Century of Light
THE OPENING STATEMENT OF THE GOSPEL attributed to Jesus' disciple, John — "In the beginning was the Word..." — has fascinated readers for two thousand years. The passage goes on to assert with breath-taking simplicity and directness a spiritual truth that has been central to all revealed religions, vindicated time and again in a succession of civilizations down the ages: "He was in the world, and the world was made by Him". The promised Manifestation of God appears; a community of believers forms around this focal centre of spiritual life and authority; a new system of values begins to reorder both consciousness and behaviour; the arts and sciences respond; a restructuring of laws and of the administration of social affairs takes place. Slowly, but irresistibly, a new civilization emerges, one that so fulfils the ideals and so engages the capacities of millions of human beings that it does indeed constitute a new world, a world far more real to those who "live, move, and have their being" in it than the earthly foundations on which it rests. Throughout the centuries that follow, society continues to depend for its cohesion and self-confidence primarily on the spiritual impulse that gave it birth.
With the appearance of Bahá'u'lláh, the phenomenon has recurred — this time on a scale that embraces the totality of the earth's inhabitants. In the events of the twentieth century can be seen the first stages
of the universal transformation of society set in motion by the Revelation of which Bahá'u'lláh wrote:
I testify that no sooner had the First Word proceeded, through the potency of Thy will and purpose, out of His mouth ... than the whole creation was revolutionized, and all that are in the heavens and all that are on earth were stirred to the depths. Through that Word the realities of all created things were shaken, were divided, separated, scattered, combined and reunited, disclosing, in both the contingent world and the heavenly kingdom, entities of a new creation, and revealing, in the unseen realms, the signs and tokens of Thy unity and oneness.
Shoghi Effendi describes this process of world unification as the "Major Plan" of God, whose operation will continue, gathering force and momentum, until the human race has been united in a global society that has banished war and taken charge of its collective destiny. What the struggles of the twentieth century achieved was the fundamental change of direction the Divine purpose required. The change is irreversible. There is no way back to an earlier state of affairs, however greatly some elements of society may, from time to time, be tempted to seek one.
The importance of the historic breakthrough that has thus occurred is in no way minimized by recognition that the process has barely begun. It must lead in time, as Shoghi Effendi has made clear, to the spiritualization of human consciousness and the emergence of the global civilization that will embody the Will of God. Merely to state the goal is to acknowledge the great distance that the human race has yet to traverse. It was against the most intense resistance at every level of society, among governed and governors alike, that the political, social and conceptual changes of the past hundred years were achieved. Ultimately, they were accomplished only at the cost of terrible suffering. It would be unrealistic to imagine that the challenges lying ahead may not exact an even greater toll of a human race that still seeks, by every means in its power, to avoid the spiritual implications of the experience it is undergoing. Shoghi Effendi's words on the consequences of this obduracy of heart and mind make sober reading:
Adversities unimaginably appalling, undreamed of crises and upheavals, war, famine, and pestilence, might well combine to engrave in the soul of an unheeding generation those truths and principles which it has disdained to recognize and follow.
Barely a third of the twentieth century had elapsed when the Guardian summoned the followers of Bahá'u'lláh to a far deeper understanding of the Cause itself than anything they had yet appreciated. The Faith had reached the point, he said, when it was "ceasing to designate itself a movement, a fellowship and the like", designations which, although perhaps appropriate at a time when the message was first being introduced to the West, now "did grave injustice to its ever-unfolding system". Rejecting as adequate even the term "religion" in its familiar sense, he pointed out that the Faith was already:
...visibly succeeding in demonstrating its claim and title to be regarded as a World Religion, destined to attain, in the fullness of time, the status of a world-embracing Commonwealth, which would be at once the instrument and the guardian of the Most Great Peace announced by its Author.
As the century advanced, the same creative Force that was awakening the generality of humankind to its oneness was progressively releasing the powers inherent in the Cause and opening a new role for it in human affairs. Over the first two decades of the century, through the loving care of the Master, the spiritual and administrative foundations necessary to Bahá'u'lláh's purpose were established. On the base thus made available — during the thirty-six years of his own ministry, and the subsequent six years during which his Ten Year Crusade guided the community's efforts — Shoghi Effendi devoted himself to refining the administrative instruments needed to carry forward the Divine Plan. With the successful establishment in 1963 of the Universal House of Justice, the Bahá'ís
of the world set out on the first stage of a mission of long duration: the spiritual empowerment of the whole body of humankind as the protagonists of their own advancement. By the time the century ended, this immense effort had brought into existence a community representative of the diversity of the entire human race, unified in its beliefs and allegiance, and committed to building a global society that will reflect on earth the spiritual and moral vision of its Founder.
