In the postwar nihilism that marked the first half of the 20th century, Jesuit priest and paleontologist Pierre Teilhard de Chardin was a remarkable exception. While other thinkers announced the futility of life and the death of God, Teilhard de Chardin was passionately wringing from the earth answers to man's perennial questions: "Who are we? Why are we?"

Teilhard found answers to these questions in his daring synthesis of Christianity and evolution. From his study of fossils and the remains of prehistoric man, he unearthed what he felt was the key to man's present and future: evolution had not halted. Man, Teilhard proclaimed, was continually evolving toward a common center, a point of ultimate completion and personalization which sustains and fuses all multiplicity into a human-divine unity: what he called the Omega Point, the Cosmic Christ.

Teilhard, by journalists Mary and Ellen Lukas, is a thoroughly readable and clear introduction to this complex Christian thinker. Born in 1881, in Auvergne, France, Teilhard is presented by the Lukases as the real-life embodiment of the Innocent Seeker of Auvergnat folk tales "who leaves his land and all he has to look for the Secret at the Heart of Reality -- the Magus who seeks the Single Truth behind the veil of multiple illusion." Every archaeological dig in which he participated, every artifact and bone that he tirelessly scrutinized and catalogued, hymned the same religio-scientific good news which he never ceased to proclaim: the joyful phenomenon of the cosmos' unifying into God.

Teilhard's life, however, as the authors demonstrate, was seared by frustration and misunderstanding. To his Jesuit superiors, he was often an embarrassing eccentric; to the Roman Curia, a misguided visionary and an out-and-out heretic. Though exiled to China and to America and forbidden to voice his speculative ideas, Teilhard remained loyal to the Catholic Church, even when it refused him permission to publish The Phenomenon of Man , his own summa theologica . Yet Teilhard persisted in searching, thinking, writing, sharing his manuscripts with a coterie of friends and followers. He died in New York, on Easter Sunday, 1955.

Mary and Ellen Lukas focus on Teilhard the man his charming manner with family and friends; his aristocratic sense of duty; his naivete in the face of Curia deceit his utter devotion to his message "without which I could not breathe, adore, or believe." The summaries of Teilhard's thought are clear and helpful; it the book has a fault, it is that the authors do not quote sufficiently from Teilhard's writings. As an introduction for the general reader, however, this biography is highly useful and should only entice the reader to read for himself the writings of Teilhard de Chardin, S. J. (Doubleday, $10)