The Man at the Front

Pierre Teilhard de Chardin

Pierre Teilhard de Chardin:  Tests, Allies & Enemies

It is a terrifying thing to have been born: I mean, to find oneself, without having willed it, swept irrevocably along on a torrent of fearful energy which seems as though it wished to destroy everything it carries with it.  What I want, my God, is that by a reversal of forces which you alone can bring about, my terror in face of the nameless changes destined to renew my being may be turned into an overflowing joy at being transformed into you.[1]

Circle of Energy

The barrage had subsided.  For now.  If only the dismal rain would let up as well.  Corporal Teilhard tossed his smoke into the mud, glancing wearily up at the trench parapet above his head.  The serene soldier-priest turned to gaze into the eyes of the terrified young stretcher-bearer who must now follow him out onto the battlefield.  Follow him through the fog and the choking smoke.  Running to follow him out onto the front, running straight into the madness, this Great War to end all wars—two men connected in all the vast universe by just two poles, a canvas litter, and a mission.  “Oui, Sidi Marabout,” said the young North African recruit.  Yes, holy one.  In tandem they climbed out of the trench and ran.  Ran to retrieve their brothers, wherever they may have fallen—the wounded, the dying, and the dead.

Father Teilhard hated the work—hated the war—but never hated the enemy.  He remained at the rank of corporal throughout the war because he would not accept the promotions offered him.  While in the trenches, this soldier-priest calmly celebrated mass each week for whomever wished to receive it, and he somehow managed to escape even the slightest injury even as those all around him were blown to bits, mowed down by machine gun fire, and sent to their graves by waves of German bayonets.  At war’s end, Corporal Teilhard was decorated as a “model of bravery, self-sacrifice, and coolness” and was made Chevalier de la Légion d’Honneur, having been commended as

an outstanding stretcher-bearer who, during four years of active service, was in every battle and engagement the regiment took part in, applying to remain in the ranks in order that he might be with the men, whose dangers and hardships he constantly shared.[2]

As beloved as Teilhard was by the men with whom he served at the front, he was even more treasured by a number of women back home to whom he often wrote lengthy letters, especially his cousin Marguerite, the first great love of his life, and her former teacher, the novelist Léontine Zanta.  Both women helped Teilhard refine his thinking on the divine feminine as he wrote and revised his theology of love.  Marguerite would outlive Teilhard by several years and go on to compile and edit his war correspondence, preceded by an essay on the Great War as related to her by the soldier-priest.  Mademoiselle Zanta would correspond with Teilhard for 16 years, helping greatly with his developing concept of the feminine as a unifying component in the evolution of our world.[3]  Like the bomb blasts that killed and maimed the men that Teilhard bore away from the front, his letters radiated love, and had repercussions that reached far beyond the war.

At the same time, Teilhard was continually writing essays while stationed at the front, among them “The Mystical Milieu” (1917), “The Soul of the World” (1918), “The Great Monad” (1918), and “The Spiritual Power of Matter” (1919).  Unfortunately, only two were accepted for publication after the war, and most remained unpublished during his lifetime, which left him feeling dejected and largely misunderstood.  This defeat did not, however, deter him from continuing to write.[4]

After the war, Teilhard completed his doctoral work in geology in the Sorbonne at the University of Paris and was subsequently elected president of the Société Géologique de France.[5]  The scientist-priest then took a position teaching at the Insitut Catholique in Paris, where he conceived of his noosphere, a thinking layer, that is, a sphere, of mind and spirit that surrounds the biosphere of life on Earth, which itself surrounds the geosphere of abiotic material that comprises our planet.[6]  It was also at this time that Teilhard began corresponding with Father Émile Licent, a fellow Jesuit who was directing paleontological research in China.  Teilhard’s circle of energy would soon be gravitating to the Orient:

The one point at which the divine milieu may be born, for each man, at any moment—is not a fixed point in the universe, but a moving center which we have to follow, like the Magi their star.[7]

