Big History at McAfee School of Theology

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By Graham B. Walker, Jr.
Eighteen minutes is all it takes for historian David G. Christian to tell the story of the universe– all 13.82 billion years of it! Dr. Christian was this year's featured speaker in the D. Perry and Betty H. Ginn Lectures in Christian Faith and Modern Science at McAfee School of Theology.

Dr. Christian's passion is telling the incredible story of how the universe has unfolded to the point where we find ourselves as humans. He remarks, “It is a precious story filled with drama, tragedy, humor, and irony. Most importantly, it is a story that is awesome in scope, humbling for those who reflect on it and ultimately hopeful for us as a species who have evolved with such opportunity to influence that story here on earth.”

Philosopher Paul Ricouer once noted that historians and novelists rarely tell their stories without intention and David Christian is no exception to the rule. Christian, was born in Brooklyn, New York, grew up in Nigeria and England, studied in Canada and England before moving to Sydney, Australia with a Ph.D. in History from Oxford where he became Professor of History at Macquarie University.

Being the global citizen that he is, he observed that often when we teach history we focus on our particular “tribe” in the human story whether that is American, British, or Australian story. While this may have been helpful at creating the early nationalisms that shape our modern world, unfortunately our technological advances have placed us at a critical stage where in-group/out-group demarcations leave us teetering on a precipice of global nuclear holocaust and uncontrolled environmental calamity due to global warming. Faced with these outcomes, Christian asked “how could I tell the human story as a unit, what origin story could unite us as opposed to dividing us further”?

For the last twenty years Christian has turned to telling the story of the “Anthropocene” borrowing the term invented by one of the great scientists of our age, Paul Crutzen, to signify the fact that human beings for the first time have taken hold not only of the economy and of population dynamics, but of the planet's physical systems. Anthropocene means the human-created era of Earth's history. The geologists call our time the holocene –the period of the last thirteen thousand years or so since the last Ice Age — but Christian shockingly notes that the last two hundred years are really a unique era, not only in human history but in the Earth's physical history as well. The Anthropocene is the period when human activity has overtaken vast parts of the natural cycles on the planet, and has done so in ways that disrupt those cycles and fundamentally threaten us in the years ahead. Getting to this point is what David Christian has called “Big History.”

Christian's best-selling Teaching Company course entitled “Big History” caught the attention of philanthropist Bill Gates who is personally funding Christian's efforts to develop a program to bring the course to high school students worldwide. ( Our readers may access this free online at bighistoryproject.com and his TED talk at: http://www.ted.com/talks/david_christian_big_history.html ).

Dr. Christian leaves the McAfee School of Theology community with this: “The great philosophical and moral challenge of our time is to reconcile our global ethics with contemporary science in conversation with our received religious traditions for the sake of future generations.”
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This annual lectures series provides students at Mercer with opportunities to hear leading scientists and theologians as they explore the interface between Christian faith and contemporary science.