Security for a Failing World
The Rise and Decline of Religions
EVERYTHING in the world is subject to change," says 'Abdu'l-Bahá, "But this transmutation and change are requirements of life. See, for instance, these flowers before us. They come forth from a seed. They grow to perfection, but when they have reached the state of perfection they go back again. This is the invariable law of creation. Likewise man develops until he has grown to maturity. When he reaches beyond the state of maturity, he begins to decline. All religions of God are subject to this same law. They are founded in order to blossom out and develop and fulfil their mission. They reach their zenith and then decline and come to an end."
It is easier to perceive the decline in other religions than to become aware that the period of decline has been reached in one's own religion. Whether we like to acknowledge it or not, the fact is that Christianity, compared with its dynamic power in past centuries, manifests an evident decline of spiritual force. In the Western world science has ousted religion as the directive force of society, and religious skepticism has grown with great rapidity in exact proportion to the advance of scientific knowledge.
The age-long belief and faith in God — that ancient
characteristic known as piety — has almost entirely disappeared from the life of men in public affairs. A century ago in this country God was publicly recognized as the guiding power in all human affairs. Our coins bore the pious motto, "In God we trust." All public announcements were qualified by the initials, "D. V." — Deo volente (God willing). People in need asked charity "in the name of Christ." The conviction that one's actions here carried over into the life beyond was a strong motive in the ethical life of Christendom.
But now all these beliefs and practices have vanished from the life of the typically educated classes. People still recognize that the qualities enjoined upon Christians, as set forth in the New Testament, are admirable and worthy of cultivation. But that mystic power which enabled the early Christians to so remarkably express these spiritual qualities has almost entirely vanished from the life of Christendom.
We moderns are very conscious of the comforts and pleasures which science has brought us, but we are too little conscious of God as the one power which animates and dominates all things. We have strong aspirations for material progress, but too little aspiration for spiritual progress.
2Spiritual decline is not, however, unique to Christianity. It characterizes all the other existing world religions.
Buddhism, except for a few active sects, has for many centuries shown decrepitude and exhaustion. Today it exerts little influence as a factor in human culture and progress.
Confucianism has fallen before the onslaughts of science and modernism. The intellectual Chinese, while holding still to the symbolism of their Master, are entirely eclectic in their religious attitude. In 1903 the last class to receive the Confucian education was graduated from the Imperial University of Peking. Now the curriculum of Chinese education is secular and modernistic. Whatever there is left of ancient loyalties is being transferred to modern heroes such as Sun Yat Sen.
Muhammadanism, born later than any of these religions, has maintained its youth and vigor beyond any of them, as might be expected. It has been, and still is, the religion the most uniformly potent in the lives of its communicants, the most zealous, the most effectively propagandic. During the last hundred years Islam has won almost all Africa to its fold. But Islam, which up to the present moment has carried itself so proudly and vigorously, is now meeting with disaster under the blows of that same modern scientific knowledge which is tolling the death knell to the theological systems of all the other great world religions. Educated and intelligent Muslems are rapidly falling away from the Faith. They no longer hold themselves to the obligatory forms of their religion. A majority of them have become free thinkers. Those who retain any loyalty to their
religion are seeking to bring about reforms such as will harmonize Islam with the claims of modern science.
3What does all this mean? Does it mean that religion itself is dying out from the world, and that science will take its place? Twenty years ago it might have seemed that science could manage the world and guide it into permanent prosperity and happiness. But such does not now seem the case. Science has proved a marvelous instrument for material progress; but it is certain that no ideal civilization based upon justice and mutuality can be established by means of science alone. "Science is one of the wings with which humanity must fly; but religion is the other," says 'Abdu'l-Bahá.
If religion, however, is such a necessary force, why is it that the religions of the world today are suffering such a decline? Do not religions teach immortal Truth? Why, then, should they pass through these phases of decline and death?
