CHINA HERITAGE QUARTERLY China Heritage Project, The Australian National University ISSN 1833-8461
No. 23, September 2010


Teilhard de Chardin in China | China Heritage Quarterly

Teilhard de Chardin in China: Challenge and Promise

Bede Benjamin Bidlack
Doctoral Candidate, Theology Department
Boston College

Pierre Teilhard de Chardin was a Jesuit, geologist and theologian, who spent the years 1923-1946 in China.[1] His letters, journal entries, and one of his most well known books, The Human Phenomenon, express his interest in Eastern religions in general and Chinese religion in particular.[2] But what did he know about Chinese religion? Did his twenty-year's activity in that land provide him with a particular understanding of Chinese people and their culture? Does this Jesuit offer any inspiration for a Christian's relationship to other religions? The answers provide both a challenge and a promise.

Teilhard and Chinese Religion

In his lifetime, Teilhard was most known for his contributions to geology and paleontology. Of his many expeditions and responsibilities in China, what put him in the scientific spotlight was his role in discovering Peking Man, the remains of a human who lived about 400,000 years ago. Perhaps his most extreme undertaking, however, was the 'Yellow Expedition' in which he served as the geologist on a research team that travelled across the Gobi Desert in 1931 and into 1932. They worked partly to re-discover the Silk Road and partly—if not the greater part—to test the vehicles provided to them by Citroën, the French car manufacturer.[3] These and other achievements earned him the esteem of the scientific community. In 1937, he was awarded the Gregor Mendel Medal in Philadelphia for his scientific achievements. He was asked to stand as chair at the prestigious Collège de France, a position that he was prohibited by his superiors from accepting.

Fig.1 Pierre Teilhard de Chardin (centre) in China

In addition to his field studies, Teilhard also composed his great theological work—The Human Phenomenon—during his confinement to the European zone of Beiping (as Beijing was then known) during the Japanese occupation. His life was so restricted compared to his research adventures during those years that he referred to his campus as his 'monastery': 'I am still in my monastery, to the north of Fujen' [4]. The Human Phenomenon was written for his scientific colleagues in order to introduce them to his theological speculation, which itself was born out of his interests in evolution.

In the book, he presents a cosmogony that begins with an infinite dispersal that—over billions of years—comes together to create the universe. Next he takes his readers from the present and launches them into the future where—based on the evidence of the past—the cosmos further converges towards a singular point, Christ, whom he simply names Omega, out of deference for his intended scientific audience.

Along with geology and Christian theology, he was also very much interested in 'Eastern religions', which for him included Hinduism, Buddhism, Confucianism and Daoism.[5] However, in 'The Spiritual Contribution of the Far East' he admitted that he really had no command of these traditions. [6] In this 1947 essay he reveals the long intellectual trek that he had made from his early, negative impressions of Eastern religions to his later appreciation of them. Nonetheless, his early judgments on Eastern belief systems appear scandalous to the modern reader. Take for example a note from a letter written upon his early arrival in China in October 1923:

Nowhere, among the men I met or heard about, have I discerned the smallest seed whose growth will benefit the future of mankind. Throughout my whole journey I have found nothing but absence of thought, senile thought, or infantile thought. A missionary from Tibet returning from Koko-Nor on the Himalayan border, assured me that out there there still survived, to his knowledge, two or three solitaries who nourish their interior life by contemplating the cosmic cycles and the eternal re-birth of Buddha. But a chance passer-by like myself is not in a position to recognize these infrequent heirs of a venerable tradition of thought whose fruit is reserved for some new season. [7]

Setting aside his dismissal of the Chinese, the contemporary Sinologist may cringe at his very use of 'the East', a notion rightly criticized by Edward Said many years ago.[8] Similarly, he takes his (mistaken) understanding of Buddhism as representative of the religions of the East: 'The great appeal of Eastern religions (let us, to put a name to them, say Buddhism) is that they are supremely universalist and cosmic'.[9] Buddhism is a radical split from Hinduism, and the staunch sinologist will state that Confucianism and Daoism are the two religions of China, while Chinese Buddhism is a foreign import stamped with the Chinese seal. From the point of view of the contemporary understanding of China and of the religions of the world, to criticize Teilhard is easy, but not particularly fruitful. To discover Teilhard's contributions to how we think of the interaction of religions, one must look at Teilhard's thought as a whole, and not expect too much from direct study of his interreligious reflections. Considering his situation and that of China at the beginning of the twentieth century, one can find his limitations understandable.

