By David Hegg
For most of human history, philosophy and ethics were based on what is known as the “axial” view of human existence. The axial position holds that this life is not all there is; that there is another level of existence that encompasses this one, and holds out the promise of fulfillment. In the axial view, this life is a journey toward the next, a journey from darkness to light, from brokenness to health, from shame to honor, and from guilt and estrangement to perfection and unity.
This theory also asserts that there are powers at play in this life that emanate from the spiritual realm, and that the central challenge of this life is to understand these powers, submit to them, and through it all be prepared to enter the next life well.
Most religions are based on the axial view although they differ greatly in how they define the future and the best way to live today.
The axial viewpoint raises the most vital question in ethics: are we as humans accountable to a higher being – vis-à-vis God? – or are we free and unaccountable to anyone or anything other than ourselves?
Before Darwin the general view of existence was that God was in control – in some way – of creation and human history. This was how human society explained the reality around them. But with Darwin came a sweeping change. Through his theory of evolution Darwin said, in effect, “I can explain reality without God.” And while this sweeping assertion has had major effects on almost every area of learning, perhaps the one most overlooked is its effect on personal ethics.
Today we can recognize the effect Darwinian evolution has had on personal morality and ethics. The institutions that once were considered foundational are being minimized at best, and discarded at worst.
Take marriage, for example. In the axial way of life marriage was ordained by a higher power for a set of purposes considered essential to ordered society. A father and a mother, bound by commitment, provided a stable base for the raising of children and the furtherance of societal values. Today, marriage is being systematically eroded, discarded, mocked, and even fundamentally re-imagined by those worshipping at the altar of progressive morality. And while marriage is being either trashed or twisted, our children are paying the price. No longer are Mom and Dad raising the children together in a loving environment. Now, raising children — if couples even choose the “inconvenience” of starting a family — has become a corporate event through the use of commercial child raising centers.
By cutting the cords of responsibility and accountability to the divine, Darwin freed mankind from those institutions meant to provide both resources and restraints such as are needed for society to maintain ethical integrity. But, when accountability to God is no longer a reality, humanity is free to live out our natural desires, which are largely fueled by self-interest.
But the basic questions still need to be asked. Who are we to live for? Are we really free to live for self, unaccountable to a higher power? And lastly, are we better off now as a society than we were when our ethics were grounded in the axial view?
As I see it, we are not better off, but are descending to greater and greater levels of egocentrism. We have been captured by the twin gods of personal comfort and convenience. Politically we have lost the will to suffer pain in order to fix our economic problems. Relationally, we are increasingly putting pleasure before commitment in our marriages and with our children. Spiritually, we have re-imagined a god that is in our image, and then had the audacity to scold him for being too weak to assist us. In our freedom from accountability to anything, we have thrown open our lives to everything that appeals to us, and it is killing us.
As a pastor I have lived my life in the axial mode. And along the way I have found it has brought a balance to my life – what the Jews call “shalom” – that makes life satisfying, every day, in innumerable ways. If you play with an open mind and open eyes, you’ll have to agree that mankind’s evolutionary freedom hasn’t solved our problems.
A serious and truthful look at our world will prove that every evil known through human history is as prevalent today as ever. The god of evolution apparently can’t stem the tide of human weakness. Fortunately for us, God isn’t dead and he continues to grant peace to those who walk in his ways, living this life in light of the next.
David Hegg is senior pastor of Grace Baptist Church and a Santa Clarita resident.“Ethically Speaking” appears Sundays.