This process was immeasurably strengthened in 1992 through the long-awaited publication of a fully-annotated translation into English of the Kitáb-i-Aqdas, a repository of Divine guidance for the age of humanity's collective maturity. A spreading circle of translations was soon providing followers of the Faith around the world with direct access to a Book which its Author has described as: "the Dayspring of Divine knowledge, if ye be of them that understand, and the Dawning-place of God's commandments, if ye be of those who comprehend." Apart from the soul's recognition of the Manifestation of God, nothing awakens so great a sense of confidence and vitality in human consciousness — both individual and collective — as does the force of moral certitude. In the Kitáb-i-Aqdas, laws that are basic to both personal and community life have been reformulated in the context of a society that embraces the whole range of human diversity. New laws and concepts address the further needs of a human race that is entering on its collective coming of age. "O peoples of the earth!", is Bahá'u'lláh's appeal, "Cast away that which ye possess, and, on the wings of detachment, soar beyond all created things. Thus biddeth you the Lord of creation, the movement of Whose Pen hath revolutionized the soul of mankind."
A feature of the past hundred years of Bahá'í development that should seize the attention of any observer is the Faith's success in overcoming the attacks made on it. As had been the case during the ministries of the Báb and Bahá'u'lláh, elements in society who either resented the rise of the new religion or feared the principles it teaches sought by every means in their power to suffocate it. Hardly a decade of the past century did not witness attempts of this kind — ranging from the bloody persecutions incited by Shí'ih clergy and the shameless falsehoods concocted and spread by their Christian counterparts, to systematic efforts at suppression by
various totalitarian regimes, and, finally, to violations of their commitment to Bahá'u'lláh on the part of the insincere, the ambitious or the malevolent among its professed adherents. By every human standard, the Cause should have succumbed to a barrage of opposition without parallel in recent history. Far from succumbing, it flourished. Its reputation rose, its membership vastly increased, its influence spread beyond the dreams of earlier generations of its followers. Persecution served to galvanize its supporters' efforts. Calumny drove believers to seek a more mature understanding of its history and teachings. And, as both the Master and the Guardian had promised, violation of the Covenant washed out of its ranks persons whose behaviour and attitudes had dampened the faith of others and inhibited progress. If the Cause could bring no other testimony to the powers that sustain it, this succession of triumphs alone should suffice.
Three years before his passing, Shoghi Effendi took advantage of the acquisition of the last plot of land needed for the erection of the International Archives Building to describe for the Bahá'í world the nature and significance of the building project on the slopes of Mount Carmel that the Master had inaugurated and that he himself was pursuing:
These Edifices will, in the shape of a far-flung arc, and following a harmonizing style of architecture, surround the resting-places of the Greatest Holy Leaf ... of her Brother ... and of their Mother.... The ultimate completion of this stupendous undertaking will mark the culmination of the development of a world-wide divinely-appointed Administrative Order whose beginnings may be traced as far back as the concluding years of the Heroic Age of the Faith.
The current stage of this ambitious enterprise was brought to its successful conclusion in the final year of the century. An outpouring of resources from believers throughout the world had responded to the vision of Bahá'u'lláh for this sacred spot, announced in His Tablet of
Carmel: "Rejoice, for God hath in this day established upon thee His throne, hath made thee the dawning-place of His signs and the dayspring of the evidences of His Revelation." In the complex of majestic buildings spread out along the Arc and the flights of terraced gardens rising from the foot of the mountain to its summit, the Cause whose influence had steadily expanded throughout the world during the century of light emerged finally as a visible and compelling presence. In the crowds of visitors from every land thronging the stairs and pathways each day and the stream of distinguished guests who are welcomed to the World Centre's reception rooms, perceptive minds already sense the dawning fulfilment of the vision recorded twenty-three hundred years ago by the prophet Isaiah: "And it shall come to pass in the last days, that the mountain of the Lord's house shall be established in the top of the mountains, and shall be exalted above the hills; and all nations shall flow unto it."
The Bahá'í Cause is distinguished above all else by its nature as an uncompromised organic whole. Embodying the principle of unity that lies at the heart of Bahá'u'lláh's Revelation, this nature is the sign of the presence of the indwelling Spirit that animates the Faith. Alone among the religions of history — and despite repeated efforts to break this unity — the Cause has successfully resisted the perennial blight of schism and faction. The success of the community's teaching work is assured by the fact that the instruments it uses were created by the Revelation itself, that it was the Faith's Founders who conceived the methods for the prosecution of its Divine Plan, and that it was They who guided, in every significant detail, the launching of the enterprise. During the twentieth century, through the efforts of 'Abdu'l-Bahá and the Guardian, Mount Carmel itself has become an expression of this oneness of the Faith's being. In contrast to the circumstances of other world religions, the spiritual and administrative centres of the Cause are inseparably bound together in this same spot on earth, its guiding institutions centred on the Shrine of its martyred Prophet. For many visitors, even the harmony that has been achieved in the variegated flowers, trees and shrubs of the surrounding gardens seems to proclaim the ideal of unity in diversity that they find attractive in the Faith's teachings.