Sphere of Spirit

Dr. Teilhard glanced warily up at the cliffside over his head.  He had been effectively exiled from Paris for discussing and attempting to publish the thoughts and writings that would become The Divine Milieu, so he had jumped at the opportunity to work in China, where he continued to write and refine his concept of the “great Christ” that animated his life.  He joined an expedition that was excavating a promising site of porous rock about thirty miles southwest of Beijing (formerly known as Peking), at the foot of the Western Hills, near one branch of the Great Wall of China.  The hillsides there are pocked with caves that were once inhabited, and the expedition was turning up numerous fossils that were apparently quite old.  A Chinese paleontologist on the team had found two ancient teeth and had immediately dubbed them Sinanthropus: Peking Man.  But Teilhard had been in this situation before…  Before the war he had inadvertently become involved with the Piltdown Man excavation and had himself “discovered” a tooth that later turned out to be that of a chimpanzee, all part of an elaborate hoax by E.T. Hall of Oxford University and Kenneth Oakley of the Natural History Museum of London.  Teilhard had barely escaped the ruin of his own reputation in the scandal, and had always felt that something wasn’t quite right about that excavation.  It was just too easy.[8]

Yet now, on December 2, 1929, another specimen had been found embedded in the porous rock above: a complete skullcap.  Teilhard understood that it was his responsibility as expedition geologist to accurately date the fossil based on analysis of the rock in which it was found.  This he undertook diligently in order to avoid another Piltdown embarrassment.  Meanwhile, many more specimens were being unearthed: the skullcaps, limbs, and teeth of approximately 40 individuals, along with tools of shaped stone, bone, and antler.  Teilhard’s analysis found the remains to be somewhere between 200,000 and 700,000 years old, with something around 500,000 years generally accepted as their most likely age.  Of even greater significance was the discovery that Peking Man was indisputably utilizing fire over half a million years ago.[9]  Mulling over the finds, Teilhard wrote:

Like the geologist occupied in recording the movements of the earth, the faultings and foldings, the paleontologist who fixes the position of the animal forms in time is apt to see in the past nothing but a monotonous series of homogeneous pulsations.  In these records, the mammals succeeded the reptiles which succeeded the amphibians, just as the Alps replaced the Cimmerian Mountains which had in their turn replaced the Hercynian range.  Henceforward we can and must break away from this view which lacks depth.  We have no longer the crawling ‘sine’ curve, but the spiral which springs upward as it turns.  From one zoological layer to another, something is carried over: it grows, jerkily, but ceaselessly and in a constant direction.[10]

Teilhard was justifiably excited by his presence on the frontlines of research into man’s evolution.  Equally satisfying, however, was his deepening relationship with Lucile Swan, the American sculptor engaged in creating a life-size bust of Peking Man as fossils were collected by the expedition.  The pair had found themselves seated next to one another at a dinner party one evening in Beijing.  He was then 48 years old; she was 39.  He was gentle, attractive, and highly intelligent; she was warm, lively, and open-minded.  Their love would blossom through conversation and correspondence for the next 12 years, inspiring Teilhard to write that “Love is the most universal, the most tremendous and the most mysterious of the cosmic forces”; however, their relationship remained strictly platonic, for he was already married, to the Church.  Eventually Lucile was forced to accept Teilhard’s commitment to his vows, and so relinquish the great love of her life.[11]

At the same time, Teilhard’s marriage was on the rocks.  The Jesuit censors had no interest in the scientist-priest’s evolving notions of either the spirit of evolution or the evolution of spirit, so they forced him to sign a written pledge that he would keep his ideas to himself—no publishing whatsoever would be allowed.[12]  As Julian Huxley notes in his “Introduction” to The Phenomenon of Man:

It was a nice stroke of irony that the action of Père Teilhard’s religious superiors in barring him from teaching in France because of his ideas on human evolution, should have led him to China and brought him into intimate association with one of the most important discoveries in that field, and driven him to enlarge and consolidate his ‘dangerous thoughts.’[13]

Teilhard, however, was understandably deflated and heartbroken by this defeat at the hands of his beloved Church.  Nevertheless, he soldiered on.  And drums of war began beating once more in the background.  The Japanese occupation of China was now in full swing; the Allied and Axis forces were regrouping and gathering strength yet again, while Chinese Nationalists and Communists prepared for the civil war that would commence as soon as the Japanese were routed out of China.  The entire Jesuit research community essentially found itself under house arrest, so the fossil remains of Peking Man were handed over to the U.S. Marines for safe transport to America.  Somewhere in transit however, somewhere in Japanese-occupied China, the shipment went missing.  Peking Man simply vanished.

Yet Peking Man lives on.  Numerous scholarly articles had already been published on the expedition’s findings before the fossils were lost, including reams of scientific observations, Teilhard’s own geological analysis, and a host of photographic evidence to support the research.  Lucile Swan’s sculptural interpretation of Peking Man was photographed as well, so the image of Peking Man was engraved like some prehistoric petroglyph on our collective memory, thanks to the increasing popularity of National Geographic magazine, the Encyclopedia Britannica, and innumerable college textbooks on introductory anthropology.

