Century of Light
AS SHOGHI EFFENDI HAD PROPHETICALLY WARNED, forces undermining inherited systems and convictions of every kind were continuing to advance in tandem with the integrating processes at work in the world. It is not surprising, therefore, that the euphoria induced by the restoration of peace in both Europe and the Orient proved to be of the briefest duration. Hardly had hostilities ended than the ideological divisions between Marxism and liberal democracy burst out into attempts to secure dominance between the respective blocs of nations they inspired. The phenomenon of "Cold War", in which the struggle for advantage stopped just short of military conflict, emerged as the prevailing political paradigm of the next several decades.
The threat posed by a new crisis in the international order was heightened by breakthroughs in nuclear technology and the success of both blocs of nations in equipping themselves with an ever-growing array of weapons of mass destruction. The horrific images of Hiroshima and Nagasaki had awakened humanity to the appalling possibility that a series of relatively minor mishaps, as uncalculated as the process set in motion by the 1914 incident in Sarajevo, might this time lead to the annihilation of a considerable portion of the world's population and leave
large areas of the globe uninhabitable. For Bahá'ís, the prospect could only bring vividly to mind the sombre warning uttered by Bahá'u'lláh decades earlier: "Strange and astonishing things exist in the earth but they are hidden from the minds and the understanding of men. These things are capable of changing the whole atmosphere of the earth and their contamination would prove lethal."
By far the greatest tragedy resulting from this latest contest for world domination was the blight that it cast over the hopes with which formerly subject peoples had welcomed the opportunity they believed they had been given to build a new life of their own devising. The obstinate determination of some of the surviving colonial powers to suppress such hopes, though doomed to failure in the eyes of any objective observer, had left the urge for liberation in many countries with no recourse but to assume the character of revolutionary struggle. By 1960, such movements, which had already been a feature of the political landscape during the earlier decades of the century, were coming to represent the principal form of indigenous political activity in most subject nations.
Since the driving force of colonialism itself was economic exploitation, it was perhaps inevitable that most movements of liberation assumed a broadly socialistic ideological cast. Within only a few short years, these circumstances had created a fertile ground for exploitation by the world's superpowers. For the Soviet Union, the situation seemed to offer an opportunity to induce a shift in the existing alignment of nations by gaining a preponderating influence in what was by now beginning to be called the "Third World". The response of the West — wherever development aid failed to retain the loyalties of recipient populations — was to resort to the encouragement and arming of a wide variety of authoritarian regimes.
As outside forces manipulated new governments, attention was increasingly diverted from an objective consideration of developmental needs to ideological and political struggles that bore little or no relation to social or economic reality. The results were uniformly devastating. Economic bankruptcy, gross violations of human rights, the breakdown of civil administration and the rise of opportunistic elites who saw in the suffering of their countries only openings for self-enrichment — such was
the heartbreaking fate that engulfed one after another of the new nations who, only short years before, had begun life with such great promise.
Inspiring these political, social and economic crises was the inexorable rise and consolidation of a disease of the human soul infinitely more destructive than any of its specific manifestations. Its triumph marked a new and ominous stage in the process of social and spiritual degeneration that Shoghi Effendi had identified. Fathered by nineteenth century European thought, acquiring enormous influence through the achievements of American capitalist culture, and endowed by Marxism with the counterfeit credibility peculiar to that system, materialism emerged full-blown in the second half of the twentieth century as a kind of universal religion claiming absolute authority in both the personal and social life of humankind. Its creed was simplicity itself. Reality — including human reality and the process by which it evolves — is essentially material in nature. The goal of human life is, or ought to be, the satisfaction of material needs and wants. Society exists to facilitate this quest, and the collective concern of humankind should be an ongoing refinement of the system, aimed at rendering it ever more efficient in carrying out its assigned task.
