One of the keys to understanding the Baha’i worldview – and the process of human transformation in general – involves the concept of the approaching maturity of humanity.
The maturation of the world implies that humanity’s degree of childhood has passed; and that the time has come for ushering in its period of maturity. Like each individual being goes through successive stages of growth and maturation, the Baha’i teachings say, so too does the entire body of humankind:
The suckling babe passeth through various physical stages, growing and developing at every stage, until its body reacheth the age of maturity. Having arrived at this stage it acquireth the capacity to manifest spiritual and intellectual perfections. The lights of comprehension, intelligence and knowledge become perceptible in it and the powers of its soul unfold. Similarly, in the contingent world, the human species hath undergone progressive physical changes and, by a slow process, hath scaled the ladder of civilization, realizing in itself the wonders, excellencies and gifts of humanity in their most glorious form, until it gained the capacity to express the splendours of spiritual perfections and divine ideals and became capable of hearkening to the call of God. – Abdu’l-Baha, Selections from the Writings of Abdu’l-Baha
To understand the multiple present-day crises in our global civilization, we can best view them as a result of the tensions of the transitional period between childhood and adulthood, in which dying thoughts and obsolete practices clash with dimly-recognized but emerging signs of maturity.
Throughout history, material development has led to the flourishing of civilizations, while divine messengers like Christ, Buddha, and Baha’u’llah have provided the educational ground for the spiritual and moral transformation of humanity. The Baha’i writings assert that the purpose of Baha’u’llah’s revelation is to bring about spiritual, moral, and social changes in the present system of human society so that the long-presaged stage of humanity’s maturity would come to fruition:
That mystic, all-pervasive, yet indefinable change, which we associate with the stage of maturity inevitable in the life of the individual and the development of the fruit must, if we would correctly apprehend the utterances of Baha’u’llah, have its counterpart in the evolution of the organization of human society. A similar stage must sooner or later be attained in the collective life of mankind, producing an even more striking phenomenon in world relations, and endowing the whole human race with such potentialities of well-being as shall provide, throughout the succeeding ages, the chief incentive required for the eventual fulfillment of its high destiny.
The long ages of infancy and childhood, through which the human race had to pass, have receded into the background. Humanity is now experiencing the commotions invariably associated with the most turbulent stage of its evolution, the stage of adolescence, when the impetuosity of youth and its vehemence reach their climax, and must gradually be superseded by the calmness, the wisdom, and the maturity that characterize the stage of manhood. Then will the human race reach that stature of ripeness which will enable it to acquire all the powers and capacities upon which its ultimate development must depend. – Shoghi Effendi, The World Order of Baha’u’llah
The maturity of the human race encompasses the development of three aspects of civilization, namely the material/scientific, social/moral, and the spiritual.
From a material and scientific point of view, the maturity of the human race coincides with scientific and technological discoveries and inventions that must necessarily transform our physical lives, provide the material ground for the unity and integration of human societies, and open new horizons of knowledge.
According to Baha’u’llah, one of the signs signalizing the coming of age of humanity is the expansion of knowledge and the discovery of the transmutation of elements. Baha’u’llah predicted that the theory of elemental transmutation will be revived with the emergence of modern science, leading to a more in-depth understanding of the intrinsic oneness of all phenomena. Carefully studying this subject in light of the scientific developments that began in the late 18th century and significantly advanced in the 20th century, one can see the relationship between Baha’u’llah’s prediction and contemporary scientific theories. We can better understand the Baha’i concepts on the subject by viewing the entirety of scientific discoveries in basic sciences and the resulting technological outcomes as an emerging paradigm that has revolutionized our human understanding of material reality.
In light of Baha’u’llah’s reference to the transmutation of elements, it is noteworthy to briefly mention the renowned scientist Ernest Rutherford, known as the father of nuclear physics. Born in New Zealand in 1871, Rutherford’s research paved the way for future developments in the understanding of nuclear particles. In 1908 he won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry. Rutherford showed that atoms were made up of smaller particles and electrons orbited around the atomic nucleus. His atomic model became the basis of quantum physics theory. Rutherford focused on radioactive materials, and came to discover that much of the Earth’s heat is due to the enormous energy contained in its radioactive material, and the flow of chemical analysis or the disintegration of these materials. Rutherford observed that in this natural flow, the radioactive elements break down into other elements. Lack of one element leads to another. The inevitable consequence of Rutherford’s discovery: the transmutation of elements leads to the release of nuclear force.
Rutherford’s ideas met resistance and rejection at first, because the conventional notion held that the material elements had indestructible and irreversible constituents. Nevertheless, his ideas gradually gained scientific consensus. The theory of the conversion of elements provided the conceptual and practical basis for the exploitation of atomic energy – and for nuclear weapons in the 1940s. Almost a century earlier, Baha’u’llah also wrote about the potentially destructive side of the nuclear force:
Strange and astonishing things exist in the earth, but they are hidden from the minds and the understanding of men. These things are capable of changing the whole atmosphere of the earth and their contamination would prove lethal. – Baha’u’llah, Tablets of Baha’u’llah
Later in 1911 in Paris, during a conversation with Viscount Arawaka, the Japanese Ambassador to Spain, Abdu’l-Baha said:
Scientific discoveries have increased material civilization. There is in existence a stupendous force, as yet, happily, undiscovered by man. Let us supplicate God, the Beloved, that this force be not discovered by science until spiritual civilization shall dominate the human mind. In the hands of men of lower material nature, this power would be able to destroy the whole earth. – Abdu’l-Baha, quoted by Adib Taherzadeh in The Revelation of Baha’u’llah
This juxtaposition of the two sources of maturity – one in the material world and the other in the spiritual context – forms a constant theme throughout Baha’i literature. The conversion of the two sources is viewed as the foundation of an integrative material-spiritual civilization. The Baha’i teachings emphasize that the ultimate meaning of the maturity of the world points to the spiritual influence of the messenger of God in harnessing the forces of material progress and tempering its destructive elements.
Along these lines, Baha’u’llah described one sign of maturity as the emergence of wisdom and moderation in human behavior. He provided an example of the changing dynamics of human relationships, aiming at curtailing the corruptive impulse of power and authority:
One of the signs of the maturity of the world is that no one will accept to bear the weight of kingship. Kingship will remain with none willing to bear alone its weight. That day will be the day whereon wisdom will be manifested among mankind. – Baha’u’llah, The Most Holy Book
The coming of age of the human race, wrote Shoghi Effendi, the Guardian of the Baha’i Faith, in his book The World Order of Baha’u’llah, will occur when the whole of humankind has peacefully united under one world commonwealth, providing us all with an unprecedented stimulus to “the intellectual, the moral and spiritual life of the entire human race.”