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The Baha’i teachings emphasize the importance of developing both the spiritual and material aspects of life.
Baha’is believe that human flourishing requires progress in science, technology and the economy on the one hand, and progress in spirituality and the application of divine guidance on the other. Both are essential. However—we have only recently begun to understand that a consumer economy with runaway consumption does not make for a sustainable world. That’s the second reason why spiritual and material progress must go together:
2. Mass accumulation of material wealth tends to deplete natural resources and harm the planet’s environment.
[Read the first reason why Spiritual and Material Progress Must Go Together]
Today, when individuals and societies equate well-being with material wealth and have the means to pursue it, conspicuous consumption leads to bigger houses and cars, more toys, appliances, clothes, and swimming pools, higher meat consumption, and more far-flung vacations. All of that egregious consumption requires greater and greater exploitation of fossil fuels, groundwater, minerals, and topsoil. The world’s ecosystems have suffered terribly from such consumption, even though only a few hundred million people live high-consumption lifestyles today. The planet cannot take much more—climate change alone proves that we have reached the limit, and that the earth will no longer support such unbridled consumption.
So if all the people of the world will one day share in the benefits of modern society, we all need to learn to be content with fewer and smaller physical possessions. This can happen if we look for joy and satisfaction in activities that aren’t so materialistic, consumption-driven and resource-intensive. The spiritual vision of human happiness contained in the teachings of all the world’s religions points inward to the development of the soul. For example–prayer itself imparts joy without the entanglement of physical possessions. Spirituality enables us to prefer simplicity over abundance, and empowers us to live lightly upon the earth.
Which leads us to the third reason material and spiritual progress go hand-in-hand:
3. We need to find purpose in life outside of our careers and professional advancement.
Modern societies have a deeply ingrained tendency to gradually substitute machine technology for human labor. As a result, machines now perform much of the rudimentary labor that people did in centuries past, like harvesting grain, carrying things long distances, or washing clothes. In recent years, we’ve faced a growing concern that because of advances in computing power and robotics the continuation of this trend might have an alarming effect on the availability of paid employment in upcoming decades.
Much of the debate on this topic focuses on two themes 1) whether or not the majority of adults will have extreme difficulty finding jobs in the future and 2) if so, will the massive wealth created by such technology be broadly shared with everybody or be monopolized by elites? All of humanity needs to begin discussing the answers to these important questions.
However, beyond such material concerns, what will the majority of people will do with all their extra time? Will we descend into a whirlpool of inexpensive computer games and free online media? Or might we dedicate a large share of our days to creative engagement in the arts, service to humanity, and immersion in prayer and meditation? I think most people would agree that the second path sounds more appealing. And along the way, many may also decide that intangible factors weigh heavily enough to continue working, even without a pressing economic need, for service to humanity. With spiritual motives in mind, they may pattern their lifestyles on passages like these from the Baha’i teachings:
O My Servant! The best of men are they that earn a livelihood by their calling and spend upon themselves and upon their kindred for the love of God, the Lord of all worlds. – Baha’u’llah. The Hidden Words, p. 51.
In the Baha’i Cause arts, sciences and all crafts are (counted as) worship. The man who makes a piece of notepaper to the best of his ability, conscientiously, concentrating all his forces on perfecting it, is giving praise to God. Briefly, all effort and exertion put forth by man from the fullness of his heart is worship, if it is prompted by the highest motives and the will to do service to humanity. – Abdu’l-Baha. Paris Talks. pp. 176-177.
Economic necessity can discourage workers and employers from considering the spiritual effect of the work they perform. And a narrow approach to efficiency based on centralized control and mechanization makes this even harder. But if economic needs do eventually become less pressing, we may all find greater freedom to pursue work that results in the intangible benefits outlined in the Baha’i teachings.