4In order to understand what is happening to the spiritual life of humanity, we first must realize that religion in its essence is quite a different thing from religious institutionalism. Religion is pure Truth, or as much of pure Truth as humanity can receive. But the religious institutions founded upon this
Truth are the work of man. Gradually, through the accretions of centuries, there grows up a body of dogma and theology which has nothing to do with the pure spiritual teachings of the Founders. These accretions, like the lime that gathers in the arteries of the aged, prevent circulation. As the life force diminishes, senescence sets in.
One of the fundamental laws of the universe is that everything that is born must die. Everything that comes together by combination and accretion must suffer the final event of decomposition. Nothing in the phenomenal world is immortal, except life itself. Every form changes, yielding place to new and other forms.
Institutions, being man-made and partaking of the phenomenal rather than of the Real, pass through phases of birth, maturity, old age, and death as everything else in the phenomenal world must do. No institution upon this planet has yet proved permanent. It is safe to say that no institution ever will prove so. But just as the life force which underlies all the manifestations of nature is eternal, so the Truth and spiritual Force which underlie all the manifestations of religion are eternal. This Spiritual Force, just as the life force of nature, tends always to express itself in new forms progressively adapted to the needs of the times.
5It was Professor George Foote Moore, one of the greatest authorities on comparative religion, who
first made apparent to me this phenomenon of the evolution of religious institutionalism. All religions, he demonstrated in his course in comparative religion, pass through three stages. In the first and earliest stage, they strongly support ethics; in fact ethical and religious laws are one. In the second or intermediate stage, religious practices and ethical practices become neutral one to another; for the religious practices have taken on a form of ritualism which tends to flow along separately from the ethical life of the community.
In its third and last stage, religion becomes antagonistic to ethics. This strange event comes about in the following way: religious expression, now almost wholly ritualistic, lends itself to the uses of men who are powerfully exploiting their fellow beings and who want that communal dignity and respect which formal religious practice bestows. The church is not to blame if these respectability-seeking exploiters wish to avail themselves of its mantle; the church is mightily to blame, however, in allowing itself to lend dignity and respect to these exploiters.
Thus it has come about in the history of every religion that whereas in its early stages it powerfully directs the ethical life of its communicants--teaching justice, kindliness, service, and self-sacrifice — in its old age it not only tolerates, but allows itself to be put in a position of defending, unethical practices.
The history of Judaism vividly illustrates this truth. We find in the books of the prophets and in the words of Christ ample material evidencing
a periodic and general decline from the early simplicity and high ethical level of the patriarchal days. A very important part of the teaching of Jesus was His denunciation of this acquired unethical quality of Judaism. The Christ message can be seen as a new and powerful spiritual force opposing itself to the prevailing evils of greed and commercialism. In fact, it was this denunciation of the leaders of Judaism which brought about Christ's crucifixion. He might have gone on preaching as long as He wanted His doctrine of love, of simplicity, of trust in God--and His career would not have been disturbed. But not content with this He directly attacked the worldliness, the insincerity, the cynicism of the Church; and this is what brought about His martyrdom.
6The history of every great world religion, carefully studied, will reveal this same fundamental law: namely, that religion, as it tends to crystallize into form and ritual, correspondingly declines in spiritual power and in ethical effectiveness.
From the rational point of view, it is not surprising that religions, as institutions, should gradually mature, grow old, and lose their vitality. True, this pregnant fact has not been realized in the past by zealous adherents of the various religions. In fact, it is hard for adherents of any great institution to realize that this human organization to which they give their loyalty, which holds at the moment so much of power and vitality, is sure to decline and to be followed by other and newer institutions, just as
the spring of one year must decline and give place to the spring of another year.
Only until recently have humans been capable of viewing their evolution scientifically, objectively, and impersonally; of getting outside of themselves — so to speak — and studying the processes by which humanity unfolds its powers and gradually advances. By the aid of modern scientific research religious institutions can be studied in their origin, their development, and their decline — just as can other human institutions social, political, or economic. For the first time in history the comparative study of religions has become possible, and intelligent people can trace the law of evolution and progress working here as elsewhere.
