What happens when a religion declines? It becomes violent and corrupt, turning its back on the original spiritual principles that once made it such a force for good in the world.
Once a religion condones or actively turns to violence, it seems, the original teachings of love and kindness soon depart. Instead of a positive presence in the hearts of humanity, it becomes a collection of empty rituals and petrified dogma, lacking the inner light and wisdom that its founder brought and taught.
If you study the historical narrative of the world’s major religions, they do seem to follow a fairly consistent pattern of growth and decline, akin to the natural cycle of the Earth’s seasons. The Baha’i teachings describe that pattern this way:
… the day of the advent of the Holy Manifestations is the spiritual springtime. It is divine splendour and heavenly grace; it is the wafting of the breeze of life and the dawning of the Sun of Truth. Spirits are revived, hearts are refreshed, souls are refined, all existence is stirred into motion, and human realities are rejoiced and grow in attainments and perfections. Universal progress is achieved, the souls are gathered up, and the dead are quickened to life—for it is the day of resurrection, the season of commotion and ferment, the hour of joy and gladness, and the time of rapture and abandon.
That soul-stirring springtime then gives rise to the fruitful summer. The Word of God is proclaimed, His Law is promulgated, and all things reach a state of perfection. The heavenly table is spread, the breezes of holiness perfume the East and the West, the teachings of God conquer the whole earth, souls are educated, laudable results are produced, universal progress is made in the human realm, the divine bounties encompass all things, and the Sun of Truth shines above the horizon of the heavenly Kingdom in the height of its power and intensity.
When that Sun reaches its zenith it begins to decline, and that summer season of the spirit is followed by autumn. Growth and development are arrested; soft breezes turn into blighting winds; and the season of dearth and want dissipates the vitality and beauty of the gardens, the fields, and the bowers. That is, spiritual attractions vanish, divine qualities decay, the radiance of the hearts is dimmed, the spirituality of the souls is dulled, virtues become vices, and sanctity and purity are no more. Of the law of God naught remains but a name, and of the divine teachings naught but an outward form. The foundations of the religion of God are destroyed and annihilated, mere customs and traditions take their place, divisions appear, and steadfastness is changed into perplexity. Spirits die away, hearts wither, and souls languish.
Winter arrives—that is, the chill of ignorance and unawareness envelops the world, and the darkness of wayward and selfish desires prevails. Apathy and defiance ensue, with indolence and folly, baseness and animal qualities, coldness and stone-like torpor, even as in the wintertime when the terrestrial globe is deprived of the influence of the rays of the sun and becomes waste and desolate. Once the realm of minds and thoughts reaches this stage, there remains naught but perpetual death and unending non-existence.
When, however, the winter season has run its course, the spiritual springtime returns again and a new cycle reveals its splendour. The breezes of the spirit blow, the radiant morn breaks, the clouds of the Merciful rain down, the rays of the Sun of Truth shine forth, and the world of being is invested with a new life and arrayed in a wondrous robe. All the signs and bestowals of the former springtime, and perhaps even greater ones, reappear in this new season. – Abdu’l-Baha, Some Answered Questions, newly revised edition, pp. 83-85.
In this unique view of the whole history of religion, only a new revelation can renew an old one. After the winter, only a new springtime can make the flowers bloom. Religion, then, isn’t linear—it has to be progressive. Like any living thing, it must evolve or die.
That’s why the Baha’i teachings say that only a new messenger, a prophet of God, possesses the power and the inspiration to fully renew religion.
In the past, some religious reform movements may have had a temporary positive impact; but they have also, over time, created schism, disunity and even warfare between sects. The resulting disunity, which problematically plagues almost all of the world’s major revealed religions today, has made for hundreds and even thousands of competing denominations and factions.
So rather than mounting an effort to re-make or reform existing religious institutions, the Baha’i teachings say that only a new messenger and a new message will truly renew the fundamental spiritual ideals of the past:
Note thou carefully that in this world of being, all things must ever be made new. Look at the material world about thee, see how it hath now been renewed. The thoughts have changed, the ways of life have been revised, the sciences and arts show a new vigour, discoveries and inventions are new, perceptions are new. How then could such a vital power as religion—the guarantor of mankind’s great advances, the very means of attaining everlasting life, the fosterer of infinite excellence, the light of both worlds—not be made new? This would be incompatible with the grace and loving-kindness of the Lord. – Abdu’l-Baha, Selections from the Writings of Abdu’l-Baha, p. 51.