The Stuff of the Universe

July 14, 1953

Gazing upon the island of Saint Helena during his voyage from New York City to the Cape Peninsula, Teilhard de Chardin articulates his vision of human evolution culminating in cosmic unity with the Christ—the ultimate center of consciousness and complexity in the universe.

Originally published in Activation of Energy.


So, once again, I want to try to get more completely down to, and to express more fully, the ever elusive fundamentals of what I fee, of what I see and what I live. Once again, in the first place, because for some time it has seemed to me that I have succeeded in narrowing down more closely the ultimate essence of what envelops me, of what draws me along, of what I am. And once again, also, because at this further degree of the compression of things, there seems to me to be a leap produced in the coherence and simplicity—and so in the likelihood and appeal—of a certain structure of the world: a structure whose gradual discovery will have been the history, the strength, and the joy of a life that is drawing to a close.

To the reason of the metaphysician it is ‘being’ (ens) which first appears in its widest general form, later to be dialectically differentiated, in the universe.

To the intuitive emotion of the mystic, it is the ‘divine’ that is immediately revealed, as a sort of common stock, in which, however, the multiplicity of things and their activity may well be lost.

For my innate ‘materialism’ (as I now clearly recognize) it was from a starting point in the tangible layers of the universe that, in my eyes, all reality was lit up and transfigured.

As an initial approach, the physicist sees the elementary stuff of the world as a flood of measurable physical energy, more, or less, corpusculized in ‘matter.’

The secret and the mainspring of my spiritual drive will have to see that, underlying this outer envelope of the phenomenon (and yet in genetic continuity with it) there stretched another domain. In this, which was no longer a domain of the tangential but of the centric, a second species of energy (not electro-thermodynamic but spiritual) radiated from a starting point in the first: and this could be divied, in ascending order, into three successive zones of increasing interiorization.

—First, the zone of the human (or of the reflective).

—Secondly, the zone of the ultra-human (or of the co-reflective).

—Finally, the zone of the Christic (or of the pan-reflective).

In the course of three successive phases, one and the same evolutionary flux extends to the full dimensions of the universe; and, by convergence upon itself, is personalized.

Without for once being concerned to respect any orthodoxy (whether scientific or religious) in the way I express myself—though at the same time in the consciousness that I am simply acting out of loyalty, carried to its extreme limit, to my twofold vocation as a man and as a Christian: this is the astounding panorama that, simply by adjusting our vision to what we can all see, I would like to bring out for you with unmistakable clarity.

This is not a thesis, but a presentation—or, if you like, a summons. The summons of the traveller who has left the road and so by chance has arrived at a viewpoint from which everything is bathed in light, and calls out to his companions, ‘Come and look!’


The Human (or the Reflective)

Governing the whole make-up of the universe, as it now finally presents itself to my experience at this moment, there stands a particular way of seeing the human. I say ‘the human’ and not ‘man’ advisedly in order to emphasize to what a degree, at this level of fundamental understanding, what most influences my vision when I look at mankind is not man’s social concentration nor man as a zoological species, but the perception (almost as a physico-chemical fact) of a certain extreme attained in its thinking element (as one might say, in its ‘uranium’) by the stuff of the universe.

At the level of scientific knowledge no less than at that of common sense, we all have an instinctive tendency to picture matter to ourselves as slackening, as losing tension, in progression from the atom towards the molecular and the living; as though the Weltstoff, considered in its highest forms of arrangement, gradually lost some part of its primordial stability and cohesion.

Well, then, my view of the world has gradually been developed and has ultimately come to be fixed in direct opposition to this too widespread feeling ofa cosmos that dissipates, or at any rate becomes more tenuous, as it becomes to all appearances progressively more fragile. By that I mean that my views changed as I accepted the evidence (which I had at first rejected) that our minds can divine a solution, at once general and genetic, of the universe, not in an entropic dissipation of energy nor in a rhythmic rise in atomic numbers, but rather in an inflexible trend inherent in corpusculized energy towards progressively higher states of complexity-consciousness.

If the fantastic mass of granular energy which we see as having in the past formed the primitive substance of the cosmos is left to the play of chance and to itself for a sufficiently long time, it has a natural tendency to associate in groups and to concentrate upon itself (wherever it can, and as much as it can) in systems of the highest possible complexity and centricity: this ‘centro-complexity,’ which soon becomes extremely marked, coinciding with the appearance of progressively more luminous centres of consciousness.

If we finally decide, in order to judge the direction and absolute value of the progress of cosmogenesis, to accept (as I did) the truth of this fundamental formula—and it can be verified more than amply—then two facts become apparent. First a remarkable identity can immediately be seen between the mechanisms that, at one extreme of things, produce the atom of hydrogen and, at the other, the ‘molecule’ of man: but, further, it becomes evident that, in the transition from one of these forms of particle to the other, there is effected a strengthening (and not a slackening) of the cosmic ties. For, from one of the two extremes in question to the other, the radial nucleus of consciousness never ceases to become individualized within its (peripheral) electro- or thermo-dynamic envelope, until it reaches the point of reflecting upon itself and, in consequence, of insisting, in order to subsist, on the awareness of being irreversible.

