Updated: Sep 5, 2022
Editor’s note: this essay is part 3 in a series on Teilhard, beginning here.
The wind carried off, or men’s ears were deaf to, half of what I was able to say; and the rest, no one understood.
-Teilhard de Chardin, The Mystical Milieu
Teilhard de Chardin has been a significant influence on a variety of conservative Christian thinkers from Lutheran theologian Wolhart Pannenberg to Pope Benedict XVI. Still, Teilhard is often casually dismissed as a theological liberal and/or accused of one or more heresies, usually by people who have not actually read his work.
While I do find Teilhard’s vision lacking in important ways, my journey of discovering his theology convinced me that his views are squarely within the bounds of Christian orthodoxy. I’ll engage with the most common accusations against Teilhard here.
Does Teilhard substitute technology for God?
One common misconception about Teilhard is that he believed that God does not yet exist, but is instead only the future outcome of technological development, the evolutionary process, or both.
Tellingly, I have only encountered this misconception among people who have not read any of Teilhard’s work. But the fact is that it is probably bolstered by Teilhard’s sometimes-dense and opaque writing style, which lends itself to being misleadingly quoted out of context.
Censorship is not fertile ground for clear prose. Yet it is hard to fault Teilhard—who described his own writing as “the cry of one who thinks he sees”—for trying to circumvent it.
Unfortunately, his attempt failed in two respects. First, his books were not approved for publication by the Church. Secondly, those who read the books today often cannot understand what they mean.
Still, Teilhard repeatedly and clearly dispelled the notion that he did not have an orthodox understanding of the godhead. This can be seen especially through Teilhard’s concept of “convergence,” which inspired the title of Flannery O’Connor’s book Everything that Rises Must Converge. Teilhard’s notion of convergence shows that, while Teilhard emphasized human agency, he had a robust view of God’s transcendence. In The Heart of Matter, he wrote that: “The time had now come when I could see one thing: that, from the depths of the cosmic future as well as from the heights of Heaven, it was still God, it was always the same God, who was calling me.”
In Teilhard’s eschatology, humanity is an active agent—but only in cooperation with a transcendent God. As humans are sanctified through their conquest of the universe from the bottom up, we will simultaneously draw closer to God’s converging renewal of the cosmos from the top down. Human agency and God’s grace will then come together in the completion of the New Heaven and the New Earth. “Evolution will coincide in concrete terms with the crowning of the Incarnation awaited by all Christians.”
This is consistent with the decidedly non-pietistic eschatologies of Daniel and Revelation. Teilhard makes a similar observation, writing:
For all its apparent modernity, this Gospel of the cosmic Christ, in which the salvation of our own times may very well lie, is indeed the word handed down from heaven to our forefathers… The Incarnation is a making new, a restoration, of all the universe’s forces and powers… This is the constant and general teaching of St John and St Paul (the most ‘cosmic’ of sacred writers).
Was Teilhard a proto-transhumanist?
Among his endless stream of neologisms, Teilhard did occasionally refer to “transhomonization” and—at least once—actually used the word “transhuman”: a word that, as far as I’m aware, he may well have coined. Nonetheless, Teilhard certainly did not intend to create the contemporary phenomenon of “transhumanism,” and it would be a mistake to closely associate him with the present-day label.
Importantly, Teilhard by far preferred the term “ultra-human”: a much clearer way of communicating the same aspect of his theology. Teilhard used this term to term to mean something like “supremely and fully human.” Ultra-humanization is not a process of overcoming one’s humanity and ceasing to be human, but of striving to become more and more like Christ: the ultimate human.
Unlike many contemporary transhumanists, Teilhard did not exalt humanity’s potential to recreate ourselves into whatever form we might choose. His Christology gives his eschatology a constant end-point.
A prime illustration of this distinction can be found in Teilhard’s exalted view of biological sex. Teilhard does not view the complementarity of the sexes, like some transhumanists do, as an accident which humans might freely choose to discard or rearrange. Instead, he sees sex as a reality ordained by God intended to reflect His metaphysical nature. Teilhard believed—as Paul taught in 1 Corinthians 11:3—that the complementarity of the sexes reflects the basic interpersonally of God Himself.
