Century of Light
THE IMAGE USED BY 'ABDU'L-BAHÁ to capture for His hearers the coming transformation of society was that of light. Unity, He declared, is the power that illuminates and advances all forms of human endeavour. The age that was opening would come in the future to be regarded as "the century of light", because in it universal recognition of the oneness of humankind would be achieved. With this foundation in place, the process of building a global society embodying principles of justice will begin.
The vision was enunciated by the Master in several Tablets and addresses. Its fullest expression occurs in a Tablet addressed by 'Abdu'l-Bahá to Jane Elizabeth Whyte, wife of the former Moderator of the Free Church of Scotland. Mrs. Whyte was an ardent sympathizer of the Bahá'í teachings, had visited the Master in 'Akká and would later make arrangements for the particularly warm reception that met Him in Edinburgh. Using the familiar metaphor of "candles", 'Abdu'l-Bahá wrote to Mrs. Whyte:
O honored lady!... Behold how its [unity's] light is now dawning upon the world's darkened horizon. The first candle is unity in the political realm, the early glimmerings of which can now be discerned. The second candle is unity of thought in world undertakings, the
consummation of which will erelong be witnessed. The third candle is unity in freedom which will surely come to pass. The fourth candle is unity in religion which is the corner-stone of the foundation itself, and which, by the power of God, will be revealed in all its splendor. The fifth candle is the unity of nations — a unity which in this century will be securely established, causing all the peoples of the world to regard themselves as citizens of one common fatherland. The sixth candle is unity of races, making of all that dwell on earth peoples and kindreds of one race. The seventh candle is unity of language, i.e., the choice of a universal tongue in which all peoples will be instructed and converse. Each and every one of these will inevitably come to pass, inasmuch as the power of the Kingdom of God will aid and assist in their realization.
While it will be decades — or perhaps a great deal longer — before the vision contained in this remarkable document is fully realized, the essential features of what it promised are now established facts throughout the world. In several of the great changes envisioned — unity of race and unity of religion — the intent of the Master's words is clear and the processes involved are far advanced, however great may be the resistance in some quarters. To a large extent this is also true of unity of language. The need for it is now recognized on all sides, as reflected in the circumstances that have compelled the United Nations and much of the non-governmental community to adopt several "official languages". Until a decision is taken by international agreement, the effect of such developments as the Internet, the management of air traffic, the development of technological vocabularies of various kinds, and universal education itself, has been to make it possible, to some extent, for English to fill the gap.
"Unity of thought in world undertakings", a concept for which the most idealistic aspirations at the opening of the twentieth century lacked even reference points, is also in large measure everywhere apparent in vast programmes of social and economic development, humanitarian aid and concern for protection of the environment of the planet and its oceans. As to "unity in the political realm", Shoghi Effendi has explained that the
reference is to unity which sovereign states achieve among themselves, a developing process the present stage of which is the establishment of the United Nations. The Master's promise of "unity of nations", on the other hand, looked forward to today's widespread acceptance among the peoples of the world of the fact that, however great the differences among them may be, they are the inhabitants of a single global homeland.
"Unity in freedom" has today, of course, become a universal aspiration of the Earth's inhabitants. Among the chief developments giving substance to it, the Master may well have had in mind the dramatic extinction of colonialism and the consequent rise of self-determination as a dominant feature of national identity at century's end.
Whatever threats still hang over humanity's future, the world has been transformed by the events of the twentieth century. That the features of the process should also have been described by the Voice that predicted it with such confidence ought to command earnest reflection on the part of serious minds everywhere.
The changes wrought in humanity's social and moral life received powerful endorsement at a series of international gatherings called under the United Nations' authority to mark the approaching end of one "millennium" and the beginning of a new one. On 22-26 May 2000, representatives of over one thousand non-governmental organizations assembled in New York at the invitation of Kofi Annan, the United Nations Secretary-General. In the statement that emerged from this meeting, spokespersons of civil society committed their organizations to the ideal that: "...we are one human family, in all our diversity, living on one common homeland and sharing a just, sustainable and peaceful world, guided by universal principles of democracy...."
