This piece was published as an op/ed in May, 2021. It provides a framework into which almost all my life’s work could be placed. Unlike most of my presentations of my “integrative perspective,” this one goes in through what I regard as its spiritual core.
There were two sequels to this piece, also published as op/eds, and appearing here: “Those Who Share an Allegiance to the Good Can Find Common Ground,” and “Three Sources of Destructiveness.”
One might say that the big drama on this planet has been one of “the Living and the Dead.” The earth started out lifeless, and then something special happened: life arose.
An amazing grace: Once was dead, but it’s now alive.
It’s clear that in the conflict between Life and Death, we are naturally partisans:
• We grieve the loss of loved ones.
• We naturally strain ourselves to the utmost to get our heads out from under water and draw a breath again.
• We celebrate life’s flourishing and are repelled by plague and famine and war.
• Sometimes, we declare life to be “sacred.”
We’re on the side of Life.
Our religions reflect how much our values center around Life. E.g.
• “I have set before you life and death, blessing and cursing: therefore choose life, that both thou and thy seed may live” (Deut. 30:19).
• “I am come that they might have life, and that they might have it more abundantly” (John 10:10).
• And someone’s having the ability to raise the dead increases our motivation to worship him.
Our being — by nature — on the side of Life is not surprising, given the profound things we now know – unavailable in previous centuries — about the story of life-on-earth: we know, for example, that our nature has been crafted by a selective process that works by continually preferring that which survives over that which leads to death.
And this same knowledge enables us to see how Life itself — working continually, over billions of years, to mold its creatures (and the systems they inhabit) through that consistent choice of life over death – has built into the Living World some identifiable values:
• Like synergies in the relationships among the system’s parts. More fundamental than the real conflicts between predators and prey, and parasites and hosts, are the ways in which life strives to stabilize the network of relationships so that lion and zebra and grass form part of a whole that sustains them all, even as they devour each other.
• Like long-term viability in the system of life, as Life fashioned a biosphere that — at least until the human breakout into civilization introduced a wildcard — could run and develop like a perpetual motion machine (given the reliable input of energy from the sun).
• And — perhaps most miraculous and significant — like the experience of fulfillment by creatures fashioned by the developing system of Life on earth. For it only this — in the emergence of creatures for whom some things are experienced as better and some as worse — that Value itself can have any meaning.
(In a lifeless universe, nothing matters. Nothing CAN matter. Only with the emergence of creatures to whom things matter – who can experience fulfillment or frustration of their needs – can the idea of “the Good” have any conceivable meaning.)
And those valuations were instilled into the experience of sentient beings according to the requirements of Life-over-Death: for what is experienced as fulfilling for such sentient creatures is aligned with what has facilitated the survival of their ancestors, while the naturally aversive experiences corresponds with what has ancestrally marked a path toward death.
Just as Life itself emerged onto a previously lifeless planet, then, so also – through the burgeoning systems of Life — the Good emerged into a previously valueless world.
That bond between Life and Value is, indeed, most fundamental: The Good is all about Life’s flourishing.
• The greater Good of Life’s flourishing in the systems around us.
• And our own experiential Good of Life’s flourishing within us, as our inborn needs are met and our best potential realized.
To serve the Good means to serve Life. And so the most important tasks facing humankind now is to address the greatest threats to Life’s flourishing — i.e. to address the visible threats to the synergy and viability of the whole system, and to the experiential fulfillment of sentient creatures (like ourselves).
1) Human civilization now degrades the integrity of the biosphere. (But the Way of Life dictates — in Gregory Bateson’s words — that “No creature can win against its environment for long.”) Serving Life, therefore, requires us to strive to construct a human world that operates in harmony with the rest of life-on-earth.
2) Our weapons of war endanger not only human civilization, but even the survival of Life-on-earth. What Life requires of us, therefore, is a transformation of the relationships among the world’s peoples and nations to be governed by the spirit of Shalom, of goodwill, so that nuclear holocaust becomes increasingly unthinkable.
3) Since the emergence of civilization – which led early on to the tyranny of the few and enslavement of the many – cultural demands at odds with human needs have degraded human flourishing. Life bids us to improve the ability of our societies to fulfill each individual soul/body/heart, to nourish the best potential of each person.
Despite these tasks (sustainability, world peace, human fulfillment) being so huge, so long term, and already so widely addressed in myriad ways, it can strengthen the cause — of the Good, of the perpetuation of Life-on-earth, of human well-being – for us to recognize how all our challenges get clarified under the banner of “Life’s Flourishing.”