It was only a few generations ago when the people ceased thinking that man, with the animals and plants, inhabited a world composed of “dead” matter. Life was conceived to be that which could think, feel, move or at least which could grow and reproduce.
As the notion of “life” has become extended until it includes all matter, all substance, and every ingredient and constituent of substance, so has the notion of religion developed until it applies to the whole of man. No longer is religion confined, like a small island in a great sea, to that little area of belief and practice specialized under the influence of a formal creed. It is the entire human life, its conscious and unconscious elements, its personal and social relationships, its affirmations and denials, its triumphs and defeats, its hidden as well as its revealed awareness and action, its unrealized possibility along with its recognized, admitted frustration and impotence.
The real aim of the physical sciences is fulfilled in knowledge of man. The physical and chemical principles discovered in the world have meaning only as they are principles of human life. Man himself is the universe in miniature. Physical science thus becomes part of a larger science of biology, and biological science in turn becomes a chapter in the greater volume of the human science, psychology.
A man’s whole life, and not merely his conscious creedal practice, is his religion. His highest love is conditioned by his profoundest hate; his supreme sacrifice is limited by his unconscious selfishness; his ideals and his daily life are a single reality, one and inseparable.
The social sciences likewise are dependent for their validity on human psychology. When a science calling itself “economics” gives official sanction for cruel indifference; when a science calling itself “politics” finds imperatives for armed frontiers, this lack of agreement between these social sciences and the sanctions of the separate department of human life called “religion” does not mean that men live in three separate worlds, obeying three mutually exclusive “laws” – it means simply that a general failure in the realm of motive and understanding has projected itself outward into society, and this failure men try to conceal from themselves and each other by labelling the anti-religious actions one or another “science.”
But just as these evasions and attempts at concealment in personal life sooner or later come to a balance of accounts with every other element of the personality, so the elaborate myth called “civilization” has now become rent to fragments as the social “sciences” and the formal creeds alike eventuate in a society which as a whole does not know how to survive. It matters not which element of the whole result is made the scapegoat – whether formal “religion” or “economics” or “politics” – the truth is that man himself has failed in his social relationships, and this failure in turn rests upon failure in his relationship to himself. The fictitious separation of life into formal departments, each with an exclusive label, has been an unconscious evasion of reality the final result of which was inevitable from the beginning.
On no other basis can we erect a spiritual knowledge preserving the responsibility on which integrity depends.
At some definite point of experience, the conscious person comes to realize the oneness of the universe and the wholeness of human personality. His formal religious beliefs undergo profound adjustment as he perceives their artificial separateness from the rest of his existence. Able no longer to isolate “Sunday” from the remaining days of the week, his new sense of cause and effect compels him to fit his religious values into experience as a whole. This adjustment in some cases enhances the whole of life with new spiritual possibility; in other cases what had been a mere artificial belief or practise is destroyed, and life as a whole becomes secular and without spiritual content. The philosophic projection of this awareness is pantheism or atheism – both are based upon an effort to realize the universe as homogeneous, as one. The only difference between pantheism and atheism is that the former raises everything to the “high” level of God, or Spirit, or Providence while the latter reduces everything to the “low” level of matter and natural law.
The similarity between pantheism and atheism is more vital than the difference. Both philosophies establish one single level; both maintain a view of the universe which interprets experience in terms of cause and effect operating on one plane. There is little real distinction between realizing all substance as “God” and realizing all experience as subject to natural law; for both views deprive one of the necessity of making any truly vital choice.
The realization of oneness, in fact, is but a starting point in the search for religion. Religion is distinctiveness as well as universality.
Historically, religion has a definite point of origin. No religion has come into existence without a Founder, a Prophet or Messiah.
Whether one considers Christianity, Judaism, Muhammadanism or any other organic religion historically, what appears is the phenomenon of religion as an experience suddenly interposed into the current stream of human life. This interposition compels the most vital choice or decision which life can offer. It creates a new standard of reality rising like a mountain from the plain of daily intercourse. Its influence sets the individual against his own past, and historically has always made a definite cleavage in the course of civilization. The prophet becomes identified with a higher possibility in the present, which necessarily divides the future from the past. Life tends to become dynamic and assert new directions, while the past exists in the present as inertia.
