Evolutionary Parables: Can Deep History Be An Open Story?

Looking for some more resources on ‘deep history‘ and ‘big history‘, two notions which I think are important in the interaction between theology and evolutionary studies of religion, I stumbled upon a curious website. At “Great Story parables” you can find

dramatic scripts and stories for
fun, poignant, and virtues-rich ways of teaching
the science-based Epic of Evolution (Big History)

Apparently, you can download different scripts for different scientific stories, each with its particular morality. There are two observations about this that I want to present in this short blogpost.

  1. It is interesting to see how evolutionary theory, i.e. science, becomes the foundation for a spiritual view on the world. The irony might be that we can use scientific theories about the origins of religion to explain this phenomenon. But, irony aside, I believe this shows how deep/big history can indeed provide a bridge between science and theology. Or, rather, the human urge to capture both knowledge (about the existing world) and hope (for how the world could be) in narratives can provide this bridge.
  2. But, and this is not some theological hairsplitting, one should be clear about what is meant by ‘parables‘. A parable is not just a story with a lesson on virtues and values, as the site suggests. A parable is an open ended story, in which roles are reversed and/or the expectations of the audience are baffled. It takes work to discover the meaning in a parable, a meaning that is often equivocal. For Christians, theologically speaking, this relates to revelation. A helpful characterization of Christian tradition in this regard has been suggested by Lieven Boeve: the Christian narrative as an open narrative.

I touched on the first point in earlier posts, so I will just explain why I think the second point is important. One of the hallmarks of current religious traditions, certainly in the major world religions, is their ability to critically distance themselves from the socio-economic status quo. As Robert Bellah shows, this is the result of complex processes of cultural evolution, revolving around ‘conserved core processes‘.

In Christianity, one of the key elements, in my view at least, to preserve this critical ability is the openness of Christ’s sayings, as for instance in the parables. This has even been integrated as a pedagogical principle in religious education in Flanders. When we teach about a Biblical story, we do not start by saying what the story is about. Theologically, that would mean a teacher gets to define, and, thus, limit, what God reveals through this particular story. Instead, the story is told in class, and, through different activities, explored. Meaning is thus discovered, or, again from a theological perspective, revealed, not by the teacher, but through the common dialogue between teacher, pupils, and God. This process, which requires patience and flexibility of mind, is what helps to maintain the open, critical dynamics of Christian faith, I believe.

So my concern is whether an evolutionary parable, an evolutionary epic, can indeed be developed as an open narrative, able to withstand cultural tendencies to domesticate spirituality into ideology. Are we able to listen to our deep history, and to slowly discover its meaning? Or are we unable to overcome our impatience, deciding in advance what our history is allowed to teach us?

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