Big History and the Religious Perspective

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What connections could exist between Big History and the religious perspective? The answer is more than plenty. If Big History is defined as “the attempt to understand, in a unified, interdisciplinary way, the history of the Cosmos, Earth, Life, and Humanity[1], then the parallels to the concerns of someone like St. Augustine are rather striking. For my purposes, the religious perspective as it is related to Big History will be defined as an attempt to understand the common history of humanity and the cosmos as being guided by divine providence.

For good or ill, religion has served as a powerful force in human history and continues to do so to this day.  It also represents many of mankind’s highest aspirations in varying degrees. Sociologist of religion Peter L. Berger argues:

“[t]he religious impulse, the quest for meaning that transcends the restricted space of empirical existence in this world, has been a perennial feature of humanity . . . It would require something close to a mutation of the species to extinguish this impulse for good.”[2]

So regardless of one’s personal religious beliefs, such perspectives should not be neglected, but rather should be explored in order to further develop Big History by adding a new dimension from which scholars may engage its subject matter; that is from a more philosophical and theological point of view.

So what is the religious perspective? What follows will be a brief but hopefully still comprehensive attempt to summarize the historical developments of these religious meditations on the nature and meaning of history. Special attention will be given to the Abrahamic faiths, since it is within these traditions, beginning with Judaism, that a more central focus on the divine significance of history presents itself.

A common characteristic of the religions of the ancient world, in particular the Ancient Near East (Sumeria, Babylon, Egypt, etc.), was the idea of time consisting of endless cycles of birth, death, and rebirth of the cosmos. This was seen as a larger scale imitation of the cycle of seasons or even the daily rising and setting of the sun. Historian of religion Mircea Eliade referred to this concept as the “myth of the eternal return”.  Then around the second half of the first millennium B.C.E., there emerged new conceptions of time in a period known as “the Axial Age.” It was from this time period that many of the world’s great religions emerged from Judaism to Christianity to Buddhism, Confucianism, Taoism, and so on. One of the revolutionary concepts to emerge from this era was the proposition of time being linear in nature as opposed to being of endless cycles. This would have significant influence on the development of historical consciousness, for example the modern concept of progress is based upon a linear conception of time. This linear concept of time finds expression in the Abrahamic imaginings of time, but also in other faiths of this time period such as Zoroastrianism (the religion of ancient Persia until the Islamic conquests of around the 7th century CE).

Judaism was the first of the major Abrahamic faiths to mark its place in world history. From the Jewish perspective: God had chosen a particular people in history as the means through which his work would be fulfilled to the world. Huston Smith, a scholar of world religions, summarizes the Jewish perspective as follows:

“To the Jews history was of towering significance…God was the ruler of history; nothing, therefore, happened by accident. His hand was at work in every event – in Eden, the Flood, the Tower of Babel, the years in the wilderness – shaping each sequence into a teaching experience for those who had the wit to learn.”[3]

This Jewish vision of history reaches its fullest expressions in the apocalyptic visions of the Old Testament prophets; who were among the first to proclaim that history was not just a series of random meaningless events, but had a deeper meaning and purpose.

This foundation would be further developed once Christianity emerged in the first century. With Christianity, a new emphasis on the centrality of history was provided with the concept of the Incarnation, the theological notion that God had become man in the form of Jesus Christ; which marks him as the very centre and final fulfillment of history as a whole[4].

The final word on the meaning of history within the New Testament is found in the apocalyptic visions of the Book of Revelations, the last book of the Bible. Inspired by the catastrophes of the Jewish Revolt of 66 C.E. which resulted in the destruction of the Great Temple in Jerusalem, as well as the struggles of the early church; the Book of Revelations sought to give a sense of comfort and hope to the early Christians that such trials would not last and a greater glory would manifest itself. A parallel exists here to the role such visions played in the Old Testament, to give comfort and hope to the Jews in face of repeated wars, exile, and persecution. Yet behind all the vivid imagery of such visions of the end of the world lies a deeper point, as explained by Russian philosopher Nikolai Berdyaev: “History has meaning because it comes to an end . . . the true philosophy of history is eschatological in nature: that is to say, the historical process ought to be understood in the light of the end . . . ”[5] A great parallel can be drawn here to the concerns of Big Historians over “future history” concerning the extinction of species and the destruction of the world due to dying out of the sun.