For a long time, just like everybody else, I came close to being bogged down in the antiquated habit of looking on man, in nature, either as an inexplicable and ephemeral anomaly—or as the product of a physico-chemical evolution strictly confined to our planet—or, again, as the result of some miraculous extra-cosmic intervention.1

Now, on the other hand, that my eyes have been opened, I have come to understand that in the totality of itself, and at every point within itself, the Weltstoff tended to reflect upon itself2—now, in other words, that I can no longer regard the terrestrial human except as the natural and local, and for the moment the most advanced, product of a trend that embraces the totality of matter, and time, and space: now that that is so, I can say that I have found my bearings, and I can now breathe freely, in the feeling, vindicated at last, of forming but one with all the rest.


The Ultra-Human (or the Co-Reflective)

Even if it is true, as I have just been saying, that the great opportunity in my life will have been that I was so situated existentially that the ‘spirit’ of the philosophers and theologians was seen by me as a direct extension of universal physico-chemism, I must nevertheless hasten to add that the discovery of this prime relationship would have been of no use to me if it had not automatically been accompanied by a further apparent fact: that, on earth, in mankind considered globally, the cosmic process of psychogenesis (contrary to what one is told) is far from being halted at this moment: we can only say that it is accelerating.

In order to recognize in the human the quintessence of the Weltstoff I had had to do no more than allow an innate understanding of energy and matter to develop in me to the full. In order to see that this same human, taken as one whole, formed but a single galaxy in process of concentration, I shall have had to do no more than re-interpret and arrange in sequence, expressed in the same terms and on the same natural scale, the two great facts, both unmistakably evident, of the combined rise we are now witnessing of science and society.

Let me explain.

In our interpretation of human civilization, we are still, rationally speaking, adopting an illogical position.

On the one hand we all see and know by experience that, technically and economically, mankind is every day becoming more completely totalized upon itself. But, we are at pains to add, this does not mean that this irresistible trend towards the more organic has the least specifically biological value.

On the other hand, at the same time each of us fully appreciates that in step with a progress in our material dispositions, our perception of the universe is rapidly increasing in depth and coherence. Even though, we are again careful to point out, this does not mean that this added knowledge contributes anything new and permanent to ‘human nature.’

In other words, while explicitly recognizing that the complexity-rise-of-consciousness couple operates just as evidently in the human mass as it does in any other department of the real, we still refuse to recognize that in this particular case its appearance points to and signifies, as it does elsewhere, a movement that is cosmic in dimensions and value.

It was against this refusal to treat the facts on an equal footing that I rebelled; I refused to accept a divorce between ‘natural’ and ‘artificial;’ and, further and even more important, I became alive to the sense of the creative, additive, and hereditary element in the common outlook (Weltanschauung) slowly developed in the mind of man by all forms of research: and so it was that in the end I was confirmed in the view I am now presenting.

Because we fail to relate ourselves to precise axes, and because further, as we look at the curve of the phenomenon of man, we do not take in at sufficient length, we still, in a vague and sentimental way, discuss the notion of human perfectibility and the reality of a ‘progress.’ Now, in this field, we have only to apply appropriately the general parameter of complexity-consciousness tor there to cease to be, I maintain, any remnant of doubt—for anyone whose eyes re opened. If you tell me that as time goes on man is getting ‘better’ or ‘worse,’ I hardly know or care what the words mean.3 But if you tell me that mankind can be regarded, at this moment, as a species that is disintegrating or has reached its ceiling, then I deny it absolutely. And this for the very good reason that in virtue of the power and the actual method of operation of its technico-mental unification, twentieth-century mankind, so far from trailing behind or falling back, presents itself quite clearly to our experience as a system in the full vigour of co-reflection, which is exactly the same as saying of ultra-hominization.

In truth, the great new tidings of joy that has to be published abroad in these days, if we are to allay the anxieties of the thinking earth and galvanize its energies, is undoubtedly (and here we see an unexpected aspect of the ancient gospel) that the horrors of the totalization phase we have just entered are not the symptoms of an imminent death: rather are they the signs of a further folding-back upon itself, that is, of an ultra-vivification, of the stuff of the universe.

Happily for us, not only is mankind, considered experientially in its organic wholeness, still constantly in motion: what is more, unlike all the zoological species (divergent in type) which have preceded it, it is converging upon itself. And this irresistible biological folding-back (planetary in its scope and urgency) suggests to our minds the wild idea and the wild hope that perhaps there really does exist an ultimate centre of reflection (and hence of beatifying consummation) ahead of us, at the upper term of evolution.