Teilhard arrived only twelve years after the 1912 dawn of the Republic of China. The new Republic wanted to replace the 'superstitions' of the past with the analytic precision of modern, western thought. Religion itself was shunned in the China Teilhard knew, so he would have had to take great measures to go out and discover Chinese religion. Furthermore, he lacked the intellectual tools to do so. He had no knowledge of Chinese—either spoken or literary—nor did he have an understanding of the methods used in anthropology for engaging another culture. He had little motivation to change this situation, because his primary interest was scientific, which focused his activities to that end. His orientation in China upon his arrival in 1923 was comparable to that of his time in Cairo years earlier:

This was the East, I caught glimpses of it, and drank it in avidly, with no concern for its peoples and their history…but under the attraction of its light, its vegetation, its fauna and its deserts.[10]

Accordingly, his scientific colleagues comprised his small circle of Chinese conversation partners. Such men could be secondarily labeled Confucian, in the sense that to be Chinese was to be culturally Confucian. However, this Confucianism isn't especially religious. Religious aspects of the Confucian life are only now being rediscovered by New Confucians, like Tu Wei-ming 杜維明 or his student John Berthrong.[11] Instead, his Chinese interlocutors included men like Weng Wenhao 翁文灝, who was educated in the Belgium at the University of Louvain, or Yang Zhongjian 楊鐘建, who studied in Munich.[12] These friendships were warm and long lasting. One of the giants Teilhard worked with was V.K. Ting (Ding Wenjiang 丁文江), who was appointed director of the esteemed Academia Sinica. A scholar of Ting's distinction had his finger on the pulse of the intellectual life in the Republic of China. Teilhard wrote of a conversation they had in 1924:

Ting is a very intelligent man, in constant touch with all the 'leaders' of young China, and I had a really interesting conversation with him about the intellectual state of modern China. We came to the following conclusions: at present there is nothing that can properly be called Chinese thought. Their philosophical traditions have been broken, and they are still too much under the influence of western teachers. In the end, however, they will 'find their own feet' again. From the religious angle they need, as every man needs, something to 'justify (sic) life', but at the present moment they are going through a 'reaction against a religions that has been found wanting—rather like France in the eighteenth century.[13]

Without a knowledge of Chinese, Teilhard was restricted to his immediate colleagues, the scientific elite, with regards to his contact with and understanding of the religious life in China. These were western-educated scientists who did not even consider Chinese religion themselves, much less have an insider's view of the subject. They viewed religion as part of China's past, and they were creating a new future based on reason, upon which they could firmly 'find their own feet'.

Intellectuals like Wong, Young, and Ting were thinkers of their time. So was Teilhard. To be critical of his approach to Chinese religion, one must remember how recent the academic study of religion is even now. The secular study of religion began in the late-nineteenth century on the coattails of colonialism. And no one, not even the Chinese, had seriously studied Daoism. The first scholar to crack a Daoist text was the historian and philosopher, Liu Shipei 劉師培 in 1911. In the west, Henri Maspero (1883-1945) continued the work of a few French Sinologists, but the momentum behind the scholarly study of Daoism comes decades later with scholars like Kristofer Schipper in Europe and Livia Kohn in the United States. In other words, Teilhard did not know much about Daoism, but neither did any other western scholar in the early twentieth century.[14]

A Theology of Religions

Nonetheless, Teilhard's knowledge of Eastern religions should not be dismissed entirely. He did learn and contribute to western thought upon Eastern religions in his later years. During his five-year residence in Paris (1946-1951), he had the opportunity to continue his correspondence and conversations with specialists in Asian Studies, such as Solange Lemâitre, Louis Massignon and the historian René Grousset, as well as spending time contemplating the Asian collection at the Musée Guimet. Notes in his diary include comments on Buddhism and Daoism from one of Grousset's books. And Grousset himself read Teilhard's 1947 essay to the French branch of the World Congress of Faiths, an essay Louis Massignon would call 'an outstanding text'.[15] Given his time in China, his (albeit incidental) encounter with Daoist temples, and his later study of the Asia, one may surmise that Teilhard had some grasp of Chinese religion. Although his limitations are widely acknowledged, he eventually developed an understanding of Eastern thought that was sufficient for him to write 'The Spiritual Contribution of the Far East' where he envisions the future confluence of the religious insights of East and West.[16]

