Big History: A narrative core for HP?

Cosmos Revisited, by

The mythologies embraced by HP find their meaning within Big History.

– by B. T. Newberg

Last time, our poll uncovered the three most popular root metaphors of our readers:

  • nature-as-Creativity
  • nature-as-kin
  • nature-as-Big Self

This time, I propose Big History as the narrative core of all forms of Religious Naturalism, including HP.  Each of the three metaphors above find expression through this epic story.

This post is part 3 of a series examining HP through the lens of the work of Loyal Rue.  Part 1 is here, Part 2 is here, and an overview of Rue’s basic concepts is here.

What is a narrative core?

A narrative core* is what unleashes the power of a root metaphor, like a combustion engine unleashing the power of fuel.  The narrative unlocks the potential implicit in the metaphor.  It turns it into a story comprehensible and moving to human minds.

It’s not just any well-told yarn, though.  A narrative core is a story by which we understand all other stories.  It’s an epic within which all other stories are embedded.

Loyal Rue describes it in Religion Is Not About God:

The narrative core provides members of a culture with vital information that gives them a general orientation in nature and in history.  The narrative core is the most fundamental expression of wisdom in a cultural tradition – it tells us about the kind of world we live in, what sorts of things are real and unreal, where we came from, what our true nature is, and how we fit into the larger scheme of things.  These are all cosmological ideas…. But the narrative core also contains ideas about morality, about which things ultimately matter.  It tells us what is good for us and how we are to fulfill our purpose.

In short, the narrative core elaborates the power of the root metaphor to “render the real sacred, and the sacred real.”  The narrative cores of Abrahamic traditions, for example, are told in the Torah, Bible, and Quran.  Traditions without such explicit scriptures may relate their narrative cores implicitly through rituals, stories, histories, proverbs, and even daily interactions.

So, what is the narrative core of the many forms of Religious Naturalism, including HP?

Last time I argued the root metaphor of RN must be some view of nature, because naturalists explain things by reference to natural processes.  Likewise, it seems to me the narrative core must be some story about nature.  Further, since naturalism generally affirms the picture of nature as revealed by modern scientific method, that story must be informed by and consistent with current science.

So, here is my proposal: The narrative core of all forms of Religious Naturalism, including HP, must be some variation of Big History.

Big History

Also called the Epic of Evolution, the Great Story, or the Universe Story, Big History is the story of the cosmos gradually emerging from myriad lines of research across scientific disciplines.  It is a product of the consilience, or agreement, among the sciences on our common origins and nature.

It begins with the Big Bang, proceeds through the formation of stars and galaxies, and narrates the emergence of increasing complexity.  Physics gives rise to chemistry as atoms combine into molecules.  Then, chemistry gives rise to biology, biology to psychology, and psychology to culture.  We find ourselves at the latter end of that sequence (without implying any superiority), looking back at the great enormity of events that have led to this moment.  As Loyal Rue says, “we are star-born and earth-formed.”

The tale has been eloquently told by many.  Ursula Goodenough comes to grips with it in her deeply reflective The Sacred Depths of Nature (an excerpt of which is here).  Loyal Rue and E. O. Wilson play bard in their book Everybody’s Story, as do Brian Swimme and Thomas Berry in The Universe StoryMichael Dowd and Connie Barlow have much to say on it, and Glenys Livingstone incorporates its themes into her PaGaian Cosmology.  And don’t miss David Christian’s exciting TED Talk presentation, embedded below.

But… what does that have to do with me?

At a scale as large as the cosmos, it’s easy to lose sight of the human.  What do distant galaxies have to do with our everyday lives?

Although the universe dwarfs us, we are a part of it.  Notice how each system is nested within those preceding it (physics > chemistry > biology > psychology > culture), and all are ultimately nested within nature itself.  That means that we humans are a part of nature.  By understanding nature, we understand ourselves.

