Summer 1982, Vol. 34, No. 2, pp. 113-121.

Anthony E. Gilles:
      Teilhard's Gospel of Human Effort

Christians are called to stand at the center of the world to transform matter into spirit and so build up the body of Christ.

Mr. Gilles is director of the Office of Development in the diocese of Pensacola-Tallahassee in Florida. He has published articles in The Teilhard Review, America, St. Anthony Messenger, and God's Word Today.

PIERRE Teilhard de Chardin's greatest burden was the frustration he experienced at being unable to explain to his fellow Christians the implications for their spiritual lives of his scientific findings. Toward the end of his life he tried repeatedly, in essay after essay, to communicate to the modern Christian his understanding of God, creation, the gospel, and the new religion which he saw rising on the horizon. What I will attempt in this essay is to answer the question which Teilhard sensed that others repeatedly, and with increasing urgency, asked him: What does a Christian do to see as you see? How does one live in order to participate more fully in the new age which you see being born?

Although Teilhard has been dead for nearly thirty years, his writings have a striking relevancy for our own generation. We must agree with Teilhard that Christianity today often fails to excite and draw to itself the hearts and minds of men and women. For many, Christianity is seen primarily as a sort of passive piety which induces people to become something less than fully human. As the mass of humanity is searching for a world religion which calls forth its best human efforts, its best attempts at creativity and cooperation with a power greater than itself, Christianity often appears to offer only a rather gloomy picture of passivity, withdrawal, and detachment. Teilhard characterizes this false understanding of Christianity as saying that "perfection consists in detachment; the world around us is vanity and ashes."(1)

Teilhard says that the Christian ordinarily deals with the conflict between this understanding of Christianity and the call to involvement in the world in one of three ways: (1) by withdrawing from the world and focusing on the spiritual realities of the Second Coming and the afterlife (what he calls the choice of "distortion"); (2) by dismissing the evangelical counsels altogether and following what appears to be "a complete and human life" (the choice of "disgust'); and (3) by confusedly leading a double life, a life in which one's spiritual life and one's earthly vocation are never reconciled (the choice of "division"). As we look around us today, we would have to agree that many Christians are either distorted, disgusted, or divided. There is a fourth way, however, which Teilhard says is possible for the Christian, a way which promotes "striving towards detachment and a striving towards the enrichment of our human lives" at one and the same time.


Teilhard thought it utterly false to regard human action as important only with regard to the moral intention by which it is performed, as if God really does not care what we do in life so long as we are not immoral in doing it. In actuality, Teilhard held, the results of our actions are every bit as important as the intentions which motivate them. The Christian life is not to be seen as an endless ritual of digging holes and filling them in, all in the name of God and the church, as if by doing this we accumulated merit points in heaven. God has no need of filled-in holes. Instead, God calls us to do work which contributes toward the advancement of humanity and the universe. Such work could be as important as discovering a cure for cancer or as humble as drying the dinner dishes, so long as, Teilhard says, "we unite ourselves in the shared love of the end for which we are working," that is, so long as we contribute to the earthly progress of the human family towards its fulfillment in Christ. As Teilhard put it: "God does not deflect our gaze prematurely from the work he himself has given us, since he presents himself to us as attainable through that very work . . . . The closeness of our union with him is in fact determined by the exact fulfillment of the least of our tasks."

It was this "sanctification of human endeavor" which Teilhard so deeply desired the church of Christ to espouse. Only this would overcome the great objection to Christianity in our time -- "the suspicion that our religion makes its followers inhuman." Elsewhere he writes: "'Christian' and 'Human' are tending no longer to coincide. In that lies the great schism that threatens the church .... We must preach and practice what I shall call 'the Gospel of Human Effort.'"(2) Thus, the first practical application we can make of Teilhard's vision is to live believing that our human efforts really do matter. Getting up in the morning and going to the same routine job day after day can be seen in reality as a participation in the most fascinating and meaningful of tasks -- the unfolding and fulfillment of the universe, and its transformation into the New Jerusalem. Let us explore this thought more fully.

