April 10, Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, Scientist & Military Chaplain, 1955

Welcome to the Holy Women, Holy Men blog! We invite you to read about this commemoration, use the collect and lessons in prayer, whether individually or in corporate worship, then tell us what you think. For more information about this project, click here.

Pierre Teilhard de Chardin was a ground-breaking paleontologist and Christian mystic whose vision encompassed the evolution of all matter toward a final goal in which material and spiritual shall coincide and God shall be all in all.

Teilhard was born in 1881. In 1899, he entered the Jesuit novitiate, moving to England in 1902 when French law nationalized the properties of religious orders. After taking a degree in literature in 1902, he went to Egypt to teach chemistry in the Jesuit College in Cairo. There he fell in love with the east. Teilhard moved back to England in 1908 and began to synthesize his already vast knowledge of evolution, philosophy and theology. He was ordained priest in  1911.

Teilhard did research at the Natural History Museum in Paris, leading to the Sorbonne (University of Paris) where he completed his doctorate in paleontology. He went to China where, with other researchers, he made public the famous “Peking Man” hominid in 1926. Teilhard developed a vision of creation which held that evolution was the process by which matter inexorably arranges itself toward greater complexity until recognizable consciousness emerges. For Teilhard, this described a continuing process of human evolution that moves toward a new level of consciousness in which the universe will come to perfect unity and find itself one with God. God, then, is the highest point of pure consciousness, always “pulling” the evolutionary process towards its promised destiny, which he called the “Omega Point.”

Teilhard struggled with the Roman Church that was suspicious of his seemingly radical and heterodox writings. He was forbidden to teach and had to defend himself against charges of heresy. Teilhard remained loyal. After his death, many came to recognize his vision as a deeply Christian one that sought to reconcile the Biblical vision of God’s final triumph over sin and disunity with the undeniable discoveries of evolutionary science.

Shortly before he died, he prayed: “O God, if in my life I have not been wrong, allow me to die on Easter Sunday”. He died on April 10, 1955: Easter Sunday.


I    Eternal God, the whole cosmos sings of thy glory, from the dividing of a single cell to the vast expanse of interstellar space: We offer thanks for thy theologian and scientist Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, who didst perceive the divine in the evolving creation. Enable us to become faithful stewards of thy divine works and heirs of thy everlasting kingdom; through Jesus Christ, the firstborn of all creation, who with thee and the Holy Spirit liveth and reigneth, one God, for ever and ever.  Amen.

II    Eternal God, the whole cosmos sings of your glory, from the dividing of a single cell to the vast expanse of interstellar space: We bless you for your theologian and scientist Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, who perceived the divine in the evolving creation. Enable us to become faithful stewards of your divine works and heirs of your eternal kingdom; through Jesus Christ, the firstborn of all creation, who with you and the Holy Spirit lives and reigns, one God, for ever and ever.  Amen.


Isaiah 55:6-11

Revelation 21:1-6

John 3:31-35

Psalm 65

Preface of a Saint (3)

From Holy, Women, Holy Men: Celebrating the Saints © 2010 by The Church Pension Fund. Used by permission.

* * *

We invite your reflections about this commemoration and its suitability for the official calendar and worship of The Episcopal Church. How did this person’s life witness to the Gospel? How does this person inspire us in Christian life today?

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22 thoughts on “April 10, Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, Scientist & Military Chaplain, 1955

  1. This commemoration is for Trial Use. All elements (Title, Collect, Lections, and Proper Preface) are new.

  2. Collect. If the collect mentions theologian and scientist why not include priest? ‘We bless you for your theologian, scientist, and priest Pierre Teilhard de Chardin …”

    Bio. Very good ‘who is he’ and ‘why he is important’ statement; and date of death. Thank you.

    • Excellent point. He was a priest. It is inconceivable that it should be left out.

      Hi Lizzie, Thanks for your comment. Next time please provide your first and last name. — Ed.

  3. Re “military chaplain”: the Encyclopaedia Britannica (supported by every other web site I checked) says “Although ordained a priest in 1911, Teilhard chose to be a stretcher bearer rather than a chaplain in World War I; his courage on the battle lines earned him a military medal and the Legion of Honour.”
    http://www.teilharddechardin.org/biography.html adds “Teilhard’s regiment fought in some of the most brutal battles at the Marne and Epres in 1915, Nieuport in 1916, Verdun in 1917 and Chateau Thierry in 1918. Teilhard himself was active in every engagement of the regiment for which he was awarded the Chevalier de la Legion d’Honneur in 1921. Throughout his correspondence he wrote that despite this turmoil he felt there was a purpose and a direction to life more hidden and mysterious than history generally reveals to us.”

