The Changing Moral Imperative:
From gods to God to Gaia.
Ethics without God: exploring a secular basis for our ethics
An address to the 2010 National Conference of Sea of Faith in Australia by Lloyd Geering
How do we know what is right and wrong behaviour? We first learn this distinction from our parents and teachers. They pass on to us their own current values and also their criteria for judging what is right behaviour. Between the ages of two and three we seem to develop a concern for what is fair. ‘That’s not fair!’ is a frequent complaint of a four-year old. It’s as if we humans come into this world already morally programmed.
Thus, even before we are old enough to develop any critical thinking of an ethical nature it we have already been shaped, partly by our internal psyche but mostly by the conditioning we receive from others. Those who teach us, of course, have in turn been shaped, first by their parents and then by the culture in which they were brought up. We are all shaped by human culture. In modern times we may try to transcend the particular culture into which we were born but we can never extricate ourselves from human culture in general. We live in it as fish live in the sea.
When we pass through adolescence on the way to maturity we begin to question what we are told and we either modify, or accept as our own, the values and criteria that have been handed to us. That is all part of the process of ‘coming of age’ and learning to take our responsible place in society. In such ways every human culture, in the course of its evolution, has developed the customs or moral rules deemed to be necessary for the harmony and well-being of the group. Our words ‘morality’ and ‘ethics’ come respectively from the Latin and Greek words mores and ethos that referred, respectively, to the established cultural customs of Rome and Greece. All specific cultures have been evolving like this from time immemorial.
Now let us look at this evolutionary process on the much longer time scale. Just as we, as individuals, pass through a maturing process as we ‘come of age’, so, in the last three centuries, this same process has been occurring in human culture on the grand scale. Dietrich Bonhoeffer even referred to it as ‘mankind’s coming age’. How did this happen?
The period known as the Enlightenment in the eighteenth century has proved to be an irreversible threshold of cultural change that is now affecting all cultures on a global scale. Unfortunately the significance of the Enlightenment is still not widely understood and appreciated, with the result that at the popular level many still assume that the pre-Enlightenment conditions still obtain. This is particularly the case in traditional Christian, Jewish and Muslim circles. In each of these, the moral laws inherited from the past are still regarded as eternal and unchangeable, and hence not to be questioned.
Let me briefly explain.
In pre-Enlightenment Christendom it was taught by the church, and accepted without question, that the standards of right and wrong originated with God. He had ordained them and he had revealed them to humans. For the Jew they were set out in the Torah, for the Christian in the Bible and for the Muslim in the Qur’an. The divine laws were specifically to be found in such statements as The Ten Commandments and the Sermon on the Mount. But in each tradition, by exploring the rest of their Holy Scriptures, scholars in the course of time constructed quite complex ethical Codes of behaviour that carried the stamp of divine authority. The Jews, for example, found 613 specific commandments. The Muslim assembled the Shariah. Christian theologians called it Christian Ethics; this they expounded on the basis of what they found in the Bible. All of these ethical codes were regarded as being set in stone and not open to debate. It was sufficient for the Church to say: ‘The Bible teaches…’ and that was the end of the matter.
Nietzsche called this form of learning right behaviour ‘slave morality’. Just recall how we used to learn both morality and the Christian truths by memorising the catechism. Indeed, the use of the catechism as a means of instruction in religion and morals was only disappearing in my childhood days. But we no longer simply repeat, like a ventriloquist’s dummy, what others put into our mouths!
All that began to change at the Enlightenment. Starting in the Christian West and now slowly spreading round the globe, the human race is beginning to move out of its childhood phase and entering the phase of mature adulthood. The seat of authority is shifting from a point external to us to a point within us. This is illustrated politically by the transition from absolute monarchy to democracy. In religion we speak now of the voice of God within us, and less and less of the God up there.
Immanuel Kant the philosopher put it this way: ‘The Enlightenment is man’s exodus from his self-incurred tutelage. Tutelage is the inability to use one’s understanding without the guidance of another person. . . “Dare to be wise” (sapere aude). Have the courage to use your own understanding; this is the motto of the Enlightenment’.
