Conceiving the lessons of modern science as a source of “revelation” prompts a reformulation of the Ten Commandments of Western religions that asserts the primacy of planetary health over purely human concerns.
A Scientific Creation Story
We now know that humankind, like every other species, is the product of eons of universal and then biological evolution. This understanding does not diminish the arguably miraculous character of the outcome. In no way could earlier cultures have conceived such a creation story.
Viewing our world as the product of ongoing cosmic evolution includes understanding that every human generation lives in an evolutionary moment. A lifetime, say 70 years, represents just two hundred millionths of universal history. The duration of civilization, about 10,000 years, represents just 140 such human lifetimes. Homo Sapiens, perhaps one million years old, still occupies only seven hundred thousandths of the universe’s existence. Some species survived at least 100 times longer, but our solar system itself has only existed for a third as long as the universe.
Science first uncovered the profundity of Deep Time and then the vastness of the universe. Our lifetimes represent just a blink in the long evolutionary process. However, at least one product of universal evolution, humankind, has begun to comprehend the whole. Even so, mysteries still abound: Was the flaring forth of the Big Bang the ultimate act of creation? Is our universe just one in an infinite number of cosmic experiments that happened to make humankind possible? How did life get started on Earth? Did it happen elsewhere in our solar system? In other solar systems in the Milky Way galaxy? In others of the billions upon billions of galaxies in the visible universe? Where can we find a source of meaning in this magnificent universe and on our marvelous planet? Is there a God? Is the awesome panoply of “creation” merely a cosmic accident? Or is it the working of a Holy Spirit on a scale that biblical writers could never have imagined?
So, even the modern creation story leaves critical events and aspects of the universe cloaked in mystery. For some of these profound questions, we might find answers in the coming years … or centuries or millennia or eons. Perhaps the most critical question is, Will humankind survive long enough to answer even some of them? Modern science and technology have also created the means of planetary destruction, but we have avoided nuclear or environmental catastrophes that could destroy civilization or even our entire species. So far.
A Moral Imperative
Humankind must preserve our planet in a state that will continue to support our species—and all the others that we depend on–into the indefinite future, in short, an ecologically and socially sustainable state.
With that motivation and realizing that, in Western Civilization, the Ten Commandments form a concise set of moral guidelines, I have conceived rephrasing them, following the form I learned as a child in a Roman Catholic family. Understanding that scholars have debated the “right” formulation for about two millennia, I have taken the liberty to swap II and IV to place the three admonitions together before the seven prohibitions.
Ten Commandments for Planet Earth
- I am Earth, the home of biological evolution. Let no human enterprise take precedence over me.
- Preserve the habitats that sustain life.
- Remember to pause from work and appreciate my bounty.
- Thou shalt not invoke my name for gain.
- Thou shalt not kill each other or extinguish other life forms.
- Thou shalt not adulterate the life-giving environment.
- Thou shalt not steal from others or exhaust my resources.
- Thou shalt not deceive about the full cost of actions and transactions.
- Thou shalt not preempt the livelihoods of others: people, generations, or species.
- Thou shalt not seek unbounded wealth.
Each of these precepts bears discussion and perhaps rephrasing, but that effort reaches beyond the scope of this essay.
However, just as the New Testament obviated Old Testament textual disputes by asserting the Two Great Commandments of Jesus, I suggest that the moral imperative of sustainability likewise leads to two simple mandates:
Love Earth and Love One Another.
© 2014 Richard E. White