Shortly afterwards, from 28-31 August 2000, a second gathering brought together leaders of most of the world's religious communities, likewise assembled at the United Nations Headquarters. The Bahá'í International Community was represented by its Secretary-General, who
addressed one of the plenary sessions. No observer could fail to be struck by the call of the world's religious leaders, formally, for their communities "to respect the right to freedom of religion, to seek reconciliation, and to engage in mutual forgiveness and healing...."
These two preliminary events prepared the way for what had been designated as the Millennium Summit itself, meeting at the United Nations Headquarters from 6-8 September 2000. Bringing together 149 heads of state and government, the consultation sought to give hope and assurance to the populations of the nations represented. The Summit took the welcome step of inviting a spokesman for the Forum of non-governmental organizations to share the concerns that had been identified at that preparatory gathering. It seemed to Bahá'ís as significant as it was gratifying that the individual accorded this high honour was the Bahá'í International Community's Principal Representative to the United Nations, in his capacity as Co-Chairman of the Forum. Nothing so dramatically illustrates the difference between the world of 1900 and that of 2000 than the text of the Summit Resolution, signed by all the participants, and referred by them to the United Nations General Assembly:
We solemnly reaffirm, on this historic occasion, that the United Nations is the indispensable common house of the entire human family, through which we will seek to realize our universal aspirations for peace, cooperation and development. We therefore pledge our unstinting support for these common objectives, and our determination to achieve them.
In concluding this sequence of historic meetings, Mr. Annan addressed himself to the assembled world leaders in surprisingly candid terms — terms that, for many Bahá'ís, carried echoes of Bahá'u'lláh's stern admonition to the now vanished kings and emperors who had been these leaders' predecessors: "It lies in your power, and therefore it is your responsibility, to reach the goals that you have defined. Only you can determine whether the United Nations rises to the challenge."
Despite the historic importance of the meetings and the fact that the greater portion of humanity's political, civil and religious leadership took part, the Millennium Summit made little impression on the public mind in most countries. Generous media attention was given to certain of the events, but few readers or listeners could fail to note the expression of scepticism that characterized editorial treatment of the subject or the air of doubt — even of cynicism — that crept into many of the news stories themselves. This sharp disjunction between an event that could legitimately claim to mark a major turning-point in human history, on the one hand, and the lack of enthusiasm or even interest it aroused among populations who were its supposed beneficiaries, on the other, was perhaps the most striking feature of the millennium observations. It exposed the depth of the crisis the world is experiencing at century's end, in which the processes of both integration and disintegration that had gathered momentum during the past hundred years seem to accelerate with each passing day.
Those who long to believe the visionary statements of world leaders struggle at the same time in the grip of two phenomena that undermine such confidence. The first has already been considered at some length in these pages. The collapse of society's moral foundations has left the greater part of humankind floundering without reference points in a world that grows daily more threatening and unpredictable. To suggest that the process has nearly reached its end would be merely to raise false hopes. One may appreciate that intense political efforts are being made, that impressive scientific advances continue or that economic conditions improve for a portion of humankind — all without seeing in such developments anything resembling hope of a secure life for oneself, or more importantly, for one's children. The sense of disillusionment which, as Shoghi Effendi warned, the spread of political corruption would create in the minds of the mass of humankind is now widespread. Outbreaks of lawlessness have become pandemic in both urban and rural life in many lands. The failure of social controls, the effort to justify the most extreme forms of aberrant behaviour as primarily civil rights issues, and an almost
universal celebration in the arts and media of degeneracy and violence — these and similar manifestations of a condition approaching moral anarchy suggest a future that paralyzes the imagination. Against the background of this desolate landscape the intellectual vogue of the age, seeking to make a virtue out of grim necessity, has adopted for itself the appellation and mission of "deconstructionism".
