24 August 2010

The True and Outworking Spirit of Modernism

In its Ridván message of 2010 the Universal House of Justice made a powerful statement about the nature of Bahá’í endeavors: “That the world civilization now on humanity’s horizon must achieve a dynamic coherence between the material and spiritual requirements of life is central to the Bahá’í teachings.” A great deal of meaning is contained in this statement. It’s worth taking some time to illustrate how it is grounded in the writings of Bahá’u’lláh and ‘Abdu’l-Bahá.

In one passage Bahá’u’lláh writes,
A new life is, in this age, stirring within all the peoples of the earth; and yet none hath discovered its cause or perceived its motive. Consider the peoples of the West. Witness how, in their pursuit of that which is vain and trivial, they have sacrificed, and are still sacrificing, countless lives for the sake of its establishment and promotion. The peoples of Persia, on the other hand, though the repository of a perspicuous and luminous Revelation, the glory of whose loftiness and renown hath encompassed the whole earth, are dispirited and sunk in deep lethargy.
Gleanings from the Writings of Bahá’u’lláh, XCVI p. 196
In this passage Bahá’u’lláh states that “a new life” was emerging at that time. None were able to discover its cause or perceive its motive. He goes on to show how the peoples of the West and of Persia responded to this new life. It seems to me that, in his discussion of the West, he is referring to the militarism associated with the rise of the modern nation-states, and is likely to be referring especially to the bloodshed the of the Franco-Prussian war of 1870-71. With regard to Persia, he is clearly referring to the appearance of his own teachings, and with them, those of the Bab. Worth noting, is that though culturally and geographically these were very separate phenomena, in the eyes of Baha’u’llah they are connected in some way to a single event, a “new life” stirring within all the peoples of the earth.

In a similar vein, ‘Abdu’l-Bahá addressed a gathering in New York in 1912 about the period of reformation the world of humanity had entered.
From every standpoint the world of humanity is undergoing a reformation. The laws of former governments and civilizations are in process of revision; scientific ideas and theories are developing and advancing to meet a new range of phenomena; invention and discovery are penetrating hitherto unknown fields, revealing new wonders and hidden secrets of the material universe; industries have vastly wider scope and production; everywhere the world of mankind is in the throes of evolutionary activity indicating the passing of the old conditions and advent of the new age of reformation. Old trees yield no fruitage; old ideas and methods are obsolete and worthless now. Old standards of ethics, moral codes and methods of living in the past will not suffice for the present age of advancement and progress.

This is the cycle of maturity and reformation in religion as well. Dogmatic imitations of ancestral beliefs are passing. They have been the axis around which religion revolved but now are no longer fruitful; on the contrary, in this day they have become the cause of human degradation and hindrance. Bigotry and dogmatic adherence to ancient beliefs have become the central and fundamental source of animosity among men, the obstacle to human progress, the cause of warfare and strife, the destroyer of peace, composure and welfare in the world. Consider conditions in the Balkans today: fathers, mothers, children in grief and lamentation, the foundations of life overturned, cities laid waste and fertile lands made desolate by the ravages of war. These conditions are the outcome of hostility and hatred between nations and peoples of religion who imitate and adhere to the forms and violate the spirit and reality of the divine teachings.

While this is true and apparent, it is, likewise, evident that the Lord of mankind has bestowed infinite bounties upon the world in this century of maturity and consummation. The ocean of divine mercy is surging, the vernal showers are descending, the Sun of Reality is shining gloriously. Heavenly teachings applicable to the advancement in human conditions have been revealed in this merciful age. This reformation and renewal of the fundamental reality of religion constitute the true and outworking spirit of modernism, the unmistakable light of the world, the manifest effulgence of the Word of God, the divine remedy for all human ailment and the bounty of eternal life to all mankind.
The Promulgation of Universal Peace, p. 439
Clearly, Bahá’u’lláh and ‘Abdu’l-Bahá are engaging with the discourse of their day on the significance of the time in which they were living, namely that humanity was entering a new era of human history, “a new day.” In fact, many would observe that it was during this time that the idea of history became more than a just a cataloging of past events; They would note that during this time the idea of history became the grand stretch of human existence by which humanity has leapt forward to its climax: the emergence of “modern” civilization. Typically modernity is associated with machine technology, democratic governance, mass education, and other contemporary phenonena. It is treated as a product of the West, originating there but imported around the world. But, with regard to Bahá’u’lláh and the mission he has given to humanity, reference to such features is too narrow of an analysis. Within the self-understanding of Bahá’u’lláh’s writings, the changes happening within European society were inseparable from what was happening within Persia: God’s revelation of himself to humanity through the persons of the Báb and Bahá’u’lláh.

Taken together, I think this provides a good context within which to read the statement of the Universal House of Justice: “That the world civilization now on humanity’s horizon must achieve a dynamic coherence between the material and spiritual requirements of life is central to the Bahá’í teachings.”

Later in 1912 ‘Abdu’l-Bahá shared his vision for the relationship between the material development of the West and the spiritual renewal brought by Bahá’u’lláh in the East. Here, we see how he envisions the coherence between them we must achieve, and the role this must play in bringing about a world civilization.
In the western world material civilization has attained the highest point of development, but divine civilization was founded in the land of the East. The East must acquire material civilization from the West, and the West must receive spiritual civilization from the East. This will establish a mutual bond. When these two come together, the world of humanity will present a glorious aspect, and extraordinary progress will be achieved. This is clear and evident; no proof is needed. The degree of material civilization in the Occident cannot be denied; nor can anyone fail to confirm the spiritual civilization of the Orient, for all the divine foundations of human uplift have appeared in the East. This, likewise, is clear and evident. Therefore, you must assist the East in order that it may attain material progress. The East must, likewise, promulgate the principles of spiritual civilization in the western world. By this commingling and union the human race will attain the highest degree of prosperity and development.
The Promulgation of Universal Peace, p. 165-6
Unity between East and West, the material and the spiritual: This is 'Abdu'l-Baha's vision of the emerging world civilization.

1 comment:

  1. An interesting and well-reasoned observation - the coherence between historical events in different parts of the world, and the interdependence these events' spiritual and material aspects.