Geologists have for long agreed in admitting the zonal composition of our planet[:] the barysphere, central and metallic, surrounded by the rocky lithosphere that in turn is surrounded by the fluid layers of the hydrosphere and the atmosphere.  Since Suess,[14] science has rightly become accustomed to add another to these four concentric layers, the living membrane composed of the fauna and flora of the globe, the biosphere, […] an envelope as definitely universal as the other ‘spheres’ and even more definitely individualized than them.  For, instead of representing a more or less vague grouping, it forms a single piece, of the very tissue of the genetic relations which delineate the tree of life.

The recognition and isolation of a new era in evolution, the era of noogenesis,[15] obliges us to distinguish correlatively a support proportionate to the operation—that is to say, yet another membrane in the majestic assembly of telluric layers.  A glow ripples outward from the first spark of conscious reflection.  The point of ignition grows larger.  The fire spreads in ever widening circles till finally the whole planet is covered with incandescence.  Only one interpretation, only one name can be found worthy of this grand phenomenon.  Much more coherent and just as extensive as any preceding layer, it is really a new layer, the ‘thinking layer,’ which, since its germination at the end of the Tertiary period, has spread over and above the world of plants and animals.  In other words, outside and above the biosphere there is the noosphere.[16]

Eternal Noosphere

Père Pierre gazed serenely out the window, watching a flight of geese traverse the New York City skyline high above, a hint of smile upon his face.  He had spent the entirety of World War II under house arrest in Beijing, far from the front but also well out of harm’s way.  He had used the time well, however, completing his magnum opus, The Phenomenon of Man, and preparing the manuscript for publication with the devoted assistance of Lucile Swan, yet he would never see it in print.

He had returned to Paris after the war and eagerly submitted the manuscript to his Jesuit superiors for publication approval.   His request was rejected unconditionally, without any possibility for revision.  In fact, the Jesuit general, Father Jean Baptiste Janssens, threatened to place the book on the Index Librorum Prohibitorum, or List of Prohibited Books, which Catholics are forbidden to read, should the manuscript ever be printed.  Teilhard was heartbroken by this utter rejection of his life’s work by the Church.[17]

At the same time, while still recovering from an actual heart attack, he was chosen as an officer of the French Légion d’Honneur in June 1947, citing his

outstanding service rendered in the propagation of French intellectual and scientific influence, through a body of writings, written and published for the most part in China, which have won the highest standing for him in international scientific circles,  American and British in particular.  He may be properly ranked today, in the field of paleontology and geology, as one of the glories of French science, the international prestige of which he has done so much, through his personal relations with scientists of other lands, to develop and maintain.[18]

In his work, Teilhard had dug deeper and deeper in space-time to discover the dawn of humanity, concluding that “What we get is a whole series of points of hominization[19] scattered along a subtropical zone of the earth, and hence several human stems becoming genetically merged somewhere beneath the threshold of reflection; not a ‘focus’ but a ‘front’ of evolution.”[20]  In other words, he announced, the human phenomenon was an event that occurred concurrently across the hominin world as our genus evolved to the point of reflective tension that would propel it across the threshold and into human consciousness.

Though weary and fatigued, Teilhard was feted while briefly back in Paris after the war, and crafted alliances with several influential persons of the global cognoscenti who discreetly promoted his work among a small group of admirers, especially Father Pierre Leroy, a sympathetic Jesuit priest, and Helmut and Rhoda de Terra, whom he had met in Beijing and who would champion his work for the rest of their lives.

He next traveled to Rome for an audience with the Jesuit general so he could appeal the decision forbidding him to publish The Phenomenon of Man.  After waiting patiently for a month, Teilhard’s request was again denied—only this time he was additionally banished from permanent residence in Paris.  He bore this defeat graciously, saying, “It is absolutely necessary to keep smiling.  The essential, and doubtless most fruitful, gesture is to smile, with something of love in the smile.”[21]

He joined a paleontological expedition then searching for early hominins in South Africa; however, Teilhard’s health had deteriorated to the point that he had to be carried to the excavation site in a litter.[22]  To the decorated World War I stretcher-bearer, it seemed as though his life as a useful contributor to scientific discovery was at an end.