For the Christian who accepts the call of "The Gospel of Human Effort," a new dimension to life begins gradually to appear. We start to realize that what we are participating in forming is at the same time drawing us onward to completion. Like Jacob wrestling with the angel of God, we soon find ourselves "in the grip of what we thought we could grasp." We find, in other words, that there are certain "passivities" involved in our actions, whereby "that which is not done by us is undergone." These passivities are of two types: the passivities of growth, and the passivities of diminishment.

By the action of the former we come to realize that "we undergo life as much as we undergo death . . . ," and, further, that "my self is given to me far more than it is formed by me." What Teilhard means by the preceding is that the more we become engaged in action and work that contributes to human progress, the more we realize that our abilities, talents, and skills are all gifts. There is thus a sense in which work undertaken to build the kingdom of God becomes for each individual less of a strain and effort and more of a spontaneous participation in a common endeavor. For this reason, we become gradually more detached from our labor, not because, as a false sense of detachment would have it, this labor does not matter, but because we sense the purpose and end of such labor. This end is the fulfillment of all human effort, as Teilhard variously described it in his works -- the Pleroma, the fabrication of the body of Christ, the completion of evolution and its transformation into the cosmic Christ.

The second set of passivities, those of diminishment, are "the hostile powers which laboriously obstruct our tendencies, and hamper or deflect our progress toward heightened being." They are of two types: those whose origins lie outside of us, and those whose origins lie within us. In the former is included "the barrier which blocks our way, the wall that hems us in, the stone which throws us from our path, the obstacle that breaks us, the invisible microbe that kills us." The latter includes "natural failings, physical defects, intellectual or moral weaknesses, as a result of which the field of our activities, of our enjoyment, of our vision has been pitilessly limited since birth." How do these kinds of passivities"the waste matter of our experiences" -- contribute to our individual spiritual growth?

Teilhard's answer is perhaps a surprise. Instead of calmly accepting the evils engendered by these passivities of diminishment, the Christian's initial response should be to resist them and to strike out against them. Teilhard thus rejects the oftentimes typical Christian response, which is that we find God through the passive toleration of our sufferings. Rather, Teilhard says, precisely the opposite is true: "We cannot hope to find God except by loathing what is coming upon us and doing our best to avoid it. The more we repel suffering at that moment, with our whole heart and our whole strength, the more closely we cleave to the heart and action of God."

For the Christian, suffering itself is to be regarded as an evil to be conquered, in the name of him who conquered death. There is thus a great distinction to be made, that many Christians often overlook, between suffering and sacrifice. The Christian life should be one of sacrifice, diminishment of self for others, but not a life of suffering for suffering's sake. There is such great suffering in the lives of so many in our world because of the refusal of so many others, Christians included, to lead a life of sacrifice.

What, then, of those moments in our lives when, even after much struggle, much effort, and much sacrifice to diminish evil, we have to admit that our actions have failed, and we find that suffering overwhelms us? It is then that God, like the master sculptor who finds a fault in his block of marble, moves to transfigure our lives into something higher, "provided," Teilhard says, "we lovingly trust him."


These considerations bring us to the shadow of the cross. For Teilhard, the cross "is the dynamic and complete symbol of a universe in a state of personalizing evolution."(3) Teilhard turns to the characteristics of evolution in nature to illustrate what he means by this. The first characteristic of evolution is that it calls for hard work. Secondly, it leaves behind a long trail of disorder, suffering, and error. Thirdly, it involves death. Finally, it requires at its peak a magnetic principle "amorizing" the entire functioning of the universe. We find in the life and death of Jesus similar characteristics. By his death and resurrection, Jesus became the agent by which all creation begins its transformation into a higher species -- a spiritualized, "divinized" species, as different from humanity as we know it as it in turn is different from lower animal species. This very process of transformation Teilhard the scientist found all about him in the phenomenal world.

