Does the answer lie in the ideas of Teilhard de Chardin?
By Matthew Taylor
In 2014, Pope Francis confirmed that the idea of the expanding universe (the Big Bang) and Evolution are both true and compatible with Christian belief. At a meeting at the Vatican’s Pontifical Academy for the Sciences, Pope Francis said that God;
… created human beings and let them develop according to the internal laws that he gave to each one so they would reach their fulfilment. Evolution in nature is not inconsistent with the notion of creation, because evolution requires the creation of beings that evolve
(BBC News, 2014)
These comments by the Pope provoked debate. The supporters of the papal statement viewed it as a sign of the church progressing. In contrast, many conservative commentators, including prominent creationists, criticised and opposed the Pope’s comments.
The idea that Creation, the Big Bang and evolution are compatible with each other has become increasingly popular within progressive and mainstream Christianity. Christianity is adapting to the 21st century. In fact, in a 2019 interview on Newsnight, renowned New Atheist Richard Dawkins expressed his satisfaction that the majority of Church of England bishops now believe in evolution, dismissing overly literal interpretations of the bible, like the story of Adam and Eve.
The overlap between the Creation and the Big Bang is even promoted in popular culture. For example in the 2014 film, Noah, there is a sequence where the audience is shown the Big Bang and evolution while the Book of Genesis is recited.
It is Georges Lemaître, a Roman Catholic priest and astronomer, who is credited with being the first to suggest that the universe is expanding.
Many people think religion and science can coexist amicably. Evidently, for the church to be relevant in contemporary society, it must adapt and incorporate new scientific ideas. Those who think the Creation, the Big Bang and evolution are compatible have their heroes. It is Georges Lemaître, a Roman Catholic priest and astronomer who is credited with being the first to suggest that the universe is expanding. Lemaître is widely accepted as having founded the theory of the ‘Big Bang’.
In my previous article, Towards A New British Liberation Theology , I discussed how the church needed to adapt to an increasingly secular society by adopting the progressive ideas of Liberation Theology. Religion and science coexisting in closer harmony is also a part of the solution. By accepting and incorporating the important ideas of science, the church stays relevant, and as a result, it can engage more effectively in debates surrounding science and the use and abuse of technology.
From the time of the Enlightenment, science and reason have been portrayed by its advocates as being superior to religion and in opposition to it. According to the enlightenment thinkers, religion would become extinct and science and reason would reign over the world. This legacy is alive today, and reflected in the fact that European society is becoming more and more secular.
More religious people should accept and adopt proven scientific discoveries and facts, rather than opposing them.
It appears then, that the predictions of the Enlightenment could be accurate. But religion and science do not have to be at loggerheads with each other at all. One of them does not have to win out over the other. They can be compatible and coexist. There is no need for false enmity. More religious people should accept and adopt proven scientific discoveries and facts, rather than opposing them.
The 19th century saw great advancement in science and technology and in all fields. Unfortunately, the initial response of the church was to reject modernity. Instead of deferring to science, the First Vatican Council (1869-1870) reaffirmed papal infallibility. In the 19th century, fundamentalist Christianity started up in North America and gave birth to America’s powerful Bible Belt. Many people in the US Bible Belt, notoriously, oppose the idea of evolution.
Unfortunately, the initial response of the church was to reject modernity.
In the end, are religion and science compatible? What theology, philosophy or theory can align them both with each other? Who can achieve this task? Perhaps the answer lies in the work of Pierre Teilhard de Chardin (1881-1955). Teilhard was a French Roman Catholic priest, theologian and a scientist and palaeontologist. Teilhard also believed in the idea of evolution. Teilhard worked towards establishing a creation theology that reconciled religion and science and modernised the church’s outlook.
When they were first published, Teilhard’s views were divisive and rejected by the Roman Catholic church, even resulting in a posthumous condemnation in 1962 by the Congregation for the Doctrine of Faith. The Congregation accused him of doctrinal error.
In the 19th century, fundamentalist Christianity started up in North America and gave birth to America’s powerful Bible Belt. Many people there, notoriously, oppose the idea of evolution.
Then, slowly, within the church, attitudes towards Teilhard became more positive. Teilhard’s views on reconciling Catholicism with science may have influenced Pope Francis’s 2014 comments that evolution is consistent with creation. Meanwhile, the majority of scientists remain highly critical of Teilhard’s ideas. The majority reject these ideas outright, dismissing them as metaphysics.