    • Title: Military Chaplain. If not for Steve’s comment (above) we would have no information regarding de Chardin’s military service. If the Title is to include ‘Military Chaplain’ then the bio should include something about his military service. And it sounds as if Chaplain may be a ‘stretch’ … 🙂 😦

  4. Collect: “;…through Jesus Christ, the firstborn of all creation….” Somewhere I seem to recall the words “begotten, not made” as applying to this kind of statement. I doubt Chardin demoted the second person of the Trinity, the Logos through whom all things were made, to the status of a creature — even first among creatures, firstborn of all creation. It has to be changed if we are to keep the creed and the gospel.

    • Colossians 1:15-17 complicates my dogmatic hastiness, above, making my point as clear as mud. Do as you will — there’s an argument either way. I’ll be in the “agennitos” camp!

      15 He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation;
      16 for in him all things in heaven and on earth were created, things visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or powers–all things have been created through him and for him.
      17 He himself is before all things, and in him all things hold together.

  5. Thank you so very much for this selection. Theihard is right at the top of my list of heros and and I can not think of anyone more deserving of this honor. I only wish more of our clergy had his insight, wisdom and spirit.

  6. Whatever his role in World War I, he is not included here because of his service in that conflict. Why not change the headline to conform to the collect,: “Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, Theologian & Scientist.”

  7. Collect: ‘…the whole cosmos sings of your glory, from the dividing of a single cell to the vast expanse of interstellar space: …’

    Eucharistic Prayer C notwithstanding (” …the vast expanse of interstellar space, galaxies, suns, the planets in their courses, and this fragile earth, our island.’), this seems a bit too flowery for any Collect. Carl Sagan would have been proud of our effort. The only thing missing was ‘billions and billions’ of stars in the cosmos!

    I vote for a rewrite.

  8. Chardin is worrthy of commemoration. His books have profoundly affected my theological understanding of creation.. I’m not sure how he and Selwin fit together. I soppose it is an either-or business., But morre ocrrectly both should be set aside for the Lenten weedday propers, as I did and commemorated them both.

  9. I keep forgetting so few have military experience. Teilhard’s turning down an appointment as a chaplain (a commissioned officer) to become a stretcher bearer (an enlisted man) was an act of considerable humility. It also necessarily exposed him to hardships, discomforts, and dangers that, as a chaplain he could easily avoid. Not that I knew many chaplains who avoided such things, but when they shared the burdens of the front-line troops they did it voluntarily, usually to our delight, and often to the annoyance of their senior officers.
    As noted before, it seems to me that the title of the feast should try to capture the “why s/he matters,” not simply the highest ecclesiastical office held. I’ve seen Teilhard described as “the father of the New Age movement,” which is even more inaccurate as “chaplain,” but at least it gives you a quick answer to “Do I want to read about this person?” “X, Priest” or “Y, Bishop of Z” strikes me as the equivalent of “Albert Einstein, College Professor,” “Martin Luther King Jr, Baptist Minister,” or “Alexander I, King of Macedon” — accurate but meaningless.
    I usually oppose adding post-Reformation Catholics (and Baptists, Methodists, etc.), but this one’s a keeper, even though some might read his addition as a sort of tit-for-tat response to the Roman Church’s beautification of Newman the Apostate. It should be noted, however, that Teilhard was in HWHM for trial use before the Bishop of Rome went public with the process of making Newman a saint.

    • Steve — Thank you. As usual, you shed a lot of light with your comments. Often, it’s about details of history and historical theology, etc., but time it was the military insights. I’m one without the military background, so it was a perspective that hadn’t even occurred to me to wonder about. –John L.