The Christic (or the Pan-Reflective)

Elsewhere I have told (in The Heart of Matter4) how, when all is said and done, the great event of my life will have been the gradual identification in my spiritual heaven of two suns: one of these stars was the cosmic peak postulated by a generalized evolution of the convergent type; and the other was constituted by the risen Christ of the Christian faith. And I see nothing to add here to the psychological history of that conjunction.

On the other hand, what does belong to my present theme, is to emphasize, more forcibly today than ever before, the astonishing energetic properties of the divine Milieu which is generated in the utmost depths of human consciousness by this truly ‘implosive’ meeting between a rising flood of co-reflection and a second, descending, flood of revelation.

The final and complete reflection of the universe upon itself in a meeting between the above of heaven and the ahead of earth—in other words, proceeding from the same movement, a God who makes himself cosmic and an evolution which makes itself person.

What more do we need, and what better could we imagine in our dreams, than this lightning flash, for all our active potentialities and all our possibilities of worship to be simultaneously realized in the highest form, as they must be if we are to survive?

At last we are beginning to appreciate this. By the very fact that, in reflecting upon itself, cosmogenesis is coming more and more rapidly, starting with the human, to take on the characteristics of a self-evolution, every later advance of the universe in the direction of maximum complexity-consciousness henceforth requires that man feel himself to be interiorly supported by an ever more resolute will to press on: a will no ultimate prospect of a total death may intervene to discourage—but a will, on the contrary, which, from its very deepest roots, is spurred into action by an overpowering passion.

It is not in a dark (because closed) universe, nor in an ice-cold universe, nor in a merely lukewarm (because faceless) universe, that it is physically possible for the forces of co-reflection to remain alive and so reach their common pole.

But the open universe, the incandescent universe that our action demands if it is to function to the end—surely it is just that which the world of modern physics becomes for us, from the moment when, in Christic form, a real centre of irreversible personalization blazes out at the supreme pole of its concentration?

Here, as always, no doubt, action entails reaction. It is impossible to think of Christ as ‘evolver’ without at the same time having to re-think the whole of Christology.5

A functional completion of the one and the multiple takes the place of the creative paternalism we habitually envisaged.6 The twofold notion of statistical evil and evolutionary redemption correcting or completing the idea of catastrophic sin and reparatory expiation. The final parousia more akin to a maturing than to a destruction.

In return for a valorization and amorization of the stuff of things, a whole series of readjustments must be made, I am well aware (if we wish frankly to Christify evolution), in a number of representations or attitudes which seem to us to be definitively fixed in Christian dogma. In consequence, and by factual necessity, one might say that a hitherto unknown form of religion—one that no one could as yet have imagined or described, for lack of a universe large enough and organic enough to contain it—is burgeoning in the heart of modern man, from a seed sown by the idea of evolution. God is no longer sought in an identification with things that annihilates personality, nor in an escape from things that de-humanizes man.7 God is attained (and this is infinitely more energizing and brings infinitely truer communion) by entry into the centre of the total sphere that embraces all things—a centre that itself is in the process of formation.

Far from being shaken in my faith by such a revolution, it is with irrepressible hope that I welcome the inevitable rise of this new mysticism and anticipate its equally inevitable triumph.

For if in the end nothing, absolutely nothing, can prevent man from ultimately coming to rest in the form of belief that activates the cosmic forces of convergence in him to their maximum—then, indeed, we have the finest proof of the transcendence of Christianity. We see in its remarkable and unique power to find within itself, and present to us at the very time we need it, what at this precise moment in history is absolutely indispensable to our nature if it is to develop its power to act and to worship to the full: and that is a Christ who can be and is commensurate with the universe, in other words a God—the God we look for—of evolution.


  1. i.e. an intervention dissociated from the universal process. (Ed.)

  2. Cf. The Phenomenon of Man, p. 169 n., ‘I confine myself here to the phenomenon.’ In connexion with the ‘underlying causes controlling the whole process,’ see ‘ Cosmic Life’ in Writings in Time of War, in particular pp. 46–71. (Ed.)

  3. Whether man be ‘better’ or ‘worse’ is in fact an ambiguous question. In any event, for Père Teilhard, as for every Christian, a man’s moral value is a mystery of which God alone is the judge and to penetrate which is outside the competence of the scientist. (Ed.)

  4. An autobiographical essay, to be published in a subsequent volume. (Ed.)

  5. In relation to, and on the sacle of, the universe. (Ed.)

  6. ‘Paternalism’ is used here as opposed to ‘paternity,’ of which it is a distortion. It designates a mistaken concept of providence that relieves man of all responsibility for the evolution of the universe. Cf. above, ‘The Evolution of Responsibility in the World.’ (Ed.)

  7. Christian salvation, the resurrection of the flesh, is not an escape from the world but a transformation of the world in Christ. Cf. Le Milieu Divin, epilogue. (Ed.)

Pierre Teilhard de Chardin

Document Options
Find out more