This mystical bent, along with the fact that Teilhard was not a specialist in Eastern traditions albeit with some skill in the topic, is presented in Ursula King's Towards a New Mysticism.[17] This book remains the most thorough exploration of Teilhard's reflection upon Eastern religions, and on Teilhard's theology of religions in English. Even though one can identify a theology of religions in Teilhard's work, as a theological discipline of study, this area of research only began after his time. Theology of religions seeks to understand the meaning of one tradition upon another. Although it is theoretically not restricted to Christianity, in practice the theology of religions has been driven largely by Christian interests. As such, it pursues an inquiry into how other traditions fit into the narrative of the salvific birth, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.[18]

The person only casually acquainted with Teilhard may come to the conclusion that he viewed all religions merging into Christianity.[19] More precisely, he saw the religions merging into Christ, or Christ Omega, who is beyond Christianity as it is normally understood. As King notes:

It was in (the context of the Church as an axis of development) that he first spoke of 'a general convergence of religions upon a universal Christ who fundamentally satisfies them all: that seems to me the only possible conversion of the world, and the only form in which a religion of the future can be conceived.'[20] However, it would be wrong to conclude from this that Christianity is the fulfillment of the world religions. Teilhard's symbol of the 'universal Christ' is by no means identical with Christianity but far transcends its limits.[21]

I will conclude this essay by proposing a theology of religions influenced by this convergent view propounded by Teilhard, while also building upon another theme of his—what he terms 'union differentiates'—as I believe it holds the key to a theology of diversity without slipping into insipid relativism on the one hand, or narrow fundamentalism on the other.

Union Differentiates: A 'New' Theology of Religions

'Union differentiates' is a theme that runs through the evolutionary work of Teilhard de Chardin, but best expressed in The Human Phenomenon. Briefly, 'union differentiates' is the notion that all things join to become more complex structures. In doing so, each part does not lose its identity in the new structure but becomes most truly itself by contributing beyond itself within the structure. The union happens because the individuals are different, not despite of their differences. The theory applies to everything in the universe: 'Whatever the domain—whether it be the cells of the body, the members of society, or the elements of a spiritual synthesis—“union differentiates”.'[22]

In The Human Phenomenon, Teilhard looks backward in cosmic time. He noticed that the initial particles of the universe did not remain infinitely multiple, but that they slowly came together. A simple electron and nucleus became the first Helium atom; other subatomic particles joined to form new elements. Furthermore, these atoms did not continuously bounce off each other, but joined to form molecules that became more complex, and so on, in a process that continues today. The important thing here is that for an atom to be an atom—to take an example—the subatomic particles must remain subatomic particles, and these must be different from each other. They converge and come to their fulfillment by joining in the greater thing—the atom—but they can only do so by virtue of their difference. The atom is a simple example, but this holds true for the components of the material universe, life, complex beings, societies, and even religions. The energy driving this cosmic wave of convergence is Christ of 'the Ahead.' This Christ is the future and not simply the Jesus of Nazareth of the past, or one limited to His Church. This is the Universal Christ, Christ Omega.

Of what value are these reflections to theology of religions? Teilhard's theory is one that requires differences across religions. Similarly, S. Mark Heim in his 1995 Salvations formulates a theology of religions that finds differences in religious traditions to be good. Instead of assuming that only one religious fulfillment is possible and discussing the possibilities of religions reaching that fulfillment (or not), he turns the discussion around and postulates multiple religious ends. In other words, instead of taking Christian Heaven as the only religious end—even for, say, a Confucian or Daoist—he postulates that Confucians and Daoists will enjoy their own religious fulfillments. Furthermore, they can only reach their distinguished fulfillments if they adhere to their religious commitments. By viewing religions in this way, says Heim, we can appreciate religious differences as values and not liabilities in interreligious discussions, because we are not trying to make a Daoist fit into a Christian salvation.[23]