In Sketch of a Personalistic Universe, Teilhard put the absolute necessity of sex in unambiguous terms: “The mutual attraction of the sexes is so fundamental that any explanation of the world (biological, philosophical or religious) that does not succeed in finding it a structurally essential place in its system is virtually condemned.”
Transhumanism and death-worship as opposite heresies
Some might attack Teilhard as a transhumanist on the grounds that he was clearly committed to increasing—as much as possible—what we would today call the “healthspan,” or healthy lifespan, of human beings.
Yet heresies like transhumanism often come in pairs of opposites. The heresy of Monophysitism began as an overreaction to Nestorianism, for example. Arianism, one of Christianity’s most famous heresies, was essentially the inverse of Docetism, one of its earliest.
Likewise, some Christians today overreact to the religious threat of transhumanism by lapsing into a form of death-worship—exalting sickness, degenerative aging, and death as intrinsic goods which give life meaning. For these Christians, medicine will eventually reach some arbitrary point at which scientists simply must stop combatting ill-health and other forms of natural suffering.
These Christians are unlikely to specify when exactly this arbitrary point will arrive, probably because they have not yet settled that question themselves. A minority may think it has already passed.
Death-worshippers are perhaps a kind of “conservative,” but what they are conserving is something like 19th century romanticism, not biblical Christianity. In the Bible, sickness and death are never described as positive in any inherent sense. Death is The Last Enemy to be Destroyed, destined to be cast into the lake of fire with the devil. In Proverbs 8, Wisdom—personified as a woman—concludes her monologue with the condemnation: “All who hate me love death.”
The reader might be tempted to cite Ecclesiastes as a counterexample: there is “a time to be born, and a time to die.” But the writer of Ecclesiastes—who did not know of the Last Resurrection—did not conclude that death gave life meaning. He concluded that it made everything pointless.
According to Teilhard, we should never seek to discard those aspects of humanity that God has ordained as positive goods. But neither should we passively accept natural evil, which exists as an enemy to be conquered, as one of those goods. No death-worshipper can draw any principled distinction between inventing antibiotics and adding ten years to the human healthspan. In fact, as a practical matter, eradicating certain diseases—like Alzheimer’s—is likely to require treating the underlying causes of degenerative aging itself.
To Teilhard, there is no arbitrary point at which research and discovery should stop combatting ill-health and increasing human healthspan. On the contrary, it would be a positive good if we enabled all human beings to live to the time of the Last Resurrection.
Just as we have methodically overcome disease, Teilhard says in Cosmic Life, the scientist can:
[E]nvisage a new era in which suffering is effectively alleviated, well-being is assured, and—who knows?—our organs are perhaps rejuvenated and even artificially developed. It is dangerous to challenge science and set a limit to its victories, for the hidden energies it summons from the depths are unfathomable.
Teilhard is no rosy utopian, however. He knows that the fruits of research and discovery will be used for increasing evil as well as increasing good. Speculating about a future apocalyptic conflict in The Phenomenon of Man, he writes: “Obeying a law from which nothing in the past has ever been exempt, evil may go on growing alongside good, and it too may attain its paroxysm at the end in some specifically new form.”
Teilhard suggests that goodness will one day command great technological powers, but that it will have to defeat an equally powerful and consummate evil. “It would be a complete misunderstanding,” he wrote, to interpret “[my projections] as a sort of human idyll rather than as the cosmic drama that I have attempted to present.”
Teilhard did have some hesitation about the idea of defeating human aging—which he calls “senescence”—but his hesitation was purely one of technical feasibility rather than desirability. This is unsurprising given Teilhard’s focus on “organs” as the mechanism for defeating degenerative aging. Actual anti-aging therapies, we now know, will not involve artificially replacing our organs with new ones, but repairing damage within our cells.
Interestingly, Teilhard seems to have had little fear of his own personal death, harboring an ambition to die on Easter Sunday. Teilhard accomplished this goal in 1955. Although he died of a heart attack, it is hard not to speculate that he intentionally willed himself over the threshold.