With the collapse of the Soviet Union, impulses to devise and promote any formal materialistic belief system disappeared. Nor would any useful purpose have been served by such efforts, as materialism was soon facing no significant challenge in most parts of the world. Religion, where not simply driven back into fanaticism and unthinking rejection of progress, became progressively reduced to a kind of personal preference, a predilection, a pursuit designed to satisfy spiritual and emotional needs of the individual. The sense of historical mission that had defined the major Faiths learned to content itself with providing religious endorsement for campaigns of social change carried on by secular movements. The academic world, once the scene of great exploits of the mind and spirit, settled into the role of a kind of scholastic industry preoccupied with tending its machinery of dissertations, symposia, publication credits and grants.
Whether as world-view or simple appetite, materialism's effect is to leach out of human motivation — and even interest — the spiritual
impulses that distinguish the rational soul. "For self-love," 'Abdu'l-Bahá has said, "is kneaded into the very clay of man, and it is not possible that, without any hope of a substantial reward, he should neglect his own present material good." In the absence of conviction about the spiritual nature of reality and the fulfilment it alone offers, it is not surprising to find at the very heart of the current crisis of civilization a cult of individualism that increasingly admits of no restraint and that elevates acquisition and personal advancement to the status of major cultural values. The resulting atomization of society has marked a new stage in the process of disintegration about which the writings of Shoghi Effendi speak so urgently.
To accept willingly the rupture of one after another strand of the moral fabric that guides and disciplines individual life in any social system, is a self-defeating approach to reality. If leaders of thought were to be candid in their assessment of the evidence readily available, it is here that one would find the root cause of such apparently unrelated problems as the pollution of the environment, economic dislocation, ethnic violence, spreading public apathy, the massive increase in crime, and epidemics that ravage whole populations. However important the application of legal, sociological or technological expertise to such issues undoubtedly is, it would be unrealistic to imagine that efforts of this kind will produce any significant recovery without a fundamental change of moral consciousness and behaviour.
What the Bahá'í world accomplished during those same years acquires an added brilliancy against the background of this darkened horizon. It is impossible to exaggerate the significance of the achievement that brought the Universal House of Justice into existence. For some six thousand years humanity has experimented with an almost unlimited variety of methods for collective decision-making. From the vantage point of the twentieth century, the political history of the world presents a constantly shifting scene in which there was no possibility that was not
seized upon by human ingenuity. Systems based on principles as different as theocracy, monarchy, aristocracy, oligarchy, republic, democracy and near anarchy have proliferated freely, along with innovations without end that have sought to combine various desirable features of these possibilities. Although most of the options have lent themselves to abuses of one kind or another, the great majority have no doubt contributed in varying degrees to fulfilling hopes of those whose interests they purportedly served.
During this long evolutionary process, as ever larger and more diverse populations came under the control of one or another system of government, the temptation of universal empire repeatedly seized the imaginations of the Caesars and Napoleons directing such expansion. The resulting series of calamitous failures that have lent history so much of its ability to both fascinate and appal, would seem to provide persuasive evidence that the realization of the ambition lies beyond the reach of any human agency, no matter how great the resources available to it or how firm its confidence in the genius of its particular culture.
Yet, the unification of humankind under a system of governance that can release the full potentialities latent in human nature, and allow their expression in programmes for the benefit of all, is clearly the next stage in the evolution of civilization. The physical unification of the planet in our time and the awakening aspirations of the mass of its inhabitants have at last produced the conditions that permit achievement of the ideal, although in a manner far different from that imagined by imperial dreamers of the past. To this effort the governments of the world have contributed the founding of the United Nations Organization, with all its great blessings, all its regrettable shortcomings.
Somewhere ahead lie the further great changes that will eventually impel acceptance of the principle of world government itself. The United Nations does not possess such a mandate, nor is there anything in the current discourse of political leaders that seriously envisions so radical a restructuring of the administration of the affairs of the planet. That it will come about in due course Bahá'u'lláh has made unmistakably clear. That yet greater suffering and disillusionment will be required to impel humanity to this great leap forward appears, alas, equally clear. Its establishment will require national governments and other centres of power to surrender
to international determination, unconditionally and irreversibly, the full measure of overriding authority implicit in the word "government".