Applying this to Teilhard's 'union differentiates': the only way religions will enjoy any kind of ultimate fulfillment is if they remain true to what makes them different from each other. Religions have only been around for thousands of years; cosmically speaking, they are new. What is needed now is a continued appreciation and development of those theologies unique to each tradition. Ultimate union in Christ Omega remains far ahead in the future. Fourteen and a half billion years was needed for the disparate particles of the cosmos to converge into the universe we know today. Such a span of time requires a rich imagination to appreciate how long that is. Just so, the future in Omega lies in a mysterious distance.

The answer to interreligious challenges today is a faith in the future. Exercising that faith means growing in one's own religious tradition. Fulfillment in Christ will only happen if members of each tradition are true to their religious commitments and develop their traditions from within. Precisely how that will happen and what this convergence will look like will appear surprising and unexpected from our present point of view. If one religion absorbs another, then all of the religions will suffer for it. Teilhard gives the example of white light:

Like the countless shades that combine in nature to produce a single white light, so the infinite modalities of action are fused, without being confused, the one single color under the mighty power of the universal Christ.[24]

Only if every shade is present will light appear, should one shade be lost to another, then no white light will shine.

My proposal is not to call for a prohibition on interreligious learning, but a challenge to have modest goals when considering other religions.[25] Rich theological speculation at its best can only tolerate learning of one's own tradition and one other. And learning from another tradition complements the experience and understanding of one's home tradition.[26] The theology of religions I suggest, in fact, encourages learning across religious boundaries, while at the same time discourages facile syncretism.

Challenge and Promise

In this essay I have described the context of Teilhard de Chardin's time in China. Following this I proposed a theology of religions that Teilhard never explicitly formulated himself, but one that builds upon his theme of 'union differentiates'. By so doing, I read in Teilhard a challenge and a promise. A study of Teilhard's religious speculations, especially in regard to Chinese religion, challenges scholars not to judge religions from a distance. Deep understanding of and learning about another religious tradition can result through bibliographic study, but the texts one reads should be primary sources from that tradition, preferably in the original language.[27] Secondary sources from outside the tradition should only serve to give the reader some tools for understanding the primary sources. In addition, reading should be supplemented with interreligious dialogue with members from within the tradition being studied. Teilhard's speculation on Chinese religion was too broad, dependent upon western sources, and devoid of religious insiders.

The promise of Teilhard de Chardin's approach, however, is that convergence of religions lies far ahead in the future and is beyond the religious institutions that we know today. The way to arrive at this future is to lay aside interreligious competition in favor of interreligious dialogue that appreciates difference, while at the same time, studying one's own tradition and growing there from. Naturally, we may be attracted by resemblances between religions, but honoring difference means refusing hasty judgments that mistake similarities for sameness or difference for deficiencies. What is required of us is a faith in the future and a great deal of patience.


My thanks to Ursula King and Catherine Cornille for their comments on earlier versions of this paper, and to editorial revisions suggested by China Heritage Quarterly.

[1] These were not continuous years, but included numerous trips out of the country including Africa, India, Java, and Burma.

[2] I use 'Chinese religion' in the singular, because the three great traditions found in China—Confucianism, Daoism, and Buddhism—have been intentionally integrated without losing their distinguishing characteristics since the Song Dynasty (960-1280).

[3] The official name of the expedition was, in fact, 'Citroën Centre-Asie Expedition.' I thank Ursula King for pointing this out to me.

[4] ] Teilhard de Chardin, Pierre, SJ, Letters from a Traveller, translated by René Hague, New York/Evanston: Harper & Row Publishers, 1962, p.258. Letter dated 16 February 1940.

[5] The historian of Teilhard can include Islam, which he encountered partly in Egypt but mostly through his friend Louis Massingnon and other scholars of religion with whom he was familiar.

[6] Teilhard de Chardin, Pierre, SJ, Toward the Future, translated by René Hague, New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1975, p.134.

[7] Letters from a Traveller, p.100.

[8] Edward W. Said, Orientalism, New York: Pantheon Books, 1978.

