Notes on Teilhard's Omega Point: Part 1, Evolution and Faith

In the next couple of posts I'll be pulling together some loosely associated ideas that I've had on the relationship between consciousness, evolution, and religious faith. I'm calling these "notes" as I don't know if I'll be successful in pulling it all together into something cohesive and self-consistent.

For reference I'm going to repeating, working with, and integrating ideas that have been cooking in my mind for some time. The works that have most stimulated my thinking on this topic are:

Robert Wright's Nonzero: The Logic of Human Destiny
Spinoza's Ethics
David Chalmer's The Conscious Mind
Pierre Teilhard de Chardin's The Phenomenon of Man
Douglas Hofstadter's I Am a Strange Loop

To create a focal point I'm going to built my thoughts around Teilhard as he is the one who tries to weave consciousness, evolution, and their interrelationship into a religious framework. Teilhard isn't the only beginning place for this conversation but he does pose some interesting questions that we might begin with.

But first, who is Pierre Teilhard de Chardin and why should Christians be interested in him?

Pierre Teilhard de Chardin was born in France in 1881 and died in New York in 1955. For Christians Teilhard is an interesting case study in that he was Jesuit priest who was also a world-class geologist and paleontologist. In fact, Teilhard was a part of the team that discovered Peking Man, the hominid find that decisively brought Homo erectus into scientific view.

Obviously, Teilhard is an odd mix, a committed Jesuit who was a staunch believer in evolution and who participated in finding "missing links" in the human fossil record. Clearly, here was a person who saw no conflict between faith and evolution.

In fact, more than seeing no conflict between the two, Teilhard united spirituality and evolution in a very unusual, but intriguing, view of the cosmos. Teilhard believed that inherent in evolutionary processes was a drive toward greater complexity which, in turn, gives rise to consciousness, greater and greater consciousness. Teilhard believed he saw directional and spiritual implications in this observation about evolution and consciousness. More specifically, he posited an end point toward which consciousness and evolution were converging, the Omega Point. At the Omega Point the cosmos and consciousness converge upon God.

We'll get to the Omega Point in coming Notes. Today I just want to observe how Teilhard was treated by the Catholic Church in response to his ideas and present him as a much needed model in light of today's science versus religion debates.

Today, as we know, the Catholic Church has largely reconciled itself to evolutionary theory. For example, in 1996, in an address to the to the Pontifical Academy of Sciences, Pope John Paul II stated that:

“Today...new knowledge has led to the recognition of the theory of evolution as more than a hypothesis. It is indeed remarkable that this theory has been progressively accepted by researchers, following a series of discoveries in various fields of knowledge. The convergence, neither sought nor fabricated, of the results of work that was conducted independently is in itself a significant argument in favor of this theory.”

But during Teilhard's time it was scandalous and heretical to support or write about evolution. This paleontologist/Jesuit was an abomination. Consequently, Teilhard was forbidden by the Church to publish his works on the religious aspects of evolution. His major work, The Phenomenon of Man, had to be published after his death. Further, Teilhard was effectively banished from Europe so that young Catholic intellectuals would not be exposed to his presence, ideas, writings, and teaching. After his banishment, Teilhad spent most life in China, still pursuing his scientific work (and, as we noted, there became a co-discoverer of Homo erectus...so much for silencing the guy). For the rest of his life Teilhard would visit the France he loved but would be quickly pushed out of Europe by his religious superiors. This is the reason he died in America and not his homeland.

Throughout his life Teilhard's scientific colleagues urged him to give up being a Jesuit. But he steadfastly refused. He remained in his order and submitted to their commands. He accepted the ban on his books and complied with exile. Throughout all this, astonishingly, he remained a faithful priest. And he never gave up his science. Teilhard remained a passionate and productive paleontologist and his name remains linked to many important paleontological finds.

To conclude, my coming notes will dwell on issues of consciousness, evolution and Teilhard's Omega Point. But today I simply wanted to introduce you to this fascinating priest, a model of what I think we need today as religion and science continue to square off about evolution. In a world of Richard Dawkins and the movie Expelled I offer up this Jesuit priest for our collective consideration: Pierre Teilhard de Chardin.

