Nathan Campbell begins a two-part series on the Big History Project and what it means for telling God’s big story.
The Big History Project
“If you wish to make an apple pie from scratch, you must first invent the universe.”—Carl Sagan, Astrophysicist.
Everything in this world has a history—a big history. Even apple pie: the atoms that form it are part of the cosmos, and so, according to the laws of the universe—where matter and energy are never destroyed, but only re-ordered, or re-created—the apple pie’s story begins at the beginning of the universe.
The universe, the stars, the earth and you are all caught up in this history, a story that began with the beginning of the universe. Where Carl Sagan used this sense of time and space to explain the origins of the humble apple pie, Neil DeGrasse Tyson used this sense of cosmic history to provide an origin story pitched at firing our imaginations towards a better approach to life within the cosmos.
The atoms of our bodies are traceable to stars that manufactured them in their cores and exploded these enriched ingredients across our galaxy, billions of years ago. For this reason, we are biologically connected to every other living thing in the world. We are chemically connected to all molecules on Earth. And we are atomically connected to all atoms in the universe. We are not figuratively, but literally stardust. — Neil DeGrasse Tyson, astrophysicist
Getting a sense of history that begins at the very beginning of time is part of The Big History Project, a new approach to understanding and teaching history developed by an Aussie teacher, David Christian, and backed, globally, by Microsoft founder Bill Gates.
The program is an ambitious attempt to tell “13.8 billion years of history” via “engaging videos, animations, articles, and classroom activities.” It starts with the big bang and answers “big questions about our Universe, our planet, life, and humanity.” These big questions provide the answer, in turn, to questions of how we’re to live, and how apple pie, or anything in this world, is really made.
This makes you wonder what sort of future can be imagined from the starting point that we are the detritus of dead stars, and what sort of things might be created from such a vast story, where we are minutely insignificant.
Humans: Creatures shaped by (his)story
Our collection and telling of stories—our sense that we live life as part of some story, the examining of our past, explanation of our present, and imagination of our future through story—is part of being human. It separates us from the animal kingdom. History is the art of organising stories of events in space and time, in the form of narrative—a grand story. As we do history—either by telling stories from the past, or observing historical data littered throughout the universe—we are able to better explain our own story.
The problem with the Big History Project story is that it is terribly discouraging.
It makes us tiny specks in a vast universe. It doesn’t fire the imagination, so much as cripple it. Its approach to cosmic history emphasises the material realities of life, which shapes a certain understanding of life in this world that philosopher Charles Taylor and, more recently, philosopher and theologian, James K. A. Smith, have described as a ‘disenchanted’ view of the world. We’re left picturing the world as a machine, and our lives as connected parts of the mechanism.
Taylor and Smith point to our changing terminology as evidence for this shift—with the move from cosmos to universe, and from creation to nature, we’ve lost a sense of purpose, and with it a sense of meaning and enchantment with the world. The story that fires our imagination and shapes our lives has moved from vivid colour to black and white, evidence-based material ‘truth.’ As Smith puts it, we’re now invited to “imagine meaning and significance as contained within the universe itself” (How (Not) To Be Secular, 34-35).
As much as Sagan, DeGrasse Tyson, and the Big History Project serve us by expanding our horizons beyond immediate concerns and broadening our sense of space and time, they still leave us looking at the universe itself to find meaning. We’re invited to see the machine as god, rather than looking through the physical machine to see the God who powers it. The end result is to see the world as god. Which is the sort of idolatry Paul deals with in Athens.
Our bigger history
When Paul speaks in Athens he’s speaking to the Big Historians of his day. Both the Stoic and Epicurean philosophers had big narratives of how the world came to be that shaped their imaginations. They told stories that led them to worship things they desired from within the world, and the gods-within-the-machine they imagined behind these things. The Stoic philosophers of Athens, if they followed the teaching of Zeno, the founder of stoicism, believed that nature itself was god, an ‘artistically working fire’ producing itself, and everything else. This was their Big History.
In his speech recorded in Acts 17, Paul invites these philosophers to get a bigger history. Using insights from their own thinkers and story-tellers, he looks beyond their big history of the universe, to imagine bigger. He invites them to see that the machine is not god, the machine is of God’s making. Gods are not to be found within the machine; the machine is within God. He invites them to meet the Creator—the real Artist.
The God who made the world and everything in it is the Lord of heaven and earth and does not live in temples built by human hands. And he is not served by human hands, as if he needed anything. Rather, he himself gives everyone life and breath and everything else.”—Acts 17:24-25
The Epicureans had their own sense of big history—one consistent with an astrophysicist’s view of the universe. Epicurus said, “the totality of things was always such as it is now, and always will be.” But Paul says the game changed—the universe changed — something shifted, when the creator intervened. When he changed up the circle of life (and death) with a resurrection. This changes everything.
For he has set a day when he will judge the world with justice by the man he has appointed. He has given proof of this to everyone by raising him from the dead.—Acts 17:30-31
This is where the imagination is really fired for Paul, because this is where God is truly to be found. This is where we really see the purpose behind the cosmos. Paul’s big history in Athens centres on the man God appointed. Jesus—his coming into the story, into space and time—is the pivotal moment in history.
Our job as Christian storytellers—Big Historians—is to examine the past, explain the present, and imagine the future in the light of this truth. Telling this story will help people see beyond the stardust to the one who flung stars into space, who holds the universe together in his hands. This is not a story that leaves us staring into the void of insignificance because at the centre of this story is the story of these hands pierced by cruel nails on our behalf. It should fire our imaginations to produce more compelling creativity than stories told by astrophysicists or big historians because it’s a better story, with a better God, a more satisfying meaning of life, the universe and everything, and a better vision of the future.
(This series was first published at the Creek Road Presbyterian Church website.)