[9] Teilhard de Chardin, Pierre, SJ, Christianity and Evolution, translated by René Hague, New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1971, pp.121-122.

[10] Teilhard de Chardin, Pierre, SJ, The Heart of Matter, translated by René Hague, 1st Harvest/HBJ ed., New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, p.23.

[11] However, the New Confucian movement began about the time Teilhard arrived in China.

[12] Claude Cuénot, Teilhard De Chardin: A Biographical Study, translated by Vincent Colimore, edited by René Hague, Baltimore: Helicon, 1965, pp.168-69.

[13]Letters from a Traveller, pp.108-9.

[14] I make the same point with regards to Thomas Merton: 'Merton's Way of Zhuangzi', in Merton and Taoism: Dialogues with John Wu and the Ancient Sages, Louisville, KY: Fons Vitae, forthcoming, northern autumn 2010. A few Japanese scholars also began looking at the Daoist influence on Buddhism, but the interest followed the work of Liu. See T.H. Barrett, 'Daoism: History of the Study', in Encyclopedia of Religion, Lindsay Jones, ed., New York: Macmillan, 2005, pp.2212-16. For studies of the unintended confluence of Teilhard's thought with Daoism, see my 'In Good Company: The Body and Divinization in the thought of Teilhard de Chardin and Daoist Alchemy', PhD diss., Boston College, forthcoming 2011; Baudry, Gèrard-Henry, Teilhard De Chardin Et L'appel De L'orient: La Convergence Des Religions, Saint-Etienne: Aubin, 2005; Bergeron, Maria-Ina, La Chine Et Teilhard, Paris: Aubin, 2003; Stikker, Allerd. 1986. Tao, Teilhard En Westers Denken, Amsterdam: Bres, 1986, later published in an abridged, English version as The Transformation Factor: Towards an Ecological Consciousness, Rockport, MA: Element Books, 1992.

[15] Ursula King, Towards a New Mysticism: Teilhard de Chardin and Eastern Religions, London: Collins, 1980, pp.90-94.

[16] Toward the Future, pp.134-147.

[17] A revised edition of Towards a New Mysticism will appear under the title Teilhard de Chardin and Eastern Religions: Spirituality and Mysticism in an Evolutionary World, Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press, forthcoming 2011. See also King's 1995 paper, 'Teilhard's Reflections on Eastern Religions Revisited', Zygon 30 (1): 47-72.

[18] A highly praised introduction to this growing field is Paul Knitter's Introducing the Theology of Religions, Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 2002.

[19] Christian theology of religions is usually presented in a tripartite nomenclature of 'exclusivist/replacement', 'inclusivist/fulfillment', 'pluralist/acceptance.' An exclusivist denies any salvific possibilities outside of Christianity; an inclusivist believes that there is truth in other religions, but that those religions truly seek salvation through Christ; the pluralist states that other traditions are salvific by virtue of the faith and practices within that tradition. Today, however, theologies of religions are more sophisticated and refuse easy placement within these broad categories. Therefore, I try to avoid using these terms.

[20] Christianity and Evolution, p.131.

[21] Towards a New Mysticism, p.162.

[22] Teilhard de Chardin, The Human Phenomenon, translated by Sarah Appleton-Weber, Brighton/Portland: Sussex Academic Press, 2003, p.186.

[23] In The Depth of the Riches, his sequel to Salvations, Heim explores whether his theory is cogent for Christian theology. Ultimately, all religions relate in difference within a singular Reality, as the Persons of the Trinity are Three in One. See S. Mark Heim, Salvations: Truth and Difference in Religions, Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 1995; and, The Depth of the Riches: A Trinitarian Theology of Religious Ends, Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2001.

[24]Teilhard de Chardin, Pierre, SJ, Science and Christ, translated by René Hague, New York/Evanston: Harper & Row, pp.170-171.

[25] Nor does it require an end to Christian mission. On the contrary spreading the Gospel is part of being Christian. Christians must not reduce evangelism's success to baptism.

[26] Francis X. Clooney, SJ, makes this point in his many works. See, for example, Comparative Theology: Deep Learning across Religious Borders, Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell, 2010.

[27] As scripture scholar, Joseph Jensen, OSB, says: 'A translation is something you can understand with the help of the original' (personal communication).