Wednesday, April 10, 2024

Today, on the Christian History Almanac, we remember another giant in the field of Christianity and science- the Jesuit Paleontologist Pierre Teilhard de Chardin.

It is the 10th of April 2024. Welcome to the Christian History Almanac, brought to you by 1517 at; I’m Dan van Voorhis.


By sheer coincidence, we have, for a second day in a row, a figure in the history of the church who was dedicated to understanding God not only through special revelation but also through the study of the natural world. Yesterday’s character, Francis Bacon, was a founding father of the Enlightenment, whereas today’s figure is of a modern vintage.

In addition, someone described as a “theologian” and “paleontologist” must certainly be included as the father of an almost 15-year-old determined to become a paleontologist and integrate his faith into the project accordingly.

It was on this, the 10th of April in 1955- Easter Sunday- that Pierre Teilhard de Chardin died after a heart attack while staying in New York, where he was working as both a priest and researcher- all but exiled by his superiors in the Jesuit order in France.

Teilhard was born in central France on the first of May in 1881. His mother's family were descendants of the philosopher Voltaire, and his father was a librarian and naturalist. It was from his mother that he developed his strong sense of piety and from his father his love of nature.

As a small boy, he recounted seeing a lock of his hair burn in the fireplace. This and his fascination with the death of flora and fauna saw him begin to collect bits of iron. When they rusted, he sought something more imperishable: rocks. His love of geology and all things natural was born. It was in school that he heard the proclamation from Colossians 1 that “he is before all things and in him all things hold together.” This would be the guiding principle of his life.

After becoming a Jesuit novitiate at 18, he and all other French Jesuits were exiled. He would find himself in Hastings, on the English coast, a place replete with fossil records. Wondering how he could synthesize his love of God, sense of duty to the order, and love of the natural world, he was encouraged to teach the natural sciences to students at the Jesuit University in Cairo, where he could continue his studies.

He was formally ordained in the order in 1911.

From 1912 to 1914, he studied paleontology at the National Museum of Natural History in France.

With the outbreak of World War I, he did not offer to be a chaplain; instead, he offered to be a stretcher-bearer. This profoundly affected him, not the normal WWI terrors- instead, a fascination with the diversity and unity of humankind working with the French Foreign Legion and its diverse forces.

He would receive his PhD and was hired to work with another eminent Jesuit scientist on geological expeditions. It was in the 1930s that he began to meditate on the link between natural evolution and our spiritual state. What would this mean for the fossil record if everything were held together in Christ? He would write largely in the style of the old French essayists. These were not “school essays” as in reports, but rather a play on the French words for “an attempt” and “to weigh,” that is, reflections and inquiry that might begin with “what if” not dogmatic statements. But just as the evolution debate was forever tearing apart Western Protestant churches, so too was it a hot button in the Catholic Church. Teilhard’s writings were read by superiors who would essentially exile him to the Jesuit outpost in China (where Teilhard would be part of the expedition that found the so-called “Peking Man” skull).

His two major works, in addition to the essays, were The Divine Milieu and The Phenomenon of Man—both reflections on the interconnectedness of God, man, and nature. He would not, however, see them published in his lifetime as he had been forbidden to—it was stipulated in his will that they could be published posthumously.

His work and thoughts are a mix of mystical devotion, pondering the continued evolution of humankind and the spirit into oneness with Christ and the eventual eschaton- the new Heavens and Earth that was the Creator's goal all along. He has critics both theologically and scientifically, but his reputation has increased in the last decades due to his spirit, intense devotion to Christ, and attempts to synthesize Christianity. Both Pope Benedict and Pope Francis have praised science. Some of his work has been inherited by the more esoteric, but to divorce his thought from the Christological insistence that however it all works, it works in Christ is necessary to understand Teilhard. Born in 1881 and dying in 1955, Pierre Teilhard de Chardin was 73 years old.


The last word for today is from the daily lectionary a few verses from Psalm 135 from the Scottish Metrical Psalter:

5  Because I know assuredly

       the Lord is very great,

    And that our Lord above all gods

       in glory hath his seat.


 6  What things soever pleased the Lord,

       that in the heav'n did he,

    And in the earth, the seas, and all

       the places deep that be.


 7  He from the ends of earth doth make

       the vapors to ascend;

    With rain he lightnings makes, and wind

       doth from his treasures send.


This has been the Christian History Almanac for the 10th of April 2024, brought to you by 1517 at

The show is produced by a man whose favorite theological reflection on paleontology and the fossil record remains 1988’s The Land Before Time- he is Christopher Gillespie.

The show is written and read by a man shocked to learn of the 13 Land Before Time sequels! I’m Dan van Voorhis.

You can catch us here every day- and remember that the rumors of grace, forgiveness, and the redemption of all things are true…. Everything is going to be ok.

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