Religious history is meaningless when conceived merely as a time sequence without reference to the fundamental law of cycles. We take for granted the existence of this law whenever dealing with natural phenomena: the cycle of life operating for the tree from seed to fruit, for the human being from birth to death, even for the stars of immensest magnitude. But societies and social institutions seldom or never admit that for their own existence there is also an allotted period, the beginning of which is their birth, the end of which is their destruction, during the course of which they rise to a climax of maturity and power, receding thereafter until eventually they are no more. Tracing this development in Judaism we come to the civilization of Solomon, a glory that could not be retained. In Christianity we have the feudal age, when religion could he completely identified with civilization after which the Reformation destroyed the unity not only of the church but of the civilization as well. Here stands the origin of “modern” times, which actually have been the autumn and winter of faith. On one side has existed an alliance between national state, natural science, industry and militarism; on the other side the tradition of feudal aristocracy, the memory of a living unifying faith, the organization of the church.
Both phases in reality proceeded from the same prior condition. One can not be termed “Christian” and the other “pagan” or “non-Christian” with the slightest historical accuracy. For modern militarism, justified as the necessary virtue of the national state, derives immediately from the Crusades, justified as the necessary virtue of the church. The profit motive, justified as the necessary virtue of industry, derives immediately from the practice of the sale of indulgences, justified as the necessary virtue of the church. If modern science is condemned as “pagan,” a vast power delivered over to the secular realm, it must be recalled that the first faint beginnings of natural science were so resisted by the church that the scientists were compelled to develop their knowledge outside the religious community.
The Reformation, then, merely marks the point at which the historical religion has reaped its harvest, produced its richest fruit; and consequently could no longer maintain its internal unity nor its balance between religion and civilization.
The law of cycles operates in the case of religions and nations no less imperatively than in the case of trees, animals, planets and human beings. This law may for a time appear inoperative where the larger social bodies are concerned, but this is merely for the reason that man has yet attained no adequate sense of historical process, and also because even after a great social institution has died spiritually it can still survive physically for a relatively long period. But when a religion ceases to be the motive and inspiration of civilization, its date of death is recorded in the annals of destiny. And once this spiritual death has taken place, the religion can never be artificially revived.
The “modern” world, striving to transform nationalism into world order, overcome the antagonism of economic classes and reconcile peoples and creeds, is nothing else than a larger example of ancient Rome striving to maintain order, justice and law after its original impulse had ebbed and the creative power had passed from the imperial government to the weak, despised and minority body of Christians, reborn by the mystery of superhuman faith. Our social institutions are more powerful to destroy than to create; no matter how conscientiously administered, without transformation they are vessels not built to outride this time of worldwide storm.
When the creative power of spirit is withdrawn from the community as a whole, and the parts of the community engage in mutual struggle for predominance or survival, the life cycle of that social order has run its course.
Such is the nature of the present crisis. The old order was based historically upon Christianity in the West, upon Muhammanadism and other Faiths in the East. Each Faith had, in accordance with the principle underlying human society, developed a characteristic civilization representing a balance between legal, cultural, economic and social factors. All these regional civilizations had arrived at that stage in the cyclic process marked by the weakening of the original religious impulse, which bound the civilization together in one organism, and by the assertion of the superiority of the constituent parts over the whole.
As in Christianity a few centuries ago, so in Muhammadanism today, law, government, education and industry have thrown off the control of the religious tradition and undergone separate development, each seeking a fulfilment in terms of its own independent need and without reference to the general need of the community in its spiritual as well as material integrity. This development is more complete in the West, but the history of Europe since the Reformation has been paralleled in all essentials by the more recent experience of Turkey, Egypt and Iran.
The crucial point in this development is the transfer of social authority from a religious organization, by which it has been fatally abused, to a secular organisation explicitly claiming to be unmoral. At the stage of religious decay where this transfer of authority takes place, the secular government cannot control the entire area previously controlled by the religious influence. The transfer is characterized by the rise of several independent secular governments which divide the body of believers into separate, and potentially competitive nations. Western nationality arose from the spiritual death of Christendom, and the nations of Islam are similarly independent and exclusive.
