gives birth to ‘spirit.’” Smith emphasizes that the law of complexity and consciousness is the very heart of Teilhard’s “scientific theology”: “the entire edifice rests upon that stipulated Law” and that it is an “empirically verifiable truth” according to Teilhard.

Smith points out that consciousness is not observable in an empirical sense like bodies and behaviours are. Consciousness is solely observable in a subjective sense. We are conscious of ourselves, and others in the world around us, but we are not “conscious of someone else’s consciousness.” Although we may postulate through our empathetic nature what may be going on in someone else’s mind, it raises a significant difficulty for Teilhard to define it “experimentally.” Moreover, complexity as used by Teilhard is not a “well defined parameter” needed to reach scientifically justified results.

There is no way of accounting for consciousness being proportional to the complexity of an organism and Teilhard admits this but for dubious reasons, such as the enormity of the calculations. Smith questions the unwarranted assumption of Teilhard “that some kind of rudimentary consciousness exists even in the simplest of corpuscles.” Where is the evidence that consciousness exists in rocks or protons? As made clear by the question, much of the problem is that Teilhard lacks rigour in distinguishing between complexity and consciousness throughout his writings. The advent of the understanding of functional information can perhaps help with this. Smith points out that it makes no sense to postulate a “specific effect” without a “specific cause.” In an attempt to resolve such a dilemma Teilhard attempts to analogize by “imperceptible” principles used by physicists in the laws of motion and relativity but Smith shows how such an analogy fails, i.e., since what is alluded to in physics by Teilhard can in fact be observed, tested and verified.

An honest scholarly examination of Teilhard would necessarily include an intellectual engagement with critics like Smith. Acknowledgement of Teilhard’s fruits, such as his futuristic allusions to the internet, globalization and elements of his eco-theology, should not be given without recognizing weaknesses in other areas, such as the logical problems regarding evolution and his law of complexity/consciousness that loom large in his “scientific theology.” These problems make it not only incompatible with Christian theism but also as a stand-alone comprehensive view of reality.

Editor’s note: A lengthier but substantially different treatment of this subject by the author was published recently under the title  “Pierre Teilhard de Chardin’s Unrelenting Nemesis: Wolfgang Smith and His Trenchant Critique of Teilhard’s ‘Scientific Theology’” in Science et Esprit, 67/1 (2015) 107-120.


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