The Dispatch: More from CWR...

Big History and the Church

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?

(Image: David Clode | Unsplash.com)

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.


If you value the news and views Catholic World Report provides, please consider donating to support our efforts. Your contribution will help us continue to make CWR available to all readers worldwide for free, without a subscription. Thank you for your generosity!

Click here for more information on donating to CWR. Click here to sign up for our newsletter.


About Thomas M. Doran 61 Articles
Thomas M. Doran is the author of the Tolkien-inspired Toward the Gleam (Ignatius Press, 2011), and its 2018 sequel, The Lucifer Ego. He has worked on hundreds of environmental projects for four decades. He’s a Fellow of The Engineering Society of Detroit and was an adjunct professor of civil/environmental engineering at Lawrence Technological University.

5 Comments

  1. Doran writes: “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’ [….] 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…”

    Two thoughts, here:

    FIRST, we need bishops and laity, both, who are claimed by the same original fire that transfigured the first apostles. G.K. Chesterton says it this way:

    “Those runners [messengers of the Gospel] gather impetus as they run. Ages afterwards they still speak as if something had just happened. They have not lost the speed and momentum of messengers; they have hardly lost, as it were, the wild eyes of witnesses. . . .We might sometimes fancy that the Church grows younger as the world grows old” (The Everlasting Man).

    SECOND, in the trenches we need a “culturally wise” balance more than a one-legged elephant. Example: moralizing about Solidarity too often at the expense of its necessary complement—Subsidiarity. Or, in Amazonia too much apostate (!) rhapsodizing about the “care of God’s creation”—-an urgent concern—-even to the extent of sucking up to a fictive Mother Nature.

    That is, at the expense of the real Catholic Social Teaching…This truth-centered and more faceted teaching—-discerned “in response to social pressures”—-keeps us “catholic” by proclaiming not an exploitable political list, but a moral theology of mutually-correcting binaries:

    The transcendent Dignity of each person PLUS the Common Good,
    Solidarity PLUS Subsidiarity and the Family,
    Rights PLUS Responsibilities,
    Faithful Citizenship PLUS Informed Conscience,
    Option for the “poor” PLUS the Dignity of work, and
    All of these PLUS care for an intermingled Creation that comes from God.

  2. Good points and let us hope and pray that , enough familiarity with hearing The Word , esp. where it is meant to be heard , such as at the Holy Mass would touch hearts .
    IIRR, St.Faustina seems to never mention any complaints about the homilies , yet , little gems of insight from the Holy Spirit, in her Diary , such as how she can be led into more sanctity , by meditating on The Passion and such ..
    and to think that all those graces she was given is also for us for the asking , in trust , which would be hard to do , when we have invited in the accusatory spirits again , to put blame on someone ..
    Let us also see the incidents such as Elisha cursing the kids who mocked him, and the bears that appeared to devour them , what The Spirit wants us to take in ..

    Those kids could only see his bald head that they interpreted as lacking in glory ..
    Adam and Eve , said to have been clothed in beams of light , instead of hairs , before The Fall ..and every morning , the fathers are given the occasion to ask for
    mercy and for wisdom to guard the gates , while tilling away the remnants of
    The Fall, that appear as hairs 🙂
    Elisha , who was doubly anointed …let us entrust our children , our families ,
    to the Holy family , to St.Joseph , to deliver us all , from the bears of the spirits of scorn and mockery , that see only the baldness , esp. in those who are likely more than doubly anointed ..
    The mothers , the parents of those children who were torn by the bears would have grieved ..
    We have a Mother , who is entrusted to protect us from occasions of such ..
    and to grieve with the millions who have lost children to the devouring bears ..
    and a Holy Father , who too is not indifferent to that cry , from far away places such as China as well, thus wants to reach in , to gather all the tears , along with that of The Mother ..that would not be refused ..but as reparation for all the scorn against the gift of life , brought in by the enemy lies about reincarnation and all related lies ..
    St.Chrysostom, bless us and pray for us all , to protect us all from every spirit of lie, pride and scorn, instead to receive the blessing , in the life giving Word .

  3. The history of the teachings of the Catholic Church reveal this fact:

    Christ instituted one Church, not many churches. That Church is the Catholic Church outside of which there is no salvation. The Church has never, and could never teach that false religions are paths to salvation.

    It is the so-called leaders of the Church who abandoned the true faith and began teaching a new, false religion which has been rejected by millions.

  4. Perfect response. Clear analogy for a person like me impassioned by history.
    I spent many hours with my grandmother and her sisters reliving their father’s service in the War Between the States. Same War different flags. A greater good resulted .
    I truly get the parallels you describe so well.
    Thank you
    Trusting in His mercy

  5. “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)”

    If this is apologetics, I think it fails miserably. We might as well consider how Baal,Molech or Astarte worshipers are moving in the same direction, toward the same destination. Is it any wonder why people (especially young people) are leaving the church in droves?!

1 Trackback / Pingback

  1. Big History and the Church -

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

All comments posted at Catholic World Report are moderated. While vigorous debate is welcome and encouraged, please note that in the interest of maintaining a civilized and helpful level of discussion, comments containing obscene language or personal attacks—or those that are deemed by the editors to be needlessly combative or inflammatory—will not be published. Thank you.


*