The Holy Universe Goes to College

Students in the "Human Cultures and Political Systems through the Lens of Big History" class led by Dr. Cynthia Taylor (far left, second row) pose with the author (last row, far right) after reading and discussing the creation narrative in The Holy Universe.

Over the past year, I offered guest lectures in two different second-semester Big History classes at Dominican University: “Myth and Metaphor through the Lens of Big History,” and “Human Cultures and Political Systems through the Lens of Big History.” (Full disclosure: I am not on the faculty or staff of Dominican—I presented these lectures as a guest of these two faculty members only, and one should not infer any endorsement of my work on the part of Dominican University or its Big History program.)

Among the goals for my coming into these classes were to remind students of the larger, overarching narrative of Big History through this story, to offer students an example of someone who created their own myth, to compare this story with the “near future” material of Big History—and the implications of the near-future trends on the students’ lives (and the lives of their great grandchildren). After the students had read specific portions of the book, we did several exercises within the classes. In addition to the topic of Day and Night Language, we discussed my book as an example of a “modern myth,” as another example for the students to study before they set out to write their own creation myth, and discussed motivations for writing a creation story and what sources one can draw upon. We discussed which parts of the story resonated with the students, which did not, and why.

In another exercise, the students compared and contrasted the story of the creation of the Universe and the emergence of humanity in the book with the Eight Thresholds of Big History. They looked at where parallels occurred  between the two structures, and discussed potential reasons for differences between the two.

Another short discussion centered on the concept of “privilege” with regard to gender, ethnicity, and class. In writing the book, I was careful to not reveal the gender of the Sage until a few pages into the book; this lends itself to asking the question about whether or not the students were surprised to find out that the Sage is a woman—and a woman of color at that (which is revealed a few pages later). This offered an opportunity for us to discuss what assumptions a reader might bring to the book and where they come from: why did they see a man or a woman, why did they see the ethnic identity that they saw? (I do have cautions in the both the Reader’s Guide and the Teacher’s Guide for the book, emphasizing that one should be trained and skilled in facilitating deeper conversations about ethnicity and gender issues before attempting to lead such conversations.)

Additional Exercises

In addition to the above, I have created additional exercises that might be used in the classroom which are outlined in the Teacher’s Guide to The Holy Universe (available as a download from the book’s website after the launch date of 9/23/13). Examples include:

•  In the section entitled “Catastrophe and Creativity,” the Sage suggests that the crises that humanity faces might well spur its own creative, emergent responses to these crises. She uses the example of the “oxygen catastrophe,” the buildup of oxygen in the atmosphere after life created photosynthesis, which threw the Web of Life into dysfunction and chaos—until lifeforms emerged that could harness the power of oxygen. What are the strengths and weaknesses of her argument?

•  The author uses anthropomorphization in several places in his telling of the Universe story. How appropriate and useful is this? What are the dangers of using anthropomorphization?

•  Similarly, the author uses “poetic license” in his storytelling. Find a particular passage in the book where this is so, and discuss whether or not his use of poetic license enhances the telling of the story, or if he goes too far, and why. Where should the line be drawn? If he does indeed go too far, how would you rewrite the text, staying true to the intent of using metaphor?

And, of course, the book lends itself well to the discussion of the role of religion and spirituality and its relation to Big History.

Finally, I spoke with one professor of Big History who talked about how some students struggle with feelings of insignificance, even meaninglessness, when confronting the vast times and spaces presented in his Big History lectures. It is in these realms that I think story and metaphor can be especially useful in helping students make sense of the larger narrative, as the Sage does for the Seeker:

“. . . We are much larger
.            than we think;
.                       we are not
.                        meaningless specks
.                        on an insignificant planet
.                        in a vast, heartless universe;
.            we are instead dazzling flashes of brilliance
.                        on a tiny but delightful,
.                        sacred sparkle of stardust
.                                    called Earth.
.            The Infinite could not be
.                        one millimeter smaller
.                        and still be able
.                        to call us into being;
.            the Universe worked patiently,
.                        for billions upon billions of years,
.                                    to create us.

“There is a place for you in
.            the Universe, in the Web of Life.
.            You never were separate
.                        from the Infinite

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