I wrote about the Enlightenment at some length in Faith’s New Age (1981); it was revised and republished as Christian Faith at the Crossroads, a map of modern religious history (2001).
During the 250 years on this side of the Enlightenment the new freedom to think critically began to push back the horizons of our knowledge and make new discoveries. Each discovery further undermined what had long been assumed to be the firm foundations of the Christian tradition.
First came the discovery that Christian doctrine, long taken to be divine revelation, was after all really human in origin. It had been constructed by humans, starting with Paul, and continuing through Augustine, Aquinas and the Protestant reformers. Those people believed, of course, that they were simply expounding the eternal truths that were contained in the Bible.
So attention then turned to the critical examination of the Bible. More and more did it become clear that the bible is a set of human documents. They could no longer be regarded as a collection of timeless truths that originated with God; to understand them adequately one had to read them against the historical and cultural context out of which they came. They were now seen to reflect the limited knowledge, the ignorance, and even the prejudices, of those who wrote the material.
The next discovery concerned the nature of the God who had supposedly revealed his word in the Bible. For the vast majority of people the concept of God was so beyond all questioning that it was only a tiny minority, however, who declared themselves to be atheists. Most intellectuals who were charged with atheism stoutly rejected it. Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) conceded that the reality of God could not be confirmed by any rational process but to do justice to human experience he found it necessary to postulate both the reality of God and the immortality of the human soul. He said, ‘Two things fill the mind with ever new and increasing admiration and awe, the oftener and the more steadily we reflect on them: the starry heavens above and the moral law within’. What impressed Kant most was the universal human experience of acknowledging moral duty; he called it the ‘the moral imperative’. Already he was turning to ethics to support the very idea of God. Yet Kant’s ethical theology failed to fill the void beginning to appear in the post-Enlightenment age. In the 19th century Heinrich Heine wrote a witty history of German philosophy in which he described Kant’s theological position as the act of ‘bringing the sacraments to a dying god!’
It fell to Nietzsche (1844-1900) to be the first to announce the death of God. This he did most tellingly in his now well-known little Parable of the Madman. In it he described a madman running through the market-place with a lantern during the brightness of the morning and crying out that he was looking for God. The bystanders poked fun at him and asked him if God had lost his way or gone on a distant voyage. Thereupon he declared God was dead and would remain dead. Indeed he accused humans of being responsible for the death of God. They had murdered him. The madman declared that, because of the death of God, it was as if the earth had become unchained from the sun and was already moving out into the cold, dark and empty space of the vast universe. That was why he had lit his lantern even though it was still light. This strange announcement silenced the onlookers and caused them to stare at him in astonishment. Then the madman became silent and threw his lantern to the ground, where it broke into pieces and went out. He said, ‘I have come too early; my time is not yet. This tremendous event is still on its way. It has not yet reached the ears of men’.
What Nietzsche had rightly discerned within Christendom was that the idea of God as the over-riding supernatural being was losing its power to convince. But Nietzsche also realised, and wished to draw to everybody’s attention to, was the fact that the loss of such a God had more far-reaching consequences than at first seemed to be the case. It was if -‘The earth had become unchained from the sun and was already moving out into the cold, dark and empty space of the vast universe.’
Not only would the whole system of Christian doctrine come tumbling down but the firm foundation of all morality would disappear. Dostoevsky raised this very point through one of the characters in his novels – ‘If there is no God, then all things are permissible’. God must exist or otherwise people are free to do what they like. This argument in defence of the reality of God is still common at a popular level.
The second thing that Nietzsche’s parable acknowledged is that for most people God was not yet dead. Nietzsche, speaking through the madman, was ahead of his time. Indeed it was not until the middle sixties of the next century that the ‘death of God’ was at last being widely acknowledged. It even led to a special issue of the weekly magazine Time. By that stage Christian orthodoxy was well into decline and the churches were rapidly losing members.