The next step in the process, which in reality is disintegration and not “progress” except in a local and temporary degree, consists in the reinforcement of the secular (unmoral) authority by such laws and instruments as it deems necessary to protect itself in the rapidly augmenting struggle for national existence. Religion is replaced by patriotism of an exclusive nature, and the social duty of man becomes defense of his national state. Militarism inevitably develops. Compulsory military duty, found necessary as economic rivalry follows the original territorial competition of the states, sets mankind upon the path of death. In the modern world this complete divorce between spiritual and material values, enmeshing human life in a fatal net as economic and social existence come to depend upon struggle and competition rather than upon unity and cooperation, establishes a point of crisis imperilling the race. Authority, power and initiative throughout society are identified with unmoral institutions whose fiat controls a system of destruction well-nigh universal in capacity. On the other hand, the spiritual tradition of each race has become sterile, for ecclesiasticism is the negation of faith.
Such a jungle of competitive nationalism seems to reproduce, in terms of social organizations, the era of the pre-historic monsters marking an early stage in the biological evolution of the world of nature. Forms of life organized almost entirely for offense and defense had little available energy for the kind of response required in a changing world. Evolution left them behind. Their towering strength was their fatal weakness, and in their enormous aggressiveness they had no capacity to survive.
In the same way, the present stage of armed, competitive nationalism is essentially transitory and fugitive. The more aggressive it becomes, the less its capacity to meet social problems the only solution of which is non-aggression – cooperation. The states have waxed powerful upon the poverty of the people; their might is an illusion. They can destroy themselves by one final outburst of general war; or a series of revolutions, each perhaps small and almost unnoted, will evolve from them a type of government intelligent enough to deal with social relationships and moral enough to summon the highest and not the lowest impulses of an evolving race.
The key to future social evolution lies in the capacity for transformation rather than in mere progress and extension along the lines fixed by our prior history. For progress is the law of the cycle, but transformation is the sign that a cycle has run its term and a new age has dawned.
It is evolutionary progress when a form of life becomes larger, or fleeter by adaptation to its environment. This type of progress marks the biological world, where the natural environment is fundamentally constant. Likewise, when the social environment remains fundamentally constant, an institution progresses by growth in ways determined by its original character and aim.
Unlike nature, the social environment is subject to profound alteration. The development of machine production was more than progress from a small tool to a larger tool; it brought about an entirely different kind of society. Action and re-action in an industrialized society are not simply enlargement of the action and re-action of an agricultural, hand-craft society – they respond in quality to a different law. The plane has been raised from physical effort to intelligence.
As long as the simple law of progress applies to human society, the evil will be multiplied along with the good, the destruction will augment by the same ratio as the construction.
The symbol of transformation in the natural world is the organism like the butterfly, which at one stage is an egg, at the next stage is a caterpillar, becomes then a chrysalis in its cocoon, thence emerging as imago, the perfect insect with beautifully coloured wings. Applying the law of simple progress to this organism at any preliminary stage, we would have merely a larger egg, or a greater caterpillar or a larger and stronger cocoon. Metamorphosis is the scientific equivalent of that organic change which takes place in human society at those critical stages marked by the cycles of religion.
It is by no means necessary to contemplate a simple extension into the future of the social agencies dominating this transitional era. The progress of national government into empire is strictly limited by inter-state competition, and the progress of religion into the condition of world empire by any one creed is no less impossible.
The impermanence of the several civilizations now existing becomes clear when we give attention to the non-social character of the religions from which they separately sprang.
In the saying, “Give unto Caesar” we are compelled to note that the Founder of Christianity limited His spiritual teaching to persons, to individuals, and refrained from extending that teaching to establish a principle for society. The character and scope of the Christian teaching, at its source, clearly contemplated an era during which individuals were to cultivate a spiritual life, purifying their inner motives and assuming responsibility for their deeds, in contrast to and complete disregard of their social institutions. They were to seek a Kingdom in the realm of the awakened and conscious soul, but the world was Caesar’s and the successors of Caesar.
Moreover, that doctrine, at its source, does not fail to include a social principle alone: it is in essence a doctrine of the “heart” and makes no provision for the life of the mind. It justifies no particular social form, creates a basis for no particular type of social institution, and in nowise explains those aspects of life and the universe which constitute the ends of psychology and philosophy. It renewed man’s inner life, it revealed more fully than ever before the nature of God and the spiritual capacity of human beings; it released a quality of personal relationships on the high plane required to maintain the new vision of the sanctity of life; but Christianity, at its source and in its reality, supports no political principle, sustains no economic theory, outlines no cosmogony, throws no light upon man’s relation to the physical universe, and sanctions no conception of the function of mind.
