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Let’s consider, for a moment, the idea of transcendence. The dictionary says it means going beyond the limits of the material world. Transcendence is good idea, but when we try a shortcut to attain the sensation of transcendence, like drugs or alcohol, we’ve selected the wrong process, and that usually yields a bad outcome. Good idea + wrong process + bad outcome. On the other hand: Transcendence (good idea) + a consistent practice of prayer and meditation (right process) = good outcome.
Sex, most of us would concede, seems like a pretty good idea on any given day. But process matters. When we follow the right process – searching for a partner with the right character traits, falling in love, getting married — we get a good outcome: children raised in well-supported homes. When we dismiss that process, we can get bad outcomes: disease, abortion, dysfunctional relationships, greater poverty, higher levels of crime, greater stress for everyone.
The passage of time can deceive us into thinking that good ideas alone equal progress. We build something seemingly indestructible, but a bug in its operating system, some corruption hidden deep inside, dooms it from the start. An ancient Egyptian would have gazed on the pyramids and reasonably assumed that their civilization would stand just as long as these magnificent structures. The machinery of Egypt’s civilization ran for centuries, but was doomed to eventually self-destruct because something in it did not honor unity (much to the contrary, it relied on slavery).
Outwardly, the Roman Empire evinced majesty in every way, but inside, the process was corrupt: slavery, blood games, hedonism, corruption, oppression. The machine ran, but was doomed to fail.
For its part, the lasting success of the United States, I believe, has been achieved in direct proportion to its unity and its unifying work in the world. I do not mean this in the way the world currently measures power and success, but in the legacy it will leave to the world. Its shortcomings notwithstanding, it has achieved an astonishing pluralism and, as the oldest republic in the world, has been a critical crucible of democracy and rule of law in the modern world. The United Nations, likewise, will be only as successful as is its members’ commitment to unity.
As mentioned, many people smarter than me came to this conclusion long ago, and I will now put a name to this idea. It is called deontological ethics, and stands in opposition to consequentialism. The German philosopher Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) was the main purveyor of this idea in modern times, though, of course, the ancient Greeks got to it first, as they did almost everything else.
If there is a poster boy for the other side, it is Machiavelli, who gave us: “It is better to be feared than loved, if you cannot be both.” and, “Men should be either treated generously or destroyed, because they take revenge for slight injuries – for heavy ones they cannot.”
The Baha’i teachings clearly reject the selfish Machiavellian philosophy and call us all to a higher and nobler point of view:
The disease which afflicts the body politic is lack of love and absence of altruism. In the hearts of men no real love is found, and the condition is such that, unless their susceptibilities are quickened by some power so that unity, love and accord may develop within them, there can be no healing, no agreement among mankind. Love and unity are the needs of the body politic today. Without these there can be no progress or prosperity attained. Therefore, the friends of God must adhere to the power which will create this love and unity in the hearts of the sons of men. Science cannot cure the illness of the body politic. Science cannot create amity and fellowship in human hearts. Neither can patriotism nor racial allegiance effect a remedy. It must be accomplished solely through the divine bounties and spiritual bestowals which have descended from God in this day for that purpose. This is an exigency of the times, and the divine remedy has been provided. The spiritual teachings of the religion of God can alone create this love, unity and accord in human hearts. – Abdu’l-Baha, The Promulgation of Universal Peace, p. 171.
Read the previous article in the series: Overcoming War, Politics and Greed