We also understand something of how to live by grasping the story of the cosmos.  All of nature’s systems are interconnected.  Any change can send reverberations throughout the whole.  Locally, everything exists in a delicate balance; disrupting that balance may catalyze new relationships unpleasant or even hostile to us.  So we ought to live in harmony with nature.

We learn, too, that nothing can be understood except by reference to everything else.  Beginning our story not at our birth but at the Big Bang brings perspective, and reminds us who we are, where we come from, and where we’re going.

Finally, if Big History still seems alien, maybe it’s because the story needs to be told all the way down to the human level.  After all, love, hate, and passion are no less natural than anything else.  Why you lost your job, how your spouse still loves you, and what you’re going to do with your life – all that is the cosmos in microcosm.  Each of our lives is a chapter in the ongoing epic of the universe.

One narrative or many?

At this point, some may be squirming at the thought of a single story informing all others – and rightly so, if that story were univocal.

Fortunately, Big History does not have one single form, like some kind of holy scripture.  Rather, it is multiple and fluid by its very nature.  As the sciences continue to debate and revise concepts based on new findings, Big History is always changing.

Furthermore, it can and must be told from different perspectives.  Since we are human, it is usually told from a human perspective, but one could also tell the story from the perspective of a tree or galaxy.  Big History is thus truly big.

The multivalence of Big History enables it to support a number of different root metaphors.

Multiple root metaphors?

Just as an engine can accept a number of different fuels, but not just any fuel, so a narrative core can accommodate a range of root metaphors.

Now we can return to the results of last time’s poll.  How can Big History express our three most popular root metaphors?

Nature-as-Creativity.  All this wondrous diversity that we see around us – where does it come from?  Big History reveals the universe as self-creating and self-organizing.  There is something astounding, magical even, about matter.  Far from inert, passive, stupid stuff, matter itself is creative.  Spacetime explodes into being at the Big Bang.  Evolution coaxes amino acids into life.  Life creates new environments for itself.  And a certain form of life even invents stories about it all.

All this happens without some transcendent architect meddling from the outside.  No, in Big History there is neither Creator nor Created, only Creativity.  If that’s true, we ought to value matter, including ourselves as material beings.  We ought to honor it through our own inspiration, in collaboration with all the other artists of the universe.

Nature-as-kin.  Who is our eldest ancestor?  It’s not a who but a what, says Big History.  Before there was male or female, there was the Great Grandparent, and it gave birth to itself in a great bright roar.  All of us are descended from the bang of that ancestor’s birth; all of us are related in one big family.  Locally, we know our cousins in the sky and earth, rivers and trees, eagles and worms.  No part of nature ought to escape our empathy, for family is family.

Nature-as-Big Self.  All of human history is but a flash in the long draw of cosmic time.  Who are we before the vast, deep cosmos?  Surely, we are but dust in the wind.  And yet, in another sense, we are the universe.

As Neil deGrasse Tyson puts it:

The very molecules that make up your body – the atoms that construct the molecules – are traceable to the crucibles that were once the centers of high mass stars that exploded their chemically-enriched guts into the galaxy, enriching pristine gas clouds with the chemistry of life.  So that we’re all connected – to each other biologically, to the earth chemically, and to the rest of the universe atomically.  That’s kinda cool.  That makes me smile.  And I actually feel quite large at the end of that.  It’s not that we’re better than the universe; we’re part of the universe.  We are in the universe, and the universe is in us.

Brian Swimme is even more succinct when he says, “Every child of ours needs to learn the simple truth: she is the energy of the sun.”

Everything is deeply interconnected.  On a fundamental level, the cosmos is one great being, one Big Self.  Big History is the story of that self.  Small as we are, we’re the whole tale from start to finish.  If that’s true, we ought to value nature – and all others within it – as we value ourselves.  And we ought to take responsibility for our part in nature, just as we accept responsibility for our actions as moral beings.

Wait… what about myths?

By now it is well worth wondering what happened to the mythology so central to HP.  Where are the stories of Zeus and Hera, Thor and fair-haired Freya?

