Teilhard De Chardin: A Materialist Christian Process Thinker

Of all the figures covered in this series of blogs, Pierre Teilhard De Chardin (1881-1955) is perhaps the most difficult to categorize, for he is unique and truly belongs to no particular school of thought. I have included him because he is often considered with Bergson, Peirce, and Whitehead as a founder of process thought, thought. Like Whitehead and Peirce, he is interested in interpreting the implications of modern post-Darwinian thought for philosophy and theology. Unlike the others, he was a Jesuit priest, a devout Christian, but also a Paleontologist familiar not so much with logic and philosophy, as were the others, and post-Einsteinian physics, as was Whitehead, but rather familiar with geology, evolution of various species, and geology.

It is almost impossible to consider Teilhard solely as either a philosopher or a theologian, for his professional pursuits were as a paleontologist. Paleontology involves the scientific study of life of the geological past involving the analysis of plant and plants and animal fossils, including those of microscopic size, preserved in rocks. His philosophical and theological thinking was never published during his lifetime, because the nature of this writings caused the Roman Catholic Church to forbid him to lecture or publish during his lifetime. As one writer observes, this is too bad because he never had the opportunity to face creative criticism of an academic community or to write for publication with the editing and sharpening of thought the publishing process involves. [1] This is a tragedy because it may have deprived philosophy and theology of the results of the prolonged thought of a deep and profound philosopher and theologian.

As a paleontologist, unlike Whitehead who was a mathematical physicist, Teilhard was familiar with the grosser, movement of geologic formations and biological evolution over time. Thus, by trade, he was less likely to appreciate some of the finer implications of modern physics. As a priest, he was a practitioner of the kind of mystical spirituality of Ignatius Loyola which was required of him as a member of the Jesuit order. Although he was forbidden from publishing during his lifetime by the Roman Catholic Church, he remained a loyal and devout catholic to the end of his days. His mystical side is evident in his writing, which gives it an inspirational quality not necessarily useful in philosophical or theological thinking and disputes. He never founded a school of thought, and his influence today is spiritual and indirect, unlike Whitehead whose work spawned schools of theological and philosophical thought. Nevertheless, he is often quoted and acts as a spur to reflection with an influence greater than one might imagine.

Teilhard as a Materialistic and Spiritual Process Thinker

As indicated, Teilhard is often considered among the founders of modern process thought, for his work, like that of others, was motivated by the turn in scientific and philosophical thinking from working out the implications of the metaphor of the world as a machine to working out the implications of seeing the world as fundamentally evolving in a long, slow process of constant change. In the case of Teilhard, with his background in paleontology, this movement included working out the implications inherent in the long, slow evolution of the human race and of the massive geological changes embedded in the geological formations of the world. [2]

Elements of Teilhard’s thought important to political theology and philosophy:

  1. Materialism: Unlike Whitehead and most philosophers impacted by post-modern physics, who believe that energy, disturbances in a universal quantum field, or information are the ultimate reality, Teilhard worked from the assumption that the fundamental units of reality are material in nature. His view of fundamental particles was, I believe, lead astray by the materialistic implication of the word “particles.” Most physicists today would agree with this conclusion, for modern physics does not believe that “fundamental particles” are in any real sense material.
  2. Relationality: Notwithstanding his materialism, Teilhard firmly understood that all of reality is relational, and he considered his fundamental particles to be in a fundamental and universal relationship with one another. In the end, for Teilhard reality is a unity of highly integrated and interdependent parts. In this, Teilhard anticipated modern chaos theory and is not in conflict with the deeper insights of quantum physics.
  3. Socialization: Like Whitehead, Teilhard sees reality as characterized by the emergence of increasing social complexity in nature and in human society. The world and its components are social in nature. Just as the material world tends to evolve socially from fundamental particles to atoms, molecules, physical entities, and organic life, reaching its most complex form in human life, so also human beings are naturally social, and political structures are the external result of the social nature of the human race. Once again, in this ssense Teilhard is an organic thinker as is Whitehead.
  4. Energy: At the same time that Teilhard thinks from a basis in the reality of fundamental particles, he also views energy as fundamental, and sees matter as less fundamental than energy, which is the primal reality of the universe. It should be clear to readers by now that Teilhard was aware of the basic insights of quantum physics but his writings suffer from the lack of an academic environment and the interplay of other minds. In analyzing energy Teilhard speaks of two kinds of energy, physical energy and radial energy. Radial energy represented for him an immaterial, spiritual energy of order and love that is present in all reality, not unlike Peirce’s notion of an agapistic feature in reality. This “radial energy” becomes important in understanding his view of real human progress, which represents not the victory of force, but of persuasion and dialogue, which might be seen as a form of radial energy. In this sense, his views come close to Whitehead. His concept of “radial energy” is similar to the concept of “positive energy” that I speak of with respect to leadership and the principle that good leaders inject positive energy into a social group. [3]
  5. Orthogenesis. Teilhard’s system accepts evolutionary theory, but posits that the evolution of the universe, the human race, and therefore human society requires that there be an internal direction activated by radial energy within the universe and all matter, which drives the universe forward and results in the evolution of increasingly complex forms of matter. This aspect of his thought is highly controversial and debated among evolutionary biologists, with many hold that it is discredited. However, it is not fully unlike the view of Whitehead that actual occasions and enduring objects have a subject drive to emergence into the objective world.
  6. Order: For Teilhard, the order of the universe expressed in the laws of science reflected a fundamental part of the structure of reality. Implicit in the material world science studies is an immaterial world of order. In particular, Teilhard lifts up the first and second laws of thermodynamics (Conservation of Energy and Entropy) and a “Law of Complexity” by which the evolution of reality results in increasing complexity in the universe and as applied to politics, human society. The world and human society are in a gradual process of evolution and increased complexity.
  7. Convergence: Not surprisingly for a system that emphasizes process, relationality, evolution, and the emergence of complexity in the universe, Teilhard sees a principle of “Convergence” or “Centrism” at work both in nature and in society. Thus, he sees the emergence of more centralized social and political structures as reflecting this tendency at work in society. This puts Teilhard at oddes with all romantic notions that somehow human existence can be made better by a “return to nature.”
  8. Collectivism: For Teilhard, the continual emergence of complex orders in the universe results in the emergence of “Collectives.” In the area of political thought, Teilhard speaks of a gradual emerging collectivism:

The more the individual on his side associates himself in an appropriate way with other individuals the more, as an effect of synthesis does he enter deeper into his own being, become conscious of himself, and in consequence personalizes himself. And the more the collectivity on its side concentrates itself, in an appropriate way, upon elements for whose fuller personalization it is itself responsible, the more again, it is personalized and allow the Omega point to be divined. [4]

This last quote is important in understanding his notion of the way in which the world and human societies are moving into some form of collectivity or unity or what might be called “deepened society” as the complexity of human life grows. In the end, Teilhard’s views are eschatological for he sees an endpoint to human evolution at a point in time he calls the Omega Point, which is clearly a kind of eschatological move on his part.

  1. Utopianism: As the quote above indicates, there is an element of utopianism in Teilhard. He believes that the universe is headed somewhere, and that somewhere he calls the “Omega Point” that is when the universe reaches the ultimate state of differentiation, complexity, an event that he believes will be both spiritual and material and involves the ultimate realization of “Christ Consciousness” which one might associate with the complete fulfillment of the potential of the full created potential of the universe.
  2. Omega Point. It is not surprising, then, that there is a utopian element in Teilhard’s thought in which the forces of complexity and unity cause arrival at the “Omega Point” the universe reaches a conclusion. This conclusion is not, however, in universal history but at the boundary of history. This concept of Teilhard is also that point at which “Christ Consciousness” reaches its maximum potential, which is his equivalent to the second coming. His view is not in contradiction to the view often expressed in this series of blogs that the attempt to preemptively bring about an end to human history is mistaken. Nevertheless, Teilhard does believe in an eschatological end point to human history, a time in which the force of love, “the attractive element” has won its victory. This attractive element cannot involve force, and so Teilhard is unquestionably against any attempt to preemptively end history by force. [5]


Teilhard is a very complex thinker and controversial. He has been interpreted in many ways, some of which are far from orthodox Christianity. I, however, think that he needs to interpreted as committed Roman Catholic who is faithful to the church (which he refused to leave despite being deprived of the right to teach and publish) and Jesuit monk, who is trying to interpret a modern worldview in Christian terms and also trying to interpret a Christian world view in modern terms. As one interpreter put it:

Fr. Teilhard de Chardin’s spirituality is thoroughly grounded in God and in the material reality of His universe, in the human body and in all aspects of human existence. He sees all humanity and every dimension and aspect of the universe as infused or divinized with the transforming presence of God and as having an inward, evolutionary movement towards God, its Omega point of fulfilment and complete transformation. [6]

In my view his work is important and to be considered by anyone interested in the intersection of religion, science, and society. As with all advanced thinkers, some of his wording is difficult to penetrate, but his work is fundamentally Christian and his intent is to overcome any division between science and religious faith by interpreting religious truth for a secular age.

Copyright 2022, G. Christopher Scruggs, All Rights Reserved

[1] MaCarthy, Teilhard De Chardin in “Makers of Modern Theology” (Waco, Texas: Word Press, 1976. Most of the reflections and biography contained in this blog are from or were inspired by that book.

[2] Teilard received his doctorate in paleontology in 1929, and his most famous paleontological work was in connection with the so called Peking Man and the connected research he did during his years in China.

[3] G. Christopher Scruggs, Letters to Leaders (Bay Village, OH: Privately published for and by Bay Presbyterian Church).

[4]  Teilhard de Chardin, The Activation of Energy (New York: Hartcourt Inc: Harvest Books, 1970), 51.

[5] Pierre Teilhad de Chardin, The Future of Man (New York, NY: Harper and Row, 1959), 298-299.

[6] Adrian Hart, “A Cosmic Spirituality for a New Theology; Teilhard de Chardin’s Evolutionary Journey to Omega Christ” Following Christ, Changing Church by Association of Catholics in Ireland (Jun 2, 201) 5https://acireland.ie/a-cosmic-spirituality-for-a-new-theology-teilhard-de-chardins-evolutionary-journey-to-omega-christ/ (Downloaded August 30, 2022).