It is instructive at this point to go back to one of Kant’s young disciples, who has been rather lost sight of. Johann Fichte (1762-1814) was influenced by both Spinoza and Kant. Unlike Kant, he found no need to postulate the existence of a divine entity (God) to account for the fact of the moral order. For him the moral order was itself identical with God. ‘We do not and cannot grasp any other God’, he said. Fichte was charged with atheism but maintained, in his defence, that true atheism consists in refusing to obey the voice of one’s conscience. As Fichte saw it, the moral imperative we experience within us is itself the voice of God and, when we do what our moral duty prescribes without calculating the consequences, the Divine becomes alive and real in us. Thus for Fichte, the moral imperative was not only paramount, as it was for Kant, but was in fact God.
What was happening at the time of Kant and Fichte was this. While the death of the theistic God destroyed the basis of the traditional morality, it allowed ethics to come out from under the shadow of theology where it was long positioned. The study of Ethics now stands on its own feet and has largely replaced the traditional role of theology. This move has even given rise to a church-like organisation – the Ethical Union. Even more importantly, ethical sensitivity among responsible people, far from disappearing, has become more refined as a result of the death of God. (I shall provide examples later to illustrate this.)
But how did these moral values come to be the attributes of God in the first place? How did the human moral imperative come to be identified as ‘the divine imperative’, to use the term of the Swiss theologian Emil Brunner.
That is a long and complex story that we are now beginning to unravel for the first time in human history. Previously it was unthinkable even to question the reality of God. Now we are able to write a ‘History of God’, something which Karen Armstrong has achieved so well.
To do this we may usefully divide the long cultural history of humankind into three successive phases. They may be conveniently labelled: the polytheistic, the monotheistic, and the humanistic. In each of these phases humans understood their moral duties quite differently because of the quite different ways in which they understood themselves and the environment in which they lived. I shall now sketch these phases for they help us to understand our current moral situation.
The Polytheistic Phase
The ancients developed personal names for the living forces they identified in the natural world. Today we would say that they were unconsciously projecting their own consciousness into the natural phenomena they observed in their world. This is how the human mind first came to create the idea of spirits and gods; they were a class of unseen beings that were thought responsible for everything that happened in the world.
It’s easy to understand how natural it was to arrive at that ancient polytheistic world-view because, even today, we may find a two-year-old, when accidentally hitting its head on the table corner as it passes by, turning round to address the object causing pain by saying, ‘You naughty table!’
The unseen spiritual beings imagined by the ancients were at first simply identified with the moving phenomena of nature. Later they were thought to inhabit them. Later still, the gods were conceived as beings who controlled natural bodies and processes from a point outside of them. On reaching that stage the gods were conceived as possessing what philosophers call ‘aseity’ – a word that means possessing a being of one’s own. The gods had now become independent beings.
Each of the numerous primitive cultures developed its own version of this polytheistic interpretation of nature. In many there was a Sky-Father and an Earth Mother. They were the progenitors of all the other gods, each with his or her own portfolio or special area of operation. In ancient Greece the name of the Earth Mother was Gaia. The word is etymologically related to GE, the Greek word for earth, preserved in our word ‘ge-ology’, ‘the study of the earth. The male consort of Gaia was Zeus, the chief of the gods.
Thus, in order to explain what we call natural phenomena, the ancients did not ask – ‘How did this event happen?’ but ‘Who caused it and why?’ This kind of reasoning occurs even to this day. Think how the Anglican Bishop of Sydney quickly jumped to the conclusion that the Indian Ocean Tsunami had been willed by God and for a moral purpose.
The First Axial Period
In the first millennium before the Christian era a radical cultural transition began to take place in Europe and Asia. The transition did not reach the remote tribal areas of Africa, the Americas and Australasia until much later. Karl Jaspers labelled this transition the Axial Period and centred it on 500 BC. Karen Armstrong has called it The Great Transformation in her book of that title. The Great Transformation ushered in a new cultural age which, in our part of the world we know as the monotheistic period. Let us now sketch the radical changes that took place in the monotheistic phase.
The Monotheistic Phase.
- The emergence of the It-world(to use Buber’s phrase). It came to be recognised during the Great Transformation that not everything in the world is alive or has ever been alive. Not only are rocks and mountains not alive but neither are volcanoes, rivers, clouds and storms, however much movement and vitality they appear to show. The recognition of non-living objects as the It-world was a great breakthrough in human perception.
