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Harmonizing Material and Moral Advancements

Ken McNamara | Oct 5, 2022

The views expressed in our content reflect individual perspectives and do not represent the authoritative views of the Baha'i Faith.

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Ken McNamara | Oct 5, 2022

The views expressed in our content reflect individual perspectives and do not represent the authoritative views of the Baha'i Faith.

Advancements in science and technology have solved many of the challenges facing humanity, improving living standards for billions throughout the world. 

Yet, despite these positive developments, critical social, environmental, and political problems remain.  

It seems clear that technology alone is not sufficient to bring about a society of peace, justice, sustainability, and security – or an equal advancement in the acquisitions of human virtues and their associated actions. So how do we achieve the goals of science along with building a higher spiritual and moral standard, and then harmonize them for a better world? 

RELATED: How to Create an Ever-Advancing Civilization

The Impetus for Civilization’s Advancements

What causes human civilization to advance?

A fundamental teaching of the Baha’i Faith proclaims that the essence of the Creator is beyond the range of human knowledge or understanding. The way we can know of some of the attributes of God is through His messengers – the prophets and founders of the world’s Faiths. The way we know and believe in these messengers is through the story of their lives and the writings they produce, which represent their revelation to humankind. Without a doubt, these founders of the world’s great religions have had an incalculable impact on the material and spiritual advancement of humanity.  

Baha’u’llah, the most recent divine messenger and the founder of the Baha’i Faith, wrote extensively about the power and influence that his writings are having, and will continue to have, on the development of all aspects of society throughout the planet. This passage is one example:

Every word that proceedeth out of the mouth of God is endowed with such potency as can instill new life into every human frame, if ye be of them that comprehend this truth. All the wondrous works ye behold in this world have been manifested through the operation of His supreme and most exalted Will, His wondrous and inflexible Purpose. Through the mere revelation of the word “Fashioner,” issuing forth from His lips and proclaiming His attribute to mankind, such power is released as can generate, through successive ages, all the manifold arts which the hands of man can produce. This, verily, is a certain truth. No sooner is this resplendent word uttered, than its animating energies, stirring within all created things, give birth to the means and instruments whereby such arts can be produced and perfected. All the wondrous achievements ye now witness are the direct consequences of the Revelation of this Name. In the days to come, ye will, verily, behold things of which ye have never heard before.

Baha’u’llah penned these words in the late 1800’s. Examining the material progress made in every area of life since that time and up to the present, any fair-minded observer will conclude that never in the history of humankind has there been so much rapid progress. Choose any field of study – medical and health sciences, communications, travel, engineering, energy production, or any other human endeavor – and the advances made are truly amazing. They keep happening daily. Every advancement opens the door to new areas of innovation, and we will continue to “… behold things of which ye have never heard before.”

Feeding the World

Just a brief look at one sector – agricultural development – can provide an example of this unprecedented progress over the past 150 years. Three of these developments include:

Mechanization.  Advancements in tractor size and horsepower, tillage and harvesting equipment, and other mechanical inventions brought a revolution in the way farming was carried out. My own grandfather, a small farmer in Minnesota, did not get a tractor until the 1940s. Up until then he farmed with work animals and lots of human toil.

Genetics and Chemistry. Many discoveries in these two critical sciences were applied to agricultural crop production. They resulted in the widespread use of synthetic fertilizers and crop protection materials which increased yields that were hardly imaginable just a few decades before. 

Crop diversification. George Washington Carver and other food scientists found new uses for peanuts, soybeans, sweet potatoes, corn, small grains, etc. which brought new opportunities for growers.

This brief, incomplete overview of developments applies to just one sector – but during the past hundred years, we have collectively learned how to feed eight billion people, an unimagined feat just a few decades ago. Similar advancements have occurred in every other major human undertaking over the past century. Although science has brought about much that is positive and of benefit, to solve the world’s problems major changes must take place before systems and policies can be put in place that sustain the environment and contribute to the benefit of everyone. Unfortunately, much of the incentives for technological breakthroughs have been driven mainly by profits and not for the betterment of humanity.

As an example, staying with agricultural progress alone, here are just a few of the problems associated with the technical advances listed above: Bigger farms result in loss of plant and animal diversity and habitat; soil erosion, causing water pollution; increased use of pesticides and fertilizers, causing further contamination of natural resources and human health; huge herds of animals are compacted in small spaces compromising cruelty standards and more pollution … and on and on.

Again, agriculture is just an example, and it is beyond the scope of this essay to fully describe the vast and varied changes in this, or any other sector. Clearly, there needs to be, in association with our enormous technical advancements, an ethic that puts an equal emphasis on bringing benefits to humanity such as better health, equality, and social and environmental protections. 

RELATED: How to Move Towards Modernity and a Global Civilization

The Impetus for Moral Advancements

So how does this ethical change take place? Baha’is believe that this will happen through the spiritual effects of the revelation of Baha’u’llah, which results in changing the hearts, minds and actions of humanity. Baha’u’llah wrote:

The vitality of men’s belief in God is dying out in every land; nothing short of His wholesome medicine can ever restore it. The corrosion of ungodliness is eating into the vitals of human society; what else but the Elixir of His potent Revelation can cleanse and revive it? Is it within human power … to effect in the constituent elements of any of the minute and indivisible particles of matter so complete a transformation as to transmute it into purest gold? Perplexing and difficult as this may appear, the still greater task of converting satanic strength into heavenly power is one that We have been empowered to accomplish. The Force capable of such a transformation transcendeth the potency of the Elixir itself. The Word of God, alone, can claim the distinction of being endowed with the capacity required for so great and far-reaching a change.

In this passage Baha’u’llah refers to the technical challenge of transforming one chemical element into another, which has happened through the fission and fusion of atoms. However, it seems the larger principle suggests that no matter which scientific breakthrough occurs, transforming the hearts of people is a greater challenge. Baha’is believe that Baha’u’llah, as a messenger of God, has been given the power and authority to do exactly that.  

The transformation of hearts is now taking place throughout the world as members of the Baha’i community in every nation are in the process of studying the writings of the Baha’i revelation and working to apply them for improvements to their neighborhoods and to their own inner selves. We can be further assured that this harmonization of technology and spiritual transformation will continue and grow based on the following passage from the pen of Baha’u’llah: 

We have assigned to every end a means for its accomplishment; avail yourselves thereof, and place your trust and confidence in God, the Omniscient, the All-Wise.

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