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  • Big History and the Size of God: Holistic Historicism as a Pathway to Religious Naturalism
  • Demian Wheeler (bio)

I. Introduction: Historicism’s Ironic Avoidance of Nature

A great irony abounds in much of the current literature on historicism.1 As William Dean began to detect over two decades ago, a good majority of historicists, although placing an ontological and epistemological premium on historicity, promulgates a historicism that ignores most of history, the history of nature. In particular, today’s historicist theologies, especially those of the postmodern and postliberal variety, are so fixated on human histories—and, even more narrowly, on the socially, linguistically, and narrativally constituted particularities of very localized religiocultural histories—that they remain disconnected from, irrelevant to, and unconstrained by what we know about the history of humanity as a whole and the broader history of the natural world. Consequently, a lot of religious historicisms amount to a nonnaturalistic humanism or, worse, a “group subjectivism.”2 In what follows, I want to take a cue from Dean and explore the ramifications of incorporating all of history—human and nonhuman—into a historicist worldview, probing, more specifically, the serious theological implications of a “naturalistic-humanistic historicism” or, as I prefer to dub it, a holistic historicism.

II. Human History, Natural History, Big History: Expanding Historicism’s Theoretical Gaze

Before discussing what a holistic historicist theology might look like, I need to first examine some of the theoretical contours of what Dean refers to as a “wider historicism,” a historicism that expands its gaze to include not only social scientific testimonies about cultural history but also natural science’s accounts of the history of nature. [End Page 226]

To begin, a wider, or holistic, historicism would dissolve any bifurcation between culture and the natural world and recognize the indelible embeddedness of human history in that of nature. As the historicist and ecofeminist theologian Sallie McFague evocatively writes: “All things living and all things not living are the products of the same primal explosion and evolutionary history and hence are interrelated in an internal way right from the beginning. We are cousins to the stars, to the rocks and oceans, and to all living creatures.”3 Indeed, historicists hold that the historicity of Homo sapiens is distinctive, thanks to the human acquisition of symbolic language, abstract reason, self-conscious activity, and purposive agency, as well as humanity’s rootedness in diverse and highly sophisticated and individuated cultures. “Without such historicocultural shaping,” states the theological historicist Gordon Kaufman, “we would have no form at all; we would not even be.”4 Still, human beings, he proceeds to qualify, are “biohistorical” (or, better, socionatural) creatures. That is, we are multiply located, constituted not only by the very specific cultural-linguistic networks in which we develop but also by the larger natural histories (physical, chemical, ecological, biological, etc.) from which we arose, by which we are antedated, in which we are enfolded, and on which we continue to depend.5 Here, holistic historicists would second the sentiments of naturalists, such as Donald Crosby: although “none is more astoundingly different from other kinds of organisms in its behavior, history, and accomplishments than the human species,” Homo sapiens and all its complex, inimitable, and diversified creations (including cultures and languages) are a part and product of nature.6 As a result, it is “not possible,” to quote Kaufman once more, “to understand human existence apart from its wider situatedness in the ecology of life on this planet,” which, in turn, “can only be understood within the context of the solar system and the wider universe.”7 [End Page 227]

Furthermore, the natural world in which human history is wholly situated must itself be construed historically.8 A holistic historicist would point out that many of the conditions of historicity (contextuality, change, finitude, perspectivity, contingency, spatiotemporality, and so on) are universal features of reality, obtaining not only in human history but also in the myriad natural histories (biological, planetary, physical, cosmological) of which it is a part. According to Dean, such a naturalistic-humanistic historicism replaces the “old dualism” between the natural and the historical with a “new monism” that regards nature as “one form of history...


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