The second of the two developments undermining faith in the future was the focus of some of the Millennium Summit's most anguished debates. The information revolution set off in the closing decade of the century by the invention of the World Wide Web transformed irreversibly much of human activity. The process of "globalization" that had been following a long rising curve over a period of several centuries was galvanized by new powers beyond the imaginations of most people. Economic forces, breaking free of traditional restraints, brought into being during the closing decade of the century a new global order in the designing, generation and distribution of wealth. Knowledge itself became a significantly more valuable commodity than even financial capital and material resources. In a breathtakingly short space of time, national borders, already under assault, became permeable, with the result that vast sums now pass instantly through them at the command of a computer signal. Complex production operations are so reconfigured as to integrate and maximize the economies available from the contributions of a range of specializing participants, without regard to their national locations. If one were to lower one's horizon to purely material considerations, the earth has already taken on something of the character of "one country" and the inhabitants of various lands the status of its consumer "citizens".
Nor is the transformation merely economic. Increasingly, globalization assumes political, social and cultural dimensions. It has become clear that the powers of the institution of the nation-state, once the arbiter and protector of humanity's fortunes, have been drastically eroded. While national governments continue to play a crucial role, they must now make room for such rising centres of power as multinational corporations, United Nations agencies, non-governmental organizations of every kind, and huge media conglomerates, the cooperation of all of which is
vital to the success of most programmes aimed at achieving significant economic or social ends. Just as the migration of money or corporations encounters little hindrance from national borders, neither can the latter any longer exercise effective control over the dissemination of knowledge. Internet communication, which has the ability to transmit in seconds the entire contents of libraries that took centuries of study to amass, vastly enriches the intellectual life of anyone able to use it, as well as providing sophisticated training in a broad range of professional fields. The system, so prophetically foreseen sixty years ago by Shoghi Effendi, builds a sense of shared community among its users that is impatient of either geographic or cultural distances.
The benefits to many millions of persons are obvious and impressive. Cost effectiveness resulting from the coordination of formerly competing operations tends to bring goods and services within the reach of populations who could not previously have hoped to enjoy them. Enormous increases in the funds available for research and development expand the variety and quality of such benefits. Something of a levelling effect in the distribution of employment opportunities can be seen in the ease with which business operations can shift their base from one part of the world to another. The abandonment of barriers to transnational trade reduces still further the cost of goods to consumers. It is not difficult to appreciate, from a Bahá'í perspective, the potentiality of such transformations for laying the foundations of the global society envisioned in Bahá'u'lláh's Writings.
Far from inspiring optimism about the future, however, globalization is seen by large and growing numbers of people around the world as the principal threat to that future. The violence of the riots set off by the meetings of the World Trade Organization, the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund during the last two years testifies to the depth of the fear and resentment that the rise of globalization has provoked. Media coverage of these unexpected outbursts focused public attention on protests against gross disparities in the distribution of benefits and opportunities, which globalization is seen as only increasing, and on warnings that, if effective controls are not speedily imposed, the consequences will be catastrophic in social and political, as well as in
economic and environmental, terms.
Such concerns appear well-founded. Economic statistics alone reveal a picture of current global conditions that is profoundly disturbing. The ever-widening gulf between the one fifth of the world's population living in the highest income countries and the one fifth living in the lowest income countries tells a grim story. According to the 1999 Human Development Report published by the United Nations Development Programme, this gap represented, in 1990, a ratio of sixty to one. That is to say, one segment of humankind was enjoying access to sixty percent of the world's wealth, while another, equally large, population struggled merely to survive on barely one percent of that wealth. By 1997, in the wake of globalization's rapid advance, the gulf had widened in only seven years to a ratio of seventy-four to one. Even this appalling fact does not take into account the steady impoverishment of the majority of the remaining billions of human beings trapped in the relentlessly narrowing isthmus between these two extremes. Far from being brought under control, the crisis is clearly accelerating. The implications for humanity's future, in terms of privation and despair engulfing more than two thirds of the Earth's population, helped to account for the apathy that met the Millennium Summit's celebration of achievements that were, by all reasonable criteria, truly historic.
Globalization itself is an intrinsic feature of the evolution of human society. It has brought into existence a socio-economic culture that, at the practical level, constitutes the world in which the aspirations of the human race will be pursued in the century now opening. No objective observer, if he is fair-minded in his judgement, will deny that both of the two contradictory reactions it is arousing are, in large measure, well justified. The unification of human society, forged by the fires of the twentieth century, is a reality that with every passing day opens breath-taking new possibilities. A reality also being forced on serious minds everywhere, is the claim of justice to be the one means capable of harnessing these great potentialities to the advancement of civilization. It no longer requires the gift of prophecy to realize that the fate of humanity in the century now opening will be determined by the relationship estab-
lished between these two fundamental forces of the historical process, the inseparable principles of unity and justice.