This is where Big History becomes revolutionary.

Like Hesiod’s Theogeny, which wove the tangled strings of Greek mythology into one yarn, Big History weaves all mythologies into one fabric.  It does so by giving us the context by which to understand them.

Myths are cultural phenomena that have emerged, like everything else, from within the nested systems of the cosmos.  They are historically contingent and subject to evolution.  They exist symbiotically with the only organism linguistically capable of supporting them – humans.  They ensure their survival through adaptation, by appealing to human minds, and fulfilling functions in human lives.

This makes sense of mythology.  Its content is often strange considered out of context, but becomes plain when situated in its larger environment of human fulfillment.  Myths do something for us – they move us, they help us see nature and ourselves in a different light, and they inspire meaning.  In short, they enrich our lives.

Not everyone is so touched by mythology.  For some, they are no more moving than a list of cereal ingredients.  But for many, a great many, they are the blood of life.

HP is one path that facilitates an appreciation of and relationship with myth, without losing sight of its context in Big History.  We do not take the contents of mythology as literal facts.  Rather, we appreciate how such fictions help us experience truths about ourselves, each other, and nature.

*Loyal Rue also uses the term myth to describe a narrative core, but to avoid confusion with the specific cultural mythologies embraced by HP, I’ll refer to it only as narrative core.

15 Comments on “Big History: A narrative core for HP?

  1. I definitely think Big History is it, the sacred narrative that brings everything together. What I like so much about Big History as a sacred narrative is that it is public revelation as Michael Dowd says. The sources of this understanding are open and available for everyone to examine, question and correct (or at least anyone with the skills to do so). This is unlike the private revelations (handed down in texts or from personal religious experiences) which form the bases of most modern religions including a lot of modern paganism.

    People outside of religious naturalism feel that science is undermining the foundations of religion, and it is true that for a type of “spiritual materialism”, which holds that supernatural beings exist in a tangible way and that these beings influence events now and in history. But I think science, particularly evolutionary psychology, is also validating religion. As Rue says ”Religion is not about God” or as I would say religion is not about the supernatural (or maybe I should say is not for the supernatural). Evolutionary psychology sees religion as a natural expression and outgrowth of human nature, part of our evolved nature which formed because it benefited our ancestors. From this perspective so much of traditional religion begins to make sense and is shown to be important. It seems to me that in the supernaturalistic view of religion there is no foundation to interpret the past, no way to come to any consensus on the nature of reality or the meaning of religion. As you said Big History gives us the context to understand myth and religion.

    I think you are right to not describe Big History as myth. I think myth is a particular genre of literature, a way of speaking of things and values. Big History can be told as a myth or it can be conveyed as a scientific description. I think understanding the science part of Big History is vital to truly take in its full meaning, but to build an emotional connection, Big History also needs to be conveyed as myth. Myth is story which contains animated and willful characters. Myth is the kind of thing one might tell around a camp fire. It should be able to hold the attention of children, but also contain a depth of meaning only really graspable by knowledgeable adults.

    • M. J., it’s especially interesting that you use the word “sacred” to describe Big History. I think understanding that word points up a key challenge for Religious Naturalism.

      Sacred derives eytmologically from “set-apart”, and that’s what it usually is like – something distinct and often hedged around with taboos, restricted access, and special means of approach. Often it may even be unquestionable. Cognitive psychologist Robert McCauley even thinks it relies on our brain’s intuitive module for dealing with contaminants (hands off/approach with care, or risk contagion).

      However, Big History, as a reflection of scientific discoveries, is and must remain open to critique and revision. It can’t be unquestionable, can’t be set apart in a “hands off” way. So, a major challenge for Religious Naturalism will be to find a new way to understand sacredness.