He then decided to spend his exile in America, where he hoped to finally see the new computers being built there, “the last word,” as he put it, “in systematization after the last word in energy.”[23]  Like all but a handful of people with Top Secret security clearance, Teilhard did not know—could not know—that the ENIAC computer developed by John von Neumann at Princeton University—and generally accepted as the first true digital computer—was built for the sole purpose of constructing an atomic bomb.  Together with the likes of Alan Turing, Albert Einstein, and Kurt Gödel, von Neumann took the binary numbering system and binary logic of G.W. Leibniz and designed a machine to calculate the rapid propagation of the nuclear reaction first unleashed over Hiroshima, Japan—ending the Second World War.  The “last word in systematization” was, in fact, one with “the last word in energy.”

Teilhard took up residence at St. Ignatius, a Jesuit house in New York City, and went to work for the Wenner-Gren Foundation, which promotes and supports anthropological research around the globe to this day.  But he was not to live that life for long, for on Easter Sunday 1955, Pierre Teilhard de Chardin suffered a massive stroke and died at the age of 73.  The Church buried his body in an inconspicuous plot located in the cemetery of the Jesuit novitiate at St. Andrews on the Hudson, in upstate New York.[24]  The Church later sold the property; today it houses a school for the culinary arts.

In life, Teilhard was vilified by the Church that he adored for daring to write of evolution.  At the same time, he was mostly marginalized by the scientific community that he so respected and admired for discussing matters of spirit.  Yet, as he wrote in “The Ultimate Earth”:

We can envisage a world whose constantly increasing ‘leisure’ and heightened interest would find their vital issue in fathoming everything, trying everything, extending everything; a world in which giant telescopes and atom smashers would absorb more money and excite more spontaneous admiration than all the bombs and cannons put together; a world in which, not only for the restricted band of paid research-workers, but also for the man in the street, the day’s ideal would be the wresting of another secret or another force from corpuscles, stars, or organized matter; a world in which, as happens already, one gives one’s life to be and to know, rather than to possess.  That, on an estimate of the forces engaged, is what is being relentlessly prepared around us.

It will not be long now before the noosphere finds its eyes.[25]

He had died only a decade into the computer age, and three decades before the advent of cyberspace.  However, the scientist-priest had presciently entrusted several of his closest allies to posthumously publish his work so that we may discover him and learn from him as we do now, in the noosphere, the center from which Father Teilhard eternally radiates his homily to the world:

Noogenesis rises upwards in us and through us unceasingly.  We have pointed to the principal characteristics of that movement: the closer association of the grains of thought; the synthesis of individuals and of nations or races; the need of an autonomous and supreme personal focus to bind elementary personalities together, without deforming them, in an atmosphere of active sympathy.  And, once again: all this results from the combined action of two curvatures—the roundness of the earth and the cosmic convergence of mind—in conformity with the law of complexity and consciousness.[26]

After his death, a medal was struck in Teilhard’s honor bearing one of his favorite mottos, which would surely bring a smile to the face of G.W. Leibniz could he but read it from his grave in Lower Saxony: Tout ce qui monte converge; that is, “Everything that rises must converge.”[27]  Their point of mutual convergence is, of course, the Omega Point—divine unity—the endpoint of evolution.

This bread, our toil, is of itself, I know, but an immense fragmentation; this wine, our pain, is no more, I know, than a draught that dissolves. Yet in the very depths of this formless mass you have implanted—and this I am sure of, for I sense it—a desire, irresistible, hallowing, which makes us cry out, believer and unbeliever alike:

‘Lord, make us one.’[28]


[1] Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, Hymn of the Universe (New York, Harper & Row, 1961), 23.

[2] Ursula King, Spirit of Fire (Maryknoll, NY, Orbis Books, 2015), 53.

[3] 80-83.

[4] 65-66.

[5] King, 84-86.

[6] 89.

[7] Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, The Divine Milieu (New York, Harper & Row, 1968), 139.

[8] King, 45.

[9] 131-132.

[10] Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, The Phenomenon of Man (New York, Harper & Row, 1975), 147-148.

[11] King, 147-148.

[12] 107.

[13] Julian Huxley, “Introduction” (1947) to The Phenomenon of Man, (New York, Harper & Row, 1975), 24.

[14] Eduard Suess, German scientist, 1831-1914.

[15] Teilhard’s own term for the advent of the noosphere.

[16] Teilhard (1975), 182.

[17] King, 196

[18] ibid.

[19] Teilhard’s own term for the making of humankind.

[20] Teilhard (1975), 187.

[21] King, 204

[22] 214.

[23] 219.

[24] 236.

[25] Teilhard (1975), 279-280.

[26] 287.

[27] King, 233.

[28] Teilhard, (1961), 13.

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