The standard model of cosmology tells us that the universe began with a bang 13.7 billion years ago, give or take a few million. Quite a few things have happened over the vast eons of time since that initial explosion, including a fairly impressive evolutionary process leading from quarks to atoms to stars to planets to amoebas to apes to us. Of course, most of us don’t go about our business consumed by thoughts of cosmic gigantitude, so aside from blowing our little ape-derived minds for a few moments every now and then, this kind of information doesn’t usually have much effect on how we live our daily lives.
But according to the evolutionarily inspired Christian evangelist Michael Dowd, that lack of a deeper connection to our epic cosmic history is precisely why our contemporary culture is more spiritually aimless and existentially distracted than any that has come before. With so many of us having seen through the myths of the great religious traditions, we now lack a shared, universally approved creation story and metaphysical narrative explaining who we are and why we’re here—the awe-inspiring spiritual glue that traditionally binds cultures together.
In a lengthy new article on The Huffington Post titled “Big History Hits the Big Time,” Dowd laments the lack of a similar spiritually inspiring “myth” for our time, while suggesting we may find one if we start paying more attention to science and history in a big way:
As philosopher-of-religion Loyal Rue poignantly describes in several of his books, the generations in charge of modern states and culture today are among the first to be plagued with an altogether new cultural malady. He calls this devastating psychological condition amythia.
For lack of a believable mythic narrative (creation story) that could embed modern and postmodern humans in a storied landscape of proud ancestry, meaningful identity, and life purpose, we are living short-changed lives. All too easily we succumb to the ultimately unsatisfying allurements of consumerism and addictive “supernormal stimuli.” The plethora of prescriptions for antidepressants among those adequately fed, clothed, and housed is one sure sign that something is seriously amiss.
Science uninterpreted and history explained only in isolated chunks offer no cure for this cultural malaise.
Enter what has only recently come to be known as “Big History” — the scholarly enterprise of discerning patterns and meaningful storylines in the 13.7-billion-year saga of everyone and everything (a.k.a., the Universe Story, the Epic of Evolution, or the Great Story).
To flesh out what he means by “Big History”—his proposed antidote to our modern plague of “amythia”—Dowd includes a video he had produced to promote his website and his book, Thank God for Evolution:
The rest of Dowd’s post is devoted to an evocative review of the same evolutionary sequence as detailed in the Natural History Channel’s program “History of the World in Two Hours,” followed by other pieces of evidence suggesting that the topic of Big History is finally hitting the big time, at least in academia. But if educators can be lit up with the grand evolutionary vision, Dowd believes that it’s only a matter of time before the entertainment industry follows, which is the only surefire route to awakening the masses to this new “Great Story.” He writes:
Edutainment at the scale and sophistication of History of the World in Two Hours utterly depends on scholars (and popularizers) who search for credible patterns that span millions (even billions) of years and disparate disciplines. To construct a globally relevant and fully evidence-based creation story absolutely demands contributions from the fields of astrophysics and chemistry, geology and paleontology, archeology and anthropology, and from the full temporal and spatial range of human history. The grand epic of physical evolution, biological evolution, and cultural evolution thus brings the entire universe into a university-level general studies program. More, all pieces, all episodes cohere. Meaning emerges, embedding students in a cosmos no longer alien.
It is the role of Big History as a scholarly endeavor in its own right to encourage a symbiosis of sorts amongst all these fields. The focus is on finding the patterns — the patterns that not only make sense of the whole shebang but that launch a frontal assault on the plague of amythia.
You can read the entire post here, which also includes a series of further-reading links and a fascinating TED Talks video of Big History advocate Professor David Christian, author of Maps of Time and cofounder—with Bill Gates—of the Big History Project.