      My best guess is it may be accomplished through a special sense of mystery. The mystery cult secrets into which ancient Greeks were initiated could be aporrheton (“forbidden”) and/or arrheton (“unutterable, unspeakable, ineffable”). The kind of sacredness described above includes aporrheton, but the kind of sacredness that may infuse the aura of Big History is pure arrheton. No matter how much we learn about the universe, there is always so much more we don’t know – it remains infinitely beyond us. Mystery in this sense is no longer “hands off” so much as it is “impossible to lay hands on.” When we perceive that about the universe, we tend to fall silent and move with measured care, much as we instinctively do when we enter a temple.

      • In your piece and your comments about sacredness you express concerns that if Big History is viewed as the narrative core that it might become or at least that some folks might fear that it could become like the Bible, dogmatic, unquestionable, unchangeable holy scripture. I think one of the things that is really holding back paganism and pantheism is a fear of becoming like Christians.

        Sacredness can be such a vague word. Sacredness as I understand it in its original context was that which in someway belonged to the gods. Any object, space or activity which was dedicated to the gods would be considered sacred and also any exceptionally beautiful, majestic, powerful, or otherwise unusual places would also likely be considered sacred, as naturally belonging to a god. That which was sacred was to be respected, revered, and kept free from pollution, but IMO sacredness in its original context did not imply perfection or unquestionable, unchangeable truth. The Bible is considered by some Christians to be inerrant not because it is sacred, but because they believe it was actually written by God through man. IMO the motivation for this claim has more to do with politics than any inherent characteristic of religion.

        If Big History is the narrative core of religious naturalism than it is that which is sacred because it is at the heart of the religion. But I do think we need to remember that what is “truly sacred” is not our current understanding of Big History or any particular telling of it but the Universe itself and its/our journey to becoming, Perhaps we should make a distinction between that which is sacred and that which is divine. We might say that those objects, spaces, or activities dedicated to religion are sacred and should be respected and “set apart” from the secular, but these are not that which is divine. It is Nature herself in all her multifaceted forms that is divine.

        I think our current understanding of Big History is solid enough that we can confidently develop new religious traditions based on it. But I still think it is important as you say to remember the “provisional nature of science”, to remember that we are human and that our understanding and our ability to communicate this understanding will always be incomplete and to some extent flawed. I really like what you said here: “No matter how much we learn about the universe, there is always so much more we don’t know – it remains infinitely beyond us. Mystery in this sense is no longer “hands off” so much as it is “impossible to lay hands on.” When we perceive that about the universe, we tend to fall silent and move with measured care, much as we instinctively do when we enter a temple.”

        • >I think one of the things that is really holding back paganism and pantheism is a fear of becoming like Christians.

          Well, I do think it is critical to avoid repeating the mistakes of the past. That’s one reason why I find it so sad that Paganism is turning in the direction of hard theism, like most of Christianity, because when I joined Paganism I thought it was a really truly radical, progressive religion that would not replace one unprovable faith-based deity with another. Not so, I’m finding. Not so.

          Christian-bashing does little good, but I think it is vital that we take care not to become “like” Christians in certain ways. Specifically, the ways that it is no longer functional and fulfilling in our modern context and lives.

  2. I like how you went back to the root metaphors covered earlier. Big History is definitely at the core of most naturalistic practices. The quote you included by Neil deGrasse Tyson (a personal favorite of mine) sums it up quite well.

    • By the way, if you follow the Tyson link, you can watch him live (I transcribed the text from a Youtube video)!

  3. I would like to recommend “Journey of the Universe” by Brain Swimme and Mary Tucker ( I just listened to the audio version this weekend, and it was so good I’m going to get a text version too. This book was published last year (June 2011) and is fairly short, only 175 pages or just under 3 hours audio time. One of things that really stands out for me is the way Swimme and Tucker speak about the Universe and its inhabitants. What they say is (as far as I understand it) scientifically accurate, but they speak about the Universe in a way that conveys an integrity of beingness. This is very different form most scientific descriptions, which speak of nature as an it conveying an underling metaphor of nature as machine. This subtle shift in language is one of the most significant and potentially transforming aspects of evolutionary spirituality.

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