7The various stages in the evolution of religions do not mean, however, that the Truth which is the basis and the foundation of the Church suffers any diminution in its Reality. Truth is always Truth. It; may suffer eclipse but it never dies. From the pristine words and deeds of the Founder of a religion there emanates a dynamic power enabling communicants to live spiritual lives. This power, however, becomes lessened by the process of time. Humanity, like a battery which has to be recharged, is under the necessity of fresh spiritual impulse at stated intervals. Fortunately for the spiritual evolution of humanity, at every epoch when one religion has been
outgrown a new religion has magically arisen — a religion full of vital hope and promise and charged with the power to remold and to remake the lives of its communicants.
Such religions do not spring up by chance. They come as a special communication and dispensation of that great Creative and Guiding Force of the universe which we call God; and they are revealed through spiritualized beings who are special channels for the flow of this Creative Force.
These founders of religions not only proclaim anew the everlasting truths and universal moral laws which must guide humanity, but they bring a subtle and tremendous force to bear upon the life of humanity. They are human dynamos generating from the World of the Unseen an electric spiritual force which they communicate to their disciples. The disciples, charged with this force, are able in turn to communicate it to others.
The Great Teachers of humanity are perfect mirrors of the Divine. They manifest the power and attributes of the Infinite, which in its Essence is unknowable to man but which in its effect can be perceived and realized. Focusing the rays of the Holy Spirit, they act as channels through which a Cosmic force is spread over the whole world, changing human lives and regenerating the souls of men. "They are the great ambassadors of God," says the English mystic Geoffrey Hodson, describing the world Saviors. "They live on earth to form an embassy through which They may represent the glory, the splendor, the bliss of the Land in which
They dwell. The embodiments of unity; masters of life, conquerors of form; illumined by the vision of the highest; they keep alive the flame of idealism in the souls of men, lest it should die out, and dying, leave mankind without a light to guide him on his long journey through the dark night of time and space. They live but to show to men the way from the darkness to the light."
8In the fresh new periods of religions we see all the glory and the vigor of youth. A religion flourishes, grows, expands, as does nature in her spring; next, it reaches a maturity which is expressed more in tranquillity than in expansive force; afterwards comes the autumn of religion with its rich fruit of noble and humanitarian institutions; finally comes the winter of religion when the vital forces withdraw and all the institutions and outer forms lose their vitality and elan. Then it is that a new dispensation is needed. And when needed, it never fails to come.
"Every spring has an autumn and every autumn has its spring. For instance, the appearance of His Holiness Christ was a divine springtime.... The Sun of Reality dawned, the cloud of mercy poured down its rain, the breezes of Providence moved, the world became a new world, mankind reflected an extraordinary radiance, souls were educated, minds were developed, intelligences became acute and the human world attained a new freshness of life like unto the advent of spring. Then gradually that
spring was followed by the autumn of death and decay.... The people became negligent and oblivious. Minds weakened until conditions reached such a crisis that material science rose in the ascendant.... The nations were enmeshed in superstition and blind imitation. Discard and disagreement arose, culminating in strife, war, and bloodshed. Hearts were torn asunder in violence. Various denominations appeared, diverse sects and creeds arose, and the whole world was plunged into darkness."
"The divine religions are like the progression of the seasons of the year. When the earth becomes dead and desolate and because of frost and cold no trace of vanished spring remains, the springtime dawns again and clothes everything with a garment of life.... The Divine Prophets are as the coming of spring, each renewing and quickening the teachings of the Prophet who came before Him."
9Such has been the history of religions upon this planet, and we may well reason that such will always be the case. There never will be, never can be, a religious institution endowed with immortality. Religions will continue to rise and fall as they have done in the past. But the Truth which is back of these religions remains ever fresh, ever creative, ever living.