Today we take this for granted but it was not always so. This break-through was essential for the later emergence of the physical sciences, such as physics and chemistry. The change is well illustrated by the way in which astrology was replaced by astronomy. In astrology the planets were believed to be personal beings who determined human destiny; in astronomy they were objects whose movements could be measured and predicted.
The emergence of the It-world gave humans the freedom to become civil engineers – the adapting and controlling the natural forces to human advantage – irrigation, mining, and exploitation of earth’s natural resources. Much later it was to lead to biological engineering – blood transfusions, organ transplants and genetic modification.
- The transition from polytheism to monotheism. During the Axial Period and over a period of several hundred years the belief in many gods was replaced by the belief in only one God. Oneness became an important attribute of the divine or spirit world. ‘The Lord our God is One’ says the Jewish Shema. ‘Wahid’ or ‘one’ became one of the 99 beautiful names of Allah in Islam.
Why did this transition take place? Of course the traditional answer for the emergence of monotheism was to appeal to divine revelation. The one true God spoke through his chosen prophets, such as Moses, Jesus, and Muhammad. Thus it was God who dispelled the gods as unreal. Since the Bible was mostly written during and after the Axial Period, it documents the transition very clearly. There we find a battle being waged between the prophets who pioneered the emergence of monotheism, and the defenders of polytheism who tried desperately to preserve the Canaanite worship of the forces of nature. The Israelite prophets, speaking on behalf of the one God, laughed the gods of nature out of court as having no substance or reality.
When we put divine revelation aside, we may say that the workings of the human psyche had much to do with the transition. There is a correlation between the way we perceive our external world and the way we organise our internal world. Carl Jung referred to our mental growth to mature personhood as the process of individuation. It is a process by which each of us, by stages, becomes an integrated whole – a unified self. Now what happens quite naturally within our psyche, we unconsciously project on to the external world, as we construct a picture of it. Just as, in the process of individuation, we experience a strong urge to establish order or unity out of the chaos of messages that our sense organs convey to the brain, so we are led we are led to construct a universe of what we encounter around us. Thus the many gods were gradually replaced by one God.
We have a modern example of this innate urge of the psyche to find unity in the way Isaac Newton’s concept of gravity brought one simple explanation to three quite different phenomena – the falling of objects to the ground, the movement of the tides and the path of the moon. As Gordon Kaufman has usefully pointed out, the reason why the God concept has played such an important role in human culture, and to some extent may continue to do so, is that it provided a unifying point of reference that enabled us to create our mental picture of the world we live in.
- The supremacy of the Sky God. As polytheism slowly evolved into monotheism, many of the features of the former Sky God were retained and transferred to the (now) one and only deity. These included:
- His heavenly dwelling place (Our Father who art in heaven).
- His maleness (monotheistic traditions became patriarchal.)
- His almighty power as the storm god (now interpreted as divine anger).
- The disappearance of the Earth Mother. (All things feminine became degraded, earthy. This is the reason why women could not be priests, and could not even enter the sanctuary.).
- God, being in the sky, now imagined to be external to the earth and not within the natural world as the gods had once been.
- Thus God loses his immanence and is wholly transcendent.
- The earth loses its sacredness and descends into fallenness.
- God gathers to himself the highest human values as his attributes. With regard to the theme of this conference, this is perhaps the most important aspect of the First Axial Period, for this was the period when God became identified with love, goodness, justice and compassion. Before this point the morals of the gods left much to be desired, as ancient mythology illustrates. The gods simply mirrored both the moral strengths and weaknesses of humankind.
The transition from polytheism to monotheism took place in the Persian Period. Perhaps we see here the influence of Zoroastrianism. Zoroaster not only proclaimed the one God, Ahura Mazda, (the Lord of Light); he declared him to be wholly wise, benevolent and good, the guardian of justice and the friend of the just man. Thus Zoroaster was the first to describe the being of God in terms of the highest human values.
