The New Cosmic Story

Check out John Haught’s new book, The New Cosmic Story, which looks at the universe through the lens of Big History, taking us another step forward in pursuit of “The New Story.”   Haught is an advisor to The Teilhard de Chardin project.

John F. Haught, The New Cosmic Story: Inside Our Awakening Universe (New Haven: Yale University Press, October 2017). The following is adapted from the book’s Introduction.

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 locate—and 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. The New Cosmic Story 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 summit of its intensity in humanity’s spiritual adventures.

The story of the universe, I observe, is no less about emerging subjectivity than about the movement of atoms, molecules, cells, and social groups. From the start, the cosmic story has carried with it, at least faintly, a scientifically inaccessible lining of  “insideness.” The cosmos is in fact a story of awakening subjectivity. As far as we can tell, subjectivity burns most feverishly in humans, but it has also been emerging more quietly in the story of life—and implicitly throughout the whole cosmic journey—for billions of years prior to our own recent arrival. The cool detachment of science, however, never feels fully the heat of inner experience and the dramatic quality of its emergence. 

In the case of humans, the emergence of subjectivity 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. With the relatively recent arrival of distinctly religious experience in cosmic history, the universe is awakening to horizons previously unknown. The emergence of religious subjectivity is just as much part of the cosmic story as is the formation of atoms and galaxies. In The New Cosmic Story I reflect on the cosmic meaning of religion as well as on the religious meaning of the cosmos. 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. 

 Religion is still a relevant set of responses to these questions. In each chapter I therefore focus on one of twelve aspects of religion common to many traditions, asking what each distinct trait means in the context of an unfinished universe. Religious traditions are not all saying the same thing, but even with all their differences they have common interests and dispositions worth highlighting. They all assume, for example, the existence of an interior life and of the need to undergo awakening and transformation. They nourish a sense of obligation, and they all idealize “rightness.” They speak symbolically about evil, perishing, purpose, everlastingness, happiness, and transcendence. Only against the backdrop of these constants do the variables among religious tradition show up at all.  By situating the common attributes of religion inside a universe that is still awakening, I argue that we can come to see all of them—and the universe itself—in a whole new light.

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