Fifty years ago the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was passed without a dissenting vote by the newly founded United Nations. It ushered in a new language about humanity and law that today, despite the many violations of human rights, is affirmed around the globe. Before 1948 the legal rights of persons were limited to the laws of their country. In 1998 the human rights of persons are promoted and protected through international law, even if these rights are denied or ignored by various governments. The struggle to enforce human rights continues and the debate about what rights are universal will go on for some time. But the concept of fundamental human rights is well established in international law and generally accepted around the globe.

At the beginning of the 21st century, we now face an even greater challenge. The destruction of World War II and the denigration of human life in the Holocaust made it necessary to secure human dignity through international law in 1948. Now the devastation and degradation of the earth due to industrial development makes it necessary to create a language and laws that promote and protect our earth.

It may be helpful, therefore, in facing our present challenge to consider why the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was so successful in shaping the language and law of the second half of this century.

Perhaps the most striking impression one has in reading the Universal Declaration of Human Rights is its simplicity. The Declaration uses concrete, common sense terms rather than abstract concepts. For instance, it begins by asserting: "Whereas recognition of the inherent dignity and of the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family is the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world . . ." The language is not couched in the jargon of law or social science. Similarly, the first Article of the Declaration is equally direct: "All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood.”

In addition, the Universal Declaration avoids terms that reflect the understanding of only some of the world's cultures. In the process of drafting the Universal Declaration of Human Rights many Christians, Muslims and Jews wanted the document to refer to God, as the source of all rights. It was clear, however, that such language did not represent the consensus of the international community. The representative of the World Council of Churches, O. Frederick Nolde, argued that it was not the task of governments to affirm the monotheistic belief that rights were God-given. It was up to religious leaders, he suggested, to convince others that human rights rest on an eternal foundation.

Of course, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was drafted in languages of the West and was strongly shaped by the ideas and experience of the middle of the 20th century. However, because the Declaration was not tied to the foundational language of any particular culture or religious tradition, the cultural and religious leaders of the world were free to ground human rights using the theological, philosophical and metaphorical language of their own traditions. This remarkable development has in fact taken place, as I have documented in my book, Faith in Human Rights: Support in Religious Traditions for a Global Struggle (Washington, D.C.: Georgetown University Press, 1991).

Furthermore, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights lifted up the metaphor "human dignity," which signified an advance in international law. The assertion of human dignity was neither empirically verifiable nor grounded in legal precedent. Human dignity was a hope stated as a fact, an aspiration asserted as a reality, an ethical principle affirmed as the foundation for human rights law. Human dignity was embraced as a self-evident truth, in the same way that the rights to "life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness" were set forth in the preamble of the American Declaration of Independence. Affirmation of human dignity is not a matter of logic but of faith, and this is actually the language of the Declaration. It asserts that "the peoples of the United Nations have in the Charter reaffirmed their faith in fundamental human rights, in the dignity and worth of the human person and in the equal rights of men and women . . ..”

I suggest that the challenge we face at the end of the 21st century is reaffirming our faith in the "earth community." We need common sense assertions about our relation to nature, affirmative language that is not tied to any particular religious or cultural tradition, and a foundational metaphor on which to secure the ethical and legal principles that will be required. Then, as with human rights, the diverse religious and cultural traditions of our earth community can come to support this faith on the basis of their own ethical and spiritual teachings.

As the image of "human dignity" has served the framers and supporters of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the metaphor of an "earth community" has begun to shape language about ecology. This phrase appears in the Earth Charter and is becoming more common in writing about the environment. Half a century ago, when the issue was state sovereignty over human persons, asserting that human dignity was more fundamental than the state was an effective and common sense way of creating international human rights law. Now the issue is human sovereignty over nature. The metaphor we need must signify that humanity is a part of nature and does not merely exercise authority over it.

We must capture in an image the common sense of our situation, in the same way that the assertion of human dignity made sense to people in the wake of the horrors of World War II, horrors that states sought to justify by the principle of state sovereignty. The central metaphor of our struggle today must affirm as fact, reality, and self-evident truth what cannot be proven by empirical, philosophical or legal arguments. We are members of an earth community and responsible for it.

The metaphor of the "earth community" suggests that the "human family" referred to in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights belongs to a greater community of life, and that the human species will continue to thrive only by caring for the life of the earth community. The earth community is our home, our living heritage, and our sacred trust. In it, we live and move and have our being. We are called, therefore, by the destruction and degradation of our environment to reaffirm our faith in the earth community and to find ways of living in greater harmony with its wondrous gift of life.

