Over the past two centuries scientists have learned that the universe is a story still being told. New scientific awareness of the long cosmic preamble to human history has inspired attempts recently to connect the relatively short span of our own existence to the longer epic of the universe. These efforts, known as Big History, try to tell the story of everything that has taken place in the past, including what was going on in the universe long before Homo sapiens arrived.
Big History scholars deflate the human story by placing it against the backdrop of the universe’s spatial and temporal immensity. This is a useful point of view, but not the only one. The universe, after all, includes subjects, hidden centers of experience whose significance cannot be measured by science or captured by purely historical reporting. What is needed, I believe, is a narrative that tells the whole cosmic story, inside as well as outside. Startlingly absent from Big History so far, for example, is a sense of how religion fits into the cosmic story. My forthcoming book, The New Cosmic Story: Inside Our Awakening Universe, is an attempt to address this omission. In it I argue that we cannot expect to understand well what is going on in cosmic history apart from a careful examination of what goes on in the interior striving of life that reaches the zenith of its intensity in humanity’s spiritual adventures.
From the start, the cosmic story has carried with it, at least faintly, a scientifically inaccessible lining of what Pierre Teilhard de Chardin (1881-1955) calls “insideness.” The cosmos is in fact a story of emerging interiority. In the case of humans, this cosmic awakening has become palpably manifest in our many passions, our sense of freedom, ethical aspiration, and aesthetic sensitivity—but especially in our religious longing for meaning and truth. The story of the universe, I argue, is no less about emerging subjectivity than about the movement of atoms, molecules, cells, and social groups. With the relatively recent arrival of distinctly religious experience in cosmic history, the universe is awakening to horizons previously unknown. If Big History were to include in its survey the totality of cosmic history, it would have to find a way to connect the outer sequence of physical events to the drama of awakening going on inside. In a special way, it would have to ask what religion tells us about the universe out of which it has recently come to birth.
In my new book I reflect on the cosmic meaning of religion as well as on the religious meaning of the cosmos. I argue that the virtual elimination of subjectivity from the cosmos by modern and contemporary thought renders most contemporary versions of Big History intolerably thin. From the perspective of physics the cosmos may look like a process of heat exchanges and energy transformations, but if we look deep inside we shall see that the universe has given rise, at least on Earth, to beings eager to understand where they came from, where they are going, and what they should be doing with their lives. Indeed, in the coming of religion the whole cosmos is now awakening worshipfully to the reality of a rightness that abides forever.