A few centuries later with the sack of Rome in 410 C.E., this notion of history having meaning in light of its final endpoint was greatly articulated when St. Augustine of Hippo wrote his monumental work the City of God, perhaps the most influential text in Western theology second only to the Bible. St. Augustine’s main point was that the final survival of the Roman Empire was irrelevant in the grand scheme of history, and that one should not place too much faith in earthly kingdoms. Although deserving of one’s civil allegiances, man’s ultimate focus should be on the kingdom to come, the City of God. The rise and fall of empires and states, the traditional focus of history, was of secondary importance to the higher processes of man’s salvation.  The greater impact of St. Augustine’s work on the historical consciousness of the Western world at least cannot be overestimated. Just as Alfred Whitehead famously remarked that all Western philosophy is mere footnotes to Plato, one could say that all philosophy of history is mere footnotes to St. Augustine. A parallel could be drawn between St. Augustine’s sense of salvation history and the emphasis placed on the common developments of humanity in the Big History of Humanity; despite the obvious contrast of a religious perspective with a scientific perspective but still dealing with a similar subject matter.

Yet meditations on the universal history of humanity and its deeper meanings are not confined to Judaism and Christianity. In the fourteenth century, Ibn Khaldun provided an Islamic narrative of universal history with the Muqaddimah. As with his Christian counterpart, St. Augustine, Ibn Khaldun’s wider impact has been considerable as well, and is often hailed as a precursor to modern sociology (since Khaldun examines the basic nature of societies, in particular that of the Berber nomads of northern Africa).

Yet such religious meditations upon the deeper meanings of history are not confined to the past, for the traumatic events of the 20th century inspired a great renewal of work in this field by religious scholars of various backgrounds. This was in order to make sense of the catastrophic events of that century; the two World Wars, the Holocaust, the rise of totalitarian regimes, the demise of the old system of international affairs in wake of the emerging Cold War, among many others.

Religious scholars from this period who sought were to probe into the deeper meanings of history included men like Reinhold Niebuhr, Christopher Dawson, Herbert Butterfield, Eric Voegelin, Pitrim Sorokin, Josef Peiper, and many others. Even more secular minded scholars like Karl Löwith (although originally from a Jewish background) argued about the important legacy of theological presuppositions on the development of modern philosophies of history, such as Hegel’s to give the most famous example. Even Arnold Toynbee, author of the multivolume A Study of History, was inspired by a nominal religious sensibility and argued for the importance of religions to the evolution of civilizations. Even into the 21st century, there are still scholars who address the grand themes of history from a religious perspective. Here’s a brief overview of a few scholars and their works.

Brendan Purcell is one scholar of particular interest, whose latest work demonstrates the contemporary developments within religious scholarship towards big history themes, as can be readily detected in its title From Big Bang to Big Mystery: Human Origins in the Light of Creation and Evolution. Although admittedly addressing issues of the meaning and nature of human existence from a philosophical angle, Purcell does not negate the latest scientific evidence regarding evolutionary processes but rather admits to addressing “the relation between revelation, the natural sciences, and philosophy . . . ”[6] He constantly argues that rather than being mutually exclusive – science and the Christian account of creation (when properly understood) are in reality rather complimentary.

Another scholar whose recent work touches upon themes related to Big History is Robert Bellah, a distinguished sociologist of religion. His recently published book Religion in Human Evolution: From the Paleolithic to the Axial Age could easily be classified as a big history of religion, at least the early history of religion. It begins with the Big Bang and continues onto the pivotal Axial Age mentioned earlier. Considerable parallels do exist between Bellah’s account of the evolution of early religion and certain perspectives related to the Big History of Humanity. Bellah himself acknowledges this connection, even admitting his title as an influence of David Christian.[7] Bellah argues that religion is built into human nature by evolutionary processes. If so, then the study of religion and religious history provides a key element to the study of big history of humanity.

The concept of the convergence of Big History and religious perspectives is not necessarily new, but has already been acknowledged by leading figures such as David Christian and Craig Benjamin. Both men have argued for the need of a new creation myth to help underground human understanding of the cosmos and where it came from, for such narratives “speak to our deep spiritual, psychic and social need for a sense of place and a sense of belonging.”[8] No doubt an understanding of creation that takes into account both the latest science and theology and still addresses the concerns of contemporary society is certainly very viable.