Specifically, we might begin to tell the story of the earth community - and thus help to "create" the earth community in contemporary human consciousness - by coming to terms with the relationship between science and religion. The present battle over what is taught in biology classes reveals our failure to create an adequate history of the earth community. The creationist position gives our place on the earth meaning and purpose by affirming a Creator, but it requires that we accept a literal interpretation of the biblical story and reject all the evidence for the theory of evolution. On the other hand, the theory of evolution is often presented as an argument against belief in creation by scientists who assert that changes in plant and animal life are caused merely by random mutations that help life adapt to the environment.

A better telling of the story of the earth community would begin with the formation of the earth out of elements created in the explosion of a star that was made possible in the way the universe began. The creation of the earth community begins with the origin of the universe and depends on the four forces - gravity, electromagnetism, and the strong and weak forces of the atom - that hold everything together. Whatever the earth community is, it comes from and is part of the unfolding of the universe. The life of the earth community is rooted in the genesis of all that is, seen and unseen, known and unknown.

Human life within the earth community, therefore, is related to and comes from all that is. Certainly, human life is not at the physical center of the universe, as was assumed for generations before we were able to observe the planets of our solar system and other stars and galaxies. But human life within the earth community is the wondrous fruit of a seed sown in the beginning. The biblical story does not offer us an adequate description of how this came about, because it reflects the limited view of the universe of about 1000 BCE. Nonetheless, by asserting that God delighted in creation and the human beings formed to be creators of their own world, the story at the beginning of Genesis suggests why the earth community was created. Similarly, creation stories in other religious and cultural traditions offer metaphors of purpose and meaning for the human family.

The theory of evolution is not evidence that the world is without purpose or meaning. The theory of evolution is the best explanation we have of how the plants and animals of the earth community came to as they are. By itself, however, the theory of evolution does not address the question of why the earth community came to be at all. The answer to that question transcends even the flaring forth of the universe. The mystery of why there is anything lies behind both the universe and the earth community. Is it foolish to assume, however, that human awareness of the universe and the earth community might manifest in some way this originating mystery?

Fruit tells us something about the potential that is invisible in its seed. The earth community and human life within it is a fruit of the creation of the universe. Art, music, religious faith, and other forms of human culture are as much a part of the story of the earth community as descriptions of animal behavior and plant life. We reflect the mystery of the very beginning of the universe in our awareness of that beginning, in our capacity to enjoy the setting of the sun, and in our love of our families and our cultures. Now we are being challenged to extend our love to embrace our entire species including those who will come after us as well as those who have gone before.

Can we bring together the insights of religion and science in a way that will help preserve the earth as a habitat for its myriad species as well as for humanity? Science offers us tools that can be used to protect our environment, but science also invites us to appreciate the complexity of our ecosystem and to respect the processes that have led to the wondrous forms of life that inhabit the earth. Biology and quantum physics suggest that the workings of life at the molecular and quantum levels have more to do with energy being realized in various forms than with objects simply existing and interacting. The relatedness of animals and plants with their environments is a dynamic interaction that is driven by the "desire" of all life to continue living.

Through religious rituals and teachings we are encouraged to experience life as a gift and a responsibility. If we affirm a Creator, we express gratitude for the gift of life. If we accept the natural order as simply the necessary conditions for life, we may nonetheless delight in its variety and in our moment of consciousness in space and time. We may give thanks in prayer and by making offerings that reflect our gratitude and sense of belonging. We exercise our responsibility by assuming moral and spiritual duties, by organizing festivals and celebrations of the seasons, and by teaching the tenets of our faith tradition.

Science and religious practice, therefore, may foster a spirit of thanksgiving. Through our religious communities we are taught to be grateful for all that we have received in life. Through science we may learn to be grateful that things work as they do, thus enabling life to begin and thrive. Through religious faith we express why we are grateful for life in the universe. Through science we are grateful to learn how to help life on earth continue.

Creating an earth community is a challenge that science and religion can share. The skills and insights of science and religious life can be utilized in the struggle to create an earth community. Like human dignity, we affirm that the earth community is already a reality and yet requires our best efforts to be full realized. Even as human dignity is denied by violations of human rights every day, so human conduct continuously degrades and threatens the earth community that is recognized and affirmed by people of goodwill all around the globe. The challenge to all of us, whether we see the world through the language of science or religious practice or through both, is to do all we can to help support and sustain our precious earth community.

June 30, 1998 © Robert Traer 2016