Teilhard in the Trenches

A few weeks ago, people around the world observed the 100th anniversary of the end of hostilities in World War I, one of humanity’s most devastating conflicts with 8.5 million deaths, 21.2 million wounded, and 7.6 million missing. When the war began in August 1914, Teilhard de Chardin had been studying, teaching, and conducting research for over ten years. (See An Ocean of Matter, Cynthia Bourgeault on Teilhard, and It’s All about Seeing for my earlier posts introducing Teilhard’s thought.) His decision to serve in the military as a stretcher bearer instead of an officer and chaplain brought him into close daily contact with his fellow soldiers who were enlisted Zouaves and Moroccans. Teilhard’s courageous service earned three medals for his valor, but he also made a deep spiritual impression on his regimental comrades who called him Sidi Marabout, a religious teacher or holy man.

Teilhard, on the right, at Verdun. (Source)

While his involvement in the war must have been incredibly demanding on his inner life and physical energy, Teilhard continued to develop his understanding of evolution, in particular his idea of the Noosphere, a third layer of thought emerging from the preceding biological layer of life (Biosphere) and life’s underlying stratum of the the earth’s crust and core (Geosphere). Immersed in dealing with the tragic consequences of large numbers of human beings engaged in deadly combat, he nevertheless was moved by the intensity of what he saw: “’The ‘Human-Million,’ with its psychic temperature and its internal energy, became for me a magnitude as evolutively, and therefore as biologically, real as a giant molecule of protein.” If life as the Biosphere formed a “living membrane” over the earth’s surface, then

. . . around this sentient protoplasmic layer, an ultimate envelope was beginning to become apparent to me, taking on its own individuality and gradually detaching itself like a luminous aura. This envelope was not only conscious but thinking, and from the time when I first became aware of it, it was always there that I found concentrated, in an ever more dazzling and consistent form, the essence or rather the very Soul of the Earth. (HM, 31-32)

Calling this sentient layer the Noosphere, Teilhard began to discern the details of the process by which this “ultimate envelope” had emerged. The metaphors of heat and fire helped Teilhard describe the emergence of life and thought out of matter as if through a chemical reaction. The reaction takes place within the “planetary crucible,” another metaphor involving fire that appears elsewhere in his writings. The chief ingredient of the reaction is the crucible itself, i.e., Matter, and the product is Spirit: “Matter is the matrix of Spirit. Spirit is the higher state of Matter.”

Having realized that a Noosphere (or Soul of the World) exists, and that it emerges from Matter, Teilhard concluded that this layer, like the physical layers before it, followed an evolutionary course which he called Noogenesis. The earth’s evolution has advanced to the level of “a rapidly rising collective Reflection,” a development so obvious “that we cannot but recognize the objective, experiential reality of a directionally controlled transformation of the Noosphere as a whole.”

This transformation is following an irresistible process of convergence toward a “final critical point.” The goal of Noogenesis is the Omega: “The ‘piece of iron’ of my first days has long been forgotten. In its place it is the Consistence of the Universe, in the form of the Omega Point that I now hold, concentrated (whether above me or, rather, in the depths of my being, I cannot say) into one single indestructible center, which I can love (HM, 39).” And this center can be loved because it is a personal reality: the Christ “in [whom] all things hold together”(Col. 1:17).

Surrounded by the horror of war, Teilhard nevertheless arrived at an extraordinarily hopeful vision of humanity’s future. But I struggle to understand how he could come up with such a positive view despite being immersed in the suffering he encountered every day carrying out his duties. His spirituality must have been an incredible source of strength.

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1 Response to Teilhard in the Trenches

  1. Diana l. Villegas says:

    Thank you, Jonas, for these very meaningful reflections. It is an aspect of Teilhard’s life I did not know about. His reflections always inspire me and challenge me to further thought.


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