Nothing so dramatically marked the conclusion of one hundred years
of achievement as an event that also plunged believers the world over into deep sorrow. On 19 January 2000, a message from the Universal House of Justice announced:
In the early hours of this morning, the soul of Amatu'l-Bahá Rúhíyyih Khánum, beloved consort of Shoghi Effendi and the Bahá'í world's last remaining link with the family of 'Abdu'l-Bahá, was released from the limitations of this earthly existence.... Her twenty years of intimate association with Shoghi Effendi evoked from his pen such accolades as "my helpmate", "my shield", "my tireless collaborator in the arduous tasks I shoulder"....
As the initial shock of grief began to lift, appreciation of yet another of the inexhaustible bounties of Bahá'u'lláh gradually took its place. To a figure whose long lifetime had spanned most of the century — and whose indomitable spirit had sustained Bahá'í struggles and sacrifices throughout its latter half — it had been given to live and celebrate the magnificent victories to which she had so magnificently contributed.
In calling on those who have recognized Him to share the message of the Day of God with others, Bahá'u'lláh turns again to the language of creation itself: "Every body calleth aloud for a soul. Heavenly souls must needs quicken, with the breath of the Word of God, the dead bodies with a fresh spirit." The principle is as true of the collective life of humankind, 'Abdu'l-Bahá points out, as it is of the lives of its individual members: "Material civilization is like the body. No matter how infinitely graceful, elegant and beautiful it may be, it is dead. Divine civilization is like the spirit, and the body gets its life from the spirit...."
In this compelling analogy is summed up the relationship between the two historical developments that the Will of God propelled forward along converging tracks during the century of light. Only a person blind to the intellectual and social capacities latent in the human race, and insensitive
to humanity's desperate needs, could fail to take deep satisfaction from the advances that society has made during the past hundred years, and particularly from the processes knitting together the earth's peoples and nations. How much more are such achievements cherished by Bahá'ís, who see in them the very Purpose of God. But this Body of humanity's material civilization calls aloud, yearns more desperately with each passing day, for its Soul. As with every great civilization in history, until it is so animated, and its spiritual faculties awakened, it will find neither peace, nor justice, nor a unity that rises above the level of negotiation and compromise. Addressing the "elected representatives of the people in every land", Bahá'u'lláh wrote:
That which the Lord hath ordained as the sovereign remedy and mightiest instrument for the healing of all the world is the union of all its peoples in one universal Cause, one common Faith.
It is not, therefore, in providing support, nor encouragement, nor even example that the work of the Cause chiefly lies. The Bahá'í community will go on contributing in every way possible to efforts toward global unification and social betterment, but such contributions are secondary to its purpose. Its purpose is to assist the people of the world to open their minds and hearts to the one Power that can fulfil their ultimate longing. There are none, except those who have themselves awakened to the Revelation of God, who can bring this help. There are none who can offer credible testimony to a coming world of peace and justice but those who understand, however dimly, the words with which the Voice of God summoned Bahá'u'lláh to arise and undertake His mission:
Canst thou discover any one but Me, O Pen, in this Day? What hath become of the creation and the manifestations thereof? What of the names and their kingdom? Whither are gone all created things, whether seen or unseen? What of the hidden secrets of the universe and its revelations? Lo, the entire creation hath passed away! Nothing remaineth except My Face, the Ever-Abiding, the Resplendent, the All-Glorious.
 Bahá'u'lláh, Prayers and Meditations (Wilmette: Bahá'í Publishing Trust, 1998), p. 295, (section CLXXVIII).
 Shoghi Effendi, The World Order of Bahá'u'lláh, op. cit., p. 193.
 ibid., p. 196.
 Bahá'u'lláh, The Kitáb-i-Aqdas, op. cit., paragraph 186.
 ibid., paragraph 54.
 Shoghi Effendi, Messages to the Bahá'í World, 1950-1957, op. cit., p. 74.
 Isaiah 2.2 Authorized (King James) Version.
 Shoghi Effendi, The Advent of Divine Justice, op. cit., pp. 82-83.
 Selections from the Writings of 'Abdu'l-Bahá, op. cit., p. 317, (section 227.22).
 The Proclamation of Bahá'u'lláh (Haifa: Bahá'í World Centre, 1967), p. 67.
 Gleanings from the Writings of Bahá'u'lláh, op. cit., pp. 29-30, (section XIV).