Like Jesus, each of us is an agent of transformation in this process of the spiritualization of the cosmos. We are cooperators with Christ in the evolution, the building up, of the cosmos into its completed form. And the tool which we use to do this is the cross. Without this tool we would be forever lost, relegated to a "lower- species" existence in which we never truly progress past the level of biological and spiritual achievement at which we presently find ourselves. Thus, the cross should symbolize for us the means not only by which we leave behind all that restricts us, but also by which we fabricate a new environment and level of existence.

By extension, Teilhard says, this applies to all of matter. On the one hand, matter often takes on the appearance, like the cross, of that which burdens us, fetters us, brings us pain, and threatens us. But, also like the cross, "by matter we are nourished, lifted up, linked to everything else, invaded by life." Too often Christian asceticism has looked only at the first aspect of matter and has recoiled, exclaiming, "Flee!" Teilhard would replace this understanding of asceticism with another.

To develop it, he uses the analogy of a mountain climber going from darker zones to lighter zones. The climber must make use of everything available to get to the higher zone. As for the climber, so for us, "matter is simply the slope on which we can go up as well as go down . . . . The task assigned to us is to climb toward the light, passing through, so as to attain God, a given series of created things which are not exactly obstacles but rather foot-holds, intermediaries to be made use of, nourishment to be taken, sap to be purified, and elements to be associated with us and borne along with us."

Thus, we may regard matter -- the elements of the created world -- in two different senses. One sense is the carnal sense, represented by the zone of the mountain we have left behind and into which we should not fall back. The second sense is the spiritual sense, represented by the zone toward which we are climbing. Although "the frontier between these two is essentially relative and shifting," matter itself is our ally in the climb. "By virtue of the Incarnation, nothing here below is profane for those who know how to see." Teilhard's understanding of the value of matter gives us insight into the command of Jesus not to judge the actions of others. We have no way of knowing "what zone of the mountain" someone may be passing through at present. If it seems obvious that he or she is slipping backwards, help may be offered; but before judging, we should perhaps consider whether what looks to us like a backward slip may not really be a groping for a surer foothold upwards.

Like the cross, then, the elements of the created world are sacred for Christians. Christians must work in the world, so that its discordant and multifarious elements may more effectively be transformed into a higher realm of existence. Christians must not abandon the world to those who see human fulfillment only in terms of maximizing sensual pleasure and comfort. Christians must lead their confreres to a higher awareness of life. They must not sit back, dreading contact with "sinners," waiting sadistically for the day in which they will receive their deserved wrathful punishment from God. We see today many examples of this false Christianity, frightened to assert itself in the world, impotent to enter creatively into so many areas of life. On the other hand, many who erroneously consider themselves "atheists" or "nonbelievers" have assumed control of politics, medicine, law, education, literature, music, and the arts, and are selflessly struggling to better humanity's condition.

One is reminded of St. Augustine's remark: "Many there are whom God has who are not in the church; and, many there are in the church whom God does not have." The Christian's place, Teilhard would say, is not on the fringes of society but at the very center. Today's Christian must not become a sort of twentieth-century court jester, showing up every now and then to entertain with pious anecdotes and irrelevant rituals those who do the real work of society. Rather, the Christian must do the real work of society.


To prepare for doing this work, Christians must gird themselves with the three theological virtues. As with everything else upon which Teilhard focused, these virtues take on a new dimension once Teilhard has defined them. Faith is, according to Teilhard, "an operative power." "In our hands . . . the world and life . . . are placed like a Host, ready to be charged with the divine influence, that is to say, with a real presence of the Incarnate Word." Teilhard's definition shows that faith is far more than numb assent to a list of dogmas. Faith for Teilhard is not something which sums up our beliefs; rather, faith is something we do: "To read the Gospel with an open mind is to see beyond all possibility of doubt that Christ came to do more than bring us new truths concerning our destiny: he brought us not only a new concept of it, more exalted than that which we already had in our minds, but also, in a very real way, a new physical power of acting upon our temporal world."(4)