  10. Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, Scientist & Military Chaplain, 1955
    Suitability for the official calendar and worship of The Episcopal Church: He is a good addition to our calendar not because of the specific contributions he made (not to minimize him, but as with everyone his philosophical, theological, and scientific paradigms were shaped by the times in which he lived). Nevertheless, in his own unusual way, he is a good model of a person of faith bringing a theological/ecclesial eye and intellect to the world, while at the same time, as a person of the world (a scientist, and even though a Jesuit he was “secular” in the literal sense that science is specifically about the world) bringing the world into a creative intellectual engagement with theology, religion, and devotion. Usually I see the interfacing of world and church as the particular calling and role of the deacon’s leadership (and the diaconal aspect of every Christian’s – and the whole Church’s — baptismal calling) but in his case he did it as a priest, and — while not the only person to ever do so, one under a religious community’s vows and disciplines.
    How does this person inspire us in Christian life today? We are so locked into and blinded by anything larger than a traditional anthropo-centric myopia about the gospel and atonement being for humans only, it deadens our minds to other horizons of self-revelation and purpose of the Creator-God. Granted, small steps have been taken in areas of eco-awareness, ethics in regards to environment, and animals as an inherently valuable (not just instrumentally useful or ancillary-but-meaningless) part of God’s creation. At least we are beginning to hear faint voices regarding rites relating to animals (if not so much by way of full endorsement of their spiritual importance to God). Religious curricula have finally broken out of the “education wing” into the church’s or community’s garden (outdoors!), and GC even produced a creation catechism (how many know about that one?).
    For most, however, Jesus came to take away sins and to “spirit” human souls off into eternal retirement in heaven (period, end of paragraph, end of story), — not to resurrect their bodies, much less redeem the whole of creation, having any larger purpose in mind! Chardin takes us beyond the blinders. That’s inspiring, so far as he takes us.
    TITLE: It has to change. Steve’s input is invaluable, and the title HAS to change!
    Paragraph 1: I’m still chuckling over “a ground-breaking paleontologist” – I think that’s just how they all do it!
    > “Mystic” is often claimed, and perhaps I just don’t get the dividing line between mystic and poetic, visionary, or creative expression, but I see him as the last three, and just a bit too tied to his understanding of science and philosophy to call him a “mystic.” That’s may be more semantics than substance. You say “ta-mah-to,” I say “clam sauce.”
    > Regarding his use of “matter” and “spirit” – he definitely used those words, but I don’t know his work well enough to say if he was as much of a dualist (in his way) as the sharp division suggested here suggests. I wish someone else would comment on that. (It’s quite beside the point to add, but, depending on how one defines spiritual, demonic possession can also illustrate the coinciding of “material and spiritual” – which is not exactly Chardin’s idea of the “noosphere.”)
    Paragraph 2: While his educational record is somewhat complex, (a) if it’s important to say he taught chemistry in Egypt, shouldn’t we mention he taught physics there, too, and (b) it’s not enough to say only that he had a degree in literature without saying anything about the mathematics or science background that equipped him to teach college level science in Cairo (i.e., his academic and family influences).
    > It’s odd to have a sentence with no consequence in the rest of the article: “There he fell in love with the east.” (Granted, he authored a book about it, but the book plays no role in this bio, either.) I don’t see why this extraneous thought is included.
    > Now, time for an opinionated nit-picking item: Some of the verb usages are flimsy to a fault: he moved to, he went to, he began to. Some may be inevitable, but framing the main action more judiciously in the first place would improve the article. For example: “After taking a degree in literature in 1902, he went to Egypt to teach chemistry in the Jesuit College in Cairo.” How about, “he began teaching chemistry in Egypt at…etc.” and skipping “he went to.” Of course he went there – you don’t need to say so — how else could he teach there? “He went there” is about as unimportant here as “he packed 6 pairs of black socks in a little brown suitcase and called a cab….” (I know – I’m a great one to talk about brevity; I’m a big fan, but only as a spectator.)
    > Something more substantive: we’re told he “began to synthesize his already vast knowledge of evolution, philosophy and theology” – without mention of formal studies, or intellectual influences. His work is his own, but he didn’t dream it up in a vacuum. Wikipedia tells us, concerning this period,
    [He] studied theology in Hastings, in Sussex (United Kingdom), from 1908 to 1912. There he synthesized his scientific, philosophical and theological knowledge in the light of evolution. His reading of L’Évolution Créatrice (The Creative Evolution) by Henri Bergson was, he said, the “catalyst of a fire which devoured already its heart and its spirit.” http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pierre_Teilhard_de_Chardin#Academic_career
    Paragraph 3:
    >Contains another “he went to” sentence.
    > I have trouble with “inexorably” – although I’m not sure if that was his position or not.
    Most evolution theories don’t see evolution as “inexorable,” religious or not. The clockwork world of a deistic god has the “inevitability” characteristic. I’d think a variant but fair description of deism would be: “a continuing process of human evolution that moves toward a new level of consciousness in which the universe will come to perfect unity and find itself one with God.” Come to think of it, this isn’t too different from medieval alchemists’ dream of transforming base matter into something precious – with the addition of consciousness. Maybe HWHM is engaging too much with the specific content of his theory here for the task at hand. (I know I am.)
    Paragraph 4: I’d replace the first two sentences with, “Vatican authorities viewed his writings as unorthodox, charging him with heresy, and forbidding him to teach. “T remained loyal” would benefit from saying what he was loyal TO – either Rome’s authority, traditional Roman Catholic theology, scientific theories of evolution, his own theological/philosophical/poetic/devotional writings, etc. The remaining sentence seems clunky, and could benefit from being reworked entirely.
    Paragraph 5: THAT IS AWFUL!!! Talk about self absorbed melodrama! What are we to conclude – “that proves it? Everything he wrote was correct, since he died on Easter?” For God’s sake, kill that trivializing bit of pathetic hubris on the half shell! End with “He died….”