These organic limitations, posed not by absence of power at the Source but by lack of capacity in the environment and age, mark a cycle whose term was set at its beginning. It signalizes one necessary stage in the evolution of religion, or rather in the upward march of conscious human life, but finality is entirely absent, because the requisite foundation in revealed truth for the wholeness of life was not spiritually established. Unlike a scientific formula, religious truth does not continue indefinitely and independent of the way it is applied. While a chemical action can be employed for good or evil ends with equal efficiency, a spiritual truth, to possess validity, must include the vital element represented by the believer’s quality of response. When the quality of response has fallen below the level of the aim implied in the truth, the truth becomes void of influence. The living impulse sent forth from its Source has been expended; what remains is a form of words, a lifeless symbol, a ceremony possessing psychic but not spiritual effect.
Civilization is the outworking of spiritual faith. That faith inspires fresh courage, removes the barriers of personality and groups, stimulates the mind to solve necessary problems from the point of view of the society as a whole, establishes a foundation of human reality raised above the bestial struggle for existence, and enables mankind to take one more forward step in its progress upon the eternal path.
There is, however, no historical permanence for any civilization equivalent to the universality of revelation upon the plane of soul. Until mankind is united within one true faith and within one order of justice and knowledge, the need of the renewal and enlargement of spiritual truth is manifest to all.
The external surface of human life, as recorded by sympathetic observers in every country, has become marked by appalling personal misery. Its innumerable details constitute a catalog which oppresses the heart like a Book of Doom. By war, by influenza, by poverty and by revolution a vast number of people have been reduced to a narrow margin of existence we thought had been left behind with the memories of the stone age before history began.
But this external surface does not reflect the entire content of modern life. The observer who concentrates all his attention upon the evidences of misfortune and suffering must be balanced by those who look with equal clarity beneath physical evidence to the inner surface and the foundations upon which human life is established. The world of the mind is rich with infinite possibilities, in tragic contrast to the poverty of the world of the body.
From the world of truth, as from an inexhaustible mine, we have derived truly miraculous reinforcement for the feeble body in its eternal struggle against the environment of nature. No longer need human aspiration and will be limited in fulfillment by the inadequate tool of hand and arm, directed by the inaccurate and incomplete guidance of the five physical senses. Mechanisms as sensitive as thought itself, as powerful as human ambition requires, stand as servants ready to carry out any material command. However far imagination may fly ahead, it can reach no ultimate limit beyond which the creative thought of the race dare not go.
But these two worlds, the world of body and the world of mind, though man lives native in both, appear to co-exist independently, in a relationship which is a separation no less than it is a contact. The scientist’s achievement in the form of truth has no human equivalent in the form of social security. The inventor’s technic has complicated existence but multiplied poverty. The world of truth is the modern Tantalus cup, offering what life cannot receive, even while it is likened to the slave of the lamp, fulfilling every command.
Social systems and programs devised during the last hundred years have one and all been efforts to confirm the contact and overcome the separation between the world of truth and the world of human experience. They have sought to mediate between the possibility of mind and the actuality of social need. What thought has accomplished in efficiency of mechanism it has endeavored to duplicate in efficiency of human relations. But every system and program combining the possibility of scientific truth with the social ingredient of human nature has produced not order but an increase of conflict. What appears perfectly fused in the crucible of abstract speculation reasserts its duality when put to the test of life. Socialism, communism, capitalism fundamentalist or reformed—all these systems alike—are unmistakably incapable of reconciling and blending the worlds of body and mind, the truths of science and society. The more that arbitrary power is applied to compel their acceptance as programs, the more explosive becomes the reaction of the human nature coerced in the name of efficiency and truth. Ours is not the first civilization to be brought to an end by mental capacity devoid of spiritual truth.