In the perspective of Bahá'u'lláh's teachings, the greatest danger of both the moral crisis and the inequities associated with globalization in its current form is an entrenched philosophical attitude that seeks to justify and excuse these failures. The overthrow of the twentieth century's totalitarian systems has not meant the end of ideology. On the contrary. There has not been a society in the history of the world, no matter how pragmatic, experimentalist and multiform it may have been, that did not derive its thrust from some foundational interpretation of reality. Such a system of thought reigns today virtually unchallenged across the planet, under the nominal designation "Western civilization". Philosophically and politically, it presents itself as a kind of liberal relativism; economically and socially, as capitalism — two value systems that have now so adjusted to each other and become so mutually reinforcing as to constitute virtually a single, comprehensive world-view.
Appreciation of the benefits — in terms of the personal freedom, social prosperity and scientific progress enjoyed by a significant minority of the Earth's people — cannot withhold a thinking person from recognizing that the system is morally and intellectually bankrupt. It has contributed its best to the advancement of civilization, as did all its predecessors, and, like them, is impotent to deal with the needs of a world never imagined by the eighteenth century prophets who conceived most of its component elements. Shoghi Effendi did not limit his attention to divine right monarchies, established churches or totalitarian ideologies when he posed the searching question: "Why should these, in a world subject to the immutable law of change and decay, be exempt from the deterioration that must needs overtake every human institution?"
Bahá'u'lláh urges those who believe in Him to "see with thine own eyes and not through the eyes of others", to "know of thine own
knowledge and not through the knowledge of thy neighbour". Tragically, what Bahá'ís see in present-day society is unbridled exploitation of the masses of humanity by greed that excuses itself as the operation of "impersonal market forces". What meets their eyes everywhere is the destruction of moral foundations vital to humanity's future, through gross self-indulgence masquerading as "freedom of speech". What they find themselves struggling against daily is the pressure of a dogmatic materialism, claiming to be the voice of "science", that seeks systematically to exclude from intellectual life all impulses arising from the spiritual level of human consciousness.
And for a Bahá'í the ultimate issues are spiritual. The Cause is not a political party nor an ideology, much less an engine for political agitation against this or that social wrong. The process of transformation it has set in motion advances by inducing a fundamental change of consciousness, and the challenge it poses to everyone who would serve it is to free oneself from attachment to inherited assumptions and preferences that are irreconcilable with the Will of God for humanity's coming of age. Paradoxically, even the distress caused by prevailing conditions that violate one's conscience aids in this process of spiritual liberation. In the final analysis, such disillusionment drives a Bahá'í to confront a truth emphasized over and over again in the Writings of the Faith:
He hath chosen out of the whole world the hearts of His servants, and made them each a seat for the revelation of His glory. Wherefore, sanctify them from every defilement, that the things for which they were created may be engraven upon them.
 United Nations General Assembly, Fifty-Fourth Session, Agenda Item 49 (b) United Nations Reform Measures and Proposals: the Millennium Assembly of the United Nations, 8 August 2000, (Document no. A/54/959), p. 2.
 See Commitment to Global Peace, declaration of the Millennium World Peace Summit of Religious and Spiritual Leaders, presented to UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan on 29 August 2000 during a summit session at the UN General Assembly.
 United Nations General Assembly, Fifty-Fourth Session, Agenda Item 61 (b) The Millennium Assembly of the United Nations, 8 September 2000, (Document no. A/55/L.2), section 32.
 The respective purposes of the three Millennium gatherings, as well as the involvement of the Bahá'í community in these meetings, were summarized in a letter from the Universal House of Justice to all National Spiritual Assemblies dated 24 September 2000.
 Shoghi Effendi, The World Order of Bahá'u'lláh, op. cit., p. 42.
 Gleanings from the Writings of Bahá'u'lláh, op. cit., p. 297, (section CXXXVI).