But it very soon became clear that if there is only one God then he must be ultimately responsible for everything, including evil. This is reflected in Deutero-Isaiah, the prophet of the Exile. He was the first true monotheist in the Bible. But he has God declaring:
‘I form light and I create darkness.
I bring health and I create disease.
I, the LORD do all these things’. (Isaiah 45:7)
But how can a wholly good God also be responsible for evil? So protest began almost immediately. It gave rise to the Book of Job and later Ecclesiastes. This problem has niggled away in monotheism for two thousand years and was finally labelled ‘theodicy’ by the philosopher Leibniz. In view of the existence of evil, God cannot at the same time be omnipotent and wholly good. It was to prove to be the Achilles heel of monotheism.
The way it was dealt with in practice, first in Zoroastrianism, and later in Christianity and Islam, was to turn pure monotheism into a dualism of God and Satan (the Devil). This became reflected in the three-decker picture of reality created by devout Christian imagination. This visible, tangible flat earth was sandwiched between the blue heaven above – the eternal dwelling-place of God, his angels and church triumphant – and the burning Hell below – the destiny of the damned ruled over by Satan.
It was this invisible world created by Christian imagination that came tumbling down during the Second Axial Period. The dualistic world-view collapsed – first Purgatory, starting at the Reformation for Protestants – then Hell in the 19th century and finally heaven in the 20th century. We found ourselves living in one vast physical universe – the space-time continuum. Mankind entered the current secular age.
Without God’s eternal dwelling-place traditional monotheism began to collapse, leaving God as an idea. God lost his aseity, as did the gods before him. What was left of God were his attributes – the supreme moral and spiritual values that were attributed to him during the First Axial Period.
The reason that I have sketched this history is to show that Fichte was moving in the right direction, even before Nietzsche. We humans are now on our own, as we attempt to deal with the problems of human existence. But are we free to do as we like? More than ever, we are subject to a moral imperative but that moral imperative is within us. That makes the moral situation in which we now find ourselves more demanding than ever. We not only have to do what is right; we even have to determine what is right. We have to create something that we long took to be the prerogative of God.
Nietzsche was not only the first to proclaim the death of God. He was also among the first to look for the new ethic. In view of the fact that Zoroaster was perhaps the first prophet to describe God in terms of moral values, it is interesting to find that Nietzsche chose the name Zarathustra to symbolize the way-finder in the new ethical challenges. Nietzsche was more of a sage than a philosopher. Just as the ancient sages, such as Ecclesiastes and Jesus, used parables and one-liners to goad people into working things out for themselves, so the books of Nietzsche do likewise. Through Zarathustra Nietzsche speaks of the need to cease to be bound to ‘slave morality’, to go beyond the traditional ‘good and evil’ and proceed to what he called ‘the transvaluation of all values’. Nietzsche does not give us ethical answers through Zarathustra but rather challenges us to go out and find them ourselves.
So how shall we do that?
Let us first take stock of where we are. Today people in the secular world are freer from cultural restraints than they have ever been before. This does not mean that they have become immoral. Certainly, at one extreme it has led to an increase in immoral activity – from petty crime and personal violence to fraudulent activity and gross injustice on the grand scale. This is quite understandable. The human race is still ‘coming of age’. As with adolescents, not all people are equally ready to handle the new moral freedom we now enjoy.
But, while we may rightly deplore all of that, we may take heart from what has happened at the other extreme. Take, for example, the growing recognition of human rights, the acknowledgement of gender equality, the condemnation of racism and religious bigotry, and the acceptance of sexual diversity, the realisation that all cultures have evolved and reflect human creativity. We have witnessed an increase in ethical sensitivity at the growing edge of human culture. I have observed this taking place during the 20th century. In the post-Enlightenment global world, we may discern the emergence of an embryonic universal human culture now seeking to be born.
Politically it is expressed nationally in the spread of democracy and internationally in the creation of the United Nations. Admittedly the 20th century witnessed the worst wars ever fought on the planet. But it has also witnessed the increasing condemnation of war itself as a means of settling international disputes. There is increasing desire to promote that kind of international co-operation that will achieve world peace and harmony. War is no longer glorified as it long was. Early on in the 20th century what had long been called ‘the Ministry of War’ in Western countries was re-labelled the ‘Ministry of Defence’.
