Perspective: Writing our common future
[The following is adapted from a statement titled "Who is Writing the Future?: Reflections on the Twentieth Century," which was released by the Bahá'í International Community's Office of Public Information in February 1999. The statement examines the events of the twentieth century in light of the teachings of Bahá'u'lláh (1817-1892), the Founder of the Bahá'í Faith, and looks to the challenges facing humanity at the century's end.]
The unification of the earth's inhabitants is neither a remote utopian vision nor, ultimately, a matter of choice. It constitutes the next, inescapable stage in the process of social evolution, a stage toward which all the experience of past and present is impelling us. Until this issue is acknowledged and addressed, none of the ills afflicting our planet will find solutions, because all the essential challenges of the age we have entered are global and universal, not particular or regional.
The last one hundred years have witnessed a transformation in both the way the earth's inhabitants have begun to plan our collective future and in the way we are coming to regard one another. The hallmark of both has been a process of unification. Upheavals beyond the control of existing institutions compelled world leaders to begin putting in place new systems of global organization that would have been unthinkable at the century's beginning.
At the midpoint of the century, these two developments produced a breakthrough whose historic significance only future generations will properly appreciate. In the aftermath of World War II, far-sighted leaders found it at last possible, through the United Nations organization, to begin consolidating the foundations of world order. As with the cause of world order, so with the rights of the world's people. Exposure of the appalling suffering visited on the victims of human perversity during the course of the war produced a worldwide sense of shock. Out of this trauma emerged a new kind of moral commitment that was formally institutionalized in the work of the United Nations Commission on Human Rights and its associated agencies.
A parallel process took place with respect to economic life. During the first half of the century, as a consequence of the havoc wrought by the great depression, many governments adopted legislation that created social welfare programs and systems of financial control, reserve funds, and trade regulations that sought to protect their societies from a recurrence of such devastation. At century's end - whatever the intentions and however crude the present generation of tools - the masses of humanity have been shown that the use of the planet's wealth can be fundamentally reorganized in response to entirely new conceptions of need. The effect of these developments was enormously amplified by the accelerating extension of education to the masses.
This process of structural reorganization on a planetary scale was animated and reinforced by a profound shift of consciousness. Throughout history, for example, experience seemed to demonstrate - and religious teaching to confirm - that women are inferior in nature to men.This prevailing perception was suddenly everywhere in retreat.
Yet another fixture of humanity's view of itself throughout past millennia was a celebration of ethnic distinctions which, in recent centuries, had hardened into various racist fantasies. With a swiftness that is breathtaking in the perspective of history, the twentieth century saw the unity of the human race establish itself as a guiding principle of international order. Today, the ethnic conflicts that continue to wreak havoc in many parts of the world are seen not as natural features of the relations among diverse peoples, but as willful aberrations that must be brought under effective international control.
Throughout humanity's long childhood, it was also assumed that poverty was an enduring and inescapable feature of the social order. Now, however, this mind-set, an assumption that had shaped the priorities of every economic system the world had ever known, has been universally rejected. In theory at least, government has come to be everywhere regarded as essentially a trustee responsible to ensure the well-being of all of society's members.
Particularly significant was the loosening of the grip of religious prejudice. In the words of Bahá'u'lláh, "There can be no doubt whatever that the peoples of the world, of whatever race or religion, derive their inspiration from one heavenly Source, and are the subjects of one God."
During these critical decades the human mind was also experiencing fundamental changes in the way that it understood the physical universe. The first half of the century saw the new theories of relativity and quantum mechanics - both related to the nature of light - revolutionize the field of physics and alter the entire course of scientific development. Humanity entered an era in which interaction among physical sciences-physics, chemistry, and biology, along with the nascent science of ecology-opened breathtaking possibilities for the enhancement of life.
The human race is now endowed with the means needed to realize the visionary goals summoned up by a steadily maturing consciousness. Viewed more deeply, this empowerment is potentially available to all of the earth's inhabitants, without regard to race, culture, or nation.
To appreciate the transformations brought about by the period of history now ending is not to deny the accompanying darkness that throws the achievements into sharp relief: the deliberate extermination of millions of helpless human beings, the invention and use of new weapons of destruction capable of annihilating whole populations, the rise of ideologies that suffocated the spiritual and intellectual life of entire nations, damage to the physical environment of the planet on a scale so massive that it may take centuries to heal, and the incalculably greater damage done to generations of children taught to believe that violence, indecency, and selfishness are triumphs of personal liberty.
Darkness, however, is not a phenomenon endowed with some form of existence, much less autonomy. It does not extinguish light nor diminish it, but marks out those areas that light has not reached or adequately illumined.
"Peerless is this Day," Bahá'u'lláh insists, "for it is as the eye to past ages and centuries, and as a light unto the darkness of the times." In this perspective, the issue is how much more suffering and ruin must be experienced by our race before we wholeheartedly accept the spiritual nature that makes us a single people, and gather the courage to plan our future in the light of what has been so painfully learned.
The conception of civilization's future course laid out in Bahá'u'lláh's writings challenges much that today imposes itself on our world as normative and unchangeable. If human consciousness is essentially spiritual in nature - as the vast majority of ordinary people have always been intuitively aware - its development needs cannot be understood or served through an interpretation of reality that dogmatically insists otherwise.
No aspect of contemporary civilization is more directly challenged by Bahá'u'lláh's conception of the future than is the prevailing cult of individualism, which has spread to most parts of the world. Nurtured by such cultural forces as political ideology, academic elitism, and a consumer economy, the "pursuit of happiness" has given rise to an aggressive and almost boundless sense of personal entitlement. The moral consequences have been corrosive for the individual and society alike - and devastating in terms of disease, drug addiction and other all-too-familiar blights of century's end.
The primary disease that afflicts society and generates the ills that cripple it, Bahá'u'lláh says, is the disunity of a human race that is distinguished by its capacity for collaboration and whose progress to date has depended on the extent to which unified action has, at various times and in various societies, been achieved.
Intimately related to the issue of unity is a second moral challenge that the past century has posed with ever increasing urgency. In the sight of God, Bahá'u'lláh insists, justice is the "best beloved of all things". If the body of humankind is indeed one and indivisible, then the authority exercised by its governing institutions represents essentially a trusteeship. Each individual person comes into the world as a trust of the whole, and it is this feature of human existence that constitutes the real foundation of the social, economic and cultural rights.
Responding to the impulses of the Divine, the earth's peoples have progressively developed the spiritual, intellectual, and moral capacities that have combined to civilize human character. This millennia-long, cumulative process has now reached the stage characteristic of all the decisive turning points in the evolutionary process, when previously unrealized possibilities suddenly emerge: "This is the Day", Bahá'u'lláh asserts, "in which God's most excellent favors have been poured out upon men, the Day in which His most mighty grace hath been infused into all created things."
Viewed through Bahá'u'lláh's eyes, then, the history of tribes, peoples, and nations has effectively reached its conclusion. What we are witnessing is the beginning of the history of humankind, the history of a human race conscious of its own oneness.
The opening years of the new century will undoubtedly see the release of energies and aspirations infinitely more potent than the accumulated routines, falsities, and addictions that have so long blocked their expression.
However great the turmoil, the next period will open to every individual, every institution, and every community unprecedented opportunities to participate in the writing of the planet's future. "Soon", is Bahá'u'lláh's confident promise, "will the present-day order be rolled up, and a new one spread out in its stead."