Teilhard was therefore a living refutation of the idea that the biomedical quest to combat degenerative aging can be explained as a form of terror management. For Chardin, the elimination of every form of sickness was not an ambition he harbored for himself, but the longed-for future outworking of a divine mandate to combat evil.
Was Teilhard a pantheist and/or monist?
By far, the error of which Teilhard has been most frequently accused—both now and during his own life—is likely pantheism and/or monism. I think Teilhard can be fairly criticized here, not for actually being a pantheist or monist, but for using language that he should have known would be taken out of context and used to accuse him of these heresies.
For example: I have repeatedly seen Teilhard quoted as saying, in The Phenomenon of Man, that humanity will become a collective “super-consciousness” and even a “single vast grain of thought.” Undoubtedly, the phrase “single vast grain of thought” certainly looks like damning evidence that Teilhard had some kind of quasi-Buddhist desire to be absorbed into a single undifferentiated being.
What is less frequently quoted is Teilhard’s explanation of what this “single vast grain of thought” will look like. In the very same sentence, he writes that it will consist of “the plurality of individual reflections grouping themselves together and reinforcing one another in the act of a single unanimous reflection [on God].” The implication is clear. Teilhard did not believe that individual persons will be subsumed into a single being, but that a plurality of unique persons will be unified in focus while retaining their distinct identities.
In context, Teilhard is describing nothing more nor less than the divine love that Paul anticipates in 1 Corinthians 13:12. “For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I have been fully known.”
Unfortunately, Teilhard’s imprudence in using the phrase “single vast grain of thought” was not an isolated incident. He continually emphasized a future “unanimization,” “unification,” “union,” and so on, practically inviting any Christian who leafs through one of his books to accuse him of pantheism. Again, however, any systematic reading of Teilhard shows he emphatically denounced and refuted this heresy.
Teilhard’s fixation with the language of “unity” is ultimately grounded in a quasi-Trinitarian complementarity of different individuals. “Union differentiates,” he explained in Phenomenon. “In every organized whole, the parts perfect themselves and fulfill themselves.” In an ideal Christian marriage, for example, a man and woman attain a “unanimization” of their shared interests and goals. Yet, in uniting into one whole, both partners are able to fulfill themselves in their differentiated roles.
Tellingly, Teilhard gave this kind of explanation so much that he got tired of doing so. In The Heart of the Problem, he asked rhetorically: “Must I again repeat the truth, of universal application, that if it be properly ordered union does not confound but differentiates?”
Nor does Teilhard think that we are, or will become, personally identical with God. “God cannot in any way be intermixed with or lost in the participated being which he sustains and animates and holds together,” he writes in Cosmic Life, “but he is at the birth, and the growth and the final term of all things.”
But if Teilhard was neither a monist nor a pantheist, why was he so prone to sounding like one in soundbites? Were Teilhard alive today, he might respond to my charge of imprudent wording by saying that it was precisely for a pantheistic audience that he was writing.
Perhaps by presenting substantively orthodox ideas through the prism of pantheistic terms and categories, Teilhard opened an intellectual doorway into the faith for a certain kind of non-Christian techno-mystic. In other words, Teilhard might have been God’s evangelist to the pantheists.
There is some evidence for this theory. In Cosmic Life, Teilhard relates how he flirted with and rejected real pantheism in his youth. We soon learn that Teilhard’s very ability to empathize with pantheists makes him a penetrating critic of pantheism. The more he became a pantheist, he relates:
[T]he more the light of life was dimmed in me… Contact with other men is painful to the pantheist, or he tries to see only their collective activities… Persons… are mutually exclusive through their centers, and the pantheist dreams of forming but one, of being synonymous, with all around him. Thus he isolates himself, and he becomes intoxicated with his isolation. When I recognized that symptom I already suspected I was becoming less of a person.
Pantheism, Teilhard realized, was a temptress: “Her alluring face masked a lack of thought and an empty heart.”
Editor’s note: this essay is part 3 in a series on Teilhard, continued in part 4. Ian Huyett is a litigation attorney and a commentator on law, religion, and technology for Staseos and other outlets. You can follow him at @IanHuyett.