Where is this desire for peace and harmony springing from? What motivates us to try and do what is right? Some in each of the great religious traditions assert that it is moral quality of their tradition that supplies the motivation. That may have been true once but it is no longer the case. Indeed, some of the ethical advances that have been made since the Enlightenment have been strongly opposed by religious traditions.
Some assert that we all have built into us a moral guide – we call it our conscience – and it is that which motivates us to do the right. That is partly true in that, as I said at the beginning, our psyche comes already programmed with some awareness of right and wrong. But because that ability to differentiate is then shaped by cultural forces, conscience is by no means infallible. All it does is to prick us when we are on the verge of doing something that is in conflict with our basic cultural beliefs. If it works at all, and in some people it does not seem to do so very efficiently, it operates within parameters already put in place by the culture that has shaped us.
This may be illustrated by noting that until a century or so ago many people in the Western world experienced a bad conscience if they absented themselves from church without legitimate excuse. The ban on working on the Sabbath lasted even longer. Until the 20th century Sabbath observance was on a par with the prohibition of stealing and bearing false witness. At the beginning of the 20th century it was still dominant, as I can personally testify, but by the beginning of the 21st century, concern for Sabbath observance had almost completely disappeared. But it had been replaced by the condemnation of such things as racism and militarism.
An important consequence of the Enlightenment was to distinguish between those duties, on the one hand, that related to a specific culture and the God it worshipped and those duties, on the other hand, that are recognised as being universal to all humans, irrespective of culture, religion, colour, and race. The Decalogue, or Ten Commandments, made no clear distinction between ritualistic duties on the one hand and purely ethical duties on the other.
These latter duties arise out of the cluster of human values that have surfaced in all advanced cultures – values such as love, justice, truth, compassion, harmony. These values supply the raw material for ethics. They arise out of the human condition. The more we see ourselves in one another, the more these values come into play, urging us to act in certain ways. Our psyche is programmed to recognise and respond positively to our own likeness in others. That is why, as children, we find ourselves quickly drawn to those of our own age. By the same token, of course, we have tended to treat as potentially dangerous those who differ from our image.
Our moral duties first came into expression with those closes to us – the family, the tribe, the nation. That is why what is called the Golden Rule came to be enunciated in several cultures quite independently. ‘Do unto others what you would have them do to you!’ Then we began to acknowledge our common humanity more widely, across ethnic and cultural barriers, until the present point where it is in the process of becoming global.
But good as the Golden Rule is as a rule of thumb, it is only a start. The values that motivate us to perform our moral duties may in themselves come into conflict. The concern for truth and honesty may conflict with love. For example: Should the doctor be completely honest with the patient if the news is likely to harm the patient?
The reverence for life may come into conflict with compassion. This conflict comes into play in the clinical abortion debate as it does also in the euthanasia debate. It has led to this inconsistency; it is an act of mercy to put a morally wounded animal out of its misery, but it is wrong to end the life of humans who suffer from a mortal disease.
Such examples illustrate why we now have to create the new ethic. There are no clear and absolute answers to our moral problems that we can pluck out of the air. We simply have to work through each one of them as best as we can.
This is where the contribution of Joseph Fletcher with his Situation Ethics comes into relevance. This book was published in 1966, 3 years after Honest to God. John Robinson referred to this as ‘the only ethic for man come of age’. The book aroused vigorous opposition and condemnation. This was expressed in a book edited by Harvey Cox in 1968, The Situation Ethics Debate.
The opposition came from people who had not understood or come to terms with the new cultural age we have entered. That is why I sketched the cultural history that led up to this age. We have entered an age in which there are no absolutes and where all is relative. In such an age the guidelines proposed by Situation Ethics are very positive. It steers a middle course between the old legalism based on the absolutes and the unprincipled license to do anything, that is called antinomianism. Here is the essence of it:
‘The situationist enters into every decision-making situation fully armed with the ethical maxims of his community and its heritage, and he treats them with respect as illuminators of his problems. Just the same he is prepared in any situation to compromise them or set them aside if love seems better served by doing so.