Teilhard approves of, and elevates out of its often selfish context, the popular expression: "God helps those who help themselves."(5) Christian faith, he says, "jettisons neither the rational method of conquering the world, nor man's confidence in himself: on the contrary, it stimulates and inspires them .... If, in the name of Christ we believe vigorously in our own power, we shall see the aimless meanderings of chance obediently accept our control."(6) In short, Christians must make up their minds that the Gospels are true and then set to work to build up the kingdom of God. If one is seeking a practical means by which to see as Teilhard saw, one need look no further: "Through the operation of faith, Christ appears, Christ is born, without any violation of nature's laws, in the heart of the world."(7)

Christian charity, as Teilhard defines it, is "nothing else than the conscious cohesion of souls engendered by their communal convergence in Christo Jesu." By loving one another as Christ commanded us, we generate the energy which builds up and holds together the universal body of Christ. Teilhard says: "In a real sense, only one man will be saved: Christ, the head and living summary of humanity." By excluding anyone, by denying love to anyone, we deny our collective fulfillment as a species. This is because we are biologically related to each other in such a way that our individual "centers of consciousness" must align themselves with all other individual centers, with the totality focused on the divine center, Christ, before we can develop fully as human beings. Thus, one's own evolution cannot proceed at a rate faster than that of the entire body. Teilhard wrote: "The world must be converted in its whole mass, or it will by physiological necessity, fall into decay."(8)

Teilhard would perhaps prefer to call the third of the theological virtues "expectation" rather than "hope." Christian expectation applies ultimately to the final consummation of the world and the coming of the reign of God in its fullness. Teilhard says of expectation that it is "perhaps the supreme Christian function and the most distinctive characteristic of our religion." But at the same time he laments that "in reality we should have to admit, if we were sincere, that we no longer expect anything." It is perhaps the lack of a strongly manifested hope in the coming of Christ and his eventual triumph which most distinguishes our own age from that of the first Christians.

The reason for this lack of hope, Teilhard says, is that Christians no longer share with the rest of humanity "those aspirations, in essence religious, which make the men of today feel so strongly the immensity of the world, the greatness of the mind, and the sacred value of every new truth." Only by sharing these aspirations with all those who push back the frontiers of knowledge about ourselves, and about our world, will Christians learn again to hope. As it is, many Christians seem to want to return to a nostalgic golden age. For Teilhard, the golden age lies ahead. Christians must develop a hunger for it, as have their many non-Christian brothers and sisters, before they can once again be stirred to excitement over the promise of Christianity. "We must try everything for Christ; we must hope everything for Christ," he says.

It might be helpful to consider the following metaphor as a way of summarizing the implications for one's spiritual life of the vision of Teilhard de Chardin. The Christian stands astride two worlds -- the earthly and the heavenly, the material and the spiritual. One foot must be in each world. If both feet are in either, progress will not occur. Standing only in the material world exhausts us, renders us cynical, jaded, crushed by our smallness and our powerlessness to grow into something greater. Standing only in the spiritual world, on the other hand, likewise inhibits our growth. This is because our human natures are such that we function much like bees who transform nectar into honey. Our task is to take the "stuff of the universe," assimilate it into our souls, and transform it into spirit. Thus, we must stand at the center of the world, because it is there that we most readily find matter to transform into spirit. The collective action of every person doing this is what builds up the body of Christ. "One day," Teilhard says, "the whole divinizable substance of matter will have passed into the souls of all men; all the chosen dynamisms will have been recovered: and then the world will be ready for the Parousia."

  1. The Divine Milieu (New York: Harper and Row, 1960). All quotations in this article are from The Divine Milieu unless otherwise noted.
  2. The Heart of Matter (New York: Harcourt, Brace and Jovanovich, 1978), p. 214.
  3. Christianity and Evolution (New York: Harcourt, Brace and Jovanovich, 1971), p. 220.
  4. Writings in Time of War (New York: Harper and Row, 1968), p. 237.
  5. Ibid., p. 243.
  6. Ibid., p. 244.
  7. Ibid., p. 246.
  8. Science et Christ (Paris: Editions du Seuil, 1965), p. 112.