The unescapable historic fact is that the mediator between universe and humanity, the link between the world of truth and the world of social experience, has never been the speculative mind but the Prophet. The mind discovers only that which it seeks; its voyages of exploration bring back only that reality which can be confined in the small cage of material reason. The universe is not such captive truth, such mastered knowledge. The universe is the Will above and beyond man’s physical will; that Will by which man must become and not merely possess, by which man must serve and not merely enslave to himself. The life and words of a Moses, a Jesus, a Muhammad, by the spirit inspiring them are truth. Within that truth, since it contains man and is not merely man’s exploitation of what he contains, the life of the race is secure and progressive. Outside that truth, human existence moves ever toward destruction; for the Prophet is truth in that form in which it applies to the life of mankind.
By each Prophet is established a new civilization, because each Prophet establishes a spiritual world for the soul not less real than the nature which is the world of the body. The modern age, in all its social relationships, lies outside the spiritual world. Hence its agony, its frustration physical and mental, the degradation of an unrepentant Prodigal Son.
Never has there been such a time of sincere, whole-hearted searching for a foundation grounded not upon secondary, temporary historical events and developments but upon the nature of the universe itself.
This age, in its spirit, feels nearer to the ancient Prophets than has any generation since the first generation of believers laid down their lives that the divine Cause might prevail. Not in Christendom alone, but in the other existing civilizations, the appeal to the pure manifestation of love and wisdom, the racial Prophet, has become for many the last refuge of hope that human life can endure, can be meaningful and blessed upon this troubled earth.
Between themselves and that radiant Source of hope they feel the long centuries of strife and ignorance fading to the unreality of a frantic dream. Let mankind, they cry from the depths of their souls, let mankind make a new beginning; let life rest upon the sure foundation of the Divine will; let us become transformed, renewed with a new spirit, and in that spirit proceed to transform all things which are in denial of or in conflict with that eternal will. The nations hurry to destruction, they lament, when vision perishes. From this undying flame let our hearts and minds be kindled with the fire of love.
As the crisis persists, this call, feeble at first, becomes louder and more assured. First a personal attitude, then a social movement, gathering force and momentum, the going back to the Prophet now represents a mighty psychological crusade paralleling the physical crusades of medieval times.
To what degree can this movement be fulfilled?
The Prophet himself made a fundamental condition, that those who sought to follow him should abandon their goods, their wealth, and walk in his path. This was said to a rich man’s son, but does it not apply likewise to those who have inherited goods and wealth in the realm of mind? Does it not mean that those who seek to return today must abandon their acquired culture, their traditional philosophy, their ecclesiastical institutions, their rites and ceremonies, their pomp of church and churchly power? Either it means this, or it means nothing at all, for the Prophet was not slain by the materially rich of his day, he was slain by order of the established church.
For Christendom, surely, the sincerity of all effort to establish life upon Divine rather than upon human will must be tested by conformity to the conditions its own Prophet laid down. When the churches voluntarily disband, and people of all denominations and sects seek the Prophet upon absolutely equal terms, then, and then alone, will this psychological crusade reach the Holy Land. As long as certain individual believers alone fulfil this test, the movement will not affect the vital problems of civilization but remain in the limited realm of personal experience. It may produce a beautiful literature; it will not carry civilization outside its captivity to the lords of war.
There is also, it would appear, another essential condition to be met in this poignant appeal from the world to God: the recognition that other races likewise had their Prophets, their revelations of the Divine will. For without such recognition, the crusade goes hostile and armed, a challenge to battle and not a conquest of universal peace. These two conditions—at root one condition seen in two different aspects—may fairly be said to be so difficult of realization as to be highly improbable, if not impossible, at least without one single precedent in human history. Rivers flow downhill; and the water once descended from its spring does not return.
A contemporary historian remarks that the old world has died, but a new world has not yet been born. This view is no doubt the expression of an attitude which has come to prevail among many thoughtful people over a wide social area. It perceives that the foundation of the civilization existing prior to the European War cannot be rebuilt; it realizes to the full the present instability of conditions and the lack of agreement among aims and programs; it frankly admits that the future, both in general trend and in outline, is concealed from the rational mind. Its clarity of analysis of the past is matched by its incapacity for synthesis directed toward the future.
What emerges from consideration of this frank and sincere assertion is awareness of the artificial limitation assumed by the rational intelligence in dealing with the process of human history. By the phrase “old world” and “new world” it means civilization as formal institutions and established habits, and thereby overlooks the significant fact that civilization is an effect and not primarily a cause.