But since Joseph Fletcher’s book a whole new area of ethical problems have emerged. Ethics is no longer concerned solely, as it for long seemed to be, with the duties we owe to one another as fellow-humans. During the latter part of the 20th century we have been coming to recognize that we have duties to the earth and to all forms of life on it. Strangely enough this has brought us into a position not unlike that, out of which our long cultural story began.
Up until only two to three thousand years ago, humans believed they had duties to a Sky Father, an Earth Mother, a throng of gods, and all the plants and animals of the ecosystem. Today we are today relearning how much we depend on the natural world. Our need for pure air, clean water, healthy food, adequate shelter, and the most desirable conditions for regenerating our species have once again become the ultimate or religious issues to which we must ‘devote’ ourselves. (All this I have attempted to discuss at some length in Coming Back to Earth.)
We are now in position to see that there was also a downside to the monotheistic culture that evolved between the two Axial Periods. Of course there was much in it to value but it also had the effect of turning our attention away from the earth and even causing us to downgrade it as a ‘fallen world’. The very concept of ‘earthiness’ we came to associate with things to distance ourselves from. In those two and a half thousand years of monotheism our minds became directed more and more to the unseen world of Heaven and Hell that our own imaginations had created. Now that that world has disintegrated we are coming back to earth and being brought into touch with reality with a sudden bump. For to our dismay we have been treating the earth too carelessly. We have been polluting it. We have been exploiting it. We have been interfering with the delicate ecological balance.
In short, in moving into the future we have also leaped backward into the past. We find that our relationship with the earth has much in common with that of the ancients. As far back as 1848, that early modern theologian, Ludwig Feuerbach, said this: ‘that upon which human beings are fully dependent was originally, nothing other than Nature. Nature is the first, original object of religion’. In this 21st century we are painfully relearning that, with all of our knowledge and sophistication, it is the forces of nature that still transcend us.
Because we are dependent on nature for our well-being and for our future, we have duties towards the natural world as well as to one another. The big difference between us and the ancients is that, whereas they created the gods to explain natural phenomena, we have developed the scientific method to help us understand the ways of nature. What we learn from science enables us to discern the duties we owe to the natural world. Since we can now acknowledge the earth to be the mother of all life and the on-going sustainer of life we have come to speak of Mother Nature.
In this 21st century we are painfully relearning that, with all of our knowledge and sophistication, it is the forces of nature that still transcend us. Because we are dependent on nature for our well-being and for our future, we have duties towards the natural world.
One scientist has gone further and re-instated the ancient name of Gaia. What is known as Gaia theory originated in the mind of an extraordinarily creative scientist named James Lovelock. Gaia theory does not say the earth is a living organism, but rather that life in all of its diversity has so evolved in relation to the physical forces of its earthly environment that its operation is like that of an organism.
But whether we call it Gaia, Mother Nature, or simply nature, we are dependent on it. That dependence leads to duties. Those duties will not be revealed to us from out of the blue as a set of new commandments. We have to enunciate them. For this we need knowledge – for that we turn largely to the scientists – and we need to nurture our sense of responsibility and our ethical sensitivity. I suggest the following guidelines. They could lead us to develop a lifestyle that preserves the balance of the planetary eco-system and thus establish our harmony with the earth and with one another.
- Stand in awe of this self-evolving universe.
- Marvel at the living ecosphere of this planet.
- Set a supreme value on all forms of life.
- Refrain from all activities that endanger the future of any species.
- Devote ourselves to maximizing the future for all living creatures.
- Value the human relationships that bind us together.
- Set the needs of the coming global society before those of ourselves, our tribe, society, or nation.
- Appreciate the total cultural legacy from the past.
- Accept in a self-sacrificing fashion the responsibility now laid upon us all for the future of our species and of all planetary life.
Let me conclude with the final words of Book of Ecclesiastes:
For everything we do Nature will bring to judgment,
even everything hidden, whether it be good or evil.
Stand in awe of Nature and do what it requires of you,
for this is the whole duty of humankind.