How does one consider achieving peace while living in a world that is currently confused, polarized and disunited? How do we live in a manner that leads to peaceful cooperation? We have, historically, tried various political and economic systems and yet we, as a society, continue to exist in a seemingly endless downward spiral with only brief peace-like respites. Given our current set of conditions, we can guess where it all leads if a fundamental change doesn’t occur.
It appears that humanity is in need of asking itself certain fundamental questions, such as: Who am I? What is the purpose for my existence? What do I believe in? How should I correctly act towards others? Once we begin to discern answers to these and other questions of value and character can we start to move ourselves and our society towards a more unified and productive direction. A direction that leads us out of ourselves and begins to widen our vision.
Part of the answer, I believe, is religion; a strongly felt and often misunderstood word. Modern scholars trace the word’s origin to the Latin, religio or re-ligare, meaning to connect or bind together. This is the word origin that I prefer. Religio was once considered an obligation in the worldly sense, as in an individual having social obligations to family, friends and neighbors … it also included on obligation to God (or gods, in the Latin sense).
The religious community I belong to (the Bahá’í Faith) believes that a modern re-conception of religion contains within it the seeds of an ancient obligation; that achieving peace occurs through individual spiritual transformation as part of a fundamental obligation to ourselves and others. We believe this is not only probable, but imperative. While most of us proclaim a vague desire for peace, there is a general notion, long held, that humankind is incorrigibly selfish, competitive and aggressive. As such it is incapable of creating a social system that is progressive, peaceful, dynamic and harmonious; a system that encourages individual creativity and enterprise, but is still based on cooperation and reciprocity.
As a member of my religious community I am learning that many of the commonly held views upon which our society is based require fundamental change. It is a generally accepted view that humans are solely material beings without a spiritual dimension. When, in truth, we are dual-natured creations. And, that conflict based on the acquisition of resources, maximizing short-term profit and zero-sum competition are the only provable methods by which we as individuals, and as a society, can benefit. Seemingly, we can imagine no other way.
It is the Bahá’í belief that collectively human society has evolved, over eons, from a type of infancy towards adolescence and finally is emerging into adulthood. Along the way, we developed social and technical systems, but our ethical and moral imperatives lag way behind. We pay a price by not co-evolving a well-developed system of ethics and morals to help restrain our more immature urges. A careful review of the historical evidence demonstrates that society’s dominant focus on materialism is increasingly diminishing the role played by the human spirit; and the diminishment is increasing.
It is the human spirit that forges positive change through the creative impulse. Given the dynamics and conflicts of the present hour we have but little choice. The material attributes of humanity must give way to a more balanced approach which incorporates a significant spiritual component. A new process of peaceful cooperation needs to be set in motion. A process that will prove to be the most practical and achievable for our survival and evolving maturity as a species.
Humanity, stubbornly clinging to old patterns of behavior offers a very poor substitute for a cooperative happiness and peace. Continuing injustice only perpetuates fear and anger. The achievement of peace and stability, embraced by a positive act of human willpower, is now a stark choice we all face.
For those who decide to hear and see, the evidence clearly show that most of our intractable problems, whether political, economic, climate, or societal have become fused into one common concern for the entire planet. For us to fail in stemming a rapidly approaching disunity and disorder will be, for us all, unconscionably irresponsible and potentially fatal.
Bahá’ís believe that the Founder of their faith, Baha’u’lláh (1817-1891) a title meaning (The Glory of God) has placed his prophetic finger on the nexus of the problem. His diagnoses were written from the mid- to late-18th century while still a prisoner of the Ottoman and Qajar Empires. His offense was that he freely offered to Mankind a way out of the morass of religious and political confusion which the prevailing religious and secular authorities found very destabilizing. Among his thousands of pages of writings, he stated:
The winds of despair are, alas, blowing from every direction, and the strife that divides and afflicts the human race is daily increasing. The signs of impending convulsions and chaos can now be discerned, inasmuch as the prevailing order appears to be lamentably defective.
And what did he offer as a solution? Religious Faith, but cast anew.
Religion is the greatest of all means for the establishment of order in the world and for the peaceful contentment of all that dwell therein. Should the lamp of religion be obscured, chaos and confusion will ensue, and the lights of fairness, of justice, of tranquillity and peace cease to shine.
It is further stated in these writings that perversion of human nature, the degradation of human conduct, the corruption and dissolution of human institutions, reveal themselves, under such circumstances, in their worst and most revolting aspects. Human character is debased, confidence is shaken, the nerves of discipline are relaxed, the voice of human conscience is stilled, the sense of decency and shame is obscured, conceptions of duty, of solidarity, of reciprocity and loyalty are distorted, and the very feeling of peacefulness, of joy and of hope is gradually extinguished.
He was not solely speaking of historical religion, but of religion that is renewed every few centuries through a process of continual and progressive, divinely revealed writings and guidance for humanity.
And so, we are faced with a conundrum; humanity clearly desires peace and prosperity, yet our various social systems won’t provide for it. At the same time, essential religious teachings have become clouded and difficult to discern amongst the cloud of materialism. How to move beyond this seemingly intractable problem?
The answers appear simple, but require individual and community introspection and determined effort. The universal themes he enunciated in the 19th century are the elimination of all forms of prejudice; the essential oneness of all of humanity; fundamental equality of the sexes, harmony between science and religion, justice as a central feature of all human interaction, universal education as a core right for human endeavor, the recognition that we all worship one God regardless of belief, and a consultative approach to all decision-making. And, he provided a pattern for achievement which all Bahá’ís follow
This history of religious faith has offered, at best, mixed results for the generality of humankind. Much of this can be attributed to its past naïve and immature application. Contending religious theologies have historically impeded our path towards peace, as have governing political philosophies. While the need for peace in the world becomes more urgent, the demand for a reassessment of societal values and assumptions becomes ever greater; this includes, I believe, how each of us views religious faith as a necessary and vital component of society’s health and well-being.
From a Bahá’í point of view, the confusion and calamity surrounding current human affairs is an evolutionary phase in an organic process which will ultimately lead to the unification of the human race. This unification will bring with it an associated peace and prosperity based on mutual cooperation and security. Humanity, while currently moving out of a turbulent adolescence, is on the brink of a more mature spiritual adulthood and is inexorably approaching a long-awaited, long-prophesized coming of age.
We begin by acknowledging that prejudice, hate, war, injustice and the exploitation of humans and nature reflects the attributes of an immature stage in humanity’s development. The tumult we are experiencing should be regarded as a signpost pointing towards the coming maturity of the human race. Once acknowledged, we can then begin the process of re-examination and renewal as we inexorably move on to a newly revived future of mutual peace and cooperation.
The choice to believe and act as if peace is truly an attainable reality rests solely within ourselves and within our vision. We all have decisions to make.
- Peace: Through Religion Cast Anew – by Andrew Lefton - December 14, 2020