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The history of the world, from ancient times into the foreseeable future, shows almost exponential strides in humanity’s development.
Every field of human endeavor has advanced toward greater and greater applications of knowledge.
When I was fourteen, all the knowledge I could conceive of was contained in the Encyclopedia Britannica. I skimmed every page of the 14-volume Junior Editions, too shy and unsure of myself to attempt the much thicker master set of full page articles in tiny print. Now with just a few keywords, and not even a question mark, uncountable entries on any conceivable topic are instantly available from the internet’s billions of sources. Wikipedia alone has over 40 million articles in 293 languages. At any given time Amazon.com has over 17 million books available.
But for all this knowledge and know-how, is humanity moving forward or backward? Is human civilization advancing or declining?
One example of forward is access to clean drinking water and sanitary indoor plumbing. Developed areas the world over have come a long way from the days of carrying a bucket to a well or stream, to turning on our taps, not just for cold fresh water, but also clean hot water.
An example of backward could be the ways and means we and our nations have developed to kill each other, from swords or arrows, to pistols and machine guns, to howitzers and nuclear-armed missiles, bombers and submarines. At least 108 million people were killed in wars in the past century alone. Estimates for the total number killed in wars throughout all of human history range from 150 million to 1 billion. This barbarism has convinced many of us that civilization is declining, not advancing.
Depending on how you personally look at the state of the world right now, we are either headed for a peaceful world, or are on the brink of destruction. In that scenario, our scientists tell us that the hands of the Doomsday Clock stand at two-and-a-half minutes to midnight.
So what can we, mere mortals, do about that state of the world? The Baha’i teachings offer clear instructions:
We hold firmly the conviction that all human beings have been created “to carry forward an ever-advancing civilization”; that “to act like the beasts of the field is unworthy of man”; that the virtues that befit human dignity are trustworthiness, forbearance, mercy, compassion and loving-kindness towards all peoples. We reaffirm the belief that the “potentialities inherent in the station of man, the full measure of his destiny on earth, the innate excellence of his reality, must all be manifested in this promised Day of God.” These are the motivations for our unshakable faith that unity and peace are the attainable goal towards which humanity is striving. – The Universal House of Justice, The Promise of World Peace, Statement to the Peoples of the World, October 1985.
As you can see, Baha’is don’t hold a “pious hope” that the Doomsday Clock will either not be reached or will be somehow ameliorated. Instead, millions of Baha’is spread across every country on Earth work tirelessly to help humanity come of age and manifest its inherently excellent spiritual qualities.
From a Baha’i perspective, only that spiritual progress has the power to save us from the moral decline of our civilization:
Our material civilization … has progressed greatly with the perfection of the crafts and the forward steps of material science, but our spiritual civilization, that which is based on divine morals, has declined and become degraded. We should strive to make our material civilization the purest possible medium, the most unclouded glass, through which the light of our spiritual civilization must shine.
One of the things that supports a spiritual civilization is Peace, and the most pressing need of politics is universal peace. – Abdu’l-Baha, Star of the West, Volume 9, p. 54.
You can see the effects of that clash of material and spiritual values in every culture. But you can also see, if you look carefully, that moderation, consultation, consensus and cooperation have achieved an increasing level of ascendancy in human affairs.
We may not see total, universal peace in our lifetimes, but perhaps our children or their children will. For it is only through our collective will and action that civilization will turn away from its material decline and begin its spiritual ascent.