The World Needs Massive Change – So How Do We Get There?

Baha’is believe that the world needs massive change. War, injustice, poverty, racism, superstition, environmental degradation, and oppression must end, the Baha’i teachings say. Abdu’l-Baha wrote:

… this is clear: a power above and beyond the powers of nature must needs be brought to bear, to change this black darkness into light, and these hatreds and resentments, grudges and spites, these endless wrangles and wars, into fellowship and love amongst all the peoples of the earth.

Many people have heeded this pressing need to “change this black darkness into light,” and have devoted their lives to bringing about that change. Expending enormous amounts of energy to stop these harmful practices has become the main life goal of millions around the world, and that unprecedented level of activism has brought about a growing global movement for deep societal change.

With that massive movement in mind, perhaps it might be a good idea to pause for a moment and take stock, asking ourselves “What has the drive for change accomplished so far?”

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I’d answer that huge query this way: my country, the United States of America, has gone through enormous and unprecedented changes during my lifetime, including these three major trends: the rise of globalism; a considerable backlash against that tide; and a deepening consciousness of independent thought and action. 

From Nationalism to Globalism

During the past century, the entire world has made an historic move away from nationalism toward globalism. No one has been immune from this pervasive trend.

The Guardian of the Baha’i Faith, Shoghi Effendi, in a prescient 1936 letter to the Baha’is of the world titled “The Unfoldment of World Civilization,” characterized the forces of globalization as a prelude to:

The emergence of a world community, the consciousness of world citizenship, the founding of a world civilization and culture … [which] should, by their very nature, be regarded, as far as this planetary life is concerned, as the furthermost limits in the organization of human society …

Less than a century ago, after humanity’s most catastrophic war, the United Nations formed as a nascent reality without sufficient buy-in from the whole world. That global agency included the victors in WWII as leaders on the Security Council – but today, all of the world’s nations are represented in that body, representing a major shift from nationalism to internationalism that has taken place in the intervening decades.

Global trade, travel, and commerce has increased dramatically, bolstering an emerging consciousness among many as world citizens rather than as citizens of just one country. The rapidity of communication, the diminishing barriers of national borders, and the growing efficiency of all modes of transportation have added to that cosmopolitanism.

As challenges for all people, the global crises of climate change and species extinction have driven this emerging global consciousness and will continue to do so, because humanity’s problems are now seen as having both global causes and primarily global solutions. Economically and intellectually, humanity has become entirely interdependent, and our way of identifying and governing ourselves has inevitably altered as a response to that reality.

The Baha’i teachings recognize and encourage these major movements toward the achievement of our human oneness and interdependence. Shoghi Effendi, writing in “The Unfoldment of World Civilization,” said that this ongoing process of globalization mirrored, on a worldwide scale, the prior unification of the United States into one federated system:

Such a unique and momentous crisis in the life of organized mankind may, moreover, be likened to the culminating stage in the political evolution of the great American Republic – the stage which marked the emergence of a unified community of federated states. The stirring of a new national consciousness, and the birth of a new type of civilization, infinitely richer and nobler than any which its component parts could have severally hoped to achieve, may be said to have proclaimed the coming of age of the American people. Within the territorial limits of this nation, this consummation may be viewed as the culmination of the process of human government. The diversified and loosely related elements of a divided community were brought together, unified and incorporated into one coherent system. … No stage above and beyond this consummation of national unity can, within the geographical limits of that nation, be imagined, though the highest destiny of its people, as a constituent element in a still larger entity that will embrace the whole of mankind, may still remain unfulfilled. Considered as an isolated unit, however, this process of integration may be said to have reached its highest and final consummation.

Such is the stage to which an evolving humanity is collectively approaching. The Revelation entrusted by the Almighty Ordainer to Baha’u’llah, His followers firmly believe, has been endowed with such potentialities as are commensurate with the maturity of the human race – the crowning and most momentous stage in its evolution …

Without question, this planetary trend toward an emerging global consciousness will continue to grow in importance.

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The Backlash Against Globalism

Because of this historic shift from nationalism to globalism, a backlash has developed, a revanchist movement nostalgic for authoritarian rule, for a return to the ancient prejudices and divisions, and for what historians call “the American century,” in which the US was seen as the world’s leading nation, the one remaining superpower, full of military might and a muscular brand of “freedom” – which in reality provided a very restricted notion of freedom for a privileged few that did not include racial and ethnic minorities or women.

That dis-integrative backlash, which longs for a return to the old days and the old ways, has become louder and more strident. Its proponents have mightily resisted humanity’s essential oneness, and have trumpeted the old siren songs of racism, nationalism, and materialism. Ultimately, however, this sort of backlash cannot succeed because it relies on a fading vision of past glories rather than a vision that looks toward the future and harnesses the spiritual energies of what Shoghi Effendi called a “universal fermentation:”

As we view the world around us, we are compelled to observe the manifold evidences of that universal fermentation which, in every continent of the globe and in every department of human life, be it religious, social, economic or political, is purging and reshaping humanity in anticipation of the Day when the wholeness of the human race will have been recognized and its unity established. A twofold process, however, can be distinguished, each tending, in its own way and with an accelerated momentum, to bring to a climax the forces that are transforming the face of our planet. The first is essentially an integrating process, while the second is fundamentally disruptive. The former, as it steadily evolves, unfolds a System which may well serve as a pattern for that world polity towards which a strangely-disordered world is continually advancing; while the latter, as its disintegrating influence deepens, tends to tear down, with increasing violence, the antiquated barriers that seek to block humanity’s progress towards its destined goal. The constructive process stands associated with the nascent Faith of Baha’u’llah, and is the harbinger of the New World Order that Faith must erelong establish. The destructive forces that characterize the other should be identified with a civilization that has refused to answer to the expectation of a new age, and is consequently falling into chaos and decline.

A Change in Our Collective Consciousness

Accompanying this “twofold process” of outward societal changes, an inner change in the collective consciousness of humanity has also occurred, and continues to occur. 

That change, driven by the spirit of independent thought, is no longer constrained by conventional societal mores, by political power, by traditional religion, or by received wisdom. Higher education, once restricted to a few, has become widespread. Technological advances like the internet have democratized information. Cultural prejudices have fallen away. As a result, people have begun to reach their own conclusions, whether through education and self-education, modern media, or their own individual exploration of ideas. 

During this renaissance of reason, the old religious institutions have emptied, no longer able to hold on to younger generations. The usual ways of thinking and behaving are being questioned in just about every area of human endeavor. This has both positive and negative aspects – scientifically and technologically, it has been a great boon for humankind, but in terms of conspiracy theories, fantastical thinking, and paranoia about the motives of others, it challenges us to continually strive to better educate our children and the children of all people.

Collectively, these changes tell us that we are passing through the period of humanity’s adolescence – turbulent, rapidly-maturing, and possessing great energy. The world will now need to meet the next stage of our universal development with the maturational wisdom of adulthood, the accepting of our very serious responsibilities to one another, and the unification of the planet into a single home hospitable to all forms of life.

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