Sunday, 11 March 2012

Sunday Sermon: Big History

Everything, constant companion and comforter, bless those who read these words, that they divide well any which might be profitable from any which are dross. Amen.

For thousands of years people have been attending their respective houses of worship. Last week I discussed some of the social, pragmatic reasons that the practice might be beneficial, leaving doctrinal content and its controversies aside.

One of the personal reasons people go to church (or whatever) is to punctuate the week of work, family and necessity with a moment of consideration of the big picture; to touch the infinite, to transcend to a higher reality. The community of a house of worship - indeed the community of the earth - has this larger perspective in common, even when it has nothing else in common. This big picture is a big story, the story of all of us, our world and our universe, with origins, eras, moments of great change and of great revelation. It is a story that isn't finished, and there is hope that it has a long way to go. It is a story in which, in some minuscule way, we are all characters, and may make choices, enact actions and say sayings which, in some minuscule way, are part of this great endless dance, and which impact on the whole.

It seems to me to be a part of the nature of humans that we have answers, and we share them and believe them, more or less on a tribal or group-think basis. What I mean is that I don't think there was ever a time when if someone asked, "Where does the sun go after dark?" everyone would look at each other and say, "Well we just don't know. Some have thought about it but we just haven't got any conclusive evidence as to where it goes, sorry. Let us know if you come up with anything." Individuals may well declare that they don't need answers, but collectively I don't think we're capable of proceeding without a full complement of answers to any question that arises more than once. The idea of systematically answering, "we don't know" to many questions is very modern, generally speaking.

Every human society has narratives about everything. Interestingly a lot of early ethnographic research into belief systems is now held suspect because it appears the researchers often asked questions which were Eurocentric to begin with and not necessarily relevant to these traditional society's lives. The interesting thing to note is that the subjects of the research didn't ever say, "Oh we don't really have beliefs about that", but rather (especially as they were supposed to be authorities) just generated the 'traditional' answers on the spot. Answers, like words themselves, generate themselves spontaneously, regardless of whether there is any evidence available or any previous teacher behind them.

The beginning of the Bible is a narrative about some big picture questions for which, we might smugly observe, the writers really had no proper knowledge: the origin of the world, of life and of humans, along with an attempt to explain some of the persistent oddities of our nature. In terms of answers we might call these chapters of Genesis pretty hopeless, but we must also concede that the writers had no way of knowing better. It is hardly remarkable, given the fluid and spontaneous, generative nature of language, that these ancient people had answers. Indeed from around the world we have thousands of narratives about origins.

There may be strong psychological reasons why we need these answers, this narrative. David Christian's, Maps of Time: An Introduction to Big History (2004) "attempts to assemble a coherent and accessible account of origins, a modern creation myth," as the lack of such an account "contributes to the subtle but pervasive quality of disorientation in modern life that the pioneering French sociologist Emile Durkheim referred to as "anomie": the sense of not fitting in, which is an inescapable condition of those who have no conception of what they are supposed to fit into."

The book takes us from the Big Bang to the present, using the best possible evidence from a large variety of fields, accessibly and with the big universal themes in mind. I have my issues with it, but it remains the best attempt to present such a sweeping history of us all that I have read. I've placed a link to the Big History Project in the sidebar.

Earlier I used the word 'revelation'. We certainly have no need for a supernatural agent to recognise that things have been revealed to us since the writing of the Bible. In terms of the Genesis type questions, about origins and human nature, all religious thought from now on will be considered pre-Darwin or post-Darwin, such is the profound impact Darwinian evolution has had. In any case revelation is real, and we depend upon it for many things. In terms of how it occurs in the human mind it's still pretty mysterious, but we proceed with full expectation that yet more will be revealed about Everything.

My main sort-of criticism of David Christian's book is that he insists so much on a fairly classical materialism that as his narrative comes closer to modern history the accelerating, accumulating streams, hubs and centres of 'information', which are a theme throughout the book, never get to become a new objective level of reality with its own complex metabolism and directionality. It's not that he does not discuss, in turn, the origins of language and the origins of writing, but it is the freshly cumulative and purposive quality of these developments - what I call logos - which I feel needs to be explored in a separate and fullsome way. For Christian, it remains 'information', merely faster and more voluminous than before.

Well I think I set out intending to write a bit about a modern cosmology but I can see I haven't really talked about it at all. I have merely talked about the idea of a modern cosmology and perhaps that is appropriate enough. It is not for the House to engineer new orthodoxies after all, but merely to help show the way a bit, to point out that science, among other literary forms, is the revelation of God, and that the living, unfolding word of God is available to anyone who would care to explore it.

A deep value that I would have The House of Everything uphold and promote is education, from literacy where that is needed through to a lifetime of self-education and improvement. I don't think there is any transcendental duty we have to read, learn and search for knowledge and meaning. Nor do I think people who are smart or highly educated are better than others. But humbly, to myself and any readers, I would suggest that we not fear knowledge, that we not fear our own ignorance, that we ask the question when we don't know so that we then know, or at least know why we don't, and especially that we never belittle others who seek to know.

The philosophers, academics, scientists, researchers and engineers of all types are on the coalface of revelation, of the knowledge of God. Perhaps, somewhere in our prayers or ritual, we should give them a formal moment of thanks for their continued efforts.

Everything, I do fear I have rambled a bit this morning. I pray that my words be of benign impact to anyone who has read them, whether it be a profitable insight, a grindstone for criticism and hence clarity, or merely some lightly intellectual entertainment and stimulation. If there is anything I have wrong, either in detail or in broader thrust, let that be quickly transparent, that none be deceived. Amen.

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