A common thread between Big History and the religious perspective is a common focus on history from its very beginnings right to its very end (or potential end at least). There is also the common thread of focusing on the fate of humanity as a whole, and stressing the commonality of humanity. The concern with the deeper meanings of history is another common feature of both. There is also the common critique of the post-modern rejection of metanarratives, and with a related assertion of the importance of myths and symbolism to human growth.

So the question for Big Historians to address is how exactly they should proceed in dealing with these already existing parallel developments within religious scholarship. Do they wish to embrace them and seek greater common ground, or perhaps maybe shy away from them? No doubt there will be considerable debate about these issues.

It should be stress that Big History can still emerge as a scientific field of study whilst still having a healthy inclusion for religious viewpoints. When the scientific and religious are both understood in their proper contexts, the two perspectives need not inherently be in conflict. Big History could even indeed emerge as vital platform for the continual dialogue between not just science and religion, but also even between different religions themselves. The religious-based narratives of Universal History can serve as a vital foundation for such a platform. Universal History can be interpreted as both a precursor as well as a parallel field to Big History with considerable overlaps involved.

Major themes within Universal History that concern the deeper meanings of history, how we as humans think about history, as well as the centrality of history within with big picture are serious issues Big Historians should engage with on a significant level. This has relevance not just to make sense of Big History to those approaching it from a religious background,  it also help develop certain paradigms through which Big History could be explored. Big History’s grand scale of inquiry inevitably lends itself to a variety of perspectives, and this most certainly will mean a subsequent development within Big History of more religious-influenced paradigms. This development in some ways is already underway, as indicated by David Christian’s own references to Big History serving as a “modern creation myth.”

The use of this phrase “modern creation myth” can be further interpreted in another manner. The scholarly work of Pitirim Sorokin was briefly referenced to earlier, and a major theme of his work was the cyclic interplay between within social evolutionary dynamics between more materialist “Sensate” forms of societies and more spiritual “Ideational” forms, with “Idealistic” forms that attempt to synthesize both forms. To briefly summarize, Sorokin argued that the modern world has been governed by a “Sensate” dynamic but it was reaching a crisis point which would give birth to a more spiritual “Ideational” form of culture.[9] It could be possible that the very interpretation of Big History as a “modern creation myth” is one indication of this evolutionary dynamic being underway. If this is the case, it further underlines the importance of Big History to take seriously religion and religious arguments.

This is only addressing only the most rudimentary elements of this issue. There are so many nuances to address it’s difficult to do so within a single paper. Yet all arguments presented here are intended to spark much lively discussion within Big History on the perplexing topic of the place of religion and religious-based perspectives within the field. This kind debate within Big History should not necessarily be seen as a negative, for it could lead to vibrant discourse within the field. Many Big Historians may take a positive attitude towards religion; others may take a more negative view. Such a plurality of viewpoints is commonplace within any other scholarly field of research, and Big History will no doubt be no exception.

 

Notes

[1] International Big History Association http://www90.homepage.villanova.edu/lowell.gustafson/bighistory/index.html Accessed May 08, 2012

[2] “The Desecularization of the World: A Global Overview”, The Descularization of the World: Resurgent Religion and World Politics, edited by Peter L. Berger 1999 pg. 13

[3] The Religions of Man. Harper and Row. 1958 pg.266,267

[4] Lowith, Karl. Meaning in History. University of Chicago Press. 1949 pg. 182

[5] Cited in Main Currents of Western Thought: Readings in Western European Intellectual History from the Middle Ages to the Present Fourth Edition Yale University Press pg.771

[6] From Big Bang to Big Mystery: Human Origins in the Light of Creation and Evolution Pg. 15-16

[7] Religion in Human Evolution Pg. 45

[8] Cited in Benjamin, Craig G.R., ‘The Convergence of Logic, Faith and Values in the Modern Creation Myth’. World History Connected 6.3 (2009): 19 pars. 9 May 2012 <http://worldhistoryconnected.press.illinois.edu/6.3/benjamin2.html>.

[9] Sorokin summarized this thesis in The Crisis of Our Age, originally published in 1941 but reprinted in 1992 by Oneworld Publications. His multi-volume work Social and Cultural Dynamics sought to outline a more general study of the interplay of the varying dynamics in social evolution.

 

This was originally published in Origins VIII.2 (April 2018): 45-48

Stephen Satkiewicz

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Stephen Satkiewicz is the current editor of the newsletter for the International Society for the Comparative Study of Civilizations (ISCSC). He is also a student at Oakland University in Michigan.