This is the context in which Bahá'ís must strive to appreciate the unique victory that the Cause won in 1963, and which has consolidated itself over the years since then. A full understanding of its meaning is beyond the reach of the present and perhaps of the next several generations of believers. To the extent that a Bahá'í does grasp it, he or she will hold nothing back in a determination to serve its unfolding purpose.
The process leading to the election of the Universal House of Justice — made possible by the successful completion of the three initial stages of the Master's Divine Plan under the leadership of Shoghi Effendi — very likely constituted history's first global democratic election. Each of the successive elections since then has been carried out by an ever broader and more diverse body of the community's chosen delegates, a development that has now reached the point that it incontestably represents the will of a cross-section of the entire human race. There is nothing in existence — nothing indeed envisioned by any group of people — that in any way resembles this achievement.
When one considers, further, the spiritual atmosphere that pervades Bahá'í elections and the principled conduct called for in even their simplest operations, one is humbled by a much greater awareness. In the raising up of the supreme governing institution of our Faith, one is witnessing a striving to the utmost of human capacity to win the good pleasure of God, a united and ardent determination that nothing whatever, in either cultural conditioning or the promptings of personal desire, should be allowed to stain the purity of this ultimate collective act. Nothing beyond this lies within human power. By its action, humanity has done literally everything of which it is capable, and God, in accepting this consecrated effort on the part of those who have embraced His Cause, endows the institution thus brought into existence with those powers promised to it in the Kitáb-i-Aqdas and the Will and Testament of 'Abdu'l-Bahá. Little wonder that 'Abdu'l-Bahá foresaw in the process leading up to the culminating historical moment reached in 1963, the centenary of Bahá'u'lláh's declaration of His mission, the fulfilment of the vision of the prophet Daniel, "Blessed is he that waiteth
and cometh unto the thousand, three hundred and five and thirty days." In the Master's words:
For according to this calculation a century will have elapsed from the dawn of the Sun of Truth, then will the teachings of God be firmly established upon the earth, and the Divine Light shall flood the world from the East even unto the West. Then, on this day, will the faithful rejoice!
With the establishment of the Universal House of Justice, the second of the two successor institutions named by 'Abdu'l-Bahá as the guarantors of the integrity of the Cause had emerged. The vast body of the Guardian's writings and the pattern of administrative life he had created and which were imprinted indelibly in Bahá'í consciousness, had endowed the Bahá'í world with the means to ensure universal agreement about the intent of the Revelation of God. In the Universal House of Justice it now also possessed the ultimate authority conceived by Bahá'u'lláh for the exercise of the decision-making functions of the Administrative Order. As the Will and Testament explains, the two institutions share jointly in the Divine promise of unfailing guidance:
The sacred and youthful branch, the guardian of the Cause of God as well as the Universal House of Justice, to be universally elected and established, are both under the care and protection of the Abha Beauty, under the shelter and unerring guidance of His Holiness, the Exalted One (may my life be offered up for them both). Whatsoever they decide is of God.
The relationship between these two centres of authority, Shoghi Effendi further explained, is a complementary one, in which some functions are shared in common and others specialized for one or other of the two institutions. Nevertheless, he was at pains to emphasize:
It must be ... clearly understood by every believer that the institution of Guardianship does not under any circumstances abrogate, or even in the slightest degree detract from, the powers granted to the Universal House of Justice by Bahá'u'lláh in the Kitáb-i-Aqdas, and
repeatedly and solemnly confirmed by 'Abdu'l-Bahá in His Will. It does not constitute in any manner a contradiction to the Will and Writings of Bahá'u'lláh, nor does it nullify any of His revealed instructions.