For civilization, long before it emerges in formal institutions, exists as an aspiration of the heart, as an ideal to be pursued and fulfilled by every faculty of mind and soul. It is only when human aspiration and ideal, shared by a considerable group or community, has gathered force and thrust through to the plane of social action, that civilization actually begins. Without this preliminary period of spiritual action, no civilization has ever become manifest. That period is to the later formal institutions and habits and doctrines as the root to the visible tree. Though the entire tree is potentially present in the seed, the great trunk and the widespread branches are contingent upon a period of prior and invisible growth within the soil.
To complete the thoughtful statement uttered by the historian, it is necessary to seek for the future “world” not in different programs and expedients adopted by the institutions of the dead “world” but in evidences of a spiritual life intense enough, universal enough, to establish within humanity that inner power required to raise the trunk and spread forth the branches of a tree whose fruit shall be universal peace.
World order, it is clear, represents a goal which includes the reconciliation of two values or ideals: the spiritual value of human brotherhood, and the social value of a united, an organic civilization. Without a firm and enduring basis in moral unity, the institutions of society, no matter how far extended, cannot alone produce peace but will remain as centers of disunity and strife. On the other hand, those instinctive anarchists who preach a “brotherhood” conceived as absence of governmental institutions are naïve and immature. Society without institutions would be a body without vital organs capable of expressing its various capacities and maintaining its existence.
These two values—humanity and civilization—have never been reconciled and united within the brief historic period known to the present age. We have had races but not mankind, cultures but not spiritual knowledge, nations but not civilization, and religions but not a brotherhood embracing the earth. We therefore approach the vital problem of world peace without experience of what world peace really is. World order—the goal of human evolution—cannot rightly be conceived as a mere truce or treaty between groups or institutions each born of past strife and discord, each cherishing a secret or avowed superiority and each committed to an ideal of sovereignty incompatible with the needs of permanent peace. Nor can world order be effectively upheld on terms of “non-cooperation” with existing agencies responsible for the little public order which now remains. Peace does not consist in abhorrence of war but in maintaining a steadfast conviction that the end of faith is human unity and the fulfilment of intelligence is a new social form, worldwide in scope and superior to the local forms which can no longer protect mankind and serve its highest interests.
In addition to a political world order, the attainment of universal peace involves:
- The harmony and cooperation of races.
- The unity of religions in a world faith.
- An economic world order in which capital and labor are conjoined in a relationship of partners and not competitors.
- Compulsory education throughout the world, and an education grounded in universal ethics and adapted so as to prepare every child for a useful trade, art or profession.
- A universal secondary language.
Compared to these organic aims, the peace efforts aimed at occasional details such as reduction of armaments or the signing of new treaties are insignificant. The character of this age is wholly new. It is charged with a spirit of transformation superficially violent but in reality constructive. The whole problem of world order consists in attaining an attitude of reverence and humility to that creative spirit.
The principles briefly stated here were promulgated more than twenty years ago by ‘Abdu’l-Bahá, in whom the spirit of the age found its most faithful interpreter and its noblest exemplar. He declared that humanity is entering upon its period of maturity, when powers will be given the world to achieve an organic unity never possible in any previous age. But ‘Abdu’l-Bahá made the enjoyment of these powers conditional upon purity of motive and acceptance of the oneness of mankind. Not for the people of prejudice and division, not for the organized selfishness of the rich nor the organized envy of the poor, but for those who have become truly human the day of universal peace has dawned. The way backward has become a door that is forever closed. Revolutions and wars bring no lasting fruit; arbitrary social laws, divorced from human values, bring no true security nor repose. The world needs a central point of inspiration raised above the clamors of history, a divine element, to supply a foundation for the latent unity within all people of good will.
“The foundations of all the divine religions are peace and agreement, but misunderstandings and ignorance have developed. If these are caused to disappear you will see that all the religious agencies will work for peace and promulgate the oneness of humankind. For the foundation of all is reality, and reality is not multiple or divisible. His Holiness Moses founded it, His Holiness Jesus raised its tent, and its brilliant light has shone forth in all the regions. His Holiness Bahá’u’lláh proclaimed this one reality and spread the message of the ‘Most Great Peace.’”