Next Post: Part 2

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7 thoughts on “Notes on Teilhard's Omega Point: Part 1, Evolution and Faith”

  1. Here's a quote from him. "Science is necessarily chiefly concerned with studying the material arrangements that are successively effected by the progress of life. In so doing, it sees only the outer crust of things. The true evolution of the world takes place in souls and in their union. Its inner factors are not mechanistic but psychological and moral."

    from the book Pierre Teilhard de Chardin: Writings Selected with an Introduction by Ursula King. She cites this as coming from "Science and Christ".

    This is one of the more straightforward and easier to understand passages in this book. When we discussed him in my Philosophy of Religion class at Harding so many years ago I thought his Omega point idea was crazy. From today's perspective he seems like a prophet. The internet seems to be an early aspect of this Noosphere.

  2. Hi Steve,
    I also thought the Omega Point idea was crazy and I'm still a bit unclear about Teilhard's vision of it, but I'm going to argue for a revised notion of it. An Omega Point Lite if you will.

  3. Dear Richard,

    I think that Teilhard is one of the most dangerous Catholic theologians ever. Not because of evolution, nor his scientific claims. But because so many use him to justify non-traditional theology. I really have to say that his connection to Piltdown Man and his idea of the noonesphere, make me second guess every thing else he claims.

    I have blogged some on Teilhard myself.

    http://goodjesuitbadjesuit.blogspot.com/2008/02/flights-into-evolutionary-cosmic-myths.html

    http://goodjesuitbadjesuit.blogspot.com/2007/10/teilhard-and-american-sculptor-lucile.html

    http://goodjesuitbadjesuit.blogspot.com/2007/08/just-reminder-teilhard-de-chardin-is.html

  4. Hi Joseph,
    Thanks for the links. I'll be reading your posts.

    Regarding Teilhard's "dangerousness." I can see that if one was standing in the orthodoxy of the Catholic faith. As a heterodox Protestant I guess I'm much less worried about his legacy.

    Regarding Piltdown, my take is that some of the accusations against Teilhard (e.g., S.J. Gould) have been reconsidered or dismissed as unwarranted.

    The Noosphere is a bit wacky. But like the Omega Point I'm going to argue for a milder version of it that, to my mind, makes it more respectable. A kind of Noosphere-inspired line of thought that isn't really about the noosphere.

  5. Joseph,

    I appreciate your web site. Your account of a hanging in England in the 17th century is a reminder to me of the persecution of Catholics that has been little noted around environs. My upbringing as a Protestant minister's son and and at a church-related college did not adequately inform me of that evil.

  6. Sorry to comment on this post a bit late - but in defence of the Catholic church, it's worth pointing out that the current Pope is quite a fan of Teilhard. Several of his books make many mentions of him, and he successfully weaves Teilhard's ideas into his own theology. There is an especially detailed treatment of Teilhard in his seminal work 'Introduction to Christianity', and also in 'Eschatology' and 'The Spirit of the Liturgy', all of which are available from Amazon.

    One such quote from Introduction to Christianity (p237) I've included below:

    "[Jesus] is intended to gather the whole creature 'Adam' in himself. This means that the reality that St. Paul calls 'the Body of Christ' is an intrinsic posulate of his exitence, which cannot remain an exception but must 'draw to itself' the whole of mankind. It must be regarded as an important service of Teilhard de Chardin's that he rethought these ideas from the angle of a modern world view and... grasped them correctly and in any case made them accessible once again. Let us listen to his own words: 'The human monad can only be absolutely itself by ceasing to be alone'. In the background there is the idea that in the cosmos, alongside the two orders or classes of the infinitely small and infinitely big, there is a third order, which determines the real drift of evolution: namely, the order of the infinitely complex. It is the real goal of the ascending process of growth or becoming; it reaches a first peak in the genesis of living things and then continues to advance to those highly complex creations that give the cosmos an entirely new center. "

    I believe you will generally find such views readily accepted in many Jesuit and Franciscan theologians in the Catholic church today.

    Thank you for your interesting blog!

    John

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