Realization of the uniqueness of what Bahá'u'lláh has brought into being opens the imagination to the contribution that the Cause can make to the unification of humankind and the building of a global society. The immediate responsibility of establishing world government rests on the shoulders of the nation-states. What the Bahá'í community is called on to do, at this stage in humanity's social and political evolution, is to contribute by every means in its power to the creation of conditions that will encourage and facilitate this enormously demanding undertaking. In the same way that Bahá'u'lláh assured the monarchs of His day that "It is not Our wish to lay hands on your kingdoms", so the Bahá'í community has no political agenda, abstains from all involvement in partisan activity, and accepts unreservedly the authority of civil government in public affairs. Whatever concern Bahá'ís may have about current conditions or about the needs of their own members is expressed through constitutional channels.
The power that the Cause possesses to influence the course of history thus lies not only in the spiritual potency of its message but in the example it provides. "So powerful is the light of unity," Bahá'u'lláh asserts, "that it can illuminate the whole earth." The oneness of humankind embodied in the Faith represents, as Shoghi Effendi emphasized, "no mere outburst of ignorant emotionalism or an expression of vague and pious hope". The organic unity of the body of believers — and the Administrative Order that makes it possible — are evidences of what Shoghi Effendi termed "the society-building power which their Faith possesses." As the Cause expands and the capacities latent in its Administrative Order become ever more apparent, it will increasingly attract the attention of leaders of thought, inspiring progressive minds with confidence that their ideals are ultimately attainable. In Shoghi Effendi's words:
Leaders of religion, exponents of political theories, governors of human institutions, who at present are witnessing with perplexity and
dismay the bankruptcy of their ideas, and the disintegration of their handiwork, would do well to turn their gaze to the Revelation of Bahá'u'lláh, and to meditate upon the World Order which, lying enshrined in His teachings, is slowly and imperceptibly rising amid the welter and chaos of present-day civilization.
Such an examination will focus attention on the power that has made it possible for Bahá'í unity to be achieved, consolidated and maintained. "The light of men," Bahá'u'lláh says, "is Justice." Its purpose, He adds, "is the appearance of unity among men. The ocean of divine wisdom surgeth within this exalted word". The designation "Houses of Justice" given to the institutions that will govern the World Order He conceived, at local, national and international levels, reflects the centrality of this principle in the teachings of the Revelation and the life of the Cause. As the Bahá'í community becomes an increasingly familiar participant in the life of society, its experience will offer ever more encouraging evidence of this crucial law in healing the countless ills which, in the final analysis, are the consequences of the disunity afflicting the human family. "Know thou, of a truth," Bahá'u'lláh explains, "these great oppressions that have befallen the world are preparing it for the advent of the Most Great Justice." Clearly, that culminating stage in the evolution of human society will take place in a world very different from the one we know today.
 'Abdu'l-Bahá, The Secret of Divine Civilization, op. cit., pp. 96-97.
 J. E. Esslemont, Bahá'u'lláh and the New Era: An Introduction to the Bahá'í Faith, 5th rev. ed. (Wilmette: Bahá'í Publishing Trust, 1998), p. 250.
 Will and Testament of 'Abdu'l-Bahá, op. cit., p. 11.
 Shoghi Effendi, The World Order of Bahá'u'lláh, op. cit., p. 8.
 Bahá'u'lláh, The Kitáb-i-Aqdas, op. cit., paragraph 83.
 Bahá'u'lláh, Epistle to the Son of the Wolf (Wilmette: Bahá'í Publishing Trust, 1988), p. 14.
 Shoghi Effendi, The World Order of Bahá'u'lláh, op. cit., pp. 43, 195.
 ibid., p. 24.
 Tablets of Bahá'u'lláh revealed after the Kitáb-i-Aqdas, op. cit., pp. 66-67.
 Shoghi Effendi, The Advent of Divine Justice, op. cit., p. 27.