Humanity is already united. It may not seem like it, but it’s true; and not just in the sense that we’re all created by God from the same spiritual substance.
We are already one because all of us are enmeshed in a world civilization of recent origin and of far greater complexity than any society that has existed in past centuries.
No emperor is sovereign over this empire. No institution governs the entirety of this sprawling network. No race, nation, or ethnicity can claim to represent its true culture. Its various names speak to different aspects of its character: globalization, new world order, capitalism, etc.
The one act that connects everyone in this global empire is trade. The thing that binds us is money. Whether you cook meals for factory workers in Vietnam, have seen your housing expenses skyrocket in London, or live near an oil well in Nigeria, you are connected in some way to the vast flow of resources that joins every corner of the planet to every other corner.
So all the world is one. Everything’s great! Right? We’ve achieved the unification of the human race prophesied by the Baha’i Faith! Haven’t we? Not so fast.
Humanity has unleashed its enormous material capacities, without gaining the corresponding attitudes, behaviors, and institutions needed to channel those powers in entirely constructive directions. We haven’t even developed the necessary means to prevent us from destroying ourselves, as evidenced by the spread of nuclear weapons, and the deep failure to respond in a timely or adequate manner to the onset of global climate change. The overflow of material wealth from modern industry has raised everyone’s expectations about food, clothing, housing, appliances, etc. But the social and cultural means to eliminate poverty or foster meaningful happiness have not accompanied the explosion in technology and the economy.
The Baha’i Faith offers a path to transform a superficial economic unity into a cultural and spiritual unity. It strives to concentrate and amplify our collective will and aspiration for ever-higher degrees of human well-being.
The character of relationships between people is one of the key differences between the prevailing world unity and the one the Baha’i teachings call for and promise. Today, world unity is accomplished through the exchange of goods and services overseen by international free trade agreements. When two parties engage in a business transaction, their main concern is finding where each other’s interests are aligned. If both sides benefit, they do business. If not, they go their separate ways. If their interests become deeply entwined they may mistake their connection for something much deeper than it actually is. Abdu’l-Baha described this kind of relationship in the following way:
Today you will see two souls apparently in close friendship; tomorrow all this may be changed. Yesterday they were ready to die for one another, today they shun one another’s society! This is not love; it is the yielding of the hearts to the accidents of life. When that which has caused this “love” to exist passes, the love passes also; this is not in reality love. – Abdu’l-Baha, Paris Talks, pp. 234-235.
In many ways, Abdu’l-Baha’s words remind me of the many small American towns in which I once lived. Invariably, they began as agricultural communities, then outside companies built factories that drew in small armies of employees from the surrounding countryside. Over time, people lost their connection to the lifestyle and skills of living off the land. Each generation became more and more habituated to factory work. Then one day, the company realized that they would be more competitive and profitable if they relocated the factory somewhere else. The factory closed, but the people are still there. Their economic needs didn’t go away, just their jobs.
The superficial ties that bound those companies to those towns are little different than the relationships that connect the diverse nations of the Earth. If a country is not useful to others within the network of global trade, they’ll probably be ignored and cast aside. If a country is highly-integrated, its standing is only as strong as its ability to serve the interests of other parties. This form of world unity is built on a very shaky foundation.
The Baha’i teachings contrast that kind of superficial, purely commercial friendship with a higher unity, what they call “the unity of spirits:”
The love which exists between the hearts of believers is prompted by the ideal of the unity of spirits. This love is attained through the knowledge of God, so that men see the Divine Love reflected in the heart. Each sees in the other the Beauty of God reflected in the soul, and finding this point of similarity, they are attracted to one another in love. This love will make all men the waves of one sea, this love will make them all the stars of one heaven and the fruits of one tree. This love will bring the realization of true accord, the foundation of real unity. – Ibid., p. 234.
To build global unity and peace, mutual economic interest is not enough. An enduring foundation for world unity requires a more sincere, spiritual love, which extends from the depths of one soul to the depths of another. God willing, the desires and frustrations stirred up by our current level of counterfeit unity will better prepare humanity for the pursuit of the real thing.