Teilhard is not the only theologian to try to reconcile religion and science and his ideas are not the only ones available. Nevertheless, Teilhard has been highly influential in this debate about religion and science and he has won the respect of prominent church leaders over the years. He should be given greater recognition.
According to Teilhard, Homo Sapiens are not the final outcome of the evolutionary process.
Teilhard’s best known theory is that of the Omega Point. The Omega Point, according to Draper (2015) is a supposed future event where, eventually, the universe containing all matter, energy and thought will reach a point of divine unification. Teilhard outlines his theory in a book published posthumously in 1959, The Phenomenon of Man.
In Teilhard’s version, evolution is a progression that starts with matter and energy. That matter and energy transform into life and all life will evolve into a state of divine consciousness. According to Teilhard, Homo Sapiens are not the final outcome of the evolutionary process. Instead, life causes a cerebral layer to come into being in the form of thought. This produces what Teilhard calls the Noosphere.
The evolutionary process continues and the Noosphere gains in strength, eventually becoming the Omega Point, the moment when all creation is united into a divine consciousness. In other words, for Teilhard, evolution is a work in progress until it reaches its final destination – unity with God. For Teilhard, as Hickey (2016) points out, Jesus Christ is the Logos and draws all things to him. In Christology, Jesus is the Word of God. The ‘Word became flesh’ (John 1:14, NRSV). By this logic, Jesus is God and he symbolises the future divine unification.
Pope Francis’s use of the word fulfillment in the context of evolution, strongly suggests the influence of Teilhard de Chardin.
Teilhard blends theology and science. His intention is to create a new Christianity that can coexist with modern science and that draws from science. However, Teilhard’s theory departs from traditional Christian beliefs. Mainstream Christianity believes that Jesus is God come to earth to atone for sins of humanity, whilst Teilhard’s Christianity focuses heavily on the cosmos and how eventually everything will unite in God.
Mainstream Christianity looks forward to a future event called the Second Coming of Christ, however this religious idea does not have anything to say about the fate of the cosmos, so perhaps there is room for Teilhard’s ideas in traditional Christianity.
… for Teilhard, evolution is a work in progress until it reaches its final destination – unity with God.
Many of my progressive Christian friends reconcile religion and science in cosmic terms in a more straightforward way. For them, the trigger that caused the Big Bang was God. This is a traditional, commonly held Christian view. They find no obvious contradiction between their Christianity and the concept of an expanding universe. Perhaps, Pope Francis also takes this simpler view. However, Pope Francis’s use of the word fulfillment in the context of evolution, suggests the influence of Teilhard de Chardin. Teilhard is an influential figure.
There are different ways to reconcile religion with science. This article does not argue in favour of Teilhard’s ideas or against them, rather it argues that Christians and non-Christians alike should take Teilhard’s ideas into account in their conversations and give him more recognition.
All Bible Quotations are from NRSV
Aronofsky, D. (Director). (2014). Noah [Film]. Regency Enterprises, Protoza Pictures.
BBC News. (2014). Pope Francis: Big Bang and evolution confirm God exists. Retrieved from: https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/newsbeat-29799534
BBC Newsnight. (2019). Richard Dawkins: Religion shouldn’t be passed from parents to children. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yQUN_6XKKVs
Draper, L. (2015). Could artificial intelligence kill us off? Retrieved from https://www.newsweek.com/could-artificial-intelligence-kill-us-off-329208
Hickey, M. (2016). Get to the End: A Catholic’s View of the End Times. London: UPA. ISBN 9780761867333.
de Chardin, P.T. (1959). The Phenomenon of Man [sic] (B. Wall, Trans.). Glasgow: William Collins, Sons. (Original work published in 1955).
Taylor, M. (2021). Towards a New British Liberation Theology. Ars Notoria: Humane Socialism. Retrieved from: https://arsnotoria.com/2021/04/14/towards-a-new-british-liberation-theology/
Matthew Taylor lives in North Wales. He has a Bachelor of Arts in Religious Studies from University of Chester. Matthew has an interest in the humanities and current affairs and which he writes on. He is an active member of Christian, voluntary and campaign groups.