I recently listened to a series of lectures that proposed to view the universe and time from a Big History perspective, not as an ant inside a fold in an elephant’s hide would perceive the animal, but seeing the entire elephant from a distance.
The speaker, bringing a secular perspective, limited himself to events and phenomena that changed the universe and planet Earth: The Big Bang, the formation of stars and planets, life on Earth, human life, the emergence of agrarian civilizations, the modern world where more change occurs in a year than thousands of years in the past.
What might we see if we removed ourselves from the “fold in the Church’s hide”, viewing the Church from a distance to see the “elephant” more clearly?
Starting with Jesus, our Big History begins with his uniqueness, not one in a string of wise teachers or grand social reformers. He claimed divinity; from the beginning, his followers understood he claimed to be divine, even if they didn’t fully comprehend what that meant; his enemies understood him to make that claim too, the chief reason for their enmity.
As C.S. Lewis famously asserts in Mere Christianity, Jesus is a liar, lunatic, or Lord. Jesus and the Church he founded demanded a choice, and strife has always ensued when people within the Church have tried to water down his divinity. Simon Leys, in The Hall of Uselessness, offers this insight:
…underlying the text of the Gospels, there is a masterly and powerful unity of style, which derives from one unique and inimitable voice; there is the presence of one singular and exceptional personality, whose expression is so original, so bold that one could positively call it impudent. Now, if you deny the existence of Jesus, you must transfer all these attributes to some obscure, anonymous writer, who should have had the improbable genius of inventing such a character—or, even more implausibly, you must transfer this prodigious capacity for invention to an entire committee of writers…if modern scholars, progressive-minded clerics, and the docile public all surrender to this critical erosion of the Scriptures, the last group of defenders who will obstinately maintain that there is a living Jesus at the central core of the Gospels will be made up of artists and creative writers, for whom the psychological evidence of style carries much more weight than mere philological arguments.
History, witnesses, enemies, style, tell us Jesus is unique. He demands a choice.
Up close, it can get muddled, but from a distance we might discern how the Church insists the Incarnate Son is the only path to the Father while acknowledging that non-Christians can get to heaven by following paths parallel to the path Jesus blazes. On these parallel paths, one may not see him for the obstructions between their path and his, but their lives, choices, the compass in their souls, keep them moving in the same direction, toward the same destination. Though the surest and clearest way is the path Jesus himself blazes, the Church tells us it’s possible for those on parallel paths to get there, because they ultimately exist because of the One who is the Way, the Truth, and the Life, who alone gives access to the Father (Jn 14:6):
Those also can attain to salvation who through no fault of their own do not know the Gospel of Christ or His Church, yet sincerely seek God and moved by grace strive by their deeds to do His will as it is known to them through the dictates of conscience. (Lumen Gentium, 16)
In secular culture today, conversion is a word that evokes images of narrow-minded, bloodthirsty Crusaders or Inquisition era enforcers, but history tells us the vast majority of Christian evangelists weren’t associated with kings or armies; they were often scorned and persecuted by those in power. Not to say kings and generals didn’t appropriate religion to reinforce their authority, but when we examine the lives of the evangelists we do not see puppets of the powerful. Instead, women and men, sacrificing much or all, with an ardent desire to help people live well in this world and get to heaven.
Speaking of “generals”, I see parallels between periods in Church history, including recent history, and the American Civil War. The Union had the right cause, but poor commanding officers (McClellan, Burnside, Hooker, Mead) with tactical (and over-cautious) perspectives, while the Confederacy had the wrong cause, but superior commanding officers (Lee, Jackson, Longstreet, Stuart) with big strategic perspectives. Too often, the Church’s “generals” are strategically overmatched by secular “generals” inimical to the faith. The Church needs more holy, culturally wise, strategic “generals” like Grant and Sheridan, and fewer McClellans and Burnsides.
From inside folds, we can miss that our elephant, with its long nose, big ears, small eyes, isn’t a consistent looking creature like a snake or a tree. Though the public mantra is the Church is anti-science (Galileo), anti-reason (heretic hunters), anti-art (except for pious art), from a distance we see all our elephant’s strange parts: a wealth of faithful scientists, philosophers, and artists who have vastly broadened human understanding and appreciation for the universe, first things, and beauty.
A secular reading of history, living inside the narrow folds of economic, tribal, environmental, epidemical explanations for human history, misses what the whole elephant reveals: when human beings allow themselves to explore the deepest matters (Old and New Testament Scripture and related spiritual texts), the questions are always the same: What is the purpose of life? What is the meaning of death? How should I live, why does God permit these afflictions?
Our big view of the elephant would reveal that abandonment of the Faith, as is happening in the here and now, has always occurred in response to societal pressures: a first culling when it’s no longer socially advantageous to be a believer; a second culling when it’s socially disadvantageous to be a believer; a third culling when the predominant culture and human respect seep into us, including prominent Christians, transforming us into mere earthlings: a fourth culling when it’s dangerous to be a believer; a culling in numbers, though not in the zeal and virtue of those who hold onto the faith.
We live and act in little history. That’s where God wants us to be, day by day faith and action, but Big History gives us a perspective: the “elephant” we can’t see from inside a fold.
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