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The Baha’i teachings say that Baha’u’llah’s revelation has revolutionized human life:
The world’s equilibrium hath been upset through the vibrating influence of this most great, this new World Order. Mankind’s ordered life hath been revolutionized through the agency of this unique, this wondrous System—the like of which mortal eyes have never witnessed. – Baha’u’llah, The Most Holy Book, p. 85.
In October 2018 the Universal House of Justice gave us an update on the world’s condition:
The order of the world has been disrupted, and severe and numerous convulsions have shaken its foundation. Conditions worsen daily, confusion and fear have gripped mankind, and the pain and difficulties experienced by the generality of peoples have greatly increased. The destructive forces of materialism dominate both the East and the West and have brought about a quagmire of injustice and prejudice that has sullied and rendered powerless the wings of society, whilst the human spirit, which is created to ascend towards the divine realm, has been enslaved in the talons of greed and wilfulness and become deprived of the bounty of the light of true religion … The situation of the world calls to mind the following statement of Abdu’l-Baha: “Chaos and confusion are daily increasing in the world. They will attain such intensity as to render the frame of mankind unable to bear them. Then will men be awakened.” – The Universal House of Justice, October 24, 2018.
Fortunately, parallel with these destructive and disintegrative forces—which materialism directly or indirectly strengthens by promoting rapacious capitalism and runaway consumerism, the domination of rich over poor, the glorification and immoderate acquisition of wealth, and indifference to suffering and starvation of people—an opposing integrative or constructive force is also steadily on the rise. The Universal House of Justice explained:
… though devastating in their effects, the forces of disintegration tend to sweep away barriers that block humanity’s progress, opening space for the process of integration to draw diverse groups together and disclosing new opportunities for cooperation and collaboration. – Ibid.
In April of 2010, the Universal House of Justice described this spiritualizing force of integration as “the spirit of world solidarity that is an indirect manifestation of Baha’u’llah’s conception of the principle of the oneness of humankind” which will enable humanity to build a new civilization, the goal of Baha’u’llah’s revelation.
Abdu’l-Baha spoke of two types of civilization–material and spiritual:
… material civilization is not adequate for the needs of mankind and cannot be the cause of its happiness. Material civilization is like the body and spiritual civilization is like the soul. Body without soul cannot live. – Abdu’l-Baha in London, p. 30.
In other words, a civilization cannot be sustained unless its material and spiritual aspects combine; otherwise it will be doomed to failure and disintegration, as we see in the present world which is engulfed in material civilization.
Indeed, as we reflect on the world situation, we realize that humanity is passing through a turbulent period of transition. On the one hand, we’re proud to be at the peak of material civilization with unprecedented discoveries and marvelous scientific and technological achievements. On the other hand, we see a world battered by war, violence and social injustice. We are polluting the environment and bringing about disastrous climate change as a result of the plundering of nature and the depletion of material resources. In material terms, our future looks dark.
In our modern society, while exploring the mysteries of life on other planets, we seem largely indifferent to the gross disparity between rich and poor and the plight of the destitute on Earth. People continue to face the raging conflicts of racial, religious, economic and political wars and prejudices. Youth lose hope and resort to dangerous drugs, with fatal consequences, to medicate their sense of despair. Millions of people die each year of hunger and disease, and others are anxious and fearful due to the threat of mass destruction, wondering about the future of their children and of humanity itself. These are signs of disruption in the world’s equilibrium, the demise of an old world order and the decline of material civilization.
What can we do in response to this pervasive materialism? The Baha’i teachings identify the crux of the problem as “forgetful[ness] of those things of the spirit on which alone a sure and stable foundation can be laid for human society.” – Shoghi Effendi, Citadel of Faith, p. 125.
People search for their true identity and their authentic self, but self is not a material commodity to seek from outside—it can only be found within. Therefore, to respond to this question it is essential to educate humanity about the spiritual reality of human beings, which Baha’is believe can be done by immersing ourselves in the ocean of the Baha’i writings.
Materialism cannot be completely eliminated because we live in a material world—but its effects can be balanced and mitigated through the power of the human spirit which, illumined by divine revelation, strives to bring about moderation and equilibrium between the material and spiritual needs of humankind. Baha’is believe that:
… religion without science soon degenerates in superstition and fanaticism, while science without religion becomes the tool of crude materialism; that true prosperity, the fruit of a dynamic coherence between the material and the spiritual requirements of life, will recede further and further out of reach as long as consumerism continues to act as opium to the human soul … – the Universal House of Justice, March 2, 2013.
The ultimate result of a civilization that promotes both material welfare and spirit well-being will be prosperity and happiness for all human beings. Baha’u’llah wrote:
Do not busy yourselves in your own concerns; let your thoughts be fixed upon that which will rehabilitate the fortunes of mankind and sanctify the hearts and souls of men. This can best be achieved through pure and holy deeds, through a virtuous life and a goodly behavior. – Gleanings from the Writings of Baha’u’llah, pp. 93-94.
The Baha’i teachings emphasize that people should acquire “divine susceptibilities” in remedying the materialistic challenges of life:
In the midst of a civilization torn by strifes and enfeebled by materialism, the people of Baha are building a new world. We face at this time opportunities and responsibilities of vast magnitude and great urgency. Let each believer in his inmost heart resolve not to be seduced by the ephemeral allurements of the society around him nor to be drawn into its feuds and short-lived enthusiasms, but instead to transfer all he can from the old world to that new one which is the vision of his longing and will be the fruit of his labours. – The Universal House of Justice, December 1963.
In conclusion, we should not feel in any way perturbed or discouraged by the tides of materialism. The revelation of Baha’u’llah has a wealth of jewels of precious wisdom to empower humanity to overcome the challenge of materialism.