Historically, the world “cosmology” has been used to refer either to the scientific study of the origin and evolution of universe or to religious myths about creation. But there is an emerging non-theistic cosmology which brings these two meanings together. It is called “The Great Story” — the 14 billion year narrative of the evolution of the cosmos, the planet Earth, biological life, and human culture. Connie Barlow explains the significance of the Great Story:
“Tell me a creation story more wondrous than the miracle of a living cell forged from the residue of an exploding star! Tell me a story of transformation more magical than that of a fish hauling out onto land and becoming amphibian, or a reptile taking to the sky and becoming bird, or a bear slipping back into the sea and becoming whale! If this science-based culture, of all cultures, cannot find meaning and cause for celebration in its very own cosmic creation story, then we are sorely impoverished indeed.”
The Great Story has been told in many ways, by Thomas Berry, Brian Swimme, Michael Dowd and Connie Barlow, and others, and it has been called by many names, like “the Universe Story,” “the Epic of Evolution,” and “Big History.”
The Great Story is a cosmology, combining logos (science) and kosmos (a storied universe). Brianne Swimme describes it as “scientific in its data, mythic in its form”. The Great Story “honors both objective truth and subjective meaning,” writes Michael Dowd. According to Russell Merle Gene, it “bridges science and religion, fact and value, and it smoothly blends the scientifically objective with the culturally relative.”
It is a myth, in the best sense of that word, but one that happens to be scientifically accurate; it is a narrative that orders our world, helps us understand our place in it, shows us how to live meaningful lives, and enables us to come to terms with our own finitude.
The Great Story teaches us where we came from:
“[E]very one of our body’s atoms is traceable to the big bang and to the thermonuclear furnace within high-mass stars. We are not simply in the universe, we are part of it. We are born from it. One might even say we have been empowered by the universe to figure itself out — and we have only just begun.” (Neil deGrasse Tyson, “The Greatest Story Ever Told”)
“Not only do we live among the stars, the stars live within us,” writes Neil deGrasse Tyson. And if we consider that the ancients believed the stars were gods, then we might say that “not only do we live among the gods, the gods live within us.”
The Great Story teaches the meaning of our existence: We are the universe coming to know itself. And if you are a pantheist, like me, then that means we are also God/dess coming to know Herself.
The Great Story teaches us that there is something greater than ourselves: The evolutionary process of life transcends all of us — but it is an immensity that we are a part of and share in the dignity of, as Neil deGrasse Tyson has explained:
“[W]hen I look up at the night sky, and I know that yes we are part of this universe, we are in this universe, but perhaps more important than both of those facts is that the universe is in us. When I reflect on that fact, I look up — many people feel small, cause their small and the universe is big. But I feel big because my atoms came from those stars.”
The Great Story teaches us that we are all connected:
“[T]he 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 rich guts into the galaxy, enriching pristine gas clouds with the chemistry of life. So that we are all connected to each other biologically, to the earth chemically and to the rest of the universe atomically.” (Neil deGrasse Tyson)
And from these lessons emerges a new “global ethos” (in the words of Ursula Goodenough), one informed both by the recognition of the uniqueness of our evolved consciousness and by the appreciation of our interconnectedness with all life, an ethic of care for and responsibility to all forms of life.
The Great Story is the response to the reductionist mentality which posits that the more we know about the universe, the less meaning it seems to have. What Maria Montessori said in 1948 about the power of story for children applies with equal force to adults:
“Educationalists in general agree that imagination is important, but they would have it cultivated as separate from intelligence, just as they would separate the latter from the activity of the hand. They are the vivisectionists of the human personality. In the school they want children to learn dry facts of reality, while their imagination is cultivated by fairy tales, concerned with a world that is certainly full of marvels, but not the world around them in which they live. On the other hand, by offering the child the story of the universe, we give him something a thousand times more infinite and mysterious to reconstruct with his imagination, a drama no fable can reveal.”
“The evolutionary epic is probably the best myth we will ever have,” wrote Edward O. Wilson in 1978. It is, without exaggeration, the Greatest Story Ever Told.
It is a sacred story. It is sacred because it imbues the world and its beings with value which transcends their utilitarian usefulness to us. It is sacred because it occupies the same place in our lives which other sacred stories occupy in the lives of other religious people. It is sacred because it inspires humility, gratitude, and reverence.
It is a story that which makes it possible to be both a religious person and a scientific naturalist. As Ursula Goodenough explains, “a religious naturalist is a naturalist who has adopted the epic as a core narrative and goes on to explore its religious potential, developing interpretive, spiritual and moral/ethical responses to the story.”
The Destiny of Earthseed is the next chapter in the Great Story: While the Great Story tells us how we got here, it is not very specific in telling us how to use the amazing gifts that evolution has bestowed upon us. That is where the Destiny comes in. The Destiny of Earthseed is to take root among the stars, to discover and to live and to thrive on new earths. I see the Destiny as the next chapter in the Great Story. The next step in the Great Story is take these wonderful brains that the universe has evolved and set them to the task of fulfilling the Destiny:
We are Earthseed. We are flesh—self aware,
questing, problem-solving flesh. We are that
aspect of Earthlife best able to shape God
knowingly. We are Earthlife maturing, Earthlife
preparing to fall away from the parent world.
We are Earthlife preparing to take root in
new ground, Earthlife fulfilling its purpose,
its promise, its Destiny.
∞ = Δ