    COLLECT: The collect is problematic, but tweaking won’t help. I’m struck by Chardin’s seeing divinity in the evolving cosmos as being similar to Julian’s seeing it in a hazelnut.
    > I already made two comments about “firstborn of creation.”
    > The petition clause (“enable us to become faithful stewards of your divine works and heirs of your eternal kingdom”) asks two things we’re already granted as Christians, having no overt necessary connection to Chardin. It’s an ingenuous petition.
    > The collect needs a makeover. (Call Oprah.)
    READINGS: I find it impossible to comment. I’m not sure what we should be eliciting here. Selections about (OT) Torah, cosmos, eschatological purposes of God, epistle about “all in all”, maybe John’s prologue, a psalm “hymn” type, or focused on creation (part of 104?) – this is what I’d expect. Instead, the selections seem to attempt speaking to or with Chardin’s idiom – alas, unsuccessfully. I was disappointed by all the selections cited.

  11. That sentence I quoted from paragraph 2 — there’s another point. Not all facts belong in the same sentence. After taking a degree in literature he went off to teach chemistry in Egypt?
    That’s like, After studying pastry-making in Paris he went off to do brain surgery in China! Those facts don’t belong together.

    • Reality Check #2:
      Where I commented on Readings and mentioned “(OT) Torah” I wasn’t thinking so much in terms of “Thou Shalt Nots” or “If your bunny rabbit gores an ox” etc. I was thinking more along the lines of wisdom sayings ABOUT torah, law, teachings, teachers, etc.

  12. Line 1, second paragraph: substitute “on May 1″ for ” in”.

    Line 2, fifth paragraph: add “in New York City” after “died”.

  13. I am not sure if it is a fact error or a typographical error. The finding of Sinanthropus pekinensis, now called, Homo erectus pekinensis was in December 1929 at a cave in Zhoukoudian near Peking, now Beijing.

  14. One pet peeve is the way Chardin’s enthusiasts often speak as if he invented the combination of evolutionary theory with philosophical theology. Others in the same period were thinking in similar ways (as well as in prior and subsequent years) quite independently of Chardin. I cited the quote about Henri Bergson in my looooong comment not because the quote is so crystal clear (which it isn’t) but because it was the only indication of Xhardin’s indebtedness to another thinker. Hegel’s dialectical philosophy of history encompassed theological concepts and resulted, in significant ways (minus the poetic devotional touch) like Chardin’s speculative projection of evolution-based cosmic history. Hegel flourished about 100 years before Chardin, and profoundly shaped 19th Century theology (among other disciplines, and 20th century thought). The wikipedia article on “Absolute Idealism” sounds a lot like the description of Chardin’s evolutionary projection of matter progressing into the noosphere and the Omega Point:

    “According to Hegel, the absolute ground of being is essentially a dynamic, historical process of necessity that unfolds by itself in the form of increasingly complex forms of being and of consciousness, ultimately giving rise to all the diversity in the world and in the concepts with which we think and make sense of the world.”

    • That wikipedia quote, referring to “necessity that unfolds by itself … ultimately giving rise to all the diversity” etc., puts me in mind of ancient Greek atomists, too! He didn’t manufacture this stuff in his own private and otherwise secret “keyhole on reality” factory. A. N. Whitehead’s “philosophy of organism” or “process” philosophy/metaphysics

      • My comment beginning “That wikipedia quote…” was incomplete when my computer “blinked” and posted it in the middle of a thought, prematurely. I was pointing out Alfred North Whitehead’s “process” metaphysics as a parallel to Chardin’s, which was being produced independently of Chardin, and in the same time period. Despite very different styles and vocabularies, and a poetic/devotional edge in Chardin’s, both (as well as others) were applying a sense of evolutionary impetus, with a theological aspect, to nature (and history).

  15. Thanks to all for interesting and enlightening comments. I quite agree that Teilhard is an important and saintly figure who is worth commemoration. (I suspect that he may become better appreciated in the future; right at the moment he seems to have faded a little since I first started reading him back in the Olden Days!)

    Yes, let’s dump the “military chaplain” thing out of the title. If indeed he was not a chaplain but a stretcher-bearer (we might say “corpsman”), that is certainly worth noting in the bio, but not in the title. That he was a priest as well as a theologian and scientist is important.

    Having said that: I’m new to these discussions. How much conversation has there been about setting the dates for these commemorations? I think that “duplication” ought to be resisted. William Law already has April 10. I don’t mean to compare apples and oranges here, but Law, who is directly part of our own tradition, has had that date for a long time. (Despite the fact that he died on April 9, which of course puts him in conflict with Bonhoeffer…!) I suggest, and wouldn’t be in the least surprised if many others